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Published: April 8th 2017
Happy Valley Tea Estate
Looking over the rows of tea plants back towards Darjeeling from the Happy Valley Tea Estate.
I wouldn't say that I didn't enjoy Nepal, but my luck was rotten there and the country, lets say... tested me
Though not looking as outwardly poor as India - and prices here tend to reflect that too - the infrastructure here is poorer, what with so much challenging terrain and weather to contend with. Almost everything in Nepal from houses to roads - which are the worst I have seen anywhere - seem poorly constructed.
Thus I was glad to be leaving but I still had the small matter of getting back to Kathmandu first.
My last night in Phaplu was f*cking freezing. I had brought enough cold weather clothing into the mountains with me but it was on the jeep ride out of there that I found myself wearing it all. The windows had to be kept open because it seems that all Nepali women get motion sickness but on the winding roads through the mountains, one can't blame them too much. Thankfully years of travel has seen me grow out of motion sickness and thankfully the smell of sick didn't make me gag as much as it once did. Nevertheless, as the women had puked right at the
View Over Darjeeling
It's not clouds in the distance - it's actually a Himalyan mountain range. I didn't go up to Tiger Hill for a view of Khangchendzonga - the world's third-highest peak - because it was expensive and cloudy!
start of the journey it wasn't exactly pleasant sitting for ten hours in a jeep reeking of vomit.
Thankfully there were no major dramas on the way back to Kathmandu although my luck turned once I arrived in Kathmandu. Having left my debit card in an ATM in Sri Lanka
, my father had managed to courier a new one out to me for the fourth time to Kathmandu. The pick-up location was near where the jeep dropped me off but that was where my luck truly ran out.
I don't know the routes of the collective taxis here and I can't read the signs on the front of them so I just ask the drivers if they are heading to an area in the general direction I want to go. The taxi I picked up didn't quite take me as far as I had hoped and I was still 1.4km from the hostel. Which given that I've walked over 10km a day for the last two days, didn't present a problem apart from the fact that it started to rain. It wasn't just spits however, it was absolutely bucketing down. I therefore got absolutely soaked for the first time since
Colourful & Detailed Murals
Inside the Bhutia Busty Gompa.
I was in Odessa
some seven months ago. Well, at least I had a nice, lovely hostel with a nice hot shower to look forward to. Well actually, I didn't. I didn't book a bed for my return because I didn't know when I would be coming back and of course, tonight they were full. No matter; I dragged my saturated arse around a couple of hotels nearby and managed to get a hotel room for Rs700, which was about what I'd normally pay for accommodation in India. Fine. Except that they didn't take credit card. What's the big deal, you ask? Well, I had carefully rationed my cash so I would have just enough to last me for the remainder of my time in Nepal - I didn't want to withdraw any more money because each time you do, the Nepalese banks charge you Rs500 for the pleasure. So the room wasn't just Rs700, it was now effectively Rs1,200. I know, I know, it's only £3 more but when you're trying to stick to a £12 daily budget, it means a lot. Oh yeah, and the wet clothes I was wearing were the last clean set I had. And
Not quite like the one in London! This street was once the main thoroughfare - and perhaps still is for pedestrians - during Darjeeling's British era.
there was no hot shower, it was lukewarm at best. Rs1,200 and no hot shower. A cold, wet shower for a cold, wet Derek. F*ck you Nepal, f*ck you.
I was originally going to have a rest day in Kathmandu to sort out a few things (debit card, laundry) but I didn't feel too tired after the hike and having arrived in Kathmandu pretty much on time this time, I managed to do what I needed to do in less than 24 hours. Given how things had transpired, I couldn't wait to get out of cold, wet Nepal.
Just as I was leaving the hotel to go to the bus station, Alfred, a guy from Hong Kong asked if could join me. His bus to Indian border in Belahiya - the border post from which I entered Nepal - had been cancelled because of a workers strike; something that happens fairly frequently in Nepal, apparently. He still wanted to leave that day though so when I told him about my plan to get to Kakarbhitta - Nepal's eastern border with India and close to my next destination in India of Darjeeling - it sounded good to him so he
The Hill Station
This scene captures more of what I was expecting to see at this former British hill station.
decided to join me. I was quite happy to have company for another border crossing and the 16 hours that lay ahead of me on the bus.
