Monday, December 5, 2011

The Toy Train of Darjeeling (Carolann's Story)

(This and other stories by Carolann can be found at Maturetraveler)

I've had two goals in coming to Darjeeling. The first was to visit Lloyd's Botanical Garden, and the other was to take a toy train ride. And during our three days here, we also hoped to have a good cup of tea, something that's eluded us to date in India.

Regarding Lloyd's Botanical Garden, I can skip over that chapter quickly. We had been warned that the garden has seen better days, as it had been raided many times, and an unhealthy smell of sewage clung to one of the lower terraces. As I stroll, I reflect on what the garden once was, and what it could still be with proper investment.

The placement of the garden is perhaps the most interesting thing as it spills down the steep hillside. There are very large trees between which tall shafts of light, like milky spears fall to earth. It's peaceful, save the distant whistle of the toy train. Dan makes note of the varied orchid species and is pleased to find the botanical name of an autumn flowering cherry tree he's been tracking for weeks. I ponder a cactus garden that is enclosed by barb wire.

Darjeeling. The very name conjures comfort and goodness. There's romance in most any former British hill station, pictures of cool summer retreats, the architectural look and feel of Europe for India-weary career diplomats or officers. But Darjeeling overlays that picture with the Himalaya. On one side of the ridge, the town and its hotels cling to the hillside and then the plantations carpet the rest in an undulating descent. On the other side of the ridge, the mountains line the horizon and reach upwards into the sky. Mt. Khangchendzonga is surprisingly close, the third largest mountain on earth after Everest and K2.

But this is 2011, not 1911. The modern world has not been kind to Darjeeling (nor to Kathmandu for that matter). Photos of Darjeeling from a distance are misleading. The place looks lovely, strings of low, wooden buildings draped in layers down the side of green hills like strands of a necklace.

That's the view from a few kilometres away. It's different up close.

Like other crumbling urban spaces in Asia, Darjeeling aches under the crush of honking cars, jeeps, trucks and motorcycles bleeding through wounded, pocked streets more suited to donkeys and rickshaws than to motor vehicles. The town is cut into the mountain so that a home's foundation rests on one terrace and its street level entrance is off a higher terrace. To move between levels of roadways, the switchbacks are so steep and severe that the average small car must stop, shift, and execute a three-point turn to round the corner.

We have confirmed seats on the train for the next day.

Or do we?

The next morning, we enter the train station which smells of burnt coal and garbage and every kind of solvent imaginable. I'm recognizing that the congestion in my lungs and the bubbly, underwater feeling in my head is to be a new norm. It began in Nepal, and I expect it to get worse in India before it gets better. Dan suggests that I steam up the bathroom and breathe it in. but I know what I really need -  a week in Singapore. Only fleeing to my favourite high-humidity city in southeast Asia will correct my sinuses and restore my hearing. But that will have to wait for a while.

I'm curious because our tickets do not have assigned seats. I'm told that we need to check in at the wicket.

The attendant looks at our tickets. "You are on the waiting list."

I'm instantly furious.

"We booked our tickets forty-eight hours in advance as we were instructed. An agent through our hotel arranged it."

"What's the name of your agent, madam?" The attendant's head is wobbling in that characteristic Indian manner. It's a bad sign. It's a gesture of apology and agreeability at the same time, but ironically, given the side to side motion, also prepares me for some inflexibility. He won't be budged.

"I have no idea the name of the agent! The hotel arranged it and it was confirmed and we have this ticket and it's paid for and we've paid a fifty percent commission for the ticket so we didn't have to come to the station ourselves and stand in line."

"Madam, I always tell people to come to the station and do these things themselves. Hotels should know that."

I'm beside myself. Dan moves in.

"This is unacceptable. Look at this ticket. It says CONFIRMED."

The attendants looks at his list, puts on his glasses and looks again at our ticket. The head wobble abruptly changes direction. It's now up and down and his face explodes into a big fat toothy smile.

"Very sorry sir. Cooper is confirmed. Leuper is on the waiting list. I did not have my glasses on."

We board the Joy Train, which is a two-hour sight-seeing train that runs between Darjeeling and Ghum,. During the half hour stop at Ghum, this pint-sized 19th century refurbished coal-fired, steam locomotive is detached from one end of the two-car train and reattached to the other end so it can return us back to Darjeeling.

We're actually taking this tour as a compromise. We originally planned to take our departure from Darjeeling on the famous Toy Train which over ten hours takes you further down West Bengal to a real train station and the airport. But this route had been cancelled since the earthquake in late September. A landslide continues to block the tracks. 

Dan and I have seats 9 and 10. The seat numbering is interesting. I'm on one side half-way up the car and Dan's across the aisle towards the rear. The upholstery is worn thin, the windows unyielding.

The car bounces and sways on the uneven, narrow gauge rails, the whistle screams and the locomotive's chimney belches black smoke. Our little museum piece slowly groans and shakes along the ridge. Being on the mountain side, my view is all about the backsides of tenements, colour-faded laundry draped over grey cement railings. Dan has the best picture taking opportunities from his side and a morning departure throws strong light on the Himalaya.

However, Dan's pictures will not likely be good. There are few places along the route where the view is clear of a dense spider web of legal and illegal electrical wires.

On the way back, the ceiling draws my attention when a fast jerk wakes me up (this is not the most exciting tour I've ever taken). The car's ceiling is elaborately decorated with slices of flattened bamboo arranged in an artful design. It looks like gold if you don't look too closely.

Then again, that's how I feel about Darjeeling itself.

No comments: