Winter Gorkhaland

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Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Monday, December 23, 2013

So in the end we did make it to Darjeeling for Christmas. But oh my God what a mission it turned out to be.  Having failed at getting train tickets we managed to arrange a private car to drive us to Siliguri (some 550 kilometres) from where we could catch a mountain jeep a further 3 hours into the Himalayas.  We'd been told to expect a journey to Siliguri of about 10 hours, give or take, depending on traffic and the state of the roads.  Our hotel had warned us the roads "weren’t that great", but nothing prepared us for the mammoth 16 hours ahead, from 7am through the whole day and into the night – finally arriving in Siliguri at 11pm and having to find a hotel there for the night before making our way to Darjeeling in the morning.

What a journey it was.  Through town after town we drove - of crowded and bustling streets, hazy country roads (even in 16 hours we couldn’t escape the fog it seems) and line after line of beautifully, colourful, hand-painted Tata trucks exhorting drivers to “blow horn” (as if they needed an invitation) to “obey the traffic rules” (are there any?) and wishing people “good luck” (they really need it on these roads!)  As our driver weaved in and out of the traffic along roads that could best be described as craters on the moon (“not that great” means something altogether more extreme here) we held on for dear life.  We witnessed a truck blow it’s tyre, another’s wheel axel snap, a small child be bumped by a jeep (he was ok) and a motorbike bang into the back of our car, not to mention numerous near misses.  In fact the poor road quality was really a blessing in disguise as all of this takes place at a maximum of 40kmph, sometimes no more than 10kmph when it’s really bad.  Needless to say it was an experience we will never forget!

Having finally arrived in Siliguri, we woke up the next day and negotiated a jeep to Darjeeling (though not without the drivers stopping for breakfast unannounced half way there of course).  It was with tremendous relief we had finally made it to our hotel in the sky.  This time though the general fog had been replaced by a dense mist over the whole mountainside – so we still couldn’t see anything – and the 27C weather had been replaced with something much closer to bloody freezing. 

The shock of the cold aside, once we had recovered from our journey and found out the hotel had room heaters for hire (as well as delivering hot water bottles to the room at night) we absolutely loved our few days in Darjeeling.  It’s much more touristy than Kolkata and as such we were largely ignored and free to roam the streets unhassled.  The town snakes around the mountainside in narrow roads, built up on either side by mostly wooden buildings in a Tibetan/Nepalese style and full of cute little tea shops and pashmina stalls. The Nepalese influence is strong here due to a huge influx of Gurkha labourers working on the tea plantations when the British first established them. When India won independence, the big Gurkha population called for an independent state of “Gorkharland” and eventually the protests were so disruptive they were given some autonomy from the Indian government. Not enough though, it seems, and the protests continue from the non- payment of taxes and bills to using India Idol to vote for the Gorkha candidate to win as a way of drawing attention to the cause!

Running through the streets all the way up the mountainside is a small railroad track used by the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a steam “toy train” that has operated across these mountains for nearly a hundred years and is now a World Heritage Site.  We were lucky enough to get a ride on this on Christmas day (not without much negotiation and having turned up at the train station twice previously for trains we couldn’t get on for a variety of reasons though) – a unique and exciting experience, especially as the train rides along within inches of the houses either side of the street and within inches the other side of a long fall down the mountainside

In fact we probably couldn’t have found a more Christmassy place in the whole of India than Darjeeling – Christmas music in the streets, cold weather, Christmas lights and above all the wonderful “Glenarys” an old-school department store style building with inflatable father Christmases outside blaring Christmas tunes into the street – and inside a tea room with a  cake/chocolate counter on the ground floor, complete with red telephone booth, and a dark wood-panelled, open fire restaurant upstairs.  We ate there or had tea there every day!

Of course we also managed to visit a tea estate – “Happy Valley” tea estate, the highest tea estate in Darjeeling and exclusive supplier to Harrods no less.  It was rather strange to see it actually – in one sense serenely beautiful, but at the same time still covered in litter which somewhat took away it’s romance when you got up close!

And even here in the mountain roads you can never escape the beeping.  All day and all night, beep bee-eeeep like a constant background symphony. 

All in all though, what a place to spend our first Christmas together – not one we will likely ever forget and a genuinely beautiful place, with stunning scenery and architecture - and quite unlike anywhere either of us has ever been to before.
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