Sunday, 7 January 2018

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
My cryptic connection with Toy Train, or Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR) dates back to January 2008, and I tell you it has been a medieval love story ever since. The prologue to this never-ending tale of longing versus lure comprised two characters: me and my father, who had much enthusiastically boarded an early morning toy train at New Jalpaiguri railway station, after an overnight train journey from Bardhaman. Darjeeling, Kurseong  and Kalimpong could finally make it to our small travel menu. 

I can serially recall every second of that winter morning. Yes, the protagonist was so damn yearning for that toy train ride! He had recently updated his knowledge with a bunch of facts regarding the engineering marvel of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. All travelogues he had read so far had one thing in common- grand mention of the magical toy train ride from the picture-perfect foothills of Bengal to the land of mystic thunderbolt (intended Tibetan translation for 'Darjeeling').

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
Straight welcoming Hill Cart Road laid out along Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary.
He had conceived a passion for poetry. It didn't take him too long to adopt his creative muse. Birth and death of fairy tales were consistently in abundance throughout his poetry blog. What else would you expect from a nineteen years old thinker? You might be wondering why I am getting autobiographical and deviating from tracking the steam-hauled beauty along the Hill Cart Road. Trust me, unless I portray these past events you'll simply fail to fathom his fetish for toy train. 

But , there's a slight change in the story telling plan (curse the author's whim). Today I'll keep my narration limited to chasing a steam-hauled toy train along the scenic Hill Cart Road during my last December ride to Darjeeling. If you're really interested to know the twisted saga after we two had boarded a comfy FC carriage back in 2008, then I can dedicate another blog post on Darjeeling Himalayan Railway in the very next week.

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
Tracking the enigmatic toy train en route to Darjeeling was a luck by chance!
Open for traffic since 1881, this 88 kilometres long mountain rail route connecting New Jalpaiguri station and Darjeeling represents the unique craftsmanship of finest order which ascends up to 7,407 feet above mean sea level at Ghoom, the highest railway station in India. Thankfully, the World Heritage Committee at its 23rd session held in 1999, decided to inscribe the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway on the UNESCO World Heritage list! 

Among various beautiful idiosyncrasies, one special feature of this toy train is its two feet wide narrow-gauge rail track, which runs parallel with the motor road (the Hill Cart Road) right from the originating station to the terminating station, while meandering through thick forests, overlooking valleys, myriad tea gardens and boldly gazing at the mighty Himalayan ranges. Probably, you won't find anywhere else in the world such an exceptional opportunity to drive side by side with a puffing steam engine all along its splendid mountain climb.

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
The vintage steam loco was pulling two elegant coaches- Tenzing Norgay and Himalayan Princess.
The sheer visual delight and innocent euphoria associated with sharing the road with a whistling locomotive has appealed to innumerable travellers and movie-makers since many decades. For me, tracking the enigmatic toy train en route to Darjeeling was a luck by chance! If you have read my earlier posts you would know that I had rode to Darjeeling with an appetite for trekking in the second week of last December. Unlike previous times this time my mind was free from all fantasies of toy train. Moreover it wasn't operational, at least not from plains. 

As the DHR route passes through various landslide prone zones, every now and then its viability gets affected. For most part of the year you would find that Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remains non-operational owing to its nature-bitten tracks, apathy in maintenance and political turmoil engulfing Darjeeling. Only the short "Joy Ride" (round trip from Darjeeling to Ghoom costing a bomb) option is kept open for tourists. Indeed, you can sell anything to tourists!     

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
The first Z-Reverse point on Hill Cart Roiad en route to Tindharia railway station.
Considering the persistent volatility of toy train schedule I would advise against reserving your tickets well in advance. What I told doesn't apply for booking your Joy Ride tickets though. Yes, reserving your toy train seats can be easily done through IRCTC portal. Waking up late in a winter morning is every sloth's birthright. It was merely a 2-3 hours of uphill motorcycle drive from the busy city of Siliguri. After riding for around 550 kilometres in the previous day, night halt at Kanchanjungha Youth Hostel was fun (please don't waste your time in imagining stuffs). 

A late start under the morning sun was the perfect way to flag off. Although there are shorter (scenic too) alternate routes joining Siliguri to Darjeeling, but if you want to track a toy train, or drive along its fascinating rail route, sticking to Hill Cart Road is the only sensible way. In no time Benu cruised past the traffic populated city limit of Siliguri to discover the straight welcoming Hill Cart Road laid out along Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. That's where the narrow-gauge track of DHR starts capturing every traveller's attention.

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
I noticed a towering column of smoke engulfing tallest of trees. What was that screaming beast?
After crossing Sukna Forest, the Hill Cart Road starts getting steeper and curvy. You'll enjoy the gradual transition from straight provoking road to caution-filled winding one. How the poor narrow-gauge copes up with the soaring gradient would certainly intrigue you. I had almost touched Sukna when a loud machinery noise from the jungle cover grabbed my imagination. What was that screaming beast? In the right rear-view mirror I noticed a towering column of smoke engulfing tallest of trees. It didn't take a second thought before I tightened my grip over the brake lever. 

