Darjeeling is beautiful!!! I already feel like I need to come back here to do some hiking. The crew I’m with right now is not exactly the hiking type, so I don’t think we’ll be uncovering any of the town’s hidden gems while we’re here. Anyone out there want to come and trek across northern India with me?

There’s just something about mountain towns…

Darjeeling is a popular tourist destination for both Indians and foreigners, and its tea industry is internationally recognized. If you’re a tea drinker, you’re probably familiar with Darjeeling tea, especially the classic black tea that is popular worldwide. The town’s recorded history began in the 1800s when the British set up a health resort and military depot in the “Lesser Himalayas” (the shorter mountain range containing Darjeeling that runs parallel to the High Himalayas aka where Mount Everest is located). It became a popular summer escape for the British residents of Kolkata (then Calcutta) who were seeking relief from the heat. The tea growing began in the 1850s when the British started seeking a tea source outside of China. After some trials and hybridization to create teas that would thrive in the Darjeeling climate and elevation, the industry took off. This was good for the town’s growth because it created jobs and motivated the development of infrastructure to transport the tea to Britain.

Hi, little Himalayas! (I don’t want to call them “Lesser” because it makes them sound like they’re not spectacular, and that’s clearly not true.)

We enjoyed one of the benefits of that development when we took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (also called the “Toy Train”) from Sonada to Darjeeling. It was built from 1879-81, and in total, the tracks are 55 miles (88km) long, running from New Jalpaiguri at 328ft/100m elevation to Darjeeling at 6,700ft/2,000m. It’s smaller than a normal train… the tracks are only maybe 2’ apart, and to manage the dramatic elevation change, there are loops and switchbacks (it’s like a zig-zag, and the train goes to the end of the track, stops, and then reverses direction to go up the next run of track, stops, and reverses direction up the next, etc.) to keep the tracks from getting too steep. It’s very impressive! It also has India’s highest elevation railway station (in Ghum) and is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Sonada station
Terrible picture, but this is the only one I have of the front of the train. The locomotives are mostly diesel, but there are a couple of steam ones as well.
Neha and me with the train
Toy train selfie!
Going up…
The train at Ghum Station. This is the highest altitude station! Also, does that station sign look familiar? If you’ve ever been to England, you might recognize it from the London tube station signs! Another British legacy left behind.

After probably an hour on the train (it doesn’t go very fast, plus it made some stops along the way), we arrived at Darjeeling Station. The views for the entire ride were great, and at the station, we got another glimpse of some of the awesomeness that lay beyond (I say “a glimpse” because there were power lines galore blocking us from getting an unobstructed view). I personally am all about mountain views. I’ve seen a lot of them, but I don’t think they’ll ever get old for me. Plus, they’re all so different. The mountains in Peru are green and awesome, and these are also green and awesome, but they look NOTHING alike. Earth is the coolest. Apparently, you can see all the way to Mount Everest in Nepal on a clear day! But I don’t know how often those kinds of days actually happen with all of the smog… maybe after a really heavy rain.

Ah, what a beautiful view! I’m so glad that there isn’t anything blocking it!
Ignore the power lines.
Darjeeling streets. Also, admire those out-of-control power lines in the middle.
Monkeys on the power lines!

From there, we headed to the zoo, aka the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. It opened in 1958 and specializes in the captive breeding of alpine animals. They’ve successfully bred some critically endangered animals like the Himalayan wolf and red panda and the vulnerable snow leopard. I was VERY excited about this because snow leopards are my absolute favorite animal, and any day when I get to see them in person is an exciting one. I stared at them for a long time. It was just as magical as it always is. Side note though, the best place I’ve been to see snow leopards is the San Diego Zoo. You may have heard about how amazing that zoo is, and I’m telling you, believe it! The zoo is beautifully designed, it’s HUGE, they have multiple snow leopards, and you can get so close to them! Anna (the snow leopard) and I made eye contact and instantly became best friends. Sorry this is a huge aside, but seriously, you should go. Also, they have koalas. And Tasmanian devils.

