On a Train: Tuesday 24/4 – Wednesday 25/4
Varanasi to Darjeeling is roughly 800km by road or rail, or about the same distance as Melbourne to Adelaide. Back home, I’d think of that as a fairly easy day’s drive. In India, though, everything takes a bit longer and is a bit more involved. Getting my train ticket was enough of a mission in itself, with all of the trains from the stations near Varanasi being completely booked out for weeks in advance. Fortunately, Indian trains have a “foreign tourist quota” where a few berths on each train are reserved for non-Indian residents, so I managed to get my ticket on just a couple of days’ notice. My backup plan if I hadn’t been able to do that was to buy tickets in 2nd class unreserved, a.k.a. cattle class, which would almost certainly have meant standing up for the 14-hour overnight train journey. That would certainly have been a memorable experience, but I was secretly quite glad to have a bunk of my own in an air-conditioned carriage.
My train was scheduled to leave at 6:30pm from Mughal Sarai, just over the river from Varanasi. The electronic signs at the station listed a platform number and noted that it was running half an hour late. At around 6:30, as I was waiting at the platform, there was an announcement in Hindi which I didn’t understand, followed by an announcement in English which I couldn’t hear because suddenly everyone around me had got up and was moving to the opposite side of the station. The train was on time, and had arrived at a completely different platform. Indian Railways really did learn all of their tricks from British Rail.
I got off the train at around 9am the next morning, feeling a bit bleary-eyed from having slept poorly. This may or may not have been related to staying up late reading. The station closest to Darjeeling is New Jalpaiguri, about 90km from Darjeeling. There’s a “toy train” – a narrow-gauge service more like a tram than a normal train – which goes up the hill. Sources on the Internet informed me that if I went half-way up the hill to Kurseong by road, I’d be able to catch the afternoon service from Kurseong to Darjeeling which would be pulled by a steam locomotive. The Internet lied to me, and it was actually a diesel train. Such is life.
The Darjeeling toy train was … okay, I guess. The train ride down from Ooty that I took back in February – which feels like a lifetime ago now – was a lot more enjoyable. Still, definitely more comfortable and picturesque than the alternative, i.e. travelling the whole way in a car occupied by nine other people.
I arrived at Darjeeling early in the evening, walked into town, had dinner, and found somewhere to stay.
Darjeeling: Thursday 26/4 – Saturday 28/4
Three days in Darjeeling. Drinking tea and eating scones and cucumber sandwiches and pad thai and masala dosa with fruit and nuts and visiting a tea factory and reading books and the constant sight of the not-so-distant Himalayas and being rained on and sometimes meditating. It’s not really a place for being active – although you could certainly have done more “stuff” than I did – but right now, that’s perfectly okay with me.
Darjeeling must be one of the few places in India where you definitely drink tea, not chai. Tea is brewed from loose leaves, served in a teapot, and if you ask for milk or sugar, those are provided separately rather than all pre-mixed into the sweet, milky tea-resembling beverage that I’ve been accustomed to drinking for the last few months. Provided separately, that is, if at all: at one cafe I went to, the waitress gave me a horrified look and told me, “Sir, milk is not advisable with Darjeeling tea”. I guess she was right, because the tea tasted just fine without milk.
The tea here is definitely a step up from the “throw a Twinings teabag into a mug” beverage I was usually drinking before India, too. The best tea that I had in Darjeeling was at Sunset Lounge Cafe, run by Nathmulls Tea Company, where you could select from any of the many varieties of tea they had available. That’s not “varieties” in the sense of “different flavourings added”: they had teas of different quality, plucked at different times of the year and different years’ harvests as well as the usual choice of black, white or green tea. I didn’t dare ask for milk there, in case they threw me out of the shop. You could look at and smell the different teas before ordering, and after it was brewed they brought out two teapots: one containing the leaves so you could see and smell them after brewing, and the actual tea itself poured in a separate pot so it didn’t gradually turn into a bitter, revolting fluid if you took your time drinking it. The second time I went there I tried one of their ‘premium’ teas; it was very tasty, and the first time in years that I’d had actually, really good quality tea. It was also outrageously priced (by Indian standards) at about $2.50 for a pot – although it doesn’t sound so bad when you consider that’s roughly what you’d pay in London for a styrofoam cup with a teabag in it, served with a scowl.
I think I’ve been drinking between six and ten cups of tea a day here. This feels eminently civilised.
