is something endearing about the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
The journey is not for the hurried and hasseled who seek instant
gratification. But for those who believe that the journey is
the destination. A ride on the DHR offers a unique glimpse into
the rich taspestry of life in Gorkhaland like no other..
you think a tiny string of painted steel boxes balancing precariously on
a two feet wide track meandering on the hillside is an unlikely candidate
for the UNESCO World Heritage Site status, think again. It may not be as
magnificient as Humayun's Tomb or Hampi which also have the same status,
but there is something endearing about the grandiloquently named Darjeeling
Himalayan Railway (DHR). It is the second railway system in the world to
get the 'heritage' status after the Zimmerin Railway in the gorgeous Austrian
Alps. DHR now rubs shoulders with VIP sites around the world such as the
Grand Canyon and the Niagara Falls.
If you're still not impressed, you certainly will be, when you travel on
the quaint railway. But mind you, the journey is not for the hurried and
hasseled who seek instant gratification. It is for those who believe - as
they say in some airline ads - that the journey is the destination. It takes
all of nine hours to traverse a distance of 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling
- in fact, you'd probably reach earlier if you walked alongside the track.
But a journey on the DHR offers you a unique glimpse into the rich taspestry
of life in Gorkhaland like no other. At just Rs 30 per trip, it's cheaper
than a song. Even Sahib class travel will set you back by just Rs 200.
Therefore, our advice
is, take the train -- if you have all the time in the world, that is. It
offers you the Himalayas in rectangular steel frames. Rolling hills, rhododendron
slopes, red-tiled cottages, little-red riding hoods on bikes - flash by
frame after frame. As the toy train puffs its wheezing way up, through the
hillside and right into the heart of the villages and towns that dot the
route, it feels as though you're chugging right through people's houses,
shops and lives. You could just put your hand out of the window and help
yourself to a toffee from the jar on shop counters, literally feel the heat
of the fires being stoked in the tea stalls, and dodge a ball flying through
your window straight out of the little boy's bat. Mercifully, every cottage
window that you can reach across and touch, is curtained and the curtains
properly drawn, otherwise the journey could have given you some X-rated
entertainment too along the way - after all, Darjeeling is the honeymooner's
In between communing with townsfolk, you'll trundle through stretches of
hillsides where prickly bamboo leaves will brush your face if you lean out
of the window. Not to mention the tiny bits of charcoal that fly straight
out of the boiler room and lodge themselves in your eyes, hair and nose.
But you'll survive all these and more and the trip is well worth the inconvenience.
Where else can you get such tantalising glimpses of the Kanchenjunga in
her snowy crown at every turn and bend?
And those of you on the wrong side of 40 might recall the haunting melody
of Mere sapnon ki rani, kab aaye gi tu in Aradhana, the blockbuster
of the seventies. The real scene stealer there was neither Rajesh Khanna
with his comical antics on the jeep or the bashful Sharmila Tagore stealing
furtive glances at her hero, but the quaint DHR chugging cheerfully along
the route and playing cupid to the protagonists of the film.
The DHR is a constant wonder on this route - not to the tourists and visitors
for whom it is a novelty, but to the residents. They stop everything they're
doing to gape at the train although it chugs along this route at least twice
daily. The strident whistle, the menacing hiss of the engine, the jet-black
plume of carbon smoke it spews and the horrendous traffic snarls it creates
in the narrow hill roads would have driven anyone but the hardiest city
dweller nuts, but not our tribe from Gorkhaland.
Recall the haunting
melody of Mere sapnon ki rani, kab aaye gi tu in Aradhana
? The scene stealer there was neither Rajesh Khanna nor Sharmila
Tagore, but the DHR chugging along cheerfully and playing cupid
to the protagonists of the film.
They look on indulgently
- it is their pride and their passport to prosperity. It brings precious
cargo - in the form of 5,000 tourists a day in peak season… tourists who
will spend precious dollars and, more frequently, less precious rupees
and rupiahs. But spend they will - and in anticipation, the hillsides
have sprouted cottages and ugly multi-storeyed hotels, lodges, guest houses
and tourist homes. Check out the water supply in these places before you
decide to check-in. Darjeeling is notorious for water shortages.
