So after 3 big cities on the bounce (Mumbai, Varanasi and Kolkata), it was a breath of fresh air to arrive in Darjeeling. True, being at 6812 feet (2076 m) above sea level, the thermometer plummeted and sent us diving into the bottom of our rucsacs to find our fleeces and gloves but after the humid heat of Kolkata, this was no bad thing. From the feel and ethnic mix of the locals (as well as the lower temperature!), it is almost as if we are back in Nepal – the Tibetan influence here is also very visible. Foodwise, we are back in the land of the momo (dumpling) and thukpa (noodle soup).
15 March 2018: Today we went on train number 59594, the Joyride steam (Toy Train) which is the first example of a hill passenger railway first opened in 1881 running on a 2 foot (61cm) narrow gauge. Although the whole line is almost 80km, we only went 6 km from Darjeeling at 6812 feet (2076 m) to Ghum at 7407 feet (2258 m) which is India’s highest railway station.
Just out of Darjeeling station, we took on water at the west watering point and then climbed up round the Batasia Loop. The whole line is very steep so a series of loops and Z-reverses were put in to achieve a comfortable gradient. An engineering marvel. Even so, after leaving the Batasia Loop, our steam engine had to be helped out by a diesel engine at the back pushing the 2 passenger carriages up to the highest point. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the return trip was a bit quicker!
Billed as an “exotic joy ride to the clouds”, that turned out to be quite an accurate description as it was very cloudy so sadly no views of Kanchanjunga for us today. But that didn’t matter: it was a delightful experience.
The train track follows the main street criss crossing at will. No room for any level crossings here: road traffic (which is already chaotic in the narrow streets and only just seems to fit) just has to get out of the way at its peril! Not that the train moves at any great pace it has to said. Some of the goods in the shops you pass by are in touching distance: perhaps if you were efficient, you could do your weekly shop!
The train seems really popular: not only does it get booked out by tourists but as it trundles through the streets, the locals seem to view it with pride and lots of smiles even though they must see it several times a day and in spite of the racket it makes and the smelly smoke emitted from the funnel.
Next stop: trekking the 6 day Singalila ridge, back in the Himalayas. Hopefully the clouds will clear and the temperature won’t fall too much further! Fingers crossed.
Now, who’s up for a cuppa? After all, we are in Darjeeling!