Lucky me had had a second bout of Delhi belly in the previous 2 days, so our 5am departure from Jaldhapara Wildlife Reserve to Darjeeling wasn't ideal. We left our lodgings in the dark and cold, as always fully loaded tortoise-like, with our backpacks on front and back, assuming as we had been told there would be plenty of jeeps about to take us to the train station before their own dawn game drives.
The roads were deserted bar one jeep that came bumbling down the track that we flagged down. Yet again, an astronomically inflated price was quoted to us: literally 10 times what we should pay. In my unwell state and general frustration at always being ripped off I began a tirade of admonitions, telling him that he was a 'bad bad man' and that he should be ashamed of himself; why did he do this to us and what a crazy price this was. Surprisingly it worked somewhat: he grinned sheepishly and lowered the price.
After 3 hours on one train to Siliguri, we transferred ourselves to the 'Toy Train' from Siliguri to Darjeeling. Stooping to enter a delightfully antiquated 3 carriage affair, we choo-choo-ed our way up the mountain from 119m at Siliguri into the clouds at 2134m in Darjeeling. The journey that would take 3 hours in a jeep took us a lazy 9 hours, taking into account 10kmph speed limits, stopping to usher livestock and people off the tracks, and munching our way through Nepalese -originated 'momos' (dumplings) on leaf plates, sold to us through our window at numerous stations. Designed by a British engineer,the toy train took its maiden voyage in 1881. Inspired by a dream he had had, it zig-zags along a forward-reverse world heritage listed track up the steepest slopes and meanders alongside the winding roads for the rest of its precipitous route.
Named after the Dorje Ling monastery at the highest point of the town, Darjeeling was a refreshing and welcome change from our last 5 weeks in India. Teetering between the borders of China Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the area is home to a concoction of races and religions which has seen its fair share of civil unrest. With a massive influx of largely Nepalese people, lured by better economic opportunities since the 19th century, the Nepali language has become the most widely spoken, and people of Nepalese origin appear to make up around 90% of the population. As such, in the last c. 30 years there has been a push for Ghorkaland to separate from the rest of the West Bengal state, whilst remaining part of India, in the area to be known as Gorkhaland, in order that they may run their own affairs and bypass the corruption rife in the rest of India. Signs abound on every surface for the freedom of Gorkhaland, but of course this independence movement is not immune from plenty of its own corruption, intimidation and abuses of power.
As our altitude increased, so did our layers of clothing, until we arrived bundled into most of the warm things we possessed. Perched on a mountain ridge, with houses spilling down the mountainside below it like limpets to a rock, Darjeeling town boasts views of the 3 highest peaks in the world: namely, Mount Everest, K2 and Khangchendzonga. Seeing these majestic mountains is a never-to-be-forgotten experience in one's life but for our 6 day stay we could just as well have been in Weston Super Mare on a misty bank holiday as we remained shrouded in cloud, as if disconnected from the earth below and unable to see beyond the next ridge.
Free from the ever present hassle of taxi touts, 'tour guides', beggars and staring of everywhere else in India, Nick and I spent our time grinnning from ear to ear, much to even our own suprise, as we thoroughy enjoyed the similarities of Darjeeling to England. Constant cold and greyness as well as the abundance of European architecture leftover from the days of the Raj were so different from anything we'd experienced on our visit so far we positively revelled in the dampness of it all!
Greater Darjeeling is home to 84 tea plantations and our visit to Happy Valley Tea Estate ( proud supplier to Harrods) taught us that:
- The top 3 leaves of each branch are the only leaves used for tea and are named the King, Queen and Prince from tip downwards.
- Black, white and green teas all come from the same tea bush and differ only in the drying, fermenting and oxidising processes.
- Black tea takes 3 days to process and is named thus because the oxidisation changes its colour. White tea is made from only the youngest leaves and takes 1 day to process. Green tea takes less than a day and is only dried, making it consequently the healthiest of the teas. All teas require drying, rolling, sifting, rolling, ( fermenting & oxidising for black tea), drying, cutting and sorting.
- Teas are graded approx 1 - 6 and Happy Valley's grade 1 tea is called "Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Piko 1". Each word connotes to a characteristic of the tea but those details passed me by in the rapid explanation.
We had a wonderful tea-tasting guide , easily the most memorable character we've met this holiday who deserves a mention. Her name is Kusum but while at school in a convent in Calcutta, Mother Theresa called her Flora. Flora is the best advert for the vitality-giving properties of tea! At age 69 she doesnt look a day over 50 and in her spare time she plays in a football league alongside boys and girls 60 years her junior. She coaches ( & occassionally plays) cricket, teaches violin, tutors English and loves traditional Nepalese and disco dancing! What an inspiration. Nick, however, made his biggest faux pas of the trip when he noticed a picture of a peacock on the wall and launched into suppositions of the possible joys of eating the jewel-coloured bird. To his great embarassment he was met with the frosty explanation that for hindus the peacock is second only in holiness to the cow and that in the past any such 'fowl' play would have been rewarded with a jail sentence or possibly decapitation!
We also visited the Himalayan Zoo which sits nestled amongst alpine forest and runs a number of commendable breeding programmes as well as rehabilitation for rescued circus tigers. It houses, amongst others, India's only collection of Siberian Tigers as well as 3 species of leopard, red pandas ( diminutive to the black panda in size but no less in cuddliness), barking deer, yaks and an endangered wolf species that can be traced back 800 000 years.
One of our highlights in Darjeeling was the Himilayan Mountaineering Institute and adjoining museum. These held such gems as Tenzing Norgay's boots and other climbing equipment from his 1953 expedition, the toeless boots made for a Swiss climber who had lost all his digits to frostbite during a prior ascent and a pair of electric socks - yes indeed- woollen socks connected by long wires to 2 batteries each the size of a large fist! We were utterly aghast at the insubstantiality of much of the climbing gear in comparison to todays techno fabrics- most especially the woollen trousers and tweed jacket worn by George Mallory in his ill fated 1924 expedition! The museum was an absolutely fascinating insight into the history and politics behind Himalayan mountaineering and we would love to try and persuade a British curator to bring the exhibition to English shores.
The general populous of Darjeeling seemed comparitively wealthier than in any other states we have visited. At every turn we came upon kids playing badminton in the street or practising hackysack with a bunch of elastic bands or in some cases a bundle of leaves. For the first time we saw dogs treated as pets rather than simply animals to be kicked or shooed away and were most suprised to see the canine of choice being stark white and constantly leash-bound Pomeranian pooches.
After a good bit of essential shopping for warm and highly discounted Northface gear we headed off into the Hills to Karmi Farm for some R&R and hiking.x Bryony