The day had barely dawned. Siliguri already overflows. He flails, greedily, in his usual frantic way.
Raney leads us with redoubled patience in the midst of an army of rickshaws, rickshaws-wala (those pulled by cyclists), motorbikes, scooters, cars and vans, not to mention the successive carts towed by supposedly sacred cows.
We left on time. Tickets had been purchased the day before and we continued more than on time. Still, the claustrophobic and infernal flow that drags us to the center of the city generates a restlessness that only tends to increase.
Without warning, Raney swerves to the left and removes us from the maelstrom. A few hundred meters later, we bumped into the square of the local train station. A number of vendors and porters offer us their services, at least until the local driver and guide makes them disband.
For a long time now, the station's platforms have been closed to the first, as well as to an opportunistic population that, with no intention of traveling, concentrated a myriad of businesses and activities there.
Thus, we find a civilizational order and peace that we already thought did not exist in those parts. Raney makes sure the train is confirmed. We go back out and indulge in an accelerated purchase of fruit, momos and other tidbits that, as always happens in these cases, we would find again and again the way up.
Embarkation on cold Siliguri Tropical
On the way back, in December and winter in the northeast of the India, a tall, dense white mist above-illuminated by the morning sun envelops Siliguri Junction Station.
It was only when we walked to and fro along the wharves closer than we had expected that we noticed the usual bright colors of passengers' costumes and of certain sections of the station. Some of the Indians present are civil servants and are already part of it.
Under the indifferent gaze of a line of young men, three of them, squatting in Asian fashion, balanced on two-inch narrow-gauge rails, brush their teeth with iron vigor.
At the same time, they follow the movements of the foreign duo, the only westerners in the station, given over to a photographic hyperactivity that, as happens to other natives, they find it difficult to understand.
A distant whistle sounds, less powerful and of a different tone from those that hit our ears. The squatting trio knows by heart and sauté what they signal. Unhurriedly, they unfold vertically – one of them is still sprawling – and pass to the immediate refuge of the cement ahead.
The Almost Punctual Entry to the Siliguri Platform
The DHR - Darjeeling Himalayan Railway – takes place at the pier shortly after the usual time. Its Indian diesel locomotive brings just two carriages, each with 20 seats. In Siliguri, apart from us, only an Indian couple with a seriously sleepy daughter enters.
Three or four minutes later, the composition resumes its march. It progresses, all too often in repulses, between a parallel road and a long opposite sequence of homes, businesses and unkempt wastelands.
The people of this urbanized but marginal band of the city greet the passengers with surprising enthusiasm considering that the Toy Train has been there twice a day for some time.
More bump, less bump, after 10 km we arrive at Sukna, the next station. The pink building that welcomes us marks the end of the flat and urbanized domain of Siliguri, located in the subtropical slope of the Himalayas, which, in protected pockets such as the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary, is a natural habitat for Bengal tigers and elephants.
through the Himalayas above
There, the railway cuts to the north and goes into the forested depths of the mountain range. Until 1879, a chariot service called robes na India from then on, it complemented the railway line that linked Calcutta to Siliguri.
From then onwards, the construction of the addition that led to Darjeeling was carried out, already at that time one of the main tea-producing areas in Joia da Coroa and important to match.
The engineers validated that the itinerary followed the old cart road but some of its slopes proved too demanding for the locomotives.
They forced several of the physical-mechanical solutions to which the Toy Train we were following was also subjected on its way to its final destination. In this area of enormous scenic and climatic contrasts, some of these solutions have not withstood the worst of bad weather.
In Sukna, there was the first Loop with which engineers sought to smooth the slope. But, the same inclination that conditions the ascent of the train accelerates the waters that descend from the high lands of the Himalayas. During the subcontinent's monsoons, from May to October, there are real floods that cause landslides.
One of those 1991 floods destroyed the Sukna Loop, replaced by a longer stretch. Even earlier, in 1942, another one permanently ruined what was the second Loop, that of Rongtong.
The lowest loop on the route is now Chunbhatti, where we soon winded. And shortly after, we take another round of carousel on Loop 4, called Agony Point, so tight is its curve.
By that time, A. Sonar, the TT Examiner (reviewer) on board has already shredded the tickets to twenty passengers and has little more to do than chatter with a lady who uses the slow DHR composition to move between the highlands and the lowlands of those stops. You barely have a chance,
Sonar shortens the conversation. He sits down on a secluded bench at the back of the carriage and, aware of how much time was left until the next station, he pulls the brim of his hat over his eyes and lets himself pass through the embers.
As the Indian girl in front of us has been doing for some time now, in the company of a pink-white plush dog, to the annoyance of the attentive parents who do their utmost to keep her comfortable.
