I reached the Varanasi airport for my 2:30 p.m. flight to Delhi only to discover the flight was delayed. Good grief. I was beginning to think I was never going to leave purgatory. I had developed a cough and sore throat and just wanted to get away from the dirt and smoke. Anyway, the flight finally left at 3:45 p.m. and landed in Delhi at 5:00 p.m. I would take a flight to Bagdogra early the next morning. After collecting my luggage (26 flights to date and only one airline has lost my luggage … thanks American Airlines), I took a pre-paid taxi to Sauhbag B&B. Unfortunately, the driver got lost. Four telephone calls and 45 minutes of driving around, and I finally spotted Meera, her mother and one of her employees out on the street looking for my taxi. Meera ripped the taxi driver while I helped her staff with my luggage. Once inside, I was served a lovely pot of tea and welcomed with open arms.
Meera then asked me if I would mind bunking in the same room with her mother (there were twin beds in the room). I told her I would be happy to sleep on the couch, but she was having none of it. In fact, Meera’s mother then said she would sleep on the couch, and I was having none of that so it was settled that we would be roomies for the night.
Anyway, after a wonderful conversation with Meera’s extremely bright son about the pros and cons of Delhi hosting the Commonwealth games and after a lovely meal, I called it a night. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep. Unfortunately, I had coughing spell after coughing spell all night and got very little sleep. I felt horrible for keeping Meera’s mother awake, but she insisted it was no problem. (These folks are a nice as they come!) In the morning I had a semi-traditional Indian breakfast of egg on a roti with chutney, toast, fruit and tea. Then it was off to the airport with Meera’ driver at the helm. I thanked Meera and her family profusely and we were off.
The flight to Bagdogra, in the Himalayan foothills, was right on time and I landed in the hill town at 12:15 p.m. to sunny skies and hot temperatures. I located a driver at the pre-paid taxi stand to take me on the 3 hour drive to Darjeeling and lucked out with a very nice guy who owned a brand new Toyota 4 Runner. We set off and within an hour we were winding our way around hairpin turns on a very narrow road, past waterfalls, tea plantations and colorful homes, up, up, up into the Himilayan foothills. The countryside and the roads were vastly different from what I had experienced in Agra and Varanasi. While there were still plenty of cows, motorcycles and cycle rickshaws, the din had shrunk to a low roar and as we climbed higher into the hills, eventually faded completely away (except for the ever present and required horns round each hairpin turn).
We past small hill station towns filled with people who bore more of a resemblance to their Tibetan neighbors than India proper. Children in matching school uniforms smiled and waived as we passed by and villagers stood on doorsteps watching the traffic. As we climbed higher, we paralleled the Toy Train tracks and it soon became foggy and much cooler. I prayed the fog would lift because any clouds or fog would prevent me from seeing the Himalayas and in particular, Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world and Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.
I finally reached Darjeeling and was delivered to the Mayfair Hotel at 4:00 p.m. The Mayfair was originally a Maharaja’s summer palace and is filled with antiques, soft carpets, fireplaces and impeccable service. However, when I tried to check in, a surprise. “Madame. You were scheduled to arrive yesterday and when you did not show up, we canceled your reservation.” “Uh well that’s quite interesting since I spoke to a gentleman yesterday and told him I was stuck in Varanasi and would not be arriving until today.” I immediately explained what had occurred and then pulled out my cell phone and showed them the record of the telephone call. The General Manager standing nearby overheard the story and apologized profusely. Unfortunately, they were sold out for the night. The General Manager advised me that he could put me up for the night in the “Manager’s Room”, and then transfer me to a room tomorrow. A couple was checking out very early and they would move me at 8:00 a.m. Works for me.
As I waited to be escorted to my room, I was offered the first of many, many cups of spectacular tea. Smooth and light the tea was like nothing I had ever drank. Yum, yum, yum. I would be enjoying plenty of pots of this stuff during my stay.
After a short wait, I was escorted to the room, which was quite small and sparsely furnished. But, a bed is a bed. I had now developed a cold and just wanted to get some sleep. In addition, I was planning on going to bed very early anyway as I wanted to head to Tiger Hill, located just outside Ghoom, in the morning. Tiger Hill is the highest point in the area and offers spectacular views of the Himalayas, including Everest and Kanchenjunga. Sunrise is the best time for viewing the mountains because fog and clouds tend to creep in and obscure the view as the day wears on. So I would need to get up at 3:30 a.m. to make the drive to Tiger Hill in time for the sunrise.
