Friday, August 31, 2007

Safe Tea First

(Title from a car window sticker)

Breakfast is tea and eggs. A large pot. Not included in the room rate, but a large pot, two sets of two eggs and plenty of toast comes to 140 rupees, or about one pound sixty, so no big issue. We talk to Fenula, a Canadian who suggests going to the Dali Monastry, or Druk Sangak Choling Gompa, later, so we agree to meet. After eating, we head out. First stop, just round the corner, the marvellous Oxford Book Store, where I could spend a lot of money if I had porters carrying my backpack.

Oxford Book Store

Old men under Pop Idol poster

Then we walk along to Observatory Hill, which is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus, as it was home to the original Dorje Ling gompa that gave the town its name.

Longyi’ed up for the occasion

It’s a pretty site with hundreds of prayer flags draped all over the site, but I resent taking my shoes off for such a filthy spot!

How to go deaf quickly. Stand near these

After we walk back to the hotel, passing some English-style houses.

We meet Fenula again, and we walk down to the shared jeep area to catch a ride along to the monastery.

Shared jeeps are the main form of transport in the mountains here, and they are surprisingly reasonable. Our ride, for about 20 minutes (though not that far), cost 6 rupees per person. To Siliguri, a 3 ½ hour ride, it’s 70 or 80 rupees (one pound).

They do cram people in though, and we laugh as the person we thought was the driver turned out to be a passenger sitting in the driver’s seat, the actual driver squashed against the door on his side, literally leaning across to steer.

Apparently in Sikkim they don’t allow this, but here anything goes. They use jeeps as the roads out in the hills are of variable standard. In the worst areas, they use old land rovers, and carry spares to effectively replace the whole vehicle if required!

I must say I’ve been impressed with the traffic police. They always seem friendly and helpful. Locals have told me this is only to tourists, but at least someone gets treated well (compare with the Indian army, or worse, civil service, who are generally snooty with everyone). At all major junctions there’s a booth with a couple of police men. Perhaps they’re helpful because most of them are Tibetan or Nepali? Am starting to develop prejudices here!

So the monastery is not far out of town, and I recognise it as one we passed on the train. At the entrance is a steep driveway lined with large murals.

Walking up here, one then passes classrooms which are full of young monks being taught. They laugh and smile as they see us peer in. We climb further, passing a room with large decorated prayer wheels and some elder monks who don’t look so happy to see us. Then at the top, where the main prayer hall is, and an open area.

This monastery is known for its beautiful frescoes, and houses 300 monks from all over the Himalayas studying philosophy, art, Buddhist literature, astronomy, meditation, sacred dance and music.

It was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1993. Today there seems to be something going on – we learn that some sort of commercial is being filmed using the young monks, all in their robes. They’re clearly quite enjoying the job – standing in front of the main hall and holding up their hands as if to pray.

The clouds roll in

A monk from Ladakh shows us the main hall, and we see the extensive library, before leaving Fenula to stay and meditate whilst we visit the nearby Ava art gallery, which turns out to be a disappointment.

The contents are the works of a local artist who died a few years ago – mostly embroidery. Entry fee is 1 rupee, but as we only have a 1r coin or 10r note, they just charge us for one, which makes me feel rather bad given the charge!

Politics fading away

We try walking back to town, but it’s just too busy a road – one of the frustrations of the main roads in Darjeeling is that the jeeps hurtle along the roads, using their horn almost continuously. Some are reasonable volumes, but some are offensively loud and piercing. If you can’t beat ‘em..

We hop in a one for 5r each, and end up in downtime, where we go to Nathmulls, the best-known tea shop. There are two outlets, we visit the one in “Inox”, a completely out-of-place new glassy shopping centre in central Darjeeling. One literally double-takes rounding the corner next to the old stone post office as the mall comes into view.

Post office

Only in Darjeeling..


Nathmulls stocks a variety of teas from the local area.

Their main business is export – taking chests of tea, packaging it up and sending off to Calcutta and beyond. In the shop they have a counter with dozens of labelled flasks of tea which they open and let you smell. They talk you through the tea cycle, then sit you down and brew up a few cups for you to try.


This stolen from LP: The tea bush was first brought to Darjeeling from Assam by British planters looking to break China’s monopoly over the tea trade. Credit for the discovery of tea as it’s drunk today should go to the Khamti and Singpho tribes of Assam, who first introduced British explorers to the healing powers of fermented tea leaves brewed in hot water. And the rest, as they say…

Darjeeling apparently produces 25% of India’s tea (most of the rest from Assam). The process is thus: The picking is done in three waves, called “flushes”. So first flush, second flush, third flush. After picking, the leaves are placed on a withering trough and allowed to dry. They’re then crushed to squeeze the remaining water out. The leaves are then fermented in a humid chamber – this is the key process to determine the end flavour. The fermentation is stopped by passing the leaves through a drying chamber. Then the leaves are graded.

Tea Grades (best to worst):
Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe
Golden Broken Orange Pekoe
Orange Fannings and Dust

The first flush teas generally have the best aroma but less smell. The finest are “tippy”, i.e. just the very tips of the tea leaf bud, or “silver tips”, i.e. the youngest tips. Certain estates seem to command a price premium – Castleton Estate has produced teas going for 18,000 rupees per kilo. That’s 225 pounds sterling. For one kilo of tea! Really deserves the title of the champagne of tea!

The first flush tea we try is lovely – good taste and fantastic aroma, but I end up buying some different teas, all first flush. I’ve no intention of carting them around though, so we go round to the post office, who specialise in posting tea. The chap who wraps parcels is not about, so we’ll have to come back another time.

For lunch we eat at a simple Tibetan place across the road. The power is out, so it’s almost dark in the restaurant. Thuzar tries momos for the first time, and how can anyone not like fried momos (similar to gyoza for those familiar with Japanese food! The secret with momos is the chilli sauce. Best to snap the momo in half and fill both halves with copious quantities of the stuff, or dip away if it’s my favourite green chilli ketchup! I wash this down with Mazaa, a local mango drink which is rather good.

Momos in the dark

After we walk back up to the hotel, past the colonial Planter’s Club.

We head up on the roof with some beers, and shortly Darcy joins us.

For dinner, an hour or two after lunch (!), we wander down to Glenarys, one of the most popular foreigner joints in town (it’s the Busy Bee of Pokhara) with Darcy. Fenula is there already, having eaten, as are the Swiss couple from the train, who join us for a drink. It becomes very clear very fast to me that there are some very strong and opposing viewpoints and characters around the table, and I brace myself to duck under the table as the inevitable fight breaks out. Things calm down though when the Swiss leave, and Fenula succumbs to some drags on Darcy’s cigarette!

Break it up you lot

Dinner is good, and as is tradition in India, we over-order and of course try to finish the delicious curries with rice and naan. We walk home together in the dark at 9:30pm, and the place has become an absolute ghost town. Not a soul on the street, and the hotel door had been pushed to (though not locked). It’s as if a curfew is being imposed. Funny thing is, they don’t seem to get up especially early either – in places like Nepal or Vietnam where they sleep early it’s because they’re all up at 5am. Not here!

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

In the morning, with about 5 minutes to arrival at New Jaigapuri (09:00), the elderly Indian couple wake us up. We pack up and get off with everyone else.

Where to go now? We have an hour till our next train. I ask a few of the troops idling about the place, but none of them seem to have any idea. Darjeeling? Where’s that? Eventually we work it out ourselves, as the Darjeeling train, aka “The Toy Train” runs from the signed “Narrow Gauge Platform”, and it’s a reasonable guess that a toy train will be small. There are a few people about on the platform, some sitting, some lying on the benches. No foreigners.

I go looking for breakfast, and find it in the form of dosas from a café near the station entrance.

They bag up the sauce for me, though it probably would have been better not to have it to save me the mess. Thuzar hardly eats any of hers, so when a beggar comes along pointing at the mouth and stomach and holding out her hand I offer her the food. She refuses it, wants money. What a surprise. You don’t want food? Fine. We’ll I’m damned if you’re having any money. I leave the food on the bench.

Finally the train arrives, and it is small and cute.

Apparently the train, the British-built (and now World Heritage listed) Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, made its first journey in September 1881 and is still one of the few hill railways operating today in India. Thank goodness we’re in First, sandwiched between the two standard class carriages. We have reclining material seats, whereas standard have cramped plastic seats.

The American girl who has turned up only has a second class ticket, but comes to our carriage with the intention of upgrading – when she bought the ticket they hadn’t given her the option of first! The rest of the passengers are Indian couples on holiday, though second class is mostly Nepali.

We start off at 9am. The scheduled arrival time is 4:30pm (though I’d forgotten this and was expecting us to arrive at 3pm!). LP describes the ride as an exhausting haul. The carriage is hot, as it’s not air-conditioned and it’s a few hours before we start to climb, we’re still firmly in the plains. A friendly Swiss couple get on at Siliguri station – they had tried and failed to buy a ticket at the station – the master telling them to buy it on the train. On the train the conductor initially tried to charge them 400 rupees each, but I intervened by showing them our ticket, which cost 520 rupees for the both. Apparently second class was about 30 rupees!

A bicycle takes us on.. and wins!

The configuration is one seat on one side and two on the other. In theory we’re split across the aisle, but we’ve moved to a two-seat, something the conductor doesn’t seem to mind. The American girl, Darcy, on the other hand, is sitting on one of the two seats in her row, and is moved because apparently these are only for couples! She is put at the front next to a window which won’t open, and finds this so stuffy and uncomfortable that she goes back to second class, where the people are apparently more friendly.

Finally, the hills

The air cools as soon as we start climbing into the hills, though it’s still fairly warm. At every station people buzz about on the platform, and usually someone runs along with a large pot of ultra-sweet tea and plastic cups.

Still a few sweets left from Calcutta

There is only one train a day in each direction, so it still seems to be an event as the train chugs through, whistling frequently.

Two trains, one track, c’mon!

Children and adults alike wave and smile as we amble past, often returning back almost the same way on one of the frequent switchbacks.

The sinister binocular man appeared at more than one station

The 2-feet-wide track is interesting in that it is built on the road running to Darjeeling. However as the road twists and turns, the railway can only just cope with the sharp bends, so swerves back and forth across the tarmac, stopping traffic as it does so. Thank goodness the road is not too busy! The flipside is that the track is constantly being driven on by a variety of vehicles, some fairly heavy trucks, which must necessitate frequent repairs to the rails. At one of the stations an engineer starts bashing the underside of the train with a hammer. The electricity to the carriages is provided by a couple of wires twisted together as one would join bell wire – these need reconnecting occasionally too!

Clouds frequently deprive us of any view

Tea country


At last!

Finally we arrive at Darjeeling, at an altitude of 2134m, and it’s a wonderful place. It’s quite run down, especially at the end of town with the station, but sits on top of a ridge with deep valleys below on both sides, lined with a green carpet of tea estates and trees, with occasional villages interrupting. We walk into town, fending off a couple of hotel touts easily. There seem to be lots of people just dithering about on the streets, and hardly any shops open.

We later learn that there is a general strike on in Communist-dominated West Bengal State today, hence everything being shut. According to LP, it’s about a 12km walk to the hotel, which is just plain wrong – the scale is clearly out, but it is a brisk twenty minutes up some fairly steep hills. Thuzar is not best pleased.

It would also seem that there is a local candidate who has progressed quite far in the Indian Pop Idol television contest – there are lots of posters about town drumming up support for the chap.

Our first stop is Hotel Bellevue looking for a room. Second choice is Classic Guest House, but we don’t need it, as Bellevue has space.

We are greeted by the friendly Sanrup who shows us a couple of rooms. I like the first – a large room, wood-lined, with a big metal burner in one corner, presumably for use in winter. The windows look out on to their garden, and in front of the room is a terrace overlooking the Chowrasta, the central square, and heart of the town in British days.

The Chowrasta

Upstairs there’s a lookout, a little terrace area and gompa with fantastic views in all directions.

It’s cloudy now, but supposedly we should be able to see Khangchendzhonga (the name means Big Five-Peaked Snow Fortress in Tibetan), the 3rd highest mountain in the world at 8598m. From some spots in the area Everest (8848m), Lhotse (8501m) and Makalu (8475m) also appear. Even without these it’s certainly a marvellous view. After dropping our bags in the room we sit down for tea in the lounge area in front of reception. We get a large pot of Darjeeling tea, though here it’s not really called “Darjeeling” tea – it’s more just tea – black tea.

Usually they take it with milk and sugar, but here we at least get the option. The American girl, Darcy, from the train turns up too – Andy’s, where she went, turned out to be closed for renovation.

As we’re enjoying this, we here people singing outside. Looking out through the window, we watch a beautiful procession of firstly schoolchildren, then adults, monks, and even tourists, each one carrying a candle. At the front some people carry a large poster of the current (14th) Dalai Lama, His Holyness Tenzin Gyatso. Apart from the tourists, everyone is singing some sort of song, with no musical backing. It’s clearly some sort of peace procession, and people march slowly past for a good five or ten minutes – there must be thousands of people.

What a lovely way to start our stay. We walk up to the top for the sunset, as the sky lights up over the rolling hills. Once it’s dark, we retire to our lovely wooden room with no TV, before heading out for dinner at the Park Restaurant, where we over-order, havin spicy chicken, paneer, vegetables with bean sauce, rice, breads and various bits and bobs.

Back at the hotel we head up to the top for sunset.

For the first time since… Kinabalu mountain I enjoy a pleasant cool night without air-conditioning. Bliss!