A honking steam-hauled toy train was slowly approaching me with her queenly gait. A fortune cookie couldn't taste yummier! It was not a regular tourist/passenger train. Some DHR officials had taken the beauty out on a test run which I came to know later from the Station Master of Ghum railway station. I was extremely lucky to be there on the right moment. How could I not follow her on two wheels?

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
A honking steam-hauled toy train was slowly approaching me with her queenly gait.
The vintage steam loco was pulling two elegant coaches- Tenzing Norgay and Himalayan Princess. Although the climb had just begun she had already lost her cool. Her incessant yell was shattering the sylvan solitude. The engine chimney was sighing out huge black cones of smoke in a rhythmic manner. The vertical smoke was hitting the tree branches pretty hard, resulting in shedding of leaves, twigs and most importantly, the stillness they had been preserving so long. 

When the toy train passes by you the ambience gets too smoggy to photograph. Honestly, you wouldn't relish inhaling that particle packed smoke. But then, a good tracker is supposed to document the moving heritage without coming overly close to its serpentine path. That's what you should do too. After a series of photographs I was overtaking her to find the next vantage point over Hill Cart Road. Soon, a group of tourists in a hatchback joined me in the toy train chase. Ah, nobody was looking for company!

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
Passing of toy train through crowded streets of Darjeeling is an unique spectacle in itself!
As per the official data of Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, presently the toy train running between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling connects 13 stations and covers a distance of 87.48 kilometres. This length of rack has 860 curves, 3 loops, 6 reverses (Z), 557 bridges/culverts and 177 unmanned level crossings. I kept tracking the steaming train for little less than one hour. Chasing and photographing her tortoise rhythm is easier from a co-driver's seat. 

Of late steam locomotives are being replaced by diesel engines for the lack manufacturing (and, also maintenance) infrastructure for these vintage (more than 100 years old) engines. Apart from Joy Ride trains, on a rare functional day only one steam-hauled toy train runs between Kurseong and Darjeeling. Charted trains pulled by steam loco are available for Indian and international tourists though. Voila! I accomplished an unplanned toy train chase, and that too with the traditional steam engine. Fully content with my hunt, I decided to quit the frisky chasing game a mile before Tindharia railway station.

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
Mighty peaks of Kanchenjunga had started hide-and-seek as if to revitalise me for the forthcoming trek.
Tindharia is a major railway station in the map of DHR. Apart from the imposing aura radiated by the archaic station building, it houses a large locomotive workshop. I couldn't help parking my motorcycle outside the station and lookout for the station master. He was too busy crafting notebook covers (most probably for his school-going kid) to crack a conversation with me. I didn't give up. After reaching Ghoom (officially spelled as 'Ghum') railway station I had tried once again to establish a coffee-chitchat with the station master, inside his cosy wooden office. 

This time it did work out and my toy train knowledge got updated. It was disheartening to know that DHR might soon lose its prestigious UNESCO World Heritage tag if it lingers with its frequent indefinite non-operational status. The unstable stretch near Paglajhora gets damaged every year, and till date, even most renowned engineers from various corners of India and abroad have failed to produce a design that would solve the problem permanently. Presently new locomotives are not being manufactured in old workshops owned by DHR. They are still waiting for new diesel engines to arrive from distant territory.

Tracking a Toy Train along the steamy Hill Cart Road
Mood willing, I might share the unfinished story dating back to 2008... but not today.
Repairing works were sincerely on progress. Moreover test runs are being conducted on various segments. Toy train enthusiasts have finally something to rejoice on. Everything points to the optimistic inference that toy train shall become operational from New Jalpaiguri station to Darjeeling very soon. Paying a quick visit to Ghum Museum I left the highest railway station of India, and resumed my ride towards Darjeeling. By then mighty peaks of Kanchenjunga had started playing hide-and-seek as if to revitalise my spirit for the forthcoming trek. Passing of toy train through crowded streets of Kurseong, Ghoom and Darjeeling is an unique spectacle in itself. Chances are remote that you'll find a train waiting patiently for the smaller vehicles to pass anywhere else in this globe! 

In the subsequent post I'll jerk out some more emotions surrounding the DHR and also provide you an inside glimpse of Ghum Museum. Mood willing, I might share the unfinished story dating back to 2008. I'll see you soon.

4 comments:

  1. I'd love to visit. Great pictures.

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    1. Welcome to West Bengal. Let me know when your plan materialises :-)

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  2. I have already made plans to visit a few places once i am back in India and Darjeeling is one of them. Thanks for sharing!

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  3. From Bengal and yet North Bengal never fails to surprise me ❤️. The pictures are great especially that of the bike and the toy train.

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I really appreciate your efforts in exploring my poetry of roads. Thank You!