After getting settled into my room, I went back to the front desk to arrange for a driver to take me to Tiger Hill and what followed reminded me of a Three Stooges movie. “Yes I’d like to arrange for a driver to take me to Tiger Hill in the morning.” “Sunday madame?” “No. Tomorrow.” “Sunda would be better. You can rest.” “Uh no I want to go Saturday.” “OK you go Sunday, right. Then you can rest tomorrow.” “No. I don’t want to rest. I want to go to Tiger Hill tomorrow. Can you arrange a driver or do I need to ask someone else.” “OK. You go tomorrow.”
As I went back to my room I still wasn’t sure I had a driver, but at 3:30 a.m., I received a wake-up call so I presumed my trip was a go. I put on some warm clothes and walked into the lobby for a cup of tea and to wait for the driver. By 4:00 a.m., I was in the car and heading to Tiger Hill. According to my driver, the road becomes very crowded by 4:30 a.m., so it was best to leave early to get a good spot at the top of the hill. Thirty-five minutes and 40 rupees later, and I was in line to enter the heated pavilion at the top of the hill. (There are 3 areas to watch the sunrise at Tiger Hill: the pavilion grounds, the middle level pavilion and the top level pavilion. There are only a handful of tickets for the top level pavilion and by arriving early, I had secured a ticket.)
Once the pavilion was open, I took a seat on a couch in the front row and waited for the 5:40 a.m. sunrise. As the sky became pink, it was apparent that there was not a cloud in the sky! Fantastic. I was actually going to see what I came to Darjeeling for: a view of the Himalayas. As the sky became lighter, I could make out the faint outline of the mountains. As each minute ticked by and the sky became became lighter I could actually see the mountain range in all its glory. The view was spectacular. Then suddenly the sun was popping up over the horizon causing the snow on the Himalayas to take on a pinky glow. It was magnificent. Off to my left a cloud bank had formed impairing the view of Mt. Everest. I hoped that as the sun became higher, the clouds would dissipate. In the mean time, I just stared at the Himalayas and in particular Mt. Kanchenjunga for almost an hour. It was glorious. By now it was almost 7:00 a.m. and the guards were trying to clear the pavilion out. There were only a handful of us left hoping for a glimpse of Everest. Then suddenly I saw the clouds to the left part and we could see the little tip of Mt. Everest that is visible from Tiger Hill. I managed to take a photo, but the view of the mountain is very faint. Nevertheless, I saw Mt. Everest and that is all that really counts.
I found my driver and by now Tiger Hill had cleared out. We made our way slowly down the windy road to Ghoom and began the drive back to Darjeeling about 8 km away. My driver was kind enough to stop at Yiga Choling Gompa, the area’s most famous monastery and on the road back to Darjeeling. The monastery was built in 1850 and houses a 5 meter high statute of Maitreya Buddha (Future Buddha) and beautifully bound Tibetan religious books. The monastery was made of gorgeous dark wood and colorfully painted. Incense and candles were lit inside the monastery, and a lovely monk stood inside greeting visitors. It was the perfect way to end a wonderful morning.
Once back at the Mayfair, I ate some breakfast and then went to the front desk where I was ushered to my room … uh make that VILLA. Oh my God! To compensate for the “inconvenience”, the General Manager, authorized me to be put up in one of the gorgeous villas overlooking the valley below. The place was enormous. Master bedroom, living room with fireplace, study and a bathroom that was the size of a regular hotel room. Off the master bedroom and through the double doors was an enormous deck with couches and magnificent views. Quite frankly, I was embarrassed. There was only me and the place was large enough to accommodate the entire staff of the hotel.
Anyway, after getting settled in and cleaned up, I set off to find a driver to take me to a couple of sites in the area. I wanted to see both the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute houses a museum commemorating among other mountaineering achievements, the achievements of Darjeeling’s most famous son, Tenzing Norgay, who was the first to successfully climb to the top of Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary. The Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center was originally built to accommodate all of the Tibetan refugees who fled their homeland when China crossed the board and became an occupier of the nation. Now, the Center is open to the public who are encouraged to buy goods made on site and/or to donate to the Center.
So I found a driver and shortly after that we were on the road weaving through the Chowk (local bizarre) and trying to navigate the traffic. The interesting thing about driving in Darjeeling is that the roads are really only built to accommodate only one vehicle at a time. When cars approach in opposite directions, the vehicles proceed to undertake an interesting dance of pulling to side of the road, inching forward, opening the window to shift the mirror closed and then either waiting for the car to squeeze by or squeezing the car past the oncoming traffic. It requires a great deal of skill and patience to navigate the narrow, windy roads, and I was just happy to have someone else driving for me.
