We went in the minivan about three hours from Siliguri (adjacent to railway town New Jalipaiguri) to Darjeeling. We headed on very flat land through a military post that had a large population of monkeys and soon we reached the hills. These were forested green and at a fairly steep angle. After the mountain drive from Imphal and the Shillong mountain roads, we felt ready, but the roads were at cliffs edge and there were still times I had to look away! We went through small towns and had many stunning views of the valley and the road below.
Most of the time as we drove, even on the flat lands as we were leaving Siliguri, there was a small train track next to us. It was the ‘toy train‘, or more formally the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a line built in the late 1800’s to link Darjeeling with Siliguri, mainly to circumvent the price gouging by rice merchants at the time. It is still chugging along, this train built at a smaller scale (2 ft wide tracks!) than trains built even at that time.
In addition to its size, it is known for clever track engineering to handle the steep inclines (including a z-shaped track that involves going backwards!) and also for having several coal-fired steam engines still in service. The DHR is now a UNESCO world heritage site and there are special tourist rides, but it also remains a means of transportation for locals. Though it takes twice as long as a taxi, we had wanted to take the toy train to Darjeeling, however due to cancellations and its schedule of only going one direction each day (there is only one set of tracks) we were unable to get tickets when we wanted to go. We saw the train itself as well as several stations, and the tracks accompanied us uphill to Darjeeling.
Arriving in Darjeeling, we first noticed the cool, damp air. As we looked around the narrow street, we saw steep staircases going up and down. We unloaded ourselves and luggage into a nearby restaurant and ate while Mr. Fantastic went looking for a hotel. We were so happy with the vegetarian options, such as noodle dishes and momos (dumplings, below) along with hot chocolate and of course, tea (tasting below).
There is also a Tibetan noodle soup I enjoyed called ‘thukpa’. We would later enjoy street versions of this food, especially the momos, as well as chocolate bars here. Our first chocolate in many countries! Cadbury is here, as well as strangely delicious kitkats (we suspect they use real sugar and not corn syrup like the US). As we ate, we could see other mountains from the cafe window but there was also a lot of mist.
When we learned about our hotel options, we were excited. There was a large suite with a balcony and two bedrooms in one hotel, and a Beatles-themed guesthouse across the street from there. We ended up staying in both places. After lunch, we strapped on the backpacks and negotiated our way uphill, mostly on the staircase-alleys.
Darjeeling has a lovely town square on a ridge with beautiful views, little shops with painted wooden signs, and a small stage. The walk there from our hotel was lined with shops and full of people. We still weren’t seeing many saris or Indian looking people, rather there were many Tibetan prayer flags, Nepalese, more of an Asian feel to the population, like what we had seen in the rest of northeast India. In the cold air, many people were wearing thick woven scarves, some large enough to be blankets. We saw people hauling loads on their backs in baskets with a headstrap, as we had seen in Schillong. We admired the evening sunset, ate, browsed a bookstore, and returned to the hotels.
We walked a lot through the town and nearby during our time in Darjeeling. The steep roads had interesting little neighborhoods and many fields of tea bushes. I took a walk alone one day to Observatory Hill, a colorful temple where visitors burn incense and ring bells as prayers. On other days, we rode a cable car called the ropeway, visited the zoo and Himalayan Mountain Institute, and experienced a tea tasting. The ropeway was a 20-minute ride out over a tea plantation and down a hill with amazing views.
The zoo was interesting for its breeding program for local fauna such as the local tiger, bear, and red koala. Randomly, there was a pack of Indian MetLife guys at the zoo entrance who wanted their photo with me while rest of my family sneaked past. I must have been in a dozen photos! My moment of fame! The kids are used to this, but as a middle-aged married mom I don’t often get the celebrity treatment. So, yeah, MetLife guys who wanted my photo, bears, and red pandas.
Anyway, on the zoo grounds is a museum about Himalayan mountain climbing, specifically the climber Tenzig Norgay who, with Edmond Hillary, first climbed Mt. Everest. Norgay is a local hero from the area and is buried there as well.
We were unable to see a tea plantation for several reasons, but we did have a tea tasting right there at a tea store on the town square. We had seven kinds of tea, many more cups than I could drink. Tea garden and workers as seen from cable car:
We had only about two hours, rather than the usual three hours for the tasting. We tried to appreciate the differences among the early and late harvest teas, the white, green, and black teas, the different varieties, but I’m afraid they were a bit lost on us. We had been drinking local chai since entering India, and we really like the milk, sugar, and spices in the black tea. “Oh, that’s Assam tea,” the tea shop owner told us, maybe in a little bit of a snobby way. “It’s so strong and bitter by itself that it is prepared with the other ingredients to make it palatable. The Darjeeling teas are more refined and subtle in flavor.” Like I said, lost on us. Actually, I didn’t want much tea for a few days after the tasting! But we were glad to learn more a about the town’s most famous industry.
