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Published: April 15th 2012
From the moment we got into our jeeps at Siliguri station the journey to Darjeeling felt like the start of a new adventure, Darjeeling promised to be different to anything we had experienced thus far and there’s something about being in a crappy Tata jeep with an insane Indian driver and cheesy Bangra playing at full volume that gets the adrenaline pumping. The ride to Darjeeing took around 4 hours, most of which was spent climbing up hill on very narrow, switch back roads which clung to the side of the hill by their very finger tips, it was often best not to look out of the window as potential death seemed to lay around every corner, this was not a road that you would want your driver to misjudge. It became apparent very quickly why we could not drive the truck up to Darjeeling, to do so would not just be suicidal, the roads were so steep and narrow that it would simply not be possible. As we climbed the 2000m to Darjeeling we felt the temperature drop, however it was not until we got out of our jeeps upon arrival that we really felt it. For the past few
months 35 degree + heat had been the norm, however Darjeeling on that day was grey, misty and a very upsettingly cold 5 degrees, for the first time since Rajasthan I saw steam clouds when I breathed, a very unwelcome sight. Many of the group were not prepared for the cold, indeed I wasn’t either, my initial reaction to this unfamiliar chilliness was wow, this sucks, can we go back down to the warm please? However, I had been looking forward to Darjeeling for a long time and knew that in reality it had great things in store for me, I just needed to buy some warm clothes, get warm (or warmer) and stop being such a whinny bitch.
Our hotel room seemed colder than outside and with no central heating I knew it was not going to get warmer any time soon, as such after dropping my bags I quickly left the room and headed to the first street stall I found and bought a warm hat (one those silly ones they sell at the German market in Birmingham) and some gloves, all for the princely sum of 2 gbp, wow Darjeeling is cheap, great! It
became apparent at the group meeting that evening that almost everyone else had done the same thing as we all turned up wearing the same style hat, albeit with slightly different colour/pattern variations. Some of the girls had gone even further and had come back with what looked like a complete winters clothes collection, impressive shopping given that they only had around 1 and a half hours to buy it all, but then again these girls are pro’s, you know who you are! We ate a group meal that evening in a lovely restaurant just across from our hotel and low and behold it was like everywhere else in Darjeeling bloody freezing! I don’t think I have ever eaten in a restaurant before (even in the Alps) where people have kept their coats, hats and in some instances gloves on, still it was an amusing experience! Chilled to the bone I went to bed that evening under several blankets, fully clothed and with a hot water bottle which the hotel staff had kindly put in all of our beds. Despite suffering from mild hypothermia I felt happy to be in Darjeeling, for the first time since before Chennai the trip
A rather shocking poster at the Tibetan self help centre
I guess this highlights jsut how desperate some Tibetans have become.
felt like a holiday again and I was very much looking forward to the next few days.
At this point I guess I should mention that my blog will be a whole lot more positive and cheerful than the Chennai - Calcutta entries, the reason being that this section of the tour (Darjeeling – Kathmandu) was awesome whereas the previous was in all honesty rather lame. Those of you that have read my blog (I know of at least 2!) may be thinking that I am just a whinny little whinge bag, but I can assure you that the whining is over! Well not completely of course, I do love to have a little whine from time to time, however please believe me when I say that the outlook from this point forward is a whole lot more positive. For the time being anyway.
The weather was much better when I woke up on my first day in Darjeeling, there was still a heavy mist hanging over the hills but there was some decent sunlight on the town and the temperature was significantly warmer. For the past few months and certainly past few weeks
I had been cooped up in the back of the truck and had little chance to exercise, as such I decided that whilst in Darjeeling I would walk everywhere even if this meant several hours of knee crunching, sweat inducing walking on the steep and unforgiving local roads/paths. As it turns out I didn’t really have a choice as you can only reach most of the places I wished to visit in Darjeeling by foot, but let’s not let that minor fact ruin the very admirable nature of my ‘by foot only’ pledge.
We started off day one in Darjeeling by heading to the Tibetan self help centre, we got hopelessly lost along the way but fortunately a very kind man went out of his way to show us the correct way, what was even better was that he didn’t seem to expect anything back in return, he was just doing it out of goodwill! I have over time become accustomed to the Indian practice of charging a fee for well anything you can think of and in all honesty it had no longer come to bother me as I understand that people and are just trying
to make a little extra money to top up their usually very meagre salaries. However, it was a really nice surprise to be helped by someone who didn’t expect anything in return. This fee free goodwill would become a running theme in Darjeeling. Getting to the Tibetan self help centre was a seriously difficult task, well signposted it was not and we required the directional assistance of many helpful locals before we finally arrived. The Tibetan self help centre is essentially a place where Tibetan refugees can come and live and work. The idea is that the centre provides the Tibetans not only shelter but also the means to make a living, usually this is done through some sort of craft e.g. rug making. The centre also acts as an educational awareness centre on the plight of Tibet/Tibetans whilst under Chinese control. We met a Tibetan refugee who had been living at the centre for 45 years, he spoke to us at length about what life was like in Tibet when he lived there and what conditions are like these days, unfortunately it sounds like things have gotten worse and are still continuing to do so currently. A poignant symbol
of just how helpless and desperate the Tibetans feel was shown in a poster displayed at the centre which stated “Freedom: No choice only self immolation” and bore a picture of a man in flames, sad and desperate times indeed. It was hard not to feel angry and saddened by what we saw and heard, sadly I don’t think things will improve anytime soon if ever, China seems determined to destroy Tibetan culture and I can’t imagine anyone standing up to stop them.
