Tag Archives: tourism

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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India Pt 2: the Taj, a fort and one evil monkey

28 Dec
The evil monkey sits and waits...

The evil monkey sits and waits…

It was a stand-off to rival the best of the Westerns.

The boy vs a monkey.

Perched confidently on a window ledge was contestant number one – the monkey.

And behind the table, grasping his Coke tightly, the boy.

And me? I was at the back of the room, squealing.

We’d arrived a few minutes before this scene began, trudging our way up the rickety stairs of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Agra’s main drag, Miyan Nazir Road. We were hot, dusty and thirsty, and decided to go upstairs to see some views of the Taj and experience greater airflow.

After our drinks (a Coke and a banana lassi so filled with unblended banana chunks it was rendered undrinkable) arrived, we sat back in squeaking, metal chairs to have a moment of peace.

And then the monkey swung into the scene.

At first, he simply stared at us, long arms hanging on the grate of the fencing around the rooftop’s perimeter. But then, after a scratch of his belly, he inched forwards…and then further forwards…until a few seconds later,  he was sat on the chair opposite us, looking very determined.

I switched into “flight” mode while the boy chose “fight”. Clutching his Coke, the boy and the monkey eyed each other up fiercely while I took to the back stage. The monkey then turned to me with a look that almost seemed to say: “That’s a bit rude. I’m just here for a visit.”

Feeling I’d hurt the monkey’s emotions, I edged a bit closer. But then he glared, gave a hiss and looked terribly evil.

At that second, the owner came back up for a smoke and chased the monkey away. But not before the monkey had peed all over the table, as if to say: “That’s what I think of you all.”

Agra Cantt station.

Agra Cantt station.

We had arrived in Agra that morning after a very early train journey from Delhi, which we almost didn’t make due to the fact a scam train worker wouldn’t let us through the gates, telling us our journey had been cancelled. This was despite the fact our train was clearly showing on the departure board and matched our ticket numbers. Yet another scam we had to deal with. We ended up sneaking onto the platform via the exit, just to avoid him but I noticed him trying the same thing on with many other confused looking tourists.

Luckily, the journey on the Shatabdi Express was very pleasant and – as it was 6am – we were able to watch the hazy colours of sunrise filter over yellow and green fields, casting a perfect pale light on the surroundings.

Taj4

After arriving at Agra Cantt, and taking a quick tuk-tuk ride into the main part of Agra (where the Taj is) we had a light breakfast, getting our first views of the astounding structure from a beautiful rooftop restaurant (this earlier one, without monkeys). Even from afar, it was magnificent.

The Taj in all its glory.

The Taj in all its glory.

As we were there on Eid, we discovered entry to the Taj was free before 10am so we headed quickly to the entrance to make it on time.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

I relax in the sun at the Taj.

The day was perfect weather wise – an azure sky and pounding sun made it hot even by 9am but we were more than chuffed with the temperature change from rainy London to not mind a bit of potential sunburn.

And, of course, the view was even better. While the Taj Mahal is one of those images most of us have seen umpteen times, nothing beats experiencing it in its marbly flesh. The waterways leading up to the structure are crystal clear and reflect its towering lines, while the gardens are hushed and delightfully cool. We wandered around for an hour, taking in every inch of this 17th century wonder. My favourite part was taking off my shoes (a rule when you walk onto the main section) and feeling the solid, icy marble beneath my feet. I saw dozens of tour groups wearing special socks over their shoes but I wouldn’t have missed getting my soles dirty for anything.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

Precious stone inlays decorate the walls of the Taj.

After a long walk around and inside all of the parts we could visit, the boy and I took our leave feeling a delightful calm within us that only a structure of such beauty, spirituality and grandeur could create.

And then we met the monkey – so much for relaxation!

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

The boy at Agra Fort, with the Taj Mahal in the distance.

We continued on our journey of Agra’s sights by visiting Agra Fort, about two miles away from the Taj Mahal. This red walled fort dates back to 11th century. It acted as the seat of the Sultan of Delhi in the 15th century, but became more famous when seized by the Mughal empire in the 16th century, then becoming a walled city and the seat of Shah Jahan (the creator of the Taj). You can see the Taj from from the Fort, and it was here that he was eventually imprisoned by his son – Aurangzeb – and put in a cell with a tortuous view of his precious Taj, bound to never enter its marble surroundings again. While it is not half as famous as the Taj, it is well worth visiting if you have the time.

Agra Fort

Agra Fort

When finally we departed Agra for the journey back to Delhi, it was with a feeling of accomplishment. Seeing these incredible structures in person was a highlight of our trip to India. And knowing we survived our encounter with the evil monkey made it all the more pleasurable.

In Part 3, I succumb to ‘Delhi Belly’ and the boy and I find peace in chaotic Varanasi.

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