From North East India – The Darjeeling Express – Nick Goslett / Episode: 1

By Nick Goslett
The Darjeeling Toy Train

22nd September
I have walked myself out in this town perched in the mountains, have found one of the very few Cyber Cafes left in Darjeeling (all but the very young Indians have smartphones and thumbs much smarter than mine and the three with me at the moment are gaming rather than completing government application forms) so I am back to keep a record of my travels for you and for me, and probably the Vacation India Expeditions website!


After a lovely week in Kovalam helping Sylvia with her beloved Venkat Trust and other matters, I arrived at Chennai airport in good time for the 10.20 flight to Bagdogra. Unfortunately it had left at 07.20 about which I don’t think I had been alerted. A few pounds worse off and I was on my way to Kolkata and then Bagdogra to arrive at about 6pm rather than 2pm. The plane from Kolkata had all sorts of problems and was an hour and a half late. I chatted with a French student studying an MBA in Denmark with a three month exchange in India. I then had to get a taxi to my hotel in Siliguri but a Moslem festival being in full swing, the road was blocked with revellers. The taxi driver dumped me on the road and told me to walk the five minutes with my small and large rucksack. After 10 minutes and knackered, a tuktuk driver came to my rescue and drove the wrong way up a busy highway to the hotel. Slumped on my bed and armed with the hotel’s wifi I listened to the BBC news. My mobile kept giving me strange messages about my SIM and having been stung when I first landed with a tenner’s worth of charges for reading a few emails because roaming had defaulted to ON, with some trepidation I checked what was happening with data. 1.4GB = 5,000 pounds. You can imagine the state this chronic worrier was in by this time. Thankfully I had kept the text from VirginMedia when we landed and a phone call sorted it all out. I was still only a tenner in their debt.Again, I left lots of time, after my first breakfast masala omelette, to catch the Darjeeling Toy Train which was to take 7.5 hours crawling up the 7,000 feet to Darjeeling. In India there are never any operatives to help one with where to catch a train so I strolled to one platform to be told that it was over there to be told it had gone an hour ago to be told that it was on time and would leave at 08.30am. Although I was early I did expect the platform to hold more than two dogs and a man sleeping on a bench. Three young men came and they thought it would indeed come but eventually we found that it had been cancelled. I was in half a mind to pack it all in and fly home. But helped by Vikas, I got a taxi to the bus station and in no time was in a jeep with 11 others (should have been seven) on my way up to the hill station. Quite fortuitously I had offered to sit in the back so that a family could sit together and am grateful that I did not have to watch what the driver attempted round blind corners. He drove one-handed talking on his mobile. Half way up we had to stop whilst he cooled the radiator. The cost for 85 miles was just over a pound.


I have a nice room in the Bellvue Hotel, right up the top of the town where taxis are not allowed so once again I had to cart the big and little rucksacks for a time. It is run by a charming Nepali (the language in Darjeeling is Nepali which is unexpected). He was a bit surprised when, seeing a double bed with twin mattresses I requested him to put one on top of the other. The TV could not have been used for some time since the remote had no batteries, the service provider’s card was out of date and the power socket didn’t work. All was quickly fixed with a smile.Darjeeling is built into a mountain. Houses perch precariously and every wall you look over has a 100 ft drop. They love their colours and the paint seems to last so it all looks amazing and wonderful. The forecast had been rain for most of the time I was due to be here (five days excluding travel) and raining it was when we arrived but since then it has been dry. Unfortunately, the cloud has meant that I have not yet see Kanchenjunga (the third highest mountain in the world and the backdrop to Darjeeling) but am hopeful that the forecast for tomorrow morning is right and I will see the sunrise from Tiger Hill and perhaps even Mount Everest 250 miles away.

The town is absolutely packed with Indian tourists. It is like one giant bazaar but with every street going steeply up and down. And everywhere these Indian tourists are buying. I found a fabulous covered food market where I bought lots of fruit to keep the TIAs away and when requesting a plastic bag to hold the produce was given a cotton one (it is not obvious that a cotton bag is environmentally any better than a plastic one). Next year in India, all plastic bags will be banned. JR thinks this will apply to big black rubbish bags as well. It will be smelly!I strolled round a hill on a walkway which should have resulted in wonderful views but just mist. Two tall pine trees had Plot for Sale notices – on what? Sheer drops for a few hundred feet. The Mahakal Temple was a celebration of flags; the stalls on the walkway were none too busy. I ambled down the streets (maps show directions but not verticals) and eventually found the Toy Train station. One was about to leave on a two hour trip, The train goes through the town on a narrow gauge, crossing roads and blasting it’s horn so loudly that even Indians cover their ears. Quite fun but very expensive for what it was. The mist did clear from the valleys and the views were glorious.


My Nepali hotel man advised me to be home by 10pm since after that the Indians are drunk and can cause trouble. A pleasant veg meal and a Kingfisher (which didn’t taste half as good as the Kovalam variety) and back to my room to see that Tottenham were playing Brighton on Star Sports 1! I did not watch and heard this morning the the Seagulls lost 2-1.Up quite early this morning, looking for breakfast (scrambled egg and coffee) and locating this cyber cafe. Then a 40-minute very steep stroll to The Happy Valley Tea Estate, one of the few organic tea plantations. The owners did it for environmental and humanitarian reasons and took a big gamble since it is more expensive to produce and the market was not assured. They are doing OK, exporting 95% of the tea to Harrods, Japan and the US. I latched on to a Japanese bunch with an English-speaking guide. At the end they practically bought out the shop. What do they do with all the stuff they buy everywhere? When I asked if I might amble around the plantation he said “122 acres are yours.” So I ambled and thought about the physical endurance of the pickers (must be female due to soft hands) who must work on steep mountainsides with baskets on their backs. The plantation is much prettier than the one we visited in Munnar after the tsunami since it has many trees and other shrubs in amongst the tea bushes. I went in search of the houses the pickers live in (much better than I expected) and spent a bit of time talking to a 14-year old girl, Ousna, who spoke really good English. Her Mum is in Oman earning money and her Grandma of 52 picks the tea from 7.30am to 4pm. A cafe owner told me that they all suffer from chronic backs and knees.


The Indians are even worse than 18 months ago at taking selfies. The ones in the 4-wheeler up to here wanted me in them as well. Indian tourists are good for hotels but hopeless for cafes and restaurants slightly out of the way because they do not like walking and take taxis everywhere.I went into St Andrews church and listened to a sermon in some language (not English) for about 30 minutes. Although Christian, habits die hard and it was women-only on the right side. A very jolly priest who had them rolling in the aisles! After that I spent some time visiting the zoo – not one signpost to lead one to it. I had hoped for better than Mysore but it was pretty horrid: like London Zoo in my youth. They had a bug section with large cases of butterflies and moths whose colours had mostly been bleached out and many of them rotted away. One excellent display of about 1,000 stag beetles. I watched a film in the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute of the first Indian team to climb Mt Makalu (27,825ft) and got chatting to a guy from LA who is touring India for 10 months. Having seen so few western tourists and expecting that this might be a journey where I met few people, I am delighted that we are dining together at 7pm tonight in Hasty Tasty.


I very much like third flush Darjeeling tea with a spot of milk and teeny bit of sugar.Lots of love to you all.


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