Taking a newbie to India is a little like introducing a friend to an adored aged aunt. You know that she’s great value, but how will she perform on the day? After all, there are times when she forgets to wash or “has an accident”, her sense of humour isn’t always to everyone’s taste, and she can be pretty cantankerous on occasion; but when she’s on form, sharing her stories and showing off her jewels, you love her to bits.
It’s not like Lorraine was new to travelling. We’d met while she was working, and I was volunteering, at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia; now she’d recently returned from 18 months’ teaching English in South Korea; and she had travelled relatively extensively before that. When she found out that I was planning another India trip this year, she asked if she could come along: it was a place she’d always wanted to visit. There was no doubting her enthusiasm … I just didn’t know how she’d cope, what she was really expecting…
From my point of view, how would I cope? Seven weeks of travelling WITH someone – the longest time I would have spent on the road
with A N Other since going round the world in 1993-4. And I had only introduced one other newbie to India before this, and it wasn’t the greatest success. India had been in one of her moods for most of the time, and, to be fair, I wasn’t hugely in love with her myself at that stage (ours has been a slow-to-ignite love affair).
But only time would tell…
One week on, I’m not sure if it’s been love at first sight, but there’s certainly a huge connection. Lorraine “got” India within a few days: something that had taken me five trips over more than twelve years. I was walking down the street in Mumbai in November 2007, when I felt it, almost palpably. That India was manageable. She had charm and personality. She wasn’t frightening. Yes, the poverty’s still agonising, the garbage problem still horrendous, and the smells, at times, still pretty awful. But I could see beyond that – to her beauty, her humour, her resilience. Lorraine’s found this already.
The first couple of days were, I must confess, about as easy as a first encounter could be. We stayed with friends in Delhi, took
the “HoHo” (hop on, hop off) bus around most of the sights and attractions of New Delhi (a Commonwealth Games-innovation, the bus is a remarkably good way of showing off the city to a newcomer, and, for me, of linking together many of the places I’d been and sites I’d visited over the last seventeen years), and spent a leisurely few hours retracing a route around Old Delhi that I’d walked a year before. Chandni Chowk isn’t to everyone’s taste, but “THIS is Real India,” Lorraine announced happily as we walked down the road from the Metro station into its late afternoon chaos of auto- and cycle-rickshaws, exhaust fumes and food smells, and people, people, people everywhere. She’d already enjoyed the various strains of Indian cuisine we’d sampled over the previous 36 hours, and, after we’d raided a superb Bengali mithai emporium on Chandni Chowk, declared that she liked Indian sweets (which are definitely not to everyone’s taste). Even a near lethal number of people crammed onto the top level of one of the Jama Masjid minarets didn’t phase her.
I breathed more easily.
The next few days were going to be in new-to-me territory as well: the
northern reaches of West Bengal. Our aim was to get to the Bhutanese border early the following week; what exactly we’d see and do before then would be worked out as we went along.
Siliguri, effectively the capital of this area if only because of its proximity to the only airport, is a scruffy and very Indian town. To reach our intended hotel, the taxi had to drive most of the way south through town before he could find a way through the central reservation and loop back. Hotel Hill View was conveniently and noisily just below the main drag, and there wasn’t a hill – or anything else much for that matter – anywhere in sight. Oddly, we had two televisions in our room, but it was otherwise pretty basic even by my liberal standards. But Siliguri was only supposed to be a utilitarian stopover, and an hour later we were rejoicing in our successful purchase of tickets for the “toy train” from Kurseong to Darjeeling a couple of days’ later. Buying train tickets in India is not for the faint-hearted, with form-filling, queues and incomprehensible timetables, not to mention the occasional language barrier, and the last time
I’d tried, I’d wimped out and asked a friend to do so for me. Not only that, but we had also figured out where to find our transport to Kurseong the next day. We celebrated by wandering off the fume-filled highway and down into the back streets where the real people live.
