Darjeeling, India – 15th to 20th January
It took us two days to get from Jaigon to Darjeeling. Hannah had discovered that there was a toy train running from Siliguri to Darjeeling on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, so naturally that was the way we were going to go! The DHR, built between 1879 and 1881, is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Rising from just 100m at New Jalpaiguri to over 2,200m, it is arguably one of the most spectacular toy trains in the world. It is also by far the slowest and least reliable way to get from Siliguri to Darjeeling!
The points on the DHR are still manned, and changed manually as each train passes
Pulling in eight hours later (more than two hours late), after zig-zagging and looping through lush greenery overlooking stunning mist-filled valleys, we were met with the cool gentle bustle of Darjeeling in low season. It is definitely the time to visit! We’d been told time and time again by Kolkatans not to go to Darjeeling. Too noisy, too crowded, not nice at all. It felt like we’d arrived in a completely different place to what we’d been described.
A short taxi ride from the station later we arrived at Villa Everest, our home for the week. We were paying £24 a night for a large garret room, with a stunning view of Mount Kanchenjunga; the third highest mountain in the world.
Room with a view
Exploring Darjeeling on foot we felt like we’d discovered an antidote to the noise and bustle of Kolkata. The streets were clean and quiet; the people respectful and polite. Perhaps some of the prejudice from Kolkata stems from the fact that, though currently in West Bengal, Darjeeling is desperate to break away and be granted its own state, Gorkhaland. While we were still only halfway through our trip, we found out that a general strike had been called early in June 2017, which only broke at the end of September.
Nearly four months later, we could still feel the effects of the strike. Gorkhaland slogans were graffitied across walls; Darjeeling was unusually quiet as tourists were still staying away; and a whole tea harvest had been lost – a huge economic hit, given that nearly half the people in the Darjeeling district are connected to the tea trade.
The Gorkhas are a proud and independent people
After a day discovering the town we’d decided it was time to make a break for the border to bag the final country of our trip: Nepal. Trekking in Nepal would be a dream come true. We’d signed up to a one day trek with Adventures Unlimited, who operate out of Darjeeling. Given our timescale (and minor mobility issues!), for us this meant a 14 mile hill walk along the border, rising up to over 3000m, and definitely crossing into Nepal!
We woke early to beautiful blue skies, and hopped into the back of one of the ubiquitous Jeep-like taxis for the drive to the border. After a couple of hours bumping along the tiny winding roads we pulled up to our drop off point, and the most amazing simple dhaal breakfast!
Hannah shivers by our jeep as we stop for tea and breakfast
Stepping out into the cool morning air we were on our way to Nepal. The trek took us up through bamboo forest up to a viewing point for a breathtaking glimpse of Kanchenjunga. We had truly lucked out. As we trekked on to the border, the clouds rolled in, totally obscuring the mountain. Our early start had served us well.
Kanchenjunga, before the clouds
We crossed the border into Nepal near Tumling, in the Singalila National Park, where we stopped for lunch. Excluding the UK, this was the 17th country we’d visited on the Road to Happiness expedition! Even though it didn’t really count (we only trekked in Nepal for about five miles), it was still a lovely little bonus for us personally.
We were here!
Passing a lonely soldier in a tiny booth on a hillside a couple of hours later, stopping for the obligatory passport check, we were back in India. And after a short tea stop, we began the knee-straining descent to Bhanjang to meet our Jeep.
The hike had been beautiful, despite, and in-part because of the cloud. We’d passed by bamboo groves; spotted red panda droppings; seen Kanchenjunga; crossed moorland that could have been in Yorkshire; rambled through spooky woodland; and followed the route of the most staggeringly difficult ultra-marathon in the world. And we could honestly say that we’d been trekking in Nepal.
We were treated to starkly different landscapes and ethereal cloudscapes
Recuperating the next day, we took afternoon tea at The Elgin Hotel, a lasting bastion of Darjeeling’s colonial past. Then, on our last day in Darjeeling, we strolled along the Hill Cart Road up to the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (the zoo), glimpsing big cats of the Himalaya, before checking out the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute; set up by Sherpa Tenzing Norgay after his successful summit of Everest with Edmund Hillary.
Darjeeling: Queen of the Hills
Our souvenir teas bought, it was finally time to begin the two day journey back to Kolkata, in time to make our flight back to the UK on the 22nd January.
Racing postcards back to the UK
We left the UK on the 19th March 2017. Ten months, seventeen countries, eighteen thousand miles, fifteen nights in a bed on the move, countless trains, ferries, boats, coaches, buses, taxis, cars, scooters, tuk tuks, bikes, three horses, one plane, and one-thousand-six-hundred more miles on foot later, it was time to head home.
Ready to begin our next adventure.
Hannah and Phil x
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