Darjeeling Railway

975818 L.A.C.Payne A.J.




My Dear Mum,

Here is the letter I promised you, telling you all about my leave.

Well, the long awaited day came and I was up earlier than usual packing my tin trunk. The first difficulty confronting me was getting my trunk to the station as such things are rather awkward to carry in the hand and it just isn’t done for a white man to carry his own luggage, the hot weather is mainly against that, so I needed the services of a coolie. I soon got one by going out into the road, stopping an Indian and explaining to him in my very limited Hindustani what I wanted done, he was obviously willing to earn a bit of money, as he soon had a pad on his head and my tin box on top of that. They carry everything like that out here, big or small.

I had seen fellows going on leave for weeks before, and I had envied them, but now it was my turn to say "Cheerio" and enjoy the cool of the hills while they stayed down here sweating on the plains. I was not looking forward to the journey in front of me, knowing how packed the railways can be here, but I knew that the climate in Darjeeling would well compensate any discomforts I had to endure on the way up.

I got to the station in good time to catch the 12.15 train and soon found myself a second class seat on it. This class as I have already told you is not a patch on our third class at home, but neither is the first class for that matter. This was just a local train into Calcutta, where I was to catch the 3.45 mail train to Silguri, which is the nearest main line station to Darjeeling. It is like going to Reading to catch the Cornish Riveria Express. Of course, we stopped at all the little stations on the way to Calcutta, but local trains in this part of the world only stay a few seconds in each station, so it was not too annoying.

I arrived in the City with about 2 hours to spare before the mail train left so after killing about an hour and a quarter I decided to get on to the platform and find my reservation, if any. It is a recognized thing out here when travelling long distances to make a reservation some weeks before, which I had done. I produced evidence of this in the form of a slip of paper when I passed through the platform barrier.

I began to walk the length of the train looking for my second class seat to which my warrant entitled me, when a military voice said "Where are you going?" "Darjeeling", I promptly replied. "In there then," said the M.P. To my horror I gazed upon a whole third class carriage reserved for troops. It was empty when I got in so I found myself a corner. This is the lowest class on the line, the seats are made of wood and run the whole length of the carriage, one down each side and 2 back to back down the centre. More chaps got in soon after me filling the carriage to a capacity. A Warrant Officer got in and one of the chaps told him there was not room for him. A lengthy and heated argument took place, until the W/O threatened to use his authority and get the other fellow thrown out.

To get a rough picture of an Indian City station, just imagine Paddington on a summer’s day with about 20 or 30 degrees of temperature added, hundreds more people and a hundred more smells, and you can little wonder that we were all glad when 3.45 came and the train drew out. Naturally being a long distance train it was only scheduled to stop at big stations and junctions and for a few hours we made pretty good time. At the stations we drew into the char wallas were always waiting for us, though I did not patronize them myself. These are tea vendors who dash about along the length of the train usually carrying a kettle of tea in one hand, and a tray containing sugar and milk and what looks like small flower pots in the other. These small flower pots are used as cups and can be thrown away after.

Towards evening we ran into a very heavy storm and the clouds around us were pitch black but we did not mind that, as it cooled the atmosphere considerably. As we passed through a station about 7 o’clock I noticed a board on the platform which marked the division between the Tropic Zone and the Sub-Tropic Zone. We were now in the subtropics.

All was going well till just after dark when we stopped owing to trouble on the line ahead. We were stopped there for two long hours and the frogs in the swamped meadows on each side of the line were having the time of their lives. They revel in wet weather and make some terrific noises, some like goats, some like motor horns, and when there's hundreds of them making different noises its rather annoying. I was propped up in my corner trying to sleep. We moved eventually, and with the rocking of the train I managed to doze quite a lot of time away. The sky was bright in one place a little later on and I tried to convince myself it was the sun rising, but I found out to my horror that it was three a.m.

When day light did at last come we were still some distance from Siliguri, although we should have been there about 7 o’clock. We eventually arrived there about 10a.m.

[img_assist|nid=60|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=75|height=100] [img_assist|nid=67|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=72]

I have been told by my friends who had already been to Darjeeling to make straightway for the mountain railway at Siliguri, find myself a seat and make sure that my luggage was put in the correct van, as they had a habit of losing it. Bearing this in mind, I went straight to the platform where the mountain train was standing.

To appreciate the quaintness of this train one has to see for oneself. It is like an overgrown Hornby train set, something like the kiddies trains at seaside fairgrounds. Everything is in miniature, a small engine built in Glasgow, small luggage vans and small carriages. I found myself a seat, reserving it with my topee, and then went along to the luggage van to park my tin trunk. I made enquiries as to which was the right van, and I was told that there had been a landslide part way up and it had dislocated the line and all the luggage would be taken care of by the company, so I put it in a van with some more and hoped for the best.

