Friday, April 23, 2010

More mountains and tons of tea

April 9th –> April 15th, by Jason

We hopped on the bus early Friday morning for the 3 or so hour ride to Kalimpong and arrived around 11am.

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Actually, we kind of arrived. We never made it to the bus station as we hopped off early as the traffic in central Kamlimpong (at least between 10am – 3pm) is horrendous! Amazing considering it’s a small town nestled high up on a hill but we got off and started our hunt for a place to stay. We didn’t have anything booked in advance as the place we’d called earlier didn’t accept reservations and when we arrived they informed us they were booked. We headed through town to the tourism office where they informed us of the place we had already called (booked) and said they had no other recommendations. We found one other place that got a decent review in Lonely Planet and went over to check it out. The rooms were ok, not great, but it was only 2 nights and it had a large bathroom attached and satellite TV so we booked it 2 nights after Swiss successfully negotiated them down Rs 100, so we checked into the Crown Lodge. One interesting note, the front door closes at 9pm! Early, but it fits well with Swiss’s preference for early bed and we both wanted to relax anyways. First up we headed out for lunch to a local cafe and to plan our next day of sightseeing. We went to this place knowing that the guide book mentioned that the owner would “surely mention his local cottage hotel.” Not thinking anything of it the guy came over to take our order and had barely taken our food orders (without asking if we wanted a drink) and launched into a whole story complete with a digital camera and asking for our cell phone number. He was happy to show us the place and even “cut us a deal” to just 4x what we were currently paying. While his rooms looked nice, we told him we were on a budget and maybe next time we come back to Kalimpong. His was fairly insistent but we managed to shake him and enjoy a decent lunch. We finished our rough plans for Saturday and headed to a local bakery for a sweet treat. The place came highly recommended but I think Swiss’s dental work would beg to differ on the quality as he nearly broke teeth on the rock hard cream roll.

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We headed back to the room to watch a little TV (and Swiss’s may have napped, yes traveling is rough ;-) and I enjoyed the movie “East is East.” Entertaining, check it out. That evening I spend a brief time on the internet before we had a few pork momo’s got a few adult beverages and snacks and made a night of enjoying our room (we had to be in early, why not an old school movie night!?) The big find, of course, was Swiss’s new toothbrush, a brand new Oral B toothbrush for only Rs 16!! (~33 cents US)

4 sites in 1 day

We were up at a decent hour and I was ready for a nice hot shower, but apparently that hot water heater hanging in the bathroom was a decoration, not real. Now this was a first. Swiss went down to the front desk and came back saying we’d get “buckets of hot water.” Sure enough 5 minutes later 2 buckets of scalding hot water appeared at our door. This was a new one for me, and while not great it did the job and I was clean at least. There are always new experiences on this trip! :)


A quick breakfast and we were off to our first site, Thongsa Gompa (a Bhutanese monastery) It is the oldest in the area, originally built in 1692 and rebuilt in the 19th century after the Gorkhas rampaged through the area. The site is beautiful, with the main building surrounded by 219 prayer wheels and inside some beautiful frescoes (under renovation at the time we visited)

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Our next stop was the Haat Bazaar, supposedly hopping on Saturdays. But first, take a look at this picture and consider the wording of the warning on the back of the truck, given that it’s carrying kerosene…


Oh well, maybe the “in” prefix means something else in India. Off to the bazaar, as with many places across Asia a dizzying array fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish, custom tailored clothing, toys and general household supplies:

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A quick stop in town for lunch and it was down to Nurseryman’s Haven for a look what we hoped would be some nice orchids in bloom. It’s a nice location and while I’m not sure the orchids were in bloom (are these orchids, I’m horrible with flowers!!) the flowers were pretty and the random animals roaming around were entertaining!

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Our final stop for the day was a walk down (so we thought, actually up) to St Teresa’s church. It was built in the early 20th century by Swiss Jesuits and in the style of a Bhutanese Gompa to increase the chances that locals may accept it. While there we happened upon a group of young students who were happy to play with Swiss’s digital camera, enjoy an assortment of their artwork (along with some of our own shots)

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On the walk back into town we managed to catch the local commute out at the end of the day…something I don’t imagine being added to the commute options at Genentech anytime soon…

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Saturday night we had a nice dinner and then headed back to our hotel before the doors closed early and enjoyed some HBO before bed (anyone seen Fracture?! it wasn’t too bad, at least entertaining)

Crammed into our share jeep

Sunday morning and after a quick hot water bucket shower (hopefully the last of the trip) we headed out to the local share jeep stand. Luckily it’s fairly easy, you buy tickets at a set price (Rs 80 to Darjeeling) and off you go. The ride was a little tight (OK, we were crammed in there) but at least it was only a 2 hour ride, not too bad!