A Railroad Crossed with Road
The Toy Train, this one, has no rest. It zigzags along the slopes, sometimes above homes and small establishments that have invaded the mountain and that we feel like intruders. Two sisters who wash their hair with hot water in buckets and bowls are embarrassed by the unexpected attention of the passengers. This is just one of many other examples.
Here and there, the train lines up with the asphalt road that once robbed it of its true reason for being. And cross it. At each of these intersections, the engineer greets the guards at the pseudo-level crossings. Even so, he stretches out of the locomotive and makes sure that no unwary driver bumps into the train.
What happens often. Those of us who follow much of the time with our heads in the wind, by the time, already know its face and the repetitive ritual by heart and sauté.
44km from Darjeeling, the train makes its zigzag number six. Six kilometers later, we stop at Mahanadi where a lorry loaded with bright plastic utensils gets wedged between the train and a parked van.
Seven additional kilometers, we enter Kurseong, the first large settlement between Siliguri and Darjeeling, with multi-storey buildings that defy the slopes and that, from the height of their inelegant and apparent structural precariousness, seem to ridicule the old station that even serves of the headquarters of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railways.
Ghum: The highest railway station in the India
In Ghum (2258m), the stop is worth it. The last rays of sunlight fall on sections of the waiting room. They are so useless in thermal terms that the residents who pass by ignore them, make faces and try to block them when their inopportune light dazzles their vision.
Cools without appeal. Passengers resent and attack the stall of milk tea resident. A. Sanar knows the corners of the house.
Instead, he sits at a cafe table none of us had noticed. There he sips his tea in peace, until we give him and “force” him for a short photo shoot.
Without any of the passengers waiting, another Toy Train appears in the opposite direction, driven by an old steam locomotive. That sister composition ensured the afternoon journey between Darjeeling and Ghum. To the north and up stretched the even more mountainous province of Sikkim, with the Gangtok capital on one of its slopes.
Unlike ours, it almost only brought Westerners already settled in Darjeeling, curious and restless as we hadn't found in the Indian Northeast still averse to tourism wherever we went.
The engineer immobilizes locomotive 605 right in front of the center of the station and leaves it in the hands of two or three assistants who, to the delight of frozen foreigners, examine and manipulate his furnace.
At a glance, a competitive group of apprentice photographers is formed, determined to record the glow as closely as possible. In Indian manner, their risky abuses are carried out with a leniency that goes beyond any behavioral logic, whether Buddhist or Hindu.
Darjeeling: the Ultimate Station
We complete the last 7km of the line, starting with the main alley of Ghum, where we have rammed grocery stores, greengrocers and other successive businesses in such a way that owners and customers are forced to take refuge in the interior.
In fact, it would suffice for us to stretch out an arm to stock up on pomegranates, shoes, cricket bats or many other goods at hand.
In the turmoil of the squeeze, we left Ghum aimed at the Batasia Loop, the most famous and whimsical of the Toy Train stations. When we get there, it's almost dark.
And already quite dark by the time, 80km and 8h after the departure from Siliguri, the composition stops at the definitive stop of Darjeeling, where Raney was waiting for us.
We could even have reached the final station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway at 2200m altitude. But we weren't fed up with the picturesque Toy Train.
Raney thought he would drive us to Darjeeling's hotel straight away. Instead, the mystical combination of vaporized fog and fire that we had detected minutes earlier in the DHR's small oily rail yard entices us to snoop.
The Darjeeling Smoky Shipyard
For almost half an hour, we follow the movements of the employees who, sometimes warm up the conversation by a vigorous fire, sometimes take care of several British locomotives: vintage B-Class (792, 788, 795, 805 “Iron Sherpa”), all built between 1889 and 1925 by the firm Sharp, Stewart & Company, later by the North British Locomotive Company. Finally, we surrendered to fatigue and took shelter at Darjeeling Tourist Lodge.
In the days that follow, we explore the city, its tea plantations and surroundings with our usual zeal. We also took advantage of the excitement that we already brought from the trip from Siliguri. Whenever we can, we instruct Raney to pursue or advance the various DHRs.
We returned to the shipyards where, without waiting, we witnessed the smooth but surreal collision of a car with the 788 locomotive. We returned to the Batasia Loop over and over again.
We wait for one of the compositions linking Darjeeling to Ghum to see it pass below the Buddhist monastery of Druk Thubten Sangag Choling. In those days, inspired by the Toy Train's 117 years of respectable history, we didn't play on duty either.
The authors would like to thank the following entities for supporting this article: embassy of India in Lisbon; Ministry of Tourism, Government of India; Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal. DHR – Darjeeling Himalayan Railway