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Riding the Toy Train to Darjeeling in the Eastern Himalayas
Darjeeling is often referred to as the "queen of hill stations". This place is a gift of the Raj, a euphemism for British rule in India. One can say it's a spillover of accepting the suzerainty of the English over India. Darjeeling is the most popular tourist destination in the Himalayas in India It is renowned for its scenic beauty and the schools which again are a gift of the Raj. When a tourist visits Darjeeling, he will realize it's quite different from West Bengal. In fact, it is totally unlike the Bengali speaking areas. The Gurkhas the original inhabitants of this area have nothing in common with the Bengali speaking plainsmen and perhaps are right to ask for a politically autonomous zone.Their culture and heritage are totally alien to Bengali culture.
The Himalayas are the loftiest mountains in the world and tower over the Indian plains. The British connected Darjeeling by a narrow gauge train which at one time ran from Siliguri to Darjeeling.It's often referred to as " Toy train" and is a world heritage rail line. The Toy Train is only a name and it's not a toy as it travels up the Himalayas to Darjeeling nestled at a height of 7500 ft.
The Toy Train
The rail line chosen by British engineers was the 2ft narrow gauge as it was thought best with the available technology at that time to negotiate the mighty Himalayas. The initial line was laid from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling via the city of Siliguri. The rail line construction was commenced in 1879 and completed in two years. it was made operational in 1881.
The rail line rises up from an elevation of 100 meters to 2200 meters. The rail line remained suspended from 2010 to 2015 as a massive landslide blocked it, but now since 2015, it is fully operational. Four modern diesel locomotives handle most of the scheduled services; however, the daily Kurseong-Darjeeling return service and the daily tourist trains from Darjeeling to Ghum are executed by vintage British-built B Class Steam Locomotives.The aim is to give the tourists a feel of old heritage values of the train. Despite the heavy cost of maintenance, the Indian government keeps these locomotives in a serviceable condition.
The rail line commences from New Jalpaiguri which is the broad gauge railhead and connects to Calcutta and Delhi. The settlement at Darjeeling was started in 1828 when the British wrested it as they were the Imperial power at that time. It soon became a center for British interests and many good boarding schools also came up.
The rail line is an engineering feat and for that reason is classified as a world heritage line.The hill rail was declared a World heritage rail by UNESCO in 1999 and it's a comforting thought that this is only the second rail line in the world to be accosted this status. The first being the Semmering Railway in Austria in 1998.
The rail line travels across the tea gardens for the first few kilometers before starting its climb.The train climbs to Kurseong and then to Ghum, which is the highest hill station in the world.this is located at a height of 7500 ft. At this point, the train turns 180 degrees and it's an engineering marvel. The rail follows the Hill Carte road and also goes through vegetable markets and bazaars. This is the beauty of the rail line and all along one is witness to lush tea gardens and the towering the Himalayas. In my view, there is nothing like this train line as there are no comparable mountains anywhere in the world to the Himalayas.
The train stops at 13 rail stations en route to Darjeeling which is 80 miles distance from Jalpaiguri. It travels slowly honking its siren all the time as men and cattle, cars and trucks criss-cross the rail line many times. In addition, it travels through crowded bazaars. The fare for the rail is about Rs 750 by First class. The train has 2 class of accommodation. The rail line is a must for a tourist to India and I have ridden on it many times. Each ride gives a thrill that cannot be matched.