We spent our final night in Nepal in the distinctly Indian border town of Khakarbitta, like many border towns it was dusty and depressing but we were forced into staying there as it was too late to either attempt the journey to Ilam or cross the border into India. The walk to the border consisted of a kilometre or so in the sun, the majority of which was over a long bridge, made noteworthy by the ever increasing density of touts and rickshaws marking our proximity to the Indian side of the river and the state of West Bengal.
Having negotiated a relatively stress free border crossing thanks to our whopping £92 multiple entry visa’s we embarked with the locals on a bus to Siliguri where we got a Jeep up into the mountains toward Darjeeling. As per usual the Jeep driver was determined to ram 2 or 3 times the Jeeps intended capacity into the vehicle to make it worth his money. I’m becoming quite adept at contorting myself into completely unacceptable spaces, yet its fair to say the three hour ride was less than comfortable, we were both however pleased to be back up in the mountains and keen to see the Himalayas, Indian style.
Turns out that Tibetan influences aside, the Indian hill settlements where quite different to those of their neighbours across the border and quite different to what we were expecting. Expelling fantasy ideas of serene tea plantations and quaint mock Tudor cottages, the Darjeeling we found was a congested, choked Indian city perched on the side of the hills. Yes the quaint cottages and lodges where there however we found them in varying crumbling states of decay, now swallowed by the over developed city surrounding it, itself crumbling despite its age. In short we were both disappointed to discover that the Darjeeling we had both hoped for turned out to be a dirty Indian city reminiscent of those in the North, placed precariously on the mountains.
But what Mountains they are, one morning I braved the early morning cold (something Sarah opted to decline on account of a nice warm bed) and walked to the top of the town to view the spectacular Kanchenjunga, the worlds third highest and its surrounding peaks. It must have been a particularly clear day as I was joined by a number of locals all sitting on their roofs gazing at the incredible mountains enjoying their morning tea and fags.
From what we could see, most of the tea plantations where a day trip outside of the main town but we did manage to find one within walking distance. We spent a lovely afternoon walking round the tea fields of the Happy Valley Tea Estate, touring round the factory discovering the process and sampling… tea.
That evening we discovered Gattys cafe, a friendly backpacker place that served up the tastiest pasta I had ever eaten with the added bonus of great music (bettered only by Places in Kathmandu that just played mushroom jazz on repeat) and a big screen with the football on. The following evening I even managed to convince the owner to switch from the Indian Super League so I could catch the last ten minutes of the Wolves Birmingham game, something I was very grateful for as it gave me not a pang of homesickness but a happy link with home I had not felt before (obviously Sarah was thrilled about pausing our game of scrabble so I could give the match my undivided attention)
We spent our mornings sitting on the guest house roof sipping complementary tea (in a proper China set) and enjoying peanut butter and sweet toast left over from the coach journey. Most days we spent at least a couple of hours relaxing and reading in Glennarys, a lovely little cafe with a huge selection cakes and Darjeeling tea looking over the mountains. Walking round the Mayfair area of town was a bit more like the Darjeeling we had pictured, complete with Raj era mansion and gardens immaculately kept, now reserved for the Bengal governor. A quaint little church on the hill straight out of the home counties and a large impressive theatre that dominated the area.
On our hunt to secure tickets for our mammoth train journey across the Indian interior to Mumbai we started chatting to Sherjung, a lovely guy who runs an adventure travel agency. We got talking about Darjeeling and Nepal, his visits to Chamonix in the Alps and his scouser friends. After a couple of days we got more friendly to the point where he offered us a job (if I was successfully enough) in bringing in customers from our travels and the UK who are interested in trips to Nepal/India/Tibet/Bhutan from anything to motorbike tours to Summit treks. He has told me that for the first ten customers I bring him I can earn money or I can go on a month long tour of Bhutan atop a Royal Enfield (Enfield’s are very popular here especially in Nepal) free of charge, I know which one I’ll choose! So if anyone is thinking about a trip drop me a line.
Having received our train tickets we left Darjeeling via Jeep, disappointingly we were unable to obtain tickets for the toy train back down to Siliguri so Sarah had to endure another journey where vomiting was a real possibility, thankfully she survived. Part of our trip entailed spending a day in Kolkatta while we waited for our connecting train to Mumbai. Annoyingly, as we were only there for one day we found Kolkatta to be the nicest Indian city we have yet encountered. With clean tree lined streets, in places unbelievable architecture (in particular the Victoria Monument) and spotless hospitals. I mention the hospitals because Sarah has developed a rather nasty eye infection so our early morning was spent in the Kolkatta eye hospital waiting for a diagnosis of viral conjunctivitis, for which we have now got a range of eye drops. For anyone that knows Sarah you can imagine her delight at me having to clumsily administer eye drops 5 times a day aboard a moving train packed full of avid spectators.
As I write we are coming to into the last 3 hours of our 48 hour journey and should arrive into Mumbai 21:20 if by some miracle we are on time. I’m very much looking forward to our final fortnight in India that will include Goa, Hampi and Kerala, all are meant to be stunning before flying out from Chennai on the 24th and maybe a visit to Bangalore if we have the time. Goodbye for now from The Getanjali Express.