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Darjeeling, India, April 2017

We've been in India for close to two years, but haven't spent much time in the mountains. We had a four-day weekend, so decided to head up to Darjeeling, which is a high mountain town in Indian Himalayan foothills (i.e., 7000 feet). It was originally in the kingdom of Sikkim in the 1600's, and in the 1820's was taken over by the British for use as a hill station (bascially, a weekend getaway from Calcutta).

It's still small geographically, although the narrow mountain roads mountainsides are packed with traffic these days. The awesome Darjeeling Himalayan Railway still runs -- tourists take a short loop, but it makes long daily trips into the flatlands for locals as well. Other attractions include a lot of tea plantations, and a long history of mountaineering.


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   En route to Darjeeling
   In Darjeeling: Tibetan refugees, and a lot of tea
   Tea plantations! On ground, and from the air.
   Darjeeling zoo, and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute
   Darjeeling HImalayan Railway!!
   Off to Kalimpong
   And back home...

OK! We flew to Siliguri (aka ___). Siliguri is in the flatland, and Darjeeling is a hill station in the mountains. It's a drive to get there -- we met our driver at the airport, and it took about three hours to make it to Darjeeling.

Alternatively, one could take the train on the very same route we drove. However, that's a nine-hour trip, and runs only once a day... even if it is on an awesome train.

En route to Darjeeling

Pretty soon we've left the flatland and are driving up into the hills. It gets high (and cold) fast! We stop for chai at one of many tea stalls on the switchbacks.

Here's our guide, Sanjay.

Finn doesn't love chai quite as much as Astro. (His Scottish-run preschool in South Africa got him more hooked on milk tea, at least when he was there.)

In the kitchen of the tea stall we see momos (aka dumplings, aka gyoza). We didn't have any here, but certainly loaded up during the rest of our three days.

Lots of little cities in the mountains! And that's all tea below. Tea production in Darjeeling was brought in with the British in the 19th century... tea was originally from China, but once the British took over India, they started producing tea in large quantities here.

Along much of our route, we parallel the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. Although 'parallel' is too strong a word: the road is barely two lanes, and the train takes up one of these, and crosses over many many times.

Finn has been a big train fan since about six months old, so coming here to see this famous railway was certainly an attraction!

Oh look! It's a meat store, as you can tell from the fresh hanging piece of pig! I'm sure the two shoes have significance as well.

Houses in Darjeeling. It's a very vertical area.

Coming into Ghoom, and getting close to Darjeeling.

There is a lot of traffic here. While it was probably a peaceful mountain resort a hundred years ago, tourism has expanded a lot more than the infrastructure has.

Our hotel had quite a great view down into the valley. It was cloudy all day and into the evening, but cleared up for a few hours at night.

Looking north, apparently you are supposed to be able to see Mt. Everest from our hotel (which is the bright building on the right). But it wasn't visible at night. The hotel was very much into calling us at 5 AM to tell us to watch out our window to see the sunrise. So we got up for it, but it was too cloudy to see anything.

Each morning apparently, many hundreds of tourists head to Tiger Hill, where it's possible to see the same view. But being both cloudy and crowded, we didn't head that way.

In Darjeeling: Tibetan refugees, and a lot of tea

In Darjeeling is the large Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. It's been there since 1959, as a safe place for Tibetan people who have been forced out of China.

There are some small-scale handicrafts that go on here, including a number of women spinning wool (and carding it, here) and weaving on handlooms.

Piper checks out that loom!

Darjeeling is about 10 km from Nepal, and 30 km from Bhutan. (The airport we flew into is just a few km from Bangladesh, as well.) And Tibet is a similar distance.

The dog has a fancy new carpet to sleep on (being woven in real-time!). Photo by Piper.

This building has a lot of people making jackets and scarves! They have a larger building up the hill where most of the looms are. But everything is done by hand.

Finn and I take photos of each other.

Check out that dyed wool drying on the roof! In front is the basketball court -- that one is labeled 'YAKS.'

Piper shows off her new outfit! (And yes, it was chilly up there.)

Well, here we have some cute cats, so I guess I'll take a photo of them. Meow!

