Watching Hindi movies during my early teen years allowed me to see the beautiful landscape of North East India on screen. Darjeeling and its “Toy Train” (Himalayan Railway) were some of the things that stood out for me, and it never crossed my mind that one day I would actually be there, riding the train myself.
My friend, Autar Singh, organised a trip in late 2019 and I joined him and his group without any hesitation. There were 28 of us, though I only knew Autar and his wife at the start of our holiday.
Darjeeling is situated in the northern tip of West Bengal in the Himalayan foothills and we were there in mid-autumn. When we arrived, a few of us explored part of the city centre, walking past the railway station and on to a busy street lined with stalls selling fish, meat and vegetables.
Very early the next morning (about 4am!) we went up Tiger Hill to catch the sunrise over the four “giants” of the Himalaya – Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse, Mt Makalu and Mt Khangchendzonga. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and misty and we couldn’t see the sun. We perked up later in the day when we saw the snow-capped mountains during breakfast from our hotel dining hall.
After breakfast we spent the morning at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, set in the almost natural surroundings of the habitats of the animals. We were excited to see the red panda, Bengal tiger and snow leopard. The Bengal tiger was undisturbed by our presence despite all the excited chatter coming from the visitors.
Meanwhile, two red pandas were challenging each other for their spot on the tree.
From the zoo we went to the Happy Valley Tea estate, which was a large tea plantation. After walking around the estate, we bought tea leaves from the 20- odd licensed tea stalls lining the place. What’s funny is that we could only buy from the stall where our vehicle was parked.
Some of us wanted to go on a two-hour ride on the Toy Train, which is powered by a steam engine. We rushed to the train station, only to wait for more than an hour as the train was late. But what a ride we had. The train ran in the city centre, very close to the buildings, shops and houses. We could stretch our hands out the window to touch the structures!
The train had two stops. The first was a 20-minute stop at a memorial garden called Batasha Loop (Gorkha War Memorial), and the second was at the Ghum station, a Unesco World Heritage Area.
According to a write up at the museum, many famous travellers had gone on the Toy Train including Mark Twain in 1897.
The museum/station is an ancient architectural piece of work with many pictorial information and artefacts. I think riding the Toy Train is one of the must-dos in Darjeeling.From the train station, we hopped into taxis to the car-free city centre where the roads, covered with cobbled stones, were lined with lovely local shops. I spotted a beautiful two-storey restaurant which looked colonial, and inviting.
Just like that, the day was over and we headed back to the hotel for dinner. We left the next day to visit another incredible Indian city. What an adventure it was.
The views expressed are the reader’s own.
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