“Would you have come down here if you’d been on your own?” Lorraine sounded a little daunted. The dirt streets, ramshackle housing, kids playing in the dust and down by the garbage-covered riverbank, the young woman washing her son under the local standpipe, a pig snuffling about in the trash, mangy dogs everywhere, even a scruffy hen or two… At a small shrine on the riverbank, I turned and found some of the kids watching us, daring each other to approach these strangers. This was my forte. Ignoring my companion for a moment, I hunkered down and gestured with my camera. Eagerly the kids came scampering up, the boldest young lad striking a pose with his stick of candy. Barefoot and grubby, they giggled and pointed at pictures of each other when I turned my camera round to show them. I didn’t look at Lorraine; just hoped
she’d bear with my spending some time in this filth and squalor for the reward of the expressions on their faces. When we walked back up the way we had come, some of the women who had been chatting in doorways or at the side of the path and who had ignored us on our way down to the river, now turned, rewarding us with fellow-spirit, appreciative and warm smiles. This is my India…
The “shared jeep” to Kurseong the next day proved to be very shared. Buses don’t seem to go this way as it must be considered too winding even for the most audacious Indian driver (a hardy, not to say reckless, species) so vehicles that would generally be considered seven-seaters in the UK ply the route. We bought our tickets at the pre-paid counter to avoid scams, and found ourselves being hustled off by a chunky man in a Wayne Rooney no.9 England shirt. Our packs were hoisted onto the roof, and we were told to sit in the back of the vehicle, on facing benches, while the vehicle waited for other passengers. We speculated about how many co-passengers we would have: say, two in the
front beside the driver, three in the middle and another pair in with us… that’d make ten (including the driver)… Wrong. Add, somehow, another one into the front (at times, I thought Wayne Rooney and his neighbour were somehow both driving the vehicle, they were in such proximity), another into the middle seat (thank g’ness we were beside windows here in the back) and, yes, you guessed it, another squished in on top of us. This latter poor soul was Wayne’s assistant, a (fortunately) tiny lithe Tibetan, who started the journey clinging onto the outside of the back of the vehicle, but had clearly worked out there would just be room for him to cram inside with us and our two – also reasonably lightly-built – companions. To do this, he pretty much sat in Lorraine’s lap and dug his knees into the side of mine, though he considerately half-rose every time he saw us approaching a bump in the road, bracing himself against the roof and the inside of the back door. The journey should only take an hour or so, I reminded myself every few seconds…
Kurseong is delightful. A smaller, less-visited hilltop town than Darjeeling, it
retains some of the charm that the latter has probably sacrificed in the name of growth and tourism. We had no hotel in mind when we arrived, so shouldered our packs and stomped up the main street looking for likely contenders… and soon found ourselves happily ensconced at Hotel Mohpal where, according to the sign outside, “wall to wall carpet” was clearly regarded as the biggest selling point. (We were pleased to find that something higher on our list of priorities, hot and cold running water, was also provided.)
Like other Indian hill towns, Kurseong overflows its ridge like too-runny icing off a cake. Maps are of largely academic relevance here, with much of the joy of such places being in wandering around the side streets and having only a vague idea of where you would like to end up. With this attitude, we set off to explore, and found ourselves walking along and up and up and along and up again. We passed tea plantations and splendidly designed Victorian-era schools and a pretty wooden church more reminiscent of Switzerland than England or India; we marvelled at the railway that runs along the main road like tram tracks, with
simple instructions for drivers, “STOP. LOOK. GO”; Lorraine encountered her first prayer flags strung over a waterfall and I introduced her to Shiva, Parvati and Ganesh who were adorning a roadside altar; schoolchildren giggled at us, and smiled shy hello’s; a dog lazed in the sunshine on a concrete bench while neighbouring goats peered over the wall of their enclosure, confident that something far more interesting must be happening on the far side; and a young IT worker approached us to practise his English and show off his worldly knowledge while pointing out local landmarks. We dined at a cheerful restaurant patronised by locals, and enjoyed a delicious meal and endless cups of milk tea for less than £2.
The next day we caught the “toy train” or, to give it its proper name, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a “work of Genius” proclaims the information board at Kurseong station and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. (Usually the train runs all the way down to Siliguri in the valley, but a landslide has closed that leg of the journey.) It was enchanting. Taking about 2½ hours to climb the 30km and approximately 2,500 feet to Darjeeling, it putters along
beside and amongst road and pedestrian traffic for much of the route. We could have reached out of the windows and bought things direct from the shops as we passed by only inches away from their displays. The train goes so slowly that kids hitch a lift part of the way home after school by leaping onto the carriages’ foot plates, a feat involving a fraction of the risk that their urban countrymen run when trying to board commuter trains in the same manner. Although, when it’s operating, the train is a twice daily occurrence, it still engenders visible affection in the locals on every journey: people smile and wave as we go by, mothers encouraging toddlers and babes in arms to do likewise. The journey is not exactly smooth: we stop a couple of times while things are tweaked under the neighbouring carriage (we hold our breath: we had heard rumours of the train having broken down so thoroughly on its downhill journey earlier that day that the passengers had got off and taken taxis the rest of the way down to Kurseong), but only an hour delayed, we finally arrive at Darjeeling station in the dying light of
I was prepared to think of Darjeeling as I had of Ooty a couple of years’ back: that it would have been fantastic to visit twenty-plus years’ ago, but that it was now less than a shadow of its former self. I was wrong. Even though Darjeeling is comparatively large and sprawling, and cursed by the same dire approach to garbage disposal and pollution that taints much of India, and overly touristy in parts, we loved it. Its location on top of a ridge promises 360-degree views of snow-capped Himalaya, if the cloud lifts for long enough – which they did for us a couple of times, to our delight. It is a delightful mishmash of ethnicity, more so than anywhere else I’ve visited in India, and includes people from the north-eastern Indian states, as well as Nepal and Tibet, which makes for colourful and lively people-watching as we supped our morning coffee on Chowrasta, the triangular “square” at the heart of the Victorian town. There’s a large population of Tibetan refugees who live mainly in and around the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, creating a poignant Tibet-in-miniature. I even discerned hints of Bhutan in the decoration of
...not for the faint-hearted, Hot Stimulating Cafe, Darjeeling
Druk Sa-Ngag Choeling Monastery: the Guru Rinpoche and that much-loved Bhutanese legend, the Four Friends (although I appreciate these elements are also present in Tibetan Buddhism). Not surprisingly, religion here is also a mixture, with mosques, Hindu temples, Christian churches and several dramatically-situated Buddhist monasteries all apparently coexisting peacefully. The dog (and goat and horse and cow and chicken) population seems healthy and well-fed, the dogs having a Bhutanese-canine’s penchant for lying anywhere and everywhere, regardless of proximity to wheels, hooves and people, safe in the knowledge that, as their night-time barking keeps away evil spirits, they can do as they please in the daytime.
