Wow! Darjeeling is absolutely nothing like what I expected. The 3-hour taxi ride from New Jalpaiguri station is a nail-biting white-knuckle ride along a series of switchback to 2,050m above sea level. And although Darjeeling’s hotels have aristocratic English names, like the Windamere, this high-altitude town is much more Chinese and Nepalese than English, or even Indian.
Sitting back in a hotel room, replete with room service, we made the most of our couple of off-train days in relative luxury. It also gave me time to articulate my thoughts on travelling with big DSLR cameras.
This is the first night we’re spending off a train since the start of the GCIRC. And once we leave the Darjeeling, we’ll spend every night aboard trains until the end. That means we’re all making the most of our time on terra firma and counteracting the brisk air with hot cups of Darjeeling tea.
Travelling with Big Cameras (DSLRs)
Firstly, before I forget, I’ve had a few thoughts about big cameras on this trip. I’ve never been a fan of big cameras for a number of reasons:
- Size, weight and bulk: a DSLR reduces agility, makes carry-on-only travel difficult, makes you a target of thieves, etc.
- Real value of image quality: I believe if you take photos to record memories, slightly better image quality is immaterial.
- The best camera is the one you have: the greater availability of a compact outweighs the better quality of a DSLR.
- Complexity robs my time: again, my photos are to record memories, so why complicate the process and lose time.
But, I’ve been missing one crucial piece to this equation. Even though, for my purposes, a DSLR doesn’t make much sense in practical terms, they do make a lot of sense in terms of making connections with locals people. Depending how you use them, they really can become a communication tool.
On the GCIRC, I’ve been amazed at the interactions Troy’s camera initiated. All it seems to take is a finger pointing to the camera and a slight head tilt (posing the question) and suddenly smiles would open wide and we’d be invited to take photos and communicate further. At least in India, people love to be in photos AND they’ve never asked for money. All they want to see is their photo with the foreign tourists and then to talk about each others’ countries, share a cup of chai, and be a part of something different.
So why can’t you achieve this with a compact camera? Well, you can. And I’ve seen Lauren mimic Troy’s process a few times with our little Samsung compact. But from watching the reactions, I can only hypothesize that a DSLR initiates the connection just by being seen. Plus, maybe it conveys more professionalism. And imagine quality? I should really ask the next local some of these questions to base this post on fact. But from what I can tell, people are quite surprised at the results on Troy’s camera. And not to take anything away from his photographic ability (he really takes some great photos), but it seems impossible to take a bad photo with his big Canon 5D.
The 5D is a full frame DSLR, which means it’s sensor is much large than the typical DSLR (and the same size as a traditional 35mm film camera), which, in respect to portraits, gives a very shallow depth of field and produces beautiful results quite easily. Of course lighting is a major factor, but assuming it’s not terrible, the results from the 5D really blew my mind.
We’re not running out to buy a DSLR, but it’s given me a different perspective on why you’d carry such a burdensome tool on lightweight trips. There are many other considerations, such as lens, large file sizes, and insurance, so maybe they’ll keep us from making the jump. Either way, I thought I’d share these thoughts in case you’ve have a similar opinion.
What About Darjeeling?
It really is unlike any part of India we visited. In fact, if you were just dropped there, you’d swear you were in China, Nepal, Burma, or anywhere but India. The people don’t look Indian, the landscapes don’t look Indian, and the only evidence you’re in India is the meagre section of Indian meal options at the back of any restaurant’s menu. For the past 20 years, the people of Darjeeling and its surrounding area have even lobbied the government to become a separate state, called Gorkhaland.
If you asked me if I liked Darjeeling, I’d be torn. It really has it’s beautiful parts, especially the quiet roads that hug the mountains and provide a great escape from the incessant hustle of the town markets. But it has become too used to tourists. The prices are high, the people seem agitated by foreigners, and the service is generally quite poor. Like everywhere, there are exceptions, and we met some lovely locals, but generally, we felt like walking dollar signs.
We spent most of our time walking the markets, plus we visited the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) and the zoo. HMI was initially sponsored by the late Tenzing Norgay (the first person atop Everest with the Kiwi, Edmund Hillary) and it showcased much of the gear and apparatus used on the mountain since it was first attempted. I found it very interesting and was shocked to realise how close were were to the great mountains of the Himalaya. Everest was only about 250km away (so it could be seen in a fog-less morning), and Kanchenjunga is even closer.
The zoo was very humane, by Indian standards, and we got to see some of the local cats, such as leopards, as well as red pandas and other animals that aren’t as popular at other zoos. Lauren and I had a great time strolling around, taking pictures, and getting closer to the animals than most zoos would allow. The zoo and HMI are one in the same, you can’t buy separate tickets, but we’d recommend doing both even if it were possible.
What about the tea plantations in Darjeeling? Well, I know they exist, but there seems to be very little focus on them. None of the hundreds of touts suggested we visit a plantation, and the tour offices didn’t seem to advertise them either. There are plenty of town centre tea shops, but not nearly the focus on visiting the plantations like I expected.
And the Trains?
We arrived in New Jalpaiguri (NJP) aboard the Rajdhani Express. NJP is quite a confronting station with lots of beggars and taxi touts. The aforementioned 3-hour taxi ride up the mountain to Darjeeling is very bumpy, but also quite scenic as you negotiate the switchbacks. On day 11, we headed to Calcutta, leaving from NJP on the Darjeeling Mail.
- Train: Darjeeling Mail
- Depart: New Jalpaiguri @ 20:00 on 28-Feb-11
- Destination: Sealdah @ 06:00 on 01-Mar-11 (estimated)
- Distance: 567 km, over 10 hours
FYI, our delaying in posting about the GCIRC is due to Internet problems. We’ve seemed to work them out now, so hopefully we can return to updating you in real time. Signing out – the Globetrooper Team