Meanwhile, Piper has found a nice bug!

It is exploring her arm and new stylish Tibetan jacket!

Sister photo!

Photo by Piper!

Tea plantations! On ground, and from the air.

While underage labor is frowned upon in many parts of the world, there are no legal restrictions against it in Darjeeling. We have employed Astro as a tea plucker. She must hold this bucket from her head, as is the local style.

If someone can read this warning sign, please let me know. It's very beautiful, and I would like to obey.

Looking across the valley at tea plucking!

Just above this (slightly out of view) is a horse race track. It's been there for 100+ years, and was built by the British. It must be the most inaccessible horse track in all of the British empire. Horses do not live naturally here, and I suppose in order to get on here, you'd have to put it on a long boat from London to Calcutta, and then walk it the 60 miles of switchbacks to get to the hill station of Darjeeling.

Oh wow! OK, Darjeeling's most famous former resident may be Tenzing Norgay (Everest sumiteer with Edmund HIllary). He wasn't born there, but he ran away from home at 19, and made a bunch of unsuccessful attempts before the 1953 climb.

Here, Piper climbs a very small portion of the roadside rock.

Yes! They still do mountaineering here in the classic way: no harness, but just a jute rope around the waist.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) does offer month-long mountaineering courses, which I think would be amazing.

Now we're back in Darjeeling proper. There is a cableway, and we're in a line for it. The line doesn't appear long, but the time between cars is pretty large, so we're in line for well over an hour. Piper manages to eat four plates of momos in that time.

And we're finally on the cableway! Look at all that tea...

Love this photo! I'd never noticed before how much the tea plants are in mats (sort of like stromatolites). And the persepctive is kind of strange -- from the air, looking uphill. Note all the tea pluckers along the way up.

The ride down is about 20 minutes. You can see some old retired cable cars on the left in the picnic area. Those are -- I assume -- the remains from an incident in 2003 where the cable broke, and killled four people.

Finn (on right) is running to tell me that our car is about to leave.

More tea! My understanding is that these are older plants, which take longer to flesh out, so haven't been plucked yet this year.

Not knowing where we were, I could guess that we were looking down on agave plants outside of Tequila, Mexico.

Love this photo too...

Tea pluckers. It's misty, but not currently raining.

Astro wants to pick tea!

Tea plucking in the rain in Darjeeling!

Too many photos of tea and clouds here, I know...

Almost all the way back up now...

Darjeeling zoo, and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute

Back in Darjeeling, we're stuffed with momos, and head off to the famous Darjeeling zoo (and inside, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute).

Red Panda!!! OK, these are really great animals, because we used to see them a lot in DC. There were several of them at the DC zoo that was just down the street from us. Also, the best thing about one of those DC red pandas is that it escaped, and was found in a yard in Adams-Morgan! So even if this one is sleeping, don't underestimate it!

So nice to see some cool, dark, moist trees... definitely not something we have very much of in Mumbai.

Sanjay got to hang out with Astro a lot! They're looking for a leopard here.

The zoo does have a full suite of clouded leopards, snow leopards, jaguars, tigers, that kind of thing. They are in big enclosures. Apparently they do a lot of breeding here. It's a zoo, but they seem to do a much better job here than at, say, the penguin exhibit at the Mumbai zoo.

We have one more night in Darjeeling. Now we're staying at what was formerly a convent / hostel / workers' quarters, on the top of a hill... it's a 100-year old British facility.

Darjeeling HImalayan Railway!!

And it's Darjeeling, so we have to check out the train.

The train here has been running in more-or-less the same way since 1890. It was built by the British to access Darjeeling as a hill station (i.e., a cool relaxing weekend getaway, from Calcutta). It is a narrow-gague train -- 24 inches across! -- so small that it's often called the 'toy train.'

Our loco pulls up! These locomotives have been running continually since the 1890's. It's pretty amazing that any heavy machinery from that era is still in service, much less carrying hundreds of people around a day.

