Having come to Darjeeling in part to see its views of the Himalayas, I felt frustrated when the horizon proved to be continually covered in cloud. Only in the late afternoon of my first full day did I manage to catch a glimpse of the mountains; when heavy rain cleared the mist and fog from the sky. The break in the clouds was brief, however, and by the time I reached a decent vantage point, the view had vanished.
This was, by no means cause for despair. For, by way of beautiful compensation, the following two days had seen the town entirely shrouded in heavy fog. The beauty and wonder of it were ample entertainment and I could probably have continued to photograph the silhouettes and shadows without ever getting bored. Indeed, the fog proved so beautiful and entrancing that I almost forgot about the mountains altogether. Almost.
I have always had a great love of mountains and snow, possibly because of Australia’s relative lack of them. There are the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, with a roughly eighty to one-hundred day ski season. Yet the highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is a mere 2228 metres, and lacks the drama of other, more elevated peaks. There is, of course, the Great Dividing Range, a vast line of mountains stretching for roughly 3500 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, making it the third longest mountain range in the world. Yet, the Great Dividing Range formed some three hundred million years ago during the Carboniferous period and has suffered significant erosion since. These are very old mountains on the planet’s oldest and flattest continent.
If Australians want to see high mountains and better skiing, they traditionally duck across the Tasman to New Zealand. Still, despite the significantly more impressive peaks of New Zealand and their year-round snow-caps and glaciers, the highest mountain, Mt Cook, or Aoraki, is only 3754 metres tall. If New Zealand does not suffice, then Japan, Canada, or the European Alps are the likely choice for skiing, with The Andes, Rockies and, of course, the Himalayas, also featuring prominently on the mountaineering circuit. For most Australians, therefore, snow and high mountains are exotic – and elsewhere. For some, no doubt, they have little appeal against the perhaps more obvious attractions of paradisiacal beaches, yet for me, who was never especially fond of the hot climate, high, snow-capped mountains are the ultimate dream. They are impressive not merely for their staggering reality, yet also for their fantastical implications; being so long evoked throughout my role-playing childhood as the home of dragons, frost giants and hard, uncompromising barbarian folk. Just looking at mountains is enough for me, and I could likely do it all day without ever getting tired.
So, despite the great beauty of the fog, I was dying to see Mt. Kangchenjunga, which, at roughly 8500 metres high, is more than six kilometres higher than Mt Kosciuszko. This very thought – eight and a half kilometres, up into the sky! – was enough to give me goose bumps, and the brief glimpse I had caught of it had confirmed for me that it looked uncannily tall against the Earth. Determined to see the mountain properly, on the evening of day three, after another gorgeous day in the enveloping fog, I decided to stay in Darjeeling until I had done so. If it took a week, then so be it. But one day surely, perhaps just one morning, the horizon would be clear and the full glory of the snow-capped peaks revealed.
On my fourth morning in Darjeeling, therefore, I rose at 0500 AM and parted the curtains. It was still very dark outside, yet the sky had lightened just enough to see that it was clear. The dim stars overhead faded towards the horizon, from which the day was beginning to spread. The mist that had cloaked the town for the last few days had lifted, and whilst it was still too dark to make out the line of mountains in the distance, I felt confident that I should get lucky on this occasion. I ran to the shower, washed up and dressed, then set off with my kit into the cold morning.
Darjeeling was quieter than ever at this time of day, but once I neared Chowrasta, the main square at the top of the town, there were signs of activity along the street. Shop doors stood open with the owners sweeping their floors; on the wooden stalls hugging the road, vendors were already laying out their wares: fruit, vegetables, poultry and the like. On the edge of Chowrasta, in their ramshackle tarpaulined shelter, the tea-wallahs I’d become so fond of the day before were setting up. I checked my watch – it was still only five-thirty. How hard these people must work, for they continued serving until almost ten at night! Opposite them, the concrete stables were, for once, full of horses. Several of the handlers dozed on the steps, and I wondered if they were stoned already.
