Darjeeling Limited: First views of Himalayas

Trip Start Sep 24, 2008
Trip End Jul 21, 2009

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Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Saturday, October 11, 2008

Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
October 8-11, 2008

Darjeeling: Welcome to Tea Country
Our arrival in northern West Bengal brought us to the train junction city of Siliguri - a complete waste of anyone's time except that this is where you pick up shared jeeps to Darjeeling and further north to Sikkim.  Having ridden in Indian trains and buses, Ankit and I were feeling pretty good about anything that would come our way: enter a shared jeep and the heinous road to Darjeeling.  Stuffed in the back of the equivalent of a Toyota Land Cruiser, our legs and knees were crushed miserably as we were in a car with 15 people (including the driver).  Adding to the misery was the fact that we barely slept on the overnight train from Kolkata.  Further adding to the misery was the fact that the road to Darjeeling is extremely steep and is in worse condition and twistiness than the Road to Hana in Maui.  Further further adding to the misery was that two relatively tall Indians (yes, I'm in a place where I can confidently say that) were jammed in the back and sitting just above the rear wheel well where every slight bump in the road launches you upwards.  However, it was a gorgeous drive taking us up through lush forests and the beginning of the Himalayan foothills to the tea plantation area surrounding Darjeeling. 

Darjeeling itself is a "hill station", but really a relatively large town with really really steep hills/streets that clings to the lush hills and looks out upon the Khangchendzonga Hills and every part of the the day except for before 7:30am is shrouded in dense clouds that have moved up from the Bay of Bengal.  Just behind those clouds lie the highest peaks in the world, but you'd have no idea if you aren't up early.  It is very reminiscent of the town of Coroico down below the Andes in the cloud forests near La Paz, Bolivia.  We stayed at the Chalet Hotel right on Chowrasta Square, the center of action for both the tourists and the locals - the Gorkhas (more on this in a minute).  The hotel was a 100 year old British heritage building that was handed over to an Indian family and is currently run by a lovely aunty and uncle who are descendants of this family ("my family got the property from the Britishes") and who require every bit of information from your passport/visa over the course of several days

Introduction to Gorkhaland
The Gorkhas are of Nepalese descent, and their language is spoken through Gorkhaland (northern West Bengal) and Sikkim.  Also Hindu, they were all dressed in their best traditional clothing for Dassara with the women wearing colorful dresses and the men wearing suit jackets over the Nepalese kimono looking shirt and their amazing Gorkha hats.  Contrary to most parts of India, the people are very very laid back, without a single shopkeeper harassing you.  Gorkhas are an incredibly nice people and speak excellent English, it really does not feel like you are in India at all. 

Having long been residents of this part of India, the Gorkhas were second fiddle to the British when they created Darjeeling and seized the territory in exchange for granting the Kingdom of Sikkim autonomy (Sikkim is north of West Bengal).  Ever since post-partition, the portion of Gorkhaland that is territorially in India (Gorkhaland also comprises parts of Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet) was part of West Bengal and the CPI-M (Communist Party of India) have long shunned Gorkha's calls for autonomy, representation and the right to not be Bengali.  Though there have been many violent clashes in the past, the main Gorkhaland political party is a democratic and peaceful one and I didn't find one single Gorkha who wants to be part of West Bengal.  The tide of Gorkhaland independence is once again rising as there was a massive "We Want Gorkhaland" celebration every night in Chowrasta Square to coincide with Navratri and were demonstrations later on in our journey.  This will be revisited in the Sikkim blogs.  

Meeting a Future Flight Attendant and Visiting a Tea Plantation
Our second morning in Darjeeling, while having a chai downstairs, the uncle who runs the hotel was ecstatic to find out that Ankit and I are/were bankers at Citi.  We chatted about the financial markets and about his Sensex portfolio getting whacked, but he was more understanding and realistic than our friend Shabnam on the train from Kolkata

Getting a late start after a much needed night of good sleep, we jammed our way down to the Office of District Magistrate to get our Sikkim permits.  Being festival time and India, the office was closed all week and we thought would be open all day Friday.  We showed up a 12:50p to find out the office closes at 1p and were supposed to get a stamp/form from the ODM, head up to the Foreign Registry's Office for another stamp and back down to the ODM.  The dude at the ODM graciously took care of us, allowing us to circumvent the need for a second stamp and told us the tale of the morning: "I was not supposed to work today and we were supposed to open at 11am.  We failed.  I got a call at 12p saying there are tons of foreigners waiting for permits (it was Friday) and so we opened at 12:15p".  Remember, the office closed at 1p.  Incredible India!  This is the expression all Indians say when discussing the pitiful state of getting anything done in a reasonable amount of time. 

From here, we made our way over to the Happy Valley Tea Estate to check out the world famous tea plantations.  En route, Ankit and I met this wonderful little girl named Megna.  She hovered behind us as we had a cold bev and a snack, making us thinking she wanted some change or a candy.  In actuality, this beautiful girl dressed in her finest colorful Nepali clothing, simply wanted to talk with us and practice her English.  We discovered she loved school, had a nasty gash on her hand from her brother playing with her with a knife (WTF?), her father lived in Gangtok with his second wife (without a kidney), and that she hopes to someday become an air hostess (a highly valued and sought after position in India, particularly since it requires excellent command of spoken English). 

