The train hissed and blared. Thick clumps of sooty smoke emerged from the engine. The train shook and swerved. The old engine came back to life.
At around 6pm each morning I would walk to the train station. It was a great place to start my day. Locals came there to bask in the warm morning sun and for a breakfast of sel roti (Nepali bread) and tea. On a clear day you could easily watch the snow covered Kanchendzonga from here.
Just as the morning sun began evaporating the dew, the engineers began working on the engines. The engines are old; they need to be oiled and pampered to get working. They are run by steam heated with coal; the most primitive form of any engines. A blue truck stopped at the station to unload tons of coal; to be fed to the engines. The engines crunched on the black coal. After much noise and smoke they finally put the engines to motion. It takes at least an hour to get the engines out of their sleep.
The first train moves out at 9am from Darjeeling to Ghum, than the train runs towards Khurseong. Ordinarily a ride (second class) from Darjeeling to Ghum in West Bengal costs around Rs.20. But they stopped at Ghum and returned only after 1pm. The New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling is a 2 ft narrow gauge. It is also known as the ‘Toy Train’ because of its small size. The train has only two small coaches and each coach can accommodate not more than 20 passengers. The joy ride train starts at 10am. Unlike the ordinary train it runs to and fro. It made 10 minutes stop at the Batista Loop and than another 30 mins stop at Ghum station. With two hours of journey, if you move out at 10 am you can be back by 1pm. The fare though is much more expensive than the ordinary train. For roughly 16kms of ride the fare is Rs.270 for an individual.
Darjeeling to Ghum is India’s highest railway station. Built in between 1879 to 1881 this World Heritage Site railway track elevates from 100m in New Jalpaiguri to 2200m in Darjeeling. Interestingly the track runs parallel to the road, cuts through the road but hardly deviates from the main road. The train moves at less than 30km/hr most of the time. It runs so close to the shops and houses that at some point you think it would run into it. The open window offers great view of the landscapes and the people living by the road.
The Joy ride train has to be booked a day in advance during the peak season. The seats are clean and the ceilings exudes and old World’s charm. The train stopped twice to fill up water. A bunch of foreign tourists travelling on our coach had a busy day waving back to hordes of over-excited locals. The train stopped at a picturesque spot at the Batista Loop. Sprout of cosmos flower dazzled in the afternoon sun. Kanchendzonga formed a great backdrop. Everywhere you go the Kanchendzonga seemed to follow you. There’s also a war memorial dedicated to the Gorkha soldier of Indian Army who sacrificed their life for the country. A black triangular stone stood in the middle of the Loop. After 10 minutes the train made a ‘U’ turn and drove towards Ghum station. During the 30 minutes stop here, the train changed its head. Passengers can explore the railway museum just above the station. Everything you need to know about the New Jalpaiguri-Darjeeling Railway could pretty much suffice with the information and photographs displayed at the museum.
The engine hissed and rattled like an old snake but it began to run again like it had done thousand of times and will continue to do so. Two elderly ladies sitting opposite to me pulled down their goggles and thrust their weight backwards. The train spewed out grains of crushed coal and landed on my face. But there were not bothered. They had smug on their face like they had seen and taken in enough. The train picked up pace and we headed back to Darjeeling.
Tickets for joy ride:
Rs.270 per individual for a to and fro ride from Darjeeling to Batista Loop and back. Starts at 10 am and returns 1 pm