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Our world Travel On 10th May 2007 I fled the UK on a journey around the world with a long list of places to go. Got as far as the Philippines where I met my wife. We got married on 11th May 2010 and are now sharing the experiences of travelling the world together

Varanasi to Darjeeling

INDIA | Sunday, 9 December 2007 | Views [6771] | Comments [1]

Thu 6th Dec - Making my escape today upto the cold north again. This time to Darjeeling in West Bengal...a very long way from Varanasi! To get there involve a very bumpy rickshaw ride about 18km to the Mughal Sarai train station, south of Varanasi. Crazy traffic as usual but only about one hour of mayhem and near suicide on the behalf of a few cyclists as they just got out of the way in time. Booked onto the 4056 'Brahmaputra' mail train, arriving from Delhi. As usual it was delayed but only by 1hr 20 minutes, leaving at 1pm, so not bad by normal standards. Like the previous train, it changed platform just before it arrived. I am so careful about this now!

This train is a long journey of about 16 hours or more...expected in probably 5am tomorrow morning at New Jalpaiguri station, which is only part way there. From there I have to wait until 9am or so to catch the Himalayan toy train (train 1D), for about 7 hours or so to Darjeeling. As you will have gathered from past blogs, I have been on a couple of 'Toy' trains before. What they actually are, are narrow gauge trains built by the british mainly to get to the hill stations. Most are a feat of engineering and this one should prove to be the best one yet...I hope! More about that later.

Constant patrol by armed soldiers through the carriage as we travel through the state of Bihar. There have been troubles throughout this area over recent times. At Namigram, close to Kolkata there were bombs not that long ago. The terrorists were targetting the law courts and not any areas that I would be going near, so I feel safe enough. Of course, you don't know where they are going to strike next, hence the high presence of armed soldiers. I had been through Mathura recently when I was on my way to Jhansi. Read a newspaper article this morning about a bomb blast in that area too. Don't panic, it'll be alright!

This could be a long journey in more ways than one....sat opposite a guy with the most disgusting eating habits...yuk! Screaming kids the other side of the partition from me, begging kids appearing occasionally. Ear plugs out soon! Another family got on later with a young kid who screamed incessantly when she didn't get her own way. Anyway. The train magically went into a timewarp during the night and came out the other side an extra 4 hours late. So, originally due in at 3:30am arrived at 8:30am instead. Fortunately, the toy train was due at 9am so made it in time. Just had to go to the ticket collector's office to get my seal allocation. 1st class carriage F1.

The toy train from New Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling covers a distance of about 92km on 610mm guage line. Completed in July 1881, the line has been recognised as a world heritage site by UNESCO. To reduce the need to bore tunnels through the hills, the route goes through a series of loops, with a double loop on the section between Rungtong and Tindharia. Ghoom station is the highest place in India. The line used to be owned by the East India Company until it was purchased by the government in 1948 for 4.4 million rupees - originally cost 1.75 million to build, so not bad profit.

It's a beautiful sunny day, so great conditions for what should be a magic journey. Train arrived at 9am prompt and left at 9:15. Tiny platform so no time wasted. First part of the journey goes through some rather dingy areas of the old Siliguri town. Shanty huts flanking the rail line, washing spread over the ground along the track to dry in the sunshine. Kids playing ball games on the tracks and wild pigs running around snuffling for food amongst the copious amounts of rubbish scattering the area. Things improved slightly when it reached Siliguri junction at 9:40. The wall of the statio.n has some rather nice plaques depicting the stations along the way and associated history. Well maintained station too. Shortly after leaving Siliguri the countryside gets taken over by tea plantations. After the madness of big cities, it's a great pleasure to be in amongst swathes of green and colourful trees. The train at this stage is going so slow that rickshaws and bicycles are passing us easily. In fact, it's easy to get off the train and walk faster then get back on further up the road! Spotted a great name sign for one of the tea plantations - 'Sublime Agro Limited tea plantation'. For a majority of the journey, the road follows the train track as it snamkes its way along. The driver has to honk the horn on every bend so it was doing my head In after a while. The route is fairly flat until it reached Sukna at 10:15, then started to climb steadily. This area is pretty, and home to many orchids as well as home to the giant version of some pot plants found in the UK such as the Poinsettia. Great to see in large areas of red. Shortly after the stop at Rungtong at 10:50 the train stopped, went into reverse up a hill after the track is switched, stop, switch the track again and then went forward on its way up another hill. This zigzag method was used a number of times along the journey to climb large gradients.