After saying farewell and taking snaps (that would eventually be lost), we made our way to the plantation.  What a beautiful experience.  The plantation is just below the town and you find yourself wading in tea plants and flowers everywhere, looking up at lush hills, and far away from the traffic and commotion that is Darjeeling.  We met this sweet woman who runs a shack across from the actual plantation (it was of course closed for the holidays) and she gave us a first class education.  The funny thing was our French friend Juliette, who we met in Kolkata, popped in with Roman and their new Kiwi friend Gerard at the same time we were there! 

A brief tea education.  There are 84 estates in Darjeeling, Happy Valley is (allegedly) the only organic one.  The finest tea from the region (and in the world arguably) is the Super Fine Tipi Golden Flowery Orange Picko 1 and is a specific bud from the tea plant.  Most of the world's tea is from Assam and China, but this particular leaf can brew in 3-5 seconds, can be reused several times and is frankly d*mn good (and doesn't require sugar or milk).  Tasted a bit like coca tea, but definitely more delicious.  After our tutorial, we arranged to meet for dinner with Juliette and crew as my friend Zoe would arrive later that day. 

Quick note, we met this Swiss couple while getting our tutorial, Dominique and Mariam, who were traveling the world for a year.  Giving several tidbits of wisdom (beach saturation and hating to repack and lug around your life) and telling the woes of a long journey (they were in Burma for the cyclone and northern Vietnam for the flooding) such as the one I'm taking, they told me the most interesting thing about them: they are from Basel.  Mariam went to school with Roger Federer!  She has school pics of him as a small boy and remembers him hating to practice and wanting to just be a kid.  Small world.   

Ankit and I then frolicked through the plantation fields, which is where he was struck by thoughts of alternate views of life and enjoyment in a vastly different and simple way of life.  It's funny how you have to go halfway around the world to take a step back.  It was kind of like my Turkey trip for me, but every person has their own journey through life.  It was so peaceful in the plantation fields and was night and day as compared to the bustle of Kolkata.  We met a Kolkata resident with a vacation home in a shack amongst the tea plants.  After our moment of zen, we had a phenomenal walk through the actual village of Darjeeling (where many of the locals live) back to town.  Despite a humble village life, no one was hungry, homeless or without power. 

Reunited with Zoe and Tales from Gerard
Back at our hotel, Zoe (friend I met while in Turkey) had arrived and met a friend on the flight, Aoife (second one I know) - an Irish lawyer who was in London for 7 years and just walked away from her career, will travel for some time and then move to Dublin.  The four of us would travel together through Sikkim as well.  We all had a fantastic meal at Belary's (you must eat here) with Juliette, Roman and Gerard.  Gerard is a mountain and trekking addict - my kind of guy - who has done the Annapurna trek and Everest base camp treks from both the Nepal and Tibetan sides.  Classic story: at Everest Base Camp (Nepal side) at 17,000ft there is a steep climb to an outlook of the mother of all peaks (and home of the gods).  At such altitude you are gasping for air every ten steps.  His buddy felt it better to run ten steps and then take a breather, but apparently lost complete bowel control and ended up taking the "highest sh*t he is likely to every have taken in his life".  We didn't get much sleep that night in anticipation of our 4am wakeup to head up to Tiger Hill for sunrise and the sun's glowing rays on Mt Khangchendzonga (3rd highest), Everest and many other dominant peaks. 

Tiger Hill: First Ever View of the Great Himalaya

The morning at Tiger Hill was up there as my top two mornings of all-time (soon to be surpassed in Sikkim) with the stroll through Intipuku to Macchu Picchu.  Words and pictures (which I lost) cannot explain my emotions, the views or anything about seeing the first sunrays glisten off the sacred peaks where the gods live and that provide the vital source of water for so many people.  It was beyond my expectations and was the fulfilling of a lifelong dream.  After some chai to warm us up, we all took a long and glorious 12k walk back to Darjeeling, stopping at the town of Ghoom (where we saw some Gorkhas pumping iron in front of a Shiva shrine, very odd indeed) and many gompas (Buddhist monasteries) along the way.  Embarassing tale: we saw a peak to the right of Khang that looked exactly like Everest and was quite dominant.  Directionally it made sense and I spouted all the knowledge I have of this great peak: climbing routes, all the faces, Lhotse, migratory bird patterns, the monsoons and dry Tibet, etc.  ("Ever... ever... ever... Rest... rest... rest...").  Shortly later, I found out that I was looking at Mt Silochu, a relatively pathetic 5700m, while Everest was a tiny speck off to the left of Khang next to Lhotse (4th highest).  Nevertheless, I saw #1, 3 and 4 highest peaks in the world in one morning (and the highest three on the eastern side of the Sacred Himalayas).      

The Sikkim four and Gerard enjoyed another phenomenal meal at Glenary's and I relayed the bad news to Gerard about Silochu.  At least he's been to Base Camp.  Another trip and another time, I will go to Nepal and do the same.  The following day we embarked on another torturous shared jeep ride as we made our way up to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, and five of the most peaceful, glorious, spiritual and challenging days of my life as we were set to do a trek in the Himalayas.  Onwards and (literally) upwards.


PS:  Promise to get some Tiger Hill pics from either Zoe or Ankit up here, but I will top them with pics I actually have beginning from Sikkim onwards.  Pray to any god you believe in that I am no longer an idiot and never again lose valuable pictures.  Also pray to any god you believe in that the Cal Bears find a way to win on the road.  At least with McCain's collapse and the Bears defeats, I am not sorry I am missing a no-doubt-about-it election or the Rose Bowl.  C'mon Michael Bloomberg for President (sorry Bip, you're out).  Let's Go Rays!     
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