My first train journey in India was hassle free and easy. I had been told of the various trails and tribulations of many travelers before me but my first experience was excellent, although a little dusty. A few people had told me of the varying scams certain Indian tricksters had devised ie trying to get you to pay twice, sending you to the wrong train so then you’d have to pay a man to catch up with the train further on down the line. I had booked into std sleeper class which was the about 4th from the top on the rankings that separated the classes through privileges and cost. In sleeper class the whole carriage is divided into small sections around 3m x 2m each containing 8 beds, 3 down one side of a partition and 3 down the other. The remaining 2 beds are near the far side window and across from the thoroughfare that provides access down the whole carriage.
It is this thoroughfare that provides the entertainment for the night as well as food, drinks and most importantly the Chai seller. I thought I had managed to leave ladyboys behind in Thailand but they seem to be rife in India especially on the trains. Unlike there SE Asian counterparts the Indian ladyboys don’t try and hide the fact that they are men, there only disguise in fact is the Saris they wear and their long hair. Barging that they pester everyone on the train to give them money and if not they will flash you their man bits which in India is a real taboo. In fact nudity in India is shunned so much that often married coupes have near seen each other naked.
The train finally pulled away at around 10.30pm and seemed to be carying more than proposed limit. But after 1/2 hr everything and everyone settled down to their beds and soon the gentle rocking motions and sound of the train on the tracks started to make everyone sleepy. It was comfortable enough sleep, occasionally being woken up by the random Chai seller shouting for business at 2am, people brushing past my feet – the beds were a little short for western standards but by 6am the whole carriage was up and ready for arrival in Darjeeling. 7am and we pulled in to New Jalpaigari station and then it was onto a jeep for the next 3 hours as we scaled into eh heights of the mountains towards Darjeeling.
Paying £2 for a 3 hour jeep ride was cheap enough and good value but once the other Indian passengers heard that I paid more than the they had they managed to get the driver to refund me the 25p he’d obviously mistakenly overcharged me! When 1/2 an hour of leaving the station we were climbing the lush green hills, where we saw the first of the tea plantations and then the impressive Mt Khangchendzonga 8500m high. Darjeeling itself is 2500m high and I certainly felt the chill as we climbed higher and higher into the clouds. Eventually we arrived and immediately you felt that you were in some remote town in the hills. Being so close to Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet the ethnic mix was incredible when you mingled these races in amongst the Indians that lived and holidayed here.
First priority was to find lodgings and the Lonely Planet suggested a nice cheap place with fantastic views. It was not wrong on both counts. The view from my bedroom window had spectacular views but being this came with a snag, being cheap it lacked running hot water but provided you with a bucket of warm water within an hour of asking! Dumping my kit I headed out back into town in search of some warm clothes and a nice cuppa. Both were found within striking distance from the hotel and I was sitting in the mid morning sun warming up in a new jumper, woolen gloves, thick socks, long johns and a pot of Darjeeling tea all for the bargain price of £3. I think iI was overcharged on the long johns!
The Darjeeling tea was a little bitter from what I’d experienced back home but it was fresh and very satisfying. Next on the list was to find out about trekking in the hills of Sikkim, the closest you can get in India to Everest without going to Nepal. After an exhaustive search of over hours nothing was found, the only trips going were 7 and 9 day trips which were too long for me either that or I could hire my own guide and go for $100 per day. Also some of the treks were not departing for 5 days. I decided to try again tomorrow so went back to the guest house and met a few travelers and had a bite to eat and then a nap.
I started to freeze that night as my body had only been used temperatures of around 30 degrees, but when the sun went down it plummeted to about 5 degrees and I was cold. Luckily myself and others from the guest house bought some Brandy and settled down to watch 2 thrilling football matches – Hull City vs Stoke and Chelsea vs Man U. Success all round as Hull overcame a one nil deficit after half time and Chelsea scrapped by Man U. Content in the knowledge that Hull had picked up its first three points in a long time it was to back to the cold room and a cold bed with the sounds of hundreds of dogs barking into the night.
Morning brought warmth and after a good few pots of coffee I was ready to get going a to look for treks again. I headed down into the main town and searched all over. A 5 day trek had left the day before and the next ones were due to leave in 5 days time. Not quick enough unfortunately as I couldn’t really spend my time waiting round as I have limited time in India and also now wanted to see my cousin Nigel and his family in Sri Lanka as they had just recently moved there. I decided that I would get closer to the action and head on up to Sikkim to get a better and closer view of the mountains in one of the most Northerly provinces of India.
However, to get to Sikkim you need to obtain a permit. And to obtain the permit goes to show you the farce around the bureaucracy in India. First you had to go to a government registered building in town to hand in your details and get a letter. Then you had to walk around 2km to the next office to get the stamp in your passport to allow you in Sikkim. Then we were told to go back to the first office to have everything checked and confirmed. Why these two offices couldn’t be next door to each other was a mystery that no one would or could answer! Eventually passports all checked and verified I headed back into town to visit the few attractions there.
The two main attractions are located right next door which is unusually well organized for India. The visit to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Himalayan Zoo was a great way to spend walking around in the warm afternoon sun. Th institute is a shrine to Sherper Tenzing who is Darjeeling’s most famous climbing son. Famed for climbing Everest with Hillary the museum shows the equipment they used whilst paying homage to the great man and other Indian climbers. It is astonishing to see the gear they used, or should I say lack of it. Compared to modern day climbing equipment it is remarkable that they didn’t freeze to death and is a great tribute to the feat itself. The institute is situated inside the zoo which also acts as a conservation breeding center for snow leopards. The zoo also houses wolves, bears, birds, deer, tigers and most importantly the leopards. These beautiful animals are near to extinction due to poachers, but since the zoo started the conservation scheme around 15 have been re-introduced into the wild in 5 years which is an impressive feat. A stroll back to Chowrasta (the main square) and to sit with the hundreds of locals enjoying a chai and the last of the evening sun then back to the guest house for some food and a warm bed! There was little alcohol to be had as the government enforced a dry zone on the town to which the visiting Indian holiday makers were outraged. The next day I was leaving for an adventure even further North and to the capital of Sikkim – Gangtok.