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Commuter offers a quick prayer on the way to work
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Colourful Buddhist temples

Ness is still feeling a bit delicate and disappears back to the room halfway through breakfast. All is not well on the Delhi belly front. We’re driven to the airport, stopping to take a picture of the giant Shiva (or Vishnu?) statue along the way. Many motorists do a quick prayer as they pass the statue. Crossing the busy road was difficult!

We are in good time for the plane and board on time. Another Jet flight, good news. From the plane we have near continuous views of the Himalayan peaks in the distance. The rest of the country is covered in a dense haze. The haze is impenetrable even at a low altitude. We rise above the clearly-defined haze boundary and climb to 37,000 feet. The flight takes only about an hour and a half. We had expected it to be much longer. We get a long view of Mount Everest and its sister peaks. No photography is permitted on the plane though – security risks! It strikes me as so absurd that I question the regulation to the stewardess, probably much to Ness’s annoyance. Then we descend back into the layer of haze below, to Bagdogra.

The TCI rep is called Rishi, he reminds us strongly of Tuck. Our car is a land-cruiser type vehicle. The road outside the airport is similar to the roads in Rajasthan, people and shops, stalls, vendors, etc. But if you look closely you can see that there is a mixture of Indian-looking people and more Chinese/Tibetan features. As we drive further from the airport, our driver being a graduate of the Lal School of Motoring, the changes multiply.

We pass some tea fields, still at low altitude of Bagdogra. This is where they grow the low quality/no taste stuff, which is blended with the strong taste of tea grown high on the hills.

Rishi has already asked us what we would like to do over the next few days. We came up with a few generalities about what we’d like to see and do: experience local life, see a tea plantation, do some walking, see a Buddhist or Tibetan monastery, etc. Later in the long (2-3 hours?) drive we discuss it again and he has some good suggestions. I have a good feeling about Darjeeling. He also tells us a bit about the local area and customs. Nepali is the main language. Just when I had started to master a few basic phrases in Hindi! (which is also spoken as the “national” language) The script looks totally different from Devanagari, more like the “elvish” writing (sorry, nerd alert!)

Leaving Bagdogra and the plains behind, we start to climb into the hills. A narrow gauge railtrack for the “toy train” runs alongside the road, crossing it in many places. Doing the trip up to Darjeeling in the toy train would have taken seven hours, if it had been running. We do see the steam train running later, much higher up. We also see the modern, diesel-powered, version which runs on the lower half of the section. Into the wooded lower hills we pass an “elephant crossing”. The road starts to narrow and deteriorate, although it stays paved all the way, with a concrete border. Work is being done in many places, small groups of workers digging, breaking rubble, etc. Small houses cling to the steep hillside on either side of the road. We pass through several small towns and villages with bustling markets and shops. Now the people start to look much more Nepali/Tibetan. I would say the mix of “Indian” vs. “Nepali” must be about 50:50. The hills are covered in lush vegetation. Apart from the road and buildings every square inch is covered with all kinds of trees, creepers, etc.

The climb goes up and up and up. Soon we’re looking far down into the plains, the haze is so thick you soon lose sight of the plains. We rise above the haze. The road hugs the hills and switches back and forth. The Dalai Lama is visiting Darjeeling and will be here until the 7th December (I think). The villages and towns are decked out with colourful banners welcoming the Dalai Lama in flowery language. The banners make it clear who the welcome wishes are from, such-and-such monastery or school or municipality, etc.

The Buddhist influence is in strong evidence. Strings of prayer flags, Buddhist temples and monasteries. It feels like a combination of rural China/Tibet (in my imagination) and India. I keep asking Rishi questions from time to time, curious to understand a bit more about the local culture. Tidbits of useless trivia I picked up include: the dominant local party is the Ghurka Revolutionary National Front; the Darjeeling area is ruled by the GRNF and has some degree of autonomy and self-determination within the state of West Bengal. It tried to split off into its own state but that was not allowed.

