Chris Wormald – A Photographer's travel blog.

India: The Bengal Hills

Images and text copyright Chris Wormald and may only be used with written permission

10th Dec 08

Kurseong and Darjeeling

Waking up the Toy Train, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

The Toy Train at Kurseong Station, Bengal Hills

The steam train to Darjeeling is an atmospheric experience. From Kurseong station, at 3pm, it puffs and grinds its way up and up into the hills for hours, stopping for water and being fed by coal – the burnt cinders raked out by the stoker at each stop. I can remember as a child (just) the sound of a steam train under load, the smoke and smuts and the noise of the whistle every few minutes as this one rises ever higher, criss-crossing the road, holding up the 4x4s, the buses, cars and lorries. The steam trains I have photographed in the UK for various clients have an easy life. They should be called toys, not this one. This one really works hard. This is something out of the Railway Children or the Famous Five, off on holiday. Kept going by a loyal team, it is prepared for its journey by busy hands with oilcans and spanners and engineering hammers. Its daily performance brings the crowds. Fathers and mothers bring their children to wave, standing in their doorways for the 250th time, as it huffs and puffs its way into the clouds. Each day is another notch in its belt, another sighting of World Heritage determination. Long, long may it continue to grace us all with its grinding performances, its sheer tenacity.

Arriving at Darjeeling station by steam train, after dark in the Indian Cool, and by Calcutta standards it is cool, at least 15°F. cooler, is an experience to be remembered.

Selling Snacks, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

A friendly taxi driver whisked me to the Alice Villas Hotel in central Darjeeling. Which turned out to be a characterful and friendly gem in a city full of hotels, attentive staff and a very helpful manager makes it the best value hotel so far. For the rupee equivalent of £11.50 a night I got a suite no less! With a double bed that seemed to go on forever in an attic room above a sitting room and a downstairs bathroom. The sitting room had an open coal fire, something I had thought I wouldn’t need in India, until I stayed at the Kurseong Tourist lodge, a friendly reasonably priced hotel, (£10 per night with the single occupancy discount), with a fairly good restaurant owned and run by a circle of fresh-air fiends. (Or so it seemed). The restaurant seemed to be open plan with the rest of the hotel; thankfully my downstairs bedroom door could be closed but there was no means of heat.

Weighing Spices, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

Fish Market, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

I was thankful for the fleece I brought with me that had a collar with a zip up to my ears, and my new Ghurkha hat with its social code built in. Seam to the right – unmarried, seam to the left married with 15 children. My ex-wife is living in France and my best friend is a Brahmacharini or Mataji or some such celibate being, so I thought I would ponce around Kurseong wearing the seam of my hat above my right ear, just to see what happened. Mostly looks of disbelief, (“how can someone so old be unmarried?”) But the prettiest fishseller in the market, married or unmarried, I couldn’t tell – her hair parting was hidden under a scarf to keep the cold at bay, smiled and yes there it was! Downcast eyes, a blush and another wonderful smile- yes a result! The code works. A pity I don’t live in Kurseong. I wore my hat in Darjeeling and at least three boys (all good looking), complimented me on my “nice Nepali hat”. After that I put it away in my bag. Thankfully, now down nearer sea level, I shall have no further cause to carry on the experiment. I’m safe in the knowledge that in Penzance, Glastonbury or Totnes, wearing my Ghurkha hat will mean that I am just another pretentious git.

Granny’s childcare duties, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

With the aid of the BBC five day weather forecast for Darjeeling, (try it, it works), I was fairly sure that the next day as was the last, would be cloudy and cold, and so it turned out to be. I ordered a bucket of coal for my new open fire, and sat and processed the photos of Makaibari and Cochrane on the laptop, emailed family and friends and pretended to myself that I had a sweet little flatlet with room service and a glowing hearth for £78 a week.

Pretty Kurseong, Bengal Hills

Vegetable market, Kurseong, Bengal Hills

As predicted the next day was sunny. There is a tourist tradition in Darjeeling, I have no doubt suggested by the 4WD taxi lobby, that every tourist should get up at 4am in the morning and pay a lot of money to be driven to a viewpoint on Tiger Hill, to catch the first rays of the rising sum on Khangchendzonga mountain in the Himalayas. Using the following logical process that – a) Everyone would have that shot, so it is pointless taking another one. b) It is a tourist scam to keep the 4WDs in diesel, and the tourists from their rupees and – c) I don’t do 4am shots, I had worked out some morning angles the previous lunchtime when I had parted myself from the grate for an hour – of the city with the mountain behind that should look good and be saleable because everyone else would still be coming down from Tiger Hill, so bloody cold that they would forget that they had their c-c-c-cameras.

