Driving to Darjeeling

Darjeeling Travel Blog

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Monk lighting candles at Tashiding Monastery


New Video - There is a new video of the crazy traffic in foggy Darjeeling down at the bottom of the screen in the photos section.

Well after the excitement of the earthquake last night, we went to bed and woke up refreshed after the first night’s sleep in a real bed in over a week. We had breakfast and met Thupten and the guy who was going to drive us to Darjeeling and headed out from Yuksom.

Since it was raining when we first came into Sikkim and couldn’t visit the Tashiding Monastery from Ravangla, we decided to stop en-route to Darjeeling and see the sights.

Stone Carving and Painting at Tashiding Monastery
There was a festival going on at Tashiding and lots of locals hanging out praying and chanting. The car couldn’t make it up the steep, dirt road to the monastery so the three of us ended up walking while the driver snoozed in the Jeep. After a steep and somewhat arduous hike up, we stopped by the large monastery, filled with people doing Pujas and saw all of the ornately decorated statues and butter carvings. Upstairs were some really nicely painted walls (sorry no pics) that were unfortunately damaged last night in the quake.

Outside of the main temple was a small building where the monk in the picture was lighting thousands of butter lamps. Wandering around the grounds, we looked at a courtyard full of Chorten and Prayer Stones, many of them colorfully painted. I particularly like the painted rocks. Around the back of the prayer stones were a weirdly shaped rock with an impression in it that was filled with a bit of rain water and a few coins.

Stone Carving and Painting at Tashiding Monastery
Thupten told me that it was a special rock that you could rest your knees in and have them healed. I of course obliged and we shall see how my creaky joints work in the future… After walking around the monastery, we sat and had a cup of Salt Tea with the locals before hiking back down to our jeep and sleeping driver.

Now it was time to head off to Darjeeling which involved about a billion turns on windy, rock and dirt roads until we eventually made it down towards Silguri, where it was hot and dusty. We had a really marginal lunch at a grotty place there after passing through Sikkimese immigration. After lunch, Thupten disappeared for a few minutes, then came back with a bag filled with lots of large, Sikkimese beers for his sister’s husband (not the one in Tsokha but another in Darjeeling - it seems he has a large family!) We started up the hill on some of the narrowest, steepest, sharpest hairpin turn roads that we have been on.

Prayer Chorten at Tashiding monastery
As we inched up the mountains, the temperature started dropping back down to a comfortable level and we zigged and zagged through tea plantation after tea plantation. Along the way were tiny little villages where all of the plantation workers lived - we did end up picking up an older man and giving him a ride for a bit, our driver surprisingly declining the man’s offer of money (since we had probably already made his day!). He was actually a really nice, cautious and safe driver. We finally started heading down a hill into Darjeeling, right during the middle of rush hour with unbelievable traffic, noise and pollution. Oh boy! I had read that Darjeeling was a bit crazy but Cindy hadn’t and was somewhat surprised. She took a small video of the insanity of jeeps, buses, cars, people, cows, etc. all fighting for the same tiny piece of asphalt but it is to big to upload from here at these slow speeds - perhaps later….
Giant Prayer Wheel at Tashiding Monastery

Fog and light rain, sometimes only mist, covered Darjeeling as we inched are way through the older, lower part of the town, finally making it to the upper town where our new digs, the Alice Villas were located. We checked in via an uninterested and lackluster Indian man and I could tell that Cindy was less than thrilled. The quirky place ended up growing on us after a couple of days (even if it was a bit grimy) and you can see from the picture it was indeed a two-story “villa” of sorts complete with fireplace.

Having been out of touch so long, we figured we would try checking email and perhaps updating this blog a bit but managed to choose a really, slow Internet café where I got so frustrated after a bit that I just left. The streets, especially the main street leading down into town and most of the restaurants was very, very crowded as this is the time of year that all of the locals are on vacation and trying to get away from the heat of the plains.

Tibetan Woman making yarn at Tibetan Self Help Center in Darjeeling
Even some of the local vacationers that we met at Alice Villas were complaining about the crowds and changing plans to visit somewhere besides crowded Darjeeling.

