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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Motivation Darjeeling

Puri without the bhang isn't so great. The saving grace really ended up being the Hotel Gandhara, with its pool, chill atmosphere, and toward the final days of our stay, some young European backpackers. I took full advantage of the opportunity to practice some German in anticipation of Vienna.

Getting from Puri to Darjeeling actually has some logic as far as itineraries go. The two are connected via Calcutta by airports in Bhubaneswar in Orissa, and Bagdogra on the northern West Bengal side. Adam has wanted to see snow since forever, and Darjeeling is just a stone's throw (about 40 km) from Gantok, which lies in Sikkim, and indeed has snow year round, or so I've read. Indeed, in Thai, "hi ma lay", the word for Himalaya, contains the word for snow, i.e. "hi ma".

At 6 AM, we didn't get off to such a good start, as the car we had rented had some defect that obliged us to turn back to Puri within five minutes of setting off. Car change effected (to a much nicer model) and we were off, in comfort, bidding farewell to the lovely Orissa countryside.

Enter Jet Airways, the tried and true favorite of the subcontinent. They fly to both destinations so we were able to get a single ticket. Interestingly, although they checked the backpack all the way through to Bagdogra, they gave us two sets of boarding passes, which led me to believe that we would have to disembark in Calcutta. We did actually alight the plane, only to be instructed to get back on. It was the same craft that would take us through to our final destination.

There were tons of police and soldiers when we arrived, as West Bengal's Chief Minister was due to pay a visit the very same day. She would do well to fix the roads in that region of the state. They were in deplorable shape. Luckily for us, the charge for a big car was only nominally more than for a small one, and we set off in style, yet again, on a 90 km mountain climb, which would take the better part of three hours.

The mountain views started right away. Our driver was a nice and handsome chap, who played Hindi movie songs on the stereo and was patient enough to converse with me as I mangled the Hindi language. As our journey progressed, climbing ever further, going around seemingly countless hairpin turns, the scenery got ever more impressive. It became foggy as we got high enough to have low flying clouds in our midst. 

Darjeeling is actually a bustling town, full of commerce, and with a significant Tibetan exile community. Indeed the vibe is very Tibetan, and the altitude of over 2100 meters together with the mountain air adds to it. In July, the temperature gets down to 9 or 10 Celsius at night; although with no wind, it doesn't seem so cold. Nevertheless, we immediately bought warm clothes upon arrival from a lovely Tibetan shop. Items included two gorgeous hand-made wool cardigans with hoods (matching, of course), as well as two really neat pairs of gloves. The gloves are wool knit, with soft cotton lining. The fingers are open for dexterity, but can be covered, turning them into mittens. Great for winter bike riding in Vienna.

In addition to beautiful scenery and a very positive vibe, Darjeeling actually has scores of activities, very unlike Puri. Tea tasting, pony riding, even white water rafting (though we may skip that last one), just to name a few. So on the first morning, after a rather starchy but certainly hearty breakfast, we set out to check things out and have some fun.

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