We arrived at Sealdah station in Kolkata ready to catch our overnight train, the Padatik Express. We negotiated with a porter to carry our bags and headed for the platform. These guys carry such heavy weights up and down stairs with ease. They earn their 200 rupees ($4) for this. We normally manage our own bags, but Indian railway stations don’t seem to have lifts, so it’s always the stairs, which I’m afraid we are getting a bit old to negotiate with such heavy bags.
The train arrived and we found our carriage. When we booked we had noted a preference for a ‘coupe’ in the 1st class air con carriage. A coupe is a 2 berth compartment. There is no guarantee you will get one, as there are only two on the train, all of the other compartments are four berth, which would have meant we would have to share a sleeping compartment with others, which didn’t really appeal. Luckily we were allocated the coupe, so we were very pleased about this. It was quite spacious, with an upper and lower bunk, which the train assistant came and made up for us with crisp white sheets and pillows and a blanket. The aircon worked well, so we were very comfortable, although the train was fairly noisy, so whilst we got some sleep it was broken a bit by stops and passing trains blowing their horns. There were toilets at the end of the carriages which were kept very clean all night by a janitor with a sign on his shirt that said, ‘no tips please’. Overall it was a good experience, we knew that this service did not provide food, so we bought some potato chips and a packet of Orios and soft drinks for the journey – so healthy. The train departed on time, but somewhere along the way, we lost some time following a goods train and ended up arriving two hours late, oh well, no issue for us.
On arrival at Jaipalguri station, we were once again confronted with the porters wanting to carry our bags, and dozens of taxi drivers. We found a taxi and off we headed for Darjeeling, a two and half hour drive from the station, up winding hills and steep hairpins, passing villages and tea plantations.
Darjeeling is a town perched at the top and steep sides of a mountain about 2500 metres above sea level. This of course, is tea country. The people here are quite different, and seem to speak another language. Many look like they may be of Tibetan or Nepalese origin, there are also many more people with Chinese features here too. There are many shops selling what are purported to be Tibetan handicrafts and antiques, and you see Buddhist prayer flags and many monks around the streets.
We found our hotel, which you enter from the road above, and wind down the side of the hill to the room. It has a lovely view of the valley below, I think, as when we arrived it was shrouded in mist. The hotel is very old style, teak timber and again that old English club décor and furnishings, with a lovely sitting room dedicated to Sherpa Tensing and climbing memorabilia, as well as teak bookcases and chesterfield couches.
We wandered towards the Mall, which is a street here and a square where everything seems to happen. There are stalls everywhere selling mostly clothes, and trinkets. There are even pony rides and in the evening lots of food vendors set up their stalls. This place sees many tourists, mostly from other parts of India. We had some great street food, enough to fill us for under $3.
Two things about Darjeeling; one – you can get an amazing view of the Himalayas from the lookout point along a walk into town, in particular Mount Kanchenjunga; two – Tea. We did not luck out on the view, because since we have been here it has been very foggy and misty with some rain. We have however enjoyed the tea, and also the food here, which is a bit different from other parts of India. We have had momos and various fried breads and savouries; there are quite a few Chinese restaurants as well as tea houses with nice cakes and pastries. I like the feel of Darjeeling, and the temperature is a pleasant 18 degrees during the day, cool and foggy, but a nice change after the heat and humidity of Kolkata and the South. (We had to buy coats)
We visited a travel company to decide what to do over the next couple of days, and booked a two day excursion up to Sandakphu, (elevation 3600 metres) and the Singalila National Park, which is right on the Nepalese border. From here, on a clear day (who knows if we will get one) you can see Mt Everest and many other mountains of the Himalaya. We will be heading up via 4wd to stay in a tea house, and then do a walk in the National Park, in the hope of seeing red pandas and cloud leopards as well as rhododendron forests in bloom. We will be off grid while up there, as there is no internet or phone service in the area. Should be fun.