My driver reached the entrance to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, parked and pointed me in the right direction. I had to walk about a ¼ mile up the hill before I reached the entrance. Then it was another hilly ¼ mile walk before I reached the museum. The entrance featured a magnificent statute of Tenzing Norgay as well as the ghat on which Tenzing Norgay’s body was cremated. The museum had a number of fascinating displays about the history of the ascent of Mt. Everest, the history of mountaineering and clothing worn over the years in climbing Mt. Everest. I thoroughly enjoyed the hour or so I spent at the museum.
As I was leaving, it was apparent that children at some of the boarding schools in the area (which are plentiful as this is the primary region where India’s elite send their children to school) were on a field trip. As I walked, I returned to rock star status as every child either said hello or wanted pictures with me. I’m sure in dorms all over Darjeeling there are pictures of me towering over these kids. I finally managed to get away from the students and find my driver for the trip to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center.
The Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center houses a home for the elderly, a school, an orphanage, a small hospital, a gompa (monastery) and workshops where crafts such was carpets, wall hangings, leatherwork and woolen items are made by the elderly residents. I wandered around and watched elderly weavers sort the cotton, spin the thread and weave the carpets and wall hangings. It was remarkable to see how quickly these folks worked. I spent some time chatting to the elderly workers and watched as they showed me how they did their jobs. Then I moved on to a little museum that provided a picture history of the Tibet problem. It was a wonderful way to spend an hour. The only unfortunate thing was that I really wanted to buy something to support the Center, but I could not find anything I liked (and I really tried). So instead I made a donation.
By now it was about 2:00 p.m. so I had my driver take my back to the Chowstra (another bazaar in town) so I could find a place for lunch. I had a recommendation for the Kunga Restaurant, which featured Tibetan food including momos (a Tibetan dumpling). I wandered around the bazaar for a while and finally located the restaurant, a tiny 5 table establishment run by a father and daughter. I sat down and ordered some chicken won ton soup, some vegetarian momos and of course a lovely pot of tea. I figured the soup and tea would help my cold and cough and the momos … well that was the restaurant’s specialty.
The food was all home made and absolutely fantastic. The soup was full of vegetables and wonderful hand made won tons. (I am convinced the soup helped get rid of my cold because by the next day my cough had subsided and my head was no longer stuffy and by Monday my cold was completely gone.) The momos were spectacular. They had been steamed and were filled with Chinese cabbage, bok choy and mung bean sprouts. Delish!
After lunch, I decided to walk back to the hotel so I wandered through the Chowstra, found a Christmas ornament that was decidedly Darjeeling and reached my ridiculously large hotel room. I wanted to get rid of my cold so elected to make it an early night. I turned on my fireplace, made some tea (of course) and sat back and listened to some tunes. It was a very nice way to end the day.
The next morning I got up and was set to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a tea plantation near Darjeeling, only to discover that the plantation was closed on Sundays. How the hell after two years of planning did that slip buy me. ****! That meant no visit for me since I was leaving early Monday morning for my afternoon flight to Kolkata and my subsequent overnight flight to Vietnam via Singapore. (This was the third disappointment for Darjeeling. I missed the Toy Train and I found out the golf course that I wanted to play wasn’t actually in Darjeeling, but in Kalimpong 2 ½ hours away.)
I then got another idea. I wondered if I might be able to take a short trip on the Toy Train. I had recalled that there were Toy Trains that made quick visits to towns around Darjeeling. I called the front desk and they confirmed that I could ride the train to Ghoom and back. Not as good as the trip from Kurseong, but the next best thing. The Mayfair folks secured a ticket for me on the 10:40 a.m. trip to Ghoom so I had to hustle. Within 10 minutes I was in a car zipping (actually weaving) down the hill to the train station. I was assigned a seat in F-1 #7 and as it turned out my seat was on the left side of the train which provides the best views of the valley and towns as it chugs along.
I boarded and within ten minutes I had some Indian folks trying to kick me out of my seat because they wanted to sit all in a row. (The seating was two seats on the right side and one seat on the left.) After about five minutes of badgering and me telling them in essence they could bite me, these folks finally realized I was not moving. I could not believe the nerve of these folks, but then they took it up a notch and got the train steward involved who tried to convince me to move. Are you kidding me? Tickets apparently mean nothing. Anyway, I told her she was out of her mind, and there was no reason I would give up my good seat for a seat on the other side of the train.
