Nick and I took a 10 hour train overnight from Kolkata to New Jailpuri. This was the most comfortable overnight transit we’ve taken in Asia. The beds were full length and they rented bedding. Our bunkmates offered us to eat with them and we had some great discussions about politics over egg curry.
Our train only arrived 15 minutes late, which gave us just enough time to catch the toy train. The toy train built in 1808 is one of two mountain trains built under the British. While not the fastest form of transport (88km in 8+ hours) it truly felt out of a children’s bedroom as it looped its way up the steep terrain. There were screeching breaks and constant honking as it crisscrossed the mountain road that was built to follow the tracks. The train stopped numerous times to back up steep sections only to stop again and go forward up another steep section, a maneuver called a “z turn.” There were also three full loops, straight out of a “Christmas Story,” in order for the train to make it up or down large hills. The train stopped many times in mountain towns, all with there own historic station. It is an UNESCO World Heritage sight and was a memorable experience.
When we arrived in Darjeeling we spent an hour going hotel to hotel until we found an open room within our price range. We then had some delicious west Bengali food and went to bed early to prepare for our trek. The following day we took two shared jeeps (busses in the mountains) to Manybhanjang where we hired our guide, Uttam. From Manybhanjang we hiked up through the fog and cold to Tumling. This trek follows the Singalila Ridge on the Nepali border. We had to show our passports numerous times and didn’t really know what country we were in at any given time. In late spring and early Fall the skies are clear, but in late February there is often dense fog and chilly weather. We hoped that one day on the trek we would have good luck, in order to see the two ranges, containing 4 of the 5 tallest mountains in the world.
In Tumling, the fog was only thicker, but the lodge we stayed in had a pristine dorm, great food and some other engaging travelers. Nick tried chhaang, fermented barley mixed with water several times as a mountain alcoholic beverage. We played cards with a large group from Belgium and discussed politics (as always) with the Nepali guides. Unfortunately, there was no view in the morning, but we had a delicious breakfast of porridge and pancake and set off along the ridge. Throughout the next 21 km, we passed many small villages in dense fog and freezing wind. The cows changed to yaks and the languages alternated between Tibetan, Nepali and Hindi. After climbing the final 800 meters we arrived in Sandakphu at 3600 meters (12,000 feet), the highest point in West Bengal.
That night we stayed at the Sunrise Hotel. We spent the majority of the evening with our Belgium, French and Australian friends and per usual, talked politics. We all toughed the freezing temperatures and could see our breath from 3pm until the next morning. The power was promptly turned off at 8pm and we went to bed in hopes off seeing the mountains the next morning. At 5:15am we heard rustling and jumped out of bed. We put on all of our layers and headed outside. To our surprise we could see Mount Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, 3 Sisters Peaks, Kargchendzonga and other large peaks. The clouds moved swiftly but we managed to snap a few photos although it felt like our hands were going to fall off. The enormous peaks were breathtaking and incomparable to anything in Colorado. Nick was thrilled as this was his first time seeing the massive Himalayas.
As usual, clouds quickly moved in and we began our decent. We hiked 15km downhill past prayer flags, terraced fields, greenhouses and through quant mountain villages. Although we didn’t spot any red pandas, black panthers or snow leopards on our trek, we saw some beautiful rhododendron and magnolia trees. We appreciated the pristine forest and waterfalls, as this seems to be rare in Asia. That evening, we stayed with a Nepali family just past Timburay and had an authentic homestay experience. We helped the family cook, got laughed at when trying to speak Nepali, drank a lot of tea and tried homemade fruit wine.
Within a few hours 7 Indian tourists from Kolkata and their Nepali guide arrived. The dynamic quickly changed as the family and guides quickly knew they were in for an evening. The tourists asked for chicken, which the Buddhist family reluctantly cooked, and the killing process definitely created some tension. The men began to drink and the mood changed. As I helped the mother of the house and her 10 year old Indian helper cook, I was told by 2 guides and the mother not to enter the other room where the men (including Nick and the guides were drinking). Nick had a unique experience, dancing, singing and interacting with these young guys. I too had an interesting experience, as it was the first time I was asked not to enter an area as my gender made it inappropriate. Unsure whether or not their was validity to this racial profiling, I felt a little uncomfortable. The family set up a small table for Nick and I to eat in the kitchen, as they wanted us separated from the other tourists. A unique dynamic that ended up more exaggerated than necessary, our privacy felt valued by our host and guides.
The next morning we drank more tea and trekked to Rimbick where we caught a jeep back to Darjeeling. The 4-hour journey down single lane switchback roads was chaotic considering the fact that there were 17 people squeezed inside and on top of the jeep.
On our last day in Darjeeling, we hiked to a tea plantation. Although the factory was closed, we walked through tea bushes and observed the farmland being used by the community. Next, we walked to the zoo, as this was mandatory in order for us to visit the Himalayan Mountain Institute. Although not supporters of zoos, this was our favorite we’ve seen on our trip. We saw a massive Bengal tiger, snow leopards (that are part of a breeding program), red pandas, black leopards and Himalayan wolves. After, we walked around the HMI and visited the museum. Looking at the primitive gear used by Tenzing Norgay to submit Mt. Everest in 1953, it became obvious that extreme mountaineering takes tremendous mental determination, rather than access to high tech gear. Later that day we visited the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center. Tibetans living in exile make up this community and where the 14th Dahlia Lama resided before moving to Dharmsala. We watched them dry wool, use vegetable dyes and weave carpets, which the profits benefitted the community.
As always, we maximized our 5 days in Darjeeling and Nick did a fantastic job planning! I am thankful to have a travel partner that not only makes sure we see every site (economically) but also buys me ice cream at 7am when we get off of overnight transit=)
-Check out the Oxford bookshop, silver jewelry shop and Golden Tip tea store all in the town square