I was rather hungry and thirsty by this time so I went into the station restaurant and had a breakfast after which I had a large mug of tea in the troops canteen. [img_assist|nid=64|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=73|height=100] The first part of the journey was not very steep so the train was quite a good length to begin with, but after a few very pleasant miles through the woods, we arrived at a station and the train was split up into about 3 small ones. [img_assist|nid=65|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=70] We set off once again and this time started climbing in earnest. The road to Darjeeling runs alongside the railway track all the way and we often ran across it and back again in order to make a tight bend easier. Some of the bends were so sharp that it was quite a common sight to see the engine travelling at right angles to the coach I was in. I soon realised that we had been climbing considerably, for quite often we were travelling on a ledge of rock with a drop of hundreds of feet below us. Two men sit on the front of the engine to throw sand on the lines when the wheels slip. We were just getting nicely dizzy, when we stopped at a station, where to my horror they took our luggage vans off. We soon realised why this was, because after starting off again we came to the landslide. This had to be bypassed on foot by climbing a considerable distance and meeting some waiting trains further up. The luggage was brought up from the previous station by lorries.

After a rather long wait we were on our way again continually climbing. Of course with this hard work the engine gets very thirsty, and it seems to rely on mountain streams for its supply of water. The drivers always knows where to stop. At one place I saw them filling the engine up by running the water along a piece of guttering from a stream in the rocks alongside.

The actual track is about two feet wide, that’s about a third of the width of the train, and when one looks out and sees such a tremendous drop, one wonders why on earth the whole train does not overturn and go crashing down to destruction.

The natives up in these parts are Nepalese and Tibetan mostly and the children take a delight in running alongside the train clacking two pieces of wood or bone which they hold between their fingers. Of course they do not do it for our amusement, but rather in the hopes of getting money thrown at them. [img_assist|nid=63|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=99] The first big stop was at Kurseong, a holiday resort about halfway to Darjeeling. Here, Nepalese girls were waiting to look after any belongings in the carriage, while we visited the canteen, where W.V.S. workers had some excellent sandwiches and tea for us. I returned to the carriage with my fellow passengers to find our girl faithfully looking after our belongings. An easy way to earn a little money, but by no means a way to get rich quickly. We did not wait about here long and we were soon on our way again leaving Kurseong via the main street.

We had been on this railway for four or five hours now and it was getting a bit tiring, the novelty having worn off, but we still had about twenty miles of twisting, turning and climbing to do. The highest point we reached was the stop before Darjeeling about 8,000 feet called Ghoom. Here the mist was thick and it could have been a November day in England had it been a little colder. It felt pretty cold as it was, but of course, having come straight up from the plains we were only attired for hot weather.

The rest of the journey was mostly down hill and we ran into Darjeeling about 6.30 p.m. [img_assist|nid=61|title=|desc=|link=node|align=left|width=100|height=64] Now the struggle for the luggage began. The little luggage vans were being unloaded quite quickly, but there was such a crowd of coolies and passengers around them trying to sort it out that it was a job to get near it. I had already employed the services of a boy coolie, and it was not long before I had found my tin trunk and it was on his head. We had not left the station, when my coolie was accosted by a rather young Nepalese girl who was apparently in need of a job, and seemed to think she had more right to carry my luggage than had the boy. A rather heated argument followed and the girl won. These women who live in the hills carry very heavy loads by slinging a piece of rope around whatever they want to carry and putting it on their backs with the rope over the top of their head, so that by walking in a stopping position they have part of the weight on the back and part on the head with the hands free.

As you can imagine, I felt rather self-conscious to be walking through the streets of Darjeeling with a woman carrying my luggage but I discovered later on that the women do all the carrying. It is a very common sight to see them carrying large baskets of coal in the manner I have already described.

After threading our way through streets, up steps, down steps, and along side walks, we arrived at Caroline Villa, where I soon paid my girl off and dispensed with her. It was now about 7 p.m. and I had been travelling for 27 hours, so that when Mr. Hall answered the door to me, I’m afraid I presented a rather travel worn spectacle, but I suppose every visitor arrives in a similar condition, so that I was not an exception.

I just had time to clean myself up before dinner, and soon after this I was enjoying the comfort of a spring bed, without having to bother with a mosquito net. The absence of mosquitoes is one of the pleasures of being in the hills.

Darjeeling is quite a small town, but it has many large shops, quite a number of which are run by Britishers. A large percentage of the population is British, some living there permanently, and some just spending the hot season there. This is another reason why it is so pleasant. There are two cinemas, not exactly modern, but good enough for a wet evening, I think one used to be the Town Hall. For troops there are various clubs, billiard tables, organised visits to tea gardens, pony riding and of course the magnificent mountain scenery. There are so many English and Scotch people up there that they have organised their own clubs, the chief one of which is the Gymkhana Club. Here they have their own Concert Hall, Ballroom, Tennis Courts, Roller Skating and various other pastimes. This club is now open to members of the forces. The Concert Hall being a canteen, a dance is held once a week in the Ballroom, two Tennis Courts are reserved permanently and so is the Skating rink three or four times a week. In fact the Gymkhana Club is quite popular with men on leave in Darjeeling.

