A Cup of Darjeeling. No Milk of Course.
03.10.2014 - 06.10.2014
Go Airways did as it said on the label. Fortunately there are no Indian airlines called "Breakdown", "Engine failure" or "crash".
GO took us to the romantic sounding Bagdogra, the main airport serving the West Bengal Hills. Politics cannot be ignored when travelling in India. So a bit of a background. The state of West Bengal, with its capital in Kolkata is rather like a plump goose. The Darjeeling region sits in the neck and the head. With tea and tourism however it brings plenty of money into the state. Protesters in this region have been seeking an independent Gorkhaland state for years as its believed that disproportionately more is swallowed into the belly of the W Bengal Government than is given back to build universities, hospitals etc in the area. To speak in metaphors, Darjeeling produces Pâté de Foie Gras and the Government gives them luncheon meat in return. There have been Sporadic outburst of protest over the years that has strangled the infrastructure making travel difficulty. In 2008 and in 2011 I had to change my plans due to this. Much has been done to appease dissent and more power has been decentralised; although huge cultural differences abound even in language as many of the Darjeeling folk speak Nepali. Physically many have an oriental appearance.
Wake up. Slap on the face. No more snoring. The political bit is over now. After 2 1/2 hours on the road, including one taxi and one shared jeep we arrived in Kurseong to meet Mr San in a cafe. I know this type of rendezvous sounds a bit John Le Carre but he was our guide to introduce us the the hosts of our Homestay, a few miles away in Makaibari, a village dominated by tea plantations of its namesake. Makabari teeters on the edge of the plantation. When the cloud retreats the stunning views in the valley below are revealed.
The villagers seemed to be preoccupied with playing a local game on the streets where chalked lines were drawn and the mild gambling commenced. But nobody was working. The actual tea plantation had been closed for the Purga holidays hence the laid back atmosphere. So no discos, museums or action packed itinerary. This was just 24 hours enjoying the tranquility and the geniality of our host family. So no sounds. None of the constant whine of the fan and aircon at this height of 4600. No not needed. Wrong. In our basic but clean abode it was hot, sticky and like Stockport County fanless. To top it all the constantly quarrelling stray dogs on our doorstep meant that sleep was taking no orders from us. Not even John Lennon promising Instant Karma on my MP3 (I'm old technology and proud) could help. "All we are saying is give sleep a chance".
Despite the lack of sleep it was a real experience as was the 30 km (2 hrs 45 mins) journey on the Himalayan Railways train form Kurseong to Darjeeling. Although the trip was on a diesel and not a steam train (only available on a small route) it was still a narrow gaged, Unesco status delight. as the train negotiated track parallel to the seemingly impossibly busy back streets of Kurseong. The train goes through the country's highest train station Ghoom ( 2,226 m). It spirals a near 360 degrees around the Batasia loop, circling at the same time a small public park that commands views of the Eastern Himalayas. As the train approached Darjeeling however it appeared sprawling, although our eyes were quickly diverted by the views.
We were determined not to get a taxi to the hotel as in a couple of days time we were to embark on a 90 km trek that would have but such a ride shame. After 10 minutes or so we settled in to the Snow Lion hotel. This was lovely clean hotel run by a Tibetan family. It is festooned with ethnic ornaments, paintings and various memorabilia. Nature painted the finest landscape in the morning overlooking the breakfast room. Kanchanjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world could be seen in all its bright and vivid splendour.
First time round in Darjeeling we could not help in feeling slightly disappointed. This feeling was reversed on a latter trip. As a town it does of course have an impressive backdrop and very much its own identity. We were yet however to find its colonial heart. A real problem was the congestion on the streets. Had this been Europe then traffic restrictions would certainly have been in place. Also the overfed Kolkata tourists taking a respite during the Puja holidays crammed the streets and took some of the ambience away from the main square (the Mall). Still stunning views could be seen all around. Dining out proved to be a problem as the whole town is nicely tucked away in bed at 9pm. Dining after 8.30 can be difficult, hence a KFC one night, albeit a very good Thai the other night. OK we succumbed to a chain. I must confess that I openly seek out one chain at every available point in India. This is Cafe Coffee Day. With this Indian chain you will be greeted with a smile at any available point. This chain is relatively expensive for Indians (although not for us).The service maybe a little slower than the likes of Starbucks or Caffè Nero although the quality of the coffee is certainly on par. You are also guaranteed a relatively clean (including toilet) AC haven from the sweaty, dusty rigours of Indian travel.
Sorry for digressing (and plug). In fact let me digress further. An explanation is warranted. Myself and Sam have long awarded ourselves with colonial names. Ie Tarquin and Petula. These names are well equipped to combat the starched collared, pink ginned and ironed newspapered world of the colonial Brits. We imagined ours Victorian selves with our servants, cooks and general entourage of staff conquering the great trail. Two twits in tweed more likely!
Second digression over. After our KFC Tarquin and Petula had to get back to the hotel for a briefing by our tour agent Subhash. During the brief, even to myself he seemed to complete every sentence with the words "my dear'. After clarifying that 90 km lay ahead of us over 6 days maybe "oh dear" might have been more appropriate.
We had an early night for the following day the trek was to commence. Kanchanjunga has been designated a sacred mountain and hence cannot be climbed. It appears nevertheless that is forever watching over us. I am not a religious man but that night a prayed to the 8,586 m beast and asked him to go easy on our souls, soles (ie blisters) and our arseholes ie (easy on bowel movements).