Darjeeling to Delhi

Trip Start Oct 26, 2007
Trip End Oct 26, 2009

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Friday, November 30, 2007

After all my fellow trekkers had departed Kathmandu, I hopped a plane to Bogdogra, Nepal.. which is the closest airport to Darjeeling, a mere 5 1/2 hour drive away.  Vito's brother in law Arun, and his driver, met me at the airport, where we then made our windy way to Darjeeling.  I had not the time to read up on Darjeeling, and in my ignorance expected it to be a flat, large tea plantation.. I didn't realise it was a hill town, with houses virtually perched on the mountainside.  The winding roads were in awful condition.. Arun explained to me on the way (and given the length of our journey, we had a lot of time to chat!) that there are two main challenges facing Darjeeling.. first is the condition of their roads, second is their water supply.  Pretty important things! 

The immigration station at the Nepal/India border was the scene of some merriment.  It seemed uncertain whether anyone was working, and whether they were accepting people over the border at all, and whether we were going to get through!  The officer that processes my papers was wearing a shirt that said "Alcatraz Psycho-Ward Out Patient"  Hahahaha.. can you believe it?  The poor man had no idea what his shirt said/or meant.  I made the mistake of trying to tell him (you can see my mirth and honesty at all costs tendency might get me in trouble!) .. well, it was a pantomime!  I omitted enough in my explanation to leave him thinking it was a great shirt, entirely appropriate for one's first impression upon entering India from Nepal.. welcome to the loony bin! 

But that was not the only official stop.  Upon crossing the border, we had yet another station in a little outbuilding tucked away off the street.  Two gorgeous little puppies were frolicking in the rather dirty office.  An official joined us after a 10minute wait, looking to be wearing either pajamas, or his underwear!  He was singularly unimpressed to be called to work, and made it plain by kicking away the puppies.. it's a tough old world.  I couldn't help but thinking that in other lands, when visitors come to your country there's a bit of a welcome even if it's false bonhomie!.. but the Indian contingent didn't even pretend.  While I was waiting, a young American man and a Japanese young woman came in to get permission to be let out of India and into Nepal.  We struck up a conversation, and when I asked where the man was from he said Colorado, which is where both of my sisters live.  It turned out his mother lived in Fruita, where Eileen lives!  I didn't ask her name, we just both enjoyed the small worldliness!

The ride through the lower regions leading into Darjeeling was lovely.  I had never seen tea plantations or fields before, and so enjoyed the row upon row of small bushes.  There were women working in the fields, and as elsewhere in India and Nepal, people walking in the streets, cows meandering, buses and trucks passing each other out.  The mini-van we were in was particularly uncomfortable.  It was big, but for some reason the back seat was right on top of the front seat, ie no leg room!  My legs were jammed up against the back of the driver's seat.  I tried a few different positions, but essentially stayed cramped for five hours!  I was tired and slept a bit. 

When we arrived at our destination, Arun had suggested one hotel, after asking me what my budget was - funnily everything is very money focused.  I tried to explain to him this was my first stay in India, outside of Udaipur and my cost-free stay at Mt Abu, so I was just looking for clean and safe.  He took me to a place that was quite spacious and big, but I have come to find out that peoples' idea of clean vary widely.  This was not a clean place, nor was it a place that made me feel particularly secure.  It was run by young men with little English.  I've found over my travels in India that places that have women involved, in some way, shape or form, are generally much more pleasant places to stay. 

The following morning I set out to explore the town.  I marvel at how people can live on a hillside!  Some of the houses were four stories high.. most were quite simple, modest and derelict.  It was hot.  There were many schoolchildren heading to school, people selling their fruit and veg in the market, stalls.  I noticed right off that the people of Darjeeling were not as outwardly friendly or curious as the Nepalis.  I've come to find out Nepal was unique in its land and its people.. it'll remain my favourite place for some time I'm sure!  Anyhow, it didn't take me long to form the impression that Darjeeling is a rather depressed area.. I found out later in the day that the town was planning a general strike that was going to shut the town down, for up to four days.   I sought out a restaurant where they were blaring pop music. I had a sweet cup of coffee.. when you ask for white coffee it comes to you super sweetened.  It tasted nice anyway.  I planned to change hotels, but given the news about the general strike I thought I'd speak to Arun before making definite plans.  I met up with him and found out that the strike was indeed going ahead, and was to last four days.  In those four days everything in town would be shut, and there was no transport in or out of the area.  Given my impressions of the town, which were not good, and the general sense of foreboding I felt.. I decided to high-tail it on outta there!  At first Arun suggested leaving at 3am the following morning.. but then we agreed I'd leave later that afternoon.  I think Arun was torn between wanting me to stay so he could show off the area's natural wonders, and realistically knowing that I'd be a prisoner in a protest rally town!  So, I arranged to visit Arun's family, that included my trek leader Vito's wife Sabita and their baby Itcha.  See their photos attached.  It was a lovely visit, and I'm sorry I didn't have more time with them, but overall I was pleased to get outta there.  It was a strange and not very pleasant stay in Darjeeling.  I hope the strike brought about positive changes, I couldn't glean much from the newspapers in the following days.  But I wouldn't rush back there.  Our trek leader Vito is a lovely guy, and he would like to break away from the UK based travel company he leads treks for, and start up his own business.  I hope he does.  I said I'd bring a group back!  In fact I am thinking of an April/May 2009 trek, when rhododendrons are in full bloom.

