Installment #20 - January 22, 2001
On the Rajdani Express from Delhi to New Jalpaiguri, I shared a compartment with Phil and Melanie Peacock of Wales, UK. Phil has been vacationing in Darjeeling for years and had many interesting stories of his travels, as well as some recommendations on where to stay and what to see in Darjeeling. We agreed to meet for supper at a restaurant in Darjeeling.
We got to New Jalpaiguri at midday on Monday, January 8, and there is only one toy train per day to Darjeeling. It had already left at 9AM, so I had to stay overnight, and I tried to rent a retiring room. As had been the case in Delhi, they were all full and I ended up with a bed in the dorm for 40 rupees (the cheapest room of the trip). In the morning, I boarded the toy train to Darjeeling. I will cover the Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad and the toy train in the next report.
I got to Darjeeling just after sunset and made my way up steep staircases and through winding streets to a hotel recommended by Phil & Melanie, the Hotel Aliment. Darjeeling was cold and the hotel was unheated. I had supper in the hotel restaurant, where there was one small heater sitting near a table occupied by two young women who invited me over to share the heater. Bonita, from Australia, was on vacation from her volunteer job teaching English in a village in Nepal. Geraldine, from New Zealand, had spent five months traveling in Nepal, and had just arrived in India. [Odd how we hadn't heard about young women whom Allen met while Rita was still in the country.]
The hotel did not provide or rent room heaters and my 200 rupee room was cold. I ran out of hot water half way through my shower. The bed was piled with blankets and was warm. I slept well, but found that I was warm only when walking (exercising) or in bed.
On Wednesday morning, I set out to explore the city and, after an hour or so, bumped into Bonita and Geraldine.[Oh! What a coincidence!] They showed me the long loop around town and we visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate where they both had "5 second" tea: the water is boiled, and then premium Darjeeling tea is added and allowed to steep for 5 seconds. (I had a Coke.)
Darjeeling is a relatively clean town with very narrow streets, and many places can only be reached by footpaths and long narrow sets of stone steps. Men and women are frequently seen carrying loads of lumber, coal, sand, milk, fish, and many other commodities on their backs supported from a strap across their forehead. At the side of most roads and paths is a partly covered drainage ditch, and on top of that a tangle of water pipes. Outside the main part of town, families run plastic hose from the nearest stream to their house, so there are often many hoses strung along the path like telephone cables.
As we walked by the Classic Guest House, Bonita commented that some people they met had stayed there. These people had said it was a very nice hotel with room heaters, but they had found it lonely and had moved to Hotel Aliment, which was full of backpackers. I decided to check out Classic. In contrast to Aliment, it had a large room with a balcony, a western toilet, towels, 24-hour hot water, TV (I never even turned it on), an outlet for the laptop computer, A HEATER (a portable radiant unit), and a hot water bottle delivered to my door each night. I reserved a 400 rupee room for the next day.
On Thursday, I moved from Aliment to Classic and bought a T-shirt and a sweater for warmth. I had lunch and supper and walked the short loop around town with Phil and Melanie. The day ended with a nice long hot shower, a room heater and a hot water bottle in my bed.
On Friday, I walked around town and then to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, where I saw common leopards, snow leopards, Siberian tigers, yaks, barking deer, and a few other types of animals. I was interested to learn that, according to a sign at the zoo, tigers are the third most intelligent animals after humans and monkeys. The snow leopards are beautiful animals with long, fluffy tails. Attached to the zoo is a snow leopard breeding center, but I was told that at least one of the two I saw at the zoo had been recently captured from the wild.
Next to the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, established soon after the first successful ascent of Mount Everest for the purpose of imparting "theoretical and practical training in mountaineering and sport climbing to children, young men, and women". It has a museum of mountaineering, and a Mount Everest museum.
At the mountaineering museum, I learned that Mount Whitney is not the second highest mountain in North America as I had believed; its not even the second highest in the US. There are three mountains in Alaska, one in Canada, and two in Mexico higher than Whitney. There are fourteen peaks in the Himalaya above 8000 meters, and "hundreds" above 7000 meters.
At the Everest museum, I saw pictures of the many routes taken by the various expeditions, and got to look at some of the gear used by Tenzing Norgay and others on Mount Everest. I was tempted to borrow one of the sleeping bags; the museum, like every other public building I visited in Darjeeling, was unheated.
