When in India one must buy tickets for and ride at least one train, only then will you understand the Indian way when it comes to bureaucracy. Indian Railways, Catering and Tourism Corporation PTY LTD (IRCTC) is the pinnacle of Indian bureaucracy in all its good and its dark parts. They say theirs is an award-winning computer booking service and the largest in India, which is probable true. Indian railway stations have 2 ticket windows, one for buying tickets for commuting to or from that station and one for all other bookings across the huge Indian rail network, alternatively tickets can be booked on line if one has an account with them. This presents a mammoth task for any system; however prior to computerisation they used a chitty system where small pieces of paper were filled out in triplicate, one given to the traveller, one stayed at the station and a third went god knows where to secure the seat on the train wherever in India it was. The mid boggles at how it ever worked, and now a computer system can do all that. One Indian commuter quipped on social media, “the new computer system makes buying tickets cheaper” “as I no longer have to pay any bribes to secure a seat on the train!”
In practice I should have been able to get an account and buy the tickets I required. In reality after dozens of email exchanges my attempts simply failed. I was lucky enough to have access to a friends account and managed to at least buy first class tickets on the overnight Padatik express from NJP to Kolkata on our chosen day through that. My intention was to go from Darjeeling to NJP on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (DHR), or Toy Train, albeit pulled by a diesel engine, and link up with the Padatik Express in NJP. The IRCTC timetable shows the Toy Train running once a day, every day, but I never managed to secure tickets. “Train cancelled on 14th March” the man in the station said, “will it be un-cancelled” I asked (having learned quickly that to get the answer you want you have to ask the right question)? “No!” Welcome to India. We eventually booked a car from our hotel in Darjeeling to the NJP train station, an interesting trip in its own right, but no comparison to the Toy Train’s steep decent.
We took our chance to ride the Toy Train via a morning round trip from Darjeeling to Ghum by steam. This trip is one of the must-do-before-you-die trips for steam buffs, so for anyone in Darjeeling it is a must, even if like me you find steam trains dirty, noisy and smelly. The train pulled out of Darjeeling on time with 2 small carriages full of tourists, and many more all over the station and lines with very impressive arrays of cameras all looking for that special angle of a special train. It was uphill all the way to Ghum achieved by lots of noise, smoke and coal dust belching into the air and carriage.
The 100 plus year old B Class tank engines were built in UK, and the line constructed by Gillanders Arbuthnot & Co; the stretch from Siliguri to Kurseong was opened on 23 August 1880 and the section to Darjeeling shortly after. They have an endless supply of the little engines, each with names, ours was HAWKEYE.
For the majority of the way the train run next to, or on Hill Cart Road, other vehicles simply have to get out of the way. At one point there is a stop at Batasia Loop, designed in 1890 by George Cresswell where the line does a complete spiral, crossing itself to gain an important 5 or 6 metres additional height. I have seen many pictures of the train on that loop, with snow capped Himalayas behind; my shots had the mist behind the train, a mist that never lifted once in our entire trip. At Ghum we had an hour stop to try and find an elusive Monastery and a Train Museum that lacked any exhibits. It did have a sign that read:
“AN APPEAL- A lot of the original artifacts, mementos and records of the DHR have been taken by its erstwhile masters, visitors and employees. The actual place for these artifacts would now be in Museum being set up in Ghum. This appeal goes out to each one of us for help in return of these items on the DHR and help us conserve our common heritage. Any gesture towards this will be sincerely and thankfully acknowledged by the Indian Railways.”
The trip back to Darjeeling was of course down hill and so much quieter. The local kids come out to wave and the drivers seem to have real respect in the community. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is UNESCO World Heritage Listed and is an incredible feat of engineering for when it was built, I honestly believe it would not be attempted today such are the logistical challenges. It is occasionally put out of service through rock falls or sections of track being washed away, but they buckle down, replace it and get the service running again.
