It was a long slow train trip from Varanasi to Siliguri (the starting point for the trip up the mountain to Darjeeling) - from 11am to 7am the next morning! We arrived feeling very tired and were immediately surrounded by touts, all trying to pull us towards their jeep for the 5 hour trip to Darjeeling. I lost my cool and ended up shouting at them all to go away (after 5 months in India it was only the second time I've done this - a pretty good record I think). They all retreated hastily but over the next half an hour gradually circled us again. We negotiated a price to share a jeep with another couple for the trip. The jeeps are used as buses - 10 people each pay 120 rupees - and they are crammed in. We paid 400 a couple and the driver deserved every cent of it - it was a very rough trip over a terrible road. In fact it was one of the worst roads we had traveled on - a fact which surprised us greatly due to it's destination, one of the premier tourist areas in India. We drove carefully around a lot
of landslides, a couple which had occurred during the night before. Most of the time the road and railway line (used by the famous toy train) were side by side. The closer we got to Darjeeling the heavier the traffic became until it was a long traffic jam of jeeps all using their horns to drive! The trip was scenically very pretty - terraces of tea plantations and deep green valleys, though it was shrouded in fog a lot of the time. Fog we were to realise is very normal in Darjeeling at this time of the year.
The driver dropped us at the railway station and from there we had to pull our luggage uphill to find a hotel in the centre of town. As usual when we arrive in a new place we had no idea how far or in which direction to head. Neither of us is brilliant at reading maps when we first arrive anywhere - we seem to need to spend a few hours orientating ourselves first!
I had phoned a hotel but we couldn't find it and none of the locals seemed to know where it was either as it had only recently opened.
We then booked into another one, but moved next day as we didn't realise that it was next to the clock tower which chimed the hour at a frighteningly loud level! We found our first hotel just around the corner and up the hill next day! We then moved into it and it proved to be an excellent choice - The Tranquillity Hotel - 400 rupees ($12 AUD) for a room with a mountain view, hot water all the time and cable TV. The lady who owned it was very kind - she made us breakfast and bought it to our room when it was pouring with rain (there was no restaurant), kept bringing me cups of ginger tea (I had developed a cold from the freezing air conditioning on the train) and made us a special Diwali breakfast the morning we left.
From our bedroom window we had a fabulous view of the mountains and the first thing we did each morning was pull the curtains aside to see them - by breakfast most mornings the clouds had started to cover them and we didn't see them again till next morning. We never got tired of seeing the mountains!
We spent our time quietly in Darjeeling - every morning we would walk through the back streets to Glengarry's (a bakery/ restaurant) for breakfast where we would sit until the clouds covered the mountain tops. We walked around the many 'malls' - wide walking paths which wound around the town. They were lined with mossy walls and were very pleasant to walk along. From one area we had fabulous views of the ranges and of course many glimpses of the tea plantations which surrounded the town. One morning we found ourselves on top of Observatory Hill, the site of a monastery that Darjeeling was named after. Today devotees of both the Hindu and Buddhist religion pray there and it was odd to see the many thousands of strings of prayer flags tied to Hindu religious statues. There were many people praying and ringing the numerous prayer bells as they circuited the site. Every day we could hear the chant of Buddhist prayers coming over the centre square but couldn't find a monastery nearby. Eventually we traced the sound to a local hall where a larger groups of monks was attending a conference!