We walked down to the Dekling Hotel where Karin and Carl are supposed to be staying and the nice enough front desk guy was confused as they weren’t there and he only had reservations under travel agent names, not foreigners. Perhaps we have it wrong but we thought they got in today. Downstairs, is the well known Devekas Restaurant where we had a Tibetan dinner of Momos (Tibetan Dumplings) and noodles with tea. There is no availability at Alice Villas after tomorrow night so we need to figure out either where to go or where to stay in Darjeeling till we figure it out.

Carpet Weaving at the Tibetan Self Help Center
Nepal is still high on the list but we are going to check into Cochin and Kerala as well as finding out if it would be prohibitively expensive to fly to the islands in Southern Thailand since we never made it there last summer.

Well the bed was comfortable and we had a good night’s sleep before ordering room service breakfast and dealing with the Laundry man. We dumped off all of our ripe and dirty trekking stuff to have it done by professionals and headed out for a day of sightseeing in and around Darjeeling with Thupten (who seems eager to get the hell out of crowded Darjeeling and back to the peace and tranquility of Sikkim).

Schoolkids at the Tibetan Self Help Center

Our first stop was at an old Tibetan Self Help Center where about 500-600 displaced Tibetan’s and now their kids and grand-kids live. The place is divided up into different areas like wood carving, carpet making, textiles, painting etc. and everybody seems to do something handy, making them a bit of money and keeping them busy. We wandered around the various areas, watching the mostly older people working, chatting and generally seeming pretty happy. Thupten’s sister lives here and he delivered the beers purchased yesterday. There were tons of “Free Tibet” posters and notices about the Panchan Lama who is the second highest figure next to the Dalai Lama and was abducted along with his family about seven or eight years back.

Red Panda at the Darjeeling Zoo
He is now a teenager and his whereabouts are unknown. Those who care are trying to leverage the upcoming Olympics in Bejing to get him released. All in all, the whole Tibet situation is a sad thing and the Chinese are imperialist assholes for what they have done to the country. The best part of our visit here was seeing the little kids in school. We met the head teacher and she walked us around through the various level class rooms and the little kids were cute and hysterical.

Next stop was the the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which is both a training center for mountaineers as well as museum detailing the ascent of the Mt. Everest by Tenzing Sherpa & Sir Edmund Hillary and numerous other expeditions. There were lots of cool displays, especially if you like the mountains including lots of the original clothes and equipment that the various expeditions have used.

Darjeeling Streets
If you look at the gear today compared to what they used on the first successful ascent, it is truly unbelievable that they made it.

After the institute, it was off to the Himalayan Zoo which actually seemed reasonably nice for a zoo and had some cool displays including snow leopards, several big tigers, some beautiful birds and of course the sly Red Panda that we never got to see on the trek. We were pleasantly surprised that it seemed to be in good condition and the animals weren’t crammed into tiny little pens or cages.

After that, we decided to stop at one of the local tea plantations, the Happy Valley Tea Company and see how tea is processed and packaged. Our new driver, a young kid who seemed cocky and bored, decided that the dirt and rock road down to the tea plantation was not for him, so Thupten, Cindy and I walked about twenty minutes down to the plantation.

The famous Darjeeling Toy Train
Of course it ended up that it had recently changed hands and was “closed for renovations”. So much for a tea tour. We hiked back up the hill and found our teenage driver and clambered off to visit the Ghoom Monastery not far out of Darjeeling. Along the way, we passed the narrow and tiny tracks for the famous Darjeeling Toy Train and after a bit, it actually went steaming by us. It was built in the late 1800’s and, at the time, was quite the marvel of engineering, chugging and puffing its way up the mountain to Darjeeling. We snapped the picture of the engine from the car (luckily as we later found out from Carl who hopped out of their car to photograph the train and ended up covered in ashes and soot). We may rally and try to take the train but it is supposed to be kind of touristy these days and we aren’t exactly railroad buffs….