The DHR is a conventional narrow gauge rail system; it does not employ gear or rope drives. To negotiate the very steep sections it uses spiral loops and sections where it zigzag’s down steep terrain by going backwards and forwards on zigzag lines. Suddenly the train reaches the plain and everything is flat with tea plantations and army camps flanking the final run to Siliguri. Ironically the train does not go to NJP as advertised, passengers wishing to connect with the main line trains have to use a taxi for that last leg.
There is a belief that all trains in India are very full, with people hanging out of windows and doors and riding on the roof. I never saw one person on the roof of a train for my whole time in India; maybe I was just looking in the wrong place. The Darjeeling Express was made famous in a movie, we had chosen the later and slightly faster Padatik Express to Kolkata, leaving at 9:00pm and arriving at 7:00am. This gave us almost 3 hours to enjoy the hospitality of the ‘upper-class waiting room’. When the floor became too hard to sit on I took a walk the length of the platform to observe the nitty-gritty of rail life in India. When the Express arrived we found our modestly priced (with further discounts for age and gender) first class tickets gave us our own lockable compartment with upper and lower bunk, crisp clean sheets and blankets and a gentle steward who advised I should not use the camera because it was naughty. I rocked off to sleep at 10:00pmish and woke to the pre-dawn light around 5:30am. If I had any complaints they related to the lack of windows to look out from, but as it was a sleeper I guess that was to be expected. We arrived in Kolkata’s Sealdah Station as the place was in the midst of the early morning rush of porters, handcarts, food sellers, beggars and of course taxi drivers. We haggled for what seemed too long a time to pay over the odds to get to our hotel, my first ride in an Ambassador, and a wreck of one it was too.
Kolkata has a very old tram system and thousands of very old busses, we did not get to ride a tram, but spent an amusing few minutes watching an infuriated bus driver trying to decouple his bus from a tram in a traffic jam. If he went forward the tram was pulled along with him, likewise if he tried to reverse. Every attempt was accompanied by endless advice shouted by passengers in both the bus and tram. The more the bus driver tried the more the traffic jam cut off any maneuvering space he had. Welcome to India. It was solved by the grating of metal; a crash and both vehicles going off in their respective directions.
Yangon in Myanmar has one tram, on one track running backwards and forwards along Strand Road. It is very clean and has icy cold air conditioning. It runs from downtown close to where we were staying, and ended close to the Strand Hotel. It was therefore only natural that we should ride the tram to the Strand Hotel and take lunch; there was some debate about high tea, but lunch won out. The Strand Hotel opened in 1901 and was part of the Sharkies Brothers hotel empire; which also included the Raffles in Singapore and the Eastern & Orient in Penang. Regular guests at the Strand included Rudyard Kipling, George Orwell, Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham. Today the rooms are US$400 a night, so it is still a place only the wealthy can stay at. Lunch was a treat, very civilised, delicious and quite expensive.
Then back onto the tram to return home. The tram came from Hiroshima and still has all of its Japanese signage, including the route map of downtown Hiroshima! The day we traveled on it there was a driver at the front, one at the back, a security guard at the front and one at the back plus an engineer, and ticket seller. Six staff to service a similar number of passengers, and the ticket price of a few cents.
We took six flights; three with national carriers and three with discount airlines. Without exception the discount airlines offered newer planes, good legroom, friendly helpful staff and had an air of confidence. On the contrary, Qantas used an old plane, had the least legroom of any flight and staff that obviously wanted to be elsewhere. As Australia’s national carrier charging top dollar Qantas frankly should have done better. I am no fan of Jet Star due to a previous incident, but on this trip they came out tops, near new planes, attentive staff and comfortable seats. The wooden spoon goes to Air India for the flight from Kolkata to Yangon. The plane was literally falling apart, I think the only reason we made it safely was that over half the passengers were Buddhist Monks, and the planet’s karma would not allow so many Monks to perish!