Male overseers and women tea estate workers, Nr. Kurseong, Bengal Hills

Up I climbed to my viewpoint, Thank you the Dekeling management and ya-boo to the Viceroy who wouldn’t let me do the other one! Khangchendzonga looked remote and dramatic, white with snow in the distance. I wonder why Lord Shiva didn’t choose Khangchendzonga over Mt. Kailash. The matted-haired, ash-smeared aesthetic with His cobra, is maybe, for all we know up there meditating with Kali at his side, when She is not otherwise engaged.

Khangchendzonga and Darjeeling, From St Pauls, Bengal Hills

To make the best use of the one day of good light that the BBC were predicting, I negotiated a three hour site-seeing trip with a driver who could understand my English.

We set off for views of Khangchendzonga from Laden La Road in his small, almost new, Hyundi hatchback. I wonder just how long his car would stay pristine in the chaotic city traffic, driving over potholes big enough to be filled by concrete blocks. The driver certainly knew his city and I got some good views of the mountain looming over the tea plantations in the near and middle distance.

Next stop was the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, established in the sixties when the China Tibet crisis first kicked off.

Hand-knitter, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling, Bengal Hills

The Tibetans that are living there have set up workshops in all aspects of wool-craft as well as other crafts. They sort, card, spin, knit and weave fleeces into high value carpets and clothes, make Tibetan style boots and knickknacks.

Spinner, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling, Bengal Hills

The workshops are open to the public and there is a well stocked craft shop selling the items made on site. The workers are friendly and almost all are happy to be photographed exercising their skills. Many of the workers are now in their autumn years. I hope that they are training young people to take over their roles when they retire. There are blocks of housing and a temple, complete with prayer wheels, for their spiritual and material needs and posters put up in the areas the visitors pass by illustrating that their country is still in the hands of an invading force. Unfortunately despite the wise words of the Dali Lama that spread around the world from his exile in India, Tibet does not really interest the western powers. It is remote and mountainous and has no oil.

Boot-maker, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling, Bengal Hills

I photographed the wonderful timeworn faces of the workers at their looms and spinning wheels using natural light, trying not to be too intrusive. The pictures have a timeless quality, grainy and de-saturated, seemingly from another age.

Carpet makers, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling, Bengal Hills

Machine carder, Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre, Darjeeling, Bengal Hills

Darjeeling has a dog problem. They are everywhere, in every shape colour and size and in every state of decay. OK, I admit it, I am not a dog lover but I found them to be a reason not to prolong my visit to the city. Which is a pity for Darjeeling has some quality and good value hotels on offer, from the elegant, top quality Elgin, which is next door the Alice Villas, and has interiors my mother would have loved, to the budget hotels in the centre, catering for backpackers looking for cheap nights. The city also has some of the best food around in quality and variety from South Indian veggie to Tibetan wholesome and almost everything in between. The little Tibetan run cafe next the Dekeling Hotel, which also has a good ground floor cafe, serves the best veggie spring roll I have had in a long while for about 80 pence and does lemon tea with honey to accompany it. For those of us who miss English style cakes, Glenary’s tearoom is a wonderful place to sit with a pot of tea and an impressive spread of teatime delicacies that makes one think of Dorset rather than Darjeeling.

Darjeeling seems to draw serious American students of Buddhism. I kept coming across them with worried expressions about completing their written work on time. Two girls I talked with had been living in monastic conditions in Bodhgaya studying meditation. They were nice girls with bitten fingernails.

Raj style luxury at the Elgin Hotel, Darjeeling. © Chris Wormald 2010

As an exercise in brass neckism, I went to the exclusive Elgin hotel for a beer. The wonderfully plush Georgian style interiors of the sitting rooms and bar were devoid of people apart from turbaned and liveried staff. I asked if the hotel was quiet because it was off season and was told that they were fully booked. I drank my beer and ate the nibbles in splendiferous silence alone, until one of the liveried ones, perhaps thinking I needed cheering up, put on a Frank Sinatra CD, whereupon I finished my beer and adjourned next door to my Alice Villa sitting room where I listened to bhajans sung in Sanskrit on my MP3 player and played with the fire-tongs and coal fire until bedtime.

