If you head far enough up north-east and get your best bartering hat on, you can find yourself riding a jeep up some winding roads through the mountains to the well known hill-station of Darjeeling. A mere four hour journey can leave you feeling so far removed from the characteristic craziness of India, that you can barely relate this peaceful town, to the challenges of the plains below.
The cold air brings smiles to the rosy cheeks of the inhabitants of Tibetan and Nepali origins; their attitudes and visages scarcely relating to their Indian countrymen. To pass a group, huddled in their thick wool shawls, is to be merrily greeted and welcomed. This strange infection of sincere friendliness seems to have spread and thrived like a warm germ under the cold conditions. It passes to all those who travel through and you feel compelled to give an equally merry hello in return; with a spring in your step to guide you up the many hilly paths.
Hours can be wiled away searching through the well stocked-book shops and dens of Tibetan curios and handicrafts, and then resting in the many invitingly cosy tea and coffee shops. Spectacular views over the valley and tea plantations feature in every joint, and allow you to soak up this refreshing Indian-Tibetan-Nepali fusion of culture with a nice warm beverage.
Peer over the edge of any given road, and the roofs of houses built into the steeply sloping mountain soon fade into the mist below, giving you the impression that you are floating along on an island in the sky. Small allotments, filled with potted flowers and small green bushes, frequently line the edges of paths, and the multi-coloured prayer flags, that stand out so vibrantly against the white fog, feel like a mystical net that stops you from falling of the edge of the earth.
Haggling wasn’t practiced here – apart from our one conquest of bartering down a fairly swish hotel to a reasonable price, for four nights of wooden chalet and log-fire paradise.
This was Darjeeling pre-trek. Post-feel, after splashing a bit too much money on said frivolities, we tightly reigned ourselves back in and re-homed ourselves in a budget joint, costing just £3 a night.
The only problem was, exhausted and freezing after our two day trek – we needed our lost luxuries more than ever. In between eating street food outside every night and cold bucket showers, I don’t think I warmed up until two days after we left. That said, our new thriftiness meant we saw a different side to Darjeeling. Stepping away from the comfort of this Victorian haunt for the upper-class, we found bustling streets lined with fresh veg stalls. You could watch delicious Tibetan street food be cooked before you, perched on a wooden bench and then enjoy a few seconds later. The fresh vegetables were a welcome change from the deep-fried everything that had been clogging our arteries for the past month, and at 20p for a plate of momos (veg dumplings) you can’t complain.
Other highlights included a visit to the zoo, that specialised in red pandas and snow leopards, and a new friend Samshu the tailor – one of the most kind-hearted and gentle souls we’d met to date. He enjoyed telling us the colourful history of how his father had made suits and dresses for kings and queens, and Samshu himself had dedicated his life to keeping his father’s business alive, despite being an avid young scientist.
We had such a good time, we’re already planning a return visit – as tea-leaves and tailors were only scratching the surface of this island in the sky.
The Trek to Sandakphu
And I can’t leave Darjeeling without a brief description of our trek. Of course I was broken into trekking gently by aiming to reach the highest point in West Bengal in one day. The first day was a steep 1000m climb, bringing us into Nepal briefly, and the second day was an even steeper climb down the other side.
We got cracking views of Kanchenjunga and a distant Everest at the top, despite my being too cold and tired to appreciate this. In conclusion, trekking isn’t my favourite activity, and I certainly wasn’t prepared for this test of my fitness and joints. My hat goes off to all the Trekkers out there – I just wasn’t cut out for it.