The Queen Of Hill Stations

Seriously, Darjeeling. You better be worth the Hell Train I endured to get to you. Okay, actually the train only went as far as New Jalpaiguri, affectionately known as NJP because New Jalpaiguri clearly has way too many syllables, then it was a shared jeep from there to the town itself. That’s fine though, that was expected. But the 18:25 train from Mughal Sarai in Varanasi to NJP is notoriously late. All the time. Without fail. So when I completely mistimed the journey and rocked up to the station twenty minutes late I threw my fare plus tip to the tuk tuk driver who’d done his best to be “superfast, madam,” stumbled up the steps and anxiously searched the board for my train, and when it wasn’t there I couldn’t believe it. No fucking way was it on time, the one time I needed it to be late. I stared at the board a while longer, willing my train number to flash up. Nope. Nothing. Dejected, I slumped to the enquiries desk to find out when the next train to NJP was, formulating back up plans in my head, hoping that I wouldn’t end up stuck on a train for Holi.

White Darjeeling tea. Tasty, but a little bit too delicate for my hardened northern taste buds.

That glorious moment when you’re advised that the next train is at 8.30.
“Tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“No, madam. Tonight.”
Wait… what? I asked them the train number, they checked my ticket and confirmed that my train was indeed two hours late. Fun fact about this bad boy though, it turned out it was rarely on the board. That’s cool, I thought. I’ll just have to concentrate on the announcements in case they change my platform. And concentrate I did. For seven bastard hours. And when the train finally rolled in at 2am there were no signs on the coaches to tell you which one was which. The only reason I could vaguely work out which coach was mine was from the tiny electronic boards spaced out along the platform that give you a very rough idea of where your coach might end up. I counted how many coaches I was meant to be from the Pantry Car, hoped for the best and hopped on. Or crammed on would be a more appropriate description. I had to force my way on and that was it, I couldn’t move. No one could get on behind me because I couldn’t shuffle any further forward. I managed to ease my bag off my shoulders and resigned myself to the fact that this would probably be my life now for the ensuing 14 hours until I felt a tap on my back and looked down to see a bloke in a uniform who could have been a station guard or a cop.
“You have a reservation, madam?”
I replied that I did.
I handed him my ticket.
“Yes, S3, 35. I will help you. Give me your luggage.”

The steam toy train, probably worth it if you don’t mind forking out the extra dollar but I needed all the money I could get for endless cups of exquisite tea.
Cruising through Darjeeling on the diesel toy train. The tracks legit run through town like this along side the roads.

It’s amazing how a seemingly impenetrable carbon based mass of flesh and hair will suddenly part for a man in uniform brandishing a stick. He guided me through the throngs of people, over bodies sleeping in the aisle, looking for my berth. When we found it he tapped the guy occupying it on the legs with his stick to wake him up and the guy wasted no time in shifting. What a fucking legend. I thanked him, clambered onto my bunk with all of my possessions, got as comfortable as you can get when you’re sharing a tiny berth with a 44 litre backpack and questioned the wisdom of rocking up to Darjeeling the day before Holi without a hotel reservation. Well there was fuck all I could do about it now. I got some kip.

Well that’s one way to transport a crap tonne of chickens across town.

Turns out there was an English bloke called Joe on the bunk opposite mine so we stuck together when we finally arrived at NJP. Joe’s budget was even less than mine so we spent some time wandering through Darjeeling in the dark, trying to find somewhere affordable which is like trying to find a tiny metal stabby stick in a large pile of dried grass product. Bugger me backwards, Darjeeling is expensive! Even in a pair willing to share a room you were still looking at a small fortune and there was nowhere at this hour to hock one’s left kidney to afford accommodation. Then we happened upon Hotel Dil who promptly sent us upstairs to Joshi’s Homestay. Wait wait wait… but we weren’t looking for a homestay? Were we? The bloke just motioned us upstairs so up we went and knocked. We were greeted by Anjana who showed us into her fabulous home and told us a bed would be ₹350 a night. Boom. Absolutely perfect, and any ideas Joe might have initially had about staying one night then trying to find somewhere even cheaper were fucked off as soon as we realised was an awesome, chilled out place Joshi’s was. Even he was happy to pay for such an amazing vibe and to hang out with this friendly family.

Ghum railway station, all atmospheric and stuff in the mist.

We only got one mountain view whole time we were in Darjeeling but even if it wasn’t cloudy the rest of the time I probably wouldn’t have seen much else on account of having my face in a vat of exquisite tea. Oh yes. The tea. The tea lives up to the hype. There’s all manner of talk of “first flush” and “muscatel” and there are strings of letters on packets of overpriced dried leaves. Tea is taken very fucking seriously here and it’s not served as the chai in the rest of the country is. That would be sacrilege. It’s served black and unsweetened, like nectar of the gods, and you’ll pay around ₹70 for a cup in the high end places, and we did frequent the high end places because there’s something about sipping tea, chosen from a seven page menu, from a glass cup, with your pinky up, that makes you feel a little bit posh. It’s not even seven pages of that flavoured hippy shit either, it’s all proper tea flavoured tea. I even tried white tea for the first time but guys, not gonna lie, it’s not worth the more-than-gold price tag it gets. I mean, it’s ok, but it’s just a wee bit too delicate for a self-respecting northern monkey such as myself. I do like tea that stains the inside of the mug to the point you have to chip it off with a chisel. Tea should taste like tea.

Mag-Dhog Gompa. On a clear day this would probably have an epic backdrop.

