Darjeeling – Christmas surprises, Buddhist monasteries and local tea

This year our Christmas was different. Instead of spending it with our families at home we spent it with the wonderful Gorkha people in North India. Our Christmas drink wasn’t traditional Finnish Glögi, nor Austrian Glühwein, but the “champagne of teas “. We did visit a church (and became special guests there) but we also visited several Buddhist monasteries. The weather reminded us of home though, since we had traveled to the cold Darjeeling in Indian Himalayas.

From Kolkata to Darjeeling

Boarding the Darjeeling Mail
Boarding the Darjeeling Mail

After traveling in the 3AC class for the last two train rides, we were back in the cheaper Sleeper Class on our way from Kolkata to New Jalpaiguri. In this class the windows are not sealed and as we traveled towards North, it got very, very cold at night. At some point of the night Johanna started laughing, when she saw Seri’s attempt to keep his feet warm by putting them to a plastic bag.

It wasn’t only the cold that kept us awake, though. The train was completely over-booked and this time our co-passengers were not the most polite and silent ones. For them it didn’t matter if it was one or four at night and if the people next to them were trying to sleep. We also felt a bit un-easy when two women in army clothes from the BSF (Border Security Force) entered the train carrying rifles. Or latest when a man followed them, carrying about ten more of those. All the rifles were casually stored, without any cases, on one of the upper bunks.

Men piling up the rifles on the upper bunk
Men piling up the rifles on the upper bunk

So, the ride was a bit exhausting, but in the morning, after around ten hours in the train, we finally arrived to New Jalpaiguri.

From New Jalpaiguri there are two options to continue towards Darjeeling, located some 70 kilometers away. A shared SUV-taxi that is known as “sumo“ around here, or an old steam train that has earned the UNESCO World Heritage status. We had planned to take the train but opted for the sumo after we found out that it was a lot cheaper and a lot faster option. The route was anyway almost the same. The scenery on the way up was beautiful.

The train tracks were mostly running right next to the road
The train tracks were mostly running right next to the road
The old steam train
The old steam train

The city of Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a hill-station in the North-Indian state of West-Bengal, between Nepal, Tibet and the neighboring state of Sikkim. The city is especially famous for its tea, but there’s much more to see than only the tea plantations (which are gorgeous, though). When we arrived, we were surprised of the size of the city, which we had expected to be much smaller. Darjeeling’s population is over 130 000, of which the majority are Gorkhas with Nepalese origin. The city is located on the slopes of Himalaya, meaning fresh temperatures and a lot of narrow, winding roads going up and down. 

Darjeeling
Darjeeling
The city was decorated with Christmas lights
The city was decorated with Christmas lights

The only form of public transportation in Darjeeling is a shared minibus running back and forth on the main road. Our homestay was located a few kilometers outside the center, but the minibus took us almost to the front door. The homestay (Teesta Homestay) was cozy and the owner family took really good care of us. The views from the roof top and our room’s own balcony were great. The only thing we could complain about is that it was as cold inside as it was outside (almost minus degrees), but this seems to be the case in most of the homes around here. The day we left, we found out that there would have been a small heater available for a little extra charge…

Teesta Homestay. Our balcony was that one in the middle under the roof terrace
Teesta Homestay. Our balcony was that one in the middle under the roof terrace

Christmas eve in Darjeeling – Local tea, average food and a fireplace

In search of rice porridge

In Finland, a typical Christmas breakfast is rice porridge. After having some alu parathas (flat bread filled with potato) in the morning, we tried to find something rice-porridge-like for dessert. We ended up with some kind of a sweet milk pudding with lumps of milk fat in it. Good enough, basically it was rice porridge without rice.

Alu paratha is often served with raita
Alu paratha is often served with raita
Maybe you can see from Johanna‘s face if she liked this dessert or not
Maybe you can see from Johanna‘s face if she liked this dessert or not

Getting to know the local tea

In the afternoon we visited Happy Valley, the only tea estate directly in the city of Darjeeling. We wanted to do a tour in the factory, but as it’s not the season now, the factory was not operating. Still we could have a walk around the tea fields for free.

Happy Valley‘s tea garden and the city of Darjeeling in the background
Happy Valley‘s tea garden and the city of Darjeeling in the background

Nearby we found a little “café“ run by a cute granny. She wasn’t officially allowed to sell tea, so obviously we didn’t have any there… But we have come to the conclusion that the tea around here is absolutely delicious and we don’t wonder anymore why the Darjeeling tea is dubbed as the “champagne of teas“.

