Our early morning call got us up and we certainly didn’t hang about, but managed to be the last down to check out! Still we were early leaving the hotel and the station was only 15 minutes away.
I love railway stations, but Indian railway stations are very special. Like the streets, all life is there on the platforms and even on the tracks. People are asleep covered with a blanket like a shroud. Others are sitting having chai or just a chat. Piles of luggage are arranged as though waiting to be filmed for a Miss Marple drama and men run past pulling carts with improbably large loads. On the tracks young boys seem to be filling bottles from the water lying between the sleepers.
We were taken towards the end of the platform as the A/C first class are always closest to the engine. Presumably this is so the privileged passengers do not have to miss one note of the train’s horn which the driver blows continuously for the whole journey. It’s like being imprisoned with a three year old who has discovered Daddy’s trumpet but has yet to work out what the valves are for.
When the train arrived, and not a moment before, we got on board and found ourselves in a corridor with separate compartments of the sort much beloved by Agatha Christie and Patricia Highsmith. Peter, Glynis, Christine and I had been given the first class while the others had to slum it, however, as though to compensate, Indian Railways had allocated us seats in different compartments. The British, needless to say, formed an united front and refused to be split asunder, so we were put into a sleeping compartment and hunched on the lower bunks. We were joined by a rather bemused Indian. When the ticket collector came along he seemed quite happy for us to stay in the compartment and one of the staff raised one of the beds so that Peter and I could sit upright.
After about half an hour, tea was brought, but after Christine’s experience in southern India, we decided not to risk it. Later breakfast arrived, Kellogg’s cornflakes with boiling milk ( a new experience), vegetable cutlets with peas, carrots and runner beans. Very tasty it was. Bread and jam was provided as well all washed down with a mango drink.
We watched India speed by, read and dozed. I did get out at the first stop, but we are so far away from the main part of the train that there is little of any interest. The carriage was hermetically sealed so there was no opportunity to take pictures out of the window, or stand in the open doorway. Still watching India from a train window is always a great experience.
Lunch arrived in the form of a spicey tomato soup with bread sticks. It was delicious and we wolfed it down. Then the person who had been serving us came around for a tip. He was wearing a large badge that said not to tip him, but somehow Peter and I ended up parting with 100 rupees each. If Mark had been with us he’d have dealt with it better, I’m sure!
Our station duly arrived and we had 10 minutes to leave the train. As we entered the corridor we were nearly bowled over by Indians racing to find their seats. Peter remonstrated loudly that if they allowed us off then it would be easier for them to get on, but to no avail. I blocked the corridor with our bags, but they blocked it with their bodies creating an impasse. Eventually we reached a compromise that involved them squeezing past in one direction, while I squeezed past in the other.
On the platform porters grabbed our bags and swung them onto their heads and we walked across long footbridges to the car park where our vehicles were waiting. Women with children on their hips proved to be very insistent beggars, even banging on the window to get our attention. They left empty handed I’m afraid.
Our drivers all look about 16 except for one who is absolutely massive – we’ll over 6 foot. The next two and a half hours were certainly memorable, as like most Indian drivers, they drove as though they were at Brands Hatch. At first we rode through flat farmland, but then the hills loomed ahead and we started to climb. I thought the roads around Dharamshala and Shimla were scary, well these are a notch above, particularly when being driven on by highly skilled maniacs.
These mountain roads are incredible. In a space where there is only about 6 feet of room they manage to cram in a road, a railway, a deep drain and is the a shop either side. The Darjeeling Railway which we are going on tomorrow runs alongside the road, criss-crossing it up the mountain. We saw two trains coming down as we went up. At one point we stopped for toilets and a cup of tea. The latter was not forthcoming as apparently the cafe owner couldn’t be bothered to serve us! On we climbed, breathing in as gaps barely big enough for one car suddenly accommodated two. Christine fell sound asleep and eventually even I nodded off, abandoning myself to karma, fate, kismet, whatever you want to call it.
By now it was foggy and raining, but that did nothing to slow our drivers down. Then we were in Darjeeling and squeezing down an even narrower road to our amazing hotel. Built in 1880 as a colonial house it soon passed into Indian ownership and eventually became a heritage hotel. Outdoor pictures will have to wait as it is still raining, but believe me it is sheer luxury!