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Varanasi

This collection of photos was first included as a gallery at the end of a short story I published in October 2012: Hot and Bothered, which is a largely autobiographical story fictionalised with my favourite literary “avatar”, Dirk. The photos, however, seemed to be languishing in a not especially well-presented gallery, so I decided they deserved more prominence. A couple of these shots have already been published in my Favourite Shots collection, but they belong with the others and so are republished here.

The short story, Hot and Bothered, pretty well sums up my experience of Varanasi. I arrived there tired and somewhat melancholy, having just left the beautiful mountains of Darjeeling. Varanasi was fascinating and engaging, yet it felt too crowded, hot and dusty, so I retreated inside myself and just focussed on taking photographs in relatively short outings. I was very happy with some of the photos and will always remember Varanasi as something that goes above and beyond the rather mediocre mood I brought with me.

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi train station

Varanasi washerman

Ganpati Guest House, Monkey deterrent

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Sleeping man, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi muscle-man

Varanasi

Varanasi

Varanasi

Band - Varanasi

Varanasi - the goat-keepers

Dudes Inc.

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Hampi is a striking place – an odd landscape of giant, tawny granite boulders, strewn across dry river plains and low hills. The weathered, rounded rocks protrude from the rusty, orange soil like scattered marbles, giving the place an otherworldly feel. Hampi is not only a geological wonder, it is also an archaeological one. Having once been the capital of the Vijayanagaran Empire – at its height between the 14th and 16th centuries – the site is full of monumental stone ruins – covering a whopping 26 square kilometres.

Hampi Bazaar

2583 Hampi

2851 Hampi stones and palms

3030 Epic landscape

The city of Vijayanagara was founded on the Tungabhadra River in 1336 by two brothers – Harihara and Bukka, and quickly rose to become a major centre of trade and Hinduism. Its wealth came primarily from cotton and spices – a market monopolised by the local rulers to great effect. With such ample stone reserves to be quarried, Vijayanagara experienced an extended construction boom which peaked in the early 16th century under the rule of Krishna Deva Raya (1509-1529). It is from this time that many of the major structures are derived; vast temple complexes and colonnades, bath-houses, cisterns, aqueducts, palaces and elephant stables.

3352 Temple platform Hampi

3217 Hampi 2

3064 Hampi Temple

4393 Bicycle and ruins

3695 Elephant stables, Hampi

2720 Hampi

Much of the architecture bears similarities to Hindu structures elsewhere, particularly with regard to the temples, yet Vijayanagara also reflects a local bent for ingeniously blending its buildings into the rocky landscape. It is a busy style, sporting countless high relief carvings and patterned motifs which give the buildings an organic quality.

3112 world of Conan

3291 Horse with horse motif, Hampi

2956 Hampi

2859 Temple, Hampi Bazaar

At its height, Vijayanagara, which means, city of victory, had a population somewhere upwards of 500,000 people, making it the second largest city of its day – surpassed only by Beijing – and a rival to ancient Rome. Vijayanagara fell not long after reaching its peak – sacked by a coalition of Muslim rulers from the north – the Deccan Sultans, who defeated the Vijayanagarans at the battle of Talikota in 1565. After the 16th century, the city fell into decline and ultimately, ruin.

Vijayanagara, and modern day Hampi, are both major sites of ongoing archaeological activity and popular tourist destinations. The town itself – Hampi Bazaar – is tiny, a mere village of neatly swept dirt streets populated as much by animals as people. The town was, until very recently, a good deal larger. Concern about overdevelopment and the locals’ tendency to re-use the ruined buildings as dwellings or for commercial purposes led the local authorities to demolish a number of structures built in the last 50 odd years, and to evict people from re-purposed medieval buildings. Despite this, Hampi Bazaar still sits right amongst the ruins of Vijayanagara and the transition from one into the other is seamless.

2978 Medieval gate, Hampiu

3969 Hampi morning

2822 Ruined street, Hampi bazaar

2793 Clothes line

Hampi Bazaar, whilst by no means an inhospitable place, is likely not for those who are used to luxury – most of the hotels are very basic and some lack hot water and private bathrooms. Many hotel rooms are also quite musty and mouldy – a consequence of the humid conditions and walls apparently lacking damp protection from the earthy foundations. Yet it is a lovely place to stay – the colourful houses are intimately close together, and the local people can be seen getting on with their lives in the midst of the tourist hordes who inevitably fill this place.

2818 Dances with goats

3823 Hampi Bazaar

2799 Simple street Mandalas

3963 Hampi

It is especially popular with younger, more alternative travellers – some of whom come to Hampi and get stuck for days or weeks. It has a very chilled aspect to it and the many roof-top restaurants, despite the disappointingly average quality of the food across the board, are excellent places from which to view both the village and the surrounding landscape. The proximity of the torrential river makes the setting all the more idyllic and exotic.

2394  Temple, Hampi

4011 Tourist

3954 Hampi ruins

2599 Hampi

3867 Tourists, Hampi

As noted above, Hampi Bazaar has its fair share of ruins and intact medieval structures. The monumental Virupaksha temple, flanked by an epic cistern, seems almost embarrassingly oversized for the modest village. Yet this but a taste of the wide array of impressive structures and temple enclosures dotted around the huge site. The number of temples is astonishing and their intactness gives some parts of the site the sense of a ghost-town, hastily abandoned. It is possible to walk for hours, for days and still only touch on what is on offer here.

2836 Virupaksha temple 2

2513 Temple and tank, Hampi

2895 Hampi Temples

Following the river to the northeast leads one through a glorious landscape, past a fantastical collection of ruined complexes to the immense Vitthala Temple with its famous stone chariot – the wheels of which still turn. Though it is less than five kilometres, one could spend at least an entire walking there and idling back, exploring the temples and enjoying the natural setting.

2761 Hampi, Age of Conan

2579 Hampi

2602 Hampi 2

2651 Hampi

2586 Hampi, rock cut steps 2

2580 Hampi

The Royal Enclosure, to the south of Hampi Bazaar, marks the old centre of the medieval city. It is here that some of the most impressive monuments are to be found – such as the Lotus Mahal – said to be the queen’s pleasure palace, and the elephant stables. At least a day is required to satisfactorily explore this wide area, depending on your patience, curiosity and temperament. Either way, be prepared for a lot of walking, or else hire a motorbike or auto-rickshaw with driver as the massive scale of the site means many of these monuments are widely spaced.

3579 Vijayanagara

3044 Hampi temple

3720 Elephant stables, Hampi

3088 Hampi Temple

3083 Rocks and ruins

3794 School group, Hampi

Whilst the landscape seems, for the most part, dry, rusty and scrubby, it is full of bright green palms and banana plantations. The rich, dark soil of the flood-plains also yields brilliant, emerald green rice-fields which illuminate the dry, toweringly smooth rocks with radiant verdure.

4349 Near Anegundi

3321 Sitting under the tree

3135 sensuous bananas

4257 Anegundi

4218 Goats eating cornhusks

It is a curious mix of the lush and the semi-arid, and can also contain some nasty surprises should one venture off the beaten track. Hard, sharp white thorns, up to an inch and a half long and strong enough to penetrate a rubber sole, often lie in the undergrowth. I learned about these the painful way, when I put my full weight on one in a pair of thongs and nastily punctured my foot which then spasmed awkwardly for the next two minutes. The thorn went so deep into my foot that it nearly came through the other side and for days afterwards walking was a very tender exercise.

3141 Thorns

Another place worth visiting is the small, historic village of Anegundi. It lies a few kilometres to the north east of Hampi Bazaar and, without taking an enormous detour, can only be accessed by ferry.

4113 Ferry crossing

Construction of a bridge crossing at Anegundi began in 1999, but was halted the following year over concerns about the impact on the site, both physically and visually. Shortly after reconstruction was resumed in 2009, the bridge collapsed, killing eight construction workers. It now lies like a crooked slippery dip, angled into the river – an interesting modern ruin.

4056 Collapsed bridge 2

The local people remain with no choice but to take the tiny ferry or another, private boat, across. A few motorbikes can fit aboard the ferry, but cars are forced to drive some forty-odd kilometres to access the nearest bridge.

4091 Off the ferry

A local guy from Anegundi with whom we spoke on the ferry was very vocal, if philosophical about the bridge. It was corruption, he said – poor construction due to cutting corners. “This is an India problem,” he said. So it seems.

4166 Anegundi

4135 Anegundi

4175 Anegundi

4202 Anegundi

4408 Happy locals

With such an unreal and captivating landscape, Hampi demands being seen at both sunrise and sunset. There are many vantage points which will yield a mind-blowing view, and the elevated places immediately outside Hampi Bazaar are some of the best. At these times of day the landscape’s colours are smoothed with an orange wash from the low-hanging sun. One morning, V and I set out before dawn to climb the rocky hill at the eastern end of the town. The wan light of morning was powerfully evocative of sunrise on another planet.

3903 Sunrise on Mars

3897 Sunrise, Hampi

When we descended from the boulder atop which we had been sitting, we came across another temple site we had not found yet, nestled between hills and palm trees. The heaviness in my heart and guts was the heaviness of awe – weighty feelings of eternity and mortality, fuelled by aesthetic beauty and the visceral freshness of the early morning grandiose. For four days Hampi had me under its spell – it is not something I’m ever likely to forget.