So back on the road!  This time my driver was a Silliguri man named "Rocky", a pure lunatic behind the wheel.  And that's being kind!  He told me of his two little children, and I had to convince myself that he would not deliberately catapult us to our deaths over the cliffs, when he was so obviously in love with his children.  After an hour or so of gasping and wincing, I popped on my iPod, a gift from my friends Nigel and Anne, and held on for dear life while singing along to songs for the remainder of the trip.  Rocky complimented my singing, and we got along fine!  There were several points along the journey where I just had to laugh.. it was so surreal, and crazy!  We were stuck in a traffic jam.. as many people were fleeing Darjeeling due to the strike.  The narrow, potholed filled roads were not able for the heavy traffic, so we inched our way down.. there were times we didn't move for about 20 minutes.. but when we got over the worst jam, we sped and wound our way down.  It was an experience!

I stayed at a hotel overnight, (clean! comfortable! cool!) and caught a flight the next morning to Delhi.  I had the choice of either of Delhi or Calcutta.  I'm so glad I chose Delhi, because the next morning I read about a violent demonstration in Calcutta..  my good luck continued!  One of my trek-mates, Ali from Australia, had gone on to Varanasi and a number of other Indian cities after her two weeks in Nepal.  I read that morning there was an explosion in Varanasi, so I hoped she was not close to that action.

So, back to Delhi.. scene of my lost Nationwide card.  It took six weeks to get the replacement card!  Thanks to my dear friends Anna and Kevin for going through the trouble of receiving and sending it.  The banking system in the UK needs to make more provisions for traveling  banking customers!  Thankfully I had another bank card, and a credit card to fall back on.  I just checked the credit card balance, and was surprised it was so low!  I shouldn't be, as India is probably the least expensive country in the world to travel in.. with the possible exception of perhaps Nepal?  I was thinking of entering Bhutan, another country very close to Darjeeling, but they have a controlled tourism and development programme, in 2006 only 18,000 visitors were allowed entry.  Someone told me they charge $100 usd per day for tourist entry!  That could be exaggerated.. but it no doubt keeps visitor numbers low. So that put me off..

Now remember my camera had been dropped and broken in Kathmandu.  I don't have any photos of Darjeeling, or Delhi, outside of a few of Muna and his mate who helped me plan my travels from Delhi through Rajasthan.  I took their photos with a Canon I bought in Delhi.  I was heartbroken to not be able to replace my Lumix exactly, but there were none to be found in Kathmandu or Delhi.  

I spent a night in Delhi and the following day I embarked on my four day tour of Jaipur and Agra, then back to Delhi. The highlight of my time in Delhi was in finding a coffee shop.  I indulged in big mugs of coffee every day, and sometimes ate lunch there too.  It was an oasis of calm in the chaotic centre of Delhi. Another highlight was in meeting a Swedish couple, and planning to have dinner with them one night.  They were staying at the same hotel as I, and then moving to another one.  I went with them in the car journey to the second one, and it took the taxi driver some time to find it.  I should have taken better directions, as when it came time to meeting them for dinner that night, my rickshaw driver could not find the address, and I did not know the area enough to tell him where to go.  I was very sorry to miss them, but feel they would have guessed I had trouble getting back when I didn't show.  I should have taken their number.  Ah well, it's all good learning points for the future.

You can read about my time in Jaipur and Agra in the next entry. Mr Singh dropped me to the airport.  So goodbye Delhi!  Or so I thought.  I was due back for a 5:15 plane after my Taj visit, etc.,  Mr Singh dutifully dropped me off at the appointed hour, in plenty of time for the 5:15 flight.  I went through the very amusing process of having my bags checked and labeled. Then I went to the check in counter, where I was told my plane had left 2 hrs ago!!  It was landing at 5:15.. not taking off.  Muna and Mr Singh operated to 5:15, as did I.  Another learning point, don't leave it to others to check your ticket!  So I made my way back to Muna's office, and imagine their surprise to see me when they expected me to be on my way to Kerala.  It worked out fine, I hung out in their office and used their very speedy computer, went to a nice, nearby restaurant for dinner, and Muna arranged a clean, central hotel and a lift to the airport the next morning at 5am.  The travels continue!
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