Getting closer to heaven (completed)

April 15: We finally got some decent internet! Here’s our tale of our last day in Kolkata and our arrival in Darjeeling.

Darjeeling, India – Friday, April 12. We have finally arrived in the hill country where the Brits used to summer when Calcutta got too unbearable. (We reached that threshold the minute we arrived there.)

But getting to Darjeeling wasn’t easy. Yesterday we flew from Kolkata to the town of Bagdogra, which seems notable for its airport and not much else. We stayed in the best hotel in town overnight, and yet it was rather a steep comedown from the LaLit. Oh well. We have been spoiled!

Now, to get to Darjeeling. Sometimes a 10-hour train runs, or you can drive. We did hook up with an eager guide at the airport, who met us this morning as we started off on what turned out to be almost a six-hour car ride. The voting process is beginning, and the roads are full of electioneering vans. But then the shorter road to Darjeeling was closed off because a big meeting was being held somewhere on it – or at least that’s what they said. Soooo, we had to go the longer and much more uncomfortable route.

It did have some nice sights on the way.

About forty minutes out of Bagdogra, the AC could be turned off as we began climbing into the hills. We saw lots of tea plantations, though this tea would evidently not compare to the wonders of Darjeeling. The pickers were out in some of the fields, and we began to see pine trees as our driver plowed relentlessly through very twisty, very narrow roads. The air smelled fresh and we finally started to remember what cool felt like. We stopped at the town of Mirik, which has a great lookout post over the sign they stole from New York. Sigh.

We paused here for a snack, as everyone seems to do. The town is growing – a hotel is being built near a memorial lake – and commerce is booming, though some stores are merely rugs thrown on a convenient plot of ground. The people are looking different as we are getting closer to the Himalayas.

We reached a lovely tea plantation, where travelers stop for a stretch and a cup of tea. The scenery really started to change as we got deep into majestic pine forests. We were so far north that the other side of the road was Nepal and we still had a foot in India. Little tiny blocks of stone marked the border.

The town of Ghuum was our next glimpse of civilization. It is the terminus of an historic train ride from Darjeeling, which we will take later in our visit.

And then it was on into Darjeeling, a rather larger city than we expected, attached to high hills in a most precarious fashion. Traffic is ghastly, so guess it’s either too popular with tourists, or just over-populated. More to come, but first, some last stories about Kolkata.

Don’s final tour of Kolkata: Yesterday morning Don the Intrepid took another one of those early walking tours that left him soaking wet and exhausted by noon. His story:

On our last day in Kolkata, I got up early again to take a walking tour through another part of this complex city. This time it was through the original site of Black Town, now North Kolkata, that had been one of the original three villages that the British bought from a local leader. The Brits set up their headquarters and residences in the area they called White Town. The jungle area between Black Town and White Town that attracted immigrants became known as Grey Town. That’s the neighborhood that yesterday’s walking tour took me through. (I got there by taking the metro. Like nearly all other metro systems — old and new — we have used around the world, the Kolkata version is cleaner, faster and quieter than the New York subway system. And the fare was seven cents.)

Black Town ended up being a rather affluent area of Calcutta, mostly inhabited by Bengalis who became the  “middle men” between the natives and the Brits and got rich. They built great mansions, most of which are still standing in varying degrees of maintenance – some in pristine condition, many falling down. The mansions are of every architectural period of British occupation, from the late 18th century to high style Victorian to 20th century Art Deco. There is far less street action than in other parts of Kolkata and it is much quieter.

Many of those buildings are still inhabited by descendants of the original families. The Marble Palace that we saw yesterday was actually built by the family of the local maharajah who sold the village to the British in the first place. The tour took us to the spot where the deal was made and a quick glimpse nearby of the mansion that the family actually lives in when in Kolkata. The Marble Palace itself only houses servants, as the family lives most of the year in England and returns here only for certain holidays. There’s a plaque honoring the transaction between the Maharajah Naba Kissen with that first British adventurer to make a fortune from the riches of India, Robert Clive. That was the start of it all…

Another enclave of five beautifully maintained houses is the residence of the Bengali family whose original patriarch made his fortune when he got the Calcutta franchise for delivering ice to the newly opened British settlement from the much older Madras (Chennai). The family has retained its wealth primarily because the original patriarch had the foresight to build an enclosed market place, which is still the central food market in this area of Kolkata. The following generations had the good sense to keep it to continue to collect rent from the vendors, all selling the usual arrange of essentials from onions to lentils to meat and fish.

The next highlight was visiting the birthplace of the first president of the Indian National Congress, which later became the group that Mahatma Gandhi headed with such success. We were invited into the house by its owner who happened to be standing in the doorway. The building, which was built in 1804, is under renovation. It had the typical design of homes in the area that features an enclosed courtyard with rooms radiating from it on two floors. There was a group of guys hauling debris out of a section of the building. The owner referred to them as the “decorators.” Later, I saw a row of businesses advertising themselves as “decorators,” but who, our guide explained, were really demolition crews. Well, I guess you have to break those eggs before making an omelette.

On an opposite side of the political spectrum of the struggle against British occupation from the non-violent policies of the Indian National Congress was the headquarters of Anushilan Samity. This was the para-military group who followed armed resistance. The room where young fighters were trained is now an in-door tennis court. But the efforts of this violent group of Bengali rebels made things so hot for the British that they decided to move their Indian headquarters to New Delhi from Calcutta.

Not all people of the area were anti-British. Many, after all, were getting very rich from the association. To show their alliance with the British, many homes display lions as part of the architectural decoration of their grand homes. Our guide also told us that many retired British folk move to Kolkata and have resumed a lifestyle not too unlike the Raj era of nearly 100 years ago. But they must go somewhere else for the summer, as there is some truth to the rumor about only mad dogs and Englishmen going out in the mid-day sun.

It certainly applies to Kolkata.





2 thoughts on “Getting closer to heaven (completed)

  1. Hello Darjeeling! Bollywood’s favorite setting after Kashmir and Shimla in the 60s and 70s featuring some hit songs. But looks like it’s probably less romantic these days. The Kolkata walking tour #2 sounds so fascinating. Hope you saved the name of the tour company/guide.

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