The institute runs mountaineering courses. In case you are interested in some mountaineering training, the Basic Mountaineering course (which "initiates trainees to the mountains and to mountaineering") takes 28 days, costs about $1000 for foreigners and requires applicants to be physically fit and 17 to 40 years of age (I know that this is a big disappointment, Dave, but youre too old). The course includes a six-day trek to a base camp, ten days of field training, including snow and ice work and a climb to 18,000 feet, and then a four-day return trek. If you pass the basic course with an A and receive a recommendation, you can then take the 28-day advanced course (which aims "to train the students for becoming potential members of expeditions and teaches them advanced techniques of mountain climbing"). It includes 16 days of field training with a climb to 19,000 feet.I found the Darjeeling Rangeet Valley Ropeway, Indias oldest cable car, to be running (they were not when I had visited on previous daysthis is the low season in Darjeeling), and took a round trip down to Singla Bazaar, where it seemed a little warmer.
I spent Saturday nursing a cold and working on the computer. I tried three different internet cafes but was not able to get the Delhi report out to Dave due to slow and intermittent connections.
On Sunday, I took the toy train part way down the mountain to Kurseong and returned to Darjeeling. The toy train will be covered in the next report.
On Monday, my last full day in Darjeeling, I got my first view of Kanchenjunga, the worlds third highest mountain, which had previously been hidden by haze. I understand that it is about 100 miles from Darjeeling, but it still dominates the horizon. Later, I walked to the Tibetan Refugee Center and watched them making wool yarn and carving wood. One guy was cutting a design into a piece of wood using a jigsaw made from wire stretched on a bow of bamboo. The wire broke while I was there and I watched him restring the saw and then cut new saw teeth into the wire with a chisel and hammer.
On Tuesday morning, I walked to the train station, where I met Phil and Melanie for the return train trip and got another, even clearer view of Kanchenjunga. After the train trip (covered in the next report) I spent the night at the Siliguri Lodge, and then rode a bicycle rickshaw to New Jalpaiguri to begin the train trip to Rajkot by way of Delhi and Ahmedabad.
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These kids smiled and waved from the platform as I left New Jalpaiguri on the Toy train. Darjeeling is at around 6800 feet in the foothills of the Himalaya, as asserted by this sign on the Darjeeling train station. After the second night, I moved from Hotel Aliment (too cold) to the Classic Guest House. This is the view from my balcony at Classic. When the haze lifts, there is also a view of the mountains. These women are trimming tea plants at the Happy Valley Tea Estate. We were told that this is done once every five years. Geraldine and Bonita drink "5 second" tea at Happy Valley. There is not much level ground hereabouts. These homes are on a slope near the north end of town, on the "long loop" around Darjeeling. This woman is carrying bags of milk from a truck on the closest road to stores or houses near Chowrasta Square. This typical neighborhood shows how steep the Darjeeling area is. The common leopard is found throughout India. This one spends his time pacing back and forth in his enclosure at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. Snow leopards are native to the high snowy areas of the Himalaya and only about 5000 to 7000 of them exist. They are smaller and paler than common leopards, and have thick fur and bushy tails. This one was very interested in a dog that was wandering around outside his enclosure. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is located adjacent to the zoo and houses a mountaineering museum, and a Mount Everest museum. Photography is not allowed in either. This guy dressed in traditional Sherpa clothing and then posed for pictures outside the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. This climbing practice wall is on the grounds of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. The tomb of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay is located on the HMI grounds. He and Edmund Hillary were the first to climb Mount Everest, and he was director of HMI for many years. The statue in the background is from a picture showing Tenzing Norgay at the summit of Everest. This mountainside home is located near (and I photographed it from) the cable car. Phil and Melanie Peacock, dressed for the cool weather, pose on Nehru Road (the Mall) near Chowrasta Square. Phil told me that, when he had visited Darjeeling the previous year, a friend of his had been very upset because she thought that one of the horses stabled at Chowrasta had died. It turned out that he was just sun bathing - and hes still doing it! I walked by two different schools where men were busy making new furniture. These guys are turning out new student desks. These boys approached me outside the Tibetan Refugee Center and asked where I was from. When I asked them the same question, they replied "Tibet", but when I asked where they were born, the answer was "here". The store at the Refugee Center sells items made in the crafts shops. This colorful display at the refugee store consists of items made at the center. Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, as seen from the Darjeeling train station. Kanchenjunga again. The size is impressive when you realize that the mountain is perhaps 100 miles away. All good things must end. Here I wave goodbye from the Toy Train on the way down to the flatlands. The view from the back of a bicycle rickshaw en route from Siliguri to New Jalpaiguri.