While we were in Kolkata we asked a few Indians where their favorite place to visit in India was and two of them said Darjeeling. So we were off. Darjeeling is an old hill station in the mountains with amazing views of the Himalayas. And at over 6,500 ft it was COLD in December. For some reason we didn’t think it was going to be as cold as it was, I don’t know what we were thinking.
Let me clarify my definition of cold. During the day in the sun it was enjoyable, my guess would be about low to mid 50’s. Once that sun disappeared though, it went from enjoyable to I don’t want to stop moving or I’ll get frostbite. Which, I guess would translate to right around freezing. The most unexpected part, again, we should have expected this, was there was no heat. It is still so surprising that a location pretty far north of the equator and above 6,000ft does not have central heat during the winter months. There were some people that had portable heaters, but the fuel for them cost a lot so they were not used.
The first night we were there, we put on all of our layers (undershirt, t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, wool sweater, soft shell jacket, gortex jacket, long underwear, pants, hat and gloves) just to walk around at night. We were not sure if we would be warm enough with the clothes we had and the three blankets they gave us for sleeping. But we did get a surprise right before bed–a hot water bottle. What they do to stay warm at night in Darjeeling (and apparently other cold climates near by) is boil a bunch of water and put them in rubber bags. Each bed gets a rubber bag to put into your bed prior to getting in yourself. This pre-heats your bed and keeps you warm throughout the night. Let me tell you, it works! We were able to sleep in only a couple of layers. Both of us thought this would be a great addition to the cold nights in Maine.
While in Darjeeling we decided to visit a tea plantation. We were told multiple times that the best tea in India comes from here. We got a tour of the highest tea plantation in India and it also happened to be organic. It was called Happy Valley. December is not the picking season so the equipment was not up and running, but we did get a good explanation of what it would be doing when it was running. We both learned a lot of new things about the different types of tea and the tea making process that we didn’t know before. We left with some tea as a souvenir.
We visited the Zoo as well based on recommendations from other fellow travelers. The zoo did have some cool animals, mostly large cats, and an interesting museum on Himalayan Trekking and Treks to Mt. Everest.
Because Darjeeling is a hill station, they have a train system that go up the mountain side. They call these hill station trains toy trains. The toy trains are smaller trains than the regular trains they have in India. They only have a 2ft wide rail width and the cars are about 5ft wide versus a 4-5ft rail width and a 9-10ft car width. We took a toy train joy ride to a lower city and back. The joy rides specifically use a steam engine to power the cars like they did when these were originally built and used.
One of the cooler things we saw in Darjeeling wasn’t a tourist attraction at all. They were repaving some of the streets and we got to see the whole process up close and personal. The roads were not just regular black top either. They get a lot of rain in the monsoon season so they put stones in the black top, we believe these help with tire grip. Almost the whole process is done by hand or man power, even laying and tapping each one of the stones. It was an interesting process we’ve never seen before and will probably never see again. (Link to YouTube video)
Darjeeling was also our first true experience with obtaining railway tickets. We actually ended up getting stuck in Darjeeling because of it. Our first experience in Kolkata was at a Foreign Tourist Office and we were able to get a ticket the same day. Darjeeling is smaller and doesn’t have a special office for tourist so we tried the regular window. With the regular window comes the regular tickets. We found out that the tourist office only gives out tourist quota tickets and a certain amount of tickets are set aside for tourist only. Because there are over a billion people in India, they have different quotas set aside for different ticket types. They have the general, tourist, emergency (Tatkal), women, and more I don’t even know about.
So, if you are trying to purchase regular, non tourist quota, tickets for the day prior to when you want to leave, which we were, you are shit out of luck. Those tickets are sold out days, weeks, and even months in advance. For this reason, they have an emergency quota, or stash of tickets, that can be purchased only the day before at exactly 10 am. Our first attempt at getting general tickets didn’t work because they were all sold out, but we were told about the Tatkal emergency tickets so we decided to try that. It was already past 10 am so we had to return the following day. Which would put us leaving a day after we wanted to.
The Tatkal experience: we arrived at 9 am and didn’t see too many people around. We thought we were smart for coming early and getting in line. Well there is no line. There was a scrap piece of paper that you write your name on to hold your place in line. People were there at 8 am when the train station opened to write their name on the scrap paper. We were number 13 and were thinking we were in good shape. A couple of minutes before 10am, everyone comes back and queues up with their papers. Also, I forgot to mention before that you need to fill out a piece of paper with the train number, name, time, in order to get a ticket and in Kolkata someone was able to help us with that. The paper we had with us was partially filled out, as it was in Kolkata, because we didn’t know the number or name of the train. Well, 10 am comes around, the tellers are working as fast as they can to purchase tickets and move through the line. By the time we got there, got yelled at for not having the train number, and figured out which train number we wanted, there were no tickets left for us. Attempt number two failed.
Later that day, we were told that the general ticket window can purchase tickets from the tourist quota, but you need to specifically ask for that. So, we went back for a third time and tried to get tickets that way. The tickets that were available were two days out and had a connection in the middle. We took it. After two days, three visits, many conversations with the tellers, and lots of frustration, we finally got tickets. We ended up leaving three days after we originally wanted to and, we didn’t know this at the time, it was only the start to our wonderful train ticket purchase experiences. More to come later.
Getting stuck in Darjeeling was not so bad after all. It was quieter and more peaceful than Kolkata, we met many other interesting travelers, and there were some great places to eat western breakfasts, like omelets and pancakes. Also, on the last day, the clouds left long enough for us to see the beautiful, huge mountains that were close by. If we didn’t get stuck, we would have never seen them. Thank you crazy Indian train system.