4270 Near Anegundi 2

4426 juicer

3956 Coracle crossing

4234 Hampi rocks

3938 Hampi 2

3643 Hampi

3746 Shrines on the rocks

2426 Street scene, near Hampi

3634 Islamic quarter, Hampi

2965 Tending the lingam

2461 Hey ladies

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By a happy accident, V and I arrived in Fort Kochi just as India’s first ever Biennale got underway. We knew something was up as soon as we reached Ernakalum, the chaotic hub on the mainland, across from which Fort Kochi sits. From here one must take either a ferry or a long ride across several bridges to reach the old fort on its island promontory. The queues at the ferry ticket office were beyond even typical Indian crowds and contained a high number of foreign tourists, many of whom did not fit the backpacker profile. We had a long wait in the segregated queues – one for men, and one for women – mystified by the heartbreaking openings and closings of the ticket window. I came close to cracking in the hot press for the dusty box office – not even on the Tokyo subway do people cram so close. After perhaps an hour, we finally secured passage and were waved through the exit gates onto the pier. Here the low-slung ferry was waiting, at the back of the throat of a glittering, industrial harbour.

Ferry crossing, Fort Kochi

Kochi, port

We’d had a glimpse of the peculiar geography of this place on the way into Ernakulam, on a bus from Alappuzha. Chugging across the sunstruck water offered further insights into the arrangement of this huge, natural harbour. From the air, Kochi and Ernakulam appear as a network of rivers, channels and islands, much like the rest of the Keralan Backwaters, only in this case, thoroughly developed. Fort Kochi itself sits at the tip of a long finger of land stretching roughly north – south along the coast; one of the headlands across the harbour mouth. To the west it looks out into the Arabian Sea, from whence had come the Portuguese traders who first established a European colony here.

Kochi Map 3 crop

Dutch Kochi 1665

The site of Fort Kochi, originally occupied by a fishing village, was granted to the Portuguese in 1503 by the Rajah of Kochi, after the forces of Afonso de Albuquerque assisted the Rajah in defeating a local rival, Saamoothiri of Kozhikode.

Chinese fishing nets

The Rajah gave the Portuguese permission to build a fort to protect their commercial interests – Fort Emanuel – the first association of this place with a defensive fort. In 1683 Fort Kochi was captured by the Dutch East India Company who ultimately made it the capital of Dutch Malabar. The Dutch reduced the area of both the old Portuguese town and the fort, and destroyed many of the public buildings. They developed the harbour and piers and constructed many merchants’ houses and warehouses, much of which survive today. In 1795, Fort Kochi was captured by the British, who further developed what had become a vibrant and important commercial centre on the Malabar Coast. Fort Kochi remained in British hands until Indian Independence in 1947. This rich colonial heritage has left Kochi with a mix of architectural styles which lends the old town a very European character, something immediately evident upon arrival.

Kochi

Stepping off the ferry we came face to face with one of the longest and thickest queues I’ve ever seen – the poor suckers waiting to get back across to Ernakulam. This crowd was a real mix of middle class Indians and foreign tourists, many of whom appeared to have been waiting for a long, long time to board a ferry. Whether we liked it or not, accommodation or otherwise, we were not getting back across in a hurry.

Our walk into town was a two-way procession – those entering and those leaving – past tired old warehouses and administrative buildings, many of which displayed signs for exhibits within and to and from which people joined and left the procession. Away from the docks and closer to the centre of town, the architecture became more intimate and residential and even more distinctly foreign – was this some dusty, forgotten, southern European port or a city in India after all? Huge fig trees loomed over the junction of Tower Road and Princess Street – the centre of town – creating a shady and remarkably quiet space. The relative absence of the many cars, buses and auto-rickshaws that give much of India a harassed vibe, leant this place an unexpected calm.

Fort Kochi, Biennale

Princess Street was a history lesson in itself. Just wide enough not to be called narrow, the melange of styles – half-timbered frames, Dutch and Portuguese colonial – with, in places, low, terracotta-tiled awnings – offered a charmingly disordered appearance. Nothing was quite new or polished and was instead pleasingly rusticated by time. It was here that we began our quest to find a hotel room, an exhausting process that took three hours and created such a mood of frustration and desperation, that it doesn’t bear recounting. Suffice to say that we eventually found adequate accommodation right where we had begun our search, just in time to settle our fractured nerves and head off in search of more fish curries.

Fort Kochi was crawling with hipsters and art-lovers. Before dinner we stopped in at a “family restaurant”, which everyone used merely as a bar, to find a crowd not unlike that of the Newtown or Surry Hills café scene. Indeed, the people all around us seemed to be from Sydney, Melbourne, or New York. There was a positive and excited atmosphere all about the town – not just from the tourists, but from locals who found themselves with a whole new clientele.

Biennale, Kochi

9737 Biennale, Kochi

Everyone seemed friendly and energetic; all sharing in this curious combination of place and venture. It was at this point that it struck us just how exciting it actually was both for us and for India that this event was taking place right here and now. As wanky as it sounds, I do firmly believe that art has a vitally important role in bringing people together and getting them to think – whether you like the art or not doesn’t matter so much – it’s a great stimulus to look at the world in a fresh way, however briefly.

Biennale, Fort Kochi

9711 Biennale, Kochi

0195 Fort Kochi

The next two days were dedicated to visiting the various exhibits of the Biennale – all covered by the same cheap ticket. Fort Kochi is an ideal place for a public display of art, full as it is of cavernous old colonial warehouses and administrative building in varying states of repair. After an excellent street breakfast, we began our wandering between these echoing, dusty places. Many of the sites appeared to be disused; cobwebs removed and floors swept, art installed and people invited in.

0080 Biennale interior space

0023 Violins Biennale, Kochi

0095 Pendulous

Much of the time the location was as much of an attraction as the art, which varied significantly both in scale and quality. We wandered up ladders, down long corridors, through unexpected courtyards and cloisters, in and out dusty old doors, at times completely taken by something, and at others indifferent but never really disengaged or disappointed.

0037 Kochi

9806 Biennale

0062 Staircase, old warehouse, Biennale, Kochi

9969 Biennale, Kochi

Without a doubt the highlight for both of us came ironically from a Sydney-based artist – Angelica Mesiti – whose high definition video installation called Citizens Band on four walls of a dark wooden warehouse room absolutely blew us away with its intimate portrait of four public performers and their incredible performances. The combination of the space and quiet, with the moving, intense music created by these individuals was mesmerising. Bukhchuluun (Bukhu) Ganburged, in particular, with his Mongolian horse fiddle and traditional throat singing, left us both in tears of wonder.

Even without the Biennale Kochi is a place worth visiting. It has a quaint and pleasing homeliness to it and many curious aspects on account of its history and geography. We ended up switching hotels three times in three nights, on account of the scarcity of accommodation during this busy time, but this also gave us new perspectives on the town, coming at it from different angles, so to speak.

0304 Pretty autorickshaw

9677 Photostat

9951 Friendly bloke on the bus

9625 Fort Kochi 3

0160 Fort Kochi

0273 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

9902 Gardener plus cricket game

0394 Beach, Fort Kochi

0413 Fort Kochi, beach 2

0339 Beach, Fort Kochi

On our second day there, we took a rickshaw down to Jewtown – a place whose name rather too deliberately makes plain its origins. There is a beautiful old synagogue and warren of streets, and it is likely the one Jewish community in the world in which the swastika is displayed publicly – often with the names of local businesses. This must seem a most confronting and bizarre juxtaposition for any visiting Jews, and one is forced to accept that, after all, it was the Nazis who appropriated this symbol from its far more peaceful origins in and around the subcontinent.

0299 Holiday planners

0242 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

0267 Jewtown, Fort Kochi

On our final night there we dined at a place called Oceanos, famous for its seafood. I mention this as we had, over the past week, been on a quest to find the best fish curries in India. By this stage, we had been very successful on Varkala beach – discovering a restaurant whose name escapes me – where one could, whilst listening to the plash of the surf, eat juicy Kingfish Marsala that, flavour and texture-wise, ranks as the best dish I have ever eaten. On that final night in Kochi, we again struck gold with all three fish curries we ordered. Again, the fish was fresh, cut into large, tender chunks, and cooked to perfection in astonishing marsalas and the Spicy Syrian Catholic Fish Curry left us reeling in paroxysms of pleasure. I could not recommend this dish more highly, and quite literally, for I do not think there is any dish in the world that can top the orgasmic joy that flooded us both as we savoured every last morsel.

Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

0396 Fort Kochi beach

0330 Beach, Fort Kochi

9765 Chinese fishing nets, Kochi

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With so many dusty Kingfisher beer advertisements painted on the walls of Varkala town, it was odd that none of the shops sold beer. It was Christmas Eve and V and I had spent the last hour wandering around this small town in search of supplies. We had already purchased abundant chilli tapioca chips and plenty of cashews, but nothing remotely approaching a tipple. Was this actually a dry town, with no booze at all? If so, then the countless advertisements must be one hell of a prick-tease.

The town itself was wonderfully chaotic; the usual mess of cars, buses, trucks, rickshaws, people and animals dancing. It even hosted a vehicle graveyard at its heart, where derelict autos sat rusting and sprouting grass.

Bus conductor Varkala town

Varkala town

Ripped labourer

Varkala town

What it didn’t seem to have was a booze shop. We finished a circuit of town, confident that we had checked every general store. Most didn’t even have fridges, though we would have settled for something warm if necessary. Not because we are desperate alcoholics, but it was, after all, Christmas Eve, and we had just arrived in Kerala from Singapore the night before. This was a time for celebration.

Kerala, on the south west coast of India, has a large Christian population and Christmas is a popular holiday. Driving in the taxi from Thiruvananthapuram to Varkala Beach at midnight the night previous, we had passed a number of small churches, many hung with colourful, illuminated stars. These stars, with light-holes patterned like snowflakes, were strung between trees and hung from houses and shopfronts; a pretty adornment in the roadside dark.

