UP IN SMOKE
Michael Gebicki has a fiery time on the fabled Toy Train to the Indian hill station of Darjeeling
SMALL, cute and painted a Thomas the Tank Engine shade of blue, the Toy Train from New Jalpaiguri to the Indian hill station of Darjeeling is one of the engineering marvels of the British Raj.
In service since 1881, the train makes an 88km journey from close to sea level to higher than 2000m, a feat it achieves via zig-zag reverses and loops, without a single tunnel.
It’s also a hoot, a chugging, chuffing eighthour ride from rice paddies to bamboo and cedar forests and eventually into the tea plantations around Darjeeling. Steam buffs come from all over the world just to ride this train, the most illustrious of India’s mountain railways, inscribed on the World Heritage list since 1999.
The section I am doing is the tourist version, a 45-minute, 6km trip from Darjeeling to Ghum, the highest railway station in India at 2225m. For much of this journey the train runs along Hill Cart Road, the main route through the hills, puffing and whistling just centimetres away from fluttering Tibetan prayer flags, open shopfronts and houses where black-faced langur monkeys peer down from the rooftops.
As we climb a hill on the outskirts of Darjeeling the train runs out of puff and comes to a halt. The engine gives a series of exhausted shrieks that become ever more feeble. There’s a shouted Hindi conversation out the door, the brakeman releases the handbrake and we coast back down the hill to a level section where the train builds a head of steam for the rush up the gradient. This time we make it, although it slows to walking pace at the top.
As we enter the Batista Loop I poke my head out the carriage window. The train bends sharply on itself as it circles the loop, giving me the chance to snap some photos of the train in motion. Smoke gushes from the engine, the noise is tremendous. Black cinders rain around me.
Returning to my seat, I notice a sickly smell that seems pungent even by the standards of the lively flavours that the subcontinent brings to the nasal passages. A few seconds later, a warming sensation spreads across my scalp. I reach up to feel what’s happening. ‘‘ My hair is on fire,’’ I remark in what I hope is a nonchalant tone.
A fistful of hair comes away in my hand and smoulders on the floor at my feet, the ends fused together in a black clump.
There’s a crater in the middle of my hair with a cinder cone of frizzy, hardened nodules, a sort of bird’s-nest effect. I imagine I look like a badly tonsured monk. The other passengers in the first-class carriage, who have been chatting animatedly and crowding the windows until this point, observe my plight in wary silence, since a burning man is unusual, even for India.
‘‘ I am hoping there will not be conflagration,’’ says my neighbour, looking down at the still-smoking knot of hair on the floor. The rest of the carriage is subdued for the remainder of the journey, although I do get a number of awed looks from the children on board.
At Ghum, slightly less than the man I was when I boarded, I wander to the front of the train for a look at the engine. The fireman is stoking the boiler, heaving coal into the firebox. My reputation seems to have preceded me. ‘‘ Not too close, gentleman,’’ he says, waving me away from the blazing inferno. ‘‘ We are not wanting a funeral fire for you here.’’ And from the way he and his fellow drivers laugh, they think it is an excellent joke.
The train event: En route to Ghum, India’s highest railway station