Darjeeling today is a busy, smoky and overcrowded city.
Its location on the slopes of tall mountains is very charming, but it is almost impossible to get a good view of the city through the smog, the endless electric lines and the layers of soot.
In the British era, the steam engine train ran from the plains up to the mountains.
It used to carry mostly tea, but there were a few cabins for a small number of passengers as well.
The train still runs, but only as a tourist attraction.
It runs once or twice per day, that is IF the workers do not strike, and if the engine is kept in good condition.
Many people come to Darjeeling with romantic ideas and feel a bit overwhelmed by the noise, pollution and crowds.
Maybe their grandparents honeymooned in Darjeeling, back when it was a beautiful hill town with clean mountain air and a toy train that took people for a quiet ride…
Maybe their grandparents stayed in one of the beautiful and elegant British era hotels, enjoyed the Darjeeling golden tea, served by white-gloved turbaned waiters…
All of this still exists in Darjeeling…. the charm, the beautiful British architecture… The afternoon tea, the charming British hotels and much more…. But all of it is covered with diesel fumes and layers of grime.
We are staying in one of the two best hotels in Darjeeling.
The New Elgin Hotel and the Mayfair have both kept the charm and elegance of the British era.
The grounds are manicured, and the drawing rooms are filled with comfortable sofas and armchairs.
Most of the tourists I saw were from England or from India.
The few other tourists I met seemed to be just passing through.
I overheard two American couples who were seated next to us.
They complained that their rooms were musty, and that Darjeeling city is a terrible place.
They called their travel agent and asked him to change their plans immediately.
They demanded to get out of Darjeeling the very next day.
We had two days filled with activities in Darjeeling, and our room was more comfortable than almost all of the hotel rooms that we visited in Bhutan.
The New Elgin might not be a five star hotel, if compared to some of the best hotels in the world, but Darjeeling is a small hill town in the middle of the Himalayas, not a major metropolitan center…
After breakfast, we headed to a Tibetan refugee camp.
It was an old refugee camp that was started in 1959 when the Dalai Lama escaped from Tibet.
Some of the Tibetan people who left Tibet with the Dalai Lama, chose to stay in Darjeeling as they passed through the region.
You have to remember that they came on foot, and that there were hardly any roads, and they had to traverse overgrown jungles, and make their way through the mountains with knives and ropes.
The land to establish the camp was donated by some Americans, and the industrious and hard working Tibetan people made a living by making wool products, weaving rugs and sweaters, carving wood and selling handmade crafts.
In their camp community, they built a temple and kept their culture alive.
Many of the children who grew up in this camp now go to good schools in the area, in which they learn careers that will take them out of the refugee camps and into the big wide world.
We visited the few remaining workshops in the camp, and saw the way they process wool, weave carpets, paint and carve wood.
On the day we visited, the community organized a dance for the visiting Taiwanese ambassador and his wife.
Taiwan had donated to the refugees a bus housing a mobile health unit, and the dance was done to show gratitude for the Taiwanese generosity.
The women in the weaving room spoke to our guide Sudesh, and urged us to go downstairs to the showroom.
I thought that they were urging us to buy something at the store, since this was one of their only ways to earn a living…. But I was wrong.
The women were urging us to go downstairs because the dance and song were to be performed in front of the showroom, and they wanted us to enjoy it, since it was a special occasion.
Downstairs at the showroom, we did buy some colorful woolen scarfs to help the community, and we had fun enjoying the dances and observing all the people who came out of their homes to see the performances.
My mind drifted back to our comfortable and elegant hotel, in which the rich ladies complained about the lack of luster, and wanted to get out of Darjeeling as fast as they could…
Those American couples looked so unhappy and grumpy, despite having a privileged life that involved travel and luxuries…
I looked at these Tibetan women, seated on the floor, with their plastic sandals by the door, weaving all day, as they did for the last fifty years…..
And with ALL of my heart I can attest to the fact that those Tibetan ladies who spent their whole lives in a refugee camp, away from their home and families…. in a cold and very basic refugee camp, were MUCH happier, centered and wholesome, than the bitter American couples who swore and cursed every three words, and who obviously had wealthy wallets and much real estate, but were very poor in spirit…