by
on April 7, 2013 on 4/7/13 from ,

Headed North Pt. 1 – Tea and Toy Trains, Mountains and Mist – Guwahati, Siliguri and Darjeeling

On a very impromptu whim about 3 weeks ago, I decided to tag along on 3 of my friends’ trip to the North – we’re leaving during school but magically only missing 2 days of it as I no longer have Friday or Wednesday class and Thursday is a holiday. With that week gone, it leaves two weekends and a full week – 10 full days to explore Guwahati, Siliguri, Darjeeling, Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar, Mcleod Ganj and Dharamsala before heading back through to Bangalore via flights from Amritsar, Delhi and Mumbai. I’ll update more later!

UPDATE: Update time! I’m just going to break this into two entries since the trip itself was pretty naturally broken up into the Northeast (Guwahati, Siliguri and Darjeeling) and the Central/Northwest (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Amritsar, Dharamsala/Mcleod Ganj). 

Here’s our schedule just to give a little bit of an outline for what I’m writing about – 

April 4th – At 4am we got in a taxi and headed an hour out to the Bengaluru International Airport, departing on a 7:50am flight to Guwahati, in Northeast India. Upon arrival we took a taxi to the Train Station and spent a pretty relaxing day in Guwahati, a relatively decent, though hot, experience. Oranges (which turned out to be rotten in the center) and grapes (covered in gnarly black fly guts?) in hand we descended into the filthy train station, certainly the only white people or even really women in sight, largley surrounded by grungy old men who had clearly not boarded nor intended to board a train anytime soon. After a close call with a beggar who had been following us for hours and tried to pull one of us off the train in an attempt to have us give him money, and some miscommunication with the conducter assitant who was convinced we were supposed to leave on a later train, we finally boarded our 6:30pm train to Siliguri. Indian trains are notoriously noisy, always dirty and nearly always booked not days or weeks but MONTHS in advance, not to mention the logistical nightmare of not knowing exactly where you’re going and having to stay aware and awake so you’ll get off at the right stop. Additionally, if you decide to ride in even 2nd class, as we did, you’ll end up paying just as much as you would for a super nice sleeper bus. IN short, I have a hard time believing that Indian trains are ever really worth it. However, it is quite the Indian experience and looking back, I’m glad we did it. Also, on the plus side, since we booked 4 people in the 2nd tier, 2nd class section, we had inadvertently booked a whole compartment just for us, leaving us with plenty of room to hang out until we went to sleep…if you can sleep.

April 5th – Our tickets said our arrival would be at roughly 3am so we set our alarm for 2:45 and hit the hay. As we woke up, disoriented and paranoid that we had missed our stop, it was clear that we had no what to do if they didn’t stop, or whether we would even know we missed it at all. An anxious 40 minutes passed before we encountered a station marked, “Siliguri”…before passing it at full speed! Choice swear words ensued, with all of us frantically discussing what we should do and wandering aroudn the other compartments of the train trying to find someone who would know what was going on. B finally ran into a compartment in 3rd class, full of men, all casually waking up and preparing to get off, to which they laughingly informed her that there are TWO Siliguri stations, right next to each other and that for whatever reason, this train had decided to only stop at the Siliguri Junction stop that night. We finally arrived at 3:45 but, being 4 Western women in an unfamiliar North Indian city, decided to wait until daybreak to find a bus, or, if necessary, a taxi, to Darjeeling, a city at least 2 hours from Siliguri. Come 6am, we were lucky – not only is there a convenient, safe option to get to Darjeeling but it’s also cheap! Shared taxis are gigantic, as big as a Hummer but 100x more efficient. The front and middle seat sections are normalish size, but wider, easily fitting 4 grown men across. The trunk space was replaced by parallel bench seats fitting another 4 people, for a total of 12 comfortably. And that’s just comfortably! Indians certainly know how to squeeze more in and throughout the 2 hour semi-organized carpool we had between 8 and 16 people in the jeep at any given time. Only about 4 others were in the jeep for the entirety of the journey like we were – the rest were just using it for sections of the journey, casually hopping on and off at worksites, forest stops and villages along the way. For the entire ride, we paid about $2.50 each. Not so bad, eh?

Darjeeling quickly became my favorite city in India – it had all the charm of Nepal and all the craze of India, melded into a lovely mixing pot. Additionally, I’ve found that traveling can be very uncomfortable in India – watching other travelers interact in public places or even amongst each other can be horrifying, with huge generalizations, stereotyping, ignorance, political incorectness and overall stupidity. However, there was a very unique brand of tourist in Darjeeling and they all seemed genuinely interested and engaged in trying to live there and experience it as best they could. We spent the next 4 days climbing up mountains, seeing the sunrise from Tiger Hill (which all of the Nepali and Indian tourists, plus the locals who must occasionally come for some early morning entertainment, treated like a sporting event – when the sun finally broke through the thick fog, everyone was hooting and hollering louder than at a cricket match), bargaining and buying beautiful souvenirs with money that should have lasted a month in India, and drinking more tea than I will in a lifetime, so local and fresh I could have picked it myself. Those four days also relaxed the trip and got us ready for the last six, days which would prove to be far more…thrilling…more to come.