Our arrival had seemed inauspicious – being overcharged by the taxi driver and then arriving to find a very disappointing room at palatial prices. It had taken some getting as well – with V diligently phoning everyone in two guidebooks from Changi before finally making a hit at just under 100 dollars – almost unheard of for India. The room itself was in no way superior to those for which I’d paid ten dollars in the past, and we fell into a glum mood – the product of a long and tiring day as much as anything else. My first moonlit glimpse of the Arabian Sea, however, standing atop the cliff at the back of the property, offered welcome relief and the hope that things would turn out well. The long reflection of the moon was a bridge between continents; pointing the way to the Arabian Peninsula; the salty warmth it radiated was evocative of the ancient spice trade, and the Roman historian in me saw their fleets snaking down the coast.

Varkala Beach

The following morning we set off early for the beach. We had reserved a nicer room with a view over the phone, but were concerned about the cost and decided to check with other hotels closer to the main beach. At the back of the hotel was a lumpy, well-watered lawn with scattered palms, leading to the rocky cliffs. Here, a stone-cut staircase zig-zagged down to long stretch of sand curving down the coast. To the south the view was lost in the hazy headland, while to the north, past the hotels, the red cliffs dwindled into a forest of tilting palms. It was an unfamiliar and exotic landscape.

The beach was largely empty – just a couple of tourists doing yoga and an Indian runner, sprinting with light feet along the sand. Until this point I had been half asleep, yet, as the runner approached me I felt a sudden surge of opportunity, whipped off the lens cap and started firing. As he passed and receded down the beach, my excitement rapidly grew. How delicious it was to be back in India, where almost everything is worth photographing.

8074 Varkala Beach

The beach just below our hotel was connected to the main beach by a narrow strip of rocky sand that took some negotiating. Dodging the incoming waves proved a pleasant game and, when I reached the other side, having been liberally splashed, I was in a great mood of expectation. Here a number of rituals were taking place. Men in white cloth were making offerings to the sea – turning their backs and throwing in flowers and rice. A priest sat on a carpeted mound of sand, surrounded by onlookers and with an elderly couple kneeling before him. There were fishermen too –some repairing nets, others out riding long, narrow, tapered punts, and some giving rides to tourists. It was not crowded, but it was lively. The morning sunshine was warm, without being too fierce. It was difficult not to photograph everything.

8118 Varkala Beach 2

8096 Varkala Beach

8329 Varkala beach idol

8111 Priest, Varkala Beach

8138 Varkala Beach

8332 Fixing the nets

8143 Varkala Beach

This was where the road from Varkala town hit the beach. The town proper was a few kilometres away and, at the end of the road, which spilled into a natural cut between the cliffs, there was a collection of small shops.

An open-decked two-storey restaurant built of palm trees sat right on the beach front before the trodden dunes. We walked behind this and followed the path that led up along the cliffs. Soon we were on the main tourist drag – a narrow road lined with hotels and shops, mostly selling souvenirs, clothing and the like, snaking along the front of the cliffs.

8318 Varkala Beach

V and I walked slowly, admiring the elevated views of the beach and ocean. We wandered into all the hotels, asking about rooms. There were many to choose from, with a variety of accommodation ranging from bamboo huts to more permanent and luxurious structures. It took us roughly an hour to reach the end of the strip, where the hotels dwindled into nothing. In the distance, amidst a forest of palms, the twin spires of a temple rose from the fronds.

Coastline, Varkala Beach

We weighed up our options and made a tentative reservation at the place we thought most reasonable. Everyone was charging ridiculous prices at Christmas, which put things more into perspective, and we were still tossing up the idea of taking the room we had reserved already from the airport, which we hadn’t actually seen yet. Needing breakfast and some time to think, we sat down at one of the tourist cafés for coffee and banana pancakes.

When we returned to our hotel and asked to see the room we had reserved, we were instantly inclined to take it. That we apologised and politely told the guy no, then, ten minutes later, changed our minds and apologetically said we would take the room, says something about the state of mind we were in – somewhat disoriented and indecisive. Once we checked in, we never looked back. It was a wonderfully light and clean, with cool tiles, a large white-sheeted bed, ceiling fan and balcony. The upper storey of a standalone structure, we also had access to the open roof. Now all we needed was a swim, some local grass for me, and then a trip to town to acquire alcohol. This was Christmas after all.

8176 Varkala hotel

So it was that two hours later we found ourselves wandering through Varkala town in search of booze. We were on the brink of quitting, having already doubled back for a second look. Standing on the road that led back to the beach, looking to flag an auto-rickshaw, V caught a glimpse of some frantic activity down a narrow side street.

“What’s going on up there?”

“I don’t know, but it looks busy.”

We could see a truck parked at the end of the lane, and through the narrow space beside it, a queue of men was visible. A moment later a man emerged from the lane, carrying a plastic bag. From the bag came the clink of bottles and, like a pair of desperados, we were over the road in a flash.

As we walked up the rocky lane, past a couple of women begging with their children, the sounds of excited activity grew. We rounded the truck and came upon a most remarkable scene; a crowd of eager men, lined up before a wire-meshed shop front, waving pieces of flimsy paper. Here, so the battered old sign read, was the Kerala State Beverage Corporation, and from behind the thick wire grill, men were handing over bottle after bottle of alcohol. From the back of the truck, a couple of wiry workers were unloading crates full of booze and passing them into the store.

The men in the queue were mostly old, with worn and leathery faces; many with white hair and beards in contrast to their deeply dark skin. They had an almost desperate, unsettling eagerness in their faces – the eyes of addicts. They were patient, but determined, standing so close in the queue that they pressed against each other. V and I stood back and watched, too timid and uncertain as to how this all worked. What was truly extraordinary was how they were paying for the booze. None of the men were handing over money – all of them had some kind of paper permit – a ration card perhaps? My limited knowledge of Kerala included the fact that it was the only state in the world to have democratically elected a communist government. Was there still a communist government in Kerala? Was this some kind of regular allocation or allowance? Had they been paid in booze for something? Had they purchased the permits or received them in exchange for something else? Was this related to the Christmas holiday or a regular occurrence?

8281 The booze truck cometh

I was hopelessly ignorant, but the scene was suggestive of so many things. We stood and watched for five minutes, quietly fascinated. My thoughts soon turned to the social implications of this scene. Was alcoholism a problem in Kerala? What percentage of these men’s wages were going on the alcohol? Could they really afford it? What were the moral implications? Domestic violence, abuse, neglect? Or was this just the rare chance for these hardworking men to relax and let go in a challenging life? Unlike the men selling the alcohol, none of these people looked wealthy; their worn features and lean bodies spoke of a life of physical toil.

V and I stood dumbstruck – not wanting to plunge into the mayhem until we knew exactly what was going on. There were a couple of other westerners hanging about, who seemed to know what they were doing. Seeing us standing there so indecisively, a Dutch woman soon approached us. “You can go to the front, you know” she said. “If you are paying in cash it’s okay. Just go to the counter, this side.”

Still we hesitated. What did we want, anyway? On the wall was a list of prices – all stupidly cheap. For six large Kingfishers and a bottle of rum it would set us back eight Australian dollars. The cost was immaterial and it was really a question of how much we were likely to drink over the next two days. After another minute or two spent watching the weathered faces, the quiet desperation, the tired old counter and the men unloading the truck, we finally drummed up the courage to approach the counter, feeling guilty that our money let us jump the queue.

A moment later we were crouched in the lane, stuffing bottles into our bags. Still pondering the many possibilities of what we had witnessed, I went and gave some money to the begging women, a small gesture to ease my conscience. As we sped back to the beach in an auto-rickshaw, talking keenly about all this, our thoughts began to shift back to self-indulgence. It’s Christmas, for god’s sake, we reminded ourselves for the umpteenth time.

Christmas itself proved a splendid day; a lot of swimming, a lot of friendly exchanges with locals and other tourists, a lot of drinking, smoking and eating. The cliff-top strip was buzzing with travellers, both local and foreign, and down on the beach, many Indian families were letting go and enjoying themselves. It was lovely to see Indian people in a festive mood and to see the way they interacted with both the foreigners and the beach itself. Most of the women remained completely clothed, while the men happily stripped down to briefs and plunged into the water. Many of the men were drunk, walking arm in arm and offering endless cheery greetings as they passed.

8360 ladies on Varkala beach

8512 Men on the beach, Varkala

8352 Varkala beach

8497 Varkala Beach

8349 Varkala beach

8514 Beach scene in Kerala

8420 Big night

8432 Boat, Varkala

8530 Varkala beach

Despite the clear, almost shocking contrast between European women sunbathing topless or lounging in bikinis, and the very properly dressed Indian women, there seemed no displeasure between the two groups – no sense of outrage or offense. Perhaps it is the nature of Varkala Beach, which seems well-used to western exhibitionism, or perhaps it was the sense of liberation that comes with a public holiday, but either way, there was harmony right along the beach.

8697 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8718 Twin cobras

8727 Two cobras, Varkala Beach

8731 Snake charmer, Varkala Beach

8814 Varkala Beach

8403 Kerala beach scene

8570 Sunset, Varkala Beach

That evening, having watched a snake-charmer and a blind woman with a heartrendingly beautiful voice singing Bollywood songs on the beach, we decided to try the palm-built restaurant. Sitting upstairs at the front, we could see and hear the constant plash of the waves stroking the beach. Downstairs, the restaurant displayed its daily catch – a collection dominated by a magnificent king fish. It was this that we ordered – the kingfish masala, along with another fish curry. We had come to Kerala in search of hot, sour fish curries, but never could we have expected anything to taste as good as this. It was a veritable foodgasm – large, succulent, tender chunks of kingfish, cooked to perfection in a mind-blowing masala. Never in my life have I made so many exclamatory remarks about the quality of a dish, and despite several equally knock-out fish curries we were to eat in the coming weeks, we always came back to this one. When the meal was done and we sat back stuffed and drunk, feeling the salty warmth roll in off the Arabian Sea, it was hard not to feel that this was the best bloody Christmas ever.

