We finally arrived in Darjeeling last Saturday. As I wrote in the previous blog, the journey here was long and tiring, and we were a bit frustrated when we got off the train in New Jalpaguri. We had spoken to a few of our neighbors on the train; in the beginning they were positive about our visit to Darjeeling, by the end they told us it wasn’t worth the effort (“it’s dirty” “there’s nothing to see.”) Fabien and I already new that our tastes are not always the same as Indians, and again we were proved right. Darjeeling is well worth the visit. We did meet one man, very positive about the city; he had studied here as a child and he was coming to pick up his son who was studying at an English language boarding school. He told us that Darjeeling is famous for 4 T’s: tea, tourism, teaching and timber.
Darjeeling has a very different vibe than other places we have visited in India. The population here is a mix of Indians, Tibetans and Nepalese. There are numerous Buddhist monasteries, there are also alot of churches. Each morning we are awakened by the call to prayer at the mosque that sits below our hotel. The town is quite big, population 100,000 and it is spread out over the hill side. The hills below abound with tea plantations and the backdrop (when it is not foggy) is of Mount Kanchenjunga (the world’s 3rd highest mountain.) Unfortunately, the town has been engulfed in a fog since we arrived and we haven’t yet seen the much anticipated high Himalayas. Luckily, there are a lot of other things to keep us busy. On Sunday, we visited the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The zoo houses many Himalayan animals including the red panda and the Indian tiger. At HMI, we visited two small museums dedicated to mountaineering and Mount Everest; we saw equipment used on various expeditions, lots of photos, topographical maps, and scale models of the mountains. HMI also offers mountaineering courses for Indians and foreigners, 28 days learning climbing, history, geology, first-aid, ecology in the Himalayas. The final exam is climbing an 18,000 foot peak- another honeymoon idea for Fabs and I? There is also a memorial to Tenzig Norgay, the Indian sherpa who was the first to ascend Everest with Edmund Hillary. Yesterday, we visited the Botanical Gardens, also an impressive display of flowers and trees endemic to the Himalayas and neighboring countries. Last night, upon recommendation of a man we met on the road, we visited the Nightingale Park, a beautifully landscaped park that is lit up in bright colored lights at night. It reminded me of Christmas. There is a huge monument to Lord Shiva complete with several small temples and a waterfall, as well as several pavillions for shows. We saw several typical Himalayan hill dances.
In addition to visiting the sites, we’ve also been sampling the local tea and pastries, browsing the Tibetan curio shops and just enjoying the mountain atmosphere. This morning we took the Himalayan Railway (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) to Ghum, a small village about 30 minutes from Darjeeling. The train was another “toy train”, only one row of seats and 3 cars plus the caboose. Ours was powered by diesel, but there are several running on this line still powered by steam. The station at Ghum is the second highest railway station in the world, at about 7,500 feet. After visiting the railway museum, we followed the train tracks downhill to Darjeeling visiting a couple of monasteries on the way.
Darjeeling has been a nice place to recuperate from the insanity of other Indian cities. We were hoping to do a 6 day trek, starting tomorrow, but unfortunately the weather hasn’t been on our side. If the fog doesn’t break soon, we’ll probably head back to lower altitudes and visit a big wildlife sanctuary. Today is our one month anniversary in India. It feels like an eternity, but at the same time, we’ve begun to understand the vastness and diversity of this country. We could spend a year traveling here and just touch the surface, on the other hand, we’ve already got enough of it in our blood to know we could return numerous times and never see the same thing twice.
To all of those Americans following us, HAPPY THANKSGIVING! We’ll be thinking of you on Thursday, when we enjoy our Tandoori chicken in place of the stuffed bird.