I realize this shouldn’t have come as a shock. But the city and The Darjeeling Limited had some gotten linked together in my mind, so that when my brain opened the file marked “Darjeeling,” it found only images of preposterous brothers train-tripping around a Hindu landscape charming snakes.
Well, the real Darjeeling has neither Adrian Brody (truly a real shame) prancing about in kurta-pyjama nor forlorn American widows staring out monastery windows in ironic, Wes-Anderson-fashion. It actually doesn’t have much in the way of Hindus (except the Indian tourists) or snake charmers, either – the bright colors and Hindustani aesthetic of the movie is much more reflective of the desert state of Rajasthan or the Hindu heartland of Utter Pradesh than Darjeeling. It does have a train, but it’s tiny and slow, not the express service with chai-wallahs and luggage racks that dominates the rest of the country.
What IS Darjeeling, then? It’s a Buddhist-Christian enclave tucked into the folds of the Himalayan foothills – a 110,000 person slurry of Nepali-Hindu-Tibetan cultures spilling down long, steep hillsides. The town could give San Francisco a run for its money on the score of severely pitched streets. You quickly learn the flattest routes around town.
The town has two main industries – tourism and tea – and these are visible everywhere in the central part of the town, which is laden with hotels and restaurants. (The most popular backpacker hangout is a cafe called Sonam’s that serves pancakes, French toast, and omelets for breakfast, complete with hashbrowns. It’s good to know where the backpacker hangouts are—on my second day, I meet a fellow lone traveler American, Nick, and we join forces and tour around Darjeeling together for a few days.)
There are also a few dozen tea parlors and shops selling bulk tea leaves. I had no idea there were so many kinds of tea beyond black, oolong, green, and white. Beyond that you have specifications about when it was picked (“first flush” are the first leaves taken off the plant, while “summer” teas are picked later and are stronger, and “autumn” teas are stronger still) and specifications about what part of the plant it was picked from (“silver tips” is a term I see thrown around a lot, although I’m still not sure what it means).
There is also a fairly good zoo, with a couple great signs…
…and a fairly bad natural history museum, which is less a museum and more a physical catalog of poorly taxidermied birds and mammals.
(Media Matters people, especially Justin Berrier, this picture of a loris is totally for you.)
A few days ago Nick and I went for a joy ride on the “toy train,” a tiny locomotive that takes about an hour to motor the 11 km betweeen Darjeeling and nearby Ghum. The tracks are about 2.5 feet wide and the train seats four across, with a narrow aisle.
The train weaves in and out along the main road between Darjeeling and down-country transport hubs Siliguri and New Jalpaiguri, chugging along inches from storefronts and houses. The ride was enjoyable enough, but Nick and I agreed that the continual horn blowing—every motor vehicle in India blows its horn as it approaches pedestrians or other vehicles, to indicate, “Hey, I’m coming through, so get the #@%@ out of my way”—detracted from the trip a lot. I laughed out loud when I later opened an email from my mother:
“[I am reading about Darjeeling] on Wikipedia. ‘Did you know that The Darjeeling Limited, a film directed by Wes Anderson, features a trip by three brothers on a fictional long-distance train based loosely on the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway?’ 🙂 … Here was another interesting tidbit: ‘To warn residents and car drivers about the approaching train, engines are equipped with very loud horns that even drown horns of Indian trucks and buses.’ ”
Very loosely, Wikipedia/Wes. But dead-on about the horns.