This is old British Raj territory, with English-style churches and old colonial clubs, where names still echo the past (Observatory Hill; the Windamere and Mayfair Hotels; the Oxford Book & Stationery Company; and Hooker Road, named after “Sir Joshep Dalton Hooker”, a renowned Himalayan botanist who worked here in the mid-nineteenth century). Yet it is also the focus for a much newer political movement, the Gorkhaland Liberation Organisation which, with its roots in the large number of Gurkha labourers from Nepal brought in by the British in the mid-nineteenth century, has been
calling for a separate state since the 1980s. Although a measure of devolution was granted, there are still calls for full secession and the movement’s armed wing is still operational, resulting in deaths as recently as February this year.
We were only intending to spend a couple of days here before moving on to Kalimpong, and thence to Jaigon prior to crossing over into Bhutan. However, we reckoned without Hot Stimulating Café’s homemade chhang… at least, that’s what I’m blaming for a two-day lurgy-thing which, without being overly dramatic in its impact, laid us low enough to ensure we postponed our departure a few days. (At the time, this hot and bubbling, freshly-made and still-fermenting hooch was delicious, with grains of millet giving a nice nutty taste. But I guess it carried on fermenting in our tummies, which wasn’t too comfortable…) However, as we were very warmly and comfortably with ensconced in Andy’s Guest House, we weren’t exactly complaining.
And it gave us time to get better acquainted with this scenic hotchpotch of a town. We walked and walked and walked, along and down and up and down and down and up and up (Andy’s is on top
through the mist...
Druk Sa-Ngag Choeling Monastery, Darjeeling
of the ridge, so our days always ended with an uphill trek – all good training for Bhutan, we repeatedly consoled ourselves).
We took the toy train back to Ghoom, 8 km away and the highest point of the railway, so that we could explore the various monasteries on the way back to Darjeeling and visit the Gorkha War Memorial in the middle of the impressive Batasia Loop where the train goes round a near-complete circle, ending up underneath the track on which it first approached.
Recognising that the Darjeeling Zoo has an impressive track record in conservation (successfully breeding a number of endangered species such as snow leopard and Himalayan wolf), we spent a morning there and at the neighbouring Mountaineering Museum, and paid our respects at Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s memorial and cremation site.
We walked over and down and down and down to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, but arrived too late to visit any of the workshops there. I found the atmosphere tinged with sadness despite the sweet smiles of the old ladies in response to my “Tashi delek!”: is it artificial to continue to segregate these people who, realistically speaking, have no chance
of returning to their motherland (if, indeed, they’ve ever been there), or is it beneficial, enabling them to keep their culture alive and bring their children up in their own ways? I couldn’t reach a satisfactory answer without an interpreter and more time with these people: I just hoped that the Darjeeling government has explored their wishes.
Finally, we negotiated the un-signposted challenge of buying tickets for our bus to Jaigon. The minibus ticket-wallah pointed us to the floor above his office. We walked back fifty metres or so before finding stone steps leading upwards. At the top, we walked along the upper level, looking for something that might conceivably be our destination… to no avail. A bookseller at the far end of the balcony collared a man loitering outside his shop and persuaded him to show us where to go. There, nearly back at the top of the steps, we found an open window. Peering in at the insistence of our guide, we could see a trio of men gathered round a table on the far side of the room. Feeling a little awkward, bent down and talking through the window, we asked about bus tickets. They nodded:
we were to come in. But there was no door. We looked questioningly at them, and one man gestured to our right, his arm describing a circle. Off to the right was an open doorway leading down a dark and unprepossessing passage. Turning left at the first opportunity, I guessed how far to go and peered through a curtain that was covering an appropriately-positioned doorway. Sure enough, this was our destination. But if it hadn’t been for a blackboard showing bus times and ticket prices, propped up in one corner, these guys could have been anyone. Such is buying bus tickets in Darjeeling.
And such was Darjeeling. Early on the Monday morning, a little sad to leave, a little apprehensive about the next two days’ hard travelling down and back up mountainous roads, but very excited at the prospect of our trip through Bhutan, we took our leave of our host and set off down the hill to the bus station.
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