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Published: February 21st 2012
Ascending the unravelling mountainside, a sheer drop into endless tea fields to our right, countless potholes and uneven road beneath our wheels and a former British hill station retreat ahead, our feelings were mixed as we climbed ever higher into the shrouding mist. Having recently slumbered off the Darjeeling Mail, an uneventful night train (much to our surprise) from Kolkata, carefully picking our way through the sea of beggars that awaited our arrival at New Jalpaiguri train station, we hastily clambered into a jeep bound for Darjeeling, at the very foot of the Himalayas. To lay my eyes upon the snow capped peaks of this range has long been a dream of mine, and Darjeeling seemed an ideal place to dip our toes into our first Himalayan experience. However, as we climbed the mountain into the aforementioned mist, my excitement was somewhat dampened by doubt – we were arriving in the harshness of winter, where viewing conditions (let alone sleeping) would not be ideal and for some reason, I became terribly pessimistic about the chances of seeing some of the Himalaya’s more famous landscapes.
Certainly this feeling was reinforced on our arrival, with Darjeeling itself cloaked in a film of
cloud too thick to see even the closest hilltops, let alone the vast mountains beyond. Frustrated, we climbed one of Darjeeling’s numerous hills to find our accommodation at Hotel Aliment, where we found extremely friendly staff, excellent food and a copious selection of reading material from their elevated restaurant/library. However, what we did not find (after allowing ample time) was warmth, nor the advertised hot water – somewhat of an issue when you are at the foot of the world’s highest mountain range in the middle of winter! However, the place came cheap at a mere 400 rupees, so we endeavoured to make the most of our stay, enjoying an excellent dinner and a cocooned sleep (literally if we allowed any inch of our body to escape from the double quilted protection, thereby exposing ourselves to the freezing temperatures, we were awoken in physical pain!).
Waking the next day, I hurried to the window, not unlike a child thinking they could hear the jingling of Santa’s sleigh, to see what the morning weather had brought. Through the condensation that had built up on our windows, I could see white tips set against a clear blue sky. I woke Amy
and we quickly went up to our hotel roof terrace where we had for our viewing pleasure, a crystal clear view of the Khangchendzonga range; numerous jagged Himalayan peaks capped in brilliant white snow, the most prominent of which being Khangchendzonga itself, which at 8,598m above sea level, stands as the third largest mountain in the world. Our roof terrace, warmed by the glow of the morning sun, made a very nice setting for some hot porridge and tea that morning!
Named in 1828 after the Dorje Ling Monastery, modern day Darjeeling exists as a sprawling hill town, filled with religious sites, the former home of ‘Sherpa’ Tenzing Norgay (he of Mount Everest fame who aided Edmund Hillary to the summit in 1953), narrow winding alleys, beautiful views and friendly locals. On our first day here, we decided to venture up to the Gompa which gave this town its name. Know today as Shree Mahakal Mandir, the former Dorje Ling Monastery sits atop on hill looking over the town to which it gave birth. Overrun with colourful Buddhist prayer flags, the modern version exists as a pilgrimage site for Buddhists in worship of Mahakala, somewhat confusingly a ferocious form
of the Hindu god Shiva. This monastery is a great place to people watch, together with monkey watch if that takes your interest – however as one food carrying local discovered, the monkeys aren’t always the friendliest of folk and won’t wait to be offered food!
After spending about half an hour sitting at this monastery, we descended the hill to explore some of the local market stalls around Darjeeling in the hopes of picking up some warm clothing for a bargain. Also, we were keen for a bit of mountain chai (Darjeeling is quite famous for its tea, so the locals will tell you matter of factly!). However, before doing so we couldn’t resist another opportunity to just watch and so opted for a sit down at ‘Chowrasta,’ an open area of sorts in the centre of Darjeeling with benches around its exterior. The remainder of the day, we wandered aimlessly around the town, enjoying numerous cups of tea as we went, together with some excellent curry and onion pakoras.