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One Day in Nepal

You can’t really go trekking in a pair of worn-out thongs. It’s by no means impossible, but likely to result in discomfort, injury, or wardrobe malfunction. And let’s be clear here, I mean flip-flops or rubber sandals, as opposed to anal-floss. Despite this, I have many times in the past worn thongs under inappropriate conditions. On my first visit to India, I had nothing but a pair of thongs to wear, and, once in the mountains around McLeod Ganj in particular, put them to the test by clambering up and down a lot of rocky slopes.

My thongs, on Varkala beach

On my second visit to India, over December and January 2012-13, I once again took only a pair of thongs as footwear. Why? Because I was travelling light again with just a small bag and couldn’t fit a second pair of shoes in my “luggage.” Knowing too that most of the holiday would be spent in very warm and humid places, including a few stays on the coast, I figured I could get away with it and was proven right in the end.

The one concession I made on the footwear front was to bring a pair of socks with me, which proved invaluable when staying at higher altitudes – Ooty and Darjeeling, for example. Naturally I would have preferred not to be seen in cargo shorts, socks and thongs, but I have an amazing capacity to dispense with vanity when on the road – amazing, I say, considering how terribly vain I am most of the rest of the time.

The reason I mention all of this is that on our second-last afternoon in Darjeeling, as we wandered through the sun-drenched dark-green tea shrubs in the Happy Valley plantation, I made the decision to accompany V on her one-day trek to Nepal the following morning. The two reasons I’d opted out initially were that I’d caught a mild cold on the way up the mountain to Darjeeling and hadn’t been feeling especially energetic over the previous few days, plus I only had a pair of thongs, which made my attendance seem farfetched. The more I thought about it, however, the more it became clear just how much I wanted to go. Apart from the beautiful views and exciting exercise, along with the chance to enter Nepal for the first time, I knew I would regret not having shared the experience with V when she returned and told me all about it.

The task of buying shoes can be complicated, but this is usually because people are fussy about the look of the things and take their time deciding from amongst various styles. In this case, however, we soon discovered that irrespective of style – of no concern in this case – just finding a pair in the right size was going to be difficult. We began our search at around 1600, the tail end of a warm and sunny afternoon, and ran almost immediately into trouble. There were three or four shoe shops in the streets around our hotel, yet none of these had anything larger than a size 45. This was roughly two or three sizes too small and would ultimately do more harm than good, if I even managed to get them on my feet, which was not actually possible. With none of the closed-toed shoes fitting, I asked to try all the largest sandals, yet none of these were big enough either. I was willing to take a pair a tad too small, as sandals offered a lot of freedom anyway, but the soles were simply too small and I had some toe-overhang going on.

I was fortunate to have a welcome flashback at this point – to my last visit to Darjeeling when I had stumbled into a sort of shoe-emporium. One level of a shopping mall, just a little down the hill from the top end of town, which had several shoe shops inside. We made our way to this place at around 1730, and were very pleased to discover that, indeed, the ground floor contained nothing but shoe shops.

I felt certain I would find something appropriate in here, but still, after the first four visits to ask about size, we came away with nothing. Eventually, however, we entered a shop which had one remaining pair of size 46 sandals. I tried them on and they were a near perfect fit, with the straps loosened. They also felt sturdy and comfortable and seemed more than capable of doing the job. I thanked the cheerful gents in the shop and apologised for my long deliberations. I felt triumphant. The trek was on.

The car arrived at 0545 the next morning to drive us to a town called Maneybhanjang, roughly 32 kilometres from Darjeeling. It’s a common starting point for treks into Nepal, be they for a day or considerably longer. I had been concerned about whether or not we could enter Nepal as both of us were on single-entry visas, but the young man in the hotel had assured us that while the border police would check our passports and register them, they would not be stamped and no official entry would be recognised. Our trek would take us only a few miles into Nepal, which allowed some degree of flexibility.

Our driver was another lovely local man – friendly, welcoming and helpful. Like so many people in Darjeeling, he never seemed restless or impatient, but entirely at ease, which made his politeness completely genuine. We exchanged a few words, but sat quietly through most of the one-hour drive, taken with the shifting views of the mountains through trees and villages. There was a light haze in the air, but little sign of cloud, and the weather was predicted to be as it had been for the last three days – clear and crisp sunshine.

We were taken straight to the local police station to register our passport details. This took place in a very spartan, cold, wooden-floored room with tired old blue paint on the walls. I couldn’t help wondering why they didn’t have a big fire burning or a heater on. In fact, we’d noticed that the interior of several places around Darjeeling had also been very cold and people simply wore coats, scarves and hats. Perhaps heating was too expensive, or they were just used to it. Either way, I wasn’t so much worried about myself, but for their own comfort. The policemen were as sleepy as we were and the whole process had a dreamy and unreal quality to it. Having watched a few episodes of Banged-up Abroad while on the road, I entertained myself with the grim thought that something would go wrong and we’d end up imprisoned in some remote place for a visa violation, being left no choice but to make a daring escape.

Shortly afterwards, we met our guide, Ranjin, and our driver left us. Ranjin was actually born and bred in Maneybhanjang. It seemed surprising that anyone could choose to live their lives in such a small place – a mere single main street with a cluster or two of houses off to the side – but this was merely my prejudice for busy places with all manner of shops and services. I have never understood the desire to live in small towns in remote places, but perhaps this is simply because I’ve never tried it. Still, the lack of access to an art-house cinema and a wide variety of restaurants gives me the shivers.

Ranjin took us to a local restaurant of sorts. It was a simple, small room with a few tables and chairs and an elderly woman making dhosas and mildly spiced potatoes. For all we knew, it might have been his family home. At this stage both of us were in a sleepy state of fascination with all around us and hardly said a word. We wolfed down the food and drank a couple of cups of tea, then set off to begin the trek.

Forest

It began with a very steep ascent, up a rocky road. The slope was so steep at some points that it seemed not even a four-wheel drive could have handled the gradient. The road was flanked by tall cedars, which Ranjin was later to explain were all replanted some time in the last twenty years as part of a reforestation project. With such a steep ascent, it wasn’t long before we were warmed up and removing layers. After just ten minutes I was down to a t-shirt and was to spend most of the rest of the day as such. We were also soon treated to some excellent views of the surrounding hills and mountains. The valleys were still full of mist, but the haze had cleared from the sky and it was crisp and blue over head.

Mountains

After twenty-five minutes of climbing we reached a point where the road levelled out on the crest of a hill. A few small, modest houses, a temple, shrine and monastery sat the ridge, in low yellow grass. Ranjin lead us to a large iron gate that was chained and locked. He produced a key and began to unlock the gate.

“On the other side is Nepal,” he said, then opened it up and went through.

V and I smiled at each other and followed him through the gate. I was immensely excited, in fact, having never been to Nepal. As silly as it may sound, I’ve always loved the idea of collecting countries and, whilst this one would not appear on my passport, I could safely say afterwards that I had, in fact, been to Nepal.

Opening the gate to Nepal

We wandered into the grounds of the monastery and took in the colourful buildings. Everything was white-washed with red, blue, green and yellow highlights. Perched as it was on the top of this yellow crest, the snow-capped Himalayas as a backdrop, it had a wonderful remoteness to it; a sort of complex simplicity that evoked contradictory feelings of wanting to stay and leave at the same time.

Welcome to Nepal

Tree and mountain

Monastery, Nepal

We moved on quickly, following Ranjin’s lead, and began a walk that followed the crests of the hills. For the next hour we alternated between walking on the road and on the grass alongside. This early in the day there was still much frost on the grass and the icy patches in the shadows had a blue luminescence about them.

Frosty road

It was very beautiful and I kept wanting to stop and look at it, but moving as we were at a good marching pace, we kept on. Ranjin told us that the road was in fact in India, and that where we were walking alongside was Nepal. On account of this, we must have crossed the India Nepal border on countless occasions during that early part of the walk.

The Himalayas

Around nine we reached the top of another crest to see a small collection of buildings. From a distance it looked like a small village of wooden barns and thatched roofs, though I’m not sure in the end that it wasn’t just a single family living there. There was, however, a shop which sold snacks and made tea. From the open, wooden-shuttered shopfront, an old man emerged to greet us. He spoke briefly with Ranjin who told us that the tea was all part of the service. It was a young girl who came out to serve us. We said hello, though she just smiled and nodded in reply and didn’t speak to us. The tea arrived a short while later.

Tea stop

Up the road a little, some young men were repairing the axel on a jeep. They seemed so happily engaged in their task that they didn’t appear to notice us at all. Perhaps the solitude bred this quiet detachment though, of course, it was only us and the wider world from whom they seemed detached. The wide, open views into the valley below and across to the line of snow-capped peaks were engaging enough. I sat quietly watching the men work, relishing the cooling sweat on my back and shoulders where the pack had been.