The weather did its best to damp my spirits for the first few days as the whole place was shrouded in cloud and it was almost constantly drizzling. The marvellous view I had hoped to see was absolutely blotted out. When one looked down from the hillside into the thick mist, it was like being on the edge of the world with nothing whatsoever beyond. I discovered that pony riding was very popular up there and they could be hired out by the hour. As this seemed rather good way of getting around, I decided to take one out one day, having been assured that they were very quiet. I found this was so end I had a very enjoyable hour going to the top of a hill and back again. Unfortunately my pony would only turn to the right, and as part of my journey was on the edge of a precipice I did not like to get rough with it in case it got rough with me. I suppose they get fed up with so many amateurs on their backs. On the way up the hill an old man with a beard insisted on me accepting a copy of St. Luke’s gospel. Before leaving my horse I noticed its number was 176 and decided to have it again sometime.

It was not long before I was in company with two other fellows who were living in the same house and so we spent most of the time together. The weather cleared up towards the end of my leave so we were able to spend the mornings at tennis. My friends fancied pony riding so one day the three of us set off, considering myself lucky to have found number 176 again. This time it seemed to be an entirely different animal though it would only turn to the right still. All it wanted to do was stop at the aide of the road and eat grass. I had practically no control over it at all, consequently it took me on a tour of the town. I’m afraid I had the pedestrians guessing at the corners, for no matter how hard I pulled at the reins it simply tugged its head round in defiance and went the way it thought. In the end I gave up all hope on controlling it from its back and got off and led it back.

Most people visiting Darjeeling aim at seeing the sun rise over Mount Everest, which is possible from Tiger Hill a distance of seven miles, and the common practice is to hire a taxi for a party of three. The proprietor of one of the taxi stands is a very fat man and can nearly always be seen standing or sitting outside of his garages. I approached him one day about going up to Tiger Hill at daybreak, but he assured me that it was impossible to see Everest at that time of the year owing to the poor visibility, as it was a distance of over a hundred miles. Needless to say, I was very disappointed about this.

The second highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga, is almost constantly visible from Darjeeling in the clear weather, but this too was obscured from view owing to the thick mist, but towards the end of my leave I was told that it was often clear in the early morning, so one morning before breakfast, a friend and I went to the top of observatory hill, hoping for a good view. The camera that I had borrowed from a friend in camp had been practically useless till then, but I took it with me hoping to get a few snaps. We were well rewarded for our efforts, for on reaching the top of the hill, there in front of us was that part of the Himalayas known as the Sikkim Range. We were looking across the top of the clouds and the mighty mountains seemed to rise up out of them. It is a marvellous sight which has to be seen to be appreciated. One cannot do it justice on paper.

There are five famous peaks next to one another all snow-covered, the middle one being Kanchenjunga. The snaps I will be sending you are the ones I took at this particular time. These is another attraction on observatory hill in the form of a Buddhist temple. The inhabitants of Darjeeling are a mixed lot, some Tibetan, some Nepalese and some Indian and it seems that all three races worship at this temple, though I was given to understand that most Nepalese are Hindu in religion. Nepal is the state where the famous Ghurkhas come from.

So far I have paid little attention to the industry for which Darjeeling is famous, that of tea. All over the hillsides tea plantations can be seen, usually growing in terraces. The bushes reminded me of bay trees about two feet six inches high and parties of native women can be seen going round with baskets on their backs, picking just a few leaves off each bush. The local shops make a business of sending tea home for customers the same as Devonshire shops do with cream.

Well, as is usually the case with leave, the time soon went and the day came for me to make my way to the station and board that masterpiece of trains again. As I have already stated Ghoom, the first station is much higher than Darjeeling so it means quite a climb for the train. There were two trains running close to one another and I was in the front one. The poor little engine had to work very hard and when we came to a steep piece of tracks it wheels would simply fly round and just keep the train moving, with the men in front busily throwing sand on the lines. At one place the track was steep on a rather sharp bend and the engine just could not make it, so we can to a standstill. The other train was just behind us, so we had to enlist the help of that to give us a push. We were on the edge of a precipice at the time and I had visions of being pushed right over it. It came up behind us with a terrific bump and with the united efforts we reached Gloom alright.

From here onwards the journey is mostly downhill naturally, and as the hours went by, became rather monotonous, especially as it was ground I had already covered. In places the railway doubles back round under itself making a figure of eight. It was just after going round one of these that we came to a stop and two of the men from the engine went running back. The driver had lost his money bag on the figure eight.

The landslide that had given us trouble on the way up had been repaired, but where it had been, the ground was of course very new and looked very unstable, but we reached the bottom quite safely, and arrived at Siluguri after dark where the Calcutta train was waiting already packed. I managed to get on it somehow and using my tin trunk for a seat, spent a very uncomfortable night.

I hope you find this letter interesting. I have written it in bits and pieces, so please excuse the mistakes.

Your loving son,