Darjeeling: A Touristy Mountain Hideaway

October 14, 2015
Currently: Staring at the beautiful Bhutanese entrance stamp in my passport!

 

After an overnight train ride to Siliguri, we quickly pack into three vans to take on more Indian highways with the usual inane amount of honking and daring passes. We careen up streets that could only be considered one-lane roads in the US, narrowly passing everything from trucks to public transport vans to children walking home from school. Four rickety hours later, we arrive at 7,000’ only to find out our hotel made an error in booking and doesn’t have any availability! No matter because that hotel is connected to a much fancier hotel down the street that has plenty of space in its newly renovated rooms. We happily drink down the last of the tea (we are in Darjeeling after all) and chow down the last of the biscuits (yes, I’m surrounded by Brits) and head to our new accommodations. Despite the long travels, a few of us still had the energy to explore the town before sunset. Matthias, Jazz, and I happen upon the wondrous Mahakal temple. The place is overloaded with Tibetan flags hanging overhead and makes for this amateur photographer’s dream in the evening light.
flags on flags on flags

We wander around with Jazz and Matt filling me in on the history and practices of Buddhism. We end up meandering through the street stalls and decide on some delicious street food – some sort of savory veggie flaky pastry (name TBD) and veggie samosas. To describe in one word: delish! We polished off our night with some coffee and wonderful conversation.

The rest of Darjeeling flew by. We rented a van to explore all the city and its surroundings had to offer: a gorgeous Japanese peace pagoda perched on the mountainside, a questionable cable car ride over the Happy Valley tea plantation, the well-oiled machine that is the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Center, the Zoo/Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and a sunrise viewing over Tiger Hill complete with a spec of Mount Everest off in the distance.

 Peace Pagoda, Darjeeling
 The majesty of being up in the clouds
 Gorgeous views
Happy Valley Tea Plantation, because Darjeeling
 Sunrise over the Himalayans from Tiger Hill
This mountain range puts the Rockies to shame. Seriously, google their highest peaks.


The Tibetan refugee center was the most rewarding to visit, because of its people and their bluntness about Tibetan history. The refugees arrived in 1959 to escape the Chinese invasion and set up this camp as an emergency relief center. Now they sell beautiful, handcrafted items that are made on the premises – wool arrives raw and is transformed into beautiful scarves, carpets, purses, sweaters…really whatever your heart desires. The place has settled into a rhythm with tea time at 2:00pm. These artisans have kind faces with a warm smile that reaches the eyes. Most of the people were happy to share their stories, and when they spoke, they spoke with this sense of strength that’s difficult to describe. It was an incredible experience to see a place that really is so well run. It should be a model for other centers around the world for its quiet efficiency and authentic homeliness. The sense of family and tradition ingrained in the work being done is so heartwarming.

[forewarning: one picture contains a graphic image]
 An impression of the community
 Sewing away to make beautiful sweaters and jackets
I chose to include these pictures, because it was a point of discussion for the group. We were shocked to see these pictures, particularly because of how open they were with their country’s history. The entire center is a tribute to Tibet and its story.
All in all, Darjeeling was a wonderful place where I found myself at home in the mountains, but also surrounded by beautiful culture and people. I loved this city, because I felt comfortable there. No one stared at me or made me concerned about my safety even when I walked alone. It was a strange contrast from Kolkata to the train station to Darjeeling. It just shows how diverse India is!
Lots of love,

Lena

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