Monday, January 5, 2009

Darjeeling 2

After several hours of delays and much adventure we finally made it to the enchanting city of Darjeeling.

Our drive back to New Delhi station was an interesting one. We had to make a stop for petrol on the way; our first encounter with an Indian petrol station. There was a queue to enter and then we all had to get out of the car while the driver filled up the car. After it was filled the driver moved away from the bowsers and allowed us to get back into the car. We have no idea why this is the way it is done I can only imagine it was for safety reasons. By this stage we had lost about 20 minutes. We had not been back on the road for long when the driver pulled up outside a temple, which we had seen a few times. He literally stoped abruptly in front of the entrance. Grabbed some beads from the rear view mirror and turned to face the entrance of the temple where you could clearly see the deity. He turned very solemn and sincere for several seconds as he said a prayer. Then as abruptly as we arrived he spun around and hit the accelerator. The traffic on the approach to the station was much busier now and we where beginning to run short on time. When we finally pulled into the bustling station we picked up our backpacks and headed for the platform. As per usual we were approached by several people wanting to know where we were going and on what train and were subsequently told every negative scenario about our impending journey. The stand out comment was that the trip would take 3 or 4 days. When we arrived at our platform after wading through a see of people our train was waiting. Indian trains are at least 2 if not three times longer than the average Sydney train and of course our carriage was one of the last. We found our carriage and boarded the train. We did not book first class but rather opted for 2A. This meant we had 2 bunks facing each other with a curtain that partitioned off our space. I wouldn’t have said it was clean but it was comfortable enough. Shortly before midday our 6.40am train was underway.

The journey was certainly an eye-opener. At every stop people boarded the train to sell their wares of Chai, snacks, books and clothing. The saddest was the young children not more than 6 or 7 years old that come through with bare feet and ragged clothes hoping to sweep out your cabin for a few rupees. People would stick their head in to our room for no reason whatsoever but to simply stare at the Goras (white people). At one station two of the unusually common hermaphrodites dressed in Saris entered out cabin singing and asking for money we insistently sent them away using the Hindi term nahi (No).
As we travelled we passed through varying landscapes and many small villages. There was a variety of agriculture from the ubiquitous rice paddies to canola and more. The train ride highlighted the copious number of people in India. It did not matter where we were or what time of day when you looked out of the window you could see at least one person and more than likely several animals. Train travel in India would have to be one of the best ways to see the country as you get a glimpse into peoples lives and the varying cultures and landscapes.
We bought our meals on the train. The food was cheap and tasted reasonable enough though variety was lacking. Every meal of the 4 we had on board was a yellow dhal and one other veg dish based on potatoes, chickpeas or cauliflower. Thankfully we had stocked up on snacks for our long journey to break up the monotony. Unfortunately if you eat and drink you inevitably need to frequent the bathroom. I tried to keep the visits to a minimum for two reasons
1. I didn’t like being watched; and
2. The bathrooms, though functional and not bad smelling, were not that clean.
There are two toilets available - a western toilet and a squat toilet. My initial choice was to use the squat toilet as you don’t have to touch anything. The toilet floor was wet with all manner of substance and of course there was no toilet paper which I had anticipated and brought my own as there was no was I was using my hand and the water available in the feral jug. The squat toile was basically a hole that allowed you to visualise the train tracks below and for that reason you were requested not to defecate at stations. Unfortunately Hunter had not used a squat toilet before and missed in her aim… so after that and due to the lightweight packing I had to abandon the squat toilet for the western toilet, which I wiped down with an antibacterial wet wipe before each use.
Before dark we were allocated blankets and pillows for out nights sleep. I don’t sleep well in new places on the first night at the best of times and on the train was no exception. At 2am after a few hours of restless sleep some instinct woke me and as I rolled over some movement caught my eye. As the realisation that a stranger was in our cabin struck me, Ray was woken by instinct also and his action was immediate; he immediately yelled at the man who had crawled into our cabin and was attempting to access our backpacks. Rays tone was rough and fierce and the man immediately scrambled form our cabin with Ray hot on his heels. The man disappeared into a nearby cabin and hid. The ruckus had woken the whole carriage and Ray then made sure under no uncertain terms that if anyone else dared pull a stunt like that he would beat the living daylights out of them… Though he wasn’t quite that polite but it assured that the rest of our trip was without incident.
Needless to say we were all wide awake then Hunter who got a bit of fright as she woke up a bit disoriented then hopped into bed with me. Ray insisted he would not sleep after that, although he was soon intermittently snoring in a series of catnaps.