Outside the zoo entrance

ANYWAY, back to Darjeeling’s zoo. It’s always interesting visiting zoos in different parts of the world because they have different types of animals… like this one had a lot of local fauna which included things like yaks which I don’t think I’d ever seen before. It felt like we were just strolling through the forest (because we were), and as we were leaving, everyone was looking up at a red panda that had climbed up into a tree that was probably (maybe) 100’ tall (at least). It’s nice that they have the space to give them such a big habitat! Or maybe it escaped, who knows.

The wildlife starts before you even get to the zoo. There are wild monkeys all over the place. Pastor Daniel talked to me about the monkeys soon after I got to India and told me what to do if you’re ever in a face-off with one – don’t make eye contact and DON’T smile. It’s funny how, depending on where you grow up, you learn very different animal facts. I learned about what to do around alligators and bears. Here, kids learn about monkeys and elephants.
It’s a yak!
Males can weigh up to 2200lbs (1000kg) while females are only about a third that size.
Crowded, of course
One of the many super-cool walls at the zoo. Come for the animals, stay for the moss-covered walls.
Another mossy wall
Some 100% safe electrical wiring at the zoo. Yes, at the zoo. Like in a public place where people and children visit. Yes, those splices are wrapped in electrical tape. Keep in mind that the voltage here is 240V, so a shock would be quite unpleasant.
I love you, snow leopard.
Still on a high from seeing the snow leopards
No clue what kind of monkey this is (sorry)
Weird bear sculpture-type thing in the bear enclosure.
Isn’t it a pretty zoo? They estimate that there are at least 200 species of plants/trees growing in the zoo.
Hi, mountains.
Spot the red panda…
Red pandas are endangered. They live in forests and usually stay in the treetops, but they do come down to look for food, like bamboo leaves and fruits (they’re herbivores).
There he is! I wish I had a camera with a better zoom… but he kind of looks like a little red raccoon. They’re around 1.5′ (60cm) in length and weigh about 7lbs (3kg), and they live around 16 years in captivity.
I love these trees

After the zoo, we did some wandering. We walked farther up the mountain, somehow managing not to get hit by a single car even though we were basically walking in the middle of the street. I frequently feel like I’m some sort of safety nut here because I’m like “hey, maybe we shouldn’t walk in the middle of the street” and everyone else is posing for selfies right in the path of oncoming traffic. I think I’m just being reasonable though, right?

Walking in the middle of the street
The roads all have these little rocks in them… I guess they’re there for traction? I don’t think that snow is common, but there is a lot of rain (and consequently a lot of landslides that can make the roads impassable).

Ah, yes, that’s another cultural difference you can add to the list. People here love selfies. I know what you’re thinking… “Is that really a cultural difference?” But trust me. Their love of selfies goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced before. Maybe I’m just not running in the right crowds at home. It’s not just selfies though, to be fair. It’s all pictures. People take SO MANY pictures, and most of the time, they’re of very underwhelming things. Like we’ll take a selfie in the middle of the street with nothing interesting in the background. Then we’ll take a selfie on the train. And next to the train. And sitting at the train station. And walking down the street. And and and and and… the list could go on forever. I’m more of a “take pictures for the memories, but also use your eyes and just enjoy the experience” kind of person, so I quickly grew weary of the constant picture-taking. Luckily, everyone’s phones except for mine were dead long before the end of the day. Life’s little blessings.

Seriously breathtaking
Happy to be in the mountains

By the time we finished our wandering and made it down the mountain, dark clouds were starting to roll in. Oh, rainy season, how I hate you. The rain comes frequently, quickly, and heavily. We snagged a bus back to Sonada before the worst of it started, thankfully. Oh, and we also ate more momos… yummm! I ate beef ones this time, so now, in two days, I’ve checked off three different kinds. That’s pretty good, right?

Beef momos! Not nearly as beautiful as the ones we made. This is very close to what my first attempt looked like, actually.
Since we’re talking about food… this was breakfast one day. The bowl has potatoes in it, and the bread is kind of crispy but also soft (I think it’s called poori bread but I could be wrong).

**Note: Post has been edited since its original posting to include more information and photos.

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Lima Zoo – if you like zoos, say hi to the baby tigers at the Lima, Peru zoo! (Plus some bonus material about my life in Peru.)

