Monday, July 23, 2007

Small wonder - Darjeeling Himalayan Train ( The toy train huffing and puffing its way up from Siliguri to Darjeeling is no ordinary train)

You've seen this locomotive chugging away happily in popular Hindi movie songs such as Mere Sapno Ki Rani and, more recently, Kasto Mazaa from Parineeta.

Of course this toy train huffing and puffing its way up from Siliguri to Darjeeling is no ordinary train. It's part of the folklore of the hill people. Locals wait everyday for the train to show up, coming from behind the mountains and then disappearing into the distant mist.

They wait for this sighting, for the tiny steam engine to blow its whistle and puff past their houses. The sound has been part of their memory since 1881, so much a part of their daily life that the railway authorities had to modify the whistle of the diesel engine to make it sound like a steam engine's.

The train runs on a zig-zag railway track not more than 2 feet wide. Along its way, it crosses tropical mixed evergreen forests and tea gardens (where you get Darjeeling tea from), making the hill railway what many say "a marvel of miniature engineering."

What's fascinating about the toy train is that even after 100 years little seems to have changed about the journey. Along the 86 km-stretch travellers can see magnificent pine trees dotting the Bhutan range, and the Teesta river just below.

On some stretches, the train runs parallel and on the same level as the Hill Cart road and provides a breathtaking view of the tea gardens on either side of the track. But what leaves everyone enchanted as they enter this toy train is the fascinating idea that perhaps the Lilliputian world described in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels has finally come to life.

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