Singalila Ridge Trek: Sunday 29/4 – Thursday 3/5
Day One: Maneybhanjang (2130m) – Tumling (3070m)
Got up early Sunday morning to grab a quick aloo paratha for breakfast before meeting the trekking guide at quarter past eight. As we left, the sky was a cloudless bright blue, showing no sign at all of yesterday’s downpour, which I hoped was a good omen for it not raining during the trek. After an hour and a half in a ‘jeep’ – a battered old Mahindra 4×4 – we arrived at Maneybhanjang, the starting point for the trek.
The first hour was a steep incline along a road also used by cars, dodging the occasional jeep hurtling towards us, past Meghma Gompa temple, and then to our morning tea stop where our trail diverged from the road. Unfortunately, the blue skies had turned grey, and then it started to get really foggy. We were, in fact, walking through clouds. Quite impressive to experience, but didn’t provide the Himalayan views I’d been hoping for. We continued hiking through the fog, stopping again for afternoon tea, and eventually reached Tumling at 3:30.
The ridge that we were hiking along is the India-Nepal border. Our lunch stop and overnight stay were both in Nepal – there’s even a nice big “Welcome to Nepal” sign as you reach Tumling. In some ways, it’s still India: the cars have Indian number plates and we pay for dinner with Indian rupees. But the people here are ethnically Nepali.
Day Two: Tumling – Sandakphu (3636m)
The guide wanted an early start today, but I woke up feeling a bit crap and we didn’t get moving until 8am. Moved fairly slowly uphill in the morning, through blue skies, green scrub, mountain scenery, magnolias and lots of rhododendrons. Lunch was at Kalapokhri where really-free-range chickens were wandering in and out of the restaurant. By mid-afternoon the sky was foggy and grey again, sometimes with only 10 metres of visibility. We stopped at pretty much every village on the way for cups of tea. Arrived at Sandakphu at 3:15 feeling exhausted and just collapsed into bed. My guide insisted that drink lots of tea and not sleep, so I sat around reading and eventually finished Blood Meridian.
Day Three: Sandakphu – Phalut (3600m)
Once again, lots of greenery and blue skies – this time, fortunately, lasting the whole day’s walk. On the way, we had splendid views of snow-capped mountains. Closer by were rolling green hills with horses, goats and yaks. While we finished the day at about the same altitude at which we started, there were plenty of ups and downs along the way.
Lunch was at a tiny hut in the middle of nowhere. Packet soup with bread, boiled potatoes and a cup of tea. Never before had these tasted so good, making yesterday’s momos and chowmein feel like absolute luxury. The accommodation at Phalut was also very basic: a trekker’s hut with no running water, no electricity, but plenty of tea and biscuits. As the afternoon progressed the blue skies turned grey and it started to rain heavily. The falling rain turned to snow, and the windows were covered in ice. Dinner was filling and tasty: popcorn, pappadums, rice with dahl and vegetable curry and an omelette.
Day Four: Phalut – Sirikhola (1900m)
I didn’t sleep well that night because it was so cold, and got up early to climb to the top of a nearby hill which was the point were Nepal, Sikkim and West Bengal meet. From there we could see Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks, far off in the hazy distance. There were still patches of ice on the ground from the previous evening, although it was quite warm in the sun.
On our final trekking day, we went a bit further than the usual Singalila Ridge itinerary – apparently 28km, though most of it downhill. We had a quick breakfast and set off early, descending steeply for two and a half hours, down through forest of trees and bamboo, then came out into a clearing, crossed over a river, and entered the village Ghorkey. The river was the boundary between the Indian states of West Bengal and Sikkim, and we’d cross it several times during the remainder of the trek. At Ghorkey we stopped for an hour to drink tea and relax. Then we walked a bit further to the next village, Rammam, where we stopped for lunch.
At this point we’d mostly left the forest behind and the remainder of the trek to Sirikhola was along the side of a steep hill. We felt like we were beginning to re-enter civilisation, passing houses and farms and a school. The lodge at Sirikhola was also very basic, though – no electricity and the toilet was flushed by tipping a bucket of water into it.
Day Five: Return to Darjeeling
The usual Singalila Ridge trek continues a further 6km to the town of Rimbick, but we went all the way from Sirikhola to Darjeeling by jeep. I don’t think I missed out on too much – the scenery was much the same as the final section heading into Sirikhola, and a fair chunk of the road to Rimbick was paved tarmac so not so great for hiking. We got back to Darjeeling at 11:30, giving me the remainder of the day to shower, rest, drink tea, and get ready to cross border into Nepal.
End of a Chapter
If all goes according to plan, this will be the last post I write from India. It’s been a pretty intense three-months-and-a-bit here and feels strange to be leaving so soon. The Nepalese border is just a few hours’ drive away from Darjeeling, and from there it’s a nice, long bus ride to Kathmandu.
As always, if you want to see more photos, there’s a full set uploaded on Piacasa.