After the journey from the plains, it is tempting to take the motorable road to Darjeeling, but we chose the slower narrow gauge train. The conversion from steam to diesel engine has added some speed to the heritage train but it is still a slow ride, taking about six to seven hours while a road journey takes subsequently less sans any traffic jam. But then isn’t a trip to Darjeeling, located in the northern part of West Bengal and popularly known as the Queen of Indian hill stations, about languorous pleasures, basking beneath the shadow of the Himalayan snow ranges, sipping endless cups of the champagne of teas and riding the toy train?
Thus, we waited at the Siliguri Junction station for the New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling Passenger (NJP-DJ) train to arrive. Running on a two feet (0.610 m) gauge track, the train consisted of a blue diesel engine pulling three coaches, and it required no stretching of the imagination to realise why it is called the ‘toy train’.
Just giving us enough time to settle down by the large carriage windows, the train was on its way. As we rolled past Sukna station, we could see tea gardens, interspersed with forests, unfurling around us. Reminding us that it is to the tea trade that the train owes its origin.
After the British managed to obtain the tiny hamlet of Darjeeling as a gift from the ruler of Sikkim (then an independent kingdom) in 1835, they appointed Archibald Campbell as the superintendent of the hill station four years later. Among the many things introduced by Campbell was the cultivation of tea. It is said that an indigenous variety of tea was being cultivated in Assam following its discovery around 1826. But the Chinese variant introduced by Campbell, nurtured in the loamy soil and the cool weather, soon turned out to be an absolute winner. The stringent rules regarding plucking and processing of tea laid down by him are still followed today.
Even though the Hill Cart Road was laid from Siliguri to Darjeeling and the British travelled by horseback or pony carts, it was not an easy journey. Franklin Prestage prevailed upon the government to build a railway line into the hills. Completed in phases, between 1879 and 1881, the railway itself was an engineering marvel. It climbs 2,112 metres on its 88-kilometre long route between NJP and Darjeeling, through a series of loops and z-reverse, which helped overcome the steep gradient. Founded as the Darjeeling Steam Tramway Company, it was later renamed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR).
As the train crossed Rongtong station, we realised that we had cleared the first of the several loops. The train had begun to climb uphill. The railway track runs almost parallel to the Hill Cart Road, occasionally entering into forested patches only to come out on the road again, sometimes even crossing right across. Sometimes, the train hugged the hill side, sometimes the lip of the slopes.
Near Tindharia, we crossed the first reverse. Here the train goes back and then again forward to go up a level along the hill side. Often, you may find a train berthed at an upper level to allow another train from the opposite direction to pass through.
It crosses several loops and reverses before it passes Gayabari station. A little later we cross a hill spring called Pagla Jhora (mad torrent) whose volume of water increases manifold during the monsoon, sometimes causing a landslide or partly washing away the tracks.
Kurseong onward, the tea gardens came closer. The velvety bushes covered the slopes as far as the eye could see. During plucking season, you will find scores of women, with a basket on their backs held in place by a rope around the head, busy snapping the two leaves and buds. It is a delicate job and requires practice.
Each tea garden has its own factory where the leaves are processed by the ‘orthodox’ method to keep the flavours intact. The tea has a brownish-black, well-twisted appearance and contains a lot of ‘golden tip’. Certain morphological characteristics of the leaf are said to be responsible for the quality of the tea —tipping is one such. The ‘tip’ is derived from the hairy buds and leaves of the plant, which the Darjeeling variety is well endowed with.
From garden to the cup, it is a long process. Some of the key process involves withering, rolling, oxidation and fermentation, drying and finally grading. One of the key pillars of the tea trade are the tea tasters. A long-acquired expertise, it is through tea tasting that the standard of tea is determined, based on its subtle flavour, colour, astringency and other characteristics.
Several tea gardens in the area are now promoting ‘tea tourism’, which includes a tour of the garden and factory, tea tasting, and accommodation in their plush bungalows (some dating back to the British era).
The toy train ran through some of the most congested parts of the Hill Cart Road. Habitations and life appeared to spill on to the railway tracks. We almost looked into the living rooms of people, read labels of jars in the stores, and salivated at the sight of a plate of dumplings being shared by a couple in a wayside restaurant. Rounding a bend, the engine tooted furiously. Many people preferred to walk along the tracks because the road was choc-a-bloc with rushing vehicles.
After Tung station, we crossed Sonada, which in the local Lepcha language means the ‘cave of bears’. In fact, there is a story attributed to Mark Twain where he spoke about a railway manager on this route sending an urgent telegraph to his office in Calcutta saying ‘tiger eating station master on front porch, telegraph instructions’. These areas were home to many wildlife considering they were deeply forested in the 19th century.
Perched at 2,258 metres, and covered in mist almost round the year, Ghum is one of the highest railway stations in the world, and the highest in India. Here the train stops for another 10 minutes, probably taking a rest after the steep climb.
In 1999, the DHR was accorded World Heritage Status by Unesco* (the tag was later extended to Nilgiri Mountain Railway and Kalka-Shimla Railway, and now together they have been categorised as the Mountain Railways of India).
After Ghum, the train takes the famous Batasia Loop, a double spiral—one of the many engineering marvels this line is famous for—where the train offers an almost 360 degree view of the hills. Sometime back, the place has been beautified with a park and contains a memorial dedicated to Gurkha soldiers. From here, the train descends to Darjeeling town.
Although Darjeeling has been shorn of its colonial nostalgia, the look and feel of the pre-independence town lives on in pockets; a hotel here, a clock tower there, a legacy restaurant, a vintage photo studio, or the botanical garden. While newer brands have made inroads, we were happy to note that two old restaurants, Keventers (our preferred choice for breakfast, tea and mountain views) and Glenary’s (for lunch), were holding on to their fame and position.
NOTE: Bagdogra, the nearest airport, is about 14km away from Darjeeling. From Siliguri, Darjeeling is about 65km via Hill Cart Road and nearly 80km via National Highway 10. Stay options include: Windamere Hotel (from `13,500; windamerehotel. com), Central Heritage ( from `2,500; centralhotels.in) or Mayfair Darjeeling ( from `7,500; mayfairhotels.com). Avoid a visit during the monsoon season as landslides are common. You can book the tickets for the toy train on irctc.co.in.
*Recently, the UN body has asked for a report on the state’s conservation of DHR after they found the train and the tracks suffering from insufficient maintenance.