Darjeeling is also a shopaholic’s haven, every type of craft from very high end everything including carpets to trinkets with branches of international shippers and packers to dispatch them back to cottages in Chagford or condominiums in Colorado or even nice apartments in Nice. But this mean old troll bought nothing except a purse thingy from the Self Help people, which I don’t want but thought I ought to buy. I was quite ready to donate some money to the Tibetan orphans but was told the box was closed, as the orphans had grown up into adults and gone away. My case, although on wheels, is embarrassingly heavy and can contain no more. I will buy presents later, towards the end of my trip, and fill a lovely small aluminium box that I have seen men making in a variety of towns, which can take its time coming home by sea.

leaving Darjeeling on the diesel Toy Train, Bengal Hills

Despite a hint in the Lonely Planet of an extremely long haul, myself and another four of five westerners as well as a large contingent of locals, opted to take the diesel toy train from Darjeeling all the way down to Siliguri, a nine hour trip; a sort of slow decent that divers have to undergo when surfacing but in reverse. A comment that I would like to pass on to the relevant person, the head toy train driver or someone like that, Why not stop at Kurseong station for an hour at lunchtime where passengers can avail themselves of the friendly Ghurkha cafe on the station premises, wander around the town, and smile at a fishseller, instead of over an hour at some other station, seemingly in the middle of nowhere where there was not even a chai stall. Just a thought.

The diesel toy train does not have the charm of its steam powered older brother, it is as slow and follows the same picturesque route, but something is missing. Still, I would far rather let the train take the strain, than sit 12 up in a 4×4 without room to breathe and someone’s granny on my lap or baby screaming in my ear. The alternative of hiring a 4×4 or taxi just for myself is not an option. It is harmful to the planet and expensive. Finding one to share and controlling the number of occupants is OK when arriving by train. There are always people there ready to share on the way up. I spotted several Toyota style 4x4s on the way down crammed with people inside to the point of bursting plus someone on the roof and an adventurous (or foolhardy) person standing on the back bumper. So many accidents waiting to happen due to the greed of the 4×4 owners/drivers. One had come to a stop as the train whistled and cranked its way down the hill. The disgorged passengers standing around whilst two of the women were being seriously sick by the roadside.

Arriving after dark at Siliguri, I checked into a LP. recommended hotel. The Conclave advertises non AC rooms at 500Rs Typically, the non AC rooms were full (like hell they were) A western traveller is always told that. So I had to have an AC room for 990Rs. I don’t like AC, it is not necessary in December in North India apart from being ungreen, it’s bloody noisy. The restaurant at the Conclave is quite good but does not serve beer with a meal. A guest has to have his or her beer upstairs in the room, hidden from view. Needless to say I didn’t bother.

Goodbye to the Bengal Hills

I got up early to catch the 7.55am Khangchendzonga express from New Jalpurguri, a mile or two from Siliguri to Bolpur/Shantiniketan. After finding my seat, I was soon in conversation with a Bengali woman in her fifties sitting opposite and we chatted as the miles and the immaculate farmed landscape passed the window. We had much in common, she a green leaning puppeteer, artist and playwright and myself a green leaning photographer with an interest in Indian spirituality. She answered some questions that I have been formulating. Sometimes long Indian train journeys, and they are always much longer than you think, sometimes lasting for several days and nights, can throw a light on India that could only come from a homestay with an Indian family. A westerner, with no Hindi or Bengali at his or her disposal can only hope for a communicative Indian with good English, and nothing to do but watch the countryside go by from a train window. One doesn’t learn much about India talking to other westerners in traveller’s ghetto type cafes.

Follow this link to a page about my excursions to two great venues in the Bengal Hills –

https://chriswormald.wordpress.com/two-gems-in-the-hills/

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3 Comments »

  1. This is another interesting blog concentrating on this hill region area, and lovely photos to accompany it. The people in this region all seem to have something to do, very busy, but nonetheless portray a cheerful attitude. The photos of the Tibetan Refugee Centre really do have a wonderful timeless quality to them, but I feel sympathy for the old man sitting next to his knitting wife, who looks very depressed and perhaps humiliated from being viewed as an exhibit. The chap in the vivid red sweater and pink knitted hat looks charming, and his expression very, ‘my life is okay,’ I am happy selling nuts, or dhal or whatever it is (smile.)

    Comment by Photofan — February 15, 2010 @ 5:09 pm

  2. The post is from 2008 – that is almost like seven years back and I stumble upon this only today. One word to sum up my feelings on viewing these wonderful images – nostalgic. The images truly have a timeless appeal and just want to go home so badly right now. The image with the caption: Kanchenzonga from St Pauls school, although common, never fails to enthrall me.

    Comment by Ashwin — February 12, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    • Hello Ashwin, Thanks for your comment on my “Bengal Hills” page. I remember that trip with nostalgia too. Kurseong is a lovely stop off on the road/rail to Darjeeling, the views from Darjeeling are indeed stunning. I hope you manage to get home soon – perhaps you have family there. I would like to go back as well, but India is such a vast sub-continent. I have not been to Kerala for a very long time; I expect my next Indian journey will be there. Kind regards – Chris

      Comment by chriswormald — February 12, 2015 @ 1:31 pm


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