You don’t have to spend a king’s ransom to live like royalty in the “Queen of Hills”. This beautiful Indian hill station has plenty to offer travellers on a shoe string too.
“It’s just a short walk from the Dekeling,” said jolly Mrs Dekeva, our homestay hostess.
I wonder how much longer Jamie and I are going to believe our dear Gorkha friends when they tell us somewhere is only a stroll away. My antennae should have been twitching when I found it wasn’t marked on my Darjeeling street plan. The Tibetan Self Help Refugee Centre does, however, appear as an innocent dot at the top of the small scale Lonely Planet map of the whole mountainous area. But a quick check (using my finger tip to measure) convinced me it was only 4 kilometres from our starting point.
You have a cold? Try a pinch of tiger, or a smattering of red panda. A Chinese medicine maker’s pantry is spread over the hills of Darjeeling, but this zoo is doing all it can to protect the animals.
London Zoo used to be a regular day out for my family. Once through the barrier, my brother and I would make a beeline for the circular snake pit, where we’d hang over the side trying to spot the most dangerous specimen. The pandas were cuddly. The polar bears were surprisingly grubby, not white-as-snow at all. The big cats, whom I adored, at ‘feeding time’ were too smelly for my sensitive childish nose. I tried and failed to be interested in the birds so beloved by Dad. I enjoyed the warm reptile house, the sea lions and the insects, but Guy the Gorilla was my tippy toppest favouritest of them all.
If our recent experience of what a Gorkha regards as an ‘easy walk’ was anything to go by – a one in three incline through forest and driving rain for eight hours – we were not entirely convinced by Jiwan Rai’s assurances. Still, today he was wearing a suit and shirt, black shiny leather shoes and an umbrella hooked over his arm: it couldn’t be that difficult, could it?
We had just spent the morning talking to his bouncing pupils, aged three to ten, and were ready for a break. So we strolled up the road, nodding to the disinterested border patrol guards, and jumped over a storm drain into Nepal. It hardly felt like moving into another country, but the frisson that goes with flouting the rules turned lunch into a small adventure.
Our friend volunteered with the Mondo Challenge Foundation, a UK charity set up to help communities around the world . In 2010 she taught at the Magno Vale Academy for six months and finished just before we visited Darjeeling. When the charity’s founder heard we were going to visit the area he press-ganged us into acting as ‘ambassadors’ for the charity while we were there. He’s a very charming man. And persuasive.
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.