After the Tibetan self help centre we decided to visit Darjeeling Zoo, the unbelievably confusing and inaccurate map we were using to navigate showed the zoo as being close to the Tibetan centre so we thought it should be pretty easy to get there. Immediately upon leaving the centre we realised that we were surrounded by around 2 and a half million paths and literally had no clue which one (if any) would take us to the zoo, fortunately there was a friendly looking local man passing us so we asked him for directions. This turned out to be a very wise and lucky choice as the man was heading in that direction anyway
and said he would take us to the zoo. In other parts of India I would have been wary of such assistance as there is a fair chance that it could end up with me not only finding myself in completely the wrong location but also being measured up for a new shirt that I didn’t want, however today I was in Darjeeling and I felt like this man could be trusted. In the end the walk to the zoo took around an hour and we crossed across several different paths going up and down many, many hills. Time passed quickly however as the man giving us directions (sorry have forgotten his name) happened to be one of the nicest people ever! He was a local Darjeeling Indian man who worked in Bahrain as a security guard at a posh hotel and was currently on temporary leave in India seeing his family. He took us all the way to the zoo and then said good bye and headed off to his original destination, which as it turns out was way back on the path. He had totally gone out of his way just to help us and then had not
asked for anything in return, we wanted to buy him lunch but he was gone before we had a chance to ask or even to think to ask. Once again more lovely Darjeeling people, are these the best people in the world? Certainly the best I have met in India.
The zoo was surprisingly good, there were Royal Bengal Tigers, Leopards, Panthers, Snow Leopards and Himalayan Wolves amongst other less exciting things. The animals all appeared to be well looked after and had decent sized enclosures, Darjeeling zoo certainly put Chang Mai (and many British Zoo’s) to shame. Contained within the zoo is the Mountaineering Institute which is a training centre for up and coming Indian mountain guides, it also contains an interesting museum on mountaineering which features the original equipment used by previous memorable expeditions including Sir Edmond Hillary and Tenzing Norgay’s first successful summit of Everest in 1953. It was interesting to note that the museum always mentioned Tenzing Norgay’s name before above Sir Edmond Hillary’s, although perhaps this isn’t surprising given that Tenzing Norgay was an Indian from Darjeeling.
After the zoo we continued our stroll to the Happy Valley Tea
Estate (exclusive supplier of Darjeeling tea to Harrods) I was hoping to get a tour of the factory and plantation but when we turned up the factory was empty as the picking season had not yet begun. A local man offered to give us a tour for 500 rps but we thought this was pretty pointless given the factory was currently just an empty warehouse. It had been a steep and lengthy walk down to the tea plantation and was an even steeper and lengthier climb back to our hotel from the estate, however I was glad to feel slightly out of breath as it had been so long since I’d last done any good exercise. All in all we walked around 4 hours in total today and it felt really great to finally do some exercise again.
We arrived back to the hotel relatively late and met up with the rest of the group who had already eaten dinner and were heading to a local bar. I was having such a good time at the bar after a great day that I totally forgot about eating until my stomach started to make some serious rumbling sounds
at around 09.45pm. Sonia hadn’t eaten either and was also ravenous so headed with me out onto the streets of Darjeeling to look for some food. Unfortunately Darjeeling really is not the place for late night eating, or late night anything for that matter. When we left the pub at just before 10.00pm the streets were empty, everything was boarded up, the lights were out and people were nowhere to be seen. We marched desperately up and down the streets looking for an open eating establishment or even any sign of life at all whilst all the while gradually getting more and more depressed as we realised that tonight we would be going to bed on very, very empty stomachs. Just as we were giving up our search we passed a closed doorway which had some light shining through, we weren’t sure what was behind the door but we gave it a knock. A reply came back quickly, “sorry were closed”, to which we replied “do you have any food we can buy”, “no sorry were closed”, “but were really desperate, do you not have anything at all, we’ll take anything you have, please!”. At this point the door opened
and a kind lady told us she had a few chapatti’s left, upon hearing this I was ecstatic! Yes! I will not go hungry tonight! Normally the thought of plain chapatti for dinner would make me want to cry, but at this point it sounded as good as Christmas dinner. We took 4 chappati’s and headed back to the pub to meet up with the rest of the group, when we got back to the pub we noticed that left on the table next to us was some half eaten Chinese takeaway food which some now recently departed customers had left. Now normally I would not go around eating left over takeaway food that I find on a pub table (well maybe I would), however desperate times do indeed call for desperate measures. The cold, super salty mystery green stuff they left tasted incredible, especially with our slightly stale chapatti’s, it’s been a long time since I enjoyed a meal that much and also since I stooped so low in order to eat, that night I would sleep well.