Being, shall we say, rather naughty, I had, just two days before, purchased a bag of marijuana from these so-called Pony Boys, who provided joyrides around Chowrasta, and along the road that ringed Observatory Hill. The night before I had prepared a couple of joints in hopeful anticipation of a clear morning, or as a form of consolation should things prove otherwise, and it was with one of these tucked behind my ear that I crossed the square and set off down the road beside the hill.
I expected it to be very quiet and largely free of people, yet, walking around Observatory Hill on its eastern side, I was astonished by the number of people exercising. Many of the locals were out running already; men and women of all ages. I passed a lot of joggers and groups of people doing stretches and aerobic exercises against the metal railings. Despite having been a keen runner for many years, even when I’m in an early-rising phase, I’ve never been able to exercise this early in the morning and have long been jealous of people who woke up feeling so energetic. The people were all very friendly, both to me and to each other, and I was surprised by how many used English greetings amongst themselves: “Hello” and “Good morning.”
When I rounded the corner to the northern side of the hill and saw the horizon, I felt a sudden slump in my hopeful mood. The sun had not yet risen, though now the sky was light and clear, but the mountains were dressed in cloud and remained invisible in the distance. In their place were great stacks of cumulus of varying heights. I imagined the shape of the cloud might somehow reflect the size of the mountains underneath, yet without any real sense of scale or proportion at such a distance, I might have been horribly wrong. Either way, the mountains were not to be seen.
I did not want to give up hope just yet, for in truth I knew very little about the meteorological conditions and reasoned that perhaps the sun might rise and burn away the cloud. There was obviously less moisture in the air today, which felt much more dry and crisp. It had a mild sting in it, as cold, clean air will do, and this gave me further hope that the day would not be so humid and thus less foggy.
Unable to see the mountains, I continued walking and focussed on photographing the valley below and the locals performing their exercises. When I reached a lookout I had discovered a couple of days earlier, I stopped, deciding this would be the best vantage point should conditions prove favourable. It was a shelter of cast-iron, with a corrugated sheet-iron roof, under which sat long, old-fashioned park benches. One of these bore the inscription Darjeeling Health and Fitness Club (I think), and it was a very popular place to congregate for early morning exercise. Around the shelter and benches, before a steep, wooded descent into the valley below with its rounded slopes of tea, were roughly twenty men and women performing stretches, jumps and running on the spot. To the side of them stood a Buddhist monk with a large, round, hand-held drum, like an outsize tambourine. He was humming and banging on the drum, facing the east where the sky was ever lightening, singing in the dawn, I can only imagine.
I figured there was likely another twenty-odd minutes before the sun actually rose, so I walked to the back of the road, where Observatory Hill rose steeply, and began to climb a steep watercourse. Before long I was thirty metres up above the people below, with an excellent view to the hidden mountains on the horizon. I took the joint from behind my ear and, feeling ever the fugitive, crouched behind a shrub to smoke.
I was soon joined by a friendly dog; a healthy and clean stray who was scavenging for food in the trees on the hill. She nuzzled in and sat down beside me, deciding we were to be friends. I patted the dog just a couple of times, not wishing to encourage her too much for fear of having her sit outside the hotel for the rest of my stay. It was difficult not to show more affection to this attractive, light-brown bitsa. I hadn’t had much in the way of company for some time, and as the marijuana put me once again into very high spirits, I wanted nothing more than to play and wrestle with this lovely dog, then buy the poor thing a great feast and give it a bath.
The sun, however, was rising and I needed to focus my attention on getting the shots. I took some from where I sat; switching lenses repeatedly for a wider or longer focus, then descended back to the road. The dog followed me down, but had the decency not to hang off me. She skirted the exercisers nervously, wondering which way to turn.
The monk’s drumming and droning was all the more intense now in my heightened state, and I felt completely in the zone for shooting, targeting people and scenery alike. Just above the layers of cloud in the distance, long, bright rays of sun were spreading in triangular fans. The cotton wool, popcorn clouds, beautiful in themselves, were rimmed with a fiery gold that burned in the back of eye. Below, on the slopes and in the valley, the tin and iron-roofed houses nestled in a light mist that blew like puffs of smoke. Where the hills spread out in lower undulations, the rich green of the orderly tea plantations was washed with drifting coils of mist.
