After our brief stay in Siliguri, we took the toy train for the 7 hour journey climbing 2000m into the Himalayas to its terminus in Darjeeling. After so many kilometres travelled horizontally over the previous 7 weeks, it was amazing how much India changed after a travelling a couple vertically. Not only did the obvious things change, like the climate, the vegetation and the wildlife, but it was also the changes in the people and the food and drink that made Darjeeling one of my favourite places in India.
The toy train wound its way along Hill Cart Road, the one long road that runs all the way from Siliguri to Darjeeling and beyond. The tracks snaked onto and off the road and sweeped right across it when necessary to get the most convenient path for the tight bends. This often created queues of traffic as it blocked the scores of overly packed Jeeps that were always speeding up and down the well worn road. There were also a few very steep climbs where the train had to zig-zag its way up the hill by going backwards and forwards with stops and junction point changes in-between. As Hill Cart Road is the single main thouroughfare for all of the towns from Siliguri into the mountains, it means that the train rolls along past shops, houses and schools which open out onto the road. It was quite a weird experience being on a train going up a high street, but the local people seem to love it, and all of the children like to stop and wave at the passengers as it travels by. As the train took us up into the mist and clouds the sky turned grey but stayed bright which made the vegetation seem so green against the colourless backdrop. I was even quite happy to see a few drops of rain, something I’d not seen since I was sitting on a Suzuki at Phillip Island Racing Circuit back in January!
Once we’d stepped off the train at Darjeeling Station, something happened that once might have seemed normal to us, but 7 weeks in India made it extra special. We were approached by a taxi driver (as there are no auto-rickshaws in Darjeeing) and were asked where we wanted to go. ‘Dekeling Hotel’ we replied. ‘Ah! You don’t need a taxi, it’s only 5 minutes walk from here’ he said, and proceeded to give us directions. We were stunned. An Indian cabbie had just turned down the opportunity to overcharge some tourists to take them on a very short journey. This place, we thought, was an Indian anomoly. We thanked him and happily walked the 5 minute walk to our hotel.
That walk was the beginning of a realisation that it wasn’t just the cabbie who was a little bit different. There were shops along the way, but not a single shopkeeper shouted at us to come in and buy something; noone cleared their throat loudly and spat as we walked past; we didn’t have to keep an eye out for any cow shit, because there weren’t any cows; there was hardly any staring; I wasn’t sweating carrying my packs because the temperature was comfortably mild; and all along the hilly streets there were inviting tea shops and cake shops, restaurants, bookshops and handicrafts shops that looked distinctively less tacky than we’d become accustomed to. The locals seemed so laid back and happy, and there was a general vibe of relaxation. I liked it a lot.
We arrived at our hotel and the friendly staff welcomed us with a nice pot of local tea brought to our room. We settled in, enjoyed our first taste of Darjeeling tea in Darjeeling, and had a little look around the place. The hotel was great, with wood-panelled walls and stairs at odd heights, the place was really interesting. It had a great lounge with hundreds of books and a wood burner in the middle of all of the couches. This is where the guests tended to congregate in the evenings (as much of Darjeeling closes quite early), while the staff would quietly go about the place putting hot water bottles into all of the beds to get them warmed up before you turned in. We soon decided that it was a good thing to spend 5 nights here.
Our first full day was spent getting to know the town, we visited the local botanic gardens and had a fantastic afternoon having ‘high tea’ at the Windermere Hotel, an old colonial building north of town. It started raining about half an hour before we arrived so it was so great to sit in a nice old lounge with an open fire with the rain and wind shut outside. We read the papers and the old letters framed on the walls, while being plied with fresh local tea, cakes, biscuits and of course little triangles of cucumber and cheese and pickle sandwiches (with the crusts cut off). Despite being painfully full, we had already planned where to have dinner. So with that convenient excuse, and after a little digestion, we went to the guest house restaurant and had our first taste of momos since we were in China a couple of years ago. They were as good as we remembered, and we started to look forward to being in Nepal!
The next morning at breakfast Alexandra was excitedly beckoned into the room of a lady we had ended up chatting to in the hotel lounge the evening before. I followed curiously and found them both leaning out of the window of her room, so I had a look too. We were on the 5th floor of the building so we had a good view across the town and I leaned out to see that above the town was a thick stripe of grey mist, and above that was the huge mountain of Kanchenjunga – the tallest mountain in India and the third highest peak in the world – beautifully lit by the morning sun. We immediately decided to change our plans for the day. We arranged a taxi and headed out to Tiger Hill which is where the best view of the mountain is (and from where you can sometimes even see Mount Everest). Crowds of people usually get up at 4am to see the mountain at dawn so having left at 9.30, by the time we got there it was blissfully empty. We got an odd look from the guy at the ticket desk, which suggested we were wasting our money. But once we got to the top of the hill, there it was poking majestically out of the top of a row of clouds, with Darjeeling sitting on the hillside below. From here we decided to walk all the way back to Darjeeling, passing through a couple of towns and visiting a few monastaries along the way. It was a really beautiful walk, and helped partly set us up for the high altitude trekking we have planned in Nepal. We ended up having a great meal at a little place called Sonam’s Kitchen. It’s a family-run place (they live upstairs), there are only 3 tables and you have to order your food an hour in advance so that they have time to pop over to the local market stalls and buy the fruit and veg needed to make your order. Everything is so fresh and tasted wonderful. It quickly became our favourite place to eat in Darjeeling.
After a day of pretty much doing nothing but eating lovely food and drinking excessive quantities of tea, we spent the next day being a little more active again. We visited the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and Darjeeling Zoo (the highest altitude zoo in India) and saw, amongst other things, a black bear, an Indian tiger and a snow leopard. Afterwards we walked to the Happy Valley tea plantation where we had a tour of the factory and found out all about the various types of tea and how they’re made. Then we popped into a tiny house on the grounds of the estate and tried and bought some of their best tea. It’s called Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Picko One, and it definitely was super. The Happy Valley tea garden is the highest altitude tea garden in Darjeeling and the only one to be completely organic. They only sell their top quality tea to Harrods, and it’s apparently sold there for about US$58 per 100g! So we bought some for the local price of Rs250 per 100g (about £3.50)!
We got up early the next morning for the 3 hour drive to Bagdogra Airport, from where we flew back to Delhi (unfortunately), and then to Kathmandu. So after 8 weeks we’ve finally left India. It’s been full of memories for us, so many more than we could possibly write here. There’s simply no other place quite like it.
On to Nepal!
Here are a few pictures from Darjeeling.