Darjeeling, West Bengal

Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of India  ,
Monday, April 23, 2007

We had an interesting journey from Kathmandu back into India... a taxi, a short flight, another taxi, a walk across the border, and a bus. The flight was great fun - a very small long, thin plane. You had to bend double to move through the cabin and there was only one seat on each side. The hostess gave us some boiled sweets and offered us a cup of Pepsi! We got an awesome view of the Himalayas, and cruised along at a similar height as the peak of Everest, which looked incredible. The flight was less than an hour and we then arrived at the tiny shed-like airport of Bhadripur in Eastern Nepal. We managed to get a taxi to the Nepali/Indian border from here, where we somehow traversed the bureaucratic mess with relative ease. We found a bus in the busy street and squashed in for the hour long journey to Siliguri.

The Jeep journey up to Darjeeling (2150m) the next day was fairly horrific. They jammed 12 of us into the Jeep -  3 in the front, 4 in the back seat and 5 in the back area on two tiny bench seats. Needless to say we got thrown in the boot squashed up against the windows with our limbs interspersed with 3 Indian blokes! The Jeep basically completes the 3 hour journey up the mountainside at breakneck speeds, playing chicken with the overloaded trucks that are charging down. The Jeep constantly crosses the narrow gauge Toy Train tracks that wind up the mountainside in a similarly dizzying fashion (we will be taking this extremely slow train as part of our return journey later in the week). The vertical drops which edge the road and the continual hairpin bends become even more hair raising when we become enveloped by clouds and visibility dropped to just about zero! I became supremely car sick bumping round in the back with only occasional views out the front window through the 11 swaying heads in front of me! Luckily I was cheered up by the typically ridiculous Indian road signs along the way that gave interesting warnings/encouragement to drivers - 'Hurry burry spoils the curry' (?) 'Kindness is giving way' (yeah right!) and, my personal favourite, 'Donate your blood to the blood bank, not the road' (indeed). We finally staggered from the vehicle in Darjeeling, feeling decidedly queasy.

We are now nicely settled in here in the hill station town of Darjeeling. There are much fewer Western tourists then we expected, and oodles of Indian tourists visiting the mountains to escape the soaring temperatures further south. They swarm along the mall morning, noon and night, most decked out in souvenir 'Darjeeling' woolly hats. Our first impressions are very good, although it is a little weird as there's no hassle here, so it doesn't really feel like India! Unfortunately, we've not had views of Everest, Kangchendzonga or the other mighty peaks as the thick clouds seem to be constantly rolling in from either side of the ridge and enveloping the whole town. There are short patches of sunshine inbetween when everyone seems to dash around. Much of the time you can't see further than a few metres ahead of you and you are completely surrounded by a surreal whiteness. Our toilet is right by a large window looking out from the mountainside. Everytime you sit down and look out you get the feeling you're up in the clouds sitting on a throne (well as close as i'll ever get to it anyway!). At night the narrow streets look like the perfect setting for a horror film! There's been some pretty heavy downpours, mainly in the afternoons, and we've even bought a very impractical rainbow coloured umbrella (everyone here carries an umbrella!). We get woken up every morning at 5.30am by the rising sun shining in through our window and a monk chatting deeply somewhere nearby!

Our days have been pretty lazy, just as well there's plenty of good food to keep us occupied. Our major sight seeing experience has been our visit to the Mountaineering Institute. Local hero Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who was Sir Edmond Hilary's partner for the first successful summit of Everest, lived here in Darjeeling for most of his life. He was director of the Institute, which has a museum as well as a training centre that prepares mountaineers for major expeditions. Tenzing was even cremated on the hill top above the Institute, where there is now a memorial in his honour. The museum is very interesting and contains many of the flags that the mountaineers proudly displayed when they made it to the summit of Everest, as well as all types of clothing and equipment used on expeditions. It's really fascinating to see how much the equipment has changed since the attempts in the early 1900's - how did they think they'd make it in tweed jackets?! There's even Raymond Lambert's oddly stunted climbing boots - designed for his toeless feet, which suffered frost bite in a previous attempt to conquer the infamous mountain. Unfortunately, to get to the Institute at the end of the ridge you have to pass through the Darjeeling zoo, an incredibly depressing experience. It may be the highest altitude zoo in the world, but the animals certainly weren't looking very high in spirits. Many of the animals (including snow leopards, bears, tigers, hyenas and wolves) were frantically pacing up and down in their small enclosures as bus loads of Indian tourists peered at them from close quarters.