The monk continued his slow beat and droning, and I, taking refuge behind my sunglasses, watched from a short distance, shooting video. I wanted more stability for the long-range focus and, not having brought my tripod this morning, I soon moved to one of the benches, alongside the shelter, and rested my camera on the rail in front. On either side the locals continued their exercises; huffing and breathing loudly, but otherwise, doing their routine without a word. The valley below made a pleasant subject for study, and I spied on the activity of tiny distant people and dogs, drifting through the light cloud that brushed the tree tops. I could hear the happy singing of children from a school a couple of hundred metres down the slope; a dawn chorus of upbeat, unbroken voices, both energetic and joyous. What time did school begin here? Such happy singing seemed a very positive way to start the day.
When, at around 0630, the sun climbed atop the rounded crenulations of cloud, there was a splendid murmur of excitement. The lens flared with the light that shot in clear beams from the small orange arc of sun. The sun rose rapidly and the light fanned quickly across the hills and valleys below. The tree-tops lightened, the fog shone white, and the locals doing their exercises seemed to find an extra spring in their step. It was a powerful and uplifting vision, without a hint of anticlimax and, though I longed to see the mountains, I was happy indeed with this burst of sunlight.
I sat and stood and sat again, photographing the scenes around me in the growing brightness. I continued to hope that as the sun grew higher and hotter, it might burn away the cloud below and reveal the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Was this the beginning of a dry, warm, clear day in Darjeeling? Was I about to be treated to that mountain view at long last?
It was now that I noticed a change in the valley below. The mist that had, until recently, been sparse and thin, began rapidly to thicken. In the warming sunlight, the abundant moisture was evaporating and gathering into pockets of cloud above the vegetation. Slowly the iron rooves and tea plantations became more difficult to see as these blooms of mist spread and floated until, after about ten minutes, with the sun now well clear of the clouds on the horizon, the scene below was almost entirely shrouded.
This gathering cloud now sent up a long, thin coil of white mist. It rose in a tall column that stretched up high above the tallest trees near where I sat watching. This column of rising moisture began to widen, fattening until it grew dark and dense, like a pillar of thundercloud. At the top of the column the mist very abruptly spread sideways, like a flat mushroom cloud, colonising the sky with fog.
Once this process was underway, the speed with which it continued was astonishing. The sun, it seemed, rather than burning off the cloud, was having quite the opposite effect; vaporising all the moisture in the valley and lifting it into the air. From a meteorological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. The spreading cloud soon covered the sky immediately above, blocking all direct sunlight. The treetops began to dim, the golden wash turned silver then grey as the hills and valley below vanished completely from view.
Soon the entire sky, as far as I could see, was covered in haze and cloud. Great waves of fog rolled up the slopes and onto the heights where I sat, brushing my skin with cool moisture. By the time the clock struck seven, the fog had smothered everything. I could see no more than twenty metres.
This marvellous meteorological event was too exciting to allow for disappointment. So much for the mountains – I was perfectly content to spend another day in thick fog and try again the following morning. I took another joint from my packet and wandered back along the road I had followed to the look-out.
Silhouettes appeared against the wan backlight, and the trees, now full of enticing shadows through the filter of fog, seemed especially fecund with their newly wetted leaves. I smoked took photos, looking back towards the “Darjeeling Fitness Club” where several locals were still doing exercises. Their shapes made excellent subjects and I kept the camera trained on them for some time.
I drifted back into Chowrasta, towards the chai place on the edge of the square which I had adopted as my own over the last couple of days. The man and two women were all there, and the place was fully operational. I ordered tea and a chilli egg bun and sat down on the bench to watch them at work. It was sad how much I loved what they did, yet could not possibly love their life. To work such long hours and to be so constantly busy was not something to which I could relate. It was hardly a new sensation, this wonder at the workers of the world who slog it out all day. Yet, sitting so close to this dynamic trio, who gave me such pleasure with their excellent tea and lovely, simple food, I felt a passionate hope that they should find enough time to be happy outside of work. At least they were their own bosses, and perhaps this was the life they chose, but it didn’t exactly look easy. I stayed there almost an hour, and drank three cups of the best tea in the world.
