Sunday, February 6, 2011

Darjeeling, unlimited

My first experience of going solo in India got off to a relatively bumpy start. Not only was the train delayed by 4 hours (meaning it arrived at 1am) but there was someone in my bunk. This meant I had to turn on all the lights, pull his blanket off him, and generally throw a strop until eventually he moved. The wait hadn't been too bad as a group of gap yahs and a lovely old English couple, Steve and Betty, who bought us all fruit, had sat it out with me.  Eventually the train arrived into NJP sometime in the early evening of the next day. I had a group of Bangladeshi lads on tour in my carriage who were actually really friendly and non creepy (how refreshing) and asked me to sing my national anthem  - refused, but offered to play them a song on phone instead, onyl having stuff from South Africa they all clapped and cheered along to waka-waka which was pretty funny.

Then it was time to transfer to a jeep for the climb into the Himalayan foothills (Darjeeling is 2100m), which took 3 hours. It was freezing when we got out the car at 8pm and I'm glad Sarah and Julie were there to take me to their hotel!

The next morning I got up at 4am with them and a group of Kiwi guys to go to Tiger Hill, even higher up. On a clear day, you can see Everest and the whole Himalayan range into Sikkim, but it was cloudy and we saw nothing. I was gutted. We got the jeep back down, stopping briefly at a Tibetan Monastery on the way. There are prayer flags streaming everywhere all around Darjeeling and 'Gorkaland' (there are currently strikes and protests for a separate state from West Bengal) as it has a huge Tibetan refugee presence.

What I loved about Darjeeling was its relaxed atmosphere: no 'come look my shop', no 'Madam, madam, look this, just looking', no one asking for money, no staring, no rickshaws, no traffic, no hassle. Perfect. It's difficult to describe how much I appreciated just being able to browse in a shop without being mobbed by desperate salesmen. What a relief. I spent the morning with Sarah and Julie, visiting the local market, drinking tea at Glenary's (English style patisserie and cafe, complete with red phone box) and sitting at the viewpoint. We got really excited when we caught a glimpse of Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world, as the weather had been rubbish and cloudy for their whole time in Darjeeling.

That afternoon, after they left, I wandered around the windy streets and found myself at a Victorian mansion, only to be promptly escorted out by a man with a gun as it was off-limits government property.  There were few tourists around and I felt a little lost that afternoon.  I had a comforting dinner of mac & cheese and then went back to the hotel at 8pm, as everything shuts down pretty early due to the freezing weather (I assume this is the reason). Luckily I got chatting to a group of Japanese guys who were planning a trip to Tiger Hill the next morning, and decided I'd give it another try - the weather forecast looked good.

This was the best decision I've made in a while! Despite the cold and the horrendous 4.30am wake up, the stars were all out when we arrived and when the sun started to come up it was simply magical. Kanchenjunga and the mountains around it slowly came into view, and as the sun came up it lit up each mountain range in turn - from Everest on the far left, three sisters, then Kanchenjunga and the Sikkim ountains. There was a purple haze behind Everest and mist in the valleys below. The sky was bright orange and Darjeeling itself, looking tiny in the valley below, was slowly bathed in the pastel hues of the early morning sun. It was honestly one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen in my entire life. Greenery, snowy mountains (warm chai at 6am sharp!) and magic. I'm going to go to Sikkim itself next time.

I met Margie and Charlie, who I'd briefly bumped into the day before, at Tiger Hill and we wandered back to Darjeeling (about 13km) via several beautiful Tibetan Buddhist Monasteries, quite unlike anything else I'd seen in India or South East Asia. An energetic blend of Hindu iconography and Buddhist beauty, they were really special, peaceful places, and I loved walking back through Alpine-esque scenery. Tango 5 would have been proud. I even heard, climbing a hill, walking past a chai shop, a scratchy version of 'The Climb' coming from a radio. I thought of Tango 5 and smiled.

That afternoon I wandered up to Observatory Hill, which was strewn with prayer flags, and again happened to bump into Steve and Betty who were staying at the Windamere, a lovely Heritage Hotel perched up  on the hill. They very kindly treated me to another cup of Darjeeling's finest.

That afternoon, as the mist moved in, I went and did my tea shopping. I tried several teas and have ended up with nearly a kilo. But it is bloody good stuff (they supply Harrods) and when I run out I have the details fo how to get shipped more!

That evening I met up with Margie and Charlie again and we went to see another Bollywood movie. It was so funny, as they always are, and an early night was again in order after some great chat and noodles in a nearby cafe.

The morning after was, again, thankfully, crystal clear, and I booked a 'joy ride' on the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, otherwise known as the toy train.  It chugged up the road at a very leisurely, often walking pace, alongside the road. Quite literally, on the road, sometimes zig zagging across and stopping the traffic. The views were absolutely out of this world, and the Bastasia loop, around the Gurkha War Memoiral, was another great opportunity to gaze at the Greater Himalayas.

Feeling pretty happy and energetic, I set off to find he zoo, which everyone I'd met had recommended, and which was full of pretty interesting and sometimes exotic Himalayan animals. It had some decent breeding programmes, too, but the best part for me was the attached Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, founded by Tenzing Norgay, where there was a really cool museum all about the Himalayas and all the expeditions and attempts to conquer Everest. They even had the British flag hoisted a\at the top in 1953. 

I then hiked round, looking down on all the tea plantations (a darker green than those in Kerala) to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, where recently arrived refugees were taught English and other useful skills to help them find work in India. There was also a really interesting display on the plight of the Tibetans.

I finally got back to Darjeeling proper at about 5pm, hiking again up some insanely steep roads (the altitude was a killer, at least I blame that for how out of breath I was) and had some dinner and wrote my postcards. It was great to get some alone time and chill out after a lot of exercise.

I had my last cup of tea the next morning, and bought yet more tea to take home as presents. I didn't want to leave - the people were so friendly, there were so many more women around (this was a big deal, Indian streets are very male dominated), and it was so unbelievably beautiful. I'm now in Calcutta and about to head to Thailand but must go as I'm late or dinner with Sarah, Julie and Liv.

Namaste, India (for now). Sawasdee-kah, Thailand!

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