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Published: February 9th 2011
Darjeeling used to be the main British hill top retreat when the Raj was ruled from Calcutta. From here they could manage the empire during the stifling heat of the Indian summer. And my what a spot they picked! Situated in the north-east of the country, up high in the hills with magnificent views of the Himalayas, and rolling tea plantations covering the hillsides, it is one of my favourite spots in Asia.
It is like a different country compared to the rest of India, more like Tibet or Nepal. Many Tibetan refugees fled here when China annexed Tibet, and Nepali workers used to tend to the plantations, so an interesting cultural diversity exists here. Darj is clean and spacious (no dust and it even had bins!), has some beautiful guest houses, and the people were polite and friendly in the markets (no arm grabbing or offended looks if you didn’t visit their stall or shop). The women were dressed in more westernized clothing and were very easy on the eye.
“Inconvenience caused is deeply regretted”, the intercom kept repeating…
Our train from Varanasi to Darjeeling (well you can’t go direct you need to head
They also found the wait for the train a bit long
to NJP and get a connecting jeep ride for 3 hours) was meant to take about 15 hours (from 9pm to 12 noon), but got severely delayed. It was 4 hours late picking us up (so it arrived at 1am in the morning), and then was a further 12 hours late so we arrived at NJP at 4am…..great! This is standard fair in India, and even at 16 hours delayed was nowhere near our biggest delay later in the trip. This is one of the main reasons that tight schedules are impossible in India.
Luckily we had made friends with an inquisitive, eccentric Indian guy on the train ride, called Wangel, and he managed to organize a jeep to Darjeeling even at this ungodly hour! We met 3 other fellow travelers headed for Darj and buddied up for a jeep ride up the big hill. Wangel wanted to meet up with us the following day and show us around his hometown. He also introduced me to my favourite chocolate biscuits over here ‘Hide and Seek’, though they didn’t hide from me for long once I got that packet opened.
We arrived in Darj at 7am and the whole place was in lockdown. Unlike the rest of India which never sleeps, Darj is like a ghost town until 9am…and I was HUNGRY! The lads we had met had prebooked a different guesthouse to us, but ours looked completely closed, so knackered tired we went to theirs instead, called Hotel Dekeling. The lovely Tibetan lady who ran the guest house was mad for a chat and was more of a mother than a manager and it proved to be an excellent lazy choice of ours, and whilst we waited for the checkouts and our room to be cleaned the lovely lady gave us free tea and biscuits! I could be right at home here…The atmosphere in the lounge was excellent for making friends, huddled around a warm boiler, and the buffet breakfast got us ready for all our activities.
Tribute to Tenzing
In the morning, myself, Rich and our hostel buddy Joe, met up with our Indian buddy Wangel, who brought us to a small zoo, which happened to contain the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, established by Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary’s climbing partner to the summit
The Zoo was small, but had a wide array of animals ranging from turtles and pheasants, to wolves and tigers! My favourite was the cute red panda, but the tigers and leopards were as impressive as always. Some rather disappointing sections let the zoo down, like the ‘aquarium’ which was just a fish tank with some goldfish, but overall it was an enjoyable wander for an hour or two.
The main attraction in the zoo for me was the Himalayan Climbing Institute. The Institute had a fascinating mix of mountain memorabilia (even some from that historic Everest trek in 1953), photos, dioramas and equipment. An impressive statue to commemorate Tenzing takes centerpiece in the complex, and stands as a fitting tribute to an amazingly tough man who was a hero and role model for a generation of young Sherpa’s.
At the time I was reading a great book my friend Kevin got for me by Edmund Hillary, so I was absorbed in the museum for quite some time. One part had a model of the Himalayan range and the water relief ways, and
it was interesting to see where the Annapurna’s, that we had climbed around a month previous, lay in relation to Everest, and all the major rivers around India, Nepal and Tibet. A lot of old equipment used on major climbs was on display, and it was quite evident how poor some of the old equipment looked in comparison to modern gear. Yet a further testament to the formidable strength and skill of the climbers during mid part of the 20th century.
Ambassadors for a Day
The following day Wangel invited me and Rich to his hometown of Kurseong for dinner with his family and a tour of his town. Indian people can be so generous and inviting if you give them the chance to earn your trust. We met Wangels lovely family, his mother who prepared a fine, traditional thali feast for us, and his two lovely sisters, his little sister in particular was most interested in us. A hilarious moment happened during the meal, when Richard knocked his plate, food first, right onto the floor while trying to cut some chicken…26 years and we still can’t do some things right haha!