By 9am it was clear that we where not going to arrive at our destination by 1.30. We called our hotel to let them know we would be an hour or two late and could they let their driver know. So the delays kept accumulating and we kept ourselves busy as best we could. I managed to polish off the last 500 pages of Shantaram, which I was pleased to have finally out of the way. So at 8.30 pm over 32 hours after boarding the train we finally arrived. The station was much the same as Delhi with a multitude of taxi drivers vying for our business. We soon found our driver and where ready for the 3-hour drive up the mountains to Darjeeling. I had planned to sleep but once the mountain precarious mountain ascent began sleep was the last thing on my mind. Our driver was a little unusual and was unusually excessively photosensitive to the headlights from the oncoming traffic (I should mention high beam is the norm for most cars at night), so much so that we virtually came to a standstill every time a car approached. Eventually as we began to climb and the roads became narrower, steeper and windier. The diver handled each obstacle with the proficiency gained from years of traversing the precarious roads. There were no barricades to prevent cars slipping off the side of the road and down a near vertical drop, we were quite thankful it was dark and we could not see the bottom of those drops. The winding roads meant a slow pace and after 3 hours and climbing to an altitude of 7000 feet we finally made it to our hotel and dropped into bed after being welcomed with much needed hot water bottles.

The hotel we stayed at was one that caught Ray’s eye on a website. It is owned by an English woman and her Tibetan husband. It is a small hotel with lovely atmosphere and character. The service has been wonderful with lots of homely touches such as the hot water bottles at night. When we booked the hotel we thought it would be OK as it was very cheaply priced but we have been blown away. Our rate includes accommodation transfers from the station 3 hours away and 2 meals per day. Our room is very nice and the beauty of Indian hotels is that they are happy to squeeze 4 people into one room so we don’t have to pay for two rooms. The only slight disappointment is the lack of hot water. I was hoping to finally be able to have a long hot shower but the small water heater allows for about 3-4 minutes depending on the pressure. Honestly though I cannot sing the praises of this hotel enough it is just lovely and so well priced.
On our first morning we decided to go for a walk to the nearby town centre. It was only a short walk to the local markets which lead to a big open square where many of the locals gather to sit and watch the world go by or catch up on local gossip. The square is also the starting point for a pony ride that takes in a loop around the top of this particular mountain and some spectacular views of snow capped mountains including Kangchendzonga the worlds 3rd highest peak.
I really don’t know how to express what a lovely city this is, the architecture is different from that found anywhere else in India and I cannot find the words to express the wonderful atmosphere. I think part of what makes it so wonderful is the people. Though it is still part of India I feel like I have crossed the border into Nepal. The people here look very different to those in Delhi and to those in the south of Kerala who have another look again. The Darjeeling people have very soft faces with a distinct Asian/Nepali appearance – very similar to Ray – in fact he has been asked whether he was Nepalese.
At the market stores, though there is room to negotiate, we often don’t bother as the initial prices they quote are very reasonable and the people so endearing. The things on offer are similar to those in the markets in Delhi though the stoles and scarves are warmer and there is an abundance of woollen socks and Tibetan hats. Did I mention it is freezing here? Though you can get warm in the sun I still could not remove my ski jacket, which I am so grateful that I packed.
On our first day in the market Sam made friends with a local boy whose mother owns a little market stall. The kids here all play a kind of hacky sack game with a ball type thing made from rubber bands. We have met him every day since as we have wandered about and each day we stop so they can play.
After a morning of wandering through the markets and taking in the amazing views that come with such a high altitude we decided to escape the cold with lunch at a small vegetarian restaurant. The food was great and we sampled the favourite local dish of chilli potatoes. It was also the first time since we arrived in India that we had lassi… why we waited so long I don’t know, although I have enjoyed lassis in Australia they do not compare with those in India. Another thing I love about India is how cheap the food and drink is. I am making the most of $1 freshly squeezed juices, lassi’s and hot chocolates made with the creamiest milk.
Darjeeling being so close to Tibet also has several Tibetan restaurants, which serve Tibetan momos, a kind of steamed or fried dumpling served with a fiery chilli sauce. Along with the lassis they have become a daily fare since our arrival in Darjeeling.

