Song of the day: Octopus’s Garden by The Beatles
We had a last supper (or breakfast) at the Blue Sky cafe – Aloo paratha and Aloo dum, and tasty it was too. Aloo paratha is a lightly fried bread stuffed with potato, and the aloo dum is a mild tomato and onion based curry which goes down a treat with the aloo paratha. When I used to have curry for breakfast at uni it was a shameful thing which only occurred after I’d got drunk and left part of my takeaway in the fridge. Here it’s perfectly acceptable to eat curry at any hour. Look out Hollie when I get back – I’ll be reaching for the madras whilst you’re still chomping on your lucky charms!
The hotel taxi was arranged for us and we took a cab out of the city to the airport. Though another day would probably have been too much, we both had a great time in Kolkata and leave with with a very high opinion of it’s people and culture. We checked in for a flight to Bagdogra – a city in the Himalayan lowlands and gateway to Darjeeling. Before we left Kolkata decided to test our mettle one last time. As we got off the shuttle bus and stepped out onto the airport tarmac, a double whammy of heat hit us from above and below. The concrete acted as a mirror for the sun and no part of our bodies were sheltered from the rays. The situation was compounded by the fact that we were flying with Spicejet (a kind of Indian Ryanair) and we were made to wait twenty minutes before getting on the plane. As we stood there cooking from above and below, Luke decided to point out that they were changing a wheel on the front landing gear of the plane. We watched as a bloke wheeled the old one off like a child with a hoopla, and another replaced it with an identical looking wheel. For the benefit of nervous passengers I believe it should be standard procedure for all wheels, wings and propellers to be replaced out of sight of the paying customer. The flight was twenty minutes late, and we were in the air for nearly half an hour longer than we should have been, flying round and round in a circle until the runway was clear. During this slow descent we made friends with Aditya Chirimar – the owner of a tea plantation near Darjeeling. He didn’t look old enough to own a pushbike let alone a tea plantation, and it made me question my own career – why don’t I own a tea plantation by now? Luke and I talked with him for quite some time about premier league football, of which he seemed to know every statistic off by heart. He’d heard of Derby County and even named some players, which pleased us. Then he reminded us of the fact that Derby still hold the record as the worst team in Premier League history – which didn’t. As we touched down he gave us his card and offered to show us round his tea plantation, which seemed like an offer too good to refuse at first, but we later learned that it was some way out of Darjeeling and would probably have meant us sacrificing other things that we wanted to do.
We picked our bags up very swiftly and then queued for a pre-paid taxi for Darjeeling. All Indian cities have these pre-paid taxi stands – they seem to be organised by the government and they offer fixed fare prices for each destination, taking the hassle of bartering out of the equation after a long journey. When we got to the ticket window, we could see that there was another booth at the other side of the office, where what seemed like a hundred or so Indian faces were pressed against the glass jostling for position at the tiny opening. It became apparent that these were taxi drivers fighting to get a prepaid fare. We paid 1800 rupees and took our ticket outside, where the victor of the free-for-all greeted us. The population of this far northeast corner of India look facially very different to further south – a myriad of mountainous peoples occupy the foothills of the Himalayas, and most of the inhabitants have more of a Chinese or Nepalese look about them. Our driver was a young lad who spoke little at first but turned out to be quite a friendly individual, even offering us to buy a cup of tea halfway up to Darjeeling.
The road started out fairly flat, with various military camps on either side – the Indian army have a strong military presence here, possibly because of the proximity to China, who have previously laid claim to the Sikkim region just north of Darjeeling. The camps gave way to fields full of little trees as far as the eye could see – our first glimpse of the tea plantations that dominate the landscape for miles around. For about an hour we drove through fields and fields of tea, always with hills looming in the misty middle distance. Tea plantations are a very beautiful thing – even at this low altitude where the heat still dries the earth, there’s a lush green hue to the plants that delights the eye. Our driver pulled over and smiled at us – “I need a cigarette and a piss”. Luke and I took the opportunity to walk out into the tea fields and examine the plants more closely. It was a feel-good moment to stand in a pleasant, rather than oppressive heat and take stock of our surroundings. The air was more breathable and didn’t carry the aroma of rubbish or sewers – this place feels wild and remote in the most positive sense. Luke turned around and looked at our driver leaning on the bonnet of his car. “If he drove off now, we’d be f*****d.” Sometimes there is no better way of putting something than the most abrupt, and his observation was entirely correct. Luckily, there was no question of that. We got back in the car and began to climb higher and higher, round a succession of steep hairpins and blind bends. Our driver was progressive and for the most part safe, but every journey in India involves the need to overtake a variety of slow-moving handcarts, trucks and bicycles if progress is to be made. The process of overtaking an overloaded truck whilst going around a blind bend even at slow speed is squeeky bum time by anybody’s definition.
Hundreds of schoolchildren were walking down the hill as we walked up, and we pondered upon how far they must have to walk every day to get to school it seems that some must arrive home and then immediately have to turn around and go back again. As we ascended the air grew cooler and more humid. Squinting through the mists we could see a tiny patchwork of fields and the dots of little towns far below – it took me back to the flight of earlier that day. Luke pulled a packet of crisps out of his bag – the packet had inflated as we gained in altitude, and over the next couple of days we would see that most packaged foods ended up looking like a child’s swimming armband. At one point we passed a huge pile of rocks and boulders that covered half of the road – evidence of a landslide we thought. We stopped again in a fog and tree covered valley as the light started to fade. A revitalising cup of chai and we continued. For the last twenty miles or so of the journey we followed the track of the Himalayan Mountain Railway – a miniature train that more or less caters for tourists these days, but in the days before cars it was an essential mode of transportation for getting tea down from the hills. We passed gompas and prayer flags before arriving in Darjeeling under the cover of darkness at about seven. We tipped our driver to the tune of 200 rupees and asked him if he knew where the Revolver hostel was – our home for the next three nights. In no time at all about four locals had joined in the conversation and between them they gave us a good set of directions. We walked up what was to be the first of many hills over the next few days and up a street called Ghandi Road. Tucked in behind the Union Chapel we found our hostel – the cosy little Revolver.
We owe Hollie a complete debt of gratitude for finding this Beatles themed hotel, so thanks love! I had spent a long time before we left England negotiating with the management over which room we could have. There are five rooms in the hostel – John, Paul, George, Ringo and Brian, after Brian Epstein. I requested John and had to settle for two nights in Paul and two nights in Ringo. After a couple of days I was e-mailed again by management who offered a thousand apologies and explained that they had double-booked Paul, and the best they could do was offer us three nights in Ringo. Poor Ringo – always destined to be the least sought after Beatle it seems. Still, I think as two boys sharing a room it would have been more controversial for us to have been placed in Brian, if you know what I mean.
We walked up a huge hill in search of a traveller’s bar reccomended in the Lonely Planet, where we had a couple of Kingfishers and a Morrocan falafel platter each for tea. On the way home we took a wrong turn , walked a fair way in the wrong direction, and had to do double the hill-walking in order to get back to the hostel. I live in Belper, England which I consider to be a pretty hilly place, but Darjeeling makes my sleepy town look as flat as a pancake. We returned to Ringo and fell asleep under his watchful eye as he stared down at us from various photographs on the wall.
That’s all for now.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey