My imaginary world of Jalpaiguri, Siliguri, and Darjeeling was created in my teen years when I started reading stories written by Samaresh Majumdar, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, and Rabindranath Tagore. As I grew up with Animesh from Samaresh's Uttaradhikar, my dream of visiting tea gardens of Siliguri and Darjeeling also grew with time.
To fulfill my dream, I started my journey to Darjeeling on March 20, 2018. I was excited about my trip but at the same time, I was a bit uncertain about things as I was traveling solo. I was confident enough and inwardly I felt I was daring to be me in such a “Men's World”. Reactions of people around me were, to some extent, understandable, considering the state of women here in South Asia. However, I was determined not to let gender be an obstacle to the discovery of life in my way. I flew from Dhaka to Kolkata in the afternoon, hiring a pre-paid taxi to go to Sealdah station, where I bought my train ticket and waited for a few hours. At 8:30 in the evening, I heard the whistle of Kanchan Kanya Express, my ride to New Jalpaiguri, and boarded the train. After almost a 12-hour journey, I reached New Jalpaiguri next morning, from where I boarded a shared jeep to head toward Darjeeling.
While in the jeep, tea gardens of Siliguri warmly welcomed me. The two sides of the road were filled with green, and it was a real treat to the eyes. The more our jeep climbed up toward Darjeeling the more the clouds came closer and the temperature turned colder. It felt as if I was slowly entering a cold and cloudy cave. The road trip from Siliguri to Darjeeling, with its hilly scenic beauty and tea gardens, was really mesmerizing.
After a three-hour journey, our jeep arrived in Darjeeling in the afternoon. I got off the vehicle and took in the cold, fresh air. I had booked my hotel room already on booking.com app and noted down the address of the hotel. I asked local people for directions in Bengali and English. People of Darjeeling speak mostly Nepali. Since it’s a tourist city, they are also familiar with Bengali, English and Hindi. It would be perfect for you to communicate with them if you spoke Hindi, which came as an obstacle to me as I understand Hindi but can’t speak it. I got the directions and walked to my hotel. It was a 15-minute walk, which was a bit straining as it was an uphill road.
After checking in, I rested in my room for a while and had lunch. In the late afternoon, I planned to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and the Himalayan Zoological Park. I asked the manager, Mr Paul, a sweet-smiling gentleman, for directions. He gave me a handy map and some instructions about how to get there. Stepping out, I took a walk through Chowrasta, watching people around me and exploring myself in a new setting. The road to the HMI and Zoological Park was beautiful, a perfect setting to enjoy a lazy afternoon walk. While I was walking, I could see the clouds piling over the houses built on the slopes of the hill. I was looking at it from above. It was an amazing feeling.
At the Zoological Park, I didn’t miss the chance to look at the famous snow leopard. Then I went to the HMI and met its curator, Mr Chandranath Das, an acquaintance of one of my friends in Darjeeling, and coincidentally, a few years back he’d visited my university, Jahangirnagar University, and we both knew some of the teachers at the university.
Mr Das offered me Darjeeling tea and I enjoyed the hot tea in cold weather. He accompanied me while visiting the museum, and was effortlessly narrating the history of each element. I was listening to the histories and stories of many elements while also observing them. Three things were noteworthy in this museum. One, you could see the instruments the mountaineers used to climb the Mount Everest. Two, you could have a look at the instruments used by Tenzing Norgay from his first expedition of Everest with Edmund Hillary. And three, you could have a look at a telescope in the museum which was gifted by Hitler.
Next, I was returning to the hotel accompanied by Mr Das as he was taking his evening walk. We shared our views, experiences, and philosophies about life. It was a lively discussion in an unknown place with an almost unknown man. I was heartily sharing my own journeys of exploring life. Our walk ended with cups of green tea, sitting at Mall Road amidst the clouds.
When it became darker and colder, I went to Glenary’s Bakery & Cafe, the oldest pastry shop in Darjeeling since the British colonial days, and tasted some pastry and coffee. Sitting on a veranda, having hot coffee in such cold weather was indeed a relaxing experience.
The next day unveiled with a delicious breakfast at Keventer’s, an old and famous restaurant in Darjeeling, where you can get a fresh start of the day with a wonderful view of Kanchenjunga, sipping at Darjeeling tea. Afterward, I rented a car and visited the Japanese Temple, Peace Pagoda and Ghoom Monastery. Each of these places has its own unique features of calmness and serenity. However, the crowd of tourists make these places a bit chaotic quite often.
During lunch time, I returned to my hotel and was having lunch on the terrace. As there was no empty table, a guy came and asked me if he could join me. I smiled and nodded. I came to know he was from Nepal and came to visit Darjeeling for a week. Soon another guy, Satyen, who was also the owner of the hotel I was staying at, joined us. Then a lady named Gillian entered and asked how she could explore the city. She was a solo traveler from Singapore. I referred her to a handy map which I had got from the hotel authority. Satyen was planning to go outside; he asked us, “Why don’t you guys join me?” All of us were free and nodded in excitement. After that, Miguel, another solo traveler from Spain, who checked into the hotel last night, wished to join us. We planned to enjoy a cable car ride and the scenic view of tea gardens. Five solo travelers from five different countries sat in the cable car and wondered about the beauty and uncertainty of life. Amid tea gardens, we got a break from the cable car. It was cold and there was drizzling rain. We ordered momo, beer and tea. Our talk ranged from Dhaka to Madrid to Singapore to Kathmandu. After passing an hour in the tea garden, we returned by the cable car. We had moments to frame and memories to laugh.
In the evening, I met Amitava, a journalist friend from Darjeeling, and his friends at the oldest pub of Darjeeling, Joey’s pub. The pub was small and had nothing to impress the tourists with, but the people of Darjeeling were nostalgic about this place. That’s why they went there after work to pass evenings talking about their sweet and sour memories of life. I liked their welcoming approach toward me and enjoyed answering their queries about my city and my urbanites of dear Dhaka. While returning to the hotel, Amitava escorted me and shared his memories of growing up in Darjeeling and how he’s surviving in the rapid changes taking place between the Gorkhas’ and the Bengalis’ society and culture. After reaching the hotel, I found some tourists playing ukulele in the hotel lobby. Earlier, I was introduced to two of them, so I sat there and sang with them. It was a wooden room, warm, and mild lights were there. The ambience was dreamy, the twinkle of the ukelele’s rhythms celebrated life.
The next day, I had plans to enjoy the early morning view of Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill. As it was cloudy, I skipped the plan and slept till late in the morning. Amitava invited me to visit his home, and I went there and had my breakfast in a homely ambience. Later, I roamed around tea shops and bought many varieties of tea.
The amazing thing about the people of Darjeeling is that they are very gentle, helpful and warm. You can find their warmth in a roadside café, or while searching for your destination, or when you’re sitting by the Chowrasta to while away time. I spent an evening sitting on a bench in Chowrasta and found it so amazing. Watching the people come and go, letting the time pass slowly, drinking hot tea in shivering cold, I wondered about the beauty and temporary nature of life. Moreover, I travelled at a time when the famous rhododendron bloomed, and every household was decorated with brightly colored flowers as if it were a spring festival.
Another night passed. In the morning, I went to Darjeeling railway station, watched the UNESCO World Heritage awarded Toy Train and took a jeep to return to Siliguri. While I was returning, it was raining heavily. The experience of rain amidst the hills and tea gardens was more like a cherry on the top to make my journey more memorable.
Asmaul Husna works as Publication Associate at Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).