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Long route home Our trip all the way home, trying to catch no planes and stay on the ground like civilised people. It's taking us via India all the way to Europe from Japan, the furthest of the Far East...

Our darling Darjeeling

INDIA | Wednesday, 20 October 2010 | Views [966]

After one final Indian night train to New Jalpaiurgi, we had to catch a shared jeep up the mountain to Darjeeling, which was an experience in itself. The people we were riding with were on their way home for holidays, but seemed to be moving house. Two TVs, 16 suitcases and various other bags were piled onto the top of the jeep, we 12 people squeezed inside and the engine groaned up the steep slopes. Our driver was not having a good day, he was slapped by a motorbike owner, a baby was sick in the jeep and his overcharging plans went awry.  We initially thought we'd been massively overcharged but it turns out the locals were paying more than us, which we told them, leading to much bonhomie from them for us and misery for the driver.

Riding the jeep was not only uncomfortable and slow (the drive itself takes 4 hrs, but the faffing around to get 11 passengers and attach their luggage took an additional 2.5!), it was also disappointing because we'd been hoping to ride the famous Toy Train. The whole day's journey by steam train zig zagging and looping our way up improbable slopes is said to be one of the most famous rides in the world, but landslides from the monsoon thwarted us. We did take the short 'joy ride' later in our stay, but it was a poor second prize, as after an hour riding along the same road we'd driven (the cars and train share the road in places), we had half an hour in their museum to see how good it could have been!

Darjeeling was so unlike India, we felt more as if we were in Ye-Olde-England in the mountains, or some strange English-Swiss-Indian cross town. The sharp blue sky and mountain views were a taste of what was to come in Nepal/Tibet, as were the hundreds of mountain-cloud-sky pictures that digital cameras allow. The fresh air, relatively few people and actual functioning pavements were a few of the un-Indian delights, alongside huge plates of bacon/ham/sausages in a rooftop restaurant, a bakery cafe with WIFI and a bar where locals came to have fun. When we stopped in, the Buzz Bar was awash with beer (in fact, so awash that they ran out at one point) and 18-25 year olds - possibly home for festival time and catching up with one another, possibly just a normal night out.

On top of all this, We had a lovely hotel with wooden panels, a hot shower, a warm, inviting communal area and the BEST BED EVER. The owners were incredibly helpful and knowlegable Tibetans, giving us traditional silk scarves as we left and filling us with hope for the onward journey.

We made the obligatory visit to a tea plantation - Happy Valley, (they supply Harrods don't cha know). The various stages of tea making were explained, lots of drying, fermenting and drying again. We'd been told we could see the stuff from the floor being swept up to go in tea bags, but they didn't show us this so we don't have bragging rights. The botanical gardens were a little washed out by the time we got there, as it was raining rhinos and elephants. (The weather was not always our friend, it seemed to be bright sunshine each morning and then heavy rain for the afternoon.) Still, the Gardens seemed well cared for and properly labelled, and we were glad to join the group taking shelter in a greenhouse.
After the Sunderbans disaster, we finally saw a tiger. Two actually, but sadly they were in cages. Darjeeling boasts a wonderful zoo, with large-ish enclosures and a snow leopard breeding/conservation centre next door. (Not open to tourists, but beautiful snow leopards in the zoo itself.) They also have leopards, pumas, leopard cats, clouded leopards and the experience was not spoiled too much by the shouting and whooping of the other visitors.

Our eyes were now fixed firmly on the next leg of the journey, how we'd to get to Nepal, getting the timing right for Tibet/China visa processing and searching for an agency in Kathmandu that offered affordable Tibet tours. The sword, which we'd now been carrying around for 3 weeks and had so far failed to cut through any red tape, was finally taken off our hands after the Post Office reluctantly agreed to send it if Oli could find a box. Who knows if it will be waiting for us in the UK, but at least we didn't have to carry it.

If you're going
Dekeling Hotel is highly recommended
Planters Lodge no longer takes temporary guests (whatever the guidebook says)
The Buzz Bar and Glenary's above are fun stops
Keventers breakfast and plates of meat are winners
Ko-cha provides a fine selection of tea
Should you wish to evade national postal regulations, try Darjeeling


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