We got to Ghoom Monastery where it ends up that one of Thupten’s brothers is a senior monk.

Butter Scupltures at Ghoom Monastery
We ended up meeting him and several of his compatriots and had a really tasty vegetarian lunch with him. He apologized for the fact that it was vegetarian, but they are in the middle of a ten or so day Puja and can only eat vegetarian. Interestingly, he said that during the Puja, they can’t eat onions or garlic too for some reason. Luckily, chilies were OK. His brother is a really nice guy and, when we told him we had been to Bhutan, wanted to see pictures. We watched a mini-slideshow on my camera (and of course one of the first pictures that “popped up” was the fertility one from Punakha with the huge, squirting phallus… Wonderful.

He gave us a great tour of the Monastery and, for once, we were actually able to take some pictures inside. A few are included here. The colorful “sculpture” things in the one with the Red Lotus flower are actually special for the Puja and are made from flour and butter and are pretty amazing.

Butter Scuplture Closeup at Ghoom Monastery
The detailed shot of the guy in the blue shows how intricate they are (and is vaguely reminiscent of Mr. Bill of Saturday Night Live fame from the 70’s). The shot in the temple gives you and idea of the opulence and intricacy of the typical monastery temple in Sikkim.

We finished our tourism day by heading back through the fog and traffic to Darjeeling where Thupten helped us find new digs. We stopped by the old part of the infamous Bellvue Hotel and it was bordering on horrific so we decided to take a look at the newer building. The manager was a nice guy and they do have a room for several days, actually a suite of sorts at the end of the building complete with a sitting room and pot belly stove and claw foot bathtub. Cindy said it would work so at least we now have a place to relax while we figure out where to go.

Ghoom Monastery Temple
We ended up having a Tibetan dinner at Kunga’s which is right next door to our Tibetan dinner place from last night. The momo’s were fried and good and we ended up talking with the two European guys (one Czech and one Finish) and a tall, French girl that I met the day before we went up to Goeche La as well as two really young American girls on some kind of college program. The big topic of discussion is now “where to go next”. All things considered, it is not too stressful J

Well we woke up early and decided to try one of the well known local places, Glenarys, for Breakfast. They had croissants which was a nice treat but instant coffee as usual. They do have a tasty looking pastry shop which we will try later as well as reasonably good internet. We emailed Karin and Carl to let them know that we were in town and moving to the posh Bellvue Hotel and then spent some time trying to update the blog and download some photos.

Our "Suite" at the Alice Villas Hotel in Darjeeling
We packed all of our crap up including our freshly laundered (thank god…) clothes, and walked the five minutes to the Bellevue. Our room is actually pretty nice, clean and overlooking the central square from one window (and the smelly horse stables from another) and we think we should be comfy here.

After we checked in, we went to the local travel agent to find out about flight options to Cochin and Kathmandu. We had found out at the internet café that Thailand was probably too far and too pricey. Cochin sort of fell of the list because of distance, Monsoon, etc. and we ended up heavily leaning towards overlanding to the border of Nepal and then flying from Bhadrapur to Kathmandu which is about $130 instead of a 17 hour bus ride from the border.

The Bellvue Hotel complete with potbelly stove
Call us wimps but 17 hour buses are for people half our age….

We went to a local Thali restaurant called “Hasty Tasty” which deserves an award just for the ingenuity of the name. Thalis are Northern and Southern Indian meals comprised of half a dozen or more vegetarian dishes, pickles, rice, pappadums and desert. They are really inexpensive and very tasty and we really liked the place (and were the only foreigners there). We headed back to Glenarys to research Nepalese hotels, etc. and ended up running into Carl and Karin who had arrived last night. The next thing you know, we were downstairs in the bar of Glenarys drinking beers and smoking a giant hookah. As you can see from the picture, Carl and Karin were both enjoying themselves too. We went out for dinner with them at The Park Restaurant which was fun and we talked about the trek, California and everything else under the sun.

Hookahs with Karin and Carl
They are here another day or two and then head down to the Jaldhapara Wildlife Park that we drove through on the way from Bhutan to Sikkim before heading home.

