We drove past paddy fields and through gently undulating tea plantations. We crossed the Teesta River over the violently-coloured Coronation Bridge and then our road was ever upwards. Destination: Darjeeling. Gradually, carefully, we snaked our way up through thick jungle on increasingly steep twisting mountain roads. I noticed rows of raised stones set into the tarmac to provide extra grip – and was grateful, as by then it had started to rain.
For most people, Darjeeling is synonymous with tea – and the Toy Train.
We tried the tea: black tea, green tea, white tea … I’m really an ‘if I have to be polite’ tea drinker – and that doesn’t happen very often. (Vicarage tea parties are not my thing.) But the tea tasting session was pleasant enough – although it didn’t convert me.
As for the Toy Train: it was obviously a ‘Must Do’. So, in the spirit of ‘Been There, Done That, Got the T-Shirt’, we climbed aboard for the 8 km joy-ride between Darjeeling and Ghoom. That’s all it is these days; earthquake damage lower down the track has severed the link to the plains. Nowadays, the carriages are crammed with tourists whose noisy laughter and chatter dispel any lingering memories of the rustle of English memsahibs’ skirts. The ghosts of the Raj are long gone.
We looked out over traffic-jammed streets. For much of the route, the rail track runs side by side with the road and only inches from the doorways of houses and shops. At times we caught glimpses of buildings scattered down the hillsides, against a background of clouds rather than the hoped-for mountains. A few people waved as we went by. Others, who’d seen it all before far too many times, sat impassively on their doorsteps as the train hooted and chugged slowly along, belching out smoke, steam and soot. We recognised some of the shops and hoardings – and realised we were passing them a second time round as we made a complete loop of the hillside.
We had an unscheduled stop. A car had been left parked on the track, its owner nowhere to be found … The inevitable small crowd gathered to watch and offer advice. Eventually a tow-truck arrived, the car was pulled off the track and we were on our way again, with a few passengers hurriedly scrambling back on as the train lurched off.
We stopped at the Batasia Loop for the train to take on water. It’s like stopping in the middle of a park – no hint of a platform, just a narrow path surrounding neatly laid out beds of marigolds. Everyone piled out to take photos of themselves – in front of the train, in front of the backdrop of mountains (or rather the backdrop of clouds), in front of the memorial statue for gorkha soldiers. Here you can see where the track passes over itself – an engineering brainwave to cope with the gradient – although with a train only two carriages long, there was no way we’d be able to see the same train on different levels as we’d done at the Spiral Tunnels in the Canadian Rockies. Finally we chugged into Ghoom, the highest railway station in India.
There weren’t any t-shirts …
Darjeeling came as a bit of a shock to us. In Bangladesh, we’d become used to being the only tourists in town and there being rickshaws everywhere. Darjeeling is crowded with tourists – Western ones as well as Indians – and there are no rickshaws. They wouldn’t have a hope. The precipitous narrow roads and alleys and the tightness of the turnings would be too much for even the wiriest of calf-muscles. (They’re also too much for large vehicles, which are banned from the town.) Deliveries are carried out by men with a strap across their forehead, supporting a heavy load on their back – anything from gas canisters to wardrobes to sofas.
Darjeeling is a melting-pot of a town: you might round a corner to discover an English church – or a colourful Buddhist monastery; Hotel Windamere or Hotel Dekeling; Glenary’s bakery or a momo restaurant; the Oxford Bookshop or a tiny emporium selling all things Himalayan. And above the jumble of streets, there’s a broad esplanade with wonderful views over the mountains – well, there is if you’re there in the early morning before the clouds roll in.
The following morning, I peered out of our hotel window at 3 a m. The plan was to go to Tiger Hill to see dawn over the Himalayas, but it was by no means certain that the weather would co-operate. There’d be no point getting out of bed for a view of clouds and drizzle – but I looked out at a clear sky, bright with stars.
Hundreds of vehicles streamed out of town at 4 a m, nose to tail. No streetlights were needed – just as well, as for much of the drive there weren’t any; each driver simply followed the rear lights of the vehicle in front – at a mad-cap speed (this being India). Hundreds of cars and jeeps, each carrying at least 4 passengers and often many more (this being India), meant thousands of people would be crowding the hillside to greet the sunrise. We reached the end of the road in a log-jam of traffic and became engulfed in a skirmish of jostling/parking/honking/shouting. Some drivers wanted to get that extra few yards further up the hill, others were trying to park and others were trying to turn around in readiness for a quick getaway after the event. We left our driver in the darkness – wondering how we would ever find him again (forgetting of course that it would be light by then) – and walked up the hill.
We didn’t see the sun rise. A grandstand building has been built to accommodate the crowds. It was packed. So was the area in front. We staked our claim on a stretch of railing at one side, not really knowing what we would be able to see but realising it would be mountains or sunrise – not both. We hoped we’d opted for the mountains.
It was freezing cold. As we waited the sky lightened imperceptibly … there were dark shapes against a dark sky … then we were sure it was getting brighter and we could just about discern mountains opposite with a drift of mist below … and then there was the magical moment when the first tinges of pink brushed the snowy peaks of Kanchenjunga. A sea of outstretched arms waved phones as the snaparazzi recorded the moment for posterity. It was an amazingly clear morning; we even saw Everest – the ‘smallest’ of three pink triangles on the far horizon. It’s on only about five days a year that Everest is visible at dawn from Tiger Hill. We were very, very lucky.
Then there was the snarl-up on the way back into town.