Darjeeling is a beautiful town 2,000 meters above sea level. I had the best Chinese meal of my life here, and watched an incredible sun-rise from Tiger Hill. The town was cold, but the friendly people more than made up for that. I'm glad I liked Darjeeling so much, because reaching the town was hard work.
Travel in India was generally fairly good. Since I wasn't on a tight budget, I didn't have to take the cheapest option for everything. This meant my stay was more comfortable than that enjoyed by friends who went as students. I did, however, have one nightmare journey.
My Dad came out to India to join me for a couple of weeks. Before coming out, he booked train tickets from Varanasi to Darjeeling. The trip would take about 48 hours in total, with an overnight break in the middle. We would leave Varanasi at 3:30pm on day 1, have a two hour wait in Bihar, then take an overnight train to New Jalpaguri, arriving early on day 2. After a night in a hotel we would take the world famous toy train to Darjeeling. This final stage was a seven hour ride through incredible scenery before we arrived at Darjeeling, a little over two days after leaving Varanasi.
We spent the morning before the journey in Sarnath, where the Buddha preached his first sermon. It was a pleasant excursion after which we returned to Varanasi, picked up our luggage and went to the station.
As soon as we reached Varanasi Station our plans began falling apart. Our train wasn't on the departure boards and no-one could tell us when it would be leaving. It soon became obvious that we had no chance of making our connection in Patna. We booked another ticket, a sleeper that would leave the following day, around the time when we should have been arriving in New Jalpaguri.
We left Varanasi after a 7 hour wait. Waiting on any train station is a drag. In Varanasi we had several persistent beggars to deal with, as well as running between platforms, chasing rumours of our train. We finally arrived in Patna around 5am.
The Lonely Planet says that Patna has 'only a handful of worthwhile sites'. It's not a place that tourists generally visit. When we arrived it was still dark. Sleeping people lay everywhere in the station. We looked for the retiring rooms but they were full so we decided to find a hotel. It was about 9 hours until our train to New Jalpaguri and all hope of a relaxed journey to Darjeeling were gone.
We took a taxi to the city's main hotel, but couldn't find any way into the grounds. The neighbouring hotel had space, but £70 seemed a little steep for 9 hours. We had a taxi drop us in an area with three hotels, all of which were full. We were then stranded at the side of a road, dawn fast approaching, with nowhere to stay. Half a dozen cycle rickshaw drivers waited for us, hoping for a fare. We called the remaining hotels in the Lonely Planet, but they were all full. We were stood on a roadside with no idea where to go.
We were about to return to the incredibly expensive hotel when a man approached and asked if we were looking for a hotel. We were indeed. Tired as we were, dealing with a tout wasn't a problem. We followed him, keeping an eye on our surroundings just in case.
The man led us to a hotel where, for the price of 800 rupees, we could have a room until lunchtime. It wasn't too bad a room either, compared to some we'd had. I'd expected the man to stay around and ask for a tip, or to wait in the hotel for a commission, but he left as soon as we were in the building. We were incredibly grateful to him.
While the accommodation standards were OK, the hotel staff themselves seemed to be trained at the Basil Fawlty School of Hospitality. All we wanted was to sleep for six hours and leave. But there were a constant stream of interruptions: could I come down and pay an advance?; could they borrow our passports to take copies?; would we like towels? About ten, after a couple of hours sleep, we were woken once more: would we like our bin emptied?
Sometimes, being gracious and polite is hard work.
About midday we returned to Patna station. Dad and I took a cycle rickshaw through the drizzly city, which rekindled my spirit of adventure. It died once more at the station, where we waited and waited. The four hour window for our connection at New Jalpaguri began to look shaky. We met another couple of travelers on the platforms, the only other tourists we'd seen in Patna. Trains came and went, with no clue to whether they were ours. We realised that most of them were local trains, and eventually found our own one.
We were traveling from Patna in sleeper class which was busy and hectic. Beggars and hawkers wandered through the carriage at each station. Other passengers listened to music on their mobiles. We got little sleep. We finally arrived at New Jalpaguri around thirty minutes after the toy train should have left. It looked as if the train hadn't departed, but the idea of another seven hours train travel was too much - even on one of the world's greatest train lines. Instead we hired a jeep to take us to Darjeeling, the last stage of our journey.
One of the interesting things about travel is that the frustrations are an integral part of it. Admittedly, our misadventure in Patna was less trying than many of the things than some of the things people I know have. And, while I'd never have chosen to have the journey we had, it was endurable moment by moment. Even a patch of station floor can be restful – it's more about attitude than situation.
As soon as we drove off in the jeep the trials of our journey was behind us. We passed quiet forests and tea plantations on our way to the foothills. From there we rose higher and higher, incredible views opening out below us (as well us steep drops beside us). I think the mountains around Kurseong and Darjeeling are some of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.
As soon as we reached our hotel in Darjeeling, all our problems disappeared. We stayed in the Hotel Tranquility whose rooms had stunning views. It was a long journey, but I'm glad we went.