Time for Darjeeling

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Where I stayed

Flag of India  , West Bengal,
Friday, September 24, 2010

Our Delhi to Kolkata sleeper journey had been really comfy, raising our expectations of Indian rail, and so we were a bit disappointed by our overnight journey from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) Station. Our upper bunks were tip to tail along the corridor, giving scant security for our bags, no where to sit (the lower bunks had been bagged by two families), at every stop through the night our curtains were lifted by newcomers wanting to see if our bunk was vacant, and our supper was a packet of extra spicy bujia mix that I'd bought off the platform; all completely our fault for booking duff bunks and not bringing more food! But that aside, we did sleep, our bags were exactly where we left them the next morning and the scenery was fabulous - lush and tropical with mile upon mile of rice paddy, interrupted by clusters of timber and straw houses circling large ponds, rows of tall coconut palms, banana palms and thick stands of bamboo, children swimming and playing, women washing colourful clothes, linear railside ponds choked with water hyacinth and flowering lotus and bright trucks racing down tracks sending up clouds of dust. We lost count of the number of naked bottoms we saw squatting by the railtack in the morning!

We disembarked at NJP in the rain, excited about the next leg of our journey on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (UNESCO World Heritage Site), only to find out that our plan had been scuppered by a landslide. Instead we hopped into a shared jeep with nine others, cutting the journey time by more than half. We sped through Siliguri, past the statue of the famous Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, through the surrounding forest, tea plantations and army camps and up into the foothills of the Himalayas. We followed the thin railway line for much of the way, crossing over it numerous time as we weaved up the twisting road into the clouds. At Kurseong we saw the steam and diesel engines tucked away in a workshop, at Ghoom, the little Victorian station, and we spotted the railhead just before the jeep pulled into its stand at Darjeeling.

En route we couldn't fail to spot the painted slogans and overhead banners campaigning for the free state of Gorkhaland. The Gurkhas are Darjeeling's main political force and when their relationship with Delhi became strained in the late 1980's they called for a separate state. The proceeding violence, riots and strikes, orchestrated by the Gurkha National Liberation Front, were resolved through the formation of the Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council in 1988, which was given a high level of autonomy. But not everyone is happy with the arrangement and organisations have continued to call for succession. While we were in Darjeeling, far away in Delhi the eighth round of tripartite talks took place between the Central and State governments and Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. On that day we saw a peaceful rally march through the town and at the Chowrasta (town square) speakers blasted out Gorkhaland songs.

Darjeeling is a great place to relax, watch people and of course drink tea. We drank tea in Glenary's and tried out most of their cakes. We had high tea at The Elgin, a beautiful colonial-era hotel with polished wooden floors and cakes presented on a silver cake stand, and we drank tea in the numerous tea shop and cafes in town. I dread to think how much caffein we consumed during our stay! We also visited a couple of monasteries and wandered through the back streets and the thin, steep market stall lanes. As you can gauge from the photos, for all its elegant colonial architecture, stunning mountain views and tea shops, there's no escaping the fact it is a rough and ready town. Throughout the day jeeps rev up the steep roads honking their horns and at sundown Darjeeling's dogs wake up and start barking and fighting, and continue for the whole night. It's a darn noisy place, but that's because its full of life. Thank goodness we remembered our earplugs!

Best wishes
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