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Spiral road to heaven
Darjeeling Hill Railway:
Toy Trains Darjeeling With a 2-feet gauge is the narrowest of the regular narrow gauges. Linking the town of New Jalpaiguri with the East Indian hill station of Darjeeling, these famous little trains is drawn on its 86 km journey by a 100-year-old engine in 7.5 hours. With no tunnels on the route, passengers get an uninterrupted view of the Himalayas. Alt was "the most enjoyable day" he had "spent on earth," Mark Twain declared. But mere pleasure wasn't the reason we decided to follow the footsteps of the American writer in traking the long, long way up to Darjeeling by riding the train rather than zooming up by road. Jour motive was more mundane: we were pandering to my mother's desire to be a completist.

Over the years, my mother had travelled in the other three Indian toy trains - miniature locomotifves that had been constructed to ferry the sweaty administrators of the Raj from the sweltering summer plains to the respite of those peculiar British inventions that came to be Known as hill stations. As teenager, Mother had taken the Nilgliri Train to the Queen of Indian Hill Stations, Udhagamandalam, thought was then most often Known by the more easily pronounced name of Ooty. The dinky Matheran locomotive had ferried us to numerous family holidays from Neral to the red earth plateau of Matheran, an accessible retreat for Mumbai's harried middle classes. We later rode to the former British summer capital of Shimla in a contraption called a "rail car", which was a little more than a mini- bus that chugged along on steel tracks, diving through 107tunnels punched through the mighty Himalayas. Now, only the 87.48 - km journey on the steam - powered Darjeeling Himalayan Railway remained. We sneered at the prospect of the three - hour run by jeep and decided that we'd settle for nothing less than the nine -hour full show.

Bureaucrats have a way of leeching the fun out o everything, and the inscription framed by UNESCO when it gave the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway a Word Heritage Status in 1999 is no exception. Desiccating the romance of the railways with red - taped prose, the declaration reads, "The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway is the first, and still the most outstanding example of a hill passenger railway. Opened in1881, it applied bold and ingenious engineering solutions to the problem of establishing an effective rail link across a mountainous terrain of great beauty, It is still fully operational and retains most of its original features intact." What? No praise for the stunning views of Kanchenchunga as the train tackles an especially curvy loop on a clear day? Where's the mention of the schoolboys getting their jollies by racing against the locomotive as it hoots through placid mountainside villages? How come there are no paeans to the beauty of the rosy- cheeked belles flashing shy smiles at the passeng ers as they make their coal- sodden way up to Dorje Ling - the Place of the thunderbolt.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railways Overnight train
Luckily for us, there was no evidence of thunderbolts when our overnight train from Kolkata deposited us in the dusty town o New Jalpaiguri. The absence of squally phenomena would allow us unfettered views as we wandered over hill, over dale, through bush and through briar. New Jalpaiguri looked fairly dreary, a settlement with little to distinguish it from thousands of other Indian small towns. But it's a place that sends railway buffs into paroxysms of ecstasy. That's because it's the last functioning triple - gauge station in India and among a handful left anywhere on the planet. It's designed to handle trains that run on broad gauge (with tracks that are1.676 metres wide), metre gauge and the 61 - centimeter narrow gauge system on witch the DHR runs.

As we chomped down a breakfast of omelettes, the gleaming, steaming DHR locomotive across the platform was being fed a high -carbon diet in anticipation of the rigours ahead. The cabin seemed large enough for one person, but actually had a staff o six - a driver, his assistant, a fireman to keep the boiler ablaze, a coal - breaker and two sanders, whose functions weren't apparent on the flat sections of the ride. But they burst into action when we began the tracks with handfuls of gravel to ensure better traction.

Railway enthusiasts rave on about how the steepest gradient on the line is 1 in 20 and how the average is about 1 in29If you're not sure what this means, neither am1. But as the train ascended to clouds, I was able to establish that what they probably mean is that the slopes are really very, very, very steep. Soon, the tracks began to perform elaborate undulations, rather in the manner of an especially supple belly dancer. Unlike many other toy train routes, the DHR doesn't have any tunnels. Instead, it climbs to the heavens - or at least to Ghum at 7,400 feet before descending to Darjeeling at 6,812 feet - on a succession of three loops and six Z- type reverses. The sharpest loop came 33 kilometers into our journey, as the train swung into a hairpin bend with a radius of merely 59 feet. But the most famous spiral was still far ahead at Batasia, between Ghum and Darjeeling, when the train -like Kekule's serpent - appeared to be intent on devouring itself.

Blaze of serendipity
Darjeeling Railway Like the German chemist Kekule's nocturnal epiphany about the structure of the benzene molecule, the design of the Darjeeling railway was conceived in a blaze of serendipity, or so Darjeeling lore maintain. Old-timers still tell of a dance at the Tindharia planters' club on a winter's night in 1878, when Franklin Prestage, an official of the Darjeeling Tramway Company, went through the motions with his wife somewhat detached from the lively rhythms. Prestage was distracted by a seemingly intractable problem: his pet project - to build a rail line alongside the cart road that ploughed its way up to the hill station - had been stalled by an impossible sharp slope. His wife is said to have manoeuvred Prestage to the edge of the floor, then, as they swayed at the edge, swerved gracefully to leads him back to the heart of the action.

"Darling." She whispered, "if you can't go forward. why don't you go back?"
She'd got it. By Jove, she'd got it. Prestage had found his way upwards and onwards. Many other mountain railways haul themselves skywards using cables of rack mechanisms with cog wheels. But Prestage kept the DHR chugging along, using only the friction of wheel on track by the simple expedient of bringing the tracks back a few metres every time the slop0ws got too steep, then ascending again from a different point. Suddenly, a journey that had taken several bone- jarring days astride a pony had been shrunk to less than half a day. The fortunes of the tea - growing hill region flourished even more vigorously. No more was First Flush Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe I the best brew in town. Now, people from Sikkim, Nepal, Bengal and Tibet poured in;, boiling up the region's unique Indo- Tibetan syncretic culture.

We sat back in our narrow seatsto soak in the vistas. The train meandered through the foothills between Sukna and Tindharia, before veering off into a stomach - turning loop at Agony Point. Near Rington, we marveled at the lush Terai forest. The Chunbati curve brought the first glimpses of the Mahanadi river. Past Gayabari, we came upon the scar on the mountainside that the locals call Pagla Jhora - mad torrent. The fury of falling water in fierce monsoon seasons often sweeps away houses here and severs the vital road link for days at a time. The sun- bakedplains of West Bengal were visible from Eagle's Crag, and after Kurseong unfolded the rolling tea gardens, swarming with women deftly plucking the tips of the bushes intjo vast baskets on their backs. Ghum brought its famous monastery, which houses an image of the Maitreya Buddha.

It was already dark when the train pulled into Darjeeling station. We brushed stray flecks of coal out of our hair and headed for the hotel. Mother ticked the last toy train off her list and smiled the smile of the satisfied.