We set off again along the road in the direction of Megma and Tonglu. The road itself was an impressive construction, a tightly packed and solid path of uneven rocks. The light colour of the rocks gave it a magical quality as it curved like a ribbon along the rolling crests. So uneven was the surface, however, that it was nigh impossible to walk on, and we strolled alongside on the time-smoothed verge. Soon a jeep approached. We stepped to one side and watched it rocking awkwardly from stone to stone. The vehicle jumped so clumsily at every rock that it seemed to be walking on four legs. The driver and passengers wore a long suffering look of bemusement as they leapt up and down in their seats. How anyone could stand such a bouncing motion for an extended period of time was beyond me. The jeeps must be very durable indeed.

Tonglu / Megma

We soon reached the small village of Megma, which housed an Indian army border checkpoint. Apart from the checkpoint and barracks, there was a monastery and a row of four or five houses. The guards were young men with old-fashioned carbines, who smiled and seemed to enjoy looking at our passports. I still retained some small amount of irrational fear that there might be a problem with our single-entry visas, but this was soon dispelled as we were directed to the ubiquitous ledger into which we had to enter our names and details. All the while, a short distance away, one soldier was continually shouting at another one down the hill in the barracks. It was an unfortunate disruption to the peacefulness of the place and had an air of gratuitousness about it. Ranjin had warned me not to take any photographs.Tonglu

Megma

Just outside Megma the weather began to change. Waves of mist and cloud came sweeping up the mountainside. The puffs of dark grey and white cloud added a welcome bleakness to the scenery, increasing the air of remoteness and mystery. The light acquired an eerie, metallic hue and we walked in that realm of contrast between sunlit ground and overcast sky. It grew rapidly colder and soon we felt droplets on our skin.

Approaching Tonglu

We made excellent pace and Ranjin was impressed with our fitness and speed. We weren’t trying to push the pace, but both of us are naturally fast walkers. We came to a small stream near some rocks painted with runic symbols. The stream ran through a small shrine in which a prayer wheel turned constantly from the motion of the water. It was very simple and clever, though I have always wondered about the sincerity of such contrivances. Was there not something intrinsically lazy about automating devotion? Not that I really minded, but it does seem slightly askew.

Tonglu

Painted rocks

The shrine marked the beginning of our next destination – the slightly larger village of Tonglu. It was here that we stopped for lunch, in a large wooden house. Ranjin led us inside and a youngish girl came to greet us. It was a cosy place, the wood-panelled walls painted pale blue and inset with glass cabinets. A wide bench under the window was covered with colourful cushions and here we sat, before the dining table. Ranjin went inside to chat with the family in the kitchen whilst we amused ourselves looking at the many curiosities about the room. On one wall, next to a hand-drawn map of the region, was an old faded photograph of a girl riding a goat. I wondered if it was the girl who had greeted us on our arrival.

Lunch stop, Tonglu

Lunch consisted of Maggi noodles with a few peas thrown in and some not especially hot chilli sauce. We both smiled at the disappointing simplicity of the meal, yet ate the lot of it with an eager hunger. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, and both of us were very hungry after the morning’s exercise.

Hanging lantern, Tonglu

The village sat just on the snowline and, as we advanced up the road out of Tonglu, we found ourselves walking on a snow-covered road. Both V and I were very excited about this as we rarely have the chance to see snow. I had now put my coat back on, which was fortunate because I soon slipped on the perilous surface and landed on my elbows. After that, I trod more cautiously, enjoying the squeaky crunch of the snow under my sandals. The shoes, incidentally, were working perfectly – sturdy, supportive and very comfortable. It had been clear for some time that this was not a walk for thongs.

Tonglu

We passed through another small village whose name escapes me. All the buildings were locked up and no one was present. It had a pleasantly bleak and lonely feel about it, another chance to indulge in the sweet melancholy I love so much. We hurried through, now at the highest point for a few miles around, with great views of the valley dropping away into Nepal on one side and India on the other. Down in the valley it was sunny, but up here on the heights we were in amongst the clouds.

Tonglu

The cloud had thickened considerably around us and clung like heavy fog. It continued to rush up the mountain in great sweeps of mist, adding drama to the dark and subdued landscape. My childhood love of fantasy locations had been awake during the whole walk, but now, with the fog sweeping up and the yellow grass growing wet under the grey light, the snow on the rocky road and the closeness of the world around as the cloud limited our vision, it seemed more fantastic than ever.

Nobody home

We walked through this fog and cloud for another hour and a half, slowly descending along a winding road. We had soon completed a circuit of the crest and the army checkpoint at Megma came back into sight. From here we would follow the same road home, retracing our morning’s steps. With the weather having shifted so dramatically and with us now facing in a different direction, it seemed like a different walk altogether.

Road into fog

Road into fog

During the last stages of the journey we talked more with Ranjin, asking him about his life and interests. He came across as incredibly content – married with children and loving his job. I asked if he ever got bored, taking people on the same walks all the time, but he assured us that he never did, so fond was he of this landscape in which he had grown up. To some degree I could understand him – how could anyone ever get bored of such magnificence? Though only at an elevation of around 3500 metres, it had felt to me like the top of the world – high, cold, bleak and yet staggeringly beautiful. And yet, inside me, there remained that knowledge that I could not do this forever. I needed the city somehow, though perhaps this would not always be the case.

Mountain road

Mountain road

Our last stop was the place where we had first entered Nepal. This time we visited one of the houses there and sat in the lounge of the family who lived there. Two children watched television and a young Nepali man sat in another corner drinking a beer. At first we just nodded to him and kept to ourselves, but when he came over and spoke to us, we instantly warmed to him and listened to his story.

He was a jeep-driver, taking people across the mountains between India and Nepal. He was drinking Kingfisher Strong and told us that he needed it to keep himself steady in his dangerous job. I thought there was something foolish about this and wondered at his commonsense, but the more we learned, the more sympathetic I was to his situation. He was, in fact, terrified of his job and the risks involved.

Troubled young Nepali

“When the roads are icy, it’s very dangerous. Jeeps go, whoosh,” and he motioned with his hand as though a jeep were falling down the mountain. “Tonight I can’t go, because there is ice on the roads. But tomorrow I have to go, ice or no ice. It’s very dangerous.”

As he spoke to us in his good, clear English, he shifted about with nervous energy and had a mild look of desperation in his eyes. His demeanour was a strange mix of happy, almost glib, yet clearly he carried a burden. I got the impression that he was not just scared but frustrated – as though he had something unpleasant to do and would like to have gotten it done then and there. Waiting til tomorrow was actually worse than doing it now, so for the moment, drinking beer was the next best thing. Yet, even then, he seemed unable to relax and remained standing, shifting on his feet.

We quizzed him further about his life and he told us he had studied at university in Darjeeling. He had had to abandon his studies on account of his “domestic situation.” He didn’t elaborate, and though desperately curious, I wasn’t about to ask him. Had he gotten someone pregnant? V and I later speculated. It was impossible to know, but I felt deeply sorry for him, with his dangerous job and curtailed prospects. I certainly hope he finds some way to be content in his life.

Armani my foot

We had made such good time on the journey that we were early to meet our ride home, so we lingered for almost an hour in this house. When we finally did leave, we just had the walk down the steep hill to the car, which took only twenty minutes going down. All along the way we noticed long, narrow plastic pipes running from the mountain-top down into the valley. I hadn’t noticed these on the way up, and Ranjin told us that they were to provide water to the houses in the village. Without a proper water supply, people tapped into the springs and streams up on the crest. Many of the pipes dripped and ran with escaping water. It was an interesting insight into the lives of the local people…

Maneybhanjang

The car was waiting for us down in Maneybhanjam and it was time to say goodbye to Ranjin. He was so unassuming and mil-mannered that he tried to slip away quickly before we could give him a tip, but we were not about to let him go without giving him the bonus he so surely deserved. Even when we handed him the money, his surprise seemed utterly genuine. He really was a top bloke.

Distant trees

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It seems ironic in retrospect that I doubted the wisdom in returning to Darjeeling. After all, I had spent nine days there on my first visit and wondered what was left to do and see. Much of the joy of my first visit had come from being alone and spending my time thinking, walking, smoking, photographing and taking notes. The battle against the elements – my undying hope of seeing the mountains on a clear day – provided an exciting and compelling challenge. While my failure to see the mountains was a huge disappointment, the excitement of getting up at dawn in the hope of doing was more than enough reason to be alive and in Darjeeling. Much time was spent watching the sunrise, or sitting in silence at the tea shack on the corner of Chowrasta, watching people and enjoying feeling completely and utterly free. Would Darjeeling have the same appeal a second time around, and now, with someone else in the picture?

When we woke up that first morning and saw the mountains on the horizon, it was immediately clear that we had made the right decision in coming there. Not only that, but as V and I contemplated what we might do over the next few days, it dawned on me how little actual sightseeing I had done previously. Sure, I had walked all over town, up and down and around the fringes back in 2010, but apart from a few outlying monasteries I had come across, there was much that I had ignored: The Zoo, the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, the Happy Valley Tea Estate, the view of the sunrise from Tiger Hill. Admittedly, I had ruled out the zoo, having mixed feelings about such places, and, despite being interested in the history of regional exploration, never worked up enough excitement about the Institute. I dropped Tiger Hill on the grounds that the mountains were not visible anyway and I didn’t need to ride in a jeep somewhere NOT to see them, when I could do that perfectly well from the town. As to Happy Valley, however, it was just an unfortunate oversight.

Two kids, Darjeeling

Darjeeling bearers

This time around we determined to try to see everything we could, as well as do a lot of wandering about. We spent the first day doing the latter – wandering about and re-orienting. I was trying to avoid that terrible habit of constantly referencing experiences from my last visit, but the excitement at seeing things again was too great. The one major disappointment for me was that my favourite tea and momo stall on the edge of Chowrasta was not open. After the first couple of days, I’d eaten almost every meal there and drunk a river of tea. I figured they must be having a day off as their signage was still in place, but felt a sense of foreboding that I would not see them this time around.

