Published: December 28th 2009
December 26th 2009
We had to, it was a must. Despite the fact that we had rechristened Kurseong, Land of the White Mist instead of Land of the White Orchid, and our chances of seeing an impressive sunrise over the Himalayas being so slim, we dutifully climbed into Soubash’s trusty Maruti Suzuki armed with a flask of hot tea and woolly blankets and set off at 4am. The incredibly twisting and turning road with a surface that has not seen any care since the last monsoon led us up to Tiger Hill just as the first light was creeping into the sky. Hundreds of people huffing steaming breath awaited what might or might not be a most glorious sight. Chai wallahs were in their dozens selling welcoming hand warming cups of tea or coffee. As the morning sky pinkened what we had taken to be cloud emerged as a vast panorama of the Himalaya. Huge monoliths, their tops glistening like strawberry syrup on ice creams became clearer and clearer and the red badge of the morning sun rose to a collective cheer. Talking to others revealed that they had been here for four mornings in a row to see this truly awesome sight. Everest
in all its majesty in the distance, Kanchendzonga, Makalu and Janu pierced the mist and then it was over. The mists swirled in, the sky became a blue grey and our feet were frozen.
Next stop was the Samten Choling Gompa, an obligatory stop on the tourist trail. Yes, we had actually come across a few other travellers, removing our shoes we viewed the ornate Buddha and the highly coloured frescoed walls. We ran the gauntlet of the numerous scarf sellers setting out their wares and made our way to the Tibetan Refugee Centre which although quiet as we arrived started bustling. Donations were gratefully received as we watched the mostly women weave carpets on hand-made wooden looms. A storeroom of woollen balls, some vegetable dyed and some chemical was next door and Graeme in lieu of his customary SMH bought the Tibetan Review magazine, a mine of startling statistics.
The four of us entered the showroom and proceeded to buy up the shop. Jumpers, scarves, hats and blankets piled up-all to help the Tibetan refugees in their struggle. It was probably too late but I gratefully wrapped a large shawl around myself and donned a woolly hat. Now I
was prepared to see the sunrise!
Weaving our way through tiny backstreets in the trusty Maruti we arrived at the Alice Villas, a Raj era bungalow turned hotel, directly next to the Elgin, a beautiful heritage hotel a little out of our reach! Lighting cosy fires was very special and we longed to curl up in front of them but we needed to eat at the famous Glenary’s and made our way uptown through the crowded Chowrasta lined with opening shops and stalls and locals and visitors alike taking in the morning sun. A chance remark about the original Tibetan Book of the Dead kept at Bhatia Busty Gompa, a short walk from the square, had us downing our Darjeeling Tea, dragging Justine from the shops, and heading off down the narrow CR Das Road which was not a road but a steep path. Mummy gamely decided she was up to the task and accompanied by a local Tibetan who cheerfully told us that he was only a little drunk and although people thought he was a junkie, he wasn’t but it was his pleasure to guide us to the temple. Guiding my mother’s steps, I looked up and he
was gone. Gone to fetch some equally shady looking friends? But no, he was sat on a wall waiting for us around the corner. Time for a break from a knee punishing downward stretch we waited for my mother’s wobbly legs to abate and watched some interesting wall construction around a particularly sharp hairpin bend. So down we went again and round more bends and down again. We seriously doubted my mother’s ability to climb back up and found out that we could keep going down and eventually come to the road where surely a taxi would be waiting. First we had to visit the temple, no inside photos meant that the revered tome will have to remain in our memories only. A large Tibetan text wrapped in a deep orange fabric and sandwiched between two wooden blocks was reverently taken out of its cubbyhole for us to see. The book is only opened once a year due to its age so we oohed and aahed and then marvelled at the other books in the library all in their particular cubbyholes. The monk was one of only six resident there, entrusted with the keeping of this holy relic. On our
Out to dinner
onward journey people stopped to wonder at my mother’s assisted descent. “How old is she?” one curious passerby asked. Was this rude or sheer curiosity? An Indian trait to ask seemingly very personal questions. They wished us luck and we continued downwards, the steps becoming steeper and more uneven. Justine and I exchanged glances, Graeme remained forever phlegmatic, and Grandma’s knees wobbled more. After ten minutes more and still no sign of a road, we rested again and Justine and I raised eyebrows and wondered if a fireman’s chair might be the next option. On a particularly rough and uneven part of what was now a road two seedy looking fellows stopped a car and piled all four of us in the back. Never judge an Indian by the amount of hair gel he has!
A poor exhausted mother arrived back to her cosy firelit room and promptly snoozed whilst the trio went out for more explorations. We decided that any further walking was out of the question and enquired at the Elgin about their evening meal. This was the penultimate night together and deserving of a treat. A veritable smorgasbord of Bengali delights were placed before us by liveried
waiters left over from the time of the Raj. Gleaming white jackets and paints competed with glinting teeth, all set off by red turbans and coloured belts. Gentility at last! Even you, Lesley, would have felt at home here. The red wine, a necessary accompaniment for the meal, according to my mother, cost about as much as the food, and had an unfortunate effect on all the spices in the stomach! Drinking hot water the next morning and dry toast whilst we tucked into paratha breakfasts once more at Glenary’s was Mummy’s penance.
I tried unsuccessfully to buy a carpet made by women in a refuge called Hayden Hall. The one which I had had my eye on, when laid out proved not to be square and would forever trouble me if set out in the hall. Ah well.
So to the last of the memories for my mother. A ride on the toy train. We watched in amazement as the train spotters waited with long lenses, frantically snapping as the steam engine came into the station. Noise, dirt and a tiny gauge promised an interesting journey back down to Kurseong. My mother remembers arriving in Darjeeling by train and
looking forward to the ride from Kolkata. A world heritage journey on a world heritage railway we took off with ear splitting whistles from the train. We shared our first class carriage with a honeymoon couple, Darjeeling being a popular destination for amorous lovers. Passing through villages, competing with dogs, jeeps, cars and people, the track followed the road only deviating at the Batasia Loop enabling us to see the Gorkha memorial to soldiers lost in the world wars as the train circled the park gaining about four metres in height by so doing. We stopped at Ghum, the highest railway station in the world we were reliably informed. The anoraks had been tailing the train, taking photos as we crossed the road and at each stop but they finally left us here only to be seen the next day in Kurseong having actually travelled on the train. Trees and bushes hit the train as we hugged along the side of the mountain; we could have reached out and taken vegetables from stalls, clothes from hangers and food from people’s mouths, so close did we travel to them.
There are more photos below