Before we got to India I had a vague idea of wanting to see the Himalayas and when we began to plot out our travels it suddenly seemed that that could become a reality. We had thought about going to Varanasi from Kolkata but I soon became enchanted with the idea of Darjeeling: tea, mountains, Tibetans, the toy train…no matter that it would be the coldest time of year there! We decided to stock up on some cold weather accessories in Kolkata (earmuffs, gloves, scarves) and have our four days of winter. Besides, there would be less visitors this time of year.
To save time we decided to fly from Kolkata into Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling. From there, we took a taxi into Siliguri, the nearest town to the airport, where we joined a shared van to head up to Kurseong. Kurseong is a town below Darjeeling, where the toy train begins its ascent up the mountain to Darjeeling. The ride there is still uphill and we hit so many hairpin turns we both felt a little ill. Fortunately, the driver had the radio on and we heard several our favorite Bollywood hits, including the super popular and fun “Ooh La La” from the recent move The Dirty Picture. We hadn’t seen the movie, but this song is everywhere! A great way to get a local Indian to like you is to start singing it, or ask them to play it from their phone. Check out the video:
But I digress…Kurseong is a lovely little town in the hills, without the “hustle and bustle” of Darjeeling. There are tea estates galore and we had a nice time just wandering around. The main attraction for us though was the awesomely charming Cochrane Place hotel. This was one of our splurge accommodations, but it was totally worth it. We had a huge room with a balcony and giant four-poster bed. The only downside to all that space was that it was freezing cold and the space heater they gave us could not heat the room. But the place is so quaint that they give you a hot water bottle to put under the covers! We were of course welcomed with some hot tea and had a lovely dinner by ourselves in the sitting room. We had a huge breakfast the next morning, complete with pancakes, eggs, toast, and of course more tea, followed by massages. Manor complained of being too cold during his massage to enjoy it, but my masseuse did a good job of keeping me covered up.
In the afternoon we boarded the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a.k.a the toy train, which travels up the mountain from Kurseong to Darjeeling. The trains are vintage British-built B Class steam locomotives and the cars are extremely narrow. The 3 hour ride was fascinating as the train tracks usually go right alongside the main road (Hill Cart Road), often right up alongside a market—we could have reached out and grabbed a banana if we wanted. People were standing outside their homes or shops, often with their babies or toddlers, to wave to the train. We also saw some Buddhist stupas and pagodas. It was beautiful to see everything going in and out of the somewhat constant fog. The station before Darjeeling is Ghoom, which is actually the highest train station in India. From there, we chugged through the famous Batasia Loop, when the track loops around over itself to lower the gradient of ascent, and actually descended form Ghoom to get to Darjeeling soon after. And yes, it was cold!!!