(A visit to Calcutta & the hills around Darjeeling in the Spring of 2005 – ‘You don’t go to India for a holiday’)
When I returned from Kathmandu in the Autumn of 2003 I knew that there was a ‘need for a change’ and that the visit would be my last one to Nepal for sometime. Where should I go to next? There are many wild places in the world and some of them attract me, but the Indian sub-continent has always been a draw.
Calcutta, hot, sticky and faded, is an unlikely holiday destination but is a place that is worth visiting, especially if you are in transit to Darjeeling and the Hills. Here, among the bustle of one of modern India’s largest cities you can find ‘Relics of the Raj’: wide gardens, run-down churches, and a creaking tramway system, but also much that is ‘traditional India’ – temples and holy men, markets and a mass of humanity. An overnight train ride starts you on the journey to the ‘Hill Station’ of Darjeeling, a charming mix of the old ‘Raj’ and a modern Indian holiday resort. Tea plantations abound as our car climbs steadily from the plains, sharing the road with local traffic and the ‘toy train’ that chugs its daily way from Siliguri to the hills.
After time in Darjeeling we set off for our springtime walk in the hills. This is not a cold, high walk – but rather a gentle ramble along the wide Singalilla ridge with extensive views to Khanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, and into the deep valleys of Eastern Nepal. This area does not see trekkers. We zigzag upwards through rhododendron forests, trying as always to get reasonable photographs, but also admiring the view of the highest mountains in the world. Climbing to our ‘high point’ of Phalut (11,700′) we pass through alpine moorlands, with undulating ripples of dwarf rhododendron & poisonous aconite shrubs. Next day we drop down through a forested wonderland of rhododendron and magnolias, silver firs, pines and chestnuts. In these forests are to be found black bears and red pandas. After our journey back to Darjeeling we return to Calcutta for the return flight to the UK.
‘Relics & Rhododendrons’ is the colourful story of a short but very enjoyable visit to India – it was ‘nice to back’ after a gap of fifteen years.
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