Darjeeling, West Bengal
Trip Start Feb 07, 2007
69Trip End Ongoing
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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.
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,
We finally said goodbye to Darjeeling and took the famous Toy Train part of the way down the mountain.
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!
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 ½ hours, but it took 4 ¼ 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!