The folks finally gave up, although I am sure they were cursing me in Hindi. Anyway, the little steam engine train finally got underway and it turned into a wonderful 2 ½ hour trip. The train wound around the hillside towards Ghoom and made a quick stop at Batasia Loop, which is a circular loop the train makes affording views of the valley below and, when clear, the Himalayas. And, wouldn’t you know it, the sky was overcast this morning. (It was a very good thing I insisted on going to Tiger Hill on Saturday morning as the views from Tiger Hill on Sunday morning and Monday mornings were obscured and no one was able to see the Himalayas.) We arrived at Ghoom around 11:30 a.m. where we had a ½ hour to wander around. I actually only needed about 10 minutes. I wandered into the Toy Train museum, looked at the pictures and the map and then walked back to the train.
The trip back to Darjeeling was equally enjoyable as the train chugged around the hills, past monasteries and colorful homes. Every few minutes, the conductor would pull the train whistle which let out a high pitch whooo whooo. It was wonderful and great fun. It made me really wish I had made the whole trip from Kurseong.
Anyway, once back in Darjeeling, I decided to walk back to the hotel and make a quick detour off the Chowstra down the steep path to the Bhutia Busty Gompa. The monastery was originally built on Observatory Hill (a hill in Darjeeling), but was rebuilt in its present location in the 19th century. The walk was quite interesting through the backside of home and shops into a little valley below the Chowstra. The monastery was colorful and peaceful. The only downside was the walk back up the mega hill. It was brutal in the thin air.
Once back at the Chowstra, I stopped for some cake and tea at Glenarys with a view towards the valley and then called it a day. I got back to my room and took a nap before cleaning up and going to dinner at the hotel. As I sat alone at my table, an elderly Indian gentleman and his daughter took a table near me. We struck up a conversation and it turned out that they had emigrated to the U.S. years ago. They were absolutely charming and we ended up chatting until the staff shooed us out of the restaurant at 10:30 p.m. It was a lovely way to end my stay in Darjeeling.
The next morning, my driver picked me up at 7:45 a.m. for the drive to Bagdogra and my 12:30 p.m. flight to Kolkata. My driver decided to take a different route down the hill to Bagdogra when we reached the town of Kurseong about 40 minutes outside of Darjeeling, (I didn’t realize there was another route), and this route, rather than paralleling the Toy Train tracks, took me through the hillside tea estates and a tropical rain forest. It was a spectacular drive down a windy, narrow road past monkeys and lilies and overhanging trees and young women picking tea leaves. Then we reached the lowlands and drove through village after village. I saw women pump water from the village pump and carry jugs of water on their heads. I saw men laboring on the side of the road and families sitting on doorsteps. We passed cows and goats on the road and saw children playing soccer among the cows and goats on a field. School kids walked by in their uniforms and road bikes beside the car. It was a very interesting drive back to Bagdogra.
We made it to Bagdogra in just over two hours time (much faster than the 3 plus hours it took to drive up to Darjeeling). My flight to Kolkata was slightly delayed, but the pilot made up for it in the air, and we actually arrived on time at 2:00 p.m. I found a pre-paid driver to take me to the Hyatt Hotel (the closest hotel to the airport) as I had a 10 hour layover before my midnight flight to Singapore. When I got in the car, the driver tried to shake me down for an additional 250 rupees for the trip claiming that I had overweight luggage. I pulled out my cell phone and told him I was going to call the pre-paid stand, and that he would get no tip if he didn’t put the car in drive pronto. Thirty seconds later we were off. However, the route the driver took had to be the worst route possible as the drive reminded me of the trip to Agra. We passed beggars on the street, overstuffed cycle rickshaws and tuk tuks, fires burning on the side of the road and incessant horns. (My drive back to the airport from the Hyatt wound through a much nicer neighborhood and on much better roads.) I was extremely grateful when we reached the security checkpoint for the hotel and was finally ushered into the lobby. (I tipped the guy 50 rupees for the 40 minute drive – about $1 – and I am sure he knew why… jackass.)
I spent the rest of my time in India hanging out at the hotel before a driver took me back to the airport at 8:30 p.m. for my midnight flight. I had mixed feelings about India. I really enjoyed my time in Delhi, meeting Meera and her family and loved, loved, loved the Taj Mahal. I also really enjoyed the drive to and from Darjeeling, the spectacular views of the Himalayas and the fabulous teas. The boys in Varanasi (Shivum and Charlie) were also memorable. However, I could not stand the overriding poverty, filth, smoke and noise. It was gut wrenching and mind bending and quite frankly, I breathed a sigh of relief as I settled into my comfortable seat on Singapore Air, pressed the button to extend my footrest and to recline the chair flat and dozed off to sleep.