It’s still dark when we walk downhill to the train station. Although the train will only leave at seven, we have been advised to arrive an hour early, as there are few seats. The famous Sikkim narrow gauge train runs all the way up from the town of New Jalpaiguri on the plains of Siliguri to Darjeeling (55 miles) a trip that takes 8 hours. However, we have opted for the 19-mile return trip from Kuensong to Darjeeling.
A whistle announces the departure of our bright-blue diesel train that consists of a locomotive and two compartments for passengers, each with 12 seats. At six-thirty, all seats are already occupied.
Zigzag Reverses and Loops
Slowly the train is set in motion, the whistleblowing fiercely to announce its arrival to pedestrians and other traffic on the road; there are no protected railroad crossings. The train continuously crisscrosses the road, causing a constant movement in which we’re gently swaying from left to right.
By crossing the road so often, the train stays along the outer curve of the mountain and we climb, up to the town of Darjeeling at an altitude of 6561 foot. Where there is no space for a curb, the track has been niftily constructed with a zigzag reverse or a loop to get the train higher into the mountains.
The Construction of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway
In the beginning of the 19th century the British started cultivating tea in the cool hills around Darjeeling, which would become one of the world’s important tea centers. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) opened in 1881 when the British wanted to expand the area where their tea was grown.
Constructing a 2-feet-wide gauge track through a mountainous region with steep climbs up to 7408 feet, which is annually tormented by heavy rainfall, is no small feat. Maintenance is a continuous process and you have to check on arrival if the entire stretch is indeed intact. The highest point is at Ghoom, which is the second highest railway station in the world.
The DHR Remains a Novelty
Darkness has lifted, but now our scenery consists of a thick mist hanging among the Darjeeling hills. There must be hills covered with Himalayan pine and tea plantations, but we see nothing of it. Only in the villages along the way do we get a glimpse of local life. People live in well- maintained houses, brightly painted and even more colorful because of an abundance of flowers in the windows and in front of their houses.
You’d think this is the first time the train passes through these villages. A large number of people are standing outside, women often with a young child on their arm, and they just watch the train chugging by. At the sound of the whistle, young boys ready themselves for their daily exercise: running alongside the train – which averages a speed of 4.3 miles per hour – jumping on the running board hitching a ride for a bit and jumping off again.
Higher and higher it goes, curving around the mountains, its squeaking and groaning betraying a long, hard-working life. I like the idea that despite all modern inventions of faster cars, fancier motorcycles, and what have you, this more than 100-year old means of transportation is still appreciated and part of daily life. Forever the whistle is blowing, to remind modern means of traffic that despite its low speed, an oldie but goodie continues to have right of way.
From Kuensong to Darjeeling was an excellent return trip for one day, with enough hours in between to do some sightseeing in Darjeeling (tips: market, Bhutia Busta Gompa). We opted to walk the 8 kms from Darjeeling down to Ghoom and took the train there for our return.
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