Delightful Darjeeling!

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January 15th 2007
Published: January 15th 2007EDIT THIS ENTRY

Sanskrit UniversitySanskrit UniversitySanskrit University

This building dates to the 18th century, or so I'm told. It is part of the massive Benares Hindu University, Varanasi.
11th January 2007, Varanasi

After a late start and some delicious cheesecake, Andrew and I took possibly the bumpiest auto-rickshaw ride ever to the fort of the Benares (Varanasi) Royal Family. While the castle itself does not architecturally rival any of the others we have seen, it does have an interesting museum of cars, weaponry, ivory carving and paintings which belonged to the royal family.

After some negotiating with our rickshaw driver, we then went to the Benares Hindu University, a large and prestigious university with beautiful buildings and gardens. In particular we visited the magnificent on-campus Shiva temple, and the 18th-century Sanskrit University.

Afterwards we also visited the Sri Durga Temple in Varanasi, mainly because I just adore monkeys and I had heard that there were over 100 monkeys residing there. Unfortunately I didn't see any monkeys, however the beautiful temple was well worth a visit. If you are thinking of visiting this temple, be aware of the pushy "priests" who will try to bless you and then quite unashamedly demand 100 - rupee notes.

At 11pm, after a chilly wait at the train station, we boarded our train for New Jaipulguri station. The NJP station
Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, DarjeelingTibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, DarjeelingTibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, Darjeeling

A truly inspirational place, this centre includes a workshop, retail facility, orphanage and school, as well as lots of interesting information about Tibet. We bought lots of goodies to help the cause.
is about a three hour jeep ride from Darjeeling, which we arranged through the hotel.

12th January 2007

After arriving over one hour late to NJP station / Siliguri, we took a stunning three hour ascent through the mountains to Darjeeling, which is a beautiful hill station at 2,134m above sea level. Typical Indian-looking people are in the minority in this area, with large populations of rosy-cheeked Tibetans and Nepalis forming the majority.

Our driver was a lovely 38-year old Nepali-Catholic-Indian named Jason who told us stories about Darjeeling and his life. Many people in Darjeeling, he said, get married at age 16 or 17, and, he proudly added, "they are ALL love marriages." Jason himself got married at 16 - but his own parents and his young wife's parents wanted them both to complete their educations and forced them to divorce, on the agreement that they could still see each other. Eight years later they were remarried with their parents' blessing and now have two children aged 6 and 3, respectively a girl (named Madeleine!) and a boy. Three years ago Jason handed over the killer involved in the Hannah Foster case - he had driven the man around several times and hand noticed a distinctive scar on his top lip which matched the photos in the paper. Furthermore the killer would get up at 4am daily and buy every national and international paper, and, after having studied those, would trawl the internet for hours. Jason contacted the Indian police who contacted the British police who proceeded to arrest the killer and give Jason a hefty reward. Jason used the money to build a school in Darjeeling which now has over 90 students and is staffed mainly by volunteer teachers. Jason himself used to get up at 4am (and his mother at 3am to cook) to walk three hours to school in the morning, and 2.5 hours home again at night. This is because his school was the closest free school (note: this whole area is known for its prestigious English-style boarding schools, however). Now, there is a free school in Darjeeling.

During much of the ascent we followed the Toy Train tracks, which frequently crossed from one side of the road to the other. The gauge is extremely narrow - perhaps only a foot. We passed the Ghum railway station, a world heritage site, which was built by the British Raj and was once the world's most elevated train station (and is now the second). The toy train still operates today and I think I read somewhere it is the only of the toy trains in India that still runs on steam (i.e. not converted to diesel).

Eventually we entered the stunning British-established hill station of chilly Darjeeling, surrounded by lush forest and dramatic mountain faces, dotted with tea plantations and gorgeous British buildings. The temperature at 3pm was 6 degrees. Darjeeling is a strangely peaceful place - I say strange because it is India, after all - and yet, you could be mistaken for thinking you were in Tibet or Nepal here. Flowing sarees are largely replaced by jeans and jumpers. Hinduism seems secondary to Buddhism. Kali and Ganesh idols make way for prayer flags and bells. Brown Indian faces are largely replaced by fairer red-cheeked Nepali and Tibetan faces. Oddly there are no cows, and, thank goodness, dogs are kept affectionately as pets and not abused as they are elsewhere. We saw a pair of dogs that we thought might be Border Collies but we thought, no, they couldn't be, as we hadn't seen any pure bred dogs in India - but then we laughed as we saw the two dogs going beserk over a monkey, and trying to round it up - and we thought, yes they are Border Collies! No other dog I've seen in India could care less about all the monkeys! Above all else though, the Darjeeling-ites love potplants and badminton. Furthermore, most here I've met speak four languages - Chinese (or some variant of it), Nepali, Hindi and English.

Our first port of call after getting to Darjeeling was to settle into our lovely hotel and dress WARM (anyone who knows me knows I HATE COLD!) I wore thick woollen tights under jeans and knee high socks; thermal long sleeved top under normal long sleeved top under Polartec fleece (thickest fleece I've ever seen!) under soft shell Gortex (a stupidly expensive but totally impenetrable material, by either wind or water), with gloves, beanie and scarf for good measure!

We then visited the Tibetan Refugee self-help center (see photo).

