The journey to Darjeeling is slow. In fact, all journeys in these parts are slow because of the hilly terrain. An average of 30 kmph is the most that one can expect. When there is a mist, things are even slower. The jeep is packed but three teenagers along the way want a ride. The driver accommodates them. They go on the roof. Soon after there is a puncture. We have to wait for a replacement vehicle.
After an hour’s delay, we are on our way. It starts to rain. The jeep is stopped. The driver gets busy covering the luggage on top. Others take a leak among the jungle slopes of fern, grass and trees.
Entry into Darjeeling is spectacular. Mist clears a little. The sun shines brilliantly on the built up slopes. The entire town glimmers against a backdrop of wider hills. Getting a little closer, the initial magic is lost. It is another tourist trap shorn of its old world charm.
Initially I thought Darjeeling was better than Shimla but by the time I left town for quieter places, I had understood the place better. It is as crowded, dirty and noisy as Shimla. The climate is the only thing to its recommendation. Hotels are expensive and service is not that great. Water is a big problem in Darjeeling. Many smaller hotels offer water in buckets. Where I stayed, I had running water but water was pumped from portable tanks lining the road outside the hotel. Like the dabbawallahs of Mumbai, paniwallahs carry water in handcarts from place to place. They carry water in old cans, each containing 15 liters. Each can is sold for Rs. 30.
I didn’t see much in Darjeeling. Most tourists go for a city tour. I skipped it. Getting to places on your own is not easy or cheap. In the wee hours of every morning, crowds gather at some place to witness sunrise over Kanchengdonga Range. I skipped that too. The Toy Train to Ghoom and back did not interest me simple because the interiors were fitted with modern seats and upholstery. The original character of the train is not there.
I was of the narrow opinion that there is nothing much to see in Darjeeling. The way I discovered Darjeeling was by ordinary means. I visited the market. I bought fresh carrots grown locally. Then I bought some mangoes and pears at a row of fruit shops. There I met a couple from Ukraine who enquired about lychees. It is a fruit they have never seen before. They were inspired enough to try some lychees. In the evening I walked the main thoroughfares and finally found a place for dinner. I ordered thukpa, noodle soup with vegetables. The waiter told me about different types of noodles and I settled for the thin round ones.
A visit to the Botanic Gardens in town was worthwhile. The difficulty in living in a hilly town is that you have to climb up or down for everything. Even for walking to a neighbourhood shop you may have to negotiate steep slopes. Darjeeling is not a place I would like to live in although it is nice for a short visit. I have quite enjoyed the climate here and just walking the streets and shopping areas without any higher agenda.