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Travel has a funny habit of making us behave in ways we'd never do in our home environment - you only have to see a plane load of British tourists on their way home from a beach resort to know that they'd never dress quite that badly at home. For some people foreign climes encourage binge drinking and unprotected sex with strangers; in others, like my parents, it brings out the urge to get 'cultured' and traipse round museums they'd never bother with back home. My particular travel insanity is an inability to remember just how much I hate train travel the moment I see the words 'narrow gauge'.
I'm not kidding; in the UK I vowed during my student days that the minute I was earning enough to avoid train travel, British Rail (as they were but no longer seem to be) wouldn't see my heels for dust and I've pretty much stuck to that vow with the occasional exception of the odd day out in London where fear of the congestion charge outweighs hatred of train travel.
I have done some interesting small-train journeys especially in the Indian sub-continent. There's a 'toy train' in Sri Lanka that wouldn't have been too bad if the tour-guide had got proper tickets but was somewhat less charming when experienced from the luggage van; there was a back-numbing ascent to Ootycamund in southern India that really should come with a discount voucher for an osteopath; and last year we did the Kalka to Shimla toy train up into the Himalaya, a back-breaking 5 hour journey in which even the beautiful views couldn't compensate for the horror of a carriage full of spoilt local kids. Perhaps narrow-gauge train travel is like childbirth; people always say they forget the pain after the event and many go back for more.
With my love-hate relationship with toy trains, there was one outstanding attraction that stood behind our decision to go to Darjeeling this year and that was the presence of the world-famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. This railway is so important and so significant that it has UNESCO World Heritage Status, an exceptionally rare accolade and a symbol of both the amazing engineering achievement and the railway's historical role in opening up the area to tourism. The World Heritage Committee put the DHR on their list in 1999, saying it was "An outstanding example of the influence of an innovative transportation system on social & economic development of a multi-cultural region" which had "profound influence on social and economic developments in many parts of the world".
Just as Shimla in Himachal Pradesh became the summer bolt-hole of the British administration in New Delhi, Darjeeling was the hill station of choice for Calcutta elite. But getting to the hill stations was never an easy job and took many days, incurred considerable dangers and some convoluted methods of transport. Consequently the creation of a railway to Darjeeling made the area much more accessible to anyone willing to be dragged up a hill backwards.
The DHR was constructed in the 1880s and is approximately 86km long. This massive feat of Victorian engineering climbs more than 2100 m in altitude, reaching its highest point at Ghum or Ghoom station, before trundling downhill for the last 5 km into Darjeeling's town centre. All of this is done on a gauge of just 2 feet (or 610mm). The steam locomotives which currently ply their trade along the DHR all date back to no later than 1925 and just keep chugging along, mile after mile, year after year. If only we could say the same about our railways back home.
The entire journey from one end to the other can easily take around 8 hours, sometimes longer whereas the car journey takes around 3 hours. So after suffering the toy train to Shimla last year, I was really pleased to learn that the DHR offers so-called 'Joy Rides'; an opportunity to spend just a couple of hours on the train without sacrificing a whole day to do it. I like these trains but I don't want to spend my entire holiday on them. The Joy Ride runs from Darjeeling station to Ghoom, a journey of around 8 km that takes place at a pace that's barely faster than walking and snakes back and forth across the main road between the two places.
We knew from our guidebooks that we might struggle to get tickets for the Joy Ride because we were visiting at Diwali and the town was very busy for the celebrations. Our hotel informed us that there were two daily services, one in the morning and a later one around lunch time. We set off to the station after lunch with the intention of trying to get a ride the day after or even the day after that and found to our surprise that there was an afternoon service and tickets were being sold from a small booth at the railway station. To this day, I'm not sure we got the official 'Joy Ride' as the booth was only selling tickets for afternoon rides. We suspect that what we got was a special holiday charter that had been booked by an independent and very confused tour operator, especially as the trip set us back an extra 100 rupees (about £1.30 per person) over and above the normal ticket price. We expected to pay 240 rupees each (about £3) but were charged 350 (about £4.50).