This morning we went to another local place called Keventner’s for breakfast - at least they had some kind of real coffee as the food was just ok. We are still waffling around what to do next but are leaning heavily towards Nepal. Cindy is no longer freezing and perhaps the allure of a beach resort is fading J . We ended up looking at one of the well stocked local bookstores and they do stock the Lonely Planet Nepal book, so I would say chances are high that we decide to continue our Himalayan journey in Kathmandu.

Roasting Corn in Darjeeling
We did email a few places in Kathmandu about accommodations too.

We did manage to talk to Raju, a taxi guy that Thupten recommended and he said he can take us to the border for about $50 which sounds a lot easier than changing share taxis and buses three or four times. He is in Gangtok, Sikkim right now and said he will be back tomorrow and call us - guess we will see. Last night we made plans to have lunch with Karin and Carl, but since we had been drinking beer all afternoon and evening, we weren’t exactly sure (OK, I wasn’t exactly sure…) what the plans were. We walked down to the Devling Hotel to meet them and were a bit early. I walked over to see the clock tower and looked down onto the teeming street below when I saw Carl and Karin and yelled for them.

Old Ladies with Rosaries in Darjeelng
Carl looked around, not sure where his name was beckoning from and eventually saw me on the steps above. We ended up going Barfi shopping with them. Barfi is type of Indian sweet that is really good and they were buying a bunch of different types to take home for a dinner party that we will unfortunately miss as we will still be bouncing around this part of the world.

We ended up having a nice lunch at the Loma Hotel which was packed with local tourists, none of them Caucasian, and had really good food. Afterwards, we went tea tasting at Nathmulls, one of the local distributors of fine, Darjeeling tea. All in all, too subtle for me, at least the incredibly expensive “white tea” at 900 rupees for 100 grams (about $100/pound) but it was fun and we learned a lot about first flush and second flush tea, etc.

Carrying water through Darjeeling

Afterwards, we all decided it was time to head to the Internet for some brief email checks and to see if anyone from the few Nepalese hotels we emailed, responded. The internet was molasses slow, so we opted for a cold beer downstairs before eventually heading back to Hasty Tasty for Thali dinners with Carl and Karin who are off for their safari stuff tomorrow. After dinner, we said goodbye and wished them well on the remainder of their trip. We are sure to see them again in the US, wherever they end up moving to.

After a nutritious breakfast of Momos and tea, we wandered around the streets a bit and finally sucked it up and paid the $30 (ok you losers who think I am just cheap that’s 1200 Rupees!) for the Lonely Planet Nepal book.

Truth or Fiction?
Guess it is definite. Afterwards, we booked the flight and went out to buy some road munchies for the long drive to the border tomorrow (about 4-6 hours, you never know..)

We did hear from Raju and he said no problem, he would take us to the border at Kharkhabita tomorrow at 6:00am so we are all set for Nepal and ready for a new adventure. We stopped by to check email and see about the hotels, but apparently there is a strike at the local ISP today and thus, no email. Hmmm. We wanted to check out one of the local watering holes that we had read about in our travel book called Joey’s which was a nice enough, comfy, English style pub. We were the only customers and ended up having beer and fries for lunch. We were sitting there reading the local, English language newspaper and stumbled across the bizarre article about a man trying to cure himself of anemia in a twisted, but novel way.

Darjeeling View from the Bellvue
The weird thing, for those of you who believe in urban myths, is that the article actually mentions the whole Richard Gere thing…read it for yourself if you dare…

Afterwards, we took a nice walk from the main square where the Bellvue Hotel is out towards the zoo and sat in a little park getting stared at while we ate some pretty crappy confectionary stuff that we bought at Glenarys Restaurant. Every time we ate there or used the internet, the bakery stuff looked good but it was all smoke and mirrors and nothing to write home about.

After a bit of a rest and packing up to head off to Nepal (safely making sure that there are no liquids or gels in our carry on bags as I am sure that Buddha Air in Bhadrapur is well aware of the FAA rules…) we thought we would go upscale and try Glenarys for dinner.

