As much as I would love to plan out a trip for each and every special spot where amazing tea is grown and produced, I want to build a realistic, in-depth itinerary and post it within a week of starting this OSP! 🙂 I have decided to build a travel plan around a place that I don’t know at all and which, until recently, has not been super high up on my travel wishlist: India. More specifically Darjeeling, in West Bengal. India is a daunting destination that calls up intense images of mass poverty, almost aggressive begging and overwhelming crowds. Granted, this is not at all based on personal experience and really, from here my expectations can only be pleasantly surpassed. Of course I’ve come to distrust popular media, especially after what I’ve heard other people believe about gorgeous, sunny South Africa. However, it is still a fact that the population of India in 2012 was 1 236 686 700 (yeah, you read that right, 1,23 billion!) and 32,7% of the country is firmly below the poverty line.
My itinerary will consist of a two week travel plan, with day trips, a vague plan of places to see with some detailed info about the places or how to get there… Basically this is exactly how I plan when I travel; transportation and admin stuff very prepared and more of a loose framework of things I want to fit into a spread of days, while still leaving enough time to meander, smell the city (as per Rudyard Kipling’s travel musings) and get lost in the streets. My itinerary is planned around going at the end of March, before monsoon season starts.
Day 1: Arrive in Kolkata, India
I will land in Kolkata, because I can get less transfers than landing in Bagdogra (the closest airport), and getting to Darjeeling overland is quicker than from Delhi. Also, I get to spend time in two cities! 🙂
In case of delays or tight scheduling and just to decompress from a super long flight, I’ll spend one night in Kolkata before zooming in on Darjeeling. Hostels are roughly ₹800 (Indian rupees) per night (i.e. US$14); I would try to stay in the area of Howrah Train Station, which is where I’m catching a train the next day. The Howrah station is in the North Kolkata area, which is known for it’s old Zamindar buildings and narrow alleyways. Though I might not go looking for these little alleyways quite yet on the first day I arrive, there is another place I would make a beeline for: College Street Bookmarket. A whole street with bookshop after bookshop, in a variety of different language on myriad topics (is what I’ve heard/read); after which I would go to the College Street Coffe House and pore over my purchases (not even kidding, I know I’ll walk away with something).
The first day of ‘take it easy and just take it in’ works well for me, so after College street, I’ll stroll aimlessly for a bit, probably keep an eye out for some sherbet, since late March already sees temperatures as high as 30 Celsius as well as some street food to keep me going. On Scoop Whoop Srishti posted some amazing suggestions of Kolkatan street food to try – those samosas and phuchkas look dangerously delicious! Phuchka: “…In fact, the filling of spiced mashed potatoes dipped in tamarind water or meethe paani (mishti jol) is simply put an explosion of spicy tart, crunch and softness from the potatoes that account for a milieu of happy memories.” I am so ready!
Day 2: Kolkata – Siliguri – Darjeeling
There are a lot of trains between Kolkata and Darjeeling’s closest stations (Siliguri and New Jaipalguri). Apparently the scenery is breathtaking between Kolkata and Siliguri/NJP, but there’s only one train (the Puri Kyq Express 15643) that makes this trip during the day, and that only on Sundays, departing at 7:30am… woohoo, let’s do it! 🙂 While a ticket for a compartment with AC is only ₹890, the cheapest ticket is a basic sleeper for ₹330. I can’t find any info about whether there is a dining car or whether food can be bought on the train, but hopefully I can ask when I buy the ticket and have enough time to grab some goodies at the supermarket.
At the Siliguri Junction train station, I literally just have to cross the road to get to Tenzing Norgay Bus Terminal, from which I can get a bus or a shared Jeep taxi for the last 80km to Darjeeling (I can’t find prices for either one).
In Darjeeling I found an intruiging hotel: Snow Lion Homestay; it is not really a homestay (they call themselves a hotel), but they do tout it as an authentic Tibetan experience… Remember Pocha, the Tibetan yak butter tea from my post on weird and wonderful teas? Being able to try this may make the steep ₹1620 per night worth it. Well, for 2 nights at least; I will definitely write ahead and ask about Pocha, and then probably only stay for 2 out of my 5 nights in Darjeeling. The other nights I would prefer to stay somewhere closer to the ₹1000 per night mark.
Day 3: Hello Darjeeling!
