|For the first time that I can remember on the trip so far the sky is cloudy. Only a light, high cloud but a definite change from the clear blue skies we have got used to.
We pulled into New Jalpaiguri roughly on time and the train disgorged the majority of it's passengers out onto the platform. We now faced the challenge of getting to a town called Kurseong, about 30 kms away, to catch the Darjeeling Hill Railway up to Darjeeling itself. The train should run from New Jalpaiguri but a section of track has been disabled by a big landslide for the last two years or so.
I had expected to find a bus station but as son as we got outside the station building we were confronted by a very large car park area which was full of 4wheeldrive jeep type taxi vehicles. We were besieged by guys telling us that we had to take a jeep and that there was not a bus service to Kurseong. We were son to find out why. It was very confusing so not sure if we were doing the right thing we agreed with one taxi driver to take us for 200rps each in a shared taxi. What we didn't know then was just how many we were expected to share with. He put our two main bags up on the roof with a stack of other bags and then squeezed us into the third row seat at the back of the vehicle.
We were the only ones in there at that time but then two people got in the front bench seat. They turned out to be from Darjeeling, the woman lives and works in Paris and the man with her in Belgium. She told us that they had paid for the third seat in the front row to give themselves more room. It looked tight enough as it was with two of them plus the driver. The middle row was soon filled with a family of four adults plus a baby. Then we saw our driver negotiating with a scruffy white guy for the small space left on our row. So taking the hint from our Paris lady we told the driver that we would pay the 200rps to keep the back seat to ourselves. Sardines in a tin would have about as much space.
Once we were all packed in we took off at a rate of knots, horn blaring every ten seconds. It was not too bad at first but then we got to the hills and started climbing. If I had any hair it would have been permanently raised, especially when we got to the really narrow roads with a steep drop on one side and barely room for two of the jeeps to squeeze by each other. I have to say that the driver didn't seem worried and he didn't hit anyone or thing on the two hour ride. This was not a ride for wimps.
We unpacked ourselves at Kurseong and made our way down the narrow main street to the train station to find out that our departure time for the 'toy train' up to Darjeeling had been put back to 3.00pm. Rather than hang around the station for three hours we found a restaurant just down from the station and had an Indian fish and chips lunch which consisted of two well charred pieces of some fish or other and a plate of real chips. The fish was pretty boney but it all tasted good. We abandoned the restaurant fairly quickly as it was invaded by a large party of schoolgirls and got pretty noisy.
Our thirty day rail passes give us free access to the first class waiting rooms so back at the station we availed ourselves of the Kurseong waiting room which was pretty bleak and dark and smelt very strongly from the toilets located at the back.
The train between Kurseong and Darjeeling only appears to run once a day, leaving Darjeeling at 10.15am, arriving at Kurseong at 1.00pm and then leaving Kurseong at 3.00pm for the return trip. The stations are located close to the centres of both towns but in Kurseong it chugs it's way up through the town along the main road, blasting it's horn every few seconds to warn the people and cars of it's coming. It passes within a foot in places of shop front displays and crosses back and forth across the road at bends and corners forcing all traffic to give way. The children love it and wave to the passengers as it passes. You could literally reach out of the train window and help yourself to merchandise from the many shops and stalls. It travels so slowly through the towns that people hop on and of along the way.
We arrived at Darjeeling just after 5.30pm after a spectacular and leisurely ride up through the mountains. We decided to walk to our hotel and soon realised that the town is built on steep slopes which make walking quite strenuous and with the altitude at about 3,000 metres the air is thin which makes it even harder. Still we are tough and struggled manfully onward and upward until we located our hotel. It was dark by the time we got there but fortunately it was on one of the main roads. Our room was quite big and quite reasonable at about £12.50 a night, it had a bathroom and even a TV.
We went out after a quick wash to locate an internet connection of some sort and amazingly the hotel opposite had an Internet area with about four computers but better still they had a wifi link that we could use. We paid 30rps each for an hours connection time but as it turned out we were able to use the same connection from our hotel at the front. It was a good connection so did us proud.
We then went down the road a bit to get a meal. The place we chose was amazing, we knew it must be good because it was packed and we only just squeezed in right at the back. It served a very varied selection of Indian and Chinese vegetarian dishes but just to order the food was a challenge. They had two meant the counter taking orders from a scrum of people and Indians are not slow at coming forward and jumping the queue. You had to order and pay for your food at the counter and then a bevy of cooks and assistants worked their way through the sheaf of orders tucked under a stick on the counter. I counted thirteen people behind the counter in the open cooking area at one time. As the orders were ready another man at the counter called out your number and you had to collect your food from him. It was utter bedlam but it seemed to work and the food was cheap.
A tiring day meant that we returned to our hotel after our meal only to discover that we were able to watch Sky sports on our little TV and we caught the end of the Chelsea match live. Had to turn in early as we are due up at 4am to go up higher in the mountains to watch the sunrise