On a banner stretched across the main road we read “2600 years of the enlightenment of Lord Buddha”. By chance we had arrived just in time to join in the celebratory procession planned for the next day. At a mere 2100m Darjeeling is unlikely to strike you down with altitude sickness, but be prepared for an ear-popping drive from the Indian plains as you ascend two kilometres in four hours.
We arrived at NJP in the morning, after an Arctic overnight experience on the Padatik Express from Kolkata. Why do they insist on having the a/c turned up to ‘eleven’ on Indian trains? Like our neighbours, we had come prepared: we all went to bed wearing an assortment of woolly socks, bobble hats and fleeces.
New Jalpaiguri shake down
Within minutes of disembarking from our igloos, we were back in the shrieking, dusty heat of an Indian railway station. Outside the station rows of 4WDs lined the car park, six deep and all touting for business. Blinking in the morning light, we tried to decide which ride to choose. A quick poll of the first few vehicles revealed that the going rate for Darjeeling was 200Rs each (about £3). Great. There was a catch. 200Rs would get us a seat, but each ‘Jeep’ took 10 people: two next to the driver, four in the back seat and a further four in the boot, on fold-down chairs.
Jamie and I are not small, so we agreed to pay 800Rs for the four middle seats. We got in and waited for the vehicle to fill up. And we waited. Other cars, laden down with passengers, headed off. A little crumpled, and slightly irritable from our journey, we sat and simmered. Nothing happened. A family of four approached.
“Shall we share this Jeep?”
Delighted with the suggestion we agreed, and a happy deal was struck. Just as we were about to leave the driver asked us for an extra 400Rs.
“We will pay 800Rs and you will pay 1200,” explained the father of the family.
Er, no? Twenty minutes of lively negotiation between the family, us and the driver took us nowhere. You probably think haggling over 400Rs is churlish. There have been plenty of times around the world when we haven’t minded paying over the odds because we are seen as ‘rich’ foreign tourists in a poor area; in this case it was the (clearly loaded) father of the family who was chiseling us, not the driver. By now, most of the other cars had left, so in a moment of theatricality – while Jamie continued his discussions – I got out and removed my case from the roof. I found a driver who agreed to take us door to door for 1500Rs, the going rate for a private taxi. This was enough of a spur for the original driver to instantly find a couple more passengers. The problem was solved. As we drove out of the station the taxi driver glowered at me; I felt a pang of guilt for using him to score points in our negotiation.
One mile higher
We left the plains and wound our way upwards into the Himalaya, the driver gunning our Jeep round every blind hairpin bend. Although it was crowded, we were glad to be travelling along the pot-holed roads in a nicely sprung 4WD, rather than a knackered old taxi. Jewel and pastel coloured houses grew out of the mountains on either side of us, colourful bells, blooms and racemes shattering the ubiquitous green of the forest. Roses of every colour and shape, hydrangeas, geraniums and other herbaceous border flowers crowded the pots in the windows and frontages. This area of the mountains is famous for its rhododendrons, with the flowers at their most dazzling in April. As we climbed higher the temperature dropped, reminiscent of an English spring.
The narrow gauge track of the Unesco World Heritage Darjeeling Railway criss-crossed the road, snaking its way towards the same destination as us. We stopped to watch the clanking steam train huff and puff its way past us.
Town in the clouds
Darjeeling is a jumble of British Raj architecture, modern concrete boxes, shacks and tiny lanes. It was teeming with people when we were unceremoniously dumped in the centre. We made some space on the heaving road for our bags and weary bodies and asked around for directions to our hotel. We didn’t fancy traipsing through the dank lanes trying to find the entrance, so went for broke and took a taxi to the front door.
The Dekeling Homestay Hotel is situated in the midst of the hubbub. We climbed the steep steps, past a landing, through the wooden reception, up again to the sitting room and finally up another flight of narrow stairs to the top floor. The din by now had receded. The view from our corner room gave us our first high view of the Himalaya: one window faced two kilometres down into the valley, and the other faced north west, across town to the Kanchenjunga massif. India’s highest mountain (the third highest peak in the world) wasn’t playing ball, and hid itself behind the clouds.
Is this still India?
That afternoon we took a walk in what felt like a new country: the language had changed from Hindi to Nepali, with interesting tribal dialects and languages too; the influence of Tibet and China manifested itself in the almond eyes and straight black hair of the people. Some women wore an apron-like national dress, but many were in western clothes. We saw no sarees, and the only salwar kameezes in evidence were worn by Indian tourists. The local people were quiet and contained; it seemed the incessant chatter we had become used to in the rest of India was coming from the domestic tourists.
Cold and travel weary by 5pm, we stumbled across Joey’s pub. It turned out to be a bit of a tourist landmark, but with its cosy bar, ramshackle tables and faded posters it felt immediately like home. Pretty soon our table was filled with beer, cheap whiskey and playing cards. Lovely. The barman ordered a take away for us, and tasty noodles (which we came to learn are the staple of mountain cuisine) soon turned up. Beating Jamie at cards in the bar, and again back at the hotel, was a sure sign that he was ‘tired’. So we went to bed early, and slept for twelve and a half hours under the eaves of the world.
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