Thursday, May 24, 2007

Himalayan Holiday - Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

Today we were due to travel on the Toy Train from Darjeeling to Kurseong. The proper name for the service is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, but the narrowness of the gauge makes the nickname very appropriate. Trains have been running this route for 150 years, and it is rightly considered an engineering marvel. The track follows the road, hairpins included, for the most part. It only diverges a few times to tackle the steepest sections by using loops and z-reversals. It's amazing that the trains can tackle the route, and it is worth bearing in mind that they do not use a rack and pinion system to scale the gradients.

First we had to leave Jorepokhri. We had woken up early, and for the second time on our holiday were rewarded with views of Kanchenjunga. It was hazy, but after so many missed opportunities due to the unseasonal weather we were hardly going to let that bother us. Leaving was a bit more stressful than it should have been. First our vehicle didn't turn up on time. Eventually John went off to procure another. Eventually one turned up; I don't know if it was the original or one that had just been booked. Last evening the room service was excellent. However, the lodge revealed government run inefficiency when it was time to check out. First someone had to run into the back room to find a manager. He took an age to add up our simple bill for last night's meal. When he was done it took yet more time to procure 100 Rupees change. This was a stark contrast to the private hotels we had been staying in.

Eventually we settled the bill and headed off. We still had enough time, but a Darjeeling traffic jam could always cause a problem. Fortunately the road was clear, and we reached the station with time to spare. Paras was waiting, and provided us with some crisps for the journey. Our train was diesel rather than steam - less romantic, and as it would turn out, less reliable. We had first class tickets, and the carriage was decorated with bamboo dragons, and scary masks. We pulled out of Darjeeling on time, and made our way to Ghum, the highest station in the Indian railway network. As I mentioned earlier, the train follows the road for the most part, and on the busy urban stretch from Darjeeling to Ghum it is as involved in the local traffic jams as any other vehicle. We came to a stop at one point as a truck manoeuvred out of our path.

We reached Ghum and stopped. And stopped. And stopped some more. The news reached us that the locomotive had broken down, and required a new belt. Unfortunately no one thought to stock any belts in the hills, so it would take four hours to deliver one from the plains. San contacted Paras and he quickly came to the station. She had had enough, whilst I wanted to wait it out. Paras bought me some more junk food, and took San off to our next stop - a tea estate near Kurseong.

A more reliable steam train passed us. I had read a few days ago that they were running experiments on the old steam locomotives. The idea is to run them on oil, rather than coal. The experiment was unsuccessful, with the oil powered steam engine unable to ascend the hill. Still, at least it moved unlike our more modern diesel. We had a few false starts with the broken belt jury-rigged with copper wire. It always snapped apart when any demand was made of it.

By the time the replacement belt arrived only myself and two Bangladeshi sisters. They told me that they were doctor, and assured me that nothing like this ever occurred in Bangladesh. They both had much more faith in Allah than Indian Railways in reaching their destination.

Almost exactly after four hours had passed, a new belt arrived (from a steam engine) and we were off! At least the delays were on schedule. The euphoria was short lived; within minutes we ran into track works. There weren't meant to be trains running at this time after all. It took the best part of an hour to proceed past he red flags. The weather had closed in a bit by now, but the ride down was pleasant. Since there were only three of us in the carriage, we could sit anywhere we wanted. The delay meant that the train was descending at the same time as schools were finishing. Some pupils took advantage and grabbed a free ride. The train moves at barely a gentle jog, so it is easy to jump aboard.

The last straw occurred a few kilometres above Kurseong. We were so late that the up-trains were on there way, and we were pushed into a siding to make way. We waited, and waited. Eventually the railway staff hailed some taxis and put us out of our misery. I disembarked at Kurseong station, and called John's mobile. He replied, but I couldn't make out what he was saying. He then hung up, so I paid the shop fellow and turned around. Only to see John pick up my bags and lead me to a taxi. The poor guy had been waiting for hours.

After a twisty, bumpy journey in the dark we reached Selim tea estate, where San had been ensconced for hours. I couldn't see much in the dark, but was ushered to a comfortable living room. We were served a delicious, and welcome, dinner. Exhausted, we headed off to bed, but not before finishing the remaining wheat brew.


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