We got up dead early again to have one last crack at seeing the mountains. The mist was as dense as previous days, if not worse. Instead we walked up the hill to the Dorje Ling monastery site, where we sat for a while in the peace and quiet. Even at this time people were praying, spinning mani wheels and ringing various bells.
We went back to the hostel and collected our stuff, before going to the taxi depot, where we got in a jeep. Our friend from the previous day tried to charge us again, before laughing and apologising several times. I got the impression that if I invited him, he would gladly have come back to England with us and lived in my house. He introduced us to our driver, a Gorkha chap with a passion for cricket and large, cauliflower-like ears. As we set off back down the hill we got stuck in multiple traffic jams on the narrow lanes running through the mountain towns. Darjeeling has been beautiful and fascinating, but not the relaxed place I thought that it might have been. The drivers of this area will always apply the horn before the footbreak, and if the traffic is at a standstill they seem convinced that continually papping on their hooter will cause the traffic to clear. I wouldn’t like to be here in the grip of winter – if anything is going to cause an avalanche, it is surely this incessant use of the horn.
After clearing the towns we descended down the tight hairpins without further event. We drove through the tea estates that got flatter and flatter in terrain, until we arrived at the massive military area. All sorts of trucks, tanks and soldiers are on display around here and it seems that like Thailand, India likes to keep it’s military might on full display. After passing through the zone we began to enter a more built-up area. The usual array of random sights ensued, culminating in the swerving of all of the traffic on our side of the road to avoid a cow, which had sat itself down in the middle of the road, nonchalantly chewing and flicking it’s tail to keep the flies away with no idea of the mayhem it was causing. If you didn’t know already, the cow is sacred to Hindus and people go to great lengths to ensure that no harm will come to them. As a result they wander around precisely where they please, causing all kinds of obstruction and destruction in their wake. As we approached the station the traffic got ridiculous, even by Indian standards. Our ears rang from the din of car, rickshaw and moped horns, and all kinds of madness played out before us. Impossible gaps between vehicles were pursued, a fight nearly broke out at the side of the road, and sweat-saturated faces snarled at each other from behind steering wheels. As we trickled along at a snail’s pace a bus – crammed to the rafters as always, attempted to occupy the space that our jeep was in. With nowhere else to go our driver had little option other than to shout as the bus scratched all the way down the side of the jeep, before coming to a halt. After what seemed like several minutes of uninterpretable insults, the bus reversed off the jeep, making a sickening sound on our paintwork. Our driver pulled over to check the damage and miraculously, there was none. This is the one redeeming feature about Indian roads – they’re complete chaos, but usually you’re not going fast enough to end up in a serious accident.
We thanked our driver and entered the station. Porters carrying stacks of passenger’s luggage on their heads, beggars reclining on the hot ground, and cows on the railway line were some of the sights to behold. We went to a cafe and Luke again displayed his culinary prowess by ordering us two dhosas. A dhosa is a giant pancake-like bread which contains a small amount of curry, along with a pot of thin, spicy curry sauce. You dip each end in the sauce and then when you get down to the filled middle bit you just devour it in any way you see fit. They are an impressive sight to behold and set us back about 70p each – Luke recalled seeing them in London for about eight quid a pop. As we sat eating a lady waited outside who had lost both her legs. She was sporting a pair of flip-flops on her hands to avoid touching the dirty ground as she hoisted herself around. A bloke from the cafe fixed her up a plate of curry and chapati and handed it to her free of charge.
The train was only a couple of minutes late. A list of passenger’s names was pasted on the side of the carriage, and we found our coach with minimum hassle. The Indian trains have a confusing list of options when it comes to booking your seat/bed. We were in 3AC – which means three beds stacked on top of each other, and air-conditioned carriages. Luke and I had both been allocated top bunks and getting up and down from them employed all of our acrobatic skills. Once the train was on it’s way Luke went for a doze and I was collared by a middle-aged gent who was travelling back from a wedding with his wife and son. He was an eccentric but intelligent bloke who worked as an English Teacher by trade. He told me that he had “Three Western-style toilets” in his house, not because he liked western toilets better, but because he could comfortably sit and read on them, whereas it was too difficult to squat and read in the traditional Indian way. We talked about Gandhi and India since the partition, about his teaching and his hometown, which I couldn’t pronounce. I ended up asking him why many Indians seemed to enjoy taking our photograph so much. He confirmed that many Indians have rarely, if ever, seen a white person. It is considered a badge of honour, almost a prestigous thing to have your photo taken with a whitey. I’m really surprised that this is still the case – surely in this global village in which we live people aren’t still blown away at the sight of somebody with different skin colour? But apparently they are. My new mate said that even his son had pointed Luke and I out, and during our whole conversation a pair of young eyes stared down at me from the bunk above.
After about an hour of chatting to this bloke, I made my excuses. Nice as he was he had talked my head off for ages and I was a bit too tired to meet his level of intellectual questioning. I sat and played cards with Luke whilst looking out at the Indian countryside dashing past us. Indian train doors aren’t locked and are quite often wide open for the duration of the journey. Every time the train stops at a signal or a station hundreds of people get out and stand on the tracks, smoking and stretching their legs. As the train slowly jolts off again they all stroll back and hop on it while it’s moving – I wish I was chilled out enough to take such risks.
Throughout the whole journey various sellers walk up and down the train corridor, flogging anything from bombay mix to iphone chargers. The only ones that we entertained were the chai wallers, who carry urns of hot chai which they dispense into little cups for ten rupees a shot. Before we boarded the train a bloke with a “meals on wheels” logo on his shirt chased us down the platform and asked us if we wanted to buy any food. Dismissing him as one of the many touts that you come across on a daily basis, we initially politely told him where to go. When it dawned on us that this bloke was part of the official catering department we both ordered a meal before we were even aboard. Almost as soon as we’d found our beds our meals were presented to us – superb service. Before going to sleep Luke and I walked the length of the train in either direction. As far as we could tell we were the only non-Indian people on the train, and as we walked along we drew quizzical glances from all directions.
We went to sleep at nineish and but for a couple of interruptions, I slept solidly. Luke had more of a struggle due to being directly above a bloke who snored loudly. Our carriage was clean and comfortable, and I’ve never slept so well on a night train. On our walk through the other carriages we saw how the other half live – cramped, dirty and sweaty carriages with no air-conditioning, and I was thankful that we’d paid the extra few quid for a comfortable night’s sleep.
That’s all for today.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey