● For full details on our route, transport info, hotel details, etc, look at our Google Maps page

Tuesday, 3 March 2009


1st March – 3rd March

The train was indeed pretty plush (by Indian standards) and immediate inspection of the berths failed to reveal any lurking nasties such as rats or cockroaches. Even the toilets were passable! We shared our compartment with a single middle aged guy who seemed at least, not too astonished to be in the company of two travellers and was quite happy to chat with Ady. Dinner was almost enjoyable (especially at 40 rupees) and made the offerings by GNER (or whatever they’re called these days) look pretty pitiful.

We pulled into New Jalpaiguri at some ungodly hour the next morning, but feeling more refreshed than after a typical night on a sleeper bus. We’d booked tickets for the Darjeeling H
imalayan Railway, aka the Toy Train and waited with anticipation for the train’s arrival.

Draped over a steep mountain ridge, surrounded by tea plantations and backed by a splendid Himalayan panorama, the archetypal hill station of Darjeeling is rightfully West Bengal’s premier drawcard. When you aren’t gazing at Khangchendzonga (8598m), you can explore colonial mansions and churches, Buddhist and Hindu temples, botanical gardens and a zoo for Himalayan fauna. The steep narrow streets are crowded with colourful souvenir and handicraft shops, and a good steaming brew and excellent Indian and Tibetan food are never far away.

In 1879 the Darjeeling Himalayan railway was constructed alongside the existing Hill Cart Road connecting Siliguri with Darjeeling at an altitude of 2200 metres. The 2 feet gauge rail line was built to increase the capacity of the existing road to handle traffic such as tea for export and the import of essential commodities.

Having already splashed out on “premium” economy for the overnight train, we’d opted for standard second class seating, assuming this would be more than ample for the scenic 8 hour trip up the mountain. We watched in bemusement as the toy train drew into the platform; it was just two carriages long and definitely built to miniature proportions. Whilst the few lucky white tourists all piled into the roomy first class carriage, we hung back as the scrum for the remaining carriage began. Seating had been pre-allocated but there was no accounting for baggage and certainly no accounting for legs! Somehow, we’d managed to land two seats across the aisle from one another – so not a great view then. The window seat next to Sam was empty and we could have moved along one, but for the fact four adults were never going to fit into a space designed for four five-year olds. As it was, we had to sit bolt upright and twist uncomfortably to one side to avoid putting ones knees in another passengers groin!

Anyway, the point of the story is that Ady was sharing his four seat “compartment” with a local couple and their small child, who at every opportunity seized the chance to spread themselves out. Each time the train stopped and Ady went to take some photos, he would return to find either the Father with his legs up, the Mother sat over the two seats, or the whole family using the seat to spread their picnic lunch over! He challenged them as to why he couldn’t sit in his seat, but each time received a grunt and a shrug and a pointing towards other seats, those already taken by other passenger’s baggage. The icing on the cake was when he returned to find the child laying across the whole seat, snoring away!! Incredible!!! To be fair to Ady, he kept his cool really well. Sam was fuming at the audacity of this selfish, rude family and had to spend most of the 8 hour journey, head buried into a Wilbur Smith book, lest she lost it with them. To add insult to injury, this family’s extended family made up 19 of the total 25 passengers in the carriage, so we were getting the evils from all angles!! What was supposed to be a pleasant day aboard this historical train turned into the journey from hell, with blood pressures to match!

When the train drew into Darjeeling we were so relieved to be free of this awful family we didn’t immediately notice the sudden chill. It was late in the afternoon and the temperatures had already plummeted beyond fresh. We knew that it would be cool in the mountains but we were completely unprepared for this! Freezing fog had already closed in and destroyed any sort of view of this picturesque place. Neither of us had so much as a jumper, and still wearing flip flops, we hastily found a room for the night. It was pretty basic and the promised bucket of hot water (our shower) didn’t materialise. Not in the best of moods we refrained from washing in the icy water and, piling on every scrap of clothing we owned, set out for food. Darjeeling was full of small atmospheric restaurants and we found a cosy candlelit place specialising in Tibetan fare. It looked a whole lot warmer than it was and we waited upwards of an hour for food, but when they came the momos (small Tibetan dumplings, a bit like gyoza) were delicious. Teeth still chattering we took refuge in a homely traveller’s pub, the closest to a proper pub since we left London and sat drank warming hot toddy.

fter a chilly night huddled in a single bed under two duvets, we resolved to see the best of Darjeeling that morning, before shamefully hotfooting it back to sea level in an afternoon jeep. Many people come to Darjeeling to enjoy the trekking in the surrounding mountains, but devoid of hiking boots, goretex and woolly fleeces we settled for a less strenuous morning. The Mountaineering Institute and neighbouring Animal Sanctuary were interesting enough and we had a nice wander around the town, enjoying the many bakeries and tea shops; remnants of days gone by when the hill station was under British rule. The returning jeep journey down the mountain took just a few hours and soon we were gratefully stripping off our layers. Our train to Delhi was to depart from Siliguri the next morning and so we spent the first night of what would be many, in one of India’s “hub” towns.

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