On our second morning we rose at 4.30am to make an early morning trip to tiger hill which is a neighbouring mountain with views all the way to Mount Everest. We had not planned to make the trip on our second morning but the night before we met some Australians at the hotel restaurant; we shared stories about our time in India including anecdotes of our experience on Indian trains. They thankfully mentioned that it was going to be a clear day the next day and then the next few days would be overcast. So we brought our trip to tiger hill forward and in hindsight it was defiantly the right thing to do. As we climbed to a higher altitude the temperature dropped to below freezing with a thick frost over the trees and the Tibetan prayer flags that zig zag between the trees were frozen solid. When we stopped to buy tickets Ray was asked if we wanted super deluxe, deluxe or general. We asked for super deluxe as it was still cheap and where consequently informed they were sold out… why offer them then. So we went for deluxe instead which we were told had heating. We walked up the hill and found out viewing area, which was a crowded freezing room with a little bar heater. We could not get anywhere near the windows and where not going to see a thing. So we headed back down to the unheated general area, which had an indoor and outdoor area. Hunter’s feet where freezing so Ray sat inside with her until I gave the signal that the sun was rising. There were several hundred people up on the mountain that morning and the atmosphere was great. There was a great cheer as the sun began to rise over the horizon and cast first light over the mountain ranges. Kangchendzonga was 52 kilometres away as the crow flies and was a spectacular sight. As it was such a clear morning we where able to glimpse the summit of Everest some 150 kilometres away. Not nearly as spectacular as Kangchendzonga but exciting none the less. After the sun had risen we headed back down the mountain and stopped at an icy field- another popular viewing spot. Hunter achieved a kind of celebrity status while there with 50+ people wanting their photo taken with her…we could have made some serious rupees. After taking our own family pics we made a quick get away in the car.
After a few more stops at a Buddhist temple and another viewing area we went back to the hotel to defrost with some tea and a hot breakfast.
As I sit here in the breakfast room at the hotel a few days latter some English tourists we met yesterday have just arrived back from tiger hill. The weather today is not clear. Although the sunrise was still spectacular much of the mountains was obscured by cloud and fog. We are so relieved we made the decision to go when we did; we had the perfect day.

We went on a tour of Darjeeling a few days ago, which took in most of the sites around Darjeeling. It started out with a few temples, which really are not our thing. We then went to a small gallery called the Ava gallery, which houses the works of the artist Ava Devi. Her works were incredible; she worked with silk thread on black cotton to create the most intricate work. Each of her pieces captured shadowed portraits of the Darjeeling and Nepalese people. She also worked with watercolours on black cloth with an equally impressive eye for detail. Before she died her pieces where for sale for as little as $60 for art that would have taken hundreds of hours.
We also visited the Darjeeling zoo and the Himalayan mountaineering institute, which housed the Mount Everest museum. It was fascinating seeing the equipment used by Tenzing Norgey on his ascent to the summit of Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary and reading about the history of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute one of Tensing Norgeys favourite haunts and where he was eventually laid to rest. After visiting the institute we went to Tenzing rock, which is one of the rocks used by the institute in their mountaineering courses. Ray and the kids climbed the rock with a guide whose fingertips were blackened by frostbite from his trek to Everest base camp.
The tour of course took on one of Darjeeling’s 180+ tea gardens. We sipped on local teas while taking in an amazing view of the terraced tea plantations. The garbage problem is the same in Darjeeling as the rest of India. On finishing our tea we looked for a bin to throw our cups in to find there were none. We were simply told to chuck them on the ground with the rest of the litter that covered the ground. It is an odd place Darjeeling where plastic bags are banned in shops to help keep the mountains clean but any other sort of plastic garbage litters the countryside. At the tea garden once again Hunters presence was requested in photos, which she was not so keen on so from now on she wants her blond hair tied back and hidden.

Of course while in Darjeeling one must make the time to become educated about tea and to sample the many varieties. So on Sunday morning we went to a tea “bar” and tried many varieties including teas that retail in the US for more than $300 per kilo.
We must have sampled 12 or more teas from the Castleton first flush to a very high quality Assam and many others of differing flavours and qualities. It has certainly given me a new appreciation for tea but I am still not a convert to tea drinking. Sunday is a relatively quiet day in Darjeeling and it was nice just to spend some time wandering around town and relaxing.

Well that about brings things up to date. Sorry for the long-winded post of some 3000+ words. I realise this blog has been very much based on our experience and not so much on our work. I have been hassling Ray to finish one of his half written posts and publish it to give some insight in the work we are doing…

Until next time, know that no matter how bad things get there is always someone who is worse off than you..

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