Tomorrow, (Monday), we leave the Himalayan hills and return to the plains, to the manic city of Kolkata, (Calcutta), the former Imperial capital of India, via a 12-hour overnight train on Monday night. Toby and I, (Joe writing here), have been rubbing shoulders with the foothills and the cool air for three weeks now, so it will be a minor shock to the system returning to the heat and humidity of a bustling Indian city!
We’ve spent the last few days taking things easy, strolling round the small hill town and taking in the fresh air and stunning views. Darjeeling is an odd place. The buildings appear almost like wannabe alpine-lodges. There are few rickshaws or motorbikes here too (joy). It’s almost a one-street town with a lot of shops and cafes which only operate half-days, or narrow closing hours. As an early bird I was incredibly frustrated on Friday morning when I couldn’t grab a hot caffeinated beverage until 8.15am
Despite this restrained start to the day we walked 30 minutes outside of the town to one of the nearest tea estates. As we walked down all you can see over the hills are perfectly organised tea estates. The palm trees at the base of the valley give way to these bright green plantations and then they share the view with the maya blue sky. It was picturesque. This is the India many dream of, the place that inspired Kipling to write ‘Kim’ and ‘The Jungle Book’.
We wondered down to the estate and after repeatedly declining a tour from the pushy staff wondered the estate on our own accord, ignoring the dull factory and exploring the rolling hills instead. The smell of the leaves being roasted wafted across the valley whilst tea pickers, with wicker baskets on their back were thrilled to see some new company in their day. We declined once more that we purchase tea and instead strolled back into town and into the bustling vegetable and spice market. Here we bought packs of high-grade tea for a mere 80p. We also grabbed a very cheap lunch where I devoured some chilly Tibetan momos (more on those later).
In the afternoon we were, as is usual, pausing for an afternoon coffee and cake when we got talking to Paul, or ‘Guru Paul’ as his friends jovially call him back home in Edinburgh. Paul would become our Darjeeling buddy for the next two days. He has a love affair with India, he says, and comes twice a year for holidays. He was really knowledgeable about the country and clearly very passionate about travel and all aspects of life really. We had great fun trying some Tibetan food whilst slyly bitching about other traveler stereotypes. What was so refreshing, and perhaps why he deserves a mention, is that he was so engrossed in India and its many spiritual connexions, and yet he was completely at ease with his western lifestyle. There was no need for garish harem pants (guilty…), ridiculous tops or the horrid ‘sack’ top, dreadlocked hair or walking barefoot ‘to become more grounded’. Paul’s just a hardworking lad from Edinburgh who first came to India on a package tour.
It was as a three that we rose at 3.30am(!) on Saturday morning to take a jeep 10km away from the town to a viewpoint named Tiger Hill. The attraction was that you can watch sunrise over a large section of the Himalayan range, including Mount Everest. The viewpoint was a classic Indian circus: chai sellers with large thermos squeezing their way through the big crowd of stubborn Indian tourists. There was no guide or signage to indicate which mountain or direction you may be looking at (Alas Nepal, we miss you already) so the three of us seperated from the crowd who were obsessed with the red hue of the early morning sky and wondered over to a view of the mountain range. slowly, as the sun popped up the mountains turned to pink. Everest? In the distance. Just about. Behind those hills. I feel that we’ve been spoilt with sunrises and sunsets in the past 11 weeks, and it certainly didn’t compare with the trek in Nepal.
I had had a dicky tum overnight (bloody Momos, I blame the thick balsamic-like glaze they came coated in) so had no energy to walk the route back to Darjeeling. I returned to catch up on some sleep whilst Toby and Paul slowly meandered their way back, stopping off for breakfast and then looking into a Buddhist monastery in the nearby district of Ghum that featured a hugely ornate room with a giant Buddha sat within. Toby reports the monastery was worth the pleasant downhill walk, and they were both back in town by 10am.
In the afternoon I rested a bit more whilst Toby checked out the Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Most Indian zoos border on animal cruelty, often squeezing an animal into a cage and deeming that to be sufficient, but here they’re much more humane. The highlight was the leopard cat. Imagine a cat. With the fur of a leopard. What a fashionable feline! Thankfully they’re wild too, otherwise I think our friends Adam and Nina would have ideas…
This afternoon we had a lazy Sunday morning and a bit of shopping the local markets, before a decadent afternoon spent enjoying a colonial-inspired afternoon tea service at a nearby fancy hotel. For only 4.50GBP we got cakes, sandwiches, scones and plenty of local tea. Not bad! The setting was an old musty-smelling lodge, all carpets and black and white photos on the walls. It was quite a treat for us both, and after my brief illness I felt suitable needy so could justify a tonne of baked goods.
Next stop: East India’s principal commercial, cultural, and educational hub.