The land of tea and fog

Trip Start Aug 26, 2012
Trip End Dec 22, 2013

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Where I stayed

Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Sunday, February 17, 2013

Having such a good train experience arriving into Kolkata, I had the same expectations for the overnight train leaving. But it was not to be true.  For starters we thought we were all in the same car but with a quick review of the tickets realized we were spread out all over.  I ended up being by myself in a separate car from everyone else.  I would be lying if I said I wasn't intimated or uncomfortable being the only westerner not only in my cabin but in the entire car.  There were two young woman sitting across from me and I tried to make eye contact and smile but got blank stares in return.  The rest of the cabin were men and did a combination of staring when I wasn’t looking at them and ignoring me when I did.  I’m so thankful that I bought a new book to read and could dive into it to avoid the awkwardness that probably I was just feeling.  I had the lower berth as well so had to wait until the others in the middle and upper berth were ready to go to bed before I could.  And as for going to bed we had thought we were booked in a first class sleeping car but turned out we were in second class.  In second class there are no sheets, blankets or pillows given but were told that men would come around the cars and you could rent them.  We came to find out after the train left the station that you had to rent them from the station.   This left us to having a very cold night with very little clothing to cover up with and jealous of everyone else on the train who were well prepared with sheets and blankets.  In the morning thankful that the night was over, I was even more thankful when Margo came to find me.  I grabbed my stuff and went back with her to her and Tony’s car and cabin.  What a completely different environment to mine.  They were the only westerner’s but the young men they were sharing with were so friendly, informative and genuinely interested in us.  While there I realized, food does not come for free in second class and I only had large notes so wasn’t going to bother but Margo insisted and bought me a cup of chai, omelette and toast all for 45 rupees. Our train was supposed to arrive into Siliguri at am but we sat for almost an hour about 15 mins from the station due to fog delays.  Just another twist in making a bad train ride worse.

Finally off the trains we were met by Amanda (who had arrived the day before) and some jeeps that would first take us to Josh so we could get out bags and then we were off to Darjeeling.  It wasn’t long before we got out the city and started the climb into the mountains before we noticed that it didn’t feel like we were in India at all.  It felt more like being back in Nepal with more Nepalese people then Indian, momo’s instead of samosas and Tibetan prayer flags started popping up everywhere.  Traveling by jeeps up and up some very narrow winding roads it took most of the day to reach Darjeeling which straddles a ridge 2200m up in the Himalayas and is 600km from Kolkata.   Darjeeling in its hay day was very much a holiday resort town when the British were here.   It still is to some degree as well as a major tea-growing centre where the famous Darjeeling tea is grown.  I did try my fair share of the tea while I was here but I have to say I found it very weak.  One of the greatest attractions of Darjeeling is the mountain vista views especially of Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world.  However as luck would have it the weather was so bad with fog and rain while we there though that I never go to see any mountain vistas at all.   It was a quiet first night for me as I was still completely shattered from the lack of sleep on the train. Others found a good local bar and from all accounts had a good night so was sorry to have missed it.   Our accommodation was the Old Bellevue Hotel and it was decent enough but the cold temperatures made it feel much worse than it was.  The place is not heated but you can rent room heaters which we did the first night but the glow of the heater was so bright that it had to be turned off in the middle of the night.  So it was returned the following day. However they did give use a hot water bottle every night which probably worked better at staying warm in bed.

With the weather still being crappy I opted not to take part in taking  a ride on the toy train, a steam train that runs a 7km route from Darjeeling to Ghoon (or Ghoom)   which sits at 2438m.  Those that did brave the ride saw nothing but fog and froze to death.  I was disappointed to not have done it but there was not much point.  Instead I took care of some business, like reporting a lost debit card (I have no idea how or when it was lost) and signing some POA forms for taxes (ugh).  Thanks to the free wifi at Glenary’s and lots of printing/scanning place it was all a fairly painless process.  I also did some shopping with Sarah and bought a warm Nepalese hat and a down filled jacket – knock off of course.  For the evening Sarah and I joined Amanda and Zoe for a few drinks at Joey’s pub – the place frequented the night before and Domino’s pizza for dinner.  Don’t judge me, you would too after many weeks of curry and rice.

The weather on day two was only better in the fact that it stopped raining; the fog was still hanging around and not a mountain to see.  Wanting to do something we wandered down to hill the zoo and spent about an hour there with the biggest thrills being the Asiatic Black Bear, Yaks, Blue Sheep, Bengal tiger, various types of Leopards and Red Pandas.  Then we headed back up the hill and stopped at the New Elgin Hotel where they serve High Tea.  In the afternoon Sarah and I did some more wandering up and down the various switchbacks that make up the town of Darjeeling.  My calves got a serious workout today.

Hopeful for better weather the next morning a bunch of us signed up for the early morning sunrise trip to Tiger Hill (2585m) on the eastern extremity of the Singalila Range that provides a 360 degree panorama view of the Himalayas.  However waking up @ 4:30am and seeing fog out the window I was second guessing what I signed up for.  Regardless I got ready to go only to be waiting in the hotel lobby to hear Ben came out on the phone saying" it’s too dangerous for the jeeps?”  Sure enough it was and the trip was cancelled and back to bed I went.    After the sun did rise apparently there was a 5 min window where you could see a small view of the mountain ranges which of course I missed.  It was another leisurely breakfast at Foodsteps (across the street from hotel with great food and very friendly owner) followed by coffee, wifi  and a quick glimpse of the mountains when the skies did clear again briefly at Glenary’s,  before leaving mid-morning in jeeps for our next destination.

Darjeeling was very much a transition place. In a period of 12hrs we went from 35C to 12C weather for the highs and that was a bit of a shock for me.  And then add in the rain and fog, it didn’t make the transition any easier.  If the weather had been better in terms of clear skies I think I would have had a better time as then you could actually do things.  Darjeeling also felt very much like being in Nepal which was an easier transition to adjust to but still needed to adjust.  No more crazy busy roads with constant honking of horns and always watching where you had to step.  It was actually a very peaceful place and I can see the attraction to it from locals and foreigners.
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