After another freezing night of not much sleep and even less hot water, we awoke at 4am for a trip we had arranged to Tiger Hill (a
2,500m hill perched above the town of Ghoom, almost 10km south of Darjeeling) in the hopes of seeing a spectacular Himalayan sunrise (weather permitting!). In complete darkness, a jeep came and collected us at 4.30am and winding through the night, ferried us to the summit of Tiger Hill, where we paid for a ‘Deluxe Ticket’ to enter a ‘viewing lounge’ – there are also ‘Standard’ and ‘Super Deluxe’ options, all for cheap prices, but as it turns out all are redundant as far as the views. You’ll get a far better view from the free viewing platform, but of course if you’re an hour early for sunrise (as we were), it’s worth paying the price just for some relative warmth for an hour!
Amy and I waited, shivering in the cold as dawn approached, hoping that we had been lucky and the mist would be low enough in the valley to see the Himalayan peaks. As the darkness receded, we realised our luck was in – as the morning broke, the Himalayas were revealed to us in startling clarity, initially in frosty shades of white and blue, but as the sun gradually rose further into the sky, the colour
of the mountain tops changed to a warm, golden yellow. I am excited for what adventures Nepal will bring in a month’s time, and seeing the Himalayas on this morning only intensified my excitement! Despite our distance from the mountain peaks, the quiet morning and its light nurtured a delicate intimacy as the roof of the world was revealed before our eyes. Standing closest to Darjeeling, Khangchendzonga was most prominent along with its close allies, but further west, we were afforded views of the crowns of Makalu (8,475m), Lhotse (8,501m) and of course, Everest itself, which at 8,848m, is the dominant presence in the Himalayas.
For some unknown reason, the fellows in Darjeeling who arrange itineraries for such visits have decided to include two stops on the return from Tiger Hill; the first at a nondescript Buddhist monastery and the second and the Batista Loop, a war memorial where the famed Toy Train makes the rounds. Neither are worth the effort it took to step out into the cold to actually explore them and both seemed superfluous after what we had just witnessed at sunrise, which was quite possibly the most beautiful panorama I have ever seen.
After arriving back in Darjeeling after the freezing morning, we needed hot water...badly! We therefore checked out of Hotel Aliment, which was a shame because the staff, food and hotel itself are all great, a sentiment we reiterated to the staff whom we also told that had this have been summer, we would have gladly stayed longer. As it was, we were in a Himalayan winter and as such needed insulation. We therefore headed into town and checked into the more pricey but toasty Dekeling Hotel. Even here however, despite the warmth, we only received literally two minutes of hot water each, with each shower turning into a game of Russian roulette, the object of which was to not get caught covered in soap when the hot water cut out!
That afternoon, we retreated to the centre of Darjeeling into a small tea shop and bakery, where we treated ourselves to jam doughnuts and apple pie, accompanied by Darjeeling’s finest tea! It was at this point however when our stay took a turn for the worse with Amy having to return to our new accommodation due to a severely upset stomach, which all but ended her stay in
Darjeeling and rendered her bedridden for the remaining 36 hours. Even the prospect of movie classics like ‘XXX’ and ‘The Expendables’ weren’t enough to cheer her up (I can fully express how sarcastic I’m being here)!
During the morning of our final day in Darjeeling, I decided to explore north of the town in search of the famed Tibetan Book of the Dead. Alas, no book was to be found after I was told the book was no longer housed in Darjeeling – I was however, given a full verbal biography of the Dalai Lama, and another of his contemporaries (whose name escapes me) by the ‘key master’ of this particular temple! Returning to the town somewhat disappointed, I consoled myself with another cup of tea!
It seems that during our time travelling, I have developed quite the affinity for hill station towns – the Cameron Highlands, Sapa and now Darjeeling all stand as highlights of visits to their respective countries. The reason for such kinship is difficult to elucidate, but there it is. Perhaps in Darjeeling, it has something to do with the availability of homemade cakes, the likes of which I can enjoy back home! Whatever
it may be, Darjeeling is a place where such home comforts can be coupled with a hot drink, freezing hands clasping at your cup, all the while taking in the breathtaking Himalayan views. That sounds like a justifiable affinity to me...
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