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The views coming into Darjeeling are just amazing and a nice touch on the ride into town. We hopped out of our jeep and called Hotel Tranquility, a recommendation from a Dutch couple we met back in Siliguri a few days earlier. After a few phone calls to the very nice owner and a slightly strenuous hike up hill (due to our luggage) we made it there.

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We checked in, dropped off some laundry (which I later determined to be a mistake) and headed back down into town for lunch. A quick bite to eat at the Frank Ross Cafe followed by some internet time at Glenary’s Bakery (hey, I’ve gotta keep those Flickr albums up to date) along with some fine sweets and tea. During this time we noticed that the power was out, not uncommon in India, but something to make note of. We headed down to the train station to see the situation for getting tickets for the steam toy train down to Kurseong but the offices were closed as of 2pm, so we were out of luck.


A stroll through the local bazaar and the local big box store did not turn up any thinning shears for Swiss (but the hunt is still on!) and we headed back to the room to do a little planning for the next 2 days.

A dark walk back down into town (yes, the power had gone out again!) and we had dinner at Glenary’s Restaurant. Set in a nice dining room it was more of an upscale affair. With Swiss still not up to pare and me also not doing so well, a western food dinner was in order. Afterwards we headed downstairs to the bakery for some sweets and tea, a nice meal overall!


A real Himalayan Treat while barely breaking a sweat

After a quick breakfast we headed north out of town on Monday morning

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in search of the Himalayan Zoological Park and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, conveniently located just next to each other. First up was half of the zoo:

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Next up was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, started by Tenzing Norgay, who along with Edmund Hillary, were the first humans to summit Mt Everest. Pictures are not allowed inside the museum but it’s definitely worth a visit if ever in Darjeeling!

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And finally the second half of the zoo:

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After a nice time at those two sites we walked back into town and through the Chowrasta Bazaar and stopped for a quick lunch. It was back down to the big box bazaar for some mango juice (my new favorite indian beverage) and other random goodies and back to the room to relax. We had dinner at the local Tibetan place, Kunga Restaurant, which was really good and enjoyed a nice conversation with two French ladies dining just next to us. Back to the room where the power cut out again and it was time for bed.

Tea Time!

Darjeeling is, of course, known for it’s tea. In fact, the name “Darjeeling Tea” is now a protected local name by the WTO, like Champagne, etc. First up before our tour of a tea estate was a breakfast of pastries and tea at Glenary’s along with some wifi (still trying to catch up on those Flickr pictures!) Afterwards we headed down to the train station (our plan was to leave the next morning) but we learned that the 2nd class tickets for the train we wanted were only sold the day of (one hour prior to departure at 10.15am) and the 1st class tickets were sold out on both morning trains. So up early to the train station the next morning it would be! A walk up the road, past a beef market (we had both come to accept it but at least I still slightly perplexed to see beef markets in India)


and off we walked down to the tea estate. With our morning errands and late breakfast we arrived a little after noon and a very nice lady told us that the factory workers were on lunch break and that we could come in and have tea with her. She was a sweet lady that offered us an introduction to tea and of course we could have a cup of her finest tea (for only Rs 50, not bad) for which she also showed us how to brew it properly. It’s only about 5-10 seconds of steeping time for the finest 1st flush black tea leaves grown there, so we knew her as the 5 second tea lady!

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She also has loose tea available for sale. She says that the workers at the tea estate (an all organic estate and the exclusive producer of teas for Harrod’s Department Store in London) get a certain amount of tea as part of the job, in addition to wages, which are low. She pools their tea and sells to tourists directly, distributing the money back to the workers. She keeps the money from the cups of tea she sells and she gives the money from sales of loose tea back to the workers. The tea was certainly fresh (last weeks pick) and I have no reason to doubt here, but you can get somewhat cynical after traveling this long. I hope her story is true and that money goes back to the right place (I mean, how else would she come across the stock of tea she had!) Afterwards we took a tour of the tea factory (no cameras allowed) and learned a lot about different pickings and also the dehumidification, pressing, fermentation (black tea only) and drying that goes into making tea. It was really cool!