The climb continues nearly all the way to Darjeeling. We descend a short distance over the crest of the mountain to get there. Darjeeling itself, like the smaller towns, clings to the steep hills. Darjeeling lies sprawled across the high hills. By this time we have climbed into the clouds which are all around us. The temperature has dropped considerably. Ness resorts to her fleece.

It is hard to describe the transition we have experienced over the past eight hours or so. Going from metropolitan Delhi to the much smaller Bagdogra at the other end of the country, a short flight, and then from the dusty hazy plains up to the green fresh hills. This is a total contrast to the India we have experienced so far. That’s the idea of our travels really, to experience the diversity of India and savour the different tastes. So far our impressions have improved every step of the way. It won’t all be like that I’m sure.

We drive through Darjeeling’s winding little streets towards our hotel, the Mayfair, a real Raj era name! The buildings are a mix of recent Indian constructions and those from the “British period”, including a large imposing austere building which would be more at home in Yorkshire/Northern England. There are shops and stalls, and the town is colourfully decorated for the Dalai Lama’s visit. The road to our hotel is down some steep turns. The Mayfair is high on the hills, just below the former Governor’s residence, which is where the Dalai Lama is now staying. The hotel is a little leftover gem from the Raj days. Outside there are landscaped gardens and patios, inside the place is wood-panelled with thick red carpets. It feels welcoming. We have some tea in the lobby while paperwork is taken care of. Our room looks fantastic. It’s a large wood-panelled room with an open fire and a large window overlooking the hills and town below. If it were clear we should be able to see for miles and miles. Bed look sumptuous but is solid as a rock, ah well.

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Asian idea of "full" differs very much from the European one.

We have arranged to meet Rishi again at 5.30 to see a bit of the town. Gives us enough time to chill out and freshen up a bit. We wrap up warm (fleece & jacket) for the walk. It is already dark and the town is wrapped in clouds. It gives the town a special atmosphere. Rishi is easy to get in with and it is easy to make a few jokes. He must be about our age, maybe a bit younger. He takes us on a stroll through the upper and middle town, back to the main square and round the hill back to our hotel. The walk is so enjoyable. We can look into the shops and stalls without being hassled. We do get looks of curiosity but in a totally different manner from Rajasthan. The atmosphere here is so relaxed. We see a few westerners, few and far between, but it does feel like a place which is used to having many western visitors. In common with the rest of India, western tourism has all but dried up. Good news for us, not so good for business. The upper town has a large number of shops, including many curio shops and a lot of eateries and restaurants (Italian, Chinese, Mexican, Tibetan, etc.) The middle town is darker and emptier, at least at this time of day, and is the “business district”. The stalls are now dark and empty. We loop back round to the upper town and to the main square where we have some tea sat on a bench. People are sitting on the benches, chatting, drinking tea, kids and dogs playing. There is a bandstand. It is the town’s meeting place. This is where Rishi hangs out with his friends, talking about their jobs, their lives, etc. I can just picture it now.

Rishi introduces us to various people he knows as we walk through the town. I’m trying to pick up a few words of Nepali but it’s so different from Hindi that I can’t remember anything! “Dizi” = sister, used as a common form of address, “dazu” = brother, likewise.

To finish our tour we walk along the dark “Mall” which loops round the hill with a few benches here and there, ending at the governor’s residence. From here a gate gives access to our hotel through the gardens. There is a small Shiva temple in the gardens and a statue of Ganesh (trunk facing left, not good). Then Rishi leaves us and we settle back in our hotel. Someone comes to light the fire in our room and we go down to the bar, where they prepare an excellent whisky sour for me and planters punch for Ness. I’d love to have a game of pool (American balls) but Ness is not too keen. Maybe later. The bar is a “home from home”, wood and thick carpet, with a quarter circle corner bar with mirrors, aah.

We go for dinner in the hotel a bit later. A tasty buffet and only a few other (Indian + American) diners in the wood-panelled dining room. Ness does have some dinner but has to shoot off straight after dinner. The fire is still smouldering in our room in our room. The only downside is the hard bed. With any luck we’ll wake up with a clear view out of our window overlooking the hills and mountains in the distance.