Prayer wheels

Darjeeling Monastery

The second morning was even clearer than the first, without a trace of cloud anywhere to be seen. After some strong coffee and a huge breakfast at Sonam’s Kitchen, we set off for the Happy Valley tea estate and promptly got lost. The road we took, however, turned out to be that which led to the Zoo and Mountaineering Institute, so we decided to go there instead.

Local Motorbike enthusiasts

It was a lovely day of bright sunshine and cool air – around 11 degrees – just warm enough to wear a tee-shirt when walking keenly. The road we followed afforded occasional jaw-dropping glimpses of the mountains on the horizon and sunlit views of Darjeeling, houses stacked up above wooded slopes.

Mountains

The zoo brought out the usual combination of excitement and pity one experiences in such places. Seeing a snow leopard, a Bengal tiger, a panther, red panda, bears, Himalayan wolves and the world’s oldest living variety of deer was all very pleasing, yet seeing them in cages was not. Their miniature habitats, where some effort had been made to provide a natural environment, were just a bit small for my liking.

Yawning leopard, tres cute

The Bengal tiger certainly made an impression – after we found it, that is. Its enclosure was one of the larger ones; a sloping hillside, overgrown with trees and shrubs, full of camouflaging shadows. Our first sighting was of the tiger’s enormous head, surrounded by dark vegetation. There were not many people around, and little of the excited noise that often assails one at a zoo, and the tiger seemed languidly un-harassed. Its eyes stared ahead, straight through the fence and beyond us, as though, with appropriate contempt for its captors and tormentors, it had managed to pretend we didn’t exist. Later, we found it pacing about behind a tree, which was an altogether sadder sight. The weight of its muscle was evident, and despite its obvious agility, it had a fearsome heaviness about it. Such great power, when combined with adrenaline, must be one of the most awesome sights in nature. As we walked away, I remember thinking that at least this one was safe from the poachers; a thought swiftly followed by despair at just how dire the tiger’s plight now is.

Red Panda

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute lies directly behind the zoo and is available on a combined ticket. After a couple of circuits looking at the animals, we followed the path to the courtyard outside the building, in which the centrepiece is a statue of Tenzing Norgay, one of the first two men, along with Sir Edmund Hillary, to climb to the summit of Mt Everest in 1953. Originally born in Nepal, Tenzing moved to Darjeeling at the age of 19 and, on account of his incredible achievement, he is revered by the locals with no small amount of awe.

Standing before the statue, inspired by the weather, the views, the cool crisp air and full of the spirit of discovery, both V and I were deeply moved. There was something so heroic about this handsome man who had done such extraordinary things. In the statue he seemed happy and kind, humble and unassuming. My father, who dreamed of climbing Everest for years but never did so, had told me about that first ascent in my childhood, placing, with his classic socialist support of the little guy, appropriate emphasis on the role of Tenzing Norgay, whose name I had never forgotten.

Tenzing Norgay - what a handsome dude!

Tenzing was one of my early heroes, though I knew very little about him, and standing there before his statue I felt myself choking up. What a champion! What an incredible thing to do! It was almost as though I was finally meeting him after all these years. V, funnily enough, felt just as I did, and both of us came away with moist eyes and lumps in our throats, appetites keenly whetted for the Institute itself.

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute is certainly worth a visit. It is full of wonderfully tired old displays – decrepit stuffed birds, dusty, mangy wildlife and lots of climbing equipment from various eras. The displays trace the history of Himalayan expeditions in a series of time capsules full of equipment from different mountaineering teams, which map the gradual evolution towards the present. Despite the obviously more primitive nature of the earlier expeditions, some of the equipment seems surprisingly modern and ahead of its time – which, no doubt, it was when they set out. The museum also displays a lot of old photographs and newspaper clippings, which remind one of just how important the climbing of Everest was in the popular imagination. These days, the North Face is more like a busy highway, though no one in their right mind would belittle the effort in climbing it.

That same day we checked out of the Dekeling Hotel and into the Windamere Hotel for one night. This was in fact a belated birthday present for V. Back in November, I’d given her a mocked up “Passport to pleasure”, entitling her to a night of luxury in India. Originally I’d had the idea of staying in a Maharaja’s palace somewhere, but things didn’t quite work out that way and the Windamere seemed like the best option.

The Windamere Hotel, once described as “One of the three jewels of the Raj”, is actually a converted boarding house for bachelor English and Scottish tea planters. It’s cozy collection of wooden cottages wasn’t converted to a hotel until just before the outbreak of the Second World War, thus making it something of a late-comer to the Raj. Located on Observatory Hill, it occupies a special place in Darjeeling both geographically and historically. We arrived to find that we had received an upgrade, to one of the Colonial Class cottages, if I remember correctly, which was everything I was hoping for. The cottage included a sunroom, a large bedroom, small dressing room and a lovely bathroom. The wood-panelled walls, the antique fittings, the historical photographs and prints on the walls, the gorgeous carpets and furnishings, all exuded a charming Britishness that was both quaint and tasteful.

Windamere Hotel, our sunroom!

Devonshire Tea at the Windamere is listed among the Darjeeling things to do highlights, and we weren’t about to miss it. At 1600 that afternoon, we were shown into the reading room – another time capsule of colonial luxury and restrained decadence. As we waited for the tea and scones to arrive, we explored the hotel’s common rooms – the bar, the music room – it was all bloody splendid, what.

When the tea arrived it came not merely with a couple of scones, cream and jam, but with a large tray of cakes and pastries. My excitement at this was only slightly diminished by the knowledge that we were booked in for a three course meal later in the dining room, which promised to be lavish and hearty. Wanting to enjoy the hotel as much as possible, we stayed there all evening, taking baths, lying in bed with the coal fire burning and only venturing out for what proved a smashing dinner.

When the alarm went off at 0330 the following morning, I can’t say I was keen to leave the hotel. We had, however, determined, on the back of the amazing weather, to go out to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. This, we thought, would be easy, because the Lonely Planet suggested that all one had to do was walk down to the bus and jeep station and there would be a positive scrum of tourists and drivers ready to roll. Whilst this may be the case in the high season, nothing could have been further from the truth for us. Indeed, when we did finally reach the bottom of the town, rugged up as best as we could against the still freezing darkness, there were just a few locals kicking around, none of whom were planning on driving to Tiger Hill.

We asked around, followed the odd moving jeep, then finally, out near the Toy train station, found a driver who had arranged privately to take a couple of other tourists out there. He said we could wait and check with his customers if they were okay to have us along. We ended up waiting with him for almost half an hour, before another jeep full of Bengalis up from Kolkata swung by. The driver said we could squeeze in the back, and so we did at around 0430.

I can’t say I was very happy at this stage, being overly tired and insufficiently warm. The ride itself was interesting – rocking back and forth in the steamy jeep, full of dark men in dark clothes, occasionally muttering to each other. We smiled and were friendly, but I was too tired to be open and affable. When we did finally arrive at Tiger Hill, after a half hour drive, I was still not in the best of moods and kept sullenly to myself.

Considering how quiet it had been at the bus and jeep stand, we assumed Tiger Hill would not be so busy on this occasion. When we pulled in, however, the dark road was thick with jeeps. Up at the observation point, there were already hundreds of people all huddled together, waiting for a view of the sunrise. It wasn’t an easy wait, either. The biting cold crept slowly and painfully into my fingers and toes and I tried to keep them as warm as possible, but had no gloves and was wearing thongs with socks. When the sky finally began to lighten and I started to take photographs, my fingers soon became so stiff and sore I could barely adjust the settings on the camera and struggled to hold it steady. I wondered if it was really worth being here at all, and then, something incredible happened. The sun came up.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

It was, in itself, a beautiful sight, even before its rays had hit the mountains. Yet what was so great about this particular dawn was the collective gasp that came from the huge crowd of frozen, anoraked, beanied and gloved-up people. The exhalations of the watchers were full of excitement and wonder and an almost desperate relief. It was not merely a beautiful sight, but the sun’s warmth was so utterly necessary in the cold.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

The sun rose slowly but surely and cast its light across the long range of the Himalayas. The view left nothing to be desired. From Tiger Hill it is possible to see a very long, craggy stretch of the range, including distant sights of Everest. As the sun struck Mount Kangchenjunga, its bold ridges came starkly alive with gold.

Himalayan sunrise

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

We remained on the Hill for another half hour or so, before finding our way back to the jeep. The road home included a couple of other pit-stops. One, a splendid view point, and the other, a Ghorka war memorial.

Sunrise from Tiger Hill

Ghorka war memorial

By this stage, however, despite feeling fully respectful of the Ghorka people, we were ready to go home. I took a few more photographs, but was feeling pretty sore from freezing and thawing a few times. We returned to a marvellous breakfast and spent the rest of the morning luxuriating in our warm hotel room. At midday we were to check out and move back into another, different and equally cosy room at the Dekeling Hotel.

Traditional outfits

That afternoon we finally found our way to the Happy Valley tea plantation. There the land view really opened out, for the slope was very steep and covered only by the low, hardy, neatly-clumped tea bushes. We followed the rocky road down the undulating hillside, sunshine belting on down. Below, the road was lined with tall cedars, straight and magnificently proud. We found a nice place and sat a while in the sun, still feeling some of the morning’s chill in our bones and muscles.

Happy Valley tea estate

A local champ who wanted to pose for me!

