Trip Start Aug 16, 2005
63Trip End Apr 14, 2006
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Where I stayed
Overnight train (North Eastern Express) from Delhi to New Jalpaiguri
Darjeeling is quite an out of the way place to get to. Our journey began with 27 hours on a train to the nearest large train junction. Amazingly, we only arrived half an hour late which is pretty impressive over that distance.
During the train ride I was struck down with my first bout of Indian Traveller's Diarrhea. I spent most of the time sleeping. When not sleeping I was writhing to the most painful cramps I've ever experienced or trying to make it to the toilet in time, for the umpteenth time. Mandy was great and looked after me, shooing away staff who wanted to collect my blanket and pillow and distracting the hawkers so they left me alone. There was an amazing variety of goods for sale on the train - as well as food, snacks and drinks we had the opportunity to buy soap, a toothbrush, a head massage, a pair of binoculars and even a casio keyboard!
Although people walk past selling items in an almost constant stream day and night on the train, I learnt to block out the sound of them calling out their wares. However, I got caught out by one man who picked up some rubbish for me (the aluminium tray my breakfast came in - I gave him a big smile and a thank you), walked off for a moment and then came back demanding money for the service. I refused to give him anything and he looked angry. I felt a bit guilty (a few ruppees is nothing to me but might make a difference to his day) but after talking to Mandy about it started to get angry myself. There are paid staff on the train who would have collected the tray. He didn't give me an option of whether to accept his service or not, he just took my rubbish. But the worst thing was that all he did was go to the end of the carriage and chuck it out of the window! I have a long way to go before I'm as calm and unaffected as Mandy when it comes to encounters of this type.
In a way being so ill on the train wasn't such bad timing as you might imagine. I was never more than 20m from a toilet, I could stay in bed all day and I didn't have to cancel any sightseeing plans.
Mandy also had an eventful journey. She had a little mouse nesting in old newspaper stuffed down the side of her seat and kept seeing it scuttling around (I didn't actually spot it at all so did have to quiz her about whether she had imagined it!). She was very restrained when she noticed it actually sitting on her foot and only emitted a smothered eek which barely roused me from my feverish sleep. However, she didn't manage to keep so cool in the toilet. She noticed that the flush was leaking water and thought she'd give it a little help to make it stop. When she pulled the handle, the whole thing came off in her hand, causing a constant jet of water to gush out all over the toilet. Then to make matters worse she promptly dropped the handle straight down the loo! Toilets on Indian trains are just chutes that open onto the rails (you can see the track flashing past if you look down the hole - it made me very paranoid about dropping my money belt down accidently). So, the handle was unrecoverable and Mandy returned to her seat looking sheepish to say the least. An hour later at a station stop we heard hammering as they blocked up the pipe but there was no more flushing in that toilet for the rest of the trip. Yuck!
When we arrived at New Jalpaiguri, from where we were planning to get a share jeep to Darjeeling, we were meet with news of a transport strike affecting the whole area around Darjeeling. At first we thought it was just lies to get us to spend more money, but after checking with quite a few people Mandy decided that jeep drivers would not turn down work like that and the strike was real.
We had no choice but to travel to the nearest town - the industrial and boring Siliguri - and wait it out. We took a cycle-rickshaw and the wallah was possibly the most tenacious I've yet come across. As soon as we had set off he started to talk about taking us to a hotel, not to the bus station where we wanted to go. Much of the 30 minute journey was spent arguing with him about our destination, and telling him we wouldn't stay at any hotel he took us to (this is a common scam and hotel rates are raised to cover the commission of the person who took you there). When we reached Siliguri he dutifully pointed out the bus station and then cycled straight past - it's impossible to jump out of a moving rickshaw when you are squashed in amongst rucksacks. Had I been feeling weller we might have been firmer, but Mandy wanted to get me to a hotel room and although I protested, she was right. We pulled up at a poshish looking place and as we had predicted and repeatedly explained to the rickshaw-wallah it was out of our price range. He insisted that he take us onto another hotel for no extra charge and this one was also too pricey. The third place he tried was in our budget, but was about a mile away from where we wanted to be. By now we were weakened from all the arguing and accepting our fate, I crawled up the stairs to see where we'd ended up.
After half an hour in the very basic room, we had a knock on the door and a member of hotel staff said that the rickshaw-wallah was still waiting outside and now demanding more money from us. Maybe the hotel refused to pay him any commission, which is a shame because we paid far too much for the room. Anyway, we ignored his demand for more money but were then worried that he would be lying in wait for us. It's such a shame that this sort of thing happens so often - if he had taken us where we asked, we would have given him a tip. As it was we entered into a huge battle with him. With a few exceptions, it seems that the Indians I have come into contact with prefer to get money from tourists by being dishonest or pushy rather than providing a good service.
Because the rest of our friends had their plane delayed, we were actually all stuck in Siliguri together. Mandy left me in the hotel to expel the last of my poison and met up with the others in a cafe. They managed to arrange a jeep to Darjeeling later that evening, when the strike was due to finish.
The 4 hour journey up into the Himalayas was quite dramatic. The sun was sinking behind bare-limbed trees and the misty mountains loomed up ahead of us. Fire breaks were being burnt in forests along the route and the smoky haze that filled the air made it feel like driving into October. Later when it was dark the fires seemed to be coming down the hillsides like lava flows.
An hour into the journey we reached a road block. An angry mob were protesting and there was a lot of waving of arms and raised voices. We never found out what the strike was about. Our driver spoke no English so after half an hour of waiting, we ascertained with sign language that we were going to backtrack and then try a different route to Darjeeling.
The rest of the jeep ride went smoothly and took us up and up through quaint villages clinging to the hillside. As the road twisted and turned we could see twinkling lights tumbling down into the valleys. It would have been nice to do the journey in daylight. Our driver played us his Enrique Iglesias tape on loop. We heard Enrique's most famous song in Spanish, in English, as a ballard, a dance tune and an extended remix. Three times... it was impossible not to hum along! It made a memorable soundtrack to the rugged terrain and it drowned out the sound of the overused horn.
On arrival in Darjeeling (39 hours afer setting out from Delhi) we have to walk to our guesthouse through the pitch dark and chilly streets. However, the accomodation is perfect - the cleanest and best I've seen in India. I have a feeling I'm going to like Darjeeling.