13th January 2007, Darjeeling

Up early at 4am, my travel alarm telling me it was 12 deg. in our room! The four of us, plus an Australian we met the night before, met at 4:30am for our transfer to Tiger Hill. From Tiger Hill, near Darjeeling, you can sometimes view the 7 highest peaks in the world, including Everest, but you do need luck on your side, especially at this time of year.

As we ascended the slippery roads under the starry night sky, I was pleased that the windows were iced over so I couldn't see the ice on the road. Because most of the jeeps were driving with high beams on (regardless of whether any car was oncoming) I noticed they dip their lights to tell each other when they are overtaking.

Eventually we found ourselves in the viewing lounge, stomping and rubbing to keep warm. Andrew, as usual, was very on the ball and found no-one was on the open deck beneath us, and so the two of us went down for a better view. It was extremely cold but there was thankfully no wind.

The first light of the approaching sunrise revealed a row of ice-capped Himalayan mountains reflecting blue light, including the stunning Khangchendzonga, which is really the main attraction (as Everest is more distant). Khangchendzonga
Andrew at sunriseAndrew at sunriseAndrew at sunrise

Andrew is very proud of his newly acquired super-colourful hat.
is the highest Indian peak, at 8585 metres, and the world's third highest mountain (Everest is 8848m). As the light level increased, the ice-capped mountains reflected pink then orange. As the first ember-red glimpse of the sun was visible, the crowd broke into a cheer. Finally, against all the odds, a divine crystal-clear, post-card worthy view of all the peaks could be seen, including a distant Mount Everest. It was truly spectacular.

After a chilly ride back to the hotel (driver's window down to stop the windows fogging), we went back to bed with the provided hot water bottled, and ate our yummy complimentary breakfast. We then fell asleep until midday.

Later we visited the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological park, and the adjoining Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. On the way, Cliff explained to our taxi driver that the supposedly lucky Ganesh Hindu god had brought us nothing but bad luck. The driver was truly horrified and, wide-eyed, he told us firmly, no, Ganesh is very very lucky. Cliff said no, he is not lucky, we are thinking of trying Krishna. The driver finally convinced us to give Ganesh one more try.

At the zoo, many animals had decent-sized enclosures, however all the big cats looked very bored, just pacing up and down in their cages. The excursion was really enjoyable, and we saw Siberian tigers, leopards, Himalayan black bears, red pandas, snow leopards, leopard cats, grey Langhoor monkeys and Tibetan wolves. The wolves were really friendly and tried to jump up to us for pats. The leopard cat is the same size as and closely resembles domestic cats, except that they have a leopard print. The leopard cat made me miss my cat, Mitchy.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is a highly prestigious training center for mountaineers and was founded in 1954. Tenzing Norgay, who climbed Mount Everest with Sir Edmund HJilary and finally reached the summit on 29th May 1953, was from Darjeeling and lived most of his life here, directing the institute until his death. Tenzing was cremated on the grounds of the institute, where his memorial stands. The 2 museums on the premises are very interesting and memorabilia includes the flags (British and Indian) erected by TN and EH at the summit on 29/5/53, and the tiny boots designed for the explorer Raymond Lambert who lost his toes in a 1952 expedition.

Afterwards we
Tibetan WolfTibetan WolfTibetan Wolf

Zoo, Darjeeling
did a "little" shopping, though I had to ban myself from this activity after purchasing my fifth pair of shoes for the day! (Andrew later asked me, with a twinkle in his eye, "Where exactly are you going to put these shoes in your luggage?" "I don't know" I said. "I thought that was the answer." he said. I then said "Can I put them in your pack?" but Andrew said no.)

14th January 2007, Darjeeling

Lauren and I both woke up with headcolds - Lauren's a bit worse than mine, so she decided to go back to bed. Evidently Andrew had suffered a stroke overnight, because in spite of the near-zero temperatures he decided to go white water rafting. Cliff decided to go too, leaving me with time to myself.

I walked to the taxi stand and negotiated a fare for a taxi to drive me around to whatever attractions I wanted to see for a few hours. First we stopped for petrol, which is outrageously expensive here, at 50 rupees, or about AUS $1.50, per litre. Of course, wages are dramatically lower here than in Australia and so the pumps are calibrated to fill extremely slowly, so slow, in fact, that you can count to five in between 1-litre intervals (e.g. three to four litres). Most of the taxi drivers only put in about 2 - 3 litres at a time, costing approximately half the fare you have negotiated with them. With this in mind, I tip them generously.

First I visited the Japanese Peace Pagoda, a Buddhist facility to represent, as its name suggests, peace. I also visited the colourful Druk Sangak Choling Monastery, full of young student monks. I also went to the Yiga Choling Monastery, built in 1850 and housing a beautiful shrine with murals and Tibetan texts and a 5m statue of Buddha. I also visited the Samten Choling Monastery.

After my cold got worse I took a two hour nap and then caught up with that cold-enduring boyfriend of mine. He had an amazing time, although a cold time, traveling to Sikkim by river (which normally requires a special permit) down a crystal clear blue-green river. After finishing his 3.5 hour trip, they got out of the river, and warmed themselves by the fire ( to quote Cliff "I have never been so happy to see burning tires in my life"). The boys were also offered prostitutes which I thought was funny (Andrew and I were also offered heroin in Varanasi, so nothing really surprises me!)

Andrew and Cliff went to the pub, so I spent the time between 8pm and 11pm rotating Andrew's clothes in front of the electric heater and then finally fell asleep.

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