Mount Aragats – it’s no Everest, but hike to the top of Armenia’s tallest peak, Mount Aragats!

Laguna de los Tres – for some completely different mountain views, hop on over to Argentina!

For the next couple of days, Anisha, Neha, and I are on an adventure! School is closed for the summer holiday (which is a month long because it’s in the middle of the school year… and for the class 9 and 10 kids/teachers, it’s only a week long because the school decided that the kids are behind and need those other three weeks to catch up. Talk about a bummer), so we’re taking advantage of our brief freedom and going to Darjeeling, a popular tourist town in the mountains! Well, we’re actually staying with Anisha’s aunt and uncle in Sonada, a town about 17 km away. We’ll go into Darjeeling tomorrow, but just getting to Sonada from Jaigaon was enough of an adventure for one day!

Just to give you a sense of where we are, Darjeeling is about 5 hours west of Jaigaon (if you drove the whole way… as you’ll soon see, it can take far more than 5 hours to get there if you need to go on public transit).
Us on the train with some of Anisha’s cousins.

We left Jaigaon this morning at 5:00 and drove to the train station in Hasimara, about a half an hour away. From there, we took the train to Siliguri. The train took 3-4 hours, and we still had a looong way to go after that. The train was MUCH different from the trains at home. In India, there are usually different classes of train ticket that you can buy, but I’m not sure that our train even had a first-class-type car. We got our tickets (which cost about US$2) and found some space in a car with bench seats, broken fans, and glass-less windows.

There was no conductor or anything in our car, so after the train started moving, no one closed the door. It was just flapping around as we chugged along, and I don’t think anyone else even thought twice about it. The windows had shutters that you could slide up and down to block the sun, plus a glass window that you could also slide up to open. Can you imagine a train in the States where you could completely open the window?? There were a few horizontal bars across the opening, so it’s not like you could fit your whole body through, but there was certainly enough space to stick your arm out. Crazy!

On a separate note, one of the things that I CANNOT get used to is the way that people dispose of garbage in this country (to be fair, it’s not just here. There are a lot of countries/places where litter is a huge problem). When I’m traveling and eat a snack or something, I keep the wrapper in my bag until I can find a trash can. Here, you just throw it out the window. Anisha and Neha got some tea, and when they finished, out the window their cups went! Every time I see someone litter without a second thought (probably without even a first thought), it physically pains me. I want to just go and pick everything up! All of the trash cans here say “Use Me” on them, and at first, it’s kind of funny because you’re like, “Uhhh, why does the trash can have to tell you what to do?” Then, you realize that it really does need to be said, and it’s not quite as funny anymore.

The train is moving… and the train door is very open.
It’s not super obvious because I wasn’t taking this picture with garbage in mind, but if you look on the hillside to the right, beneath the road, you’ll see a bunch of white stuff. That’s basically a landslide of garbage. I assume that it must get dumped there because that’s not just from people throwing trash out of their car windows, but man. It’s just right there next to the road!
Train views…

When we finally arrived in Siliguri, we took a car the rest of the way to Sonada. It was basically the same concept as the mini-buses that I took in Ghana and Peru, but this was clearly made for the mountains. I’m not fully informed on car terminology, but I think it would be an SUV? I have no idea. It reminded me of an army vehicle or a hummer or something. Ugh, I don’t know. Just look at the picture. Ours also had caged chickens strapped to the top, so that’s fun.

This isn’t the one we took, but it’s basically the same (except for its lack of chickens).
Completely normal
Here’s a map view of the drive from Siliguri to Sonada. Needless to say, my stomach got a little queasy at times.

Leaving Siliguri, it was hot, dusty, and miserable. About half an hour into the drive, we started climbing up a mountain, and the air started changing. It got cooler and cleaner (or so it felt), and I felt like a new person. The drive took about 2-1/2 hours, including a lunch stop along the way at a little roadside shack. We got vegetable momos (steamed dumplings… sometimes also fried, but not most commonly… and stuffed with either a meat or vegetable filling), and I was in heaven because momos are quite possibly my favorite food in all of India.

I had no idea at the time, but momos are one of the most popular local foods in the Darjeeling area which means that even if it had nothing else to offer, I would strongly recommend that all of you go there. Of course, there are plenty of places where you can find momos in Southeast Asia (especially Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, and parts of China), but man… the ones in Darjeeling are GOOD.

