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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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