You might remember a past blog when I went upto Rhotang La in Himal-Pradesh when I made note of some quirky sayings posted along the roads. Well, they have appeard again, assume because we are in buddist country again...If you are married, divorce speed....be slower on earth than fast to eternity!

The stations from now onwards have altitude markers on them. Tindharia was the first at noon with am altitude of 2822ft asl. Later on there was a section with another toy train coming down the hill so we stopped to switch tracks to let it pass. The funny thing was a bunch of old guys on a makeshift bogey plummeting down the track at full pelt, right through the junction as the trains were swapping over lines. About 6 of them sat on this thing...it loked great fun. A handbrake was its only control!

The range of flora here is super with bold splashes of brisht yellow, red, white, blue, lilac intermingling the dense green forests. Occasional wafts of strong lemon scent lingering in the air. At Kursheong at 13:50 (4864ft asl) there was a demonstration going on which stopped us for a while. It was apparently the workers who were trying to stop the train passing as part of their cause but not sure of the detail. Tung 2:30pm at 5650ft asl. Sonada at 3:08pm at 6552ft asl. First buddist monks start to appear, dressed in their typical maroon sarong style clothing. At Jorebungalow, the train was stopped by a red flag blocking the track. The track was being repaired further up so we just had to sit it out. Got going again at 5pm and made way very slowly over the repaired section to Ghoom, the highest place in India. Made it to Darjeeling at 6pm in the dark. Decided to walk to my hotel as, even though it's a very hilly area, I felt like the exercise. Staying at the Dekeling Hotel. Complete with 20kg backpack and other stuff it was a tough climb to get there, but good after a day on the train. I chose well as this place is excellent. Nice wood panelled room with fantastic view over Darjeeling town and the surrounding valley. Being dark the town was a sea of lights, very pretty. They even charged me less than quoted on the phone when I booked it. Fresh pot of Darjeeling's best tea in a really cosy lounge with wood burning stove...toasty! Other travellers here too so plenty to talk to. The hotel also has  a great restaurant, the 'Dekevas', so went down for some tibetan sweet&sour pork and Bhalays, which are like potato cakes (about 9in dia 1/2in thick). Tasty combination, washed down with some tibetan herbal tea. I'm going to stay here for a few days to chill, so great location. Long time spent chatting to a girl from UK by the fire about stuff before heading off for a well earned sleep...it's been a very long and tiring day.

Sat 8th Dec - As I had arrived in the dark last night and had only seen Darjeeling by night, boy was I in for a treat. Plenty of activity going on outside so woke up early. Threw open the curtains and wow....the most awesome view I have ever seen. My window had an incredible view of Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain the world. Snow covered peaks and wispy clouds coming over the top were truly stunning. The sun was up, the sky was blue and not a cloud to spoil the view! Threw open the window and soaked it up. Views like this can only bring a smile to your face. Darjeeling itself is a fairly busy place spread over the undulating hillsides and is surrounded by a carpet of tea plantations. after Breakfast at the hotel  off to explore. The town is a maze of roads, alleyways and steps with plenty of activity going on. The majority of folk look tibetan and the abundance of stalls along the roads are mainly offering tibetan style wares. Hill cart road (aka Tenzing Norgay rd) is the main thru road flanked by the Mall (aka Nehru road). From here the web of interconnecting roads and steps lead off to some of the local sights of interest. Chose to aim for observatory hill, through the main centre known as Chowrasta, which was the main focus of the Victorian are of the town, and headed along the Bhanu Bhakta Sarani road. This has the most stunning views of khangchendzonga. A local society has sponsored many benches to sit on and take in the views.

Observatory hill is alos home to the 'Sri Mahakal Mandir' buddist temple. This is everyones image of a buddist temple nice ornamented arch at the entrance to the compound and the usual prayed bells that everyone trikes on the way in, and covered in a sea of colourful prayer flags. There are so many lags that it is actually hard to see the temple. Monkeys are in plentiful supply for extra entertainment, swinging on the flags and generally making a menace of themselves, but funny non the less.

