The Darjeeling Tea Express

Jeeps keep on getting more and more hairy.  They seem to have been made my a mechano set with a bit of glue, without a clue.  Welding here and there keeping things together. The heavy rain over the last week makes us a little more nervous, but after each journey we care less about the 100ft plus drop offs, goats in the back, doors that swing open randomly and drivers that seem to want to overtake each other in thin air.

This trip was to be a bit more epic than before as we need to go to Gazing first, swap jeep and head to Jorethang, then take another jeep to Darjeeling.  Tired after our lack of sleep at the lake we head wobble down the road to meet our first roadblock due to boulders falling off the moutainside.  This one was only a 30 minute delay and after a pick up continued to Gazing, past Pelling where we had been just a week beforehand, past the bakery and my gleaming new walkway into it.  Sikkim now feels familiar and we are sad to know that in a few hours we will be back in what we now consider “India”.  Sikkim is a different place.  We wound down the final road to Gazing after 3 hours and picked up our next jeep.

We stopped into get some petrol after leaving Gazing in jeep number 2 when the driver couldn’t release the steering lock!  After everyone in the vehicle had a go of twisting and banging a man arrived to take off the steering wheel and column.  Another 40 minutes delay and we were off again. Just as we had started our journey climbing up the hills into the clouds and lush greenery we wound down from 1200m above sea level to just 500m in the space of around 20 minutes.  The heat difference was marked and we instantly feel like we have landed from the UK in woolen clothing!  Jorethang was what we remembered India for.  Hecticness, dust, heat, grime, yet was still officially Sikkim, but just on the border was more reminiscent of Bengal.  Soon though we were in Bengal and started the ascent to Darjeeling 2100m above sea level. The roads here are in a lot poorer condition however. We rose above the earth once more with Jorethang permanently in sight, just sinking below us next to the Rimbi river.  The tree and vegetation lined roads changed to tea plantations and Telly Tubby land.  Manicured rolling hillsides with all vegetation at the same height, but with winding paths linking the trees together.  Eventually we hit a major, we need to change truck landslide.  The road had literally fallen through a tea plantation and reduced the road to 1m wide.  We had to walk with our gear across the thin remaining gap and wait for another jeep to collect us from the other side.  We waited.  30 minutes, 1 hour, 1.5 hours.  We were promised an immediate pickup.  Great.  Luckily others were in the same boat and we made friends who also believed the driver had conned everyone.  We hunted the driver down and all made a fuss.  He looked bad but continued defending himself.  After over 2 hours another jeep arrived and we all piled in.

12 hours later we arrived in Darjeeling and what a disappointment.  It is dirty and grimy like many other Indian towns/cities we had seen.  I had expected colonial charm and more than towering concrete squares that are so popular in India. We asked a Richshaw driver about heading to a LP recommended hotel to avoid hassle after our long journey- a regular strategy when we need to make things easy in the first instance, even though it generally doesn’t pan out like that!  We laughed when he said Rs120 and set off walking where we thought the hotel should be.  Steps. Steps and steps, just what we could do without now. Yet we plowed on like troopers and ended up popping out right where we needed too, despite almost loosing our tempers.  Turns out that our destination hotel was 4 floors further up, but we were beat.  Laura popped next door and secured a place that was cheaper than we had planned to stay in and said it was reasonable.  It was passable, but the place had hot water and a TV so we could crash for a day and sort out our wet clothes, wash properly and sleep in a bed without birds tweeting at you at 5am in the morning. Again something that has become a standard when we reach a new place after a heavy journey. Relative luxury for a few days and then downgrade for the longer haul in budget.  It works for us.

that night we ordered room service and watched a film… it was pretty good until the power was cut at the climax.  The generator was, it seems, only used for the lights so our movie night was cut short and bedtime started abruptly.  Although the generator was below us and the walls seemed to vibrate- there is always something… Well good night then!

The next day we headed down to get some of our most soiled clothes, including various mould growths from the non-stop damp weather in Sikkim. At Rs30 per item (45p), this is a serious expense as you can buy lunch for that!  Dry cleaning though it is supposed to be, although mentions of ‘drying’ do not fill me with confidence.  I ask and get into a fairly usual circular conversation. We asked for a local recommendation of where to grab some lunch- the best way to find the local gem restaurants off the tourist trap.  We are recommended a place almost next door and found a REALLY cheap place that served a kind of stir fry rice with chicken and noodles for 40p.  The usual dirty, but popular place that you have to trust for food, but would rather not. We found the Internet cafe for a catch up and people who run cyber cafe’s really do not know how to run a network or a lot of the time what antivirus is and how to clean viruses.  A worm on my computer was easy to clean, but I had to point out to the owner how this can be done without reformatting every computer.  I sigh and consider charging, but leave needing a password change (apologies for the techno rant, but it is worth noting!)

