Our train pulled into New Jalpaiguri at 9:15, which meant that Pete missed the 9:00 toy train to Darjeeling. No problem. We hired a taxi to drive us to Darjeeling, a 3½ hour ride as opposed to a 7-hour train journey. The roads to Darjeeling were surprisingly in better shape than the roads to Shimla -- they had concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom -- even if they were a little narrower. At point, our taxi had to pull aside (or in one case, back up to a wider part of the road) in order to let lorries pass by.
But it was worth it, no doubt. As much as I loved Shimla, Darjeeling is in a class of its own. First, Shimla’s proximity to Delhi and Chandighar means that it was more developed; so instead of hills of solid green, you had the hills speckled with houses and resorts. Sure, there are some of those in Darjeeling too, but not as densely packed as Shimla. The numerous tea plantations also add to the amount of green space. The ascent up the hills itself, however, meant passing through a cloud barrier. With the windows rolled down, I felt cold -- at noon! In India! The clouds became a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky. Rain spattered down, and instead of touts on the side of the road handing out flyers to their hotel, Bengali and Tibetan families, looking at our taxi with curious bemusement. I can see why the Buddhists chose to build there monasteries here; the altitude and atmosphere creates an inimitable tranquility. There’s plenty of political graffiti painted on the walls: “We condemn 6th schedule. We want Gorkhaland.” It scrolled along as we rode, a text feed from CNN West Bengal.
I had high tea at the Windamere Hotel, where Pete was staying. In the drawing room, atop the piano, they had stacked leather-bound photo albums, the pages separated with crinkled tissue paper. The pictures were from parties past at the Windamere: Xmas 1980, New Year’s 1993. The Tibetan staff setting up the Christmas tree, and old white folks raising their glasses in celebration. It makes sense: the Windamere dates back to the British Raj, as do other “heritage” hotels in the area -- so why not continue the tradition. Why let the real world interfere with the Victorian charm? We were joined by others for tea: a British couple, the wife originally from Gujarat; a family from Calcutta. This was the real reason to enjoy tea (300 Rs. if you’re not actually staying at the Windamere; be forewarned): to sit near the glowing coals with tomato sandwiches and lemon cake and cups of tea, sharing stories and travel tips.
After searching the market for an umbrella and a sweater, I settled in for dinner at Glenary’s, a Darjeeling institution. Separated into three levels, Glenary’s caters to all groups: upstairs, the fine dining area; ground floor, the bakery and Internet café; basement, the pub with a live band and haze of cigarette smoke. Perhaps I’d arrived on an off-day for them: I found a mosquito in my hot and sour soup (the hot or sour being enough to kill the malaria, I hope), my chicken kabob was dry as a mouthful of ash, and they were out of fish. But, they have WiFi available, so I’m sure I’ll be visiting them again.