Darjeeling - a long way to go for a cup of tea you might think, but there's so much more to the place than a good brew. Established by the British as a centre for tea plantation as well as a hill station where people could go to escape the heat on the plains, it's now a busy, chaotic, ramshackle place, built on a series of bluffs with houses stacked vertiginously on the slopes. At the highest point you escape the noise and traffic, but not the cold. There are also stupendous views of the mountains including Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain. Or at least there would be if it weren't for the clouds obscuring the view. So in the absence of anything to look at I retreat for a cup of tea.
I arrived two days ago on the Darjeeling Mail which pulled into the station of New Jalpaiguri only an hour late and then crammed myself into an overcrowded jeep for the climb into the hills. The first thing you notice after the cold is the change in physiognomy. Indian faces are in the minority here, and people of Central Asian descent dominate. There are immigrants from Nepal and Tibet and it feels like a different country to the rest of India. In fact, signs everywhere proclaim this is Gorkhaland and there is a vociferous movement for self rule. Monks clad in dark red robes can be seen in the streets and people are bent double carrying incredible loads on their backs supported with a forehead strap.
Yesterday I took a trip on the Toy Train, a single gauge railway which links the lowlands with Darjeeling. The track follows the road and at certain points the train passes within inches of shops so that you could reach out and grab something. You could also get your head knocked off, but no Health and Safety nonsense here in India.
In the afternoon I walked down to the well-maintained zoo and saw many animals including an Asiatic bear and a snow leopard. This this the only place in the world where you can find this elusive and enigmatic creature in captivity.
Today I have been organising my trek. I've booked a guide and hired a sleeping bag. I also went shopping in the bazaar for some warm clothes. I'll be at some high altitudes and the temperatures can plummet at night. The Singalila trek follows a ridge that borders with Nepal and if the weather permits, gives fine views of the Himalayas and particularly of Everest. So I'm praying for good weather. I'll be gone for about a week, so there's a good chance I'll see something. Otherwise, I'll just have to have another cup of tea.