We were planning on spending a few days
in Sikkim and to go there we needed permits, which are freely given out but a bit of a process to get. It involved going to two offices which were quite a way apart. Doing that took up most of another day - we got lost in between exploring more of the back streets. Another day we walked through heavy mist to the Himalayan Zoo where we spent a great morning looking at the animals. We loved seeing the majesty of the snow leopards - they have really thick tails - and saw a cloud leopard which we had never heard of before. The zoo has a very successful snow leopard breeding programme. Other animals that were fun to watch were the red pandas - we were fascinated with them when we saw them last in China. Part of the zoo complex is made up of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which includes the cremation area of Tenzing Samadhi and a statue to commemorate him. There was a fascinating display in the museum attached - exhibits about all the early attempts at climbing Mt Everest. They were brave (or foolish) men - they climbed with very basic equipment! From there we
walked - it was a long way - to the Tibetan Refugee village where we watched the residents wood carving, carpet making and weaving. I love the stripey aprons that the Tibetan ladies wear over their tunic style dresses - they are woven in narrow strips of multi coloured 'stripes and then sewn together. We caught a taxi back to the main square that day - we had done our fill of walking, though we missed the turnoff into the narrow street to our hotel in the heavy fog and ended up walking a long way before we realisedhe fog was very heavy by that stage. Next day was miserable - very wet and cold - so we barely left the hotel room. I was fighting a cold I had got from the freezing air conditioning in the train from Varanasi so was very happy to stay in. Breakfast wasn't provided at the hotel but our lovely land lady bought all her guests breakfast to their rooms that morning as it was just too nasty to go out. Later in the day we ventured down to Glengarry's for a glass of wine and a platter of sizzling vegetables!.
Weaving the traditional striped Tibetan apron patterns.
These strips are sewn together to form a sqaure of multi coloured stripes.
the main square was packed with Bengali holiday makers - it was very similar to what we saw in Shimla - the ponies would be giving rides, people selling balloons and fairy floss, and the tourists checking out the shops and market stalls which lined the lanes going to the square. Glittery shawls and woolen jumpers seemed to be the main items people were buying. All a lot of fun to watch.
Next day the weather was so much better - though again we spent the day quietly reading and walking. We visited the school for handicapped students where Jane spent 3 months working a volunteer - it was first day of school and a lot of the children had still not returned from holidays. It was a poor school by Australian standards but I'm sure much better off then many other schools in the region.
Next day we caught a taxi to Ghoom (yet again we got caught in a traffic jam as Ghoom is on the main road up the hill) to visit the monastery there. A nice old building built in 1860 though b y the time we arrived there the fog had settled down again. From
Ghoom we walked back towards Darjeeling to visit the Basai Loop which is a circular part of the train line (made famous by the Himalayan Railway toy train - the rail line is only 2 foot wide and was constructed in 1881 - it was recently listed on the UNESCO world heritage list). At Basai Loop there is also a war memorial to the famous Gurkha soldiers. When we were at the memorial the toy train steamed in - we had been debating about having a trip on it - but whilst we were watching it we were both burnt by cinders from it's chimney so decided that we didn't really want to spend a few hours on it with them blowing constantly at us. The steam train only does short trips though a diesel engine uses the track to come up from near Siliguri - and that trip is very long - eight hours!
On the way home we passed a shed - for some reason I read the sign on it out loud - it was the Basia Quarry office. We had just walked past it when there was an enormous explosion - and we both were nearly
hit with flying tin sheets. It gave us and all the people around an enormous fright - obviously something stored in the shed exploded.
Whilst we were in Darjeeling we visited two of the historic hotels - one evening we had drinks in the faded splendor of the Windermere Hotel which was set above the town - another evening we had high tea at the lovely Elgin Hotel. Both were thoroughly enjoyable but after our taste of luxury we were still quiet happy to go back to the Tranquility Hotel. Whilst we were in Darjeeling it was the 2nd anniversary of the foundation to form an independent state of Gorkhaland (Darjeeling area, Sikkim and some of the surrounding smaller states are trying desperately to break away from Bengal) The Gorkhaland area is mainly made up of Nepalese and Tibetan people who are very different from the West Bengali's. The town was strung with green, white and yellow banners and every building had Gorkaland flags hanging from them. It is a very strong movement - time will tell whether they ever receive independence. One of the things they were complaining about was the state of their roads - they contribute a
large amount of money to West Bengal and see very little of it spent in their area.
We really enjoyed our five nights in Darjeeling - so much that we had decided to return for the Diwali (festival of light) celebration after our six days in Sikkim We had hired a jeep and driver to take us into the mountainous state of Sikkim and were really looking forward to it!
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