We had a tea tasting in a secret place
We had a tea tasting in a secret place

Our Christmas evening

Even though we had bought some new socks, gloves and scarves earlier at the market, we were still freezing. Therefore, we chose the restaurant for our Christmas dinner only based on the fact that they advertised having a fireplace. The fireplace was lovely and there were even some socks hanging on it, creating, together with the Christmas tree, a warm Christmas-y atmosphere. Unfortunately, the food was not very good, though.

Our Christmas dinner by the fireplace
Our Christmas dinner by the fireplace

In the evening we had long video calls with our families, drank some ginger-honey-mandarin with rum under the blanket and fell asleep early.

We put this fireplace video on to get some cozy feeling and placebo heating for our room
We put this fireplace video on to get some cozy feeling and placebo heating for our room

Christmas day in Darjeeling – Cable car ride, church party and fun with the Gorkhas

Darjeeling Ropeway
Darjeeling Ropeway

Whenever Seri finds out that there is a cable car in the city, we must ride it. We were both a bit excited to enter the one in Darjeeling. We read that years ago there had been an accident where one of the cabins crashed and lead to the death of four persons. Of course, after that the cable car has been repaired and is better maintained, but it still looked very old and rickety. It was also reeeeaally slow and the workers pushed the cars to the rope and stopped them by manpower.

The cabins had a nice retro look
The cabins had a nice retro look
This is how the lower station looks like
This is how the lower station looks like
The workers stopping the car to let people out
The workers stopping the car to let people out

But the ride was great. The views over the tea plantations were breath-taking. For a while we could even admire some snowy peaks of the Himalayas, peeking between the clouds. We also had some nice Indian and Bangladeshi tourists as our company on both ways.

The views over the endless tea gardens
The views over the endless tea gardens
Women working at the plantation
Women working at the plantation
We shared the cabin with Amitava and his mother from Kolkata. We had some interesting conversations about traveling and climate change, among other things
On our way back up, we shared the cabin with Amitava and his mother from Kolkata. We had some interesting conversations about traveling and climate change, among other things

The church party

Usually the cable car just makes a loop from up to down and back up. We asked to get out at the lower station and went to explore the small village there. We heard some cheerful Christmas music and could soon locate the source of it, a small, bright green church.

The small village with it‘s green church
The small village with it‘s green church

We are not the usual church goers, but as it was the Christmas day, we wanted to see how people celebrate it here. As we arrived at the church, we were instantly welcomed to join the party. It was the opposite of what’s going on in church in Europe, as far as we know. There was a lot of program, mostly kids performing some joyful songs and dances. We were also asked to perform something or to say a few words about God, but we preferred to stay in the audience. After a while we were about to leave, but the brother of the pastor insisted us to stay and invited us for the lunch that was going to take place after the ceremony. 

One of the kids‘ cheerful dance shows
One of the kids‘ cheerful dance shows

After the kids’ shows the pastor held a long speech. Then all the families of the village received some presents. To end the ceremony, a cake was brought to the altar. Until now we hadn’t understood any of the speeches but all of a sudden the woman talking to the microphone switched to English. We were invited to the front to share the cake with the pastor and a few other people. This seemed like a big honor. The pastor cut the cake into pieces, the woman stuffed a piece into everyone’s mouth with her fingers, everyone clapped and then the ceremony was over.

Finally, it was time to eat. The food, served from big pots on the yard, was very tasty. We had some vegetable curries with rice and there was also some meat on offer. While eating we had some nice conversations with the villagers as many of them spoke English. They explained us that about half of the population of the village are working at the tea estate down there.

Enough food for everyone!
Enough food for everyone!
Enjoying the food and the talks with the locals
Enjoying the food and the talks with the locals

It seemed to us that the Christian church here is very modern and open. It’s also great that the church provided everyone in the village (and even us) a free Christmas meal. Visiting the church in this little village on Christmas day was a really special experience for us.

The surprising Christmas party

On our way back to our homestay we passed a Santa Claus with a rather creepy mask standing at the door of a restaurant. He wished us merry Christmas and handed us some masala candies. As the restaurant looked nice, we asked if it’s possible to have dinner there later and they told us the place would be open until eight (most of the places close early in Darjeeling).