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From there we headed back into town for lunch at the same Tibetan restaurant from the night before (it was that good!) and from there Swiss got a haircut and I bought some tea to send home (no Mom, haven’t sent it yet but it's coming, some for the family and some to keep for me!) I stopped into a local internet cafe to finish uploading pictures (a near obsession, I know!) Just as I had finished I met 2 American guys traveling through India to happened to have met Lindsay from our train ride to Goa during their tour around. The power (of course) went out [the hum of generators is just part of the landscape in Darjeeling] and so I walked up the hill and chatted with my new American friends. Swiss was doing better but my stomach still wasn’t 100% so we set out in search of a highly regarded pizza place in town. A power blip later we enjoyed a delicious pizza, one of the best of this entire trip!



Some people just don’t know how to queue

We were a little anxious to get out of Darjeeling, not because we didn’t enjoy it, but we really wanted to ride the toy train and didn’t want to have the entire journey down to the airport (our flight the next day, on Thursday, and about 2.5 hours away) all in one day. So Wednesday morning we were up early and in line around 7.30am for tickets.


The window opened around 8.15am (who can be bothered to open the ticket counter on time) And while the line looks orderly above, it’s a constant battle to keep your place in line (a certain sub group of Indian culture does not believe in standing in line, and especially when you’re foreign they love to just walk in front of you, although I think they do this to their own fellow countrymen also…so you’re occasionally reminding people to get in line behind you.)

A brief side note: It had been almost 10 days up north and still hadn’t had a really clear morning yet. Go figure, our final morning was relatively clear. Still some clouds up in the distance and in the way of Khangchendzonga (the highest point in India and 3rd highest in the world) but we got a few decent shots:

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The woman working the ticket counter finally agreed to sell tickets a little before 9am and we bought two tickets on the 10.15am steam powered toy train to Kurseong, about a 3 hour journey (of only 31 km, haha!) But also only Rs 7 (~15 US cents!) We boarded the train and were finally on our way. Enjoy the selection of photos:

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We arrived in Kurseong and let’s be honest, there isn’t much to the town. Siliguri (about an hour and a half away) isn’t nice either but at least Kurseong is a little cooler so we stayed up here for the night. After an hour long hunt for a room (and some bargaining because they were a little delusional on the price) and lunch a random stroll around town and a phone call to Delhi to straighten out our plans there, a somewhat disappointing dinner (after the power cut out at the internet cafe! Some things never change ;-) and it was the end of another Wednesday.

Our final trip out of the far Northeast!

With not a whole lot drawing us into Kurseong we were ready to get up and leave. Finding decent food in this town is a bit of struggle and finding a breakfast place is an even harder struggle. We finally found a hotel that had “breakfast” we ordered toast with butter and jam and tea (they had no menu of course) and she brought us untoasted bread with butter and jam. Not quite toast, and our cue to leave :) Our flight wasn’t until 4pm, but what else did we have to do?! Again they have a share jeep consortium where you buy a fixed price ticket and off you go. We were really crammed into this one!

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One flat tire …


… and about an hour and forty minutes later we were back in Siliguri. The hunt was on for a rickshaw to the airport. Now let me tell you, they got smart here. The rickshaw drivers here got together and put up a sign with “official” prices, which happened to be about 20% higher than the prices you’d pay for similar distances anywhere else in India (Goa excluded) of course we asked around to a few drivers and used the “walk away” technique to get them to come down to something reasonable and off we were on a quick 18km journey to the Bagdogra Airport. We waited several hours for our flight, with lunch in there, and also in the slowest security line I’ve ever experienced. By the time we were ready to board the skies had turned overcast and were quickly getting darker. The winds were going at quite a clip and I know I was worried this thing wouldn’t be able to take off. Of course the pilot didn’t seem to agree with my assessment of the situation (he has more training though, I trust him) and off we were (it was a bit of a rocky start to our flight) on our SpiceJet flight to Delhi!