Tuesday, 3 November 2009

India 2 - Hop on a train...The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

I really liked Darjeeling. Really liked. It was a good place to go. Really good. Darjeeling to put simply, was one of the most fun packed places a traveller could visit. But a bit of history is needed before I continue this blog post.

Darjeeling is a British invention. The hills and surrounding countryside has been there since India smashed into Asia 50 million years ago, but it was the cold loving British, needing a place to rest from the heat of their old capital that founded Darjeeling as a hill station and a centre of tea growing. In 1835, the lease was secured on Darjeeling by the British and so begins the history of one of India's oldest tourist resorts. Right from the beginning, Darjeeling has attracted a multitude of visitors from both far and near to take in the hills, enjoy the cooling climate and to revel in some of the best tea grown anywhere on Earth.

Of course, being perched on top of a hill, people needed a way to get to the hill station. You could have taken a horse and cart. You could have walked. But it was an 80km hike uphill. And there was a need to get the tea off the estates and to Calcutta for export. So in 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway opened for business. Granted UNESCO heritage status in 1999 (later joined by the Nilgiri and Shimla Railways) it represents one of the finest examples of 19th century engineering to be found on Earth and is fully operational. It is also fantastic fun to travel on!

I have never seen so many people smile as when the steam train puffed into the platform. Whether they were jaded local or train spotting geek, there was never a scene of so much happiness as that surrounding the steam filled frolics around Darjeeling station. Shunting away, whistling to and fro and with the local traffic playing a cat and mouse game with the locos, the Darjeeing Himalayan Railway is probably the happiest place on Earth. Or one of the happiest. You see, we humans do not care about speed and efficiency (the railway takes twice as long as the equivalent road journey), we just want fun! And there is plenty of fun to be had by riding the rails here in the hills of North East India.

And my goodness, do the staff of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway put on a show! Despite the multitude of languages thrown at them (remember, this is world famous railway) they handle us passengers with remarkable patience and skill. Spectacular in every way, my only complaint about the railway is that there are not enough trains put on. Demand far outstrips supply, especially in the peak tourist season for the 'toy train' as it is locally known. Whether you want to take the little tourist ride around Darjeeling or the full seven hour journey down onto the plains, make sure you are ready to wave at all passer-byes on your rail journey. Despite the daily running of the train, the local people are very friendly and are obviously proud that this train passes right in front of their homes.

To be honest, I was happier than a kid in a sweet shop. Like every other person, I love trains! My father was a fireman while in Sri Lanka, my Uncle was a train driver and my Grandfather was a station master. So this form of transport has always resonated with me. Plus compared to any other form of transport, the train is infinitely more civilised. Gently trundling through the countryside, with complete right of way, able to stretch the legs and chat with my fellow passengers, the train is the most enjoyable way to travel India. Whether a quick rattle on a local train, a long distance journey or even a mountainside treat, the train is the only way to see India. And the only way to see the hill country of Darjeeling is by the toy train!

Getting there and away:

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs pretty much everyday from Siliguri to Darjeeling calling at every station en route. In the monsoon (May to September) there are plenty of landslips and interruptions, but outside this, it will pretty much run come what may. There is also a special tourist train that does a loop around Darjeeling, taking in the war memorial at Batasia and the museum at Ghum. Tickets can be purchased anywhere on the Indian Railway network, online or through travel agents.

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