Tag Archives: Darjeeling

India Pt 5: Turtle trains & Ramshackle Chic Lodgings

28 Jan

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I peered out the window of the moving train to see the oddest sight: a jeep filled with ten, terribly squished passengers speeding past, its occupants smiling and waving at us.

This was unusual mainly for the following reason: a jeep so laden down with body weight was still going faster than our train.

The boy and I had finally decided to say our goodbyes to Darjeeling, having had a wonderful three day break in the little town. But instead of taking the speedy route of a shared taxi down the hill 32km to Kurseong – our next stop – we opted for a lumbering and hilariously slow train journey instead.

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At first, we thought it would be a quaint way to travel. It was to take three hours to cover the short distance but – with the turtle-slow traveling – we figured we’d get the chance to enjoy the views down the mountain in a wonderfully relaxed manner and all at the low price of around £3 each for “first class” tickets (this relating to the ancient, dusty seats covered in a carpet-like material that were an upgrade from the wooden benches in “second class”).

But, as soon as we boarded, we realised our mistake – we’d forgotten how much people in all parts of India love to use horns. While we’d only experienced this in cars, as it turned out, the same logic goes for trains.

That’s right – THREE hours of a blasting, blaring train horn.

So much for a laid-back journey!

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

One of the many shops one passes a few feet away from on the Darjeeling-Kurseong route.

But, regardless, the trip was incredibly memorable. The old diesel locomotive runs along a frighteningly narrow track that zig-zags back and forth across the main road. This seemed to be the primary reason why the conductor had to blast his horn constantly – to stop distracted drivers plowing into the side of the carriages. When the train wasn’t trailing over the roadway, it mainly traveled alongside it, giving us a good view of the inside of the jeeps that beeped their way past. As we lumbered our way downhill, villagers would come out of their houses to wave at us, while dogs howled at the horn. At times, we passed so close to shops and houses, we could have easily leaned out the window for a packet of crisps or a pair of pants off a laundry line. It was – quite possibly – the oddest journey I have ever taken.

"The most tourist friendly hill station in the world."

“The most tourist friendly hill railway in the world.”

When finally we arrived in Kurseong – which labels itself the “most tourist friendly hill railway in the world” for reasons unbeknownst to the boy and I – we were longing for some peace and quiet.

P1170437We’d made reservations at Cochrane Place – a hotel on the town’s outskirts. Since we weren’t spending the extra money on a trip up to Sikkim, we thought we’d treat ourselves to a couple of nights of more upscale lodging.

The hotel was formerly the home of British colonial Percy John Cochrane who acted as the area’s magistrate in the early 20th century. It has been restored to house a wide variety of individually decorated, slightly ramshackle rooms and has a restaurant on-site, which made for easy dining.

At the back of the first floor was our room – am expansive, two-floored deluxe space with lounge, bedroom and a balcony that overlooked nearby houses and mountains. We even had a teddy bear to greet us.

King Kong anyone? Odd decor at Cochrane Place.

King Kong anyone? Eccentric decor at Cochrane Place.

But despite the more upscale space and welcoming soft toy, everything about Cochrane Place felt slightly haunted – from the old abandoned games room, to the colonial pictures on the walls and strange antique dolls in cabinets.

And, while at the hotel I can honestly say I experienced something that will haunt me for years to come – a stick massage.

Billed by management as a local treatment, I expected a “stick massage” to use, well, sticks, that would likely be rolled up and down my spine or arms to help the masseuse work out tough knots. Given I’d had 10 days of lugging around a heavy backpack, it seemed like just the thing that would relax me.

But oh how I was wrong. A stick massage is – quite literally – a massage that uses different shaped wooden instruments that are hit against the skin in a tapping manner to stimulate the nerves. As I lay on the bed, fully clothed, and had sticks rattled against me like a drum for an hour, I realised it probably would have been best to confirm how this massage was done before agreeing to it.

I’ve never seen the boy look so happy to have missed out on something than when I regaled him with the tale of being rat-a-tat-tapped for 60 long minutes.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

Local tea workers off for lunch.

The bizarre nature of Cochrane Place was, however, one of its most charming aspects. We would dine each afternoon and evening with a different group of guests in the large dining room, chatting about our travels and asking them where they had been, while looking out towards the sparkling, lit up hills where thousands of strangers were likely eating their meals in their homes. In the daytime, we trekked around tea estates and up long, winding hills near the hotel.

Both it and the train journey will stick with the boy and I for years to come – and, sometimes, that’s what traveling is best for: experiencing the unexpected!

In Part 6, the boy and I head south for our last leg around Kerala and fall head over heels for Varkala.

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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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