Darjeeling (Marie Javins)
Blog Words : Wander Woman | 18 November

A ticket for one on Darjeeling's toy train express

Wander Woman, Marie Javins, discovers that sometimes it pays to travel the world on your own

Ugh, all this rain. It’s like I'm in the Himalayan foothills during the monsoon or something, I thought.

Well, at least I wasn’t taking the easiest route on my trip around the world.

I left my wood-panelled attic room atop the Dekeling Hotel and wandered through the rain and fog down the winding streets of Darjeeling. I was headed to the post office with the souvenirs I'd carried since Kathmandu.

Darjeeling’s official package-wrapper sat in the post office corner behind a weather-beaten table the size of a primary school classroom desk. He motioned me over, and I handed him my four souvenirs – two Tibetan thangkas and two baby-yak-wool shawls – all bound for separate destinations.

The package-man inspected the goods. That's part of his job too, to handle the customs end of things. Satisfied that I was posting only what I’d declared – I was glad I hadn't included the kama sutra tiles I'd picked up in China – he slowly wrapped each piece in off-white cotton cloth, sewed it up with heavy-duty thread, then used a candle to heat and stamp a wax seal on all the seams.

Meanwhile, a wild ferret entered the post office through a hole in the wall, roamed the lobby, then exited through the front door.

I walked the streets of Darjeeling for a while, walking up the many slopes that make up this hillside city. I stopped in a few shops to sample tea, but my favorite drink I had all day was a cappuccino from an upscale coffee shop in a small mall. I can’t help it – I’m a coffee drinker.

I headed back to Dekeling in the late afternoon.

"Where are you going next?" asked my hostess, a cheerful Tibetan woman who had lived her entire life outside of Tibet as an exile.

"Bhutan," I said.

"I lived in Bhutan before. My best friend is there – her daughter married the king! She went to school in Kalimpong with my daughter."

"What?" This news stunned me. I loved Bhutan already. What kind of country has such accessible royalty? Only an excellent country, I reckoned.

"How will you go to the border?" asked my hostess.

"I thought maybe I'd go to Siliguri for one night, then the next day catch a bus to Jaigaon at the border."

"There is a direct bus to Jaigaon from the market every morning. You'll have no problem getting there in one day."

Excellent.

I went back upstairs two more flights to my attic. I had things to do, including looking up the zoo opening hours (I wanted to see snow leopards and the Tenzing Norgay statue next door), sorting out the joyride schedules on the toy train, and most importantly, I had to scrub bird poo off of my luggage. I'd left Mughal Sari and Varanasi behind, but part of it had come with me.

Finally, the next morning, I could see Darjeeling! The cover of fog was gone.

This city in the clouds is a lovely place, its culture influenced by refugees from Tibet as well as proximity to Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. Advocates of the area becoming its own state call the area Gorhkaland rather than West Bengal – that discussion is ongoing, with no clear resolution in sight.

I took advantage of the perfect weather to go on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the "toy train." Landslides had stopped the regular daily train journey down the mountain at the moment, but tourists could still take joyrides on the steam train from Darjeeling to Ghum, some 20 kilometres down the track.

You're supposed to buy your tickets the day before, but after too many months and years of winging it around the world, I'd become slack in my planning, so I just trotted down to the station before departure time.

And the train was sold out. That's because the engine is antique – not just in a charming way, but it barely works as it heaves and puffs its way along the tiny tracks set into the road. The engine is so frail at this point – a ticket seller explained to me that: "We are having some problems with our Indian engine" – that it can only haul a single carriage of tourists at a time. And all the seats were gone.

But then the ticket seller asked how many and I answered one. He motioned me into an office where he wrote out a single ticket – this didn’t surprise me as one of the benefits of travelling alone is there’s usually room for one more – and hustled me into the last seat in the corner. And we were off!

The train had barely left the station before is stopped under a waterspout, taking on water until the engine overflowed. I shot video of the poor train looking like it wanted out of its misery.

We sluggishly went up the hill to a panoramic viewpoint, stopped for photos (and to shovel in more coal), then proceeded to Ghum, the engineer waving at friends as we went. Ghum has a small museum, which the passengers looked at while the locomotive turned around, then the train pulled us back to Darjeeling.

As we disembarked, I realised I know what it was like to travel on steam trains in the old days. Because as I headed out of the station and back to Dekeling, I realised that I was covered in soot.