AN ELGIN EXCLUSIVE FEATURE
“Wonder, bliss, excitement, mystery…..I can go on adding words to this list and still not do justice to expressing the magic of this place” said Zach with eyes gleaming with excitement. Do you remember coming across those cliché self-motivation quotes on Instagram, saying “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey”? Laughing at the absurdity of these lines Zach had often questioned himself- How can it ever be just about the ‘journey’? Isn’t the journey meaningless if it doesn’t lead somewhere? Aren’t we all just longing to meet the destination?
Well, for the first time in his life that cringeworthy Instagram quote made so much sense to him. For the first time his restless soul that had always been so full of anticipation about the destination wasn’t seeking any instant gratification. Because for the first time he was on a journey which he wished never ended, the Journey of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Before you accuse him of romanticising any of this, don’t forget that one can never romanticise a Ruskin Bond book, an Imtiaz Ali movie and a train journey from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling. They are not romantic; they are raw, real & beautiful.
Image by Discover India- Facebook
‘Darjeeling Himalayan Railway ❤ West Bengal ❤’- Discover India, Facebook
Zach is a traveller, a wanderer. At 40 years of age, he has already travelled to 50 countries across the globe. Now, if you ask him what was so phenomenal about a journey or rather a train that connects New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling, he’d tell you- ‘Take that train, start that journey and something life altering is bound to happen’.
Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the year 1999. The Darjeeling Railway station has a vintage aura that preserves the history, beauty and freshness of Darjeeling since the colonial times, with utmost veracity.
As you proceed towards the ticket counter to buy the tickets for this 6.5 hour-long journey you have to choose between the steam engine and the diesel engine, the former costs almost double. However, the steam engine trains give a more genuine experience of the pre-independence India. The foreign faces, the jibber jabber, the notice boards or the loco shed, where the steam engines are prepared, every sight on the station is a treat to the eyes.
As the toy train, running on a 2 feet gauge track, approaches the station one could feel the jitteriness and excitement before embarking on this joy ride.
Until the year 1878, a horse carriage called Tonga was the only mode of transport that connected Darjeeling and Kolkata. In the same year the British Government of India initiated the construction of a steam car tramway. By 1880 in March the famous gauge tracks were installed and on 4th of July 1881, the DHR company inaugurated the railways.
Laying of the gauge track was a challenging task for the engineers back then because of the steep gradients. However, they soon came up with the idea of creating loops to allow the train to climb and descend the mountain. You would encounter a double loop at Chunabhatti and a single loop at Agony Point. This idea was not only exemplary but also trailblazing considering the lack of modern technology in those times.
While these loops made the journey seamless, the descent at the Batasia Loop became a popular tourist site as it attracted the nature lovers, providing them a scenic view of the Kanchenjunga, flower bed gardens and Eastern Himalayan Valley.
As the train leaves the station you could see the valley at the right side which was hardly visible at times due to the various structures surrounding it whereas the left side of the train was closer to the hill slopes. As the train rolls further to the villages and small cities, every moment seems to be eventful. Every house, shop or tea stall feels familiar, comforting & closer. Also, the newly added vista dome type coaches provide a more intrusive view of the Darjeeling life.
The toy train stops at 12 stations in the 6.5 hour journey. Every station has a different vista and magic to offer. The feeling of being surrounded by tea gardens & tiny cottages, basking under the majestic Himalayas and absorbing the tranquillity of Darjeeling is ineffable.
Image by @phurbaz_dukpa– Instagram
‘DHR’ -@phurbaz_dukpa, Instagram
As the train crosses Rongtong stations it starts climbing uphill and runs almost parallel to the Hill Cart Road. At times you could feel yourself hugging the hill side. Soon, as you cross Kurseong, you leave the hills behind and tea gardens become your partner. During the plucking season you could also find women plucking tea leaves and buds, an intricate and dainty job.
The Darjeeling tea is famed for its unique aroma and flavour. This region has got international recognition for its extensive tea plantations from British colonial era. The tea ranks high among the finest black teas worldwide. Moreover, Kurseong is recognised for its tea estate, being the producer of one of the costliest teas in the world.
From feeling the banyan leaves brushing your face as you lean out of the window to the glimpses of Mt Khangchendzonga, every fleeting second is an experience of paradise. The train stops at Ghum, the highest railway station of the country situated at a height of more than 7,000 feet above sea level. As the train ascends to this height, the sharp gradients, bends & curves bring butterflies in your stomach.
This halt at the Ghum station is for 30 minutes. You could visit the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Museum in the premises of this station. Here you could learn about the ingenious making of the railways, equipment’s and engines that are a wonder to everyone.
Image by Save Darjeeling ” Queen of Hills”- Facebook
” Darjeeling Himalayan Railway….”- Save Darjeeling ” Queen of Hills”, Facebook
After Ghum, the train takes the famous Batasia Loop, offering a panoramic view of the hills. The train stops here for 10 minutes, as you get down you would find the morning bazaar where vendors sell sweaters, gloves, comforters etc. There’s also a war memorial dedicated to the Gurkha soldiers. And from here, the train descends to Darjeeling town.
A striking feature of this ride is that there were no tunnels constructed as a bypass through the mountains and the train runs on the surface of the same. This provides an unobstructed picturesque view of the snowy mountains, valleys and tea gardens.
According to the Darjeeling Association of Travel Agents, there are 6 lakh domestic tourists and 30,000 foreign tourists who come to Darjeeling annually. Even after so many years, it is still an enticement for the tourists from all around the world. DHR’s magnificence is unfading and timeless.
In 1986, Mark Twain visited Darjeeling and travelled by DHR toy train. At the end of his journey, he asserted “It is the most enjoyable day I have spent on earth”.
The lush green gardens, hills with snowy tops, bewitching villages, red coloured cottages & echoing valleys are calling you, would you catch this train?