The track and the road
travel alongside each other all the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling, much
like two mismatched snakes in courtship. At times they appear to be feuding
when the rail track moves away from the road to play hide and seek for
a while before it emerges rather coy and contrite to join its mate. They
cross each other in as many as 150 spots and don't wonder who has right
of way - it has to be DHR, the Queen of the hill station. She, of course,
waits regally at traffic jams even as self-appointed traffic wardens struggle
to clear the way for her in those narrow bottlenecks. Patience is one
virtue that should be at a terrible discount when you choose to travel
But there was
a time when the DHR was considered fast - by the sahibs and memsahibs
who had to trudge up the hill on their ponies. That was more than a 120
years ago. In 1879 to be precise. Franklin Prestage of The Eastern Bengal
Railway Company had a dream - of building a tramway line from Siliguri
to Darjeeling, the queen of the Himalayan hill stations. In those days,
Darjeeling could be accessed only on ponies through a hill cart track.
There was not yet any mountain railway anywhere in the country and Prestage
was no engineer. Yet, he believed he could build a tramway track along
the hill track alignment. It was to be a unique track - just two feet
wide. He managed to convince his bosses of the feasibility of the project.
The construction began on the 51- mile line in the same year. At the fourteenth
mile, Prestage got stuck. The gradient was too steep. A crestfallen Prestage
had almost given up, conceding defeat. It was then that his wife came
up with a suggestion - why not go backward, if you can't go forward?
Thus was born the most
innovative railway system in the world - the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.
The line reverses everytime it is unable to move forward because of the
gradient - in the shape of 'Z', to make the climb at a slightly different
point. At times it loops around those impossibly steep gradients - like
a spiral -- crossing itself at a slightly higher altitude. It maintains
a constant incline of 1:20 - that is, for every 20 ft travelled, the train
gains one foot elevation. At Ghoom, the second highest railway station
in the world after Cusco in the Andes at 14,000 feet, the DHR reaches
7,407 ft. Prestage completed the construction of the Darjeeling Himalayan
Railway in just two years. Since then it has been running continuously.
it had ferried tea in wooden chests from the verdant slopes of Margaret's
Hope, Makai Bari, Happy Valley and a score of other tea gardens to the
shores from where they were shipped to Harrods of London and Sachs in
Manhattan's Fifth Avenue. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say
that the DHR put Darjeeling on the World Tea Map long before it put it
on the World Heritage Sites map. At Ghoom Station, there is a DHR museum
with gorgeous sepia-tinted vintage photographs of the open railway carriage
ferrying tea chests. The museum also has other priceless assorted railway
memorablia. Don't miss it.
- Darjeeling Himalayan
Railway began its journey on September 15, 1881, under the proud vigilance
of its creator Franklin Prestage.
- Declared World
Heritage Site by UNESCO for having 'outstanding universal value'.
- Brings about 5,000
tourists to Darjeeling in peak season.
- DHR climbs to a
height of 7,407 ft at Ghoom, the second highest railway station in the
Departure New Jalpaiguri: 0900 hours daily. Arrival Darjeeling: 1530 hours.
Duration of journey: Approximately 71/2 hours
Down train: Departure Darjeeling: 0915 hours daily. Arrival New
Jalpaiguri: 1545 hours. Duration of journey: 71/2 hours
Halts en route: Siliguri-Kurseong-Ghoom (Darjeeling)
Kurseong-Darjeeling: There is also a shorter trip on the route
from Kurseong to Darjeeling pulled by a steam engine. The Train Nos.:
1D (Up) and 2 (Down).
No package tours available
yet, unlike Fairy Queen and Palace on Wheels. For further details contact,
Ms Hazarika, Tel: 0361-2570
557/ 570 897
From New Jalpaiguri
First class: Rs 247 per person
Second class: Rs 42 per person
more details contact:
PRO, Indian Railways
Tel: (O) 011-2338 5072
Tel: 0361-2570 557/ 2570 897