23.03.2015 - 06.04.2015 37 °C
We love mountains and amongst other things that is one of the reasons why we are determined to move back to the South Island so we were very eager to be seated on the left hand side of the plane in order to view the spectacular Himalayas.
Fortunately, the clouds had cleared and we were spoilt with breathtaking views of the mountains for much of our flight into the foothills but as with most things in India our luck was to run out. The plane descended through thick clouds of murk to the dusty, hot plains below and our views disappeared. Not to be disheartened, we believed that once we climbed higher we’d see Everest, Lhotse and Khangchendzonga in all their glory.
We sorted out our taxi that would take us to Kurseong and off we went and we should note with a little bit of apprehension due to the descriptions of the roads in various guide books. Our driver wove his way through the usual obstacles and we started to climb the foothills. They may be foothills in the Himalayas but these ‘hills’ resembled mountains. They literally went straight up and the roads twisted and turned as if it were more of an intestinal highway past tea plantations and small villages clinging precariously to the ridges. On more than one occasion I gasped and shut my eyes as the car swung around tight corners and seemed to almost drop off the side of the hills much to the amusement of our driver.
After about an hour of tortuous climbing we arrived at Kurseong sitting at 1460 metres. There are only two accommodations for tourists here so we decided to go with the atmospheric and stayed at Cochrane Place. It was certainly quite quirky and stuffed full with antique furniture, climbing paraphernalia and plenty of types of tea. Our room faced out over the hillside to views of Khangchendzonga the third highest peak in the world at 8598 metres but wouldn’t you know it – the murk was up here too.
Kurseong is very quiet and we thoroughly enjoyed walking down to Makaibari Tea Estate passing fields of green tea bushes as we went. We were given a very interesting and thorough tour of the tea business and we were both surprised by the amount of stages involved in processing. It seemed quite a lot more technical than coffee processing.
Our guide Mr Om informed us that the first ‘cleansing rains’ hadn’t come yet hence the thick cloud cover and it had meant a late tea harvest. Personally, I wasn’t worried about the late tea harvest. I was more worried about coming all this way and not getting up close and personal with the roof of the world.
Luckily Cochrane Place had a great tea menu so we worked our way through it. My favourite had to be Kashmir Ki Kali (choice roasted tea, rose petals, saffron, spices and almond) and Scott’s was Orange Blossom Tea (a light Darjeeling tea blended with orange blossom and marmalade).
Our next destination was Darjeeling via the toy train railway that is supposed to be the highest railway line in the world. Chugging along at speeds of 10km an hour (I’m not joking), we sat back and enjoyed the interesting views of the villages spread out along the ridgelines but once again the murky clouds hovered. At one point in the journey we reached 2700metres (Aoraki Mt Cook sits at just over 3000 metres).
Darjeeling used to be the epicenter of the Himalayan climbing community. Many of the expeditions originated here and it was great to visit the dilapidated Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, pay our respects at the grave of Tenzing Norgay and visit Windermere Hotel the base where very famous climbers planned their trips. Needless to say, there are several tea shops selling literally hundreds and hundreds of tea leaves from well over $200 US dollars for 100 grams down to a couple of dollars per 100 grams. We really wanted to buy teaware but our packs were already bulging. Overall though, Darjeeling is a town filled with diesel fumes and at a high altitude it makes for a bad combination. I woke in the middle of the night with a really sore chest that only abated once we left.
After a couple of days, we travelled to Kalimpong within reach of Bhutan and on the trade route to Tibet. This time our driver was very cautious and we spent most of the time winding our way through gorgeous mountain forests, which once belonged to the Kingdom of Bhutan until just over a hundred years ago. Kalimpong is a lovely area covered with forests and flowers but we spent most of our three days tucked up in our hotel some distance from the city centre. We did manage a trip to Durpin Gompa monastery, though.
We both wanted to continue north to Gangtok but the relentless cloud cover and lack of rain to cleanse the skies forced us to decide to head back down to the sweltering plains. Hiring taxis to drive all over the place just to see more of the same didn’t really appeal if the weather wasn’t going to play ball so we spent two and a half days down the mountain in noisy Siliguri. There is a silver lining to everything though and it meant catching up on washing, reading copiously and simply relaxing in preparation for our final week in India.
Not so long ago, Kolkata was synonymous with poverty and absolute squalor but the Kolkata we have seen is nothing of the sort. The city is the intellectual and cultural hub of India and I’d like to add a city with lovely lush, clean parks and beautiful colonial era buildings that often sit between large ponds and lakes. Even the city’s slums seem to be relatively clean and stink free.
We started our trip here with the plan to visit the Sundarbans (one of the largest mangrove forests in the world and the best place to spot a tiger in the wild). The problem was that the tour we booked was ‘rustic’ to say the least and even though we knew it was going to be hot, we had no idea how hot. Temperatures have been pushing 40 + with 80 to 90 percent humidity and literally the second you step outside an air conditioned environment, every pore in your body drips and drips until you look like a rapidly melting ice cream. The thought of no air conditioning, no hot water, no electricity and long trips around a swamp for two days and two nights in a high malarial zone with no anti-malarials started to sound extraordinarily unappealing. So, we canned our trip and booked into a heavily discounted room at the Oberoi instead (only morons travel in India in April hence the huge discounts everywhere).
We were in the mood to splurge and for the first time in our trip, we booked an AC car for a ride around the city. Our first stop was Mother Teresa’s house and shrine that was super busy with Easter pilgrims. Then we headed off to the Victoria Monument to gaze at more marble and more statues. All the way around the city we constantly made remarks about how lovely the city is and then we went to a mall. Usually we loathe malls but we knew it had AC and we felt like doing something ‘normal’ such as browsing a bookshop.
Two haircuts later, two non-fiction books later and after the enjoyment of going up and down escalators had waned, we relaxed by the pool and lapped up a little bit of luxury.
With just two days to go, we are feeling so appreciative of our amazing three month journey through India. It has been confronting, challenging and frustrating at times but well worth the effort of travelling independently. We’ve loved a lot about India. It has an incredible diversity of historic, cultural and religious sights as well as beautiful beaches and towering mountains. Not a place to miss.
Our next stop is the U.K and we hope the only challenge will be keeping to our budget!