When I heard the whistle, my mind subconsciously went back decades, when as a young boy I used to see steam locomotives run past our house in central India. Facing the rail tracks, our veranda offered the view on a daily basis. Over the years, steam engines gave way to diesel, and then to electric engines, but the puffing and hissing of the steam locomotive left an indelible impression on my mind.
So, when on a recent trip to Darjeeling, I heard the same sound and saw a replica of the steam locomotive trundle along a 2-meter gauge of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), also known as “toy train,” I instantly connected to the hill town in eastern India as something close to my heart and my being. The sound dredged up memories that I didn’t care to analyze as happy or sad. I just felt something tug at my heart. Nothing else – except perhaps my love of Darjeeling tea – quite captured my interest in the tourist location in such a visceral way.
As age creeps up on me, I look at steam locomotives as vintage. You may also ride a DHR carriage, driven by either a B-Class steam or a diesel locomotive, as a quaint and pretty remnant of India’s colonial past. It opened in 1879 and was incorporated as a British company, Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, in 1881, to provide a vital rail link between the nearest city, Siliguri, 51 miles, or a 3-hour drive, away. The railway retains most of its original features and is fully operational today. It was bought by the Indian government in 1948, a year after gaining independence. In 1999, DHR was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site. On a ride, I saw a young driver applying a navigator-like hand brake on a coach. The man, from the Indian state of Bihar, said he had been working with the railway since 2013.
The railway is the first – and still the most outstanding – example of mountain passenger railway in India. The company shines also as a model of engineering brilliance during the British Raj that dealt with the challenge of steep gradients of a route that ranges from 400 feet to 7,400 feet by incorporating loops and reverses along a terrain that offers gorgeous views of verdant mountains floating among mists and clouds.
The railway offers a gateway to Darjeeling, a hill town steeped in beauty and nostalgia. The tracks snake right through the town offering a ring-side view of the mountains, bazars, shops, streets, a Himalayan peak, and, of course, the tea bushes, which yield the world’s finest teas. As the blue coaches rattle along, the howl and the hiss remind passengers that even without smartphone and Internet, life for people in the 19th century and early 20th century chugged along just fine. A few things have not changed since: the perpetual beauty, the tea plantations, and the cold clime.
One of the most enjoyable ways you can savor this timeless beauty of the hill town is booking tickets for a ride on DHR. You don’t have to go the whole way from Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri, the nearest large rail station, 348 miles from Kolkata. The company runs shorter rides, with stops for museum visits on the way. Apart from regular rides, DHR offers chartered and special heritage-coach rides, and jungle safaris. You can reach DHR by air, rail, or road. You can book tickets online on the portal of the Indian Railways.
121It is the most enjoyable day I have spent on earth.122