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Darjeeling; Leaving Kolkata

January 26, 2011

So I mentioned earlier that Wes Anderson’s gem The Darjeeling Limited was one of the reasons we were enticed by the town of Darjeeling. As it turns out, the three brothers in the film never went to Darjeeling, though we would later spend some time in Rajasthan, where a good portion of their adventure took place. (The trains, in our experience, also paled in comparison to their cozy-compartment-with-the-option-to-take-leave-and-enjoy-the-dining-car, but more on that later.)

Darjeeling was quaint, and much more like Nepal than so much of India we’d discover later on. It’s definitely worth a visit, but in retrospect it was a bit silly for us to go. We ended up spending close to 30 hours traveling for about the same amount of time in the town, and generally felt a little rushed the whole time. It was historically a hill station, which meant our 12 hour bus ride to Siliguri was followed by a 3 hour jeep ride up into the Himalayas. Jeep admission was 100 rupee each, and they didn’t leave until there were at least 9 passengers. Ours ended up having 11 (plus the driver).

The first couple hours were spent trying to find affordable accommodations (after unsuccessfully pursuing the place our travel agent had recommended, assuring us it was a cinch to come by), and settled for a place alllll the way at the top of the hill, which did have the benefit of great views. We enjoyed spending the afternoon getting lost in the bustling vertical zigzag of streets and shops, from which I bought some of the famed Darjeeling tea and a sweater (it was a bit chilly).

One of the main things our travel agent in Kolkata had recommended was to go to a place called Tiger Hill from which we would get an amazing sunrise view. Unfortunately we slept too long to attempt the trip, so luckily our bedroom window also afforded a decent view. Then we grabbed some breakfast and Wayne confessed that he didn’t think his “sizzler” (an option on almost every tourist menu in Nepal and India– vegetables or meat sauteed in a brown gravy and served with rice and/or fries, usually) from the night before was sitting too well with him. We’d been warned of the high potential for food poisoning in India, and were a bit bummed at the possibility that it might be setting in so soon, but there wasn’t really much we could do.

Another thing we’d been encouraged to do in Darjeeling was check out the zoo. Now, after hearing Wayne’s sad tales of the Beijing Zoo, I’d more or less sworn off Asian menageries. However the couple assured us it was actually well maintained and the animals seemed happier than most, and threw in the deal-sealer that there was an Everest expedition museum at the heart of the zoo. (Darjeeling was historically the starting point for many Himalayan treks.) So we went, and I have to say the animals were much livelier than those in Beijing. I would say a good part of this is that it’s largely comprised of native Himalayan fauna, so they’re in a somewhat natural environment. But it’s worth a visit, as is the Everest museum.

you’re allowed feeding them as long as it’s just leaves, right?

monument to tenzing norgay, the sherpa (nepal and india both claim him as their own) who accompanied ‘his companion and friend, sir edmund hillary’ to the summit for the first time in 1953.

Last on our list of “Things to Hurry Up and Do While We’re In Darjeeling” was the War Memorial. We’d seen it on a postcard and it seemed worthwhile, and the UNESCO World Heritage honored Toy Train makes a loop around it (though it didn’t come by while we were there). Alas, the lookaround didn’t take too much time, and the jeep that had dropped us off was long gone. We were somewhat stranded, and so took off walking down the road until we came to a restaurant. By this time Wayne wasn’t feeling too hot at all.

Upon leaving the restaurant we were able to flag down an already very crowded jeep, though of course that never stopped a driver from picking up a paying customer before. Scrambled to make it back to our hotel to grab our things and buy some blankets (we were in normal Sleeper class on the train, and I remembered they didn’t provide bedding) before getting into the return jeep to Siliguri. The mountainous journey obviously did wonders for Wayne’s already-upset stomach, and by the end of it I wasn’t feeling great myself.

As I said, our trains weren’t exactly on Darjeeling Limited standards, nor were they particularly terrible. We were glad to have bought the blankets (and, in a last minute stroke of genius, toilet paper) and disappointed to find there was no dining car (all food had to be brought on or bought at meal times by employees who wandered the aisles taking orders). That being said, neither of us had much of an appetite for the duration of the ride, as we were both decidedly ill. No, the ride wasn’t terrible, but after 11 hours I was ready to get off in Kolkata.

Life was rough upon our return though; we were being hustled in the train station and a man was nice enough to intervene and explain how we could take a 2 rupee bus back to Sudder Street. On the way to the bus stop there was cause for an emergency bathroom stop (first experience with public restrooms on the street, which doubled as bath-houses for those in need. I’ve gotta say, not nearly as bad as it could have been); the bus didn’t go where we needed to; the subsequent taxi tried to rip us off royally AND didn’t take us where we asked; and I felt like vomiting everywhere the whole time (though, admittedly, it wasn’t generally vomiting with which I was afflicted). It was 7 in the morning and we spent the rest of the day in bed. In an even smaller, dingier room than before, that we’d only taken for purpose of luggage storage while we went to Darjeeling. Got up thrice to attempt to force down toast at the Blue Sky Cafe, which had no bathroom and thus presented a problem. Laura arrived that evening.

The next day we were feeling better and didn’t want our time in Kolkata to be a complete waste, so we tried to find the Park Street Cemetery, which had been recommended by some fellow trekkers in Dingboche. We found Park Street, and wandered down it for about an hour, but got no help from the locals in the form of directions (“Excuse me, where is Park Street Cemetery?” “Yes, Park Street.”), so we threw up our hands and watched movies on Laura’s computer.

Went out that evening for dinner and some drinks, and commiserated for a bit with some of the youths that liked to loiter in the alleyways:

Then we spent the next morning scrambling for last minute supplies for our impending 36 hour train ride from Kolkata to Kodaikanal¬†(read: 6 tomato-and-cheese sandwiches from Blue Sky Cafe, the only thing that was even moderately appealing to me in the way of food; and Donnie Brasco). Oh, and Wayne got a haircut (photo taken pre-haircut). It’s a shame that as a result of “the sickness” (okay, and maybe the grime and chaos) I don’t have the best memories of Kolkata, but I’m sure it’s really a lovely place…


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