But anyway. Speaking of tea, we went to the Windamere for high tea and fuuuuuck, it’s a dear do, this being posh business. I’m not sure I can keep myself in the lifestyle to which I wish I was accustomed. A whopping ₹600 got you tea and snacks, but we’re talking the tiny snacks because everyone knows the tinier the sandwich, the posher it is. True story. It’s common knowledge. Like the triangular sandwiches with the crusts cut off, half the size of your palm that we were given. No. I don’t think I could ever really be posh. I’d fucking starve. It was so posh at the Windamere with its colonial decor that we felt compelled to speak in whispers so our accents didn’t betray our peasant roots. When the lady came and offered us more tea I simply smiled through the cake crumbs and nodded. Damn right I want more tea. For ₹600 I want a fucking tanker full of tea to pull up outside and pump it directly into my facehole.

Old Ghoom Monastery.

Aside from putting copious amounts of strain on your bladder, other things to do in Darjeeling include the Toy Train. A landslide took out a section of track a few years ago so it doesn’t function as transport from NJP any more, but you can get to Ghum and back on the general passenger train, or you can pay a fuck tonne of cash monies and take a return joyride, stopping at Batasia Loop for photos and general drooling over landscape porn. The mistake we made was taking the latter option. We should have taken the passenger train to Ghum and walked back because there’s literally no point in taking the joy ride when the weather is bad. True story. You pretty much just parted with a large sum of money to look at cloud. Don’t get me wrong, Darjeeling does cloud very very well, it kinda rolls in from the top and cascades down like a killer fog from a 50’s B movie. It’s very pretty and incredibly atmospheric but it’s not the mountain views you hoped for. It might have been a different albeit still cloudy experience if we’d forked out the extra million pounds for the steam train but we’re not fucking made of money. We took the diesel.

Our one, singular mountain view, as seen through the bathroom window at Joshi’s Homestay.

One of the reasons I loved staying at Joshi’s Homestay so much was the local knowledge. Anjana drew us a map so we could take a circular walk around the monasteries without getting horribly lost and there are no shortage of them to wrap your eyeballs around. I thought Hindus knew how to do temples! Massive, gold statues of Buddha and various deities I can’t identify. There’s a statue of the Maitreya Buddha at the Old Ghoom Monastery, which means “coming Buddha”, and he has blue eyes. Anjana told us this was because the next Buddha is expected to be born in the West. Somewhere nice, hopefully. Preferably not Stockport. Or Staines. Hopefully somewhere with a bit of sunshine and a nice beach.

Buddhist mural. I don’t get it. Who’s the guy with all the arms? Who are the big scary looking blue dudes? I don’t understand!
The Maitreya Buddha, the coming Buddha. He’s got blue eyes on account of the fact they’re predicting the future Buddha will be born in the West.

But I didn’t even know Buddhism had deities. I was under the impression that Buddha was just some dude who said a lot of shit that made sense and wasn’t interested in being worshipped, but worshipped he is as some manner of god. And there appears to be stories and stuff too. I don’t even know. I thought Buddhism was a philosophy but nope. Full on man-made religion with massively ornate places of worship. And people leaving offerings, I’m assuming to the monks, because I’m not otherwise sure what Buddha or his fellow deities would do with several packets of biscuits, some crisps and a metric fuck tonne of Maggi noodles. It’s a great walk though which takes you the back way to Ghum railway station, then back along the main road.

There are a few other things to do here an’ all. We didn’t make it to Tiger Hill for sunrise on account of the near-permanent cloud cover, but we did make it up Observatory Hill where Buddhists and Hindus worship side by side. It’s all prayer flags and prayer wheels, then there’s Shiva linghams and statues of Ganesh nestled amongst them. There’s a zoo too. I’d say don’t bother but you have to walk through it to get to the HMI, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which is where future mountain guides go to train, but there’s also a fascinating museum which tells you all about Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s role in getting Edmund Hillary to the top of Everest. He’s a hero here and fair enough, no way would Hillary have gotten to the peak in 1953 without Norgay’s help. They’ve got a huge model of the Himalaya complete with little lights to show you which peak is which, articles of clothing that were used on the actual 1953 ascent, information on religions and tribes and, for some bizarre reason, some of the worst example of taxidermy I’ve ever seen. I’m not even shitting you. It’s like someone went around scraping roadkill up off tarmac then tried to stuff it back to life with the contents of Grandma’s old sofa.

This dude is legit carrying a fridge freezer up a hill on his back. If this was back home it’d require at least two humans and a lot of swearing.

Darjeeling is like no other place I’ve been in India so far. The hill station used to belong to Sikkim until the British decided they wanted it because they all kept getting heat stroke and malaria down in Kolkata, so eventually the kingdom of Sikkim agreed to rent it out to them. After independence in 1947 they just kinda, well, forgot to give it back. I think the general air of awesomeness here is a lot to do with the people. I mean, when we left, Anjana presented us both with a white scarf for good luck! It’s not hard work here. Anjana’s explanation is the same as the one she gave me when I asked her if it was safe for me to go out for Holi; “We are mountain people.” It’s nothing like it is down on the plains up here, everyone is so much more relaxed and they seem so much more genuine, more interested in you rather than the contents of your wallet. The level of English is fantastic from all ages, education is obviously available to most people.

Bonus photo: I have no fucking idea what the crap this is or why there was one glued to every table in a restaurant we ate at, but it’s almost enough to put you off your noodles.

And it’s clean! Noticeably much cleaner than the rest of the country. And instead of carrying stuff directly on their heads, everyone here carries shit on their backs but with a strap that goes around their foreheads. Apparently you can carry a lot more stuff this way. Seriously, they carry everything from baskets of chickens to fridge freezers up and down hills that make my calf muscles hate me. Mountain people aren’t just some of the friendliest I’ve met since I got to India, they’re clearly some of the most badass.

Darjeeling, West Bengal, India
Stayed at: Joshi’s Homestay

Anjana, our host, and her gorgeous little ball of fur, Handsome.

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