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By Mikey
Monday, 29th November 2004 11:04

We had decided to stay near the New Jalpaiguri railway station for one night prior to taking the toy train up to Darjeeling. Had we known in advance what a dump the area was going to be we might have changed our minds. Most places have litter and faeces but this place really smelled bad and looked even worse. I spent two hours in a queue trying to buy tickets for the toy train for the following day and then we hid in our room for the rest of the day. A couple of times there was a knock on the door and a rather aggressive young man asked us to come down to the restaurant and then gave us evil stares when we declined. Not a very friendly hotel at all.

Apparently the tickets I had bought were not confirmed ones though, we were on a waiting list. The first class carriage had room for twelve people and fortunately only three other people were in it so it turned out alright anyway. We put our bags in the baggage carriage and set off. Just a few kilometres along the line we stopped at Siliguri, another dump, and then we were heading off to the hills.

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway has been in existence for over 100 years and the age shows in a few places where the track veered sharply. Unlike the 1880s though, the railway now has to compete with the road and the traffic on it. Most of the way up to Darjeeling the railway actually runs along the side of the road and crosses it more times than I care to remember. Fortunately the little diesel train and its three carriages got priority whenever this happened otherwise we'd still be there now! Besides, who'd want to argue with a train, even a little one?

The journey was quite slow but mostly very pleasant. All the way we saw lots of people just standing and watching the train go past. Many of them waved too. All of the youngest children waved furiously but without seeming to see the people inside the train waving back. It's almost as if they've been told that they must wave at the train but they don't quite understand why yet.

Just after midday we pulled into the station in a little town called Kurseong (I think) and the diesel engine disappeared back along the track leaving the three carriages behind. For perhaps an hour and a half we waited for something to happen. Claire bought a coconut macroni that kept us both amused for most of that time with its funny name. In the distance we heard the shrill whistle and puffing of a steam engine.

Our ninety minutes' wait, it seems, was so that we could do the last 35km by steam train. How cool? Very, and in more than one way. The poor engine regularly ran out of steam and had to stop for a while to take on water. Then we had to wait for it to heat up and then we could go. So what should have been a seven hour journey turned in to an eleven hour epic at the marvelous average speed of 8 km/h (5 mph). We arrived in Darjeeling at about 7.30 and by this time it was dark and pretty cold. Neither of us had our fleeces to hand but we soon warmed up by walking to our hotel through the very quiet streets.

It wasn't too hard to find the Dekeling Hotel and not nearly as far as I had thought it would be. It didn't look quite the same as it had on their website but that was because there are actually two buildings, the hotel and the resort. We had booked into the hotel but been looking at pictures of the resort.

The hotel staff were a little worried that we weren't going to arrive at all but they had heard that the train was running late and guessed that we were on it. Two nice Tibetan men carried our bags up to our room via a maze of doors, corridors and stairways and the room itself made the long journey up here instantly worth it. We were in the nicest room in the hotel apparently and I could believe it too. Since we were in the roof space I did have to duck quite often but the size and decoration of the room more than made up for it. One of the men brought us up some tea and even gave us separate milk (tea is often served with the milk already mixed in India), which was nice of him. After that we had a quick supper in the restaurant on the ground floor of the building and settled down for a cold but very comfortable night.

We woke up nicely refreshed the following morning just in time for some tea to be brought up for us. The same nice, Tibetan man took away our laundry to be cleaned and offered to make us breakfast too. Already I liked Darjeeling a lot. We spent most of the rest of the day just wandering around slowly, window shopping in some of the many shops near our hotel and trying, unsuccessfully, to change one of the times of our many trains. Aside from the nice hotel and the much cleaner streets in Darjeeling, the other obvious things that struck us was the lack of rickshaws and how pleasant it was to wander around the shops. Most of the time so far we've had to look from a distance or suffer unwanted attention from shopkeepers who just seem to be interested in parting us from our money regardless of whether we want anything or not. Most of the time when that happens we just leave the shop but in Darjeeling we happily browsed in peace and then bought the things that we wanted. Although Darjeeling is in India, it really didn't feel Indian and I suspect that the reason for that is the population. At least half of the people we saw were Tibetan and not Indian in origin. It might sound horrible but perhaps the thing we haven't been enjoying about India so far has been the people and not the country itself.

Apart from shopping we also climbed up Observatory Hill and found a strange collection of Buddhist shrines and lots of monkeys. We took a circuitous route back down the hill and then called in to the Windermere Hotel for afternoon tea. In a cosy little sitting room with a coal fire burning we drank tea, ate little sandwiches with the crusts cut off and had a couple of slices of cake each. Afternoon tea is without a doubt one of England's better traditions.

That night in the restaurant I tried a couple of Tibetan dishes. There were some deep fried momos that were rather nice and a sort of soup called Pork Thenthug that went down well too. It consisted of a basic soup stock with meat, vegetables and big, square noodles in it. Very tasty. We also got our adopted Tibetan friend in the hotel to find us a taxi to take us up to Tiger Hill in the morning. The downside though was getting up at 3 am!

It should never be 6 o'clock more than once each day. We didn't even bother showering and went downstairs to find our driver. His car was a big 4x4 made by Tata and it didn't have any heating in it. Fortunately we had dressed for the occasion with several layers, including fleeces, and gloves too. Despite that though it was very cold as we bounced through the darkness to Tiger Hill. At peak times of the year about 200 or more such cars head to Tiger Hill every morning. It was still quite busy now but since we had had got up so early we were among the first there. We paid for some of the more expensive tickets and sat and waited inside a cold building for the sun to rise. Gradually the room filled up but we had some of the best seats. By 5.30 the sky grew lighter and started to gain a pink / orange glow to it. Some of the closer mountains were just visible then. At 6am (give or take a few minutes) there was a cheer from outside as a bright orange speck on the horizon appeared. It rapidly grew into the round blob that we call the sun as thousands of photographs were taken. I still can't work out why people think that flashes help in a situation like that though.

We had hoped to catch a glimpse of Mt. Everest on the western horizon but since it was about 200km away and there was a little cloud we were sadly denied. We had to settle for Kangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world, a mere 8598m in height. I would like to see Everest one day, perhaps a little bit closer than 200km away but I don't think I'd want to climb it!

After snapping enough pictures the room quickly emptied. We waited a little longer as the car park seemed to operate on a first-in-last-out basis. We then called in to see a monastery and a memorial on our way back to Darjeeling. By 8am we were back in our room and having an early morning nap.

We had originally been planning to head back down to New Jalpaiguri and stay another night there but since it was such a dump and we found out that jeep journeys from Darjeeling only took three hours, we decided to stay another night. That did mean changing rooms though but that was swiftly and painlessly done thanks to our Tibetan friend who also managed to make us breakfast too. He was also only too happy to arrange for a car to take us down to NJP the following day but I suspect that part of that was because he got a small cut of the money.

Having finished breakfast and brushed our teeth we headed out into the world at bright and early time of midday. We walked for about half an hour to the zoo and mountaineering institute for a look round. In the zoo we saw Siberian tigers, snow leopards (Claire still wants one), Himalayan bears, wolves and red pandas. The mountaineering institute, accessed through the zoo for some weird reason, had lots of history about Everest and Indian mountaineering history. It is also home to a memorial to Sherpa Tensing Norgay, an adviser to the institute and, of course, the first man (along with Edmund Hillary) to climb Mt. Everest.

Sadly that was about all we had time to do in Darjeeling and the Himalayas. I'm sure that we'll come back to the area again some day, probably as part of a trip to Nepal and Tibet.

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