D1 – The lights from Pankhabari

Cold is an understatement. My feet are numb. This internet connection sucks. That said though, I’m more than happy to be back here – back in the Darjeeling Hills.

I sit in a lively internet cafe set unsuspectingly in the middle of a subzi mandi (vegetable market) in Kurseong. Music ranges from Pink Floyd to Himesh Reshamiya and the friendly folk in the booths adjacent to mine sing along regardless. This is the end of Day 2 of 5 of my Darjeeling trip and as you can see I’m a day late in blogging. Let’s pretend though that this is still day 1. Hopefully I’ll get to a faster internet cafe tomorrow and will be able to update 2 and 3 together. Till then, a very warm welcome to Darjeeling!

Day 1 didn’t start to great for me and that pretty much set the tone for things to come. I left home without my air ticket (a first for me – old age fast catching up I guess) and after some initial panic, Air Deccan’s helpline sorted things out for me. I now had a PNR number from which I’d get a printout at the airport itself. However I was still running late for my check in and for a change their service was on schedule! Managed to make it in the nick of time. We ended up taking of late as it is. Landed in Guwahati a little while later only to be grounded there on account of a technical fault with our aircraft. Much drama later we were sent into the terminal building with fears of having to make the journey to Bagdogra by road (heaven help us!) . Miracle of miracles – the aircraft was repaired and ready to depart by about 4 pm. More chaos at the departure gates as fights broke out between the passengers and security staff. I have to say with low cost carriers filling the skies, Indian airports are finally becoming as entertaining as railway stations.

Young Roshan Rai (our driver from my last Darj trip) met me at the airport and chaperoned me away from a long line of waiting touts. We were soon on our way to Darjeeling. Since we were over 2 hours late in starting our road journey, the mountain fog which normally sets in after sunset was a worry but Roshan assured me that he’d get me through safely. As it turned out there was none that night.

We passed Sukna at 6 and with that the late running downhill train service to Siliguri. From Sukna we took the less frequented Pankhabari road to Kurseong where Roshan assured me of running into at least a few wild elephants or the odd cheetah en route. But like the fog, there were none. The Pankabhari road is probably one of the steepest motorable roads and we didn’t quite get past 1st gear on most occasions. The road discipline and cooperation amongst drivers that comes with it is exemplary to and to be seen to be believed – no where else in India will you find such perfect road manners – yet another reason why I have a special fondness for the people of this region.

The lights of Kurseong with its TV tower flashing red can be seen for quite a while on this route and it gives one the false feeling of being a lot closer to the town than one is. It is still a shorter route than the regularly travelled Hill Cart Road though. Just short of one of the oldest tea estates in the area – Makaibari – we passed the site of an assasination attempt on the life of Subhash Ghising – one of the prominent leaders of the Gurkha Hill Council. With that chilling fact behind us, we prodded on past Castleton Tea Garden (seen on my last visit) and into the town of Kurseong only to stop for dinner at Amarjeet Dhaba – run exclusively by a family of sardars. Some good chicken curry and rice later, we were on our way to Darjeeling.

The last leg of the journey was mostly uneventful except for the sighting of the late running downhill train to Kurseong – steam hauled no less. Truly majestic sight as it emerged from the darkness to swiftly pass us by and dissapear once again into the darkness. Ah, that smell of steam..

Checked into Hotel Alice Villa (another old haunt!) a little while later, watched some crap on TV and was out like a bat minutes later. It’s good to be back 🙂

Next up : day 2 and 3

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