Another hire car for the return trip down the Teesta River Valley, once over the river we turned right towards Darjeeling and again started to climb steeply. At almost every hairpin bend trucks gathered to collect water from fast flowing streams. This water was then sold and pumped into tanks on house roof-tops, there is no reticulated water in this part of India. Kurseong was just about gridlocked as it was school run time and there always seemed to be just one vehicle left completely blocking the road while an anxious parent went looking for a child.
By late afternoon we arrived in Darjeeling, the home of tea. We arrived from the south up Hill Cart Road, and as we moved into what seemed to be the center of town I was on the lookout for the Central Nirvana Hotel, not only had I booked the Hotel well in advance, this was the only one I had pre-paid. We got nearly to the top of town and our driver stopped at the Central Heritage Hotel, seeming to think it would serve our purposes. He spoke to the concierge and then came back to the car to look at the information I had on my laptop. He took off again complaining it was getting late and he still had to return to Gangtok. He then stopped at a layby with a footpath leading off it and said that was as far as he could take us, and it was up to someone else to take us the rest of the way. The driver got out and made another call on his phone, Cathy got out started to talk to him and I doggedly stayed in the car. A total stranger then took our suitcases, put them on his back and started to walk off with them! An American couple was now talking to Cathy and all was revealed. Our Hotel was in the Mall section of Darjeeling where no cars were allowed and the word Central in our hotel’s name did not infer its location, but the fact it is part of the hotel chain called Central. The stop at Central Heritage Hotel was for the driver to get directions for where to drop us, they also rang ahead to get the hotel ported to come and collect our bags. I gave the driver an extra tip for doubting his intentions and set off after the porter.
The path lead into Chowrasta Place, a large open mall with giant TV screen, at the other side was another path that led down from the mall in a big loop. Our hotel was on that path. We checked in and I ceased feeling embarrassed. I had asked for a room with a balcony, it was down three flights of stairs and lead out to a semi-private garden with views towards the mountains, or so we were told.
We took a walk around our part of town and back into Chowrasta, a cricket match was being shown on the TV screen. I was beginning to like this place. Cathy was not feeling the best so we chose to eat in our very quiet hotel restaurant that night. By morning Cathy was non too happy, she had not slept due to the bed and was feeling odd, we put it down to the altitude. The hotel were very good about the bed and took us to a room on the fourth floor, no balcony, but a much more comfortable bed and a good feel. The views were of course stunning.
After breakfast we walked down to the train station for one last attempt to try and book on the Toy Train to NJP on our day of departure. The man in the ticket office said Train cancelled, I asked if it would be un-cancelled, the answer was again no. One has to ask the right questions in India sometimes. We book on the tourist return trip to Ghum on the Sunday, I was not leaving Darjeeling without riding that train. Close by the station are a row of fish and meat sellers, all crouched in their booths with huge blades wedged between their feet. They cut the fish and meat to order. Interestingly despite no refrigeration there was no smell at all, a testament to the freshness.
Cathy was again experiencing altitude tiredness so we went back to the hotel where she rested and drank tea. I charged around town looking at what it had to offer and still trying to get that ride on an elusive Royal Enfield. Darjeeling is a nice town and while we were there catered for a lot of domestic tourists. Like Gangtok it was also a vertical town. I walked up the very steep path past the beggars to Observatory Hill and a religious sanctum housing a unique multi-faith temple. It was the highest part of town and had a collection of shrines dedicated to a variety of religions, this demonstrated true religious harmony and tolerance. There would have been about a dozen different temples where for a small donation one could receive a blessing from your chosen holy man, yes they were all men! I then walked around the whole mall, getting back to where the car had dropped us the previous day. I already felt like a local. I knew which market stalls has shawls which had shirts and which had boots.
Sunday saw us heading to the station for a round trip on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway Train to Ghum, see the chapter on Trains for more on this trip.
Darjeeling Zoo was a bit challenging, the big cats were pacing their enclosures, obviously not happy at being in captivity, but apparently the zoo does great work in breeding extremely rare species and introducing them back into the wild. Within the Zoo grounds is the Mountaineer’s Museum, which included exhibits from many of the famous Everest climbs, including Sir Edmund Hillary’s electric socks, labeled electric shocks, an unfortunate typo. I left the Zoo and continued on to North Point and a huge cable car, or ropeway as they called it. It covers a horizontal distance of 1,400 metres and descends 1,900 metres to the plains below. Alas I arrived, as the ticket office closed and no amount of persuasion would convince them to sell me one ticket so I could get to the back of the queue for the last trip of the day.
On our last morning in Darjeeling I took a walk, or should I say climb to the Happy Valley Tea Estate, I finally got to the gate and traversed down the steep driveway with many hairpin bends. The climbing is relentless here. Happy Valley were not processing tea as it was out of season, however a very polite and informative man showed me the equipment and explained how the tea was processed and the style and quality they aspired to in their product. I bought one tin and struggled back up the driveway and adjacent goat track until I arrived back in Chowrasta Place. I was so buoyed by my ability to climb back up the steep hills I dropped into a Bhutanese/Nepalese craft shop and bought a silk rug I had looked at earlier in the week. I’m a sucker for rugs!
The same stoic porter again put both of our suitcases on his back and lead us through the mall area to where our car was waiting at the exact place we had been dropped off 4 day’s earlier. Our time in Darjeeling was enjoyable, but all too short; we still had not seen Mount Kanchenjunga, nor I had that ride on a Royal Enfield, both will have to wait for another time. We now headed back down the mountains to NJP for the overnight express to Kolkata.