One day we got up to see the sun rise at Tiger Hill. This is a monastery with excellent views and a popular location to watch the sun rise and try to spot the Himalayas. It was crowded that morning and we met a nice couple from England and saw a lovely sunrise but the sky was cloudy and the mountains were misty. We did not catch a glimpse of the famous mountain chain. An Indian tourist there remarked that the Indians like to go there to watch the sunrise for spiritual reasons but the foreign tourists hope to see Mt. Everest. I suppose we foreign tourists are more likely to be disappointed! Afterwards, we stopped by the Batasia Loop, one of the interesting feats of engineering in getting the toy trains up the hill. It has been made into a park with nice views of the mountains, and we actually did see a snowy mountain peak in the distance for a short while.
Speaking of the Himalayas, our last morning was clear and we could see several of the snow-capped beauties for the first time. The view from our hotel balcony was magical; it was hard to believe those mountains had been there the whole time behind the clouds!
We left Darjeeling on the toy train. Due to its schedule, we were only going about halfway down and we would take a taxi back to Siliguri. Riding the train was so fun. There were great views and in the towns, we came so close to people and merchandise in the shops that we could touch them if we wanted to. We saw people hop on and off the train for a free ride as we went along. The speed was slow, so that didn’t pose a risk, however the cliffs did. We saw one unfortunate train jumper fall off and roll down a hill. The driver stopped the train, but the young man stood up and walked back up the hill so we knew he was ok. If it had been a steeper cliff, he may not have fared so well. Mostly, we just looked out the window at the scenery chugging past and enjoyed the ride.
When we arrived at Kurseong, we were at the end of the line that day. We quickly decided to stay the night there since it was getting dark and it was still about two hours to New Jalipaiguri where we would catch the train to Dehli. We had tickets for late the next evening anyway, and we were in no hurry to leave the cool of the mountains. We found a hotel and ventured outside. There were a bunch of kids playing soccer and badminton outside the hotel in the driveway of a small gas station. Our kids joined their games and became friendly with a few of them.
As the evening became night their games slowed and the kids were invited to a house across the street. I went along and we were welcomed into a cozy two-room home where a mom made tea and invited us to dinner. We were astounded at the hospitality of such a humble place. We had tea and crackers but declined dinner, thinking they themselves would have nothing to eat if we accepted. Still, they were excited to talk and we stayed a while. Their English was quite good and we enjoyed talking. It turned out the father of the family works for the railroad and he enthusiastically showed us a VCR tape from 2000 which was a documentary on the Darjeeling toy train by the BBC. He cleared a space in that small room for us, chairs were placed near the TV and some people sat on the bed. I was interested to learn more about the train, and he was very proud of his connection to it. We watched it for a while, too long my kids would say, and then made plans to see the kids after school the next day.
So we spent the day in Kurseong. I was happy to learn there was a tea plantation there, so we could maybe tour one after all. We decided to walk to the plantation. This took about two hours and brought us past boarding schools (there are quite a few in this little town for some reason), some nice views, and locals going about their business. It was mostly downhill. We reached the Makaibari tea plantation, eat. 1849, and a man in a small hut/tea retail area got up and showed us the processing equipment.
The season was to start in a week or two, depending on the weather, but that day the machinery was idle. He showed us the drying machines, the withering room, and other large industrial contraptions. Most of the equipment was original, dating back to the 19th century. We thanked him, bought some packages of tea, and started heading back uphill to the town. We were hoping to get a ride and we did. We were grateful because we did not want to walk uphill that far and also because we were to meet the kids from last night. We met them and the mom, who’s name I regret I can’t remember, for a walk to ‘Eagles Crag (sic)’. This is a viewing area above the town. We had a nice walk there and climbed the viewing structure to have a look. We took photos with the kids.
We could see the road we had walked to the tea plantation, and the surrounding hills, and Kurseong. It started raining just as we reached the main road and we took shelter in the train station. We had tea and snacks while we waited out the storm in the most cozy little wooden train station on the side of the mountain. Then it was time for us to head to the big train station in NJP, but the kids hung out in the little house while we parents got the luggage and the taxi ready. It took about an hour to do all that, and during that time the mom made hot milk for the twins, sewed a hole in Truly’s knit cap, and packaged up a shalwar kameez outfit I had admired as a gift to me. We just marveled at how nice these people were to us. Their generosity far surpassed their simple home and we were touched. We felt bad leaving, but we had tickets for the Dehli train, and people we hoped to meet there, so we said our goodbyes and got in the taxi downhill.