The friendly, but a little bit creepy looking, Santa
The friendly, but a little bit creepy looking, Santa

In the evening we went back to the restaurant. Just when we were about to enter, someone lit some loud fireworks right next to the door. We almost got heart-attacks and just entered without looking around too much and sat down at one table. After a while we realized that the restaurant wasn’t even open (even though it wasn’t eight yet) and that there was a private party going on. There was only one group of people sitting around one table, the bar counter was filled with open alcohol bottles and mixers and the owner of the place was standing behind his laptop as a DJ. 

Anyhow, the party people told us that we could join the fun. They cooked us a nice Chinese style meal and the drinks were complementary. Judging the way we were all dancing around the Christmas tree into some Nepalese hits after our meal, one could have not guessed that it was still early evening and that we two had only had two whiskey-waters (the others probably some dozens more). Our new friends were Buddhist Gorkhas, but nevertheless they liked to celebrate Christmas because it’s a great excuse to have fun with your friends, which we totally understand. 

Our party crew this Christmas
Our party crew this Christmas

Unfortunately, because of the cold, Johanna had been sick the last two days. After dancing like a maniac for an hour or so, she started feeling more feverish and we decided it was time for us to go home instead of joining the group for some party later in the city. 

We both are used to have a Christmas party with our friends back home. This year, these crazy Gorkhas were a great substitute for our friends in Finland and in Austria (but we still miss you guys!).

December 26th, the buddhist day

Visiting the Peace Pagoda

The next morning Johanna was feeling a bit healthier. After a morning yoga session at the roof top, we headed to the peace pagoda. There are around 80 peace pagodas around the world. We’ve seen the ones in Vienna and in Nepal’s Pokhara, and now the one in Darjeeling. Maybe we should make this our hobby and try to visit them all.

Peace pagoda of Darjeeling
Peace pagoda of Darjeeling

It was a nice half an hour walk from our homestay to the pagoda. We spent some time at the pagoda, sending some good thoughts and wishes to the world. There’s also a small monastery next to the pagoda which we checked out on the same go.

Heading to the Dali Monastery

Despite being by the symbol of peace, we couldn’t maintain peace between us two for too long this morning. As we tried to figure out how to continue our way from the pagoda to the Dali Monastery, we totally lost our nerves with Google maps and with each other. 

Finally, we found the right way – it’s a small path passing directly below the pagoda on its right side. Despite being in a bad mood, the walk itself was nice.

A dog we met on the way. Many houses in Darjeeling have beautiful decorations at the sides of the roof, like this one.
A dog we met on the way. Many houses in Darjeeling have beautiful decorations at the sides of the roof, like this one.

After half an hour we arrived at the monastery and managed to make peace with each other again. The door of the monastery was locked but a friendly monk agreed to let us in. We looked around for a while in this peaceful, beautiful monastery, but didn’t stay long as it wasn’t the prayer time now.

Dali Monastery
Dali Monastery
From the monastery we saw the steam train
From the monastery we saw the approaching narrow gauge train

Temples of Ghoom

Not that the Peace Pagoda with its small monastery and the Dali monastery would not have been enough, we decided to make our day full-on Buddhist and to head to the nearby town of Ghoom to visit yet another monastery.

We asked some official standing on the road where we could catch a shared taxi to Ghoom. In a few minutes he had stopped a pick-up truck and pushed us in. The driver and his friend were some local rappers and they promised to drop us off at the monastery. Actually, they told us that there were two monasteries we should visit in Ghoom. Well, why not as monasteries seemed to be the theme of the day anyway.

The first one we visited was called Yiga Choeling. The monastery was small, and the door was closed, so we didn’t stay long. The weather was cold and humid, so we started to feel very tired but decided still to visit one last monastery for the day. 

It got cold and foggy when we arrived to the Yiga Choeling monastery
It got cold and foggy when we arrived to the Yiga Choeling monastery

We walked to the Ghoom Monastery along the train track that run directly through the town. This monastery was a little bit bigger and also open. It was beautiful as well, but we had already gotten numb to all the buddha statues and the prayer flags and the colorful, detailed paintings on the walls. It was time to go back to our homestay.

A little market along the narrow train track in Ghoom
A little market along the narrow train track in Ghoom

Leaving Darjeeling

Our host at the homestay was extremely nice and helpful. He had given us some detailed information on how to get to our next destination. So, we headed to the central taxi stand to look for a sumo to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. To travel to Sikkim one needs a special permit and therefore it’s possible to cross the state border only at two points. More about that on our next post…

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Johanna & Seri

We are Johanna and Seri and this is our travel diary. At the moment we are on our way overland from Finland to India and beyond. Read more about us here.

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