Over the next five days, I repeated that morning almost exactly. I rose just before five AM, showered, dressed and set off towards the same look-out. There was, at Ghoom, the highest railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a very famous and better situated lookout called Tiger Hill, to which many people ventured in the morning to see the mountains. This, however, was equally contingent on the sky or horizon being clear and, without such conditions, it seemed pointless for me to take one of the many early morning jeeps there.
Every morning over the next five days, I carried the same hope around Observatory Hill: that today would be different; that the sky would clear completely for a spectacular view. Sadly, however, on every single occasion, the entire horizon was covered in fog.
In the later mornings and afternoons, with never a sign of the distant cloud lifting, I wandered around town, photographing the workers, shops and the closer views.
I spent some time up on top of Observatory Hill, stoned, lost in thought, watching the colourful flags of the Buddhist monastery flap in the persistent breeze.
I spent hours sitting with the monkeys at the back of the monastery, watching their antics, squabbles, grooming and occasional surliness. Some days I wandered quite a way out of town, floating along the curving roads through the smaller, surrounding villages. I walked up into the forest and sat amongst the trees; smoking, reading, dozing, lying, thinking, thinking, thinking.
I saw a man with a prize pig, a most flamboyantly feathered chicken, women breaking rocks for a roadway.
I walked all day, looking for photographs and vignettes. I followed the railway out of town into some of its slightly grubbier quarters.
A small, quiet man showed me around another monastery. He told me its quaint, unassuming history, then a story of the school they hoped to build if only they had the money. I made my donation on cue, then left, feeling disappointed with both him and me.
Every breakfast lunch and dinner was spent at my favourite chai wallahs. I never learned their names, and we hardly ever shared a word, but we had an unspoken friendship that lived in our genuine smiles. I was certainly curious about their lives, but, knowing how much I value my own privacy, I did not want to pester them with a bunch of personal and anthropological questions. I figured that if I just kept ordering tea and food, and they kept making it so well and serving me in so friendly a manner, then we already had a strong enough relationship.
When, on my ninth morning in Darjeeling, the horizon was once again covered in cloud, I gave up all hope of seeing Kangchenjunga. Two days before, I had booked my ticket – from Siliguri to Delhi – and I wasn’t about to miss my flight. I sat and watched the mist rise from the valley once more, then walked back to Chowrasta for a final breakfast.
On the way there, I passed the very Pony Boy from whom I had bought a bag of marijuana almost a week earlier. He was standing holding the reins of his horse, grinning enough to show his blackened teeth. He recognised me and said:
“Are you going riding again today, sir?”
I laughed and smiled at his conceit. How sad and happy this little encounter made me feel. When I sat down on the bench and ordered tea a few moments later, I felt a choking thickness in my throat. How could I leave Darjeeling, having become so used to the place, and with my mission still unaccomplished? Did I not feel as though I were stagnating, perhaps even on the brink of a sort of dissipation, I might well have stayed on.
I knew that there could be only one cure for this growing burden of loss: to get back on the road and find new places and people. From Delhi I was flying on to Amritsar, right across India in a day, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. That morning, sitting there for the last time, I drank four cups of tea and made a new plan. From Amritsar, I would head north up into the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and see the Himalayas around McLeod Ganj and Manali. If the road was open and I could make it all the way to Leh, then so be it.
As many attractions as India might hold, the need for mountains was in my blood, and anyway, I preferred the cooler climate of higher altitudes. My mission in Darjeeling was indeed as yet unaccomplished, but if I couldn’t see the mountains here, then I would travel until I saw them somewhere. I had at least another month up my sleeve, and nothing, whatsoever, was calling me home.