Saturday, November 30, 2013

Darjeeling: Tea, Toy Trains, and Himalayan Sunrises

Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
November 30, 2013

After a miserable train experience (delay of about 12 hours near Varanasi, which meant that we had to attempt to sleep in the rat-infested waiting room at the station and finally reached Siliguri, West Bengal almost 20 hours late) and a 2.5 hour jeep ride in the dark, we reached the gorgeous hill station of Darjeeling.  During the era of colonialism in India, Darjeeling used to be a coveted spot by the British for summer holidays to escape the oppressive heat.  We arrived around 5:30 AM, just in time for sunrise at Tiger Hill, where we had majestic views of the Himalayas including of Khangchendzonga (8598 m), the third highest mountain in the world (after Mt. Everest and K2).  Darjeeling is a beautiful place: think Ladakh and Varanasi combined.  There is a palpable presence of Buddhism here and many of the residents look more Tibetan or Nepali than Indian.  Yet alongside the Buddhist gonpas and Tibetan prayer flags, there are plenty of Hindus and well, Indian-looking Indians.  It also reminds me of being in the cloud forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica, with the forested hillsides, morning fog, and just general greenery.  Known for its famous tea estates, Darjeeling is really quite charming with narrow roads, shops, and incredible views of the surrounding hillside.  And it is very clean, quiet, and uncongested compared to most Indian cities and towns I’ve visited.  It’s been an even more interesting experience since I am also here with my friend Raj, who is Indian and hasn’t done too much traveling around his own country, so we’re both seeing these exciting things for the first time.  He described Darjeeling as “not being India” – a different language, physical attributes of the people, geography and climate, and even the stray dogs that roam the streets are different breeds.  We took a two hour “joy ride” on the “toy train” that is a UNSECO World Heritage site as an engineering feat that revolutionized railway transportation into the mountains.  Unfortunately, my Darjeeling experience has been marred by some kind of food poisoning or stomach bug.  The timing could not be worse, as I am preparing to head off to Bhutan either tomorrow or the next day, which necessitates at least 10 hours on a bus…Who knows if the sickness is food poisoning, though Raj and I have been eating the same exact foods.  But I know he has built up a lifetime of tolerance to any bacteria that might be in street food.  Regarding Raj, he has done so much for me over the last 2 months: booked all of my train tickets (which involved a horrible amount of tat kal and stress), insisted on carrying my heavy luggage, acting as my Hindi translator around various cities (negotiating prices, inquiring about travel logistics etc.), photographing me anywhere I please, and just generally being very attentive.  Any time I needed something, he was there to help: impersonating the Delhi police when I was sexually harassed on a train, helping me to mail my 10 lb. parcel home from Varanasi, taking me all the way to the Bhutan border.  I could not say “thank you” enough times to adequately express how grateful I am to him.

Our share jeep from Siliguri to Darjeeling (3 hours through windy roads under the night sky)

We reached Darjeeling around 5 AM, just in time to see the sun rise near Khangchendzonga 

Crowds of people gather each morning

Sunrise reflecting off Khangchendzonga 

Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags blowing prayers into the wind

New German friends!

Streets of Darjeeling

A woman making momos (dumplings) in a hole in the wall restaurant

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - Toy Train ride!!

Views of Darjeeling from the Toy Train

The station at Ghum

Darjeeling town

Toy train!

Ghum Railway Station

A UNESCO World Heritage Site (my second one in India after the Taj Mahal)

Buying famous Darjeeling tea

Asiatic Black Bear

Posing with the statue of Tenzing Norgay at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.  According to Wikipedia, "Tenzing Norgay OSN GM (late May 1914 – 9 May 1986), born Namgyal Wangdi and often referred to as Sherpa Tenzing, was a Nepalese Sherpa mountaineer. Among the most famous mountain climbers in history, he was one of the first two individuals known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, which he accomplished with Edmund Hillary on 29 May 1953. He was named by Time as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century."

Darjeeling Zoo with friends :)

Red Panda!

Famous ropeway

It's a darn good thing I didn't know the history of the ropeway before I boarded.

Wikipedia: "Darjeeling Ropeway is a ropeway in the town of Darjeeling in the Indian state of West Bengal. The ropeway used to be a popular tourist destination in the town. It consisted of sixteen cars and plied between the "North Point" in the town of Darjeeling and Singla on the banks of the Ramman river. The journey on the ropeway offered beautiful views of the hills and the valleys around Darjeeling.

The ropeway, which was started in 1968 and revamped in 1988, was stopped in October 2003 after four tourists died when the cable snapped causing two cars to plummet down the hill. In 2005, the state forest and public works department (PWD) ministers formed a three-member committee to oversee safety issues. The committee, which included a PWD engineer and two Kalyani Government Engineering College teachers, found the services unfit after a trial run.[2] The ropeway was reopened on 2 February 2012."

View from the cable car

Not for those with a fear of heights (aka me and Bea)

Views of Darjeeling

Sipping Darjeeling tea

One of the stops on our "tea crawl"

Cable car at Darjeeling

Yay new travel friends.

What an awesome moment caught on camera: camera-ception with an Australian, German, and American

Tea gardens

Sunrise over the Himalayas

This message is written on the side of many 18 wheeler trucks.  It's true

Khangchendzonga is the third highest mountain in the world. It rises with an elevation of 8,586 m (28,169 ft) (Wikipedia)


Photo credit to my new friend Adina

Photo credit to my new friend Bea