The day-long overland trip down from Sikkim to Darjeeling was bitter sweet. I was over-excited at the prospect of exploring one of India’s tea capitals but was annoyed to have chosen to leave Sikkim on the day the monsoon stopped and the sun came out. I’d spent a week waiting in Yuksom for the weather to change and allow safe passage on the Goechala mountain trek, but to no avail.
My time waiting was miserable, holed up in a sparse, basic hostel that offered no shelter from the extreme weather, thanks in part to an entire window pane missing in my bedroom. The town was shrouded in a sheet of thick fog and my bed was covered in a sheet of dampness that was impossible to get dry. I can’t remember ever being so cold.
The guide tried to persuade me to still go on the trek which was possibly the single most ill-advised encouragement I’d ever received. I politely declined and cut my losses by heading south to the oasis of Darjeeling. Having endured a week of misery I promised myself a nice hotel in which to recuperate.
Steeped in colonial history, The Windamere Hotel provided the luxury I needed. A log fire was lit in my room for me when I arrived late at night and I collapsed into the huge, clean and – most importantly – dry bed. With all meals and afternoon tea included in the cost of the room, it was the perfect antidote to cold, wet Sikkim.
Darjeeling is just beautiful and unlike anywhere else in India.
On day one I headed out for a trip on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, also known as the ‘Toy Train’. Confusion reigned at the train station when I was told that I would have to put my request for a ticket in writing to the Station Manager (who was sitting behind a desk in the adjacent room), politely asking for one of the few remaining tickets available that day. I was to include a great many personal details and pretty much beg to be allowed to purchase a seat.
Whilst waiting to know if my request would be granted (to reiterate, to buy a ticket for a train on which there was availability), I met a number of other Brits who were going through the same rather curious process.
Within an hour we were all happily aboard the train, where there was plenty of space, rendering us completely bemused as to what all the fuss was about.
We spent the next few days together discovering all that Darjeeling had to offer, from a day at the wonderful, lush Makaibari Tea Plantation to sample delights such as the Full Moon tea (for which the leaves are picked only on full moon days) to the cramped but welcoming Joey’s Pub to sample local beers and whiskeys.
I became somewhat the butt of the jokes as I had to keep disappearing back to the hotel for my meals. For this reason I was, by comparison, considered to be the ‘monied’ one of the group. I went to great lengths to assure them all that in any other town I would be slumming it with the best of them. It didn’t help that, when we discussed a visit to Makaibari together, my hotel manager caught wind of my interest and placed a discreet phone call to the estate, arranging for me and me alone to be transported out there in a luxury vehicle and to receive a personal guided tour with the enigmatic owner, Mr Rajah Banerjee. After being invited to join him in tasting his ‘tea exoticas’ (amongst them the winner of the world’s most expensive leaf), I spent the afternoon with him and his mad, hilarious wife in their amazing home drinking G&Ts while surrounded by trophy tigers and other majestic beasts that he apologised for having been in their family for generations.
Meanwhile, my British chums were making their own bumpy way out there and paid for a standard visitor’s tour of the site.
The final activity we decided to do together was one of the highlights of visiting Darjeeling and for which everyone was equal regardless of their budget; a view of sunrise over Mount Everest – little chance of there being a VIP golden circle I could be fast-tracked to this time.
Horribly early that morning, my friends crawled out of their pits and I from my palace and we convened in the town centre. We headed off to Tiger Hill, the renowned viewing point at which crowds gather to see the sun rise and hit both Mounts Everest and Kangchenjunga – undoubtedly an entry on anyone’s Bucket List and a once in a lifetime opportunity.
At the top of Tiger Hill is a building with floor to ceiling windows on three sides which offers protection from the bitter pre-dawn cold. On arrival it was packed and a bit chaotic as people jostled to get the best position for the sight before being brave enough to head outside to feel the new morning sun on their faces, which was still a good hour or so away.
In the scrum our group separated and we each settled in to our respective spots, giddy with excitement at this highly anticipated experience.
In time, most of those in the building began to filter outside when the tip-off came that the first rays of sun were about to burst through. I followed the crowd, again in search of the best spot. I had lost sight of my friends by this point but was reluctant to move from the excellent position I’d carved out for myself which promised unrivalled views of the moment the sun awoke and exploded over the horizon.
And there it was.
If I’m honest, not so much an explosion as a little fizzle, but there were lots of oohs, ahhs and camera snapping nonetheless. The sun gently spread its rays across the unobscured fields that lay between us and the horizon, gradually warming us up. The small crowd of people who had also discovered my vantage spot quietly appreciated the gentle breaking of the new day and I stood with them – a tad underwhelmed – for about half an hour.
Meanwhile, around the other side of the building, the vast majority of other people stood in complete awe watching the effect of the thin sunlight slowly find the famous mountain range that was now piercing the sky in a spectacular display of the power of Mother Nature.
It hadn’t occurred to me that the reason the fields I was looking at lay unobscured and unblighted by the world’s highest mountain range was due to the fact that I was facing the wrong way for half an hour.
Once I became aware of the error of my ways I discreetly sidled up to my friends (who had been in the right place all along) and joined in with the gushing ‘wasn’t it amazing’ conversations that everyone around me was having.
Beautiful hotel, fantastic food, VIP treatment. Quite a lot of money.
Facing the right way to see the sunrise hitting Mount Everest. Priceless.
So I’m told, anyway.
My friends had a life experience that money just can’t buy whereas I was just plain out of pocket.