The following day we rose in the dead of the night and pilled zombie like into jeeps,
by 04.30am (ouch) we were leaving Darjeeling and heading to our destination, Tiger Hill, a famous sunrise view point which has great views of Kachkhunga, the third highest mountain in the world and India’s largest. It was really, really bloody cold when we arrived and at this point I most definitely glad to have bought the extra layers the day before. As the sun rose we got a pretty decent view of the mountain and surrounding range, although the lower part was hidden behind clouds which was a little disappointing. I did enjoy the experience but was a bit disappointed that we didn’t get a clearer view, still it was beautiful and definitely worth getting up for. After the sun had rose a few of us decided to walk back to Darjeeling. We walked back on a quiet jeep track which clung to the edge of a large valley passing the odd small rural village and temple along the way, it was a great walk especially when the sun came out and heated us up, but was also a bit of a struggle given our 04.30am start that morning. When we did finally arrive into Darjeeling we headed to a
legendary greasy spoon which served bacon, yes real bacon! For whatever reason bacon is something you really, really miss when travelling and after two months without any processed piggy I was almost delirious at the thought of some bacon, sausage, egg and beans. When the meat arrived it was pilled almost comically high, the Everest sized mountain of sausages alone was enough for a table of 8 and the greasy mound of bacon looked like it would weigh a little more than your average blue whale, it had obviously been a very bad day recently for a whole lot of piggy’s. Needles to say I ate everything and then ate some let over sausages that someone else couldn’t eat, it was glorious. After a marathon eating session and lengthy morning walk I needed some rest so headed back to the hotel to get a few hours sleep.
After a rather lengthier than planned snooze I decided I would try to find the local post office as I wanted to send a parcel back to the UK, I had seen the post office when driving into Darjeeling and thought it probably wouldn’t be too hard to find. Oh
how wrong I was. After descending through the town for 20 mins and finding myself somehow in a dead end in a random back alley I decided it was time to ask for directions. You may be thinking oh that sounds like a sensible thing to do, why did it take you so long to ask in the first place you fool! But you would be wrong. You see Indians will always provide some sort of answer to your question(s) even if they don’t know the answer or don’t really understand what you are asking. True to this I spent the following 2 hours wondering the streets of Darjeeling following directions I had been given by what seemed like half the population of Darjeeling. Upon finding myself in a forest and very much not at the post office or the town for that matter I decided to give up the search and return to the hotel. Maybe it is a character flaw of mine but each time I got directions from a new person I genuinely and excitedly thought they knew what they were talking about and actually understood me, as it turns out no one I spoke to that
Me eating a momo at tiger hill
Momo's are Tibetan dumplings much like gyozo or Chinese dumplings
day knew what they were talking about or understood me. Frustrated I got back to the hotel and met Orna in the lobby who asked where I had been, “searching for the f**king post office” I said, “ohh it’s just down there” she said “by the pub we were in last night”. It turns out the Post Office was located very close to our hotel in just about the only corner of town I didn’t search, what a bloody nightmare, the package would have to wait.
The day was not to finish on a bad note however as Harley had kindly booked a few that were interested into High Tea at the Windermere hotel. The Windermere hotel looks uncannily like a hotel you would find in Windermere, i.e classic British Victorian style. The rooms looked like they had remained unchanged since members of the elite Raj stayed here in Victorian times, it was a very bizarre but interesting hotel, had I the money I would have loved to have stayed there and would advise it to anyone visiting Darjeeling. The high tea was pretty good, the tea was as you would expect outstanding, the scones very good
(they even had clotted cream!) and the cakes were reasonable. All in all it was a great experience and a nice way to pass the afternoon.
Talking of architecture, I was struck by how British many of the buildings in Darjeeling looked, indeed parts of Darjeeling looked like they had been lifted directly from the Lake District or an ITV period drama, perhaps it was the familiarity but the architectural style warmed me to Darjeeling even more. My time in Darjeeling had on the whole been really fantastic and I would really recommend it to anyone thinking of visiting India, I was sad to leave but also looking forward to what promised to be a great few days at the nearby Karmi Farm guesthouse.
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