UP IN SMOKE

Michael Ge­bicki has a fiery time on the fa­bled Toy Train to the In­dian hill sta­tion of Dar­jeel­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel -

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.

www.in­cred­i­blein­dia.org

Pic­ture: Michael Ge­bicki

The train event: En route to Ghum, In­dia’s high­est rail­way sta­tion

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