JUNE 10TH 2001 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
DARJEELING - OUTPOST OF THE RAJ
Chaieeeeeeee. Chaieeeeeeee. I had just begun to nod off and was vaguely aware that the train had pulled into a station. The chai man marched up and down the platform carrying a sack of little clay cups in one hand and a huge copper kettle in the other. Business was brisk. It was dawn. I surveyed the scene. The bustling woman, a recent arrival in the crammed carriage, had settled on the floor ominously close to my feet. Two of her four offspring were happily sleeping under my legs. A floral cloth bag was jammed against my toes. I had lost the battle for territory long ago.
An hour later, the sun came up. Thankfully we had reached the railhead of New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri, gateway to Darjeeling. The 36 hour ordeal was over. A First Class sleeper on an Indian train is a pleasure. Second Class sitting is, well, an experience at best. I had paid the price of a late reservation and would wear the lacerations inflicted by the small slatted seat for days to come.
I skirted eager cab drivers and climbed on a rickshaw bound for the shared jeep stand. Eventually the requisite eighth person squeezed into the last space and we were ready for the hair raising three hour drive through winding mountain passes and tea plantations. The lookout, perched precariously on the spare tire, reported traffic and road conditions ahead by thumping on the roof. His gnarled toes pushed against the back window through a pair of worn thongs
.At Ghoom, just 8 kilometers short of our destination, the traffic stopped. There was a series of urgent high pitched whistles. A perfect miniature steam engine blocked the center of the High Street hauling four ancient carriages. The famous Toy Train was built in 1881. It was declared a national monument during my visit which ensured its continuation as a major tourist attraction despite huge maintenance costs to the line, especially in the monsoon season. The original engines and carriages still plod the nine hour trip between New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri and Darjeeling on a narrow gauge track beside the highway. I would use it for the return journey when my wounds had healed.
We finally pulled into the line of parked jeeps. I was surrounded by short smiling mountain people warmly wrapped against the cool air. Kanchenjunga and the snow capped Eastern Himalayas stood proudly above the wispy clouds. Neat tea plantations clung to the sides of the valley below. Rows of steep concrete steps connected the winding streets of this hillside town of 85000. Prayer flags fluttered above the rooftops. Buddhist monks hurried by in thin saffron robes. Rickshaws and sacred cows were absent. Butchers were doing a flourishing trade. This was a different India to the one I had left only 3 hours earlier.
Darjeeling was settled in the mid 1800's as a Hill Station for British troops to escape the lowland heat. The altitude of over 7000 feet and fertile hillsides provided perfect conditions for growing tea. Labor was imported by The East Indian Company from nearby Nepal. Nepalese, along with Sikkimese, Bhutanese and more recently an influx of Tibetan refugees make up the majority of the population. A bloody rebellion in the mid-1980’s brought some autonomy to the region.
Rows of little stalls line the narrow lanes. Packaged teas, vegetables, Tibetan jewelry, souvenirs. Relaxed vendors knit wool toques, sweaters and scarves to add to their stock. Nepalese porters struggle past with huge baskets of bricks suspended from taut leather headstraps. Groups of animated pony trekkers clatter by.
The Raj left its mark on this isolated pocket of the Empire. The Windamere Hotel, a grand colonial pile half way up Observatory Hill and once home to bachelor planters, is the “in” place for afternoon tea. Small plates of crustless cucumber sandwiches are grudgingly dispensed by the Tibetan waitress dressed as an English maid straight from Fawlty Towers: a starched apron, a frilly cap and a sour countenance. The Tibetan owner, Mrs Tenduf-la has been a formidable force in local society since the 1920’s. She no longer greets guests, but the walls are a museum of historic photos, respectful letters and invitations from local dignitaries. Neatly framed rules strategically dot the drawing room. “Please do not rearrange the furniture, it has been placed for your comfort”- “Do not play the piano, good tuners are hard to find” The cosy rooms from US$90/$150 with fireplace and full board are in high demand from heritage aficionados.
The oldest and finest hostelry in town befits the previous owner, the Maharajah of Cooch Bihar. The New Elgin Hotel has been in operation for over 100 years. I approach the well stocked bar. The man on the next stool is stylishly attired in a kilt, sporran, leather boots and a thick tweed jacket. He orders a large Glen Morangie. Surely a porridge lover from the Highlands of Scotland? A nervous “G’day mate” reveals an Australian from Melbourne living a fantasy. Diamond Oberoi, the effusive host, has overseen tasteful renovations to this colonial haven set in magnificent gardens. Each traditional suite is comfortably equipped with a fireplace, TV and marble bathroom. The New Elgin is a perfect place for honeymooners and eccentrics alike.
Tourists flock to this tranquil town where many of the 100 hotels offer hot water bottles and coal fires. They come to hike through picturesque valleys, villages and tea plantations. They come to ride the Toy Train. They come to recuperate from a strenuous trek in Nepal or Bhutan or to break a grueling trip around India, as I did. They come to study Bhuddism or enjoy a pint of Newcastle brown ale and a plate of bangers and mash at Joey’s bar. They come for a fine cup of tea. This outpost of the Raj is unique in all India.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Best to obtain before leaving home
WHEN TO GO: Monsoon season June-September. Ideal time mid September- mid December or mid March-mid June. Be prepared for pleasant days and cold evenings.
AIR: Direct Air India flight from Delhi to Bagdogra in West Bengal, then catch an airport bus to Darjeeling (31/2 hours)
TRAIN: Take train to New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri. Book 1st class in advance. Take a chain and padlock for your luggage on overnight trains or buses as the locals do! Choose from shared-jeep/bus/Toy Train or cab for the approximately 80km trip up to Darjeeling.
ACCOMMODATION: Lots to choose from. I stayed at mid-range Hotel Dekeling around US$16 lots of steps, great views, charming Tibetan owner.
ACCOMMODATION EMAIL/WEBSITES: Hotel Dekeling e-mail compuset.@cal.vsnl.
New Elgin Hotel website www.elginhotels.com e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
Windamere Hotel website www.windamerehotel.com e-mail email@example.com
FOOD: Good choice, Chinese/Tibetan/Indian/British pub grub! New Elgin hotel has best dining in town.