Local kids, Darjeeling

Earlier, at the hotel, V had arranged to go one a one-day trek into Nepal the following morning. I was interested in going, but initially opted out because I had no shoes other than my flimsy, worn-out thongs. It had seemed crazy to buy a pair of shoes I would not keep just for a single day of walking, but then, sitting there amongst the tea bushes and soaking up the afternoon sun, it ceased to seem crazy at all. I knew how much I would regret missing the experience and decided to go after all. The real problem was going to be finding some shoes that fit me in a country full of small feet, and once I’d decided I wanted to go, the search for a suitable pair of shoes could not wait. Up we got, a little reluctantly, and began the walk back into town.

Darjeeling shop

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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.

Jeep to the Darj, April 2010

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.

Heavy fog, Darjeeling, April 2010

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.

A single glimpse, April 2010

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.

Heavy Fog, Darjeeling, April 210

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.

Chinese fishing net man, Fort Kochi

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…Khmers 9

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.

Pulp Fiction, Delhi Domestic

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.

Not what Giorgio had in mind...

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.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

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.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

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.

Darjeeling ascent, Jan 2013

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.

Early morning mountains

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.

Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Darjeeling mountain view

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Back to the front

This piece was written just prior to my arrival in India on December 24, 2012, but remained incomplete. After a quick edit and polish, I present it here in its original tense, despite just having returned from India.

I got the shakes just before leaving Singapore. It was two and a half years since my last visit to India and I had forgotten how hardcore it can be. On the whole, India is a pretty safe place to travel – it’s not exactly a warzone and whilst violence and crime certainly occur, most foreigners get away with being ripped off a few times and suffering some health issues. Yet, travelling in India takes a lot of effort and can be at times quite harrowing. It is not, despite its reputation as a centre for meditation and religious retreat, a very relaxing country.

Jodphur B&W

I’ve written several stories about my first trip to India and some of the various experiences I had there. Some fictionalised, others as memoir, and it is not an easy place to which to do justice. It can be breathtaking and amazing, restful and beautiful, yet it can also be utterly exhausting and very frustrating. It also has its attendant, inherent difficulties – such as the heat and dust, the discomfort, the chaos, the noise, the touts, the lying and cheating that goes hand in hand with incredible hospitality, and the inconvenience of not being able to drink the tap water in a country that is often unrelentingly hot and humid.

Taj from Agra Fort

In my first few days in India in March 2010 I struggled to make sense of the place and learn to negotiate it. Rather like being thrown in at the deep end, I learned to swim soon enough, yet not before having a number of difficult and challenging experiences and getting sick. The illness in itself wasn’t so bad – stomach cramps and diarrhoea – but after a few days it made me feel very weak. For two days in Pushkar I did almost nothing but lie in my hotel room and read, with occasional ventures outside.

Bikaner

After four days, travelling further into Rajasthan, I arrived in Udaipur dehydrated and exhausted. The weakness of not eating much for three days made me paranoid and, sitting alone in my hotel room watching the cricket that night I got the crazy idea that I might genuinely die. I force-fed myself a vegetable biriani and fruit salad and the following morning went straight to the chemist to get some antibiotics. Within twelve hours of taking them, the illness vanished and I cursed myself for not having done so sooner. Take my advice – most gastric illness in India is bacterial and over-the-counter antibiotics are readily available at any medical shop.

Udaipur

As soon as I got better, that first trip in India really got underway. With my strength returned, I was able to put in the hard yards and see and do the things I wanted to. The more I saw of India, the more I loved it – but this love came with serious reservations about why I felt the way I did. It was all very well to see charm and romance and the exotic, yet alongside that was terrible poverty, failing infrastructure, appalling hygiene in public places, rubbish dumped and burned everywhere on the streets, including plastics and excrement, and such a harrowing welter of noise pollution, overcrowding and almost non-stop inquisitions from people I passed that it was equally depressing and demoralising. It was, of course, a photographers’ paradise, but my joy at the subject matter was tainted by a feeling of intrusion and exploitation and terms like “poverty porn” lingered in my mind. I tried very hard on that trip to remain friendly and positive. For the first few weeks I answered every query, shook hands with a hundred strangers and stopped for the ubiquitous “just one photo, sir”, but after a time India’s constant assault forced me to retreat inside myself. I turned to my headphones and sunglasses and started ignoring people.

Onkar!

A better solution, however, came when I arrived in Darjeeling. Perhaps it was the prevalence of Buddhism, the cool calm of the mountains or just the friendly, peaceful nature of the Ghorka people, but in Darjeeling people left me alone. When people did greet me or make an inquiry, it was not merely preliminary to an attempted transaction.

Darjeeling

In the rest of India there seems to be an automatic reflex whereupon, seeing a tourist, if staring is insufficient, then belting out the question “which country?” is the next step. This was sometimes done in the nicest possible way, but often it was thrown at me with such urgency that it felt impolite. What really surprised me was how often the inquirers accepted the answer without further ado, at times seeming almost uninterested, which left me wondering why they had needed to ask in the first place. It was like being a display, which, to be fair, was probably not much different from how people felt when I was photographing them – though I do try to shoot as surreptitiously as possible.

The solution, it seemed, to avoiding the hustle of India, was to be in the mountains, which wasn’t exactly India after all. Once I’d discovered the relative calm of the mountains, I did my best to stay there.

Amritsar

From Darjeeling I flew across to Amritsar where I lasted one day before taking a bus across Punjab into the mountains around Dharamsala.

Vashisht

I was so reluctant to return to the heat, dust and general hubbub hat I stayed another three weeks in Himachal Pradesh before finally venturing down again via Shimla.

McLeod Ganj

By the end of that journey, just shy of two months, I felt like an old veteran after a long campaign. Yet my energy was also pretty well spent and I had fallen into a state of relative dissipation. Tired and world-weary, I wandered around Varanasi in a daze, wiped out by heat and hash. I made sure I took the photographs I wanted to get, yet the subject that had so fascinated me for the first two months – namely India – had become a little less appealing.

Varanasi

I could no longer stomach the scent of excrement, urine and decomposition. I had no more patience for beggars, priests, touts or even genuinely curious Indians. I literally just wanted to shoot the place and avoid any interactions. When anyone spoke to me I shook my head, pointed to the headphones, raised my hands as though to say, “Sorry, dude, I can’t hear you,” and walked away. It was not how I wanted to be at all, and I hid out in my hotel room at times, simply indulging in privacy and regretting the feelings of displeasure I had with the world at large. I guess introverts should travel in Scandinavia instead.

Varanasi

It was for these reasons that, just prior to my flight into Thiruvananthapuram for a second visit to India, I started to have reservations about where I was going. I should be looking forward to the challenge, but perhaps I am too effete and western for the grit and grime of it all.  Still, despite the above introduction, my last trip was one of the greatest experiences of my life and I came away from it feeling very inspired. This time is also bound to be different for a number of reasons. Firstly, I’ll be starting in the south instead of the north and travelling in regions I’ve not visited before. Secondly, I’m not travelling alone this time around. V is coming with me, or I with her if you will, and the dynamic will be very different indeed. It will certainly be a lot easier with someone to share the highs and lows, and I hope it will be more enjoyable as a consequence. Hopefully I will come away both appreciating what I have discovered anew and having been reminded of what is important and good in life. I also hope to shoot a hell of a lot of good photographs. Wish me luck.

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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?”

“No. Thankyou!”

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.

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It is not especially easy to find cigarette papers in India. This first became apparent in Jaipur, when I wanted to roll up a little something. I had just returned from ten days travelling around Rajasthan and my contact, Sunny, had been kind enough to donate a small rock of hashish. I crossed the street that afternoon to the local general store near my hotel, which sold cigarettes, assuming they would also sell papers. Yet, when I inquired of the man behind the counter, I was told otherwise. Baffled but by no means thrown, I walked around the corner where there were two small, free-standing booths which also sold cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“Do you sell cigarette papers?” I asked.

“No, sir,” said the vendor. “Up the road. Near the roundabout.”

“And the other guy?” I asked, pointing to the other booth.

“No, sir. Roundabout.”

He pointed up the street.

The roundabout of which he spoke was a couple of hundred metres down a long road. On the way, I passed quite a number of small businesses and stopped in at three general stores, thinking surely someone must sell cigarette papers. Again, my plans were thwarted. When I did finally reach what was a colossal roundabout, beneath an overpass, with small shops and booths circling it, I expected to be at last rewarded for my efforts. Yet, when I asked the shopkeepers, all of whom sold cigarettes, not a single one of them sold papers.

Now I was indeed thrown. Did no one in India roll their own cigarettes? It seemed like just the place for it, considering how popular rollies were amongst the budget minded, and India, sadly, is not exactly a rich country on a per capita basis. If no one sold cigarette papers, and not having spotted any shops selling chillums, I had little choice by to compromise. I bought a cheap twenty-pack of Navy Cut, resigning myself to carefully emptying and repacking the cigarettes, after having “enhanced” the tobacco.

When, roughly three weeks later, I went looking for cigarette papers in Darjeeling, the situation proved no different. Walking back through the heavy fog, armed and dangerous after a successful and picturesque score in Chowrasta, I asked in every single shop I passed, only to be told no. Oh well, I sighed, there’s always that battered packet of Navy Cut in my bag.

Upon reaching my hotel room, I lay down on the bed and took out the bag of weed I’d collected from the so-called Pony Boys, or, rather, the horse-handlers down in the square. It was a large if lightweight parcel, roughly the size of a very healthy potato, full of stick and twig and seed, and lots of dry, leafy marijuana. It certainly didn’t look impressive, but it had a fresh and natural smell which was a refreshing change from the heavy, pungent, hydroponic wipe-out buds circulating round Sydney in this day and age. Either way, there was plenty of it, and it had, after all, been recommended by a gruff Queenslander, who seemed to know his business.

