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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.