To say that it was a bumpy ride would be a bit of an understatement. As we were tossed around like a salad for sixteen hours, I'm not sure the bus had shock absorbers as at the back, we felt every single bump - not what you want when you're travelling on the worst roads you've ever seen. I'm not sure you could really call some of them roads. As night fell, it started to rain with thunder and lightning and reminded me of my bus ride from Potosi to Sucre
. But thankfully it wasn't like the one from Copacabana to Cusco
. Unfortunately however, there were long stops like the one I had from Lviv to Warsaw
. It normally takes about twelve hours to drive from Kathmandu to Khakabitta - but people were saying I'd be arriving some 17-19 hours later.
The border crossing went smoothly; luckily there were no strikes at this border.
And after crossing the border bridge - border crossings are so often across a bridge - getting a bus from the border to
Streets Of Darjeeling
Most of Darjeeling actually looks like this; as if normal India has been transported into the hills.
Siliguri, and then getting a jeep from Siliguri to Darjeeling sent me right back into the chaos of India; something Alfred was experiencing for the first time.
If you thought I had had enough of the mountains then apparently I didn't as our jeep started ascending a hill road and went higher and higher and higher and then higher still. It was a bit like my jeep to the Everest trail except way shorter and on way better roads. Still, by the end it was twenty-two hours of straight travelling and we were both exhausted.
Darjeeling was established by the British in the 19th century, ostensibly as a place to escape the subcontinental heat. A medical facility was set up in a bid to cure patients with chronic illnesses and this "hill station" became a popular place for homesick Brits to come and experience a more familiar climate. As we passed through the clouds up to Darjeeling's altitude of 2,000m, it was as if we had entered into another world of weird hilltop communities. As for Darjeeling itself, the way it is laid out evokes the Cinque Terre
but with everything more run down and with ugly architecture.
One of the steam trains still in use between Darjeeling and Ghum on the Darjeeling Himalyan Railway.
It certainly wasn't what I was expecting; I was expecting more of a village feel full of wooden Victorian-style bungalows amongst the tea plantations. In reality, it was as if normal, dirty, noisy, busy India had been moved into this formerly peaceful British getaway.
You may associate Darjeeling with tea; after all it is famous worldwide for its distinctive black teas and it is perhaps no surprise that once the British had encamped here, that a whole lot of tea estates should pop up in what were very favourable conditions for growing tea. Thus I thought it wouldn't be right to come here without visiting one of the remaining estates to learn more about it.
And indeed it was as interesting as it was enlightening, as our guide at Happy Valley Tea Estate talked us through how tea is picked and then processed into the final product. Darjeeling tea is "orthodox"; meaning that whole tea leaves are withered, rolled and oxidised in a very precise manner, with the tea leaves kept whole throughout the entire process. I also learnt that the tea used in chai is actually from Assam - fairly nearby - and is produced using the "crush,
Tea pickers having a breather on the Happy Valley Tea Estate.
tear and curl" method which produces the ground tea that you find in common tea bags. The tea grown in Darjeeling are from Chinese tea plants. The time of year determines what properties a tea leaf has and there are different picking seasons depending on the type of tea you want to make. We had tastings at the end of the tour and along with the teas I tried in town, I have to say that it actually tastes pretty damn good and has a slightly bitter tone to it. Darjeeling is famous for its black teas but also produces green tea (where leaves are withered, heated, rolled and dried but not oxidised - thus preserving the freshness of the leaves) and white tea (the least processed - not rolled or oxidised thus producing a much lighter taste). There are different grades of tea starting with whole leaf (the highest quality), then broken, then fannings (leftovers from producing whole leaf and broken teas), then dust. The grade names are fairly self-explanatory.
