For some reason travelogues are the most read blogs. My previous one has almost double the readership of the others. So another one would do my hit-o-meter no harm! [:D]….So here comes my own Himalayan sojourn.
Darjiling (meaning the Land of the Thunderbolt) is a district in North Bengal. Before the 19th century, it was a forested uninhabited land, ruled alternatively by the Kingdoms of Sikkim and Nepal. Then came the British. Charmed by its climate and beauty, they made it their favoured summer getaway, a second Shimla for the Raj’s civil servants of Eastern India. They also introduced tea cultivation here, something that is synonymous with Darjiling now.
The journey from Hyderabad to New Jalpaiguri was a long one stretching for close to 40 hours. The Guwahati Express in which we travelled was maintained by the North East Frontier Railway and its condition, to put it mildly, was pathetic! Dirty curtains, hazy glass, soiled linen, old foam…and all this in AC 2 tier! What a contrast from the spic and span railways of South India. The journey till Calcutta was on familiar terrain and I wasnt very interested in the coutryside. However once we made our way into interior Bengal, the countryside changed. Flat paddy fields stretching till the horizon, tiny villages that wont look out of place in a Saratchandra novel and the smell of rain in the air! Ah! Heaven!
Bardhhaman, Rampurhat and Malda town later, we finally reached the bustling town of New Jalpaiguri, the Gateway to the North-East and the guardian of the Chicken’s Neck, the 21 km border that India shares with its North East. NJP as it is called is named after Jalpaiguri, the district headquarters about 50 kms to the south on the old Saidpur-Calcutta line. In the pre-partition era, this was the route that trains used and Jalpaiguri throbbed with life. Today it is an outpost on an insignificant branch line, condemned to slow decay by the inexorable hand of history while its upstart cousin flourishes barely 50 kms away.
NJP is a widespread town. Soldiers, traders and smugglers all flock to it, trying to make their way to Assam and beyond. The climate is damp, humid and warm throughout the year. It is also the starting point of the 87 km long Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a 127 year old Narrow gauge line that is a World Heritage Structure and for years was the only comfortable way of reaching Darjiling from the plains. We bundled into the first class bogie of the tiny train; hauled by a diesel loco, to my extreme disappointment! The train moves very slowly..Indeed for the first hour, it was a very uncomfortable and hot journey for the passengers as the train slowly made its way past the streets and bylanes of Siliguri, the largest town in this area and the former terminus for this line. Soon forests started appearing along the Hill Cart Road which is today the fastest way to reach D’ling and which accompanies the line all the way. Tea gardens also started appearing but there was no sign of any mountain nearby. And then came Sukna, suddenly the landscape changed dramatically. Gone were the flat plains and the rice fields…thick wooded forests became the norm…there was a marked increase in the gradient and the train journey was in full flow. Rangtong and Chunabati were soon left behind and we were surprised to find ourselves on a mountain with the Teesta flowing far away. The train huffed and puffed its way past Tindharia, the place where the loco repair and maintenance workshop is located. Soon followed the jaw dropping Agony Point, the tightest curve on the line.
There was a nip in the air now and high mountains could be seen all around. We sat fascinated by the gorgeous scenery. Powering its way past Gayabari and Mahanadi the train reached the large town of Kurseong (pronounced: Khar-Sang).
En route it passed 6 Z shaped curves where the train reverses and then moves up another line to a higher altitude, a real engineering marvel. We switched to the road in Kurseong after having lunch there. It’s a picure-postcard colonial town dotted with many boarding schools which give a distinct Oxford like aura to this place. At about 1458 metres above sea level, we had climbed over 1350 m in 57 kms.
The journey by road is quicker. Tung, Dilaram, Sonada, Rangbul and Jor Bungalow all went past in quick succession as the road climbed rapidly. Clouds and mist obscured the vision and beautiful tea gardens and forests covered the steep hill sides. We reached Ghoom, the highest point en route to Darjeeling a little while later. At 2225 m above MSL, the feeling is at the top of the world. It is almost always misty and drizzling in Ghoom and the town itself is dominated by the magnificent Ghoom Monastery (more of it later!)…A short descent and the awe-inspiring Batasia loop later, we had finally reached Darjiling, our destination as of now!