India Pt 4: To the land of tea and tourism

21 Jan
The view from the Darjeeling hills.

The view from the Darjeeling hills.

Having grown up in the Canadian countryside, I am almost always more at peace in places with a spattering of soaring, snow-capped mountains dotting the horizon.

And so, after a week in the heat of central northern India, it was with joy that the boy and I began our journey to one of India’s most north-eastern states: West Bengal.

As with our past travel in India, it was not to be easy: 24 hours of train and road journeys followed, during which we waited in the searing Varanasi heat for our delayed first leg, battled at least 1,000 people in Patna station while desperately trying to find our train platform and bedded down in the wrong train carriage, only to be unceremoniously rooted out and shunted to a dirtier carriage three cars away for the final 10 hours. We had, luckily, already arranged a pick-up at the end of our train trip through our hotel, which meant the last three hours of road travel into the West Bengal mountains were spent in a more comfortable 4×4 jeep.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

The Himalayan view from Glenburn Tea Estate.

West Bengal and the state’s most famous region (Darjeeling) was to be unlike any other area we experienced in India. An hour after departing the dusty heat of New Jalpaiguri – the last major train hub before heading north – everything began to change, from the style of dress worn by passersby to their identity, with most villagers looking Nepalese or Tibetan rather than Indian. Strings of prayer flags and Buddhist temples dotted the hills and, in the distance, the mighty Himalayas poked through when the clouds cleared. It was more peaceful, less populated and welcoming.

Our first night was spent at the stunning, colonial era 1,000 acre Glenburn Tea Estate and Boutique Hotel, a full review for which will appear in the coming months on online luxury magazine, The Arbuturian‘s, website. Without giving away too many details, I can promise you that if you are planning a journey to this region anytime soon and fancy indulging in the most serene service, location and food, and fancy learning a whole load about tea, you will fall in love with Glenburn. Director Wes Anderson (of The Darjeeling Limited fame and many more films) stayed there and was apparently inspired to name that film after a sign found on the tea estate.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

Bags of tea for export at Glenburn.

After a day of some serious relaxation (and laundry washing/intense bathing), we headed on our way to Darjeeling, a hill town surrounded by luscious tea estates and the awe-inducing Mount Kanchenjunga – the fourth highest in the world.

Our original intention was to spend three nights in Darjeeling before heading off to Sikkim – a more northern state that is wedged between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Unfortunately, the boy got a terrible cold and – having traveled so extensively – we were officially exhausted. As such, our short trip to Darjeeling turned into a three day/four night stay.

We both fell thoroughly for Darjeeling. I’d heard many people say it is a very touristy town and not that appealing but for us, it was bliss.

VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100Our first night in the town was spent at the fantastic Revolver Hotel – a Beatles themed lodge run by a small, friendly woman named Asenla. She told us her inspiration for starting a hotel based around the fab four came from a childhood growing up in rural Nagaland (a far-eastern Indian state) during which she listened to the band’s albums that her uncles – who traveled frequently – would bring her and her family. The boy and I chose it because of the simple fact that we figured we’d be unlikely to stay in a Beatles themed hotel in India ever again.

The hotel has five basic, wood-paneled clean rooms – named George, Paul, John, Ringo and Brian (for manager Brian Epstein) – filled with quirky Beatles memorabilia. With an electric blanket and heavy woolen comforter, it was a perfect place to bed down for the chilly night (it was only around +5 when we were in Darjeeling). The next morning – for the low price of around £2 – we even had breakfast in bed.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

The ramshackle but wonderful Dekeling Hotel.

As the hotel was fully booked up for our remaining nights in Darjeeling, we checked into the (slightly pricier but lovely) Dekeling Hotel, right smack bang in the centre of Darjeeling with beautiful views of Kanchenjunga. We counted our lucky stars for having found yet another fantastic hotel – our track record was 100% on our India trip to that point and the Dekeling – with its big lounge with long, cushioned benches to curl up on and a toasty woodstove to play chess beside – was just right.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The boy meets a Buddhist dog.

The rest of our days in Darjeeling were spent exploring more of it than I would guess many tourists – who seemed to pass through in a day or so on their way to remote Sikkim – would have had the chance to take in.

One day we took a pleasant 1.5km stroll from the town’s central crossroads called Chowastra Bazaar over to the quaint, picture-perfect Bhutia Busty monastery, which was first located in Sikkim before it was transported and reassembled in Darjeeling in the late 19th century. Rumour has it the Tibetan Book of the Dead’s original manuscript was housed here. VLUU L100, M100  / Samsung L100, M100

Later that afternoon we headed to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, which was set up in 1959 to accept Tibetans fleeing the crackdown by the Chinese Communist government.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama's dog's safety.

The man formerly in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog’s safety.

There we learned the history of – not only Tibet – but the escapees’ survival over the decades through their making of handicrafts such as intricate hand-dyed and spun carpets. We even met an ancient, weathered man who was said to have been in charge of the Dalai Lama’s dog during his escape from Tibet to India in 1959. The Centre now includes men’s and women’s retirement homes, a school and museum.

Another day we visited the influential Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, which is renowned for its conservation breeding programme and research of the stunning snow leopard, red panda and Himalayan wolf. Later that night we caught an adorable dance performance by the local Tibetan school’s children on a stage set up in the town centre.

And, as the boy was also feeling very under the weather, we ate lots – as they say, starve a fever but feed a cold. From Tibetan Momos (or, dumplings) at Kunga Restaurant (located, conveniently, under the Dekeling Hotel) to surprisingly delicious Thai food at The Park restaurant and filling vegetarian Indian fare at Hotel Lunar, we were never short on tasty meals.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

View of the quirky Darjeeling streets.

On our final night, we were moved to the Dekeling Resort (the more upscale sister hotel of Hotel Dekeling) because there was no room at our former spot. Our huge room had a big lounge with roaring fireplace. As we sat beside it drinking beer, the boy and I both realised how much we’d fallen for the charms of Darjeeling. The people were always friendly (but rarely pushy), the food was great and the attractions of interest. It was, by far, one of favourite places in India and the perfect spot to recuperate after the heat and chaos of Delhi, Agra and Varanasi.

In Part 5, the boy and I take the world’s slowest train journey and I experience the joys of a stick massage in the hill town of Kurseong.

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