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Great Little Trains of India

Here is a taste of what you can expect from Ffestiniog Travel’s brand new ‘Great Little Trains of India’ tour departing January 2015. Seasoned traveller Bob Cable, who has lead several rail tours to India, shares some of his memorable moments as tour leader to the Sub-Continent.

Darjeeling Himalay Railway - © Bob Cable
Well loaded trains cross near Gwalior on the Scindia light railway - © Bob Cable
Taj Mahal - © Bob Cable

Taj Mahal

There are some world famous sights that are so famous that you feel you know them before you get to see them.  Some then disappoint in the flesh whilst others root you to the spot.  The Taj falls firmly into the latter group.  You enter through the turnstiles, are fleeced and patted down by polite army officers (hence two queues for men and women!) and find yourself in the outer courtyard.  With a growing sense of expectation you hurry to the huge main gate.  As you pass through it Shah Jehan's sublime Taj fills the view through the massive Mogul gateway - the white marble a soft pink in the dawn light.  At this moment all the effort of getting up so early and indeed coming halfway round the world is amply repaid.  For a short time the great Taj Mahal stands before you in supreme isolation, without the crowds at the beginning of a new day.  You just HAVE to stand there in awe.  I could offer all sorts of advice about how best to see the Taj but you will have to come on one of our tours to get that info!!

Gwalior

I love coming back to Gwalior.  In terms of the size of India it could be described as only a ‘stones throw’ from Agra.  I love Agra too and the world and their dog justifiably beat a path to the Taj Mahal, but just a couple of hundred kilometres away in Gwalior a Western tourist is a rare sight, despite its many charms.  The first joy is one of India's classic hotels – the Usha Kiran Palace - formally the guest lodge of the Maharaja of Gwalior, it is a serene and delightful refuge. Next door is the huge Jai Vilas Mahal (Palace), still the seat of the Scindia dynasty.  If you are into railways you may know that this is home to the solid silver model railway that transported the brandy and cigars around the dinner table and is still there for visitors to see in the grandest imaginable Dining Hall.  The Scindias however have long been enmeshed with the railways of India and memorabilia litters the Palace, starting with the Maharaja's own railcar on a plinth outside. The purpose of our visit was to ride the last part of the narrow gauge Scindia State Railways, built by a past Maharaja whose successors became Railway Ministers in modern India. The little 2ft gauge railway here is now very run down and meanders through farmland and villages with all and sundry hanging on the outside or sitting on the roofs of the carriages. All very different to the little railways in the Himalayan foothills. Gwalior's crowning glory is the astonishing Gwalior Fort, as huge and grand a Fort as you will find in all India.  A central player in many eras of Indian history the Fort has featured in the Mogul, Maratha and even in the Indian Mutiny when India's Joan of Arc, Rani Lathshmibai perished near Gwalior at the hands of the British.  Gwalior is really hard to beat.

Heading to the Himalayas

One of the handy things about Indian domestic airlines is that they allow you to do a group check in.  This relieves the group of having to all stand in a long queue.  The downside is that the seat allocation is entirely random, although this might be just as well on the flight from Delhi to Bagdogra as everybody in the know would want a window seat on the left hand side of the plane.  Not long after you have left Delhi and are flying over the mighty Ganges plains the Himalayas come into view. Hazy at first then sharper and larger, the jagged snow covered peaks form a breathtaking panorama as they stretch away into Nepal.

Bagdogra is one of those truly unusual airports.  It's primarily a military establishment and is located in the Assam Corridor, a 5 mile wide strip of India sandwiched between Bangladesh and Nepal, a relic of Imperial folly at the time of Independence. Arriving planes fly past the airport then make an excitingly steep 360 degree turn seeming to stand on one wing, with those on the low side looking directly at the fields below, before landing and mingling with the Indian Air Force's elderly MIG jet fighters. You don't have to worry, like the old Hong Kong airport the pilots are well practiced at doing it!

Bagdogra is really the airport for Siliguri/New Jalpaiguri and of course the whole Darjeeling area and as far as we are concerned the gateway to the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

We stayed at the Sinclairs Hotel, less imperial than its name suggests but very welcoming none the less. With a few hours of daylight left a visit to Siliguri Shed was on the agenda.  The enthusiasts needed little encouragement to race up to their rooms, deposit their bags and be back in the jeeps in 10 minutes!  Off through the hub bub of this bustling town we are only a short ride from Siliguri Junction station and the prime object of the tour.  Dutifully buying platform tickets we sally forth to the little DHR shed and FINALLY here we are.  Lots of little carriages and a few dumped engines litter the yard but all attention is focused on two little blue tank engines simmering in the late afternoon sunshine. Is this a sort of railway Jurassic Park? Like little dinosaurs from another age the B Class engines, mostly built in Glasgow, have survived into the era of the Internet, computers and space probes to Mars. One is being prepared for our train tomorrow with a mighty pile of coal arranged almost artistically on the coal pan on the top of the boiler.  Although the DHR now relies more than ever on tourism this is no tourist railway.  The engines are old and battered, the rolling stock well cleaned but worn and the staff are railwaymen of the old order. Tomorrow can't come soon enough.

