In April 2010 I spent a glorious nine days in Darjeeling. Originally my intention had been to stay there for just three days; to see some views of the Himalayas, explore the regional heritage, get a taste of the local Ghorka and Nepalese culture and enjoy a break from the sweltering heat of India. Yet, upon my arrival, after a cold and romantic ride up the mountain in the back of a packed jeep, I straightaway fell in love with the place.
Having spent a month in the heat, the cold air was so exhilarating it felt like waking up with a new level of alertness and sensation. The torpor of humidity vanished in the chilly fog. That first night as I wandered through a town shrouded in near darkness, it was as though I had arrived not merely in a different state of India, but in a different country. The marriage of local and colonial architectural styles, the Asiatic faces, the different landscape and climate, the quiet calmness – all were very different to the India I had seen thus far.
That first night still seems like a dream in retrospect. The journey in getting there – a perilous ascent into cloud – the sense of remoteness, the light mist, the lost wandering to find my hotel, the huddled dogs on the streets, the darkness, all combined to give the place a sense of enchantment. As a childhood fantasy genre tragic, it left me feeling as though I had entered a magical and mythical land.
The following morning only confirmed my excitement. The vantage point that Darjeeling affords – perched high on a ridge so that it looks down into valleys on either side – allows not merely for great views, but also adds to its feeling of remoteness and safe seclusion. It is like a world unto itself, tenuously connected to elsewhere by a winding, pot-holed mountain road.
Yet, while the views of the surrounding hills and valleys were amazing, on that first day the cloud on the horizon prevented me from seeing the mountains. I imagined that at some point the cloud would lift and I’d be treated to the spectacular backdrop, pictures of which had lured me there in the first place. It was not until the late afternoon, after a surprisingly intense downpour, that the clouds briefly parted and I caught my first glimpse of Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world.
The mountains were barely visible in the late afternoon light. Clouds above prevented any direct sunlight from striking the peaks, so they seemed as phantoms, faint outlines in low-contrast. I had taken shelter under the drumming tin roof of Glenary’s bakery and had a relatively clear view from their back window, but I wanted to get a better vantage point and not have to shoot through glass. Concerned about the rain, I set off at pace back to the hotel to collect my umbrella, planning to make directly for Observatory Hill. At the Hotel Tranquillity, I briefly joined some other guests and the owner on the roof for a view of the mountains. The sky was clearer now and the mountains better lit by the sun, yet there were trees, buildings and a large satellite dish in the way. I saw just enough, however, to know that the mountain was the largest thing I’d ever seen attached to the earth. I set off optimistically ready to photograph the living hell out of the mountains. Yet, sadly, by the time I reached Observatory Hill, the cloud had returned. That brief, slightly obscured view from the rooftop was to be the last I ever got of Mount Kangchenjunga.
It was largely for this reason that stayed as long as I did. Not only because I was so entranced with the town itself and its immediate surrounds, but because I became obsessed with the idea of seeing the mountains and photographing them. Over the next nine days I got up early every morning and made my way towards Observatory Hill and the various look-out points along the road that circumnavigates it. Every day, despite clear weather overhead, the horizon was covered in cloud.
There was much to compensate me, however, in the form of pea-soup fogs, great walks, excellent food and tea, friendly people and some smashingly good local weed, but I hung on as long as I could, desperate to see the mountains. It was not to be, and when I finally left Darjeeling, I vowed that of all the places I’d visited in India, it was the one to which I must return.
There are many places in the world I’d like to see for a second time and doubt I ever shall. With so many countries still to visit for the first time – take China and South America for example – there’s less incentive to prioritise a return journey. Some places have been particularly favoured – Rome, Venice, Paris, London, New York, for various reasons – but on the whole, only a few places ever get a second look. India, fortunately, is big enough and diverse enough to warrant several expeditions and when V and I decided to go there again last December, I immediately began considering making a return visit to Darjeeling.
To cut a long story short, whereas my first trip had been around the north of India, this time I decided to focus on the south. We thus flew into Thiruvananthapuram and worked our way slowly north over a course of four and a half weeks. We had a lot of “targets” – things we really wanted to see – the Keralan Backwaters, Fort Kochi, Hampi, the Ellora and Ajanta Caves etc, but our itinerary was very organic and we made it up as we went along.
Darjeeling, therefore, was never guaranteed and we almost dropped the idea of going there altogether. Yet, with tickets booked to fly out of Kolkata, it made sense to take in Darjeeling since we ultimately had to head east anyway.
I was keen to go to Darjeeling, but was worried about how cold it might be in January. I also felt somewhat circumspect about returning, as I was afraid that I might have a different response this time around. V had never been to Darjeeling and though she wanted to see it and I wanted her to see it, I felt a bit guilty about pushing for it and decided to leave it up to her. It wasn’t until very late in the day – four days before we flew, on our one night in Mumbai – that we booked the flights.