We've even been tempted to do some shopping here in the charming Tibetan curio shops. These little places are positively crammed with jewelery, ornaments and other nik naks which line the walls, fill the cabinets and hang from the ceilings. Our visit to the post office this morning with our purchases was the fastest so far here in India - the whole process taking an hour and a half (efficiency plus!). The guy who sewed up our package in calico took obvious pride in his work, producing very neat stitching and then covering all the seams with red wax postal seals - hopefully deterring any audacious thieves!

Darjeeling is an interesting place environmentally. They have recently imposed a ban on plastic bags. If you take five plastic bags to the police booths dotted around the town they will even give you a chocolate in exchange. However, in a lot of other ways it isn't very environmentally sound. The main road that runs for a good few kilometers through the town is lined on both sides with the Jeeps that ply the route up to the hill station. It's really the only way to get here as there are very few buses and the ones that do come up are packed and in poor condition. The Jeeps are everywhere and obviously causing a lot of pollution and congestion in the town. They are also a lot of problems here with electricity and water supplies, both of which frequently stop for long periods.
On our last day we took a Jeep to a town called Ghum, a short way down the mountainside from Darjeeling. We went to visit a Buddhist gompa very important to the area called Yiga Choling Monastery. It's built on a ridge just out of town. When we arrived the monks were in the prayer hall chanting, so we took a little walk around the prayer wheel circuit. We weren't waiting for long before a cool looking monk in over sized sunglasses offered to let us in to the main hall to have a look. Inside is a statue of the future Buddha, as well as 300 beautifully bound Tibetan texts. As we left the clouds started rolling in over the ridge, this combined with the monks chanting created an weird atmosphere. We walked part of the way back to Darjeeling on the Toy Train tracks, which was good fun.
We finally said goodbye to Darjeeling and took the famous Toy Train part of the way down the mountain. This train line was established in 1881 and runs on a tiny 2 foot wide gauge. It's actually a designated as a World Heritage site and is the highest railway in India. We weren't able to get the slightly roomier 1st class, so we travelled down in the squashy 2nd class with our packs jammed in to the tiny train carriage.
We didn't make it far out of town before the train stopped at a red flag draped across the tracks. Further up around the bend a group of men were furiously replacing the tracks! We finally get going, with the ridiculously loud train horn blowing every 10 seconds to warn the Jeeps as we cross back and forth over the road. It must be incredibly annoying for residents, some of whose houses are just metres from the tracks. You'd think they'd be used to it, but most covered their ears and winced as the train passed! We passed so close to the market stalls in one village that we brushed the tails of the carp fish on display and nearly knocked over a wooden box of tomatoes! There's no connecting doors between the train carriages, so the conductor and the food sellers just jump off and run to the next carriage (they don't have to run too fast!). One food seller gets talking to Tim and asked him all sorts of questions. When he discovered that this is our 2nd trip to India and that we were here 5 years ago he looks shocked and asks Tim 'And no children coming yet?'. He then proceeded to pass this information on in Bengali to the rest of the carriage, provoking lots of tutting and head shaking. Luckily, I was too busy enjoying the view to notice!
The Toy Train moves painfully slow... it's more like being on the ghost train at the fair than on any form of viable transport! We had a total of 32km to travel - it was supposed to take 2 hours, but it took 4 hours! That's a stunningly inefficient total of less than 8km per hour!! I think I would have pulled my hair out if we had to stay on till the bottom of the mountain! We jumped on a Jeep from Kurseong and had a lovely drive down through the tea plantations to Siliguri. I demanded the front seat this time to avoid the boot. Although there were four of us jammed in to the front seat, the other two guys somehow managed to both sit behind the steering wheel giving us enough space! We spotted another sterling sign on the way down: 'Human creates poison. Forest cleans it up. Thank you.' Well said!

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