Nearby the tea estate, is the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park - essentially, the town zoo. It was actually pretty interesting! Among the animals on show is a
This beautiful creature can be seen at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park.
regal Royal Bengal Tiger, a snow leopard, a common leopard and Himalayan wolves. The tiger and the leopards are beautiful creatures but were sadly pacing the same areas in their enclosures as if they had lost their minds. One question that came to mind while I was there was; how can you tell if it's a wolf or dog?
Within the compounds of the zoo was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which given I was just hiking the Himalayas, was of particular interest. The exhibits on display of Sir Edmund Hillary (proud!) and Tenzing Norgay - the local sherpa who accompanied our New Zealand hero as the first two people to reach the summit of Mount Everest - as well as the Himalaya in general were cool, though British newspaper clips categorising Hillary as British and how he had done what he did for the Queen were quite annoying. But otherwise it just displayed the old gear that was used on the various Everest expeditions.
Observatory Hill is wonderfully colourful and is the site of the original Dorje Ling monastery after which the town is named. The site is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists and the atmosphere is wonderfully
This hill above Darjeeling is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus and is a wonderfully colourful and tranquil place.
peaceful and spiritual. With both Buddhist and Hindu shrines at the top, it was a reminder of how different religions can co-exist so peacefully in the same space. Unlike say, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
. The Buddhist monastery of Bhatia Busty Gompa is also quite colourful and spectacularly set on a ridge, evoking those Tibetan monasteries that forged Christian Bale's Batman.
Walking around, it is fair to say that the faces in Darjeeling are not typically Indian - my visit to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre told me why.
The story of Tibet of course is a controversial one. Between the 8th and 10th centuries Tibet in fact had its own sprawling empire and though in the following centuries until present day, it has been occupied and administrated by third parties, it has always had its own national identity and culture. At the start of the 20th century, Tibet was ruled by the Qing dynasty - China's last royal family. After the Chinese revolution in 1912 toppled the dynasty and established the Republic Of China. Tibet then made moves to declare their own independence but the Republic Of China weren't having any of it and although Tibet continued to rule itself autonomously, the
Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
This centre was set up in 1959 to assist refugees who were fleeing Tibet after the failed Tibetan Uprising.
Chinese still had sovereignty over the the territory. There have been numerous rebellions and separatist movements, including the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion which was crushed by the now Communist People's Republic Of China. This led to the fleeing of the Dalai Lama - the political and spiritual leader of Tibet - into exile into India along with thousands of refugees. This led to the establishment of the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre. On site, there is a home for the elderly, handicraft workshops, a monastery, a school and an orphanage among other things. There is also a museum and photographic exhibition which is admittedly one-sided. Although I knew about the Tibetan situation, I didn't really know many of the details - thus I was happy to enlighten myself. I was nevertheless shocked at the alleged atrocities committed by the Chinese against Tibetan pro-separatists and Tibetans in general; its a sad state of affairs but unsurprising given China's horrific human rights record.
There are not just Tibetan faces in Darjeeling however - there are plenty of Nepalese, Bhutanese and Indian ones too, plus those who are a mix of the three. This along with the weather and the scenery - it was absolutely
Darjeeling Railway Station
A toy train pulls out of this hillside train station.
freezing the whole time, comparable to when I was in the Himalayas - showed yet another different side to India, which seems to have dozens. The diversity of everything in India is the thing I love the most about this country.
Following my visit to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, I went to the railway station to check out the last coal and steam trains still in use in India. The track that follows the main road - Hill Cart Road - up the mountain is tiny and thus so is the train; thus its nickname of the "toy train". Just a shame the price of riding it wasn't tiny too; at over ₹1,000 for a return trip to the next town of Ghum, it was a ripoff. It really is only a tourist gimmick rather than a serious mode of transport these days - I could get all the way to Kolkata for cheaper! Was cool to see the old coal and steam powered trains in action though, as they pulled out of the station.
