From Wengen to Darjeeling
I would later rue the fact that we didn’t plan for a few more extra days to be added to our itinerary. I was always tentative in asking for a leave period beyond two weeks. Later on though, I repented. I felt I committed a grave error.
Our train left Geneva station. I had read that Switzerland was densely connected by railway. But the reality was much more interesting. It was like every nook and corner of the country connected by trains – with air conditioned coaches, as clean as they could be – acting as veins and capillaries of the Swiss geography. Speed was however not the defining parameter here, as it was from Paris to Marseilles. A distance of about 130 km from Geneva to Berne was covered in a modest 2 hours.
From Berne, we had to board another train for Interlaken. A distance of over 40 km would be traveled in about less than an hour. We had three trolley bags and two backpacks. The trolley bags were close to 60 kg. It was quite an arduous job to pull the trolleys and embark on the trains. I and my wife both struggled at times. However on several occasions, people extended their help. A geriatric lady definitely stood out with her motherly approach – as that was what I felt – most probably because of the fact that I had lost my mother to the Covid pandemic barely one year back. And any help coming from an aged lady reminded me of my mother. The European lady had guided us all through from Geneva station to our hotel, which was located just beside a quaint station in the suburbs of the city.
Nonetheless, the journey went on. From Interlaken Ost station, we had to now move up in the Alps. Our next station was Lauterbrunnen. It was tiresome for us to change into another train for the third time, yet the excitement of reaching up in the Alps mitigated the pain. As the train approached Wengen, the scenic view was more than picturesque. Wengen is a prototypical European village, perched atop 400 meters above the valley of Lauterbrunnen. Wengen is also beautifully located at the foot of the famous 4,158 m high Jungfrau mountain.
Authorities from hotel Regina sent a cart to pick us up from the railway station. It was a welcome gesture as we badly needed help to pull the three trolleys up the hill. The hotel was a pleasant abode, with art and décor pushing us amidst medieval European architecture. The most impactful aspect of Wengen was nonetheless the cleanliness and systematic appearance it reflected in the positioning of the houses, restaurants, and playgrounds. The tiny yet meticulously planned railway station was visible from our hotel – located on a hilltop – with the balcony of our room presenting a riveting view of the Jungfrau peak in the Alps, Europe’s apex point. The peak, though snow-capped, yet was not inundated with snow, naturally so, considering the time of the year being mid-July. Munching breakfast with a laid back composure while looking at Jungfrau would be etched in the lanes and by-lanes of the ever fading memory.
Sun in Wengen used to set quite late in the day, at about 20 hours or so. That facilitated late risers like us in more than one way. We could sleep a bit more and moreover we could gaze at the natural beauty, appreciate it and absorb the charm much longer. An evening stroll in the village, meandering through the carefully constructed pathways, viewing in the process the windmill, and on an occasion being enthralled by a house built in the 17th century and still standing erect, reminded us of the timelessness that the environs of Wengen reflected.
However, it was another thing that made Wengen a hill station par excellence. And that was the low population density, which implied lack of congestion. Furthermore, cars were not allowed in Wengen, which took care of the pollution in the area. Kids playing in the football ground or few chess enthusiasts immersed in concentration over a public chessboard amplified the atmosphere of Arcadian bliss.
Few months later in October 2022, I visited Darjeeling after about 32 years. Obviously, I had faintest of the faint memories of the previous visit. Nevertheless, I and my wife found the place too much populated and congested, with narrow roads and dense traffic. A walk down the Mall road was quite a struggle. The pristine beauty of the mountains as depicted by Rabindranath Tagore’s prose that we read in school had been relegated to the background, no doubt. We thoroughly enjoyed the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park though – the diversity of the animal kingdom was spread out in an immaculate fashion – especially, the view of the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger was pleasing indeed. The adjacent Himalayan Mountaineering Institute took us back in time where we could view the travails and victories of human effort in conquering the highest peak on earth – the Mount Everest. It really felt good when our guide took us near the statuette of the incredible Radhanath Sikdar – the Indian who actually measured the height of the peak in 1852 with the help of spherical trigonometry, but alas was denied the credit. Sikdar’s erstwhile boss was bestowed with the laurels instead. It is perhaps high time the world knew about Sikdar.
The travel down to Bagdogra airport later from Mirik in the sedan provided by the travel agent was quite enjoyable in contrast to the narrow-gauge toy train journey from Darjeeling to Ghum. The Batasia Loop however made us have a feel of being submerged in clouds, yet as we looked outside the window of the coach in the entire journey, we could only see shops and residential houses. A sneak peek at the mountains and flora was indeed rare. The Victorian-era architecture though stood out firmly amidst the range of ever-growing shops, restaurants and houses, the verdant landscape somehow appeared worn out like a jaded lover. Considering the varieties of tourist locations on offer, Darjeeling could be a much more attractive location – the population density, indiscriminate construction of houses and lack of 100 per cent cleanliness – push it to the periphery vis-à-vis Wengen in the template of global tourism.
The latter however has an added attraction – the train connectivity up to Jungfrau. And once one reaches Europe’s zenith, you are privileged not only to view the snow-capped peak, but also a meticulously constructed simulated atmosphere of the Alps – punctuated with anecdotes which take us to the minute details of history of the people and the architects and engineers who made the achievement possible. With Jungfrau being almost half of the heights of mountain ranges the geographically rich Indian sub-continent offers in terms of natural peaks, we have a huge potential to extract from tourism in the Himalayas. Plush tea gardens, the great Indian hospitality, and of course, the relatively cheap food and flavor of Darjeeling tea could surely turn out to be crowd pullers! Another issue worth noting would be to highlight the historical and cultural significance of the Indian locations. Illustrated booklets, a documentary, neat maintenance of heritage, construction in consonance with ecological perspective, are few important issues that could be placed at the forefront of the tourism industry.
Of late, Indian tourism has flourished in the form of ‘the MV Ganga Vilas’ – traversing 3,200 kilometers of waterway in India and Bangladesh, making it the world’s longest river cruise, reports the CNN. With 36 passengers in 18 suites and cost of a ticket hovering around 4 million Indian rupees, this definitely is a gargantuan step by the government. Yet the inherent potential is seemingly much more than finite and could be mined to a considerable extent. Looking at the Himalayas from Darjeeling and its adjoining regions could surely turn out to be a far better proposition for global tourists than what Switzerland has to offer.
By Uddipan Mukherjee
(The Writer, PhD, IOFS, serves in the rank of Director, Govt of India, Ministry of Defence.)