I’ve had a sweet spot for Darjeeling ever since I saw Wes Anderson’s film “The Darjeeling Limited”. It follows the adventure of three brothers as they catch a fictional train, likely based on the Rajdhani express, to visit their mother somewhere in the North-East of India. While they never made it to the colonial hill station that gave the film its name, I was intent on visiting it all the same.
Darjeeling was discovered by a delegation of the British East India Company in 1828. They were so taken by it that they followed the English tradition of “we’ll have that” and set up shop. After the construction of a sanatorium for British troops, it became a popular holiday destination for ex-pats looking to escape the heat of the plains and a number of tea plantations began to flourish. Today the region continues to produce some of the highest quality tea in the world and, though there are tentacles of industrial pollution even in this remote place, its charm remains intact. A colonial hangover is in full swing: High tea is served daily at the Windamere hotel if you’re into that kind of pomp and a Victorian influence is visible in much of the local architecture.
During my stay I had the chance to go paragliding early one morning. It wasn’t until we arrived at the jump-off point that I realised the gravity of what I’d signed up for. Shackled unceremoniously to the wing, I was told to run for my life down towards a lofty drop off. Casting sanity aside, I followed their orders and as we reached the end of the runway my pilot screamed at me to push off. We began to tip forward, the grass rushing up to meet my face; “oh god, we’ve fucked this right up” I thought moments before the wind caught the glider and sent us soaring into the clouds. Adrenaline ran so high that I didn’t even notice the cold lashing at us as we circled over the town below. My pilot, a guy no older than 19, steered us up among the eagles from one updraft to another before spiralling down at high velocity. It felt like we were on the brink of flipping at each turn but he steadied us masterfully time and time again. I have no doubt there are gliders in the air on most days here but the school children in town still went ballistic waving and cheering up at us. It gave you the sense that you were some kind of touring dignitary.