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Reaching the Lofty Heights of India by 'Toy Train'

September 28, 1986|ALAN G. ODDIE | Oddie is a Santa Monica free-lance writer.

DARJEELING, India — With its feet in the clouds and its eyes on Kanchenjunga, the 28,146-foot Himalayan peak that's third highest in all the world, the town of Darjeeling is a shining jewel in the necklace of India.

But like any self-respecting Shangri-La, this aerie on the eastern edge of Nepal is not the easiest place to reach. The closest airport is Bagdogra, to which Indian Airlines will fly you from Delhi or Calcutta.

At the airport, a soldier sweating under a ceiling fan will endorse your passport with a special visa to supplement the one you already have for the rest of India. It's required because Darjeeling is in full view of China and less than 50 miles from three other frontiers. The special visa grants you a 15-day lease on paradise. You still have to get here, an adventure in itself.

The famous "toy train," riding its narrow-gauge rail at a giddy 7 m.p.h., will haul you up the mountain in eight hours. The ride costs $9 first class. En route, you can watch monkeys in the trees, buy snacks from shops a few feet from the train and wave to the more swift (but duller) traffic on the road.

You board the train at New Jalpaiguri, 20 minutes by taxi from Bagdogra Airport. Choice No. 2 is a three-hour taxi trip all the way to the top. It costs $17 and, at that price, don't let the driver cram another five or six people on top of you. Taxi stuffing is a favorite Darjeeling sport, the official record being 170 Gurkhas in a Land Rover.

Third choice is the special bus that meets the Calcutta plane, covers the 56 miles in 3 1/2 hours and makes a welcome tea stop at Kurseong, two-thirds of the way up. The fare is $10.

Mechanical problems, rail strikes and heavy rains that wash out road or track are among the hazards the journey is heir to. You have a fourth choice. A British tour guide in Kashmir claims to have made the Darjeeling-Bagdogra trip on foot in three days--down, not up.

No matter how you go, the noise, dust, heat and tension of the Indian plains will slide away as you climb the mountain. The air grows cooler and cleaner, the vegetation greener, the people you pass smile more readily.

Not that the taxi ride is relaxing or quiet. Far from it. If Indian drivers were forced to choose between an engine and a horn for their vehicles, they'd go for the horn every time. As for springs and shock absorbers, they don't appear to be standard equipment.

Catch the 8 a.m. plane from Delhi and the taxi will have you at the summit in time for tea, Darjeeling tea, of course. Enjoy it on the patio of the Windamere hotel while you gaze in awe at the clouds, boiling and simmering in the brilliant blue crucible of the sky.

It's a show you'll never tire of, and one that changes from minute to minute, sometimes taking a break when the clouds step down off the stage, move in on their audience, and wrap the town in their damp embrace.

Watching the towering cumulonimbus climb skyward like genies from a bottle, you'll understand the why of Darjeeling. The name means, the Mountain of the Holy Thunderbolt.

There are other hotels where you could stay, including the incomparable Oberoi. But you'll find no better value than the Windamere, where owner Mrs. Smith will see that you have a delightful room cared for by a smiling house mother, three deliciously cooked and elegantly served meals, and access to the lounge and bar where you can swap tall travel tales with fellow guests. All this for $40 a day for two.

Now that you're monarch of the mountain, what next? If your previous stop was Calcutta, Srinagar or any other Indian city, sit back and enjoy the cool quiet and the unhurried pace. Then if your feet get itchy, and trekking is your cup of tea, you can get as serious as you like to the point, even, of heading for Everest base camp. If that seems too much like work, try some tamer treks around town. But anywhere you go from the Windamere is down, with one exception. On a hill above the hotel, 10 minutes up and five down, is a Buddhist temple. Even if temples don't interest you, try this walk as a test of the gradients you must contend with in Darjeeling's rarefied, 7,000-foot air.

If you pass, you're ready for a mini-trek to the Happy Valley Tea Estate where, if the season is right and the day isn't Monday, you can watch the fine art of picking and processing tea. Return by way of the Mountaineering Institute, which has a modest museum of Everest climbing gear. On the same hill is the, well, modest zoo, having a matching entry fee of just 9 cents.

The soaring, snowy peaks of Kachenjunga, Lord of Five Treasures, keep revealing themselves unexpectedly at a bend in the road or from the balcony of the cafe where you sip your morning coffee.

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