8. The West Bengal Hills

After Bodhgaya, my intention had been to head straight to Calcutta, where I was sure I would be able to track down some excellent coffee. Someone convinced me, however, that I should first go North to the higher climes of West Bengal, and then come back down South to the old colonial capital. So, with slight reluctance, I plotted a course directly into the heart of tea territory.

By this time, I was feeling like I really had the train system figured out. My first train experience, from Varanasi to Bodhgaya had not been so smooth, but in that case I had been planning on taking a bus which turned out not to exist. This time, however, I knew the names and numbers of the trains I wanted, I knew the schedules, and I had even acquired an Indian mobile phone – a necessity for buying train tickets online.

Now, the train system in India is truly amazing. Employing 1.4 million people, and carrying 25 million passengers per day, there are tens of thousands of trains that cover the whole country, all of which seem to follow quite reliable schedules, even if they tend to run a bit later than the official timetables. For a remarkably small amount of money you can travel just about anywhere, with some journeys lasting upwards of 50 hours (not recommended).

There are several classes, starting with Sleeper – fairly basic, but with an assigned seat that turns into a bunk. Above that there is first, second, and third class AC, which are basically the same as Sleeper, but with air conditioning and increasing levels of privacy and comfort. There is also AC chair, which is just a reserved chair in an AC carriage. Because train travel is so important to daily life, however, these classes tend to get booked up several days in advance. If you just show up at the station on the day you want to travel, you’re only choice will be Unreserved, which always seems to be available, possibly because they don’t actually limit the number of tickets they sell for that class. From everything I’ve heard, Unreserved is something to be avoided at all costs.

To get to Darjeeling, I had managed to put together a decent itinerary – AC chair to Patna, the capital of Bihar, then an overnight sleeper to Siliguri, where I would catch a shared jeep to Kurseong, just south of Darjeeling. The one sub-optimal part of the plan was a 9 hour stopover in Patna, with my overnight train departing just after midnight.

Everything started out well. I travelled the 13 km to Gaya train station by auto rickshaw (a ubiquitous three wheeled vehicle that comfortably seats two, but is capable of transporting perhaps five times that number). My train was an hour late arriving, but it showed up on the right track, and it even somehow arrived in Patna on time.

One of the best parts of train travel in India is that it affords an opportunity to meet and talk with a diverse cross section of people from India. Not everyone speaks English, (and as a first language it seems quite rare), but most people speak a little, and I’ve found that if I just go about my business, it doesn’t take long for someone to strike up a conversation with me. On this particular journey, I met two people involved in rural development in Bihar (the state which contains Bodhgaya). One had just finished a Masters and was looking for his first job, and the other was an older man who worked on projects along the lines of micro-credit – trying to connect farmers with banks and encourage savings.

From them, I learned that not only is Bihar the poorest state in India, it also has the highest population density. These, in turn, were attributed to a lack of natural resources, a poor climate (droughts in one part, floods in another), and a lack of education. As a result, many people from Bihar are forced to move to the big cities in India in order to look for work, and apparently they face occasional backlashes, akin to the situation of illegal immigrants in the US.

While I was digesting all of this, my conversation partner left to catch his departing train, and I decided to use my new mobile phone to check the status of my own. The result which came back – train cancelled – surely had to be a mistake. My ticket said confirmed! Checking again produced the same result, and I began to quietly panic. It was about 11:00 pm at this point, and I didn’t like the prospect of trying to find a hotel in Patna. Someone at the Enquiries desk was able to confirm that the train had been cancelled, but couldn’t offer much more help than that.

To make a long story short, it turned out that there was an earlier train to Siliguri, which happened to have one seat left, in first AC nonetheless! I happily forked over the cash and boarded with only a few moments to spare. None of this would have been possible, however, had a kindly stranger not happened along at just the right moment and taken me through the whole process step by step. It never ceases to amaze me how kind some people can be in helping perfect strangers through a crisis, and it really makes me feel like returning the favour whenever I can.

I slept well at night and during the day the countryside of Bihar rolled past the windows, an endless plain of rice fields. Aside from the occasional urban area, I don’t think I saw an inch of land that wasn’t cultivated. From Siliguri I caught a shared jeep to Kurseong as planned (although due to some hard-ball negotiating, I think I ended up hiring a ride from a Chinese tourist with a private car and driver), and arrived at my destination after a journey of about 30 hours.

Finally, just to round out the various types of transportation involved in the trip, two days later I took the “Toy Train” up the hill to Darjeeling. A remnant of the early rail network, this train runs with an engine and two cars on a rails that are only about two feet apart. More of a tourist attraction than a transportation service, it took 3 hours to cover the distance of 32km, criss-crossing the main road and stopping traffic the whole way. Despite being generally ridiculous, that train trip is none the less part of the Indian rail network, complete with the same ticketing system and residual British seriousness.

My arrival in Darjeeling was one of the more stressful moments of the trip so far. It was just turning dark as the train pulled into the station, and although I didn’t have far to go, the hilltop topography made the map difficult to interpret. Just as I got things figured out, I saw up ahead a group of at least forty people carrying torches (literally burning sticks!), shouting and blocking traffic. Given that they were headed in the same direction that I was, I had little choice but to follow, giving them a wide berth. As I later learned, this is a nightly occurrence in Darjeeling, a protest march by Gorkhas which occurs like clockwork, as regular as the train’s arrival. From my room the next night, however, I could see that the real number of people was easily in the hundreds.

Neither Darjeeling nor Kurseong were spectacular, although both afforded the chance to do some hiking in the hills, a cool and welcome contrast to the heat down South. In Darjeeling, I spent a day hiking up Tiger Hill, a trip I enjoyed far more for the walk up into the cloud forest than for the view from the top. Sadly, like so many hill tops, this one has been replaced with a concrete tourist bunker, complete with cell phone towers. Apparently at dawn, and at other times of the year, you can jostle with other tourists to get a glimpse of Everest poking through the clouds. I didn’t see any mountains in the distance, but I had the place to myself, and a was happy to spend an hour a bit farther down the hill, watching the clouds float up one side of the mountain and roll down the other.

Kurseong, was more pleasant over all, being a bit smaller and quieter. It also gave me the chance to stay in a decaying old colonial mansion, the one time home of Percy John Cochrane, the former Magistrate of Kurseong. (I later found his grave in the town cemetery). I was a bit hesitant when I arrived, concerned that I might be the only guest, but the place really came to life in the evenings, and also happened to have a restaurant serving the best Indian food I’ve had since my arrival. They even employ an in-house tea barista (for lack of a better term), who made the most incredible spiced concoctions, and who has got me seriously exploring this whole world of tea in Darjeeling. But no, coffee and Calcutta await!

Here are a few photos of Cochrane Place, Darjeeling, a gate near the top of Tiger Hill, and a sunset in Kurseong:

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Addendum: The skies finally cleared a bit on my last day in Darjeeling, and I caught a glimpse of Kangchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain in the distance. This place must be truly spectacular on a clear day!

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3 thoughts on “8. The West Bengal Hills

  1. Dallas, You are amazing good at this account. I look forward to each future entry! – Love, Jeff.
    PS – We are just listening to the book on CD “Between the Assassinations” by Avarind Adiga and it is read by Harsh Nayyar. It is a nice tie-in to reading about your travels! Man, I wish I could taste the food. 🙂

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