The Toy Train spewing along
It was really good and we had some tasty skewered and grilled chicken and Paneer Butter Tikka Masala for dinner (along with a few “Black Label” beers of course. We are excited to head off tomorrow on our next portion of the trip and looking forward to Nepal.

Neither one of us slept particularly well - not sure if it was the excitement of heading to Kathmandu, the horse stables below us or our hard bed but we both awoke early, well before the 5:00am alarms. Our driver Raju showed up right on time at 6:00am and we hopped in his car and headed off. There was a ton of traffic that he attributed to the locals going to watch sunrise over the mountains from Tiger Hill. This was originally in our itinerary but we neglected to do it after Thupten said that there would be 5-600 cars filled with locals up there and the view was nothing compared to what we saw in Dzongri and Goeche La.

Lady with Parasol in Darjeeling Tea Field

He ended up taking us on a very windy shortcut that bypassed the returning tourist traffic where we managed to catch the Toy Train once more before heading down another crazy, sometimes one-way road. I wasn’t feeling to peachy (and I have an iron stomach) and was worried about Cindy but she said she was OK and eventually, we made it down the mountain and came out into a wide open place with tea growing everywhere. The dried apricots, cashews and Barfi that we were munching did the trick.We paused by the side of the road where we wandered into one of the tea plantations and chatted with the local ladies picking tea (not much of a chat really as they didn’t speak English and our Hindi is less than stellar…)

We ended up making it to Panitanki, the Indian side of the India-Nepal border, in just about three hours, way faster than we planned on.
Tea Pickers in Darjeeling
At this point it looked like we would have a long wait in the Bhadrapur airport in eastern Nepal. Raju waited while we went through Indian immigration. An old man with massive ledger books had us fill out a very detailed form, then he transcribed the exact same information into his ledger in illegible
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Monk lighting candles at Tashiding…
Monk lighting candles at Tashidin…
Stone Carving and Painting at Tash…
Stone Carving and Painting at Tas…
Stone Carving and Painting at Tash…
Stone Carving and Painting at Tas…
Prayer Chorten at Tashiding monast…
Prayer Chorten at Tashiding monas…
Giant Prayer Wheel at Tashiding Mo…
Giant Prayer Wheel at Tashiding M…
Tibetan Woman making yarn at Tibet…
Tibetan Woman making yarn at Tibe…
Carpet Weaving at the Tibetan Self…
Carpet Weaving at the Tibetan Sel…
Schoolkids at the Tibetan Self Hel…
Schoolkids at the Tibetan Self He…
Red Panda at the Darjeeling Zoo
Red Panda at the Darjeeling Zoo
Darjeeling Streets
Darjeeling Streets
The famous Darjeeling Toy Train
The famous Darjeeling Toy Train
Butter Scupltures at Ghoom Monaste…
Butter Scupltures at Ghoom Monast…
Butter Scuplture Closeup at Ghoom …
Butter Scuplture Closeup at Ghoom…
Ghoom Monastery Temple
Ghoom Monastery Temple
Our Suite at the Alice Villas Ho…
Our "Suite" at the Alice Villas H…
The Bellvue Hotel complete with po…
The Bellvue Hotel complete with p…
Hookahs with Karin and Carl
Hookahs with Karin and Carl
Roasting Corn in Darjeeling
Roasting Corn in Darjeeling
Old Ladies with Rosaries in Darjee…
Old Ladies with Rosaries in Darje…
Carrying water through Darjeeling
Carrying water through Darjeeling
Truth or Fiction?
Truth or Fiction?
Darjeeling View from the Bellvue
Darjeeling View from the Bellvue
The Toy Train spewing along
The Toy Train spewing along
Lady with Parasol in Darjeeling Te…
Lady with Parasol in Darjeeling T…
Tea Pickers in Darjeeling
Tea Pickers in Darjeeling
Tea Plantation in Darjeeling
Tea Plantation in Darjeeling
Short video of a foggy traffic ja…
photo by: philippe84