The journey from Delhi to NJP, the railhead for Darjeeling, used to take 27 hours, leaving at 8am and arriving at 11am the next day. Now, through improvements in the trains and the timetabling that same trip is only 21 hours, arriving at the same time but not leaving Delhi until 2pm, a chance for a nice lie in, breakfast and a leisurely trip to the station. With some strange feelings in my gut still and a midday temperature in the mid 40s I didn't venture far from the fan at the hostel until it was time to head to the chaos that is New Delhi station. The other change is that the train is now entirely air-con and full service except for the alcohol which is forbidden, as is smoking!
Being a posher train there were only 50% more people than seats as we sat in the station rather than the usual 100%. Most of the extra 50% said their goodbyes and left just before we departed bang on time, impressed. They take their service seriously in these parts so before the end carriages had left the station the soup and bread-sticks was coming round, the food-guys were having to fight for corridor space with the bedding people who were simultaneously going around giving out blankets, sheets and pillows. I'd decided to retire to my upper bunk to take my tiffin in my own space but very soon had to come back down for an emergency trip to the toilets. Soup dregs collected, the main course came round, chicken curry, rice, dhal, chapatties and the accompliments. Another toilet preceded the ice-cream desert. After my third encounter with a train toilet and 20 hours still to go I decided that it was time to reach for the immodium. This packet of Immodium is well travelled being an unused veteran of South America, China, Nepal and most recently the African campaign. Do Immodium go off?
I took the opportunity of the lull in the service to lie down and read my book and obviously full asleep as the next thing I knew someone was tapping my leg and telling me it was tea time offering up a tray with a sandwich, biscuits, sweets and a carton of mango juice. I looked at my watch - 16:41; we'd been going for just over two and a half hours and were on the second meal! Immodium wasn't having much effect as I had to pay another visit before I could partake in the new culinary delights of Indian Railways, sneaking a cigarette in the "Western Toilet"; the smoking fine was Rs200 which I reckoned I could afford if I got caught. A flask of hot water and a couple of teabags rounded off meal number two.
I think I fell asleep again before another toilet/smoke break, by now the Western Toilet had a nice pile of puke nestled in the corner. The Tibetan family sharing my area of the train had a disabled kid with them and I think he (later turned out to be a she) wasn't fully potty trained. Every now and again a very distinctive smell would waft up from the bunk below but having my own stomach problems I had a paranoia each time that maybe I'd had an accident, only fully confident that I hadn't when one of the parents rushed her off to the toilets and brought her back in new trousers.
The tight gits made us wait nearly 3 hours before feeding us again, I nearly starved to death, actually I refused this second full thali. The drugs were starting to work and now I felt like that advert for constipation where the woman keeps filling her handbag full of junk. I returned from the lavvies to find that they had left my ice-cream on my bunk which was nice as I did quite fancy that. After the tea were were left unmolested overnight while I got a few uncomfortable hours sleep. The air-con train bunks are smaller than the standard train bunks so fitting myself and my pack up there was a squeeze. I used to rave about Indian trains, now I realise how inferior they are to the Chinese ones.
I didn't quite see the reason why we had to be woken up at 5:30 am for breakfast, there weren't any major stations imminent but the cup of tea was welcome as I was running low on water. I thought we would be force-fed elevenses before getting to NJP but that was it, no more food after breakfast.
There appears to be a pecking order for hassle in NJP, first the cycle rickshaw wallahs get to try to persuade you to take them to Siligiri bus station for the 'bus to Darjeeling'. If you pass this test you get the taxi drivers - 1200 rupees direct, then finally you are allowed to approach the shared taxis and take your Rs120 seat for the trip uphill.
Darjeeling gets progressively bigger and busier every time I come here but it's still one of the most beautiful areas I know. With it's south sloping hills rising up to over 2000m and a good dose of sun and rain it's no wonder it's so famous for it's tea. I do wonder though, if it had once been a French colony would it now be one of the premiere areas of wine production in the world, "Barron Gris" perhaps.
This is one place where I can't complain about the rain, I know what to expect and you get what you pay for and take your rain coat everywhere. I took a trip to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Museum via the zoo yesterday and took a long walk around the valley road today. Tomorrow I intend to start my third Sandakphu trek, a 3 to 6 day trek to 3600m and a great warm up if I decide to do any bigger treks soon.
Ok, so I'm not going trekking today. I got up at 5:30 after spending most of last evening packing and repacking trying to decide whether to take a full day pack or an empty main pack. I decided on the empty main pack but of course once you have the bigger pack at your disposal you can't help but put a few extra things in for luck. I was greated by bright sunshine and that precious commodity in Darjeeling a clear view of Kanchenkunga, a great omen I thought. I gave the small pack with all my extra junk to the owner of the hotel to store and then headed down to the main taxi rank to get a share taxi to the trailhead at Manibanjang, another cool name. As soon as I got down to the main bazaar area I knew that something was up, there is a small taxi rank there and no-one offered me a jeep to Siligiri or Gangtok, everyone was standing around with flags and banners and the taxis were all filling up with protesters. When I got to the main taxi stand it was bereft of taxis but again lots of people with banners piling into 'official' jeeps, trucks and buses. I hung around for a while in the area I'd taken the taxi from last time I left, maybe I was too early. When I asked someone I was told that there were no taxis today, they were on strike and everyone was going to Siligiri for a big meeting.
As long as I can remember there have been protests in this area for Gorkhaland, an independent state from West Bengal but it looks like the campaign is really gathering force now. Even the hotel owner an ex Ghurka who used to complain about the protests now supports them, they say there will be 400,000 people protesting in Siligiri today, I'm just pleased I didn't arrive there by train this morning. So now I have at least one, maybe a few more days in Darjeeling before I can go trekking, at least the weather is beautiful and great for some local walking.
Yesterday must have been one of the most wonderful in recent darjeeling history. The streets were empty, there was no incessant horn tonking or jumping out of the way of maniac drivers and the weather was glorious. It couldn't have rained more than half a dozen times and each of those, brief light showers as the odd errant cloud meandered up the hill. I headed east out of town trying to find as flat a walk as possible which isn't easy when you start from the top of a hill. I still ended up going down the valley crossing the railway line a few km out of town. For a variation I decided to get back to the centre by folowing the train tracks, this proved to give an even flatter walk as the line zigzags slowly up to Darjeeling. With the lack of school and the lack of anything open and the lack of traffic on the road there were many cricket games going on all the way up the road and even a couple of football gomes taking place.
People make all kinds of stupid theories why England never win anything at anything, too many foreigners playing in the premier league and the like when the simple answer is that kids don't play out anymore in the UK and Europe. From the coast of Morocco all the way to the coast of Ghana, through desert and jungle I saw kids playing football non-stop everywhere which is why an African country will soon win the World Cup. In India and the subcontinent kids play cricket everywhere. What the UK needs is more stikes and more power cuts. I bet if some forwardly backward thinking council decided to switch the power off between 4pm and 7pm every night the streets would be full of kids playing real games again.
Rant over, where was I? Oh yes, Back in Darjeeling the late afternoon brought an end to the fine weather and the mist rolled in before the sunset colours could emerge. I decided to get an early night in case I decided to do the trek this morning but I got up at 5am didn't like the look of it and went back to bed. Today was a complete contrast to yesterday, the weather was a beast, howling wind, horizontal rain and Thor giving the timpani hell with his axe. At one point the raindrop resembled small glass-free goldfish bowls, there wasn't many of them but the combined volume nearly flooded the town. Then in reverse the evening cleared and the views at sunset were clear and bright. Tomorrow I'm definitely going trekking.