We were meant to stop by Agra and Varanasi on our way up to Darjeeling, but we ran out of time and had to head straight from Kochi to Bagdogra and travel with jeep from there up the mountain to Darjeeling. Both sad to miss the Taj Mahal and the Ganges, but at the same time quite relieved as it would be stressful with touts and rickshaws, crazy traffic – more dusty, dirty and smelly cities of which we’ve had quite enough of for a while. The journey from the airport is a very rough ride at times, which make you realise why you pay a little bit extra for a jeep taxi rather than a normal car. They seem to be doing a lot of improvements on the roads up there though and some stretches are an absolute joy to travel on. Very winding though and no crash-barriers with several hundred meters drop if you should be so unlucky to go a bit too close to the edge. I wouldn’t want to be driving on these roads that’s for sure. The direct jeep from the airport took us about 3 1/2 hours, and we arrived just in time to get a bit of food before everything shut down at 21:00. We had hoped to stay in the Hotel Tranquillity, but they were unfortunately full (but also fortunately, as we found a better one next day). We ventured across the road and found a room at Hotel Tower View. The room was cheap and would have been OK if it hadn’t been so damp. We stayed in the lower floors where there is less light coming into the room, so the rooms further up might have been nicer and drier – I don’t know. It was sufficient for two very tired travellers though, so after a nice heart-warming meal at Kunga’s, we went to sleep damp but fed and happy. Next day we got out in time to go and research some other hotels and guesthouses before it was time to check out from the Tower View. We again went to Hotel Tranquillity but they still didn’t have the best rate rooms available so we had to go further afield and finally found a very nice hotel called Hotel Aliment. The room was lovely and when the hot water was on it was a real treat to have a warm shower.
The atmosphere in Darjeeling is really laid back and people are very friendly. We instantly regretted not putting off more time to stay here… We get to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, and although it’s out of season in this tea plantation we have a tour of the factory and get a little bit of info about the processes and various qualities of the teas they make. About 95% of the produce goes to Harrods of Knightsbridge, so they say it’s exclusive to Harrods. Another four percent goes mainly to Twinings and a Japanese tea brand I can’t remember the name of. The last percent is for the tea-estate’s own boutique. Unfortunately we don’t have any space for carrying around boxes of tea for four more months in our backpacks… We also arrange for a sunrise trip to Tiger Hill with an early morning start at 04:00. We’re amazed of how much traffic there is on the way up to the sunset viewpoint – we realise it’s such an early start because otherwise we would be stuck in a traffic-jam and not reach the top in time for the sunrise. The downside is that we arrive there one and a half hour before the sun rises and it’s not exactly tropical up there on the top. There is an indoor bit where we can stand with a bit more shelter, but there is of course no heating and all the doors are wide open. Having a couple of cups of Chai does help thaw us out a bit. We’re not lucky with the weather though unfortunately, so the view when the sun rises is more or less nonexistent… Such is life… Big excitement from the crowd of people when the sun becomes visible in the fog though – especially by one loony who runs around inside the shelter/house shouting at the top of his voice for quite a few minutes – why exactly is a mystery to us, but he was clearly happy to see a new dawn. After seeing the sunrise we head down towards the town Ghum to visit some Gompas (monasteries). First on the agenda is the Yiga Choling Gompa, second is Dunggon Samten Choling Gompa, and the third and final one is the massive Druk Sangak Choling Gompa (also known as the Dali Gompa). These are all magnificent and well worth visiting – a nice award after the disappointing view from Tiger Hill earlier. These Gompas have a very relaxed air about them and time just flies by as we meander about and taking photos – the poor driver is kept waiting for a bit more than supposed to but he doesn’t seem to mind – I’m sure he’s used to it.
We also do a little trip on the Darjeeling “Toy Train”, an old steam train that snakes its way along the road to Ghum and back in about two hours. Quite a fun ride, and thankfully the weather have cleared up a bit from the morning so we can at least get a little bit of view of the valley. It’s quite crazy how much soot comes out of the chimney and also sparks flying about everywhere to the annoyance of local passersby who quickly have to brush them off as they land on their clothes, or in their hair. Many sparks even fly into the petrol station as we go past, which I’m sure can’t be entirely safe.
As we have such limited time available to spend in Darjeeling we don’t get to explore much more of the place. I can really recommend coming here though, but the winter months can be a bit on the chilly side and there is no heating in the houses up here. We’re so glad we’ve brought our thermal underwear, trekking trousers, fleeces and proper trekking shoes with us – it’s taking up a lot of space in our luggage, but it’s well worth the extra bit of lugging around.
It too quickly becomes time to leave Darjeeling and the journey continues towards Nepal and Kathmandu. We get a shared jeep from the Main Bazaar down to Siliguri and have to get another shared jeep from there to take us to the border crossing at Karkarvitta. The journey down from the mountain is again on very bad roads and very winding, but it’s now of course much less comfortable in a crammed full shared taxi-jeep as compared with the privately hired jeep-taxi that took us up the mountain. By the time we get to Siliguri we’re already a bit tired from travelling. As we come out of the jeep we are instantly swamped by rickshaw drivers ensuring us we need their services to get to the next taxi-stand for the jeeps to Karkarvitta. We’ve learnt that the rickshaw drivers are not to be trusted and try to get away from the taxi-stand we’re at to avoid being harassed. Walking down the road we spot another set of taxi-stands at the next road down, and although this isn’t the right one we’re guessing we’re heading the right way and all the stands are close to each other. As luck would have it we’re right and a few roads further down we finally find the stand for Karkarvitta – one more point on the scoreboard against the rickshaw drivers YEAH!!! A little later – after a little more hassle and a taxi trying to over-charge us because of our backpacks, we get help from the manager of the stand and get into a jeep and we’re off to Nepal.