The coaches here are newer than the locos. Just before the trains loads, the conductor chalks the coach number on the side of the car. There are just two cars, so 1 and 2 would have worked fine - but I guess they use the full '52593' since this is part of the Indian Railways, and everything must be done according to the plan!

Our guide Sanjay.

The route we are on is the short tourist loop, from Darjeeling to Ghoom (aka Ghum) and back. The train also makes a daily 8-hour trip to Siliguri, which was its original destination. That route uses a diesel engine and has open-air hard seats, and is used by locals.

This photo reminds me of one at the US Consulate...

That's the engineer behind her.

Old and new! On the right are a line of five Tata Sumo 4x4's, which are loaded up and will take you through the 'foothills' to Kurseong, Ghatkopark, or Kalimpong. The train still runs daily, but its importance is much less than it used to be.

Note also the grid of rocks inset into the road (they sort of look like drops of water, but they are rocks). All of the highways have this -- it's kind of like studded tires, but built into the road, instead of the rubber.

Stopping for maintenance. That's the engineer on top of the coal tender. Note the bag of of sand sitting underneath -- used for traction.

Heidi and Astro ride up...

We've gone most of the way to Ghoom, but it's time for a scenic break!

Turning around in Ghum, which is the highest point on the railway (7400'), as well as the highest train station in all of India. I don't know anything about trains, but it takes them at least 20 minutes to prep our loco for the trip back down the hill.

Shoveling out the firebox...

Shoveling out that firebox. I didn't intend to get the pole in the foreground, but that's the support structure for the station's roof. If you look closely, it's made out of three train rails, welded together and stood on their end.


Astro doesn't live in a black and white world.

"Look at this guy! Why is he taking photos of us? One more foreigner with a a camera! How much should we charge him?"

Actually, this train is basically 100% tourists, but they are nearly all from India. We saw very few europeans or Americans in Darjeeling... and throughout the country, Indian tourists usually vastly outnumber foreigners. (Even at the Taj Mahal...)

For someone like Finn who loves the rods on trains, this was an excellent train to be on.

Cleaning up. This is the engineer. You can't really see it, but his ears are plugged with cotton thread. That whistle is LOUD. Between the deafening whistle, and the unbreathable air, OSHA would certainly shut this down in the US.

Train's ready to go! They turned around the loco, and it will pull ahead and meet up with the coaches, visible up ahead.

Waiting for our train to turn around! We're outside of Darjeeling in Ghum -- India's highest train station at 7400'. And the same locos have been operating on that super-narrow track since around 1880.

It's a narrow gague train... and the clearance is narrow as well!

Filling up on water! We're headed downhill, so there is not nearly as much coal and water needed as on the way up. But we still needed a refill.

The train has been built up around. Space in India is always tight, and especially so when you're on a narrow mountain road with a narrow train. The train goes within inches of the front doors of all hundreds of houses and shops, just a few of which are here. Many people are covering their ears - the horn is LOUD!

Cover those ears!

Off to Kalimpong

OK! Now we've left Darjeeling and are headed to Kalimpong for a night. It's a slightly larger city, about three hours away. This road is in pretty good shape... but still, we come across this situation. (No obvious injuries, except to that car. And despite 15 people surrounding it to lift it, they coudn't make any progress.)

We've made it to Kalimpong. The silkworm museum is closed on Sunday afternoons unfortunately, but here's one thing that is open: the monks playing cricket! We're at a monastery in town.

The doors to the main temple (closed for rennovation). Photo by Finn.

Photo by Finn.

Lots of Buddhas! Photo by Piper.

Photo by Astrid.

Photo by Finn.

Photo by Finn.

Photo by somebody!

It's nearly sundown, and we're in the Himalayan 'foothills on top of a mountain (Delo Park, in Kalimpong), and it's cloudy. There is a paragliding school in the parking lot, but even they won't take us out. So we go sliding instead.

And we head down the mountain...

The paragliding booth is just packing up. "Come back in the morning and bring all of your kids! They can all fly. There is no limit for their age.'

And back home...

Astro gets ready for the flight back to Mumbai.

Yes, we've spent a good amount of time in airports these last few years!

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Henry Throop

Last modified Thu Jul 6 09:28:19 2017