Half an hour from the train station is the Japanese Pagoda; one of the more interactive temples that I've visited. Inside the main
Bhutia Busty Gompa
A hillside Buddhist monastery.
temple are two monks beating drums in a repetitive pattern with one monk in front of a golden Buddha altar. Facing him are devotees - in reality, curious tourists - who are each given a racquet-shaped drum on arrival and a stick with which to beat it in time with the two drummers on the side. No photos are allowed during pujas
unfortunately - I really wish I'd captured a pic of the scene. Just up from the temple is a big white pagoda, looking imperiously over the hills and the valleys. The Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji organisation has built 70 of these pagodas all over the world (including one curiously, in Milton Keynes).
In keeping with the Tibetan/Buddhist theme of the day - showing that Darjeeling's cosmopolitan history is so much more than merely a British hill station - I decided to have dinner at a Tibetan restaurant. Momos - which when I think about it, I first had when first got to India in Delhi
- are Tibetan dumplings (bland in my opinion - I much prefer Chinese or even Polish
or Ukrainian ones) are ubiquitous not just here in Darjeeling, but all over India. The rest of
This hotel on The Mall still retains its gorgeous Victorian architecture.
Tibetan cuisine consists of a range of noodle and dumpling soups, as well as Tibetan bread, which was also quite common in Nepal, but is expensive. Sadly, the Tibetan tea (made with salt and butter - very interesting!) had run out for the evening but I did try shabaley
- Tibetan pies. On appearance they look like a Cornish pastie
but the pastry is really crispy, like a fried won-ton, but inside is merely a meatball. Nice, but nothing special.
Given my days in India were numbered, seeing that masala dosas
were available meant that I had to have one last South Indian splurge. It gave me the shits again. It has got to the coconut chutney that doesn't agree with me.
Throughout my time in Darjeeling, I was starting to get annoyed by everything, even when I knew that I really shouldn't be. The last 2-3 weeks have been rough and while visits to Mumbai
mean I would never use the term "slumming it", perhaps the cold, the squat toilets, the bucket showers and exhaustion from all the walking I had done, was finally beginning to take its toll. I did also wonder if this was symptomatic
of a deeper malaise; travel fatigue after almost 18 months on the road.
It is mainly local tourists here and I can understand the appeal; it is a place with so many different cultures and influences that once again, is different from anywhere else in India, and is still within their country's borders. The weather too, adds novelty value. While the charm of the tranquil hideaway established by the British is almost all but gone from Darjeeling, its reputation still endures and that is what still brings many here. My suffering from the cold in Nepal has continued here which is why Darjeeling wouldn't be near my list of favourite places in India - I was still sleeping in all my clothes here - but perhaps it might've been a different story had I been staying at one of the plush, charming, old homesteads a little out of town that would definitely have had unlimited hot water and indoor heating. I have coped before with cold conditions in Europe but that was because almost every building there is insulated and centrally heated.
Before leaving Darjeeling for my final journey in India, I took an unpleasant, smog-filled walk along
Train loop that loops around a Gorkha war memorial.
Hill Cart Road down to the Batasia Loop. To deal with the steep inclines, railway engineers had to be creative and one way that they were was with the creation of this railway loop. The loop also rounds a Gorkha War Memorial which remembers those who lost their lives in both world wars. Gurkhas are Darjeeling's biggest political force and they in fact rule the area with much autonomy from the Indian government. Some of this can be put down to riots led by the Gorkha National Liberation Front in 1986 which led to calls for an independent Gorkhaland. This is why you see so many graffiti tags saying "Gorkhaland" all over Darjeeling.
And with that, my sightseeing of India came to an end. It has honestly been the most fascinating three months of the trip and quite possibly, the most fascinating country I've visited. The diversity, the variety, the sheer difference in culture - these are the biggest takeaways I will have from my time here. It has been challenging though and I understand why people say that once you've travelled India, that you can travel anywhere. So while I am so happy to have come here, it
One of many in Darjeeling. Even after trekking the Himalayas it was still hard getting up them!
has worn me out and I don't think I'll be coming back anytime soon. For now a change of scene to Myanmar and South East Asian awaits; but not before one last overnight bus - and a day of stress - down back to Kolkata!
পরে দেখা হবে (parē dēkhā habē) / རྗེས་མ་མཇལ་ཡོང་། (jema jay-yong),
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