Darjeeling Unlimited!

Hey everyone, this week it’s Tully taking a turn on the blogging rotation!

I’m so excited to share with everyone our awesome time in Darjeeling and on to Kolkata! After finishing our trek and saying our goodbyes to Sikkim and the wonderful people we met there, we spent a day driving down to the plains of West Bengal, a 6-hour ride. We got settled in Hotel Tower View, which was a lovely little guesthouse with amazing views of the mountain ranges (for the few hours it was clear!) and a wonderful overlook of Darjeeling.

Darjeeling was a bit of a crash landing for some of us. It is a Western haven with tourist shops and internet cafes spotting the landscape, a polar opposite of the Himalayan foothills we had just left. Most of us did appreciate this at one point or another in our stay, though, when we were able to Skype our loved ones! 🙂

Our first full day in Darjeeling was spent at the amazing Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, where some of us were able to see our spirit animals (a theme we have carried through our journey). When comparing this to an American zoo, the entrance fee was only R100 ($2!) and it was quite an amazing place. I personally find my spirit animal to be the red panda, which is the state animal of Sikkim and is also extremely important to West Bengal (it is an endangered species), so I was in excitement overload when I saw there were a decent number of red pandas for me to stand and watch! There was also a sun bear, Bengal tiger, black leopard (Sterling’s spirit animal!), cloud leopards, snow leopards, and many other local animals! The zoo was connected to the Mountaineering Institute, so we all had the opportunity to see items connected to the first and many of Everest treks.

While in Darjeeling, some of use took the opportunity to get clothes made. There are great markets for fabric and tailors who work extremely quickly! The markets are labyrinths but walking around enough you will eventually find your way back. In smaller groups, we went to the Tibetan Refugee Center. This is an extraordinary place where people (some who crossed the Tibetan/Indian border when they were twenty) have come to escape China’s oppression of Tibet. They make various crafts and sell them, it is also a compound they can live at. Some of the group had the opportunity (through Dan, who speaks Nepali and could interpret) to hear the stories of those who crossed the border with the Dalai Lama.

On our last full day, we went to the Happy Valley tea factory, a small tea plantation on the hillside of Darjeeling. We walked through the tea fields to the factory where we heard about the process of making the tea and preparing it for export to the UK, mainly. We used the rest of our last day in Darjeeling to visit our favorite foodstall, run by a lovely couple (I call it Smiley’s because of the man who works there). We munched on some Darjeeling eggrolls, sort of a crepe cooked in egg with veggies wrapped in deliciousness consumed as many momos and chowmein buns as we could!

Our travelling day was hectic.  We drove down to Siliguri with one of the most interesting drivers yet. We think he gave us a discount because he was a smoker who spent much a the time clearing his throat and spitting out the window. Our drive was around 3 hours and took us further down the mountains to the very flatlands where we could catch a train to Kolkata. We arrived early at the train station and spent our time reading, snacking, and some people explored Siliguri.

The train left at 9 PM and arrived a bit after 7. We were in a sleep car next to a very sweet newlywed blind couple who founded the first blind theatre in Kolkata. Each section of the train slept six, with three bunks on each side. Some of us got a better sleep than others (some not sleeping at all!) It was an amazing experience and definitely prepared us for our upcoming 20 hour train ride. Speeding through fields is extremely relaxing, and contrasts nicely with rolling into Kolkata at 7 AM and seeing people hanging outside the train because it is so full!

Kolkata is definitely somewhere different than anywhere we have been so far. We are here to volunteer, and we are all so excited about it.

Tully and Greta are volunteering at Shanti Dan, a home for physically and mentally disabled girls. Sarah is at Daya Dan with very young children with disabilities.  Sterling, Alice, and Dan are volunteering at Kalighat, the home for the dying and destitute. Ellen is volunteering with younger disabled children at Shishnu Bhavan, and Kaila is volunteering at Prem Dan, a hospice. We are all very excited at the opportunity to get the know these houses and have a chance to help out, even if it is just for a few weeks!

Lots of love from everyone! We all miss everyone and are so excited at the experiences we will be able to share upon our return.