Sheryl writes from India.

Part 1: Puri
Part 2: Kolkata
Part 3: Khalaigat
Part 4: Assam
Part 5: Trains
Part 6: Sikkim
Part 7: West Sikkim
Part 8: Darjeeling
Part 9: New Delhi

Home > Part 8: Darjeeling

I've been in Darjeeling for several days now. It's a hill station at around 6,600 feet and a former summer vacation spot for the British during the Empire where the elite came to cool off. Now it's crawling with Indians from Calcutta as well as western tourists.

Darjeeling faces west, sprawling over the hillsides, with steep, winding roads lined with shops and market stalls. Fortunately there is no vehicular traffic on the upper portion so it is more quiet and the air isn't full of diesel.

The day after we arrived there was a strike from 6am to 6pm. A political candidate had been assassinated and all businesses were ordered to shut down or face possible reprisals such as rocks thrown through their windows. The only restaurants that were open were those associated with hotels. Everything was shut down and it was very quiet.

It's been cold and rainy or threatening part of the time, with monsoon-like downpours at night complete with lightning and thunder. I’m not complaining. I'll take the cold any day over the heat. But I'm wearing all of my clothes and have bought a rain poncho. Last night, I wrapped the wool blanket from the hotel around me like a shawl. All of the Indian women wear shawls, but I still got the funniest looks. I didn't care. I was warm.

I took the "toy train" up to Ghoom, several thousand feet higher up. The train is considered a world heritage site. It runs on a narrow gauge track and consists of three cars pulled by a steam engine, with coal and a firebox. We had to stop several times on the way up to let the pressure build up and shovel more coal. The smokestack spewed all kinds of ash, which I'm still picking out of my hair a day later. Wherever the engineer shoveled out the ash, locals would crowd around and collect the smoldering embers for cooking or heating and squat around them for warmth.

There's also a decent zoo with a successful snow leopard breeding program. We saw a male and female, healthy and gorgeous. I had previously seen their pelts hanging in bazaars in Kashgar, China, and Kabul, Afghanistan, so I was heartened to see the threatened and endangered animal in the flesh, even in a zoo.

Tenzing Norgay is buried here. He's the Sherpa who summited Mt. Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953. There's also a small but interesting mountaineering museum and Everest museum containing artifacts from the expedition and more contemporary ones. It's interesting to see how the clothing and equipment has changed over the years.

I visited the Happy Valley tea plantation and learned about the process of picking and preparing the leaves for sale. Only women pluck the leaves from the bushes (originally imported from China). They pick only the new growth all year long. The leaves are dried in the original 1850s era ovens brought by the British. Then they are sorted for quality and the best are exported while the lesser grades are used for Indian consumption.

I poked my head into the Windemere Hotel, a Heritage property of the elegant old variety. I was contemplating afternoon high tea but thought better after I discovered it would cost three times as much as dinner and the sandwiches and cookies just didn't look that good.

This has been a great place to hang out for a while before heading down to Delhi on Saturday.