Next morning the group were up with the lark and ready by the jeeps with impressive promptness.  Everybody was duly loaded, bags on the roof, packed lunches under their feet and a couple of cases of ice cold beers from the hotel’s fridge and we were off.  Back to Siliguri Junction and on to the platform.  The little 2ft gauge tracks, devoid of any train, look very insignificant next to the new broad gauge platforms and we note that Siliguri is one of those super rare stations with 3 gauges.  Broad, Metre and 2ft. There is not too long to wait before a shrill whistle announces our train being propelled round the corner into the station.  All pile on board, many photos are taken and there are seemingly urgent discussions in high speed Bengali between the engine crew, guard and station staff.  Forms are filled and signed yet nothing happens as departure time comes and goes.  But suddenly and without ado someone flicks a flag, there is a brief whistle and we lurch into motion.   Our tiny 2 coach charter train, with an engine over 100 years old, chuffs gamely away whilst a huge 22 coach express from furthest Assam rumbles into the station. With an air of quite unwarranted importance our little train crosses over the broad gauge tracks on a diamond clattering over the huge rails before we dive into a vegetable market.  With just one ordinary train a day on the DHR a second causes chaos!  Produce has to be scooped off the rails, bicycles and carts moved and all before the train, whistling madly, gets there. Soon however we are out of the bustle and hurly burly of Siliguri and clanking along easily at what seemed a good speed. That is until a young lad on an adult bicycle overtakes the train without any undue effort.  With the road on one side and tea gardens on the other we meander along for half an hour or so with the engine whistling a lot but not having to do much work.  Jeeps and lorries roar past, bus passengers all smile and wave and the local dogs leap up and bark at the train and chase it for a while before returning to snooze under a banana tree.

Soon we roll into Sukna, a bustling little crossroads with a petrol station, loads of tea and fruit stalls and a cute little station.  It is now difficult to imagine that in the early days of the railway this was so remote that this is the station where the station clerk sent the immortal telegraph message to head office “Tiger eating Station Master STOP Please advise STOP”.

We all pile out to take copious photos, the engine is filled with water from a leaky pipe, the fire is raked out, coal shovelled in and everything in sight is well oiled.  The driver walks over briefly to a chai stall, downs a quick cup of the local brew and we are all set to do battle with the hills - a 6000ft climb over the next 50 miles or so.  We seem to start gentle enough but quickly our little engine seems to cough and splutter a bit before gradually getting into its stride producing a mighty roar and fuss.  There is now no doubt that we are climbing into the mountains.  Houses disappear and we are soon climbing through the terai, as the jungle hereabouts is known.  With a fanfare of whistling our train shoots across the Hill Cart Road.  Nothing so sissy as flashing lights, gates or barriers here.  'Might is Right' rules here.  Keep out of my way or your lorry/Jeep will get a well bent wing!!  The passengers laugh at the novelty of it all but are likely to lose interest  after the 100 + more such level crossings are negotiated before arriving in Darjeeling.  Onwards and upwards our little train twists and turns, crossing and re-crossing the road, always scrambling to gain height and the engine making a mighty effort raining down cinders and smuts onto the carriages and into the hair of  passengers straining out of the windows.

An hour or so later we arrive at the delightful Rangtong station nestled deep  in the forest and a little later we stop at a rusty water tank in the middle of nowhere for the engine to be refilled with water again.  A little further on we arrive at the first of the famous Zig Zags.  Everywhere else in the world we are used to the notion that when a train is being propelled from the back it is done slowly and carefully.  Not so on the DHR as the engines push at full tilt from the rear as indeed they must as the line is just as steep here as elsewhere.  We negotiated four more Zig Zags and two complete loops during the day and at times we got dizzying views back to the plains.  It seems inconceivable that anyone would be mad enough to even consider building a railway through such impossible terrain let alone actually do so!! Children wave and locals smile as our train puffs noisily past their front doors, up various village streets and leave soot on cloths drying on many a washing line. The railway seems as one with the hills and the population are clearly fond of the little train. You really don't have to be a train buff to love this train journey and this extraordinary railway.  The whole experience is so engaging that you would have to have a heart of stone not to be entranced.

After many stops for water, Zig Zags and photos we storm into the bustling town of Kurseong, whistling furiously to warn all and sundry to get off the tracks, before we draw up truimphantly at its little terminal station, an oasis from the honking traffic and the bustle of the bazaar.  Now over half way to Darjeeling we have stopped  for the night at the delightful Cochrane Place Hotel, a unique and dare I say quirky little hotel with creaky floorboards, lots of railway memorabilia and located on a narrow ridge with stunning views  both back to the plains and upward to Darjeeling. Finishing todays blog tucked up in our snug bedroom I have that wonderful knowledge that we have another such enthralling day again tomorrow before we get to Darjeeling. 

Can life possibly get any better?

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