Doubling back along the same road and heading north away from the main centre with a brief stop at the 'Hot Stimulating Cafe' en-route, I went to the co-sited 'Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park' & Himalayan Mountain Institute.

The zoo is home to some beautiful animals, mainly from the eastern himalaya. At 2150m above sea level, this is the highest altitude zoo in the world. Some of the species were...Siberian tiger, snow leopard, red panda, tibetan wolf, Binturong, Barking deer, Himalayan black bear, Musk deer plus many others and some interesting bird species too.

Through the site is another archway that leads to the Himalayan Mountain Institute. Opened in 1954 by Jawaharlal Nehru the first prime minister of India as a training centre for mountaineers. Tenzing Norgay was the first director of field training.....

The history....in 1953 Sir John Hunt was leader of a british expedition to climb the southern face of mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,028ft above sea level (8848m). At 11:30am on May 29th, 34yr old new zealander Edmund Percival Hilary and his guide, 38yr old sherpa Tensing Norgay (aka the tiger of the snow), reached the summit. Being the first to ever achieve this...many had tried and perished in the attempt.

The HMI has a museum dedicated to their achievement and contains the original equipment they used and some suprb life photographs. It also has a great 3-dimentional model of the world's highest mountains. For the record, the top mountians are...

  • Everest - 29,028ft (8848m)
  • K2 - 28,520ft (8612m)
  • Khangchendzonga - 28,146ft (8,579m)
  • Lhotse - 27,890ft (8,509m)

The HMI itself is at 6,800ft (2,037m). Everest was named after Sir George Everest, who was the superintendant of the Indian triginometrical Survey. This was instigated by the british raj so that they had an in-depth knowledge of the territory in its control.

On a hill above the HMI stands a monument to Tensing (29th May 1914 to 9th May 1986) and commemorates the site where he was cremated.

Really enjoyed this place as you can only admire the people who put themselves through a phenomenal amount of physical effort to achieve what they do.

Taking the southern route from the zoo/HMI along Hill Cart road, I took a detour through the 'Happy Valley' tea estate. Darjeeling is renowned worldwide for its tea amongst other things (produces about 25% of india's tea). The tea plant was originally brought here from Assam by the british as a competition to China. The hillsides are covered for miles around in plantations. The normal season is April thru to November, so we are now out of season, although there is still a small amount of picking till going on. I got a local guide (Dipu Gorung) to show me around the factory. This estate employs 290 or so people who live in shacks on the estate. They get a fixed wage of 73 rupees per day to pick upto 4kg of leaves. If they pick more then they can earn an extra bit. All of the pickers are women, the men performing other duties in the fatcory and maintenance of the site.

There are 3 seasons or flushes. April to May is the spring flush and this produces low grade tea. June to August is the monsoon flush and produces the best grade. September to November is the autumn flush.

The fesh tips of the bushes are the only part picked. The new bud itself is called the 'Pekoe' and the pekoe and attached pair of leaves are picked.

Poor grade leaves are used for normal chai in the CTC (Crushing/Tearing/Curling) process. The normal high grade process produces three grades of black tea....

  1. BOP - Broken Orange Pekoe
  2. FTGFOP - Fine tip Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
  3. SFTGFOP - Super Fine Tip Golden Orange Pekoe

The better the quality the higher the price!

The first stage is the 'Withering' trough, where the picked leaves are layed in beds over which air at 25 degC is blown to reduce the moisture content to 30% or so (the blower is over 100yrs old and was made in Belfast). Following this heavy rollers squeeze out a lot of the remaining moisture for about 30 minutes. The resultant is then fermented in a high humidity chamber to bring out the flavour. The process is stopped at by passing the leaves through a dry air chamber at 70 to 80degC for 28 minutes to reduce the moisture to about 3%. All of this is involves skilled judgement to get the best results. The leaves are then laid out to oxidise with natural blown air to turn the leaves black. 4kg of picked leaves produce 1.5kg of dried tea leaves. A shaker sorter machine (called the Britannia balanced Pucca tea sorter), sorts the dried crushed leaves into the three different grades. Further hand selection is also done by women sat in a separate room, who by hand and eye filter batches of leaves into high quality grades. Even though picking was finished, the tail end of the production was still going on and so the air was filled with a nice smell of fresh tea. Grab a handfull of dried leaves from the sorted bins...squeeze in your clenched hand  and blow through it....open your fist and breath in the lovely aroma of fresh tea....aaahhh!

