Darjeeling and West Bengal’s hill country

Darjeeling offers a pretty romantic proposition: a ex-British hill station and summer retreat in tea plantation country, set along a hilly ridge and dramatically beneath a chain of Himalayan behemoths. Soak up the colonial era architecture as you walk around open-mouthed while gazing upwards, the brochures claim.

Oh the marketing slogan, always quick to make bold claims. What they forget to mention is that you need to read the fineprint; there’s an asterix at the end of that claim.

For the awe-inspiring views of said Himalayas are essentially limited to Summer, which it is not presently (Holi, the coming of Spring, was celebrated as we were leaving), or otherwise very small time-windows, with advice like ‘4am start’ in it. And that’s not a guarantee. At three months into our latest adventure, we needed a little more certainty to get us out of bed that early in what essentially feels like the middle of a New Zealand winter.

Also I wouldn’t position Darjeeling as a pretty, colonial relic, either.

But all of this is no mind, however. Although it is what drew us there, the chance of a close(ish) encounter with the mythical mountains in a colonial outpost, it is everything else we experienced in our six nights in Darjeeling and its much lesser-known sister-gurrl town, Kalimpong, that made it an unforgettable experience. Not only delightful, but fascinating and unquestionably one of the most intriguing places we’ve been to so far. It’s a completely different part of India; we had, in fact, felt like we’d pretty much left India.

And once you realise exactly where you are, and learn some of the history of the area, it all makes perfect sense.

Technically India, the hills of West Bengal are located in a funny little strip of land squeezed between the state of Sikkim (which used to be a kingdom) and Tibet to the north, Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, and even Bangladesh is not too far south.

Historically, Darjeeling and Kalimpong were part of the Sikkim kingdom, before being taken over by invading forces from Nepal and Bhutan respectively, and then eventually passing to the British. Kalimpong was once a hugely important conduit for trade and contact with Tibet, and both places have absorbed large numbers of Tibetan peoples post-Chinese annexation.

All of these influences are present to varying degrees.

We started in the quiet respite of Kalimpong, where they were few other international tourists present. Apart from one night, the large, deco-era lodge where we stayed, was empty.

Getting to Kalimpong, indeed Darjeeling or any of the other little hilly towns, requires you to first get to the pretty standard, dusty market town of Siligiri, and then locate and jump onboard a shared jeep.

It ended up being not too difficult, just requiring an (electronic!) tuk-tuk to a shared jeep stand, which of course was located nowhere near the train station (there were no shared jeeps from the NJP station, despite what the guidebook said – it may because we were a little out of season, perhaps?).

Our arrival into hill country unfortunately coincided with receiving news of the devastating terrorist attacks in Christchurch. Although we had planned to slow the pace considerably anyway, and just amble about, suddenly a huge amount of time and (emotional) energy was, of course, redirected, as we tried to watch/listen/read as much as possible to try to understand what had happened, and what was happening in response.

It was a strange and surreal experience to be so far away from home, and where daily lifewas continued with no knowledge of what was happening (at least that we could see). Of course, though, we can only imagine what the scale of the collective grief and questioning must have felt like (be feeling like) on the ground.

It certainly made us a little more circumspect, and grateful, as we visited two Tibetan monasteries. Kalimpong is (and has long been) an important centre of Buddhist education, and both monasteries hold precious and ancient texts that were smuggled out of Tibet post-1959.

At both monasteries, we were very fortunate to be shown inside by resident monks, who unlocked the doors for us (most domestic tourists, whizzing in and out in their tourist vehicles, click, click, click, completely missed out).

Both were privileged experiences, as neither of us had before seen Tibetan prayer rooms and, it turns out, they are quite distinct and different in style. It was lovely to be able to wander around in such peaceful, contemplative environments.

Aside from just enjoying the quietness of the town, especially post-8pm, the cooler climate, and wandering about its interesting but not especially pretty streets, the other key memories of Kalimpong are definitely food related.

We dined two out of three nights at what appeared to be one of the only hotel restaurants in town. We gorged on divine momos (Tibetan dumplings) and warming masala chai (sweet spicy tea). The restaurant had a real ‘ends-of-the-earth’ feel for me. As one of few ‘restaurant’ options (and serving alcohol), it seemed to be both a real local hangout and the place where you had to come if visiting (and wanted that environment to dine in). Although it wasn’t overly busy either night, it had an interesting mix of people hovering around its tables.

At the opposite end of the scale was an uber-cool cafe, serving all the usual suspects, decorated in eclectic fashion, and frequented by the super cool, young hipster crowd. It was fascinating to watch the kool kids, who looked, spoke, and were as connected as their mega city counterparts. The pizza and chai tea were also delushious.

Finally, on our way walking up to one of the monasteries, we wandered passed a rather picturesque golf course. We noted that the canteen was run by Keralans, and were offering ‘Keralan chicken curry’. Interest sufficiently piqued, we returned post-visit for lunch, and once again marvelled at the closeness with which it mirrors Fijian chicken curry. My continued academic interest in the origins of Indo-Fijian cuisine have a new direction to pursue…

Compared to Kalimpong, Darjeeling was bustling, and teeming with domestic tourists (and definitely a few internationals, too). Its altitude is considerably higher, though, so the weather was unfortunately more temperamental. By the time we were done with breakfast each morning, and ready to go, the clouds had pretty much descended, and the rest of the day would bring only intermittent patches of sun.

It didn’t entirely stop our intrepid wandering. We located some colonial era delights and took a walk out to the Japanese peace pagoda, a walk made quite a bit longer due to our walking down the wrong street, for quite some distance. We definitely got to see suburban Darjeeling too! It’s inevitable, though, that, as the end of a leg of travel approaches, you start to wind down and the prospect of just ambling about starts to lose its appeal.

So, inevitably, we spent most of the time relaxing, reading, and carbing it up (momos, baked delights and chunky toast, oh my). We were lucky enough to enjoy some true local Tibetan food as well, aside from the more well-known momos; both soups actually: the glorious chickpea, potato and nigella seed-infused chola (mopped up with fried dough bread oh yes!), and thukpa, a broth with such depth and noodles so freshly made, it was a rapturous experience.

At the end of the day, though, it is the people who were most fascinating: an eclectic mix of communities making it work in the far extremes of north-eastern India. Of course they looked eclectic and they were dressed eclectically, given their ancestral and religious diversity. But, moreover, in interactions, I found people to have quite a gentle nature, were friendly, warm and helpful, and it’s something that stands as a contrast from (some of) their fellow citizens.

On the street, I constantly noticed people stopping to chat with each other, catching up, laughing, shaking hands and otherwise embracing (not kissing and/or hugging, but touching in ways that suggested closeness). It suggests a community that is quite closely connected and interdependent; ‘we’re in this together’.

It made the researcher in me want to camp up for six months and get to know the community, to learn about the fascinating stories and histories, crossing paths and routes, that no doubt exist and explain the contemporary face of this most beguiling part of India.

We’re very grateful for having had our grey matter so stimulated!

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