The journey to Darjeeling turned into something of an epic in itself. It really began in Aurangabad, when we boarded a ludicrously overcrowded and chaotic eight hour train ride into Mumbai. We arrived at the airport at 2300, dirty and exhausted, planning to sit it out until our 0600 flight. After a “shower” in the bathroom – the one great thing about squat toilets is the hand-hose! – and a change of clothes, I felt refreshed and ready to face the wait. Everything would have been fine if V had not then become ill from the left-over vegetable biriani we had brought with us from dinner the night before. The next few hours were torture for her, though she did manage to take intermittent naps. Knowing how impossible it is for me to sleep in such situations, I hunkered down with Civilization IV on my laptop, fighting a lengthy war with the Aztecs and Spanish…
When we finally boarded the plane V was still not at all well and had a miserable time. At Delhi – which was refreshingly wet and cool – we had a two hour wait before our connecting flight on to Siliguri.
The second leg of the journey was certainly easier for V, but it was a longer flight, via Guwahati in Assam, and she was still very fragile when we finally touched down around 1530. From this point on, however, everything went completely right for us. A lovely young taxi driver, who was returning to Darjeeling anyway, offered to take us up the mountain for a mere thousand rupees. At less than twenty dollars, this was a small sum for such a long private taxi ride. He also proved to be very patient and helpful – taking us to a chemist to get drugs for V and then to a local market where I bought an el-cheapo so-called “Armani” coat and a pair of extremely unfashionable long trousers. Until this point I’d been travelling with just tee-shirts, a pair of board shorts and thongs and knew that it could get down below zero in Darjeeling in January. The fisherman’s-hat-shaped hood fell off the jacket when I tried it on – an ineffectual zipper being the culprit – but this proved advantageous as it offered more freedom of movement and looked even more fetchingly ridiculous.
That ride up the mountain proved a highlight of our trip. I was pleased to see not only that V was feeling a lot better, but that she was equally excited about the journey. Both of us are lovers of mountains and the combination that the region around Darjeeling offers – the quaint, colourful houses stacked along the winding road, the tall cedars, the yawning vistas – was especially beautiful as the sun came down.
We didn’t run into any fog on this occasion and instead were treated to a powerful and evocative sunset as we swung past the other jeeps on the road. By the time we reached the half-way point of Kurseong, both of us had completely forgotten about the travails of our journey and lack of sleep.
Passing through Ghoom, roughly ten kilometres from Darjeeling, we caught up to the toy train. We had been following its narrow tracks since Kurseong, winding back and forth across the road. The little steam train with its cute, shoebox carriages huffed and hooted like an outsized child’s plaything, chugging determinedly up the hill at a snail’s pace.
Such was the traffic on the road and such was its narrowness that we were forced to stop repeatedly, thus we not only drove alongside the train for a while, but we overtook each other several times. It was great to get so close to the train and to see it in action again. Tired and emotional, full of intense sensations, my eyes flooded with tears as I silently cheered on this wonderful relic.
Our driver made excellent time and the journey to Darjeeling took only three hours, by which time the sun had gone down. When we farewelled him, we couldn’t resist giving him a big tip for being such a nice bloke and a safe driver. Our early evening arrival at the Dekeling Hotel was equally well-fated. After a steep stair climb, we entered reception to receive a touchingly warm greeting from the young gent at the counter. Indeed, it was the most friendly reception experience we’d had thus far – and not to suggest that the others were unfriendly. He stood in the cold vestibule, rugged up in woollens, his wise eyes showing a hint of tension as he held himself tight for warmth. After the usual passport-photocopying, form-filling rigmarole, he led us upstairs into a cute and cosy space with wrap-around windows, comfortable couches and a wood-panelled ski-chalet décor. In the centre of the room a curly-haired old dog reclined in front of a pot-bellied stove with a long exhaust pipe stretching out the window. Here an elderly lady, perhaps the hotel matriarch, invited us to join her for a nice hot cup of tea once we had settled in.
Our room was just off this warm lounge area and proved very warm and comfortable. After long, hot showers and a lovely cup of Darjeeling tea in the lounge, we ventured out briefly to find something to eat. It was cold indeed outside, but wonderfully crisp and fresh. Darjeeling shuts down very early and already much of the town was closed. V didn’t have much of an appetite, but we found a place that sold hot and sour soup and sat down to dinner.
We had one last, welcome surprise that evening as we were preparing for bed. There was a knock at the door and I opened it to see the polite young man from downstairs holding two hot water bottles. Having so long dreamed about returning to Darjeeling, and having held so fondly to the memories of the place – all this warm hospitality made it feel like a homecoming.
After an early night, we both awoke at dawn. Through the curtains I could see a clear blue sky, still tinged with pale sunrise pink. I dared to hope that we should be lucky on our first morning and see the mountains on the horizon, but was wary after so many near misses last time. Indeed, all too often the sky overhead had been clear, but the mountains engulfed in cloud.
Despite being a mostly rational atheist who doesn’t believe in fate, I am riddled with petty superstitions. I had told myself that if I made this journey again, I would see what I had come to see. Irrespective of that, the law of averages dictated that surely I must get lucky at some point. Nervous with anticipation, I threw off the covers and made straight for the long wall of windows, pulling back the heavy curtains. I lifted the latch and opened one of the windows wide, sticking my head out into the cold air. My heart leapt. There in the distance, tall and seemingly immortal, toweringly omnipotent, was the staggering vastness of the Himalayas. Finally, after so much trying, I had a clear view of Mount Kangchenjunga.