DARJEELING – For the British in India, the hill stations were an escape from the
heat of the summer. Civil servants, army officers and government officials would
send their wives and children to inhale the clean air and enjoy the cool climate
and dramatic scenery of the mountain resorts, away from the dust and contagion
of the plains. They built churches, villas and bungalows, and streets with names
that recalled the “old country” – the Mall, Charing Cross, Victoria Avenue, Hill
Cart Road, Whitehall. Since those days India has changed drastically, but the
attractions of nature and history still draw the tourist to the hill
And India Rail is the key to getting there.
destination was Darjeeling, a Raj-era resort in the Himalayas, established in
the mid-1880s as a rest-and-recreation center for British troops, and famous for
its tea plantations. We travelled from Kolkata by overnight train, having booked
sleepers on the Darjeeling Mail Express. India Rail main-line trains have
Top end is AC1, the luxury first class air-conditioned
sleeper in two- or four-berth compartments (lockable), with bedding and
washbasin. AC2 and AC3 are next in line, offering fairly basic two- or
three-tier bunk accommodation in open-plan carriages, with the bunks curtained
off, bedding and small towel provided – adequate but offering little privacy and
the air-conditioning can be ferocious.
For daytime travelling the bunk
beds are folded away, or there are open-plan carriages with seats or
or non-AC, where you mix with local travelers.
Whichever you choose you
will enjoy the experience of India on the move.
Next morning, at the New
Jaipalguri Siliguri terminus we boarded the Toy Train and began the
ascent, soaring into the Himalayan foothills. The DHR (Darjeeling
Railway) was inaugurated in 1881, a triumph of British railway
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The track has a narrow gauge only two feet wide, to cope
with the steep gradient rising more than 2000 meters and taking in
curves, reverse sidings and loops over the 86 kilometer journey.
the steam locomotives built around the turn of the century, lovingly
by the enthusiasts of the DHR Society, are still in use and still
Toy Train’s carriages. The ride to Darjeeling remains one of India’s
beloved rail journeys, and in 1999 the DHR was named a UNESCO World
Site. India has two more railway World Heritage Sites: the Nilgiri
Railway and the Kalka-Shimla Toy Train.
The DHR route sets off through
dense forest and jungle scenery, and culminates in spectacular views of
ranges and hillside tea plantations. Each turn of the winding track
Along the way road and rail follow the same route,
continually crossing one another. Passing through small towns and
perched on the vertiginous mountainside, the railway shares the narrow
with buses, trucks, cars and bicycles, right up against the walls and
the village houses. The train always has right of way, and road traffic
a halt as the Toy Train passes.
There is plenty of time to point your
camera and take it all in. The engine never goes faster than 15 kph and
journey to Darjeeling takes around seven hours. If you are in a hurry,
get there by bus in about four hours, but you would miss out on a great
Tips on rail travel in India (with acknowledgement and thanks
to the Man in Seat 61) Reservations You need to make an advance
Some trains can be fully booked days or even weeks in advance. However
a quota of tickets set aside for tourists to purchase at the last
train, coach and berth number is printed on your ticket. Reservation
long-distance trains are posted at station notice boards about two hours
departure. When the train comes in, the lists are posted at the door of
coach. All AC class passengers have assigned reserved seats or berths.
system is computerized and very efficient, and the days are long gone
would find your berth or seat occupied by several passengers.
second class, unreserved, non-AC can get very crowded.
Food and Drink
This being India you will, of course, be careful with what you eat and
Take provisions for a long-distance journey. There are no restaurant or
cars on India Rail trains, but attendants pass by regularly with drinks
snacks. After our sleeper night, the breakfast tray with omelette, toast
hot, strong coffee was most welcome (and very cheap). On some trains you
order a hot meal to be delivered in a tinfoil container.
When the train
stops at a station, there are always vendors on the platform selling hot
Indian chai, cold drinks, samosa patties and sticky sweet pastries.
the premier express trains (Delhi-Agra, Delhi- Mumbai, Delhi-Jaipur,
meal is included in the price of the ticket, and served at your
Security Indian trains are safe, and families or women traveling
alone are unlikely to encounter any problems. However theft of luggage
unknown, and it’s a good idea to padlock your case or bag to the luggage
In the sleeping cars, there are wires hanging down underneath the seats
you can padlock your luggage.
Toilets in AC class coaches have both
Western-style and squat toilets, one at each end, usually in a
sanitary condition. But don’t expect pristine Western standards anywhere
India. And always carry toilet paper.
Man in Seat 61 The indispensable
guide to rail travel everywhere, the Man in Seat 61 is a railway
fount of reliable up-to-date information which he presents objectively
critically, and with humor. In addition to listing timetables and
prices, he has
some good suggestions for rail travel in India, plus detailed advice on
purchase tickets in advance. He can be found on the Web site
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