It was not yet ten o’clock and, having risen early, the day seemed destined to be a very long one. Lying there, with the curtains wide to a view of faint outlines in cloying fog, I pulled some sprigs of weed from the bag and began diligently to remove the small, oval seeds. There were so many of the little buggers, that this task took me the better part of forty minutes, after which I had produced an impressive pile of mix. I hopped up and emptied three cigarettes by carefully rolling and squeezing them between my fingers. Then, having blended some tobacco with the marijuana, proceeded to re-stuff the cigarettes, ably aided by a pen. By ten forty five, I was ready. I took a warming shower, dressed and gathered my things.

Just before leaving I paused by the window, taking in the limited view. Since arriving in Darjeeling two days ago the town had been shrouded in mist and visibility did not extend much beyond the foreground. Only on the afternoon of the day previous, when it had rained heavily, had the sky cleared for long enough to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas in the distance. It was an impressive glimpse, but very brief, for the dispersal of the clouds lasted just a short while, and soon they had reformed their ranks.

On the street below a family of carpenters rested on the pavement outside their shop; at their feet a carpet of shavings. I watched them a while and photographed them, before deciding that I could likely get away with smoking a joint there and then.

I tested the wind direction with a licked finger, took a smoke from my packet, struck a light, and crouched by the window. Feeling rather deliciously naughty, enjoying this fugitive act, I inhaled as Bill Clinton never did, with zeal and gusto. The smoke went straight to my head and I wobbled a little on my heels, but, determined to do things properly, I diligently smoked my way to the filter, exhaling in carefully directed puffs, guiding the smoke away from the closed, neighbouring window.

When, two minutes later, I stepped out into the roiling fog, I was as high as a weather balloon.

“Sensational,” I muttered, and set off towards the carpenters. Feeling rather louche and chummy, I couldn’t resist a rather baroque greeting as I walked past, and waved with both hands, spewing forth hellos. The two men and a young boy responded warmly, and it was at this point that I realised just how ridiculously happy I was. The high I was experiencing was of the most rare and upbeat variety, and its effect was growing in strength with every passing minute. For the last two days the mist had fascinated me and already its beauty had won me over. Yet now, intensely stoned, feeling marvellously fit and rested, having been travelling for a month already, full of wonder and curiosity, the magic of what I was seeing exploded inside me like a bomb.

Despite six years spent living in Cambridge, which could, on occasion, become enveloped in mist rolling in from the fens, I had never seen fog anything like as thick as this. Since the blanketed morning it had increased its hold over the town, turning even the most derelict and mundane subject matter into something breathtakingly beautiful. Tears welled in my eyes and my jaw-dropped; I was thankful that in the thick mist, the few people I passed could not see my face clearly, for I could barely control my expressions. My throat was thick and my lips wobbled. I felt a burning in my heart and was flooded with a feeling of love; love for the fog, love for the cool air, love for the buildings, love for the passers-by and the curled-up dogs. The world was a pencil sketch, viewed through tracing paper. It shifted and whispered itself through the droplets, soft and muted.

I strolled onwards through the moist air; my camera at the ready and Sigur Ros in my ears. The houses, shacks and shops, huddled together along the route, loomed in and out of focus. The figures in attendance, crouched inside their stalls, seated cross-legged next to their wares, were quiet and patient. They seemed in many cases very poor, and I hoped that their lives were happy and their hearts at peace.

The mood and pace of Darjeeling was so very unlike the insistent whirlwind of the India I’d seen so far. Perhaps it was the influence of Buddhism, the cooler climate, the different ethnic blend, or their relative isolation from the weight and competition of the population at large, but whatever the case, it was a pleasure to be left alone.

I passed the stables and the tea-wallahs I’d visited that morning.

Only now did I feel slightly conspicuous, as though the so-called Pony Boys, from whom I’d bought the weed in the first place, might soon be pointing and laughing at me. Feeling far too positive to allow any paranoia to take hold, I shrugged away the sensation and wandered out into the middle of the square, where the horses stood calmly about. Despite the relative cool and the heavy fog, the square was very busy. The orange and white-striped benches along its edges were full of locals relaxing; reading newspapers, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and in one case, playing a game of chess. People milled about in the centre and periphery; tourists, bringing children for a pony joyride or shopping in the stores along the western side of the piazza, and locals, trudging back and forth, carrying loads and pushing carts, or simply taking a stroll.

It was a pleasure to photograph these people, but having hung around the square on several occasions already, I wanted to explore further and see new sights. On the eastern side of Chowrasta was an alluring road that led down the less-developed side of the mountain. It was impossible to see where it went in the heavy mist, yet, considering how incredible everything looked and having no specific goals other than to revel in the beauty of the day and take as many photographs as possible, I set off down this narrow street.

The fog so far had been very thick indeed, yet once away from the mass of people and the tightly packed houses and shops, it grew thicker still. Without the warmth of the people and kitchens, the moisture did not disperse so readily and, a mere two hundred metres down this side road, the world closed in as never before.

I was stopped in my tracks, breathless with excitement. Above me the trees were embraced by cloud, rising up in ever-paler shades of grey.

The density of the air was such that within small spatial increments visibility dropped alarmingly until the merest ghosts of branches could be seen. I stood there, overcome, looking up into the branches, shaking my head and muttering expressions of disbelief. I took out my video camera to film the mesmerising trees, trying to comment on what I was seeing.

I soon stopped talking, for there was too much emotion in my voice and it kept cracking with pending tears. How could anything be so beautiful? How lucky was I to be right here, right now, completely off my chops?!

A family of three – an older couple and their adult son – all wrapped in bright orange or yellow shawls and blankets, stopped me to say hello.

“We are here, on holiday, from Kolkata,” the younger man told me. “It is very nice to get away from the heat!”

We shook hands and I took their photograph. When I showed it to the old man and said, “Very handsome!” he seemed extremely pleased. We all laughed and smiled and shook hands again, and in less than a minute, I was on my way, smiling at just how much warmth and friendliness the Indians had shown me since arriving in their country.

The road wound down along a natural contour, passing Buddhist shrines, tall trees and occasional houses and shops.

After a stretch, I came to a cluster of buildings – too close to town to be called a village, but otherwise so in its likeness.

The steepness of the road made its vanishing point more daunting, as though this were the last stop before the end of the world. I passed between these silent houses, again surprised at how quietly and patiently the locals sat in their doorways and shops.

An old man emerged from the fog, wearing two large square tins on his back. I followed him slowly, through the village and down to a bend in the road where a lone shop perched on the brink of oblivion.

The man took one of the tins from his back and placed it on a low concrete wall. At first I thought he was resting, but then a young boy approached from the shop to buy some of what he was carrying. I watched from a distance, but could not see what he was selling through the fog; perhaps milk or oil, or even cheese?

After taking more photographs, I continued down the hill. Slowly, but surely, the number of houses diminished and the road grew increasingly lined with trees.

Five minutes later found me standing beside a row of cute wooden houses, their weathered boards and unsquared lines only magnified their beauty. I have long fantasised about such small, cosy dwellings; for their privacy and intimacy and simple provision of basic necessity. The houses didn’t look especially warm, however, and the man of whom I asked if I could take his photograph, looked cold. I felt a somewhat hypercritical taking this shot, suspecting that thousands may have done so before me. So much for my vision of privacy and intimacy!

The road soon turned in a hairpin, with a dirt road running off the bend. With an hour and a half having passed since leaving my hotel and thinking that now might be the time for another joint, I stepped off the bitumen and walked twenty metres up the dirt road. The road was backed by a wall of dripping ferns and dew-laden grass clumps, whilst in front was the swirling nothingness. I took out the cigarette packet, extracted a joint and stuck it in my lips. Again, feeling excited and ambitious, I smoked the whole thing. As I stood exhaling into the cold air, looking over the edge of the road, I blinked in amazement as a faint outline revealed itself. I tried to focus my eyes through the fog as it shifted and rolled and saw what looked like a monastery below. Then the intensity of the fog diminished in the face of a momentary breeze, revealing what was indeed a Buddhist monastery.

I hurried back to the road and followed it down the hill. It soon turned again, back in the direction of the monastery, and I walked quickly towards it, keen to have a look. The monastery slowly materialised to present a bright face, veiled and wan with mist. It was a tall, square building, with a tower at each corner, painted with lavish designs in blue, red, green and gold. The curling patterns and images had a floral, almost organic quality, as though a colourful, symmetrical mould had grown on the structure. The flair of the portico and façade, with its rounded columns, gave the monastery a slightly garish, yet beautiful stateliness.

I kicked off my thongs and wandered inside. The wooden floor was satisfyingly worn, and the rich interior contrastingly cold. I noticed a monk in the corner and, not being sure of the protocol, decided not to take any photographs. Instead I merely stood for five minutes, hardly moving, slowly turning my head to follow the many bright images on the walls and ceiling; peering from the low light.

Once outside again, I felt inclined to press on. I’d taken off my headphones, but now decided I wanted music again and chose the Guo Brothers, performers of traditional Chinese music. The haunting and exotic mood of the music combined well with the atmosphere, and I set off away from the monastery with renewed purpose.

Just around the corner from the monastery the road steepened and spilled away into a another small cluster of houses and flats. I paused on the top of a small rise, suddenly feeling very hungry indeed. It seemed that after all this walking in the mountain air and two brilliantly uplifting joints, the good old munchies had finally kicked in. Not wanting to distance myself too much from the momos and tea of Chowrasta, I turned around and headed slowly back up the hill.

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