Set up for more exploration we decide to find the station and look at the feasibility of taking the toy train, something we were gutted was a no go from Siliguri because of the strike.  What we quickly realised is that Darjeeling is a shopping market town that has items from Nepal and India, so there is a lot of choice.  Winding our way around the town towards the station we notice a lot of the British colonial buildings with their design work, columns and elaborate awnings.  They just happen to be scattered amongst the concrete blocks built after the British left.  The old clock tower, red cross centers and hospital are all reminiscent of times that once were and then not maintained.  That said the town feels and looks a lot better after exploration and a vast improvement on first impressions, something we are getting used to, as most of the time we have arrived at a place thinking “what a dump”, but then it grows on you, you see through it, or get used to it, whichever the case may be and start to like it for what it is. I guess that is true of India as a whole!

We found the station and if by magic Thomas the Tank Engine… sorry the steam train, but you have to understand I have been excited about this for ages and felt like I was 5 again and I have not even been on it yet!  It is perhaps the only train that winds through the hills through lush tea plantations, so we lovingly called it The Darjeeling Tea Express.  From the station we also glimpse the view for the first time due to cloud cover and it really is Telly Tubby land and I am not sure if I like it or not.  It has a charm of rolling hills full of tea, but looks almost too manicured to look good.

The steam train seems possible and almost too easy.  Unfortunately we needed to book our trains for the rest of the trip and it seemed that although even cyber cafe’s have generator power that the train station doesn’t feel it is necessary.  Poor Laura waited in for it for 2.5 hours while I trawled across what seemed the whole of Darjeeling to find cash.

Afterwards we had  a wander around Darjeeling. The shops have everything and makes shopping very difficult to avoid, especially with Laura craving a shop and there being tea everywhere!  Woolen products from Nepal, tea (unsurprisingly), standard clothes, Tibetan art, tea wear… so much choice, so little budget and little space in bags (probably a good thing!)

We also notice that there are a lot of pork shops in Darjeeling- something that is generally missing from Indian towns due to their dislike of pigs due to their ‘dirty nature’.  So this is a Tibetan/ Nepali influence, which carries on into Sikkim.  The good news is that because Darjeeling is at high altitude that the weather is cooler and risk of diseased meat lower than on the plains of India.  That is good because the next day we visited a cafe and it had bacon and sausages on the menu and we couldn’t resist.  A fry up?  How could one say no! and after all we hadn’t been looking, but it came to us via sheer intervention of higher powers (or something like that). It was great and loads of it, which made it even better. In fact we had enough sausage to keep for the next days breakfast, ‘with accessories’ to make sandwiches, as we had done in Pelling.

That day we packed up our stuff and moved towards a hotel that had been recommended to us by the English girls in Pelling.  We found it the day earlier and hiked up the steep roads to reach the top of town.  The girls paid Rs200 for the room, but we managed to negotiate it for Rs130, which we were happy about as we have managed to reduce our accommodation bill by a fair amount and always seem to pay less than everyone else we speak to.  The place smelt like a toilet, but we had a separate bathroom (they all faced out onto the corridor so unsurprisingly it wafts about), two double beds(!) and a balcony, so ace value.

The rest of the day saw us picking up bits for presents for people, being approached by people selling Charas (I seem to be getting this more and more now with more hair..)  Suddenly we see the Police barricading the market street and a low murmur.  It is a Gorkaland protest.

Individuals in a long stream of people start the chanting, so pockets of chanting can be heard like waves of song starting at different times, but strangely all sound like they fit together.  This is the women’s protest and they headed straight towards us, stopping just where we were stood and shouting with masses of passion. I’ve done nothing wrong I swear!

We headed out that evening to the middle of town where most of the restaurants are.  The choice here is limited and has a lot of “chinese” food, which is generally made up of a greasy chowmain.  The second problem is that everything closes at 9pm and the pub at 9:30pm, so dinner has to be early.  After eating at the mid market place a few night previous.  That place was the only Thai restaurant we have seen in India, where we had Indian food, under the same logic as eating Western food- it is not their forte and so you will pay over the odds to be disappointed- don’t do it.  We tried a small place that looked extremely local and only had 3 tables in it, but that was full, so grabbed some south Indian snacks of Dosas (pancake with veg curry and hot sauce) and Puri (puffed up deep fried bread with curry).  We walked back in buckets of rain and that night saw the storm that we were waiting for.  As we were at the top of the cliff the clouds were forced to rise over our hotel and so the lightning seemed to be coming from below and above, but was very close for sure!

The next morning the weather had cleared and we sat drinking tea on our balcony looking out to the East.  In fact that became our routine for the next 5 days here as the tea was the best and only 30p a pot.  That day was my Internet day.  There is a place called Glenarys that is an old colonial building serves posh tea, and has a great view over Darjeeling.  I decide to drink tea and catch up on some blog writing as it is raining again.  The Internet worked for just 4.5 of the

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