Darjeeling is such a small town, I can easily walk from one end to another in no time! In fact, the Lloyds Botanical Garden, which looks like it’s outside the city on Google Maps, is only about 1,5km away from the Darjeeling Railway Station! 🙂 The first day I would probably sleep in and still walk every single street in Darjeeling, ferret out some restaurants to try out over the next couple of days and even check out where to get a taxi that can take me around to some tea estates on following days. I will aim to do the 1,5km walk to the Botanical Garden.
Day 4 & 5: Get-tea-ing to know Darjeeling
This is the day… the day dedicated to tea! 🙂 I’ll get a taxi/shared jeep to the tea estates one by one. It seems like there are quite a few tea estates which allow visitors and even do guided tours and then sell their own products on the premises (like the coffee plantations in Bali). Allowing enough time to take in their guided tours and check out their tea, I may only be able to do 2 or 3 estates a day. At Happy Valley Tea Estate they charge roughly ₹70 for the guided tour , so I assume the others are similar. There are many tea estates to visit in Darjeeling! These are the ones I have found that have good reviews from different websites and travel forums: Happy Valley Tea Estate (tripadvisor), Glenburn Tea Estate, Tumsong & other estates (Amelia Levy published a list of Secret Tea Gardens of Darjeeling in Tea International).
Day 6: A day of Peace
Raj Bhattarchaya has a great-looking list of bars and pubs on his Darjeeling Tourism website; by day 6 I will definitely have checked out 1 or 2 of them! There is no shortage of monasteries in the greater Darjeeling area (Bhutia Busty Gompa, Yiga Choling Gompa and Ghooma monastery to name only 3); I will make an effort to get a shared taxi to a couple of them during the morning, which means I’ll get an early start.
I guess trekkers and hikers get training around Darjeeling to do various Himalayan hikes, because the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is here, and the Lonely Planet guide listed more than one mountaineering gear shop in Darjeeling. While I won’t take on an entire mountain in one afternoon, I will do a day hike/afternoon hike for sure! The Darjeeling Gorkha Hill Council Tourist Information Centre has a map of treks you can do around the city/area for ₹25.
Day 7: Back to Kolkata
Heading back to Kolkata I would really love to take the UNESCO Heritage Site train: Toy Train aka Himalaya Railway from Darjeeling to New Jaipalguri. It doesn’t seem very expensive, but I can’t find any specific prices or schedule for trains between Darjeeling and NJP, but with a couple of days in Darjeeling, I will probably have sussed out some info. Otherwise I’ll just get a bus or shared Jeep to NJP; at New Jaipalguri train station, I’ll be taking the Ghy Sbc Express 12510 at 14:25. Unfortunately this means I’ll arrive in Kolkata at the very tender hour of 12:45-ish am.
Day 8 – 14: Giving back
I’ve looked at some of the attractions in Kolkata and realized I won’t even be able to do a tightly packed 4-day exploration of the city, but again, not based on personal experience. However, I remember a friend of mine visited Kolkata a couple of years ago and instead of doing the tourist thing, she volunteered at the Mother Teresa House. She loved it and couldn’t recommend it more highly, so I looked into this. Unlike other, more permanent volunteering organisations in the city, they allow people who are visiting Kolkata for a short time to do some good too. The Mother Teresa.org website has all the info you’d need, including cheap places to stay in the area (they don’t provide short-term accommodation). I would only need to show up at an address provided on the website at 3pm, Monday, Wednesday or Friday for orientation. Day 8 on this schedule is a Saturday, so I could spend Saturday and Sunday seeing the city, but I’ll probably do some monasterial exploring and trekking on my first leisurely day in Darjeeling, get to Kolkata a day early and do orientation on Friday.
After 7-odd days of volunteering, I’ll most likely pass out in record time on my flight back home. 🙂 Happy days!
 India: Statistics(2013) Retrieved July 28 from Unicef.org
 Calcutta, India (2014) Retrieved 29 July from Weatherbase
 Srishti (2014) 16 street foods from Kolkata that you absolutely have to have. Retrieved 29 July from Scoop Whoop
 Trains Kolkata Darjeeling Retrieved 29 July from 90 degree internet
 Bhattacharya, R. Happy Valley Tea Estate Darjeeling. Retrieved July 25 from Darjeeling Tourism
 Singh, S., Benanav, M., et al (2013) Lonely Planet India Oakland, USA: Lonely Planet.