Having walked downhill a fair way to get to the plantation...a long hard walk back up again. Met up with a New Zealand guy for a walk into town and joined by a group from Singapore for lunch and watch the world go by over the town with a nice cup of fresh Darjeeling tea.

Went for a brief walk around the very victorian 'Planters club' building. For 100 rupees you can become a temporary member and avail of the facilities such as the billiards room, bar and restaurant or just sit on the verandah by the cannon and have tea. Maybe tommorow!

Off to the Hasty Tasty café for dinner along with the locals and retreat for the night to the comfort of the hotel lounge and wood burning stove to keep warm and a hot water bottle to keep warm in bed. This is the life eh! For what was supposed to be a chillin' day, I'm knackered! Anyway, up at some stupid hour tommorrow morning to watch the sunrise over Everest!

Sun 9th Dec - Up at 3:40am to get a shared jeep to Tiger hill. Nice cup of chai from a bonfire built by the jeep stand. 11km south of Darjeeling, this is a great vantage point to watch the sun rise over the mountains. You get to see a 250km stretch of the Himalayas including Everest, Lhotse and Khangchendzonga....along with hundred or so other people amidst the sea of jeeps. The temperature was below freezing, so not a great start to the day. My fingers were numb after a short while and that was with reasonable gloves. Plenty of wallahs walking around serving coffee to warm up on though. The sunrise was spectacular. The sky turned multicoloured as the sun rose a ball of firy red against shades of blue and purple. The mountain side facing the sun turned a vivid golden colour. With whispy clouds blowing over the tops, a truly awesome sight and well worth getting frozen for.

A bit of a dash to head back after sunrise, but time to stop at the Bhatsia loop, which is part of the toy train circuit. In the middle of the loop is the Gurkha war memorial surrounded by attractive gardens and an eco project promoting various types of composting. A bit unexpected that one! The steam train passes through here soon after 9am but before then, traders are spread out over the track selling tibetan artifacts as well as junk. Another opportunity also to dress up in traditional clothing for a photo shoot. The site also offers another great viewpoint of the mountain range.

I was shattered after getting back to the hotel, so had breakfast and went back to bed for a while. Didn't last long as there is some renovation work going on in a lower level of the building, so banging and crashing stopped me counting zedz.

Decided to head off to Chowrasta square, which as previously mentioned is an open place high up in the town, with roads/tracks leading off downhill in every direction. They offer pony rides around the ridge, similar to when I was in Shimla. There are stables just off the roundabout/fountain for the horses and bences for folk to chill and do some people watching. A really quaint shanty hut style bazaar leads off one of the roads where I picked up a nice frshly cooked poori to keep me going.

Now, Darjeeling is very 3-dimentional I.e. Bloody steep! I had this idea to head off down CR Das road to the tibetan refugee centre a few kilometres out of town, but got part way there and was knackered as the road was a sheer drop in parts, so turned back realising that what goes down has to come back up again - I must be getting unfit and need to do something about it. I do plenty of walking  but maybe it's the altitude? Shouldn't be a problem as it's only a little over 2000m. I put it down to lack of sleep last night, as I only got 3hours. That's my excuse anyway!

Sometime soon I have to decide where I am going from here, so decided to investigate travel options. Due to the hassles in sorting out trains from here, everywhere is going to be by bus, which entails ridiculously long times spent on buses. Cheap but painful!

Tags: Sightseeing




Interesting read. I found your page through google, as mne and the wife are looking at spending a weeek or so in the Darjeeling area - Mirik, Darjeeling etc. Just out if interest, would you say it is relatively safe to travel to the area? The Lonely planet guide says Darjeeling has a politically sensitive situation and there are serious issues in the surrounding areas (Assam etc).

Many thanks, and it sounds like you had a great timee

  Matt Shelley Jan 3, 2008 6:41 AM

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