Views from the drive! This was still pretty early on, so were not very high up in the mountains.
Getting higher… look at those awesome views!
I just wish it wasn’t so foggy/smoggy
It’s still pretty spectacular, though
Hanging out of the car window
You can see the road zig-zagging up the mountain.
The roads are a little terrifying… and, since there is only one road to get up and down the mountain, this is also where people walk. And there are no sidewalks. And it’s not that wide. Like I said, terrifying.

We finally made it to Sonada a little before 1PM, and all I wanted to do was go to sleep. I don’t understand why traveling is so tiring when all you’re doing is sitting for hours and hours! But of course, I couldn’t go to sleep quite yet. After we got settled, we wandered around town a bit and went to pick up a chicken for dinner.

Since Sonada is built on the side of the mountain, most of the town isn’t accessible to vehicles. There’s the one main road that we came on from Siliguri and that leads to Darjeeling, and the rest of the paths are more like this (or are made of rocks). Definitely not handicap accessible!
Yes, this is as steep as it looks in the picture
Another random “street” in town. I like this one.
The main road
Views around town

The dinner plan was chicken momos, and I was THRILLED. Yes, we did just have momos for lunch, but those were COMPLETELY different… vegetable vs. chicken… duh! Anyway, while we were out, we went to the butcher to get the meat. This was at another little roadside shack, and it was one of those times when I would have been okay with not knowing exactly where my food came from. The meat is all sitting out, and the flies are taking advantage. Eek.

After we bought the chicken, the guy chopped it up for us because it was being used for momos… and he did this with a cleaver on his chopping block aka tree stump, and I’m 100% certain than little pieces of wood ended up mixed in (because I pulled a tiny piece out of one of my momos later that night)… It was fine… But like I said, I would have been okay not knowing.

Since I love momos so much, I was determined to learn how to make them and saw this as a perfect opportunity. I’ve been trying to force my way into the kitchen this entire trip, but no one ever lets me help with anything because I’m a guest. Little do they know that my desire to help is completely selfish… I want to absorb their cooking knowledge so that I can enjoy momos for the rest of my life!

This time, I refused to take no for an answer, and I talked my way in just in time to learn how to wrap the momos! They had already made the dough and the filling by the time I got there, so that will have to be a lesson for another day.

I had to get a picture of this building because its painted one of my favorite colors… though in this context, I’m not sure, it could be a little much.
Dumpling wrapping!
The whole crew

The first one I wrapped looked horrible, and everyone (myself included) spent a solid 5 minutes laughing at it. I watched Anisha’s sister make about three more before I was convinced that I understood the technique, and from there, mine got better and better! By the end, Anisha’s sister said that mine were better than hers! Which, of course, I protested against, but I will say that I made vast improvements. Of course, each one took me about 1 minute to make while hers took maybe 15 seconds, but you have to start somewhere!

Tomorrow we’re going into Darjeeling, and I’m excited for more mountain views! The views were amazing on the drive up to here, and Darjeeling is even higher in the mountains.

Check out that beautiful detailing
I saw a lot of people carrying very heavy looking things this way. There’s a strap wrapped around the bundle, and then you wrap that around your head.
This guy had one of the most impressive loads. I tried to creep on the boxes as he walked past to see if they listed a weight, and I’m pretty sure one of them said 43kg. If that’s right and those boxes weren’t refilled with something else, that means he’s carrying about a 660-pound load!

** Note: This post has been edited since its original posting to include more information and photos.

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Darjeeling – admire the mountain views from Darjeeling!

The Long Trek Home – join me on my longest travel day… 42 hours!… as I made my way home from India.

The Ride Home from Kokrobite – traveling in Ghana took FOREVER, especially when going and coming from the village where I lived. Come along on the endless adventure home from a weekend trip to Kokrobite!

Zakopane – if you’re a fan of mountain views, you’ll love Zakopane, Poland. These mountains are enough to take your breath away!

Machu Picchu Hikes – for a completely different mountain landscape, check out the Peruvian Andes and visit the incredible site of Machu Picchu.