Darjeeling in a Cuppa Tea

12.30.2012 Before seeing everything else in India, our travel started in Darjeeling (It was actually a good start to get oriented with the country, I believe.). We arrived the day before New Year’s Eve via cramped tiny jeep and bumpy roads. Darjeeling seem to have that Nepali vibe. People speak Nepali, and they have momos on the menu! We just came from Nepal couple of days ago and here we are again, up in the mountains, but in a lower altitude. Here, you get a great view of the Mt. Kanchendzonga – the third highest mountain in the world.

Hectares of tea plantation, Darjeeling.

Darjeeling is a region and a town that is clearly alive and well. It has excellent climate all year round – very cold in the night, and during the days, it is perfect. This pretty little town tucked in the foothills of the Himalayas was a favorite during the English Raj era, hence the big part of the tea.

Our first mission is to find other travelers to celebrate the New Year’s Eve with. We already wrote to a couple of Couchsurfers earlier that week and we were fortunate to get a reply from a local woman living in Darjeeling – Christabel.

We met her the next day at the Glenary’s in Nehru Rd., spent a couple of hours chatting with her, giving us helpful information about her hometown, which places to visit, etc. Nice thing about Couchsurfing: you don’t really have to host or “surf” on someone else’s couch – meeting people to hang out with, chat over a coffee or drink is just enough to totally sink into a different culture and make new friends.

Celebrating the NYE ’13 with different nationalities: Austria, New Zealand, India, Philippines, Italy. It was a great night!

The rest of days we are in Darjeeling, we went to see the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, the toy train, and a couple of monasteries which names I forgot.

darj21The HMI was started in 1954, as a result of the success of Tenzing Norgay’s ascent of Everest with Edmund Hilary in 1953. It has two museums – mountaineering and Everest – as well as a training department that runs courses in mountaineering. There’s also the zoo which is housed in the same complex as the HMI. The zoo is small but very well kept. I was delighted to see the red panda, Royal Bengal Tiger and the Black Himalayan Bear.

A monastery nearby the Toy Train station.

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One of the main attractions in Darjeeling is to enjoy a ride on the Himalayan Train, lovingly named the Toy Train.

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We also stopped by the Mall Rd. Mall road is actually a very narrow street with long stretch of shops and kiosks on both sides. Here, one can buy local handicrafts, souvenirs, yak wools, finger foods and whatnots. darj9 Darj11 darj12 darj13 Darj14 Darj16 Darj18

2km from the Khanchendzonga view point, is the Bhutia Busty Gompa. It is said that this gompa stores the original Tibetan Book of the Dead. We actually came here to see that. But there was a big notice by the entrance, saying that the a particular guide book was wrong about this information for they never really had the book at all.

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We could’ve visited some more interesting places in Darjeeling but the fog and cold prevented us from further explorations.

Our next stop: Sikkim

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Incredible Extremes in Kolkata

I have first seen Kolkata’s images from the film, “Born Into Brothels”, 2004 American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Kolkata’s red light district. To be honest, watching this film gave me a conclusion to not visit Kolkata, it gave me an image of a very filthy city and dangerous India. Previously, we were in Darjeeling and in the Sikkim state, and being there never got us so far away from the Nepali vibe. I’ve mixed emotions about coming to such a crowded city. Half of me wants to see it, the other half, just wants to go back to Kathmandu and enjoy steam fried momos in the cold Nepali weather.

Our very first Indian train adventure starts from New Jaipalguri to Kolkata. 10 hours on a sleeper train. I was expecting the worst, maybe it’s crowded, maybe we’ll be sleeping on the floor or on top of one another. But I’m ready for a transition. Here’s another adventure, I said. I’ll just go with the flow.

Coming from Darjeeling, almost 3 hours winding road ride on a tiny jeep (meant only for 8-9 passengers, we managed to fit around 13!) to New Jaipalguri we reached the train station just in time.

Non-ac sleeper trains aren’t that bad. It is well-ventilated, the toilets are okay but not for the faint-hearted (Imagine a hole on the floor and you can see the train tracks. Yes, you peepee on the tracks! You’ve gotta be good at aiming though.), the beds are okay and it’s not crowded! Good thing about it is when you were not ready to sleep yet, you can share seats with the other passengers on the lower berths, mostly families – with little kids we can play with to pass the time, curious locals who sometimes play the staring game – but most of the time, ended up chatting with you.

The Non-AC sleeper train.

There are vendors selling chai, chats and samosas, chips, toys, bag chains and what-nots. Me and Valerio decided to sleep in the same bed during the whole duration of the trip (talk about pretending to be tiny), good thing I bought a yak wool blanket before we left, for it gets very cold during the night.

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Kolkata Taxi

Reached Kolkata around 7 in the morning, we met another traveler in the train and we all decided to get a taxi to go to the Sudder St., a backpacker ghetto, to find a place to stay. The three of us got there and started to look for a guesthouse. The moment we got out of the cab, touts just popped out of nowhere, following us around, offering to take us to their “friend’s” hotel – which obviously, us travelers has to pay a lot so the hotelier could give them commissions. That day we didn’t find any luck. Everywhere is just full and if there is a room available, it’s very expensive.

After a few more hours of looking for a place to stay, we found a dungeon. For a price of 700Rp (13USD), we just checked ourselves into a “prison cell”. We didn’t have a choice, we were so tired and the last thing we would want to do is lay down on a big bed and snooze, and we just said yes to the last hotel we find. The room was very small and there are no windows, so it smells like Toad has slept there for years. It smells like mushroom and wet clothes that was kept in a closet for ages.

I do not have high expectations about our trip to India. I do not come here to be a prima donna – I come here to explore and satisfy my wanderlust. So, whatever and where ever India will take us, we will openheartedly accept the consequences and face them with our street-smart intelligence. So, get off our asses, you touts! 🙂

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Why one should comb. Man with neglected dreadlocks near the museum.

I have experienced the incredible extremes in Kolkata. Extreme poverty and incredible examples of cultural vibrancy are on display. Feels like there is a daily festival of human existence. Being India’s second largest city, Kolkata is indeed a filthy city, crowded and at the same time, fascinating.

Sugar cane vendor preparing his goods.

Planning the next stop and having some tea.

Stolen shots at the museum. It is really stolen, for we didn’t pay the highly inflated camera fee.

Newspaper man in Chowringhee.

Saree vendor.

A very long and colorful Sikh parade along MG Road.

Holding hands amongst men in India is considered a common demonstration of hetero friendship. While crossing chaotic streets or sauntering down the sidewalk chewing tobacco, Indian men show no shame in interlocking fingers and pressing palms.

Kolkata street scene.

The GPO of Kolkata.

Some more sights around Central Kolkata.

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Photography and text by Author unless otherwise stated. All rights reserved.