I arrived into New Jalpaiguri after a night train from the Buddhist town of Bodhgaya; my journey was not over yet though. A shared rickshaw to the adjoining city of Siliguri and I was finally on my way, onboard a shared jeep (more on that later).
I was heading into the hills in the north of West Bengal state. Ahead lay the famous hill station of Darjeeling. But first, a few days in the town of Kurseong. The jeep hit the hills and began to climb. Within an hour, we ascended from Siliguri’s 120m up to the 1400m of Kurseong. The change was dramatic. Flat plains were replaced by hills. Views from the jeep were beautiful but fleeting, as I was in the middle seat of the back row. But once I was out of the vehicle I could see just how beautiful everything was.
The other immediate observation was the temperature, as it had dropped from high-30s to 20 degrees - it felt far lower; I guess that's what two months of 40-plus will do to you – and for the first time in India I felt the need for a sweater and long pants.
I headed for my accommodation, not the usual hostel or budget hotel but this time a homestay. The Makaibari Tea Plantation had instituted a system of homestays for their employees to supplement their income and I was booked into one of these. I met Lakpa, Sujata and their wonderful family and was shown to my room – basic but comfortable with views over the tea estate. I'd barely started unpacking my bag and there was a knock at my door, it was their daughter (who bore an uncanny resemblance to my niece Aisha) – “Tea?”. Their hospitality was superb without being overbearing, and the delicious home-cooked meals included in the price were eaten with Lakpa and Sujata.
Well rested (and well fed on homestay food) I headed out the next morning. A short taxi ride up the hill to town and I found a lookout point only 10 minutes down from the main Hillcart Road that links Siliguri and Darjeeling. The views back over to Kurseong showed every colour of house imaginable, clinging to the side of an otherwise forested hill. And looking south, it seemed strange to be on the edge of the hill country, looking down at the flat plains below, which ran for thousands of kilometres to the Indian Ocean in south, while knowing that what lay to the north were the hills that gradually led to the Himalayas.
Back to the homestay for lunch then off for more exploring, this time heading south. I walked down winding roads, hill on one side, valley on the other, surrounded by forest, tea and the occasional stand of bamboo. A quick look at the map showed Nepal was less than 10km to the west – the layers of hills had me guessing as to where the border was. I reached a small ridge where the road split into two, one side yielding amazing views of a series of switchbacks as the road descended.
After two short but enjoyable days in Kurseong, I headed to Darjeeling. Due to the hilly terrain, shared jeeps are the preferred means of transport. Seating 8 but with 10 tickets sold, things are a tight squeeze. A big advantage over a bus is that once a jeep is full it rarely stops, no stopping every five minutes for passengers to board/depart. Journeys longer than 3-4 hours will also involve a short break for refreshments.
A little over an hour later we hit Darjeeling. Like many of the settlements in this part of India, the layout of the town is dictated by the geographical terrain – the absence of flat land means most towns are built along the tops of hills, with plenty of steep and windy streets - any walk around town is likely to leave the thighs burning.
One of the real highlights of Darjeeling is the chance to ride the UNESCO world heritage-listed narrow-gauge railway, known to all as the toy train. When I messaged my mother that I was heading to Darjeeling, she replied immediately in excitement. She’s an avid reader and recounted a book she’d recently read set in early-1900s Darjeeling, with numerous mentions of the tea industry and the steam train.
Due to track repairs, the passenger service was severely limited so the only viable option was to take one of the nine “joy rides”. These run between Darjeeling and Ghum and you have a choice of steam or diesel power; not surprisingly the steam option (being the most popular) is the most expensive.
After waiting for the weather to clear in a forlorn attempt to ride the toy train on a clear day, I headed down to the station. For some unknown reason I was charged 1185 rupees, rather than the 1310 on the board - was this the first time in India I’d received preferential foreigner pricing? Potentially – the elderly Indian couple I chatted with throughout the journey had paid 1310 for their tickets.
The journey lasts two hours and stops twice – once at the famous Batasia Loop and also at Ghum Station, where there is a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Darjeeling Himalaya Railway. It’s only 6km to Ghum but given the elongated shape of Darjeeling on its hillside setting, the journey is largely through a built-up area, with very little countryside. As I had a window seat, I had prime view of shopfronts and people’s laundry 😊 The other unique aspect of this ride is that it follows the road the entire way – in some cases, the track switches from one side of the road to the other, causing a minor traffic jam.
No trip to Darjeeling would be complete without a visit to a tea plantation. While there are plenty to choose from, Happy Valley came recommended due to their regular tours and its convenient location on the outskirts of town. A 20-minute stroll down Hillcart Road Road and I was there. I bought a very reasonably priced 100 rupee ticket and the tour began. I already had a basic understanding of how tea is produced after similar experiences in Sri Lanka’s Ella and Munnar in southern India. For instance, the same plant is used to make green, black, white and oolong teas. The difference in taste is down to how the tea leaf is handled – drying time, is it left to ferment etc.
My next stop for the day was just 5 minutes further down the road – the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. Unfortunately, the only way to get in is to buy a combined ticket for the museum and the zoo, which you have to walk through to get to the museum. The zoo features animals of the region (tiger, bear, red panda, clouded leopard, snow leopard, a selection of deer etc) but the conditions were not ideal – all were kept in enclosures far too small for their needs (see below for a sad example); the clouded leopard pacing backwards and forwards repeatedly was not a good sign for its mental wellbeing.
With that out of the way, I arrived at the museum. Well worth the unfortunate detour through the zoo, the obvious focus is the history of mountaineering in the Indian Himalaya, with special mention of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world and only around 70km from Darjeeling. There’s also an exhibition on Everest - whilst located in Nepal, it was an understandable focal point for members of the HMI, as well as the obvious connection to Tenzing Norgay, who managed the institute from its opening until his death. There is a lovely memorial to him outside, featuring a statue and memorial plaque.
Darjeeling’s rainy climate meant I also had the chance to experience a Hindi movie for the first time. Being a small cinema, the choice was not extensive so I chose Veere Di Wedding. I was already aware of the movie thanks to a couple of fellow backpackers in Varanasi, plus there had been controversy in the Indian media about a scene in the movie (let’s just say it involved one of the main characters having a little “alone time” with her battery-operated friend – very scandalous!). It was reasonably easy to follow the plot as, like the title, much of the dialogue switched between Hindi and English, often mid-sentence. And at 80 rupees for the ticket, definitely a bargain.