After din dins we visited Wangel’s friend Pinky’s house and had tea and biscuits with her family, whilst overlooking the tea plantations. Irish ambassadors on tour…now this is the life. Afterwards, we climbed up to a favourite viewpoint of Wangels during his youth, to the top of a hill which should have had epic views all around but a thick mist hung in the valley spoiling the view. Drats! We did get to see a Gurkha war memorial though, which was a fine memorial to the hardy Gurkha soldiers in the British Army.
We had left it a tad late getting our bus back to Darjeeling, and despite there being about 20 people looking for a lift back, after an hour of waiting we had made no progress, still no public busses up here. Some local entrepreneurs were looking for exorbitant prices to get us back so we weighed up our options. We either had to pay a lot of money to get back, stay the night and try in the morning, or walk back the steep 30km over around 7 hours in the dark on a windy road. Rich for some reason
wanted to walk, but there was no way I was going 7 hours in the dark on a dangerous hill side road. Just before we were about to give up and check out a guest house, a middle aged Indian man took me by the elbow and pulled me away from the crowd. He said to me that we are guests in his country and are very important for Darjeeling, and he would give us a lift back to Darj as he and his wife had hired a driver. SWWEEEETTT! Yet again a perfect stranger had saved our ass, out of selflessness! Myself and Rich are now severely indebted to the bank of karma.
Choo Choo Train
The next day we wanted to go on the old steam train that noisily chugs along parallel to the hill road. I love steam engines, as I was a big fan of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ back in the day, and the whhhoooootttt sound when they blow the horn made me feel 5 years old all over again. Unfortunately Richard got a spot of food poisoning and had to sit this one out😞 I went with two of
my hostel buddies, Joe and Ahmed, and climbed aboard the ‘toy train’, as the steam train is affectionately known, full of glee. Head out the window like a happy puppy, I listened to the huff and puff of the engine, and got my hair full of soot 😊 Cute little local kids waved at the train as it winded its way through all the little towns on our route.
We had a 10 minute stop at a war memorial for the British Gurkhas, who are renound for their toughness, and who gave up their lives during the great wars. After, the track makes a series of switchbacks and loops to gain momentum in some steep parts and at one point had to stop and build up a big head of steam to puff its way up a climb. I was stoked! Whooot whhhhooooooott. We arrived in the town of Ghum, just after a big double loop called the Batasia loop, after about an hour or so and explored the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway museum. Ghum is the highest railway station in India at 2257m, and we explored the museum for about a half hour before we
had to return. What a great day
The next morning myself and Ahmed went to explore the town and find another one of the Japanese peace pagodas, like the one we found in Pokhara, Nepal. There are 30 scattered around the world, and it would be quite an interesting trip to see all 30 - Peace Pagodas
. The pagodas are strikingly elegant in their simplicity, and also have some fine carvings closer up, and provide a good view of the local area. Well worth the hike.
Happy Valley=Happy Tea
Afterwards Rich, Joe and I went to explore one of the local tea plantations. After a walk down ‘Hooker Road’, we found the ‘Happy Valley’ tea estate. After a quick tour of the processing facilities and a hands moment with the tea leaves, we got to have a fantastic cup of Darj’s finest. A lovely, eccentric tea lady prepared our tea, and taught us all about the different grades of tea. The best tea comes from the top buds on the branch, and Harrods in England choose this very tea plantation for their finest tea. Why is it the best
Myself, Canadian guy, Joe and Rich
tea we were asked? Because its Happy Tea😊 Super Fine Golden Tippy Orange Picky Number One I think the jingle went! Amazing that I drink so much tea and never knew that the leaves come from a simple looking bush.
Another morning, we all got up early to head up to Tiger Hill and enjoy a sunrise with views of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. It was very cold, but a little tea stall warmed us up and sold the best little pineapple cakes ever. A fairly thick mist hung in the valley, but the tips of the mountains broke through the cover, and the golden rays of sun lit up the clouds which looked like a vast golden blanket.
Later that evening a ‘We love Darj’ festival was on in the main square, with rock bands and theatre style performances. It was hard to argue with them… I love Darj! It was great to see an entire community in love with their little town. They even had 'I
Darj is so awesome in fact that they want to break away from
India and form ‘Gurkhaland’ along with a few other neighboring areas. A few peaceful protests took place while we were in town, and it’s easy to see why they want to break away… it’s just better you know. Hopefully the protests remain peaceful, and this lovely area doesn’t suffer from separatist violence in the future, but we did see the whole area ground to a halt for one such protest, so worryingly it seems to be gathering momentum.
Next stop Calcutta, now called Kolkata.
I love Darj
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