With just a few minutes to go before the allotted departure time, there was total chaos at the station. Three wagons were waiting for us and the engine was puttering away somewhere, minding it's own business. The ticket holding passengers piled onto the train and were eventually tugged out of the station before stopping about 20 m away and then being pushed back to the station again where the train was cut down from three wagons down to just one. With everyone squeezed in, the train took off again, chugging slowly along the road. That's not a typo; it really does go along the road with the tracks sunk into the tarmac.
The carriage had 24 seats arranged two on one side of the aisle and one on the other. Half the seats were facing forward, the other half facing back.
Undoubtedly we didn't pick the best time for a Joy Ride or the best people to do it with. The people running the trip were completely confused about what they were doing. The time lost at the beginning was just the start of the trouble. People were hopping on and off throughout the journey as the 'crew' remembered something or someone else they'd forgotten. It was pretty funny really. The lady who had sold us our tickets had a smart blue skirt suit and fancied herself as a proto-airhostess although it was probably more true to say she seemed to be running the show. The weather was absolutely dreadful with most of Darjeeling invisible under the big grey cloud that was sitting on top of it. In late October we also didn't have day length on our side although the journey might have been completed before dark if the train hadn't kept stopping whilst the crew went off to get more water for the steam engine and if the weather hadn't been so poor.
The crew kept us well fed and watered. After all, there's not a lot to see on a very slow train that's chugging through a cloud. Shortly after departure they brought us bottles of water, and handed round trays of sweets. On the return journey we got hot sweet coffee and plates of steamed momos with fearsome chilli sauce. I am a massive fan of momos but if you haven't been to Nepal or northern India, I might need to explain what they are. So try to imagine a steamed wanton crossed with a tiny Cornish pasty and you'll have an idea of the texture and the shape. I suspect the food may have been part of the 'special' service and if that's what the extra 100 rupees were for, then I'm a happy momo-eater and thought the supplement was well worth it.
The first stop on the journey was at Basia Loop where the train track makes a large loop to reduce the steepness of the incline. Tucked in the middle of the loop is the Basia War Memorial set amongst beautiful neat gardens with bright yellow and orange flowers. The influence of the old British Empire was often seen in Darjeeling gardens and even though the memorial post-dates the departure of the British, I couldn't help but think the gardens were very Anglo in style. With your back to the War Memorial, the views of the Himalaya mountain range were absolutely stunning, even if it wasn't always easy to spot what was snow-capped mountain and what was cloud. The break at Basia was about 20 minutes, rather than the initially promised 10 minutes. Another 10 minutes of day-light slipped away.
Back on the train and we puffed along at a walking pace before arriving at the end point of the Joy Ride line, Ghoom Station. Accounts vary about whether this is the world's highest railway station or the second highest but either way, it's not too important to be precise. We had about a half hour break at Ghoom which was probably more than it really needed on a grey drizzly afternoon in the fading light. The old station building is in poor condition but houses a quite interesting exhibition about the history of the DHR and the UNESCO plans for improvement. This exhibition was reached up a rickety iron staircase and the museum had one of the most unstable floors I've seen in an uncondemned building. The lighting was so poor you really had to squint to see the exhibits but some of the photos and maps were really fascinating.
Back to the train and it was now our turn to go backwards after we'd benefited from being forward facing on the way back. A small group of Australians were in our carriage and were absolutely loving the journey and trying to work out if they could get tickets to do the entire descent at the end of their holiday. These people actually illustrated a quote that we saw somewhere in one of the restaurants in Darjeeling, that Darjeeling is a place where you can go for a walk and meet the same people ten times over. Certainly that's what happened with us and the Australians over the next few days.
On the way back to town the light was fading fast. The Ghoom Monastery was pointed out to us, as was another on the side of the hill that looked more like a Chinese restaurant. The weather was turning even nastier and the cosy little carriage was starting to seem quite homely although being repeatedly overtaken by frail elderly locals walking past was a bit disconcerting. We had originally set off at 3.30pm and got back to the station at 5.45pm.
The Toy Train is an institution and a real must see for any visitor to Darjeeling, however unless you have a lot of time to spare, I don't think the full ascent and descent is a great use of time, so I'd suggest to stick to the Joy Ride or one of the other short journeys on offer. If you can book a ride earlier in the day on a day with good weather, this would be an absolutely eye-popping experience. We thought about going back for a second go two days later but by then we were so in love with Darjeeling and finding so many other things to do that we didn't have time.