Archive for the ‘Darjeeling’ Category

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.


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.


Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Katchenjunga from Darjeeling

Darjeeling mountain view

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Having come to Darjeeling in part to see its views of the Himalayas, I felt frustrated when the horizon proved to be continually covered in cloud. Only in the late afternoon of my first full day did I manage to catch a glimpse of the mountains; when heavy rain cleared the mist and fog from the sky. The break in the clouds was brief, however, and by the time I reached a decent vantage point, the view had vanished.

This was, by no means cause for despair. For, by way of beautiful compensation, the following two days had seen the town entirely shrouded in heavy fog. The beauty and wonder of it were ample entertainment and I could probably have continued to photograph the silhouettes and shadows without ever getting bored. Indeed, the fog proved so beautiful and entrancing that I almost forgot about the mountains altogether. Almost.

I have always had a great love of mountains and snow, possibly because of Australia’s relative lack of them. There are the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, with a roughly eighty to one-hundred day ski season. Yet the highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is a mere 2228 metres, and lacks the drama of other, more elevated peaks. There is, of course, the Great Dividing Range, a vast line of mountains stretching for roughly 3500 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, making it the third longest mountain range in the world. Yet, the Great Dividing Range formed some three hundred million years ago during the Carboniferous period and has suffered significant erosion since. These are very old mountains on the planet’s oldest and flattest continent.

If Australians want to see high mountains and better skiing, they traditionally duck across the Tasman to New Zealand. Still, despite the significantly more impressive peaks of New Zealand and their year-round snow-caps and glaciers, the highest mountain, Mt Cook, or Aoraki, is only 3754 metres tall. If New Zealand does not suffice, then Japan, Canada, or the European Alps are the likely choice for skiing, with The Andes, Rockies and, of course, the Himalayas, also featuring prominently on the mountaineering circuit. For most Australians, therefore, snow and high mountains are exotic – and elsewhere. For some, no doubt, they have little appeal against the perhaps more obvious attractions of paradisiacal beaches, yet for me, who was never especially fond of the hot climate, high, snow-capped mountains are the ultimate dream. They are impressive not merely for their staggering reality, yet also for their fantastical implications; being so long evoked throughout my role-playing childhood as the home of dragons, frost giants and hard, uncompromising barbarian folk. Just looking at mountains is enough for me, and I could likely do it all day without ever getting tired.

So, despite the great beauty of the fog, I was dying to see Mt. Kangchenjunga, which, at roughly 8500 metres high, is more than six kilometres higher than Mt Kosciuszko. This very thought – eight and a half kilometres, up into the sky! – was enough to give me goose bumps, and the brief glimpse I had caught of it had confirmed for me that it looked uncannily tall against the Earth. Determined to see the mountain properly, on the evening of day three, after another gorgeous day in the enveloping fog, I decided to stay in Darjeeling until I had done so. If it took a week, then so be it. But one day surely, perhaps just one morning, the horizon would be clear and the full glory of the snow-capped peaks revealed.

On my fourth morning in Darjeeling, therefore, I rose at 0500 AM and parted the curtains. It was still very dark outside, yet the sky had lightened just enough to see that it was clear. The dim stars overhead faded towards the horizon, from which the day was beginning to spread. The mist that had cloaked the town for the last few days had lifted, and whilst it was still too dark to make out the line of mountains in the distance, I felt confident that I should get lucky on this occasion. I ran to the shower, washed up and dressed, then set off with my kit into the cold morning.

Darjeeling was quieter than ever at this time of day, but once I neared Chowrasta, the main square at the top of the town, there were signs of activity along the street. Shop doors stood open with the owners sweeping their floors; on the wooden stalls hugging the road, vendors were already laying out their wares: fruit, vegetables, poultry and the like. On the edge of Chowrasta, in their ramshackle tarpaulined shelter, the tea-wallahs I’d become so fond of the day before were setting up. I checked my watch – it was still only five-thirty. How hard these people must work, for they continued serving until almost ten at night! Opposite them, the concrete stables were, for once, full of horses. Several of the handlers dozed on the steps, and I wondered if they were stoned already.

Being, shall we say, rather naughty, I had, just two days before, purchased a bag of marijuana from these so-called Pony Boys, who provided joyrides around Chowrasta, and along the road that ringed Observatory Hill. The night before I had prepared a couple of joints in hopeful anticipation of a clear morning, or as a form of consolation should things prove otherwise, and it was with one of these tucked behind my ear that I crossed the square and set off down the road beside the hill.

I expected it to be very quiet and largely free of people, yet, walking around Observatory Hill on its eastern side, I was astonished by the number of people exercising. Many of the locals were out running already; men and women of all ages. I passed a lot of joggers and groups of people doing stretches and aerobic exercises against the metal railings. Despite having been a keen runner for many years, even when I’m in an early-rising phase, I’ve never been able to exercise this early in the morning and have long been jealous of people who woke up feeling so energetic. The people were all very friendly, both to me and to each other, and I was surprised by how many used English greetings amongst themselves: “Hello” and “Good morning.”

When I rounded the corner to the northern side of the hill and saw the horizon, I felt a sudden slump in my hopeful mood. The sun had not yet risen, though now the sky was light and clear, but the mountains were dressed in cloud and remained invisible in the distance. In their place were great stacks of cumulus of varying heights. I imagined the shape of the cloud might somehow reflect the size of the mountains underneath, yet without any real sense of scale or proportion at such a distance, I might have been horribly wrong. Either way, the mountains were not to be seen.

I did not want to give up hope just yet, for in truth I knew very little about the meteorological conditions and reasoned that perhaps the sun might rise and burn away the cloud. There was obviously less moisture in the air today, which felt much more dry and crisp. It had a mild sting in it, as cold, clean air will do, and this gave me further hope that the day would not be so humid and thus less foggy.

Unable to see the mountains, I continued walking and focussed on photographing the valley below and the locals performing their exercises. When I reached a lookout I had discovered a couple of days earlier, I stopped, deciding this would be the best vantage point should conditions prove favourable. It was a shelter of cast-iron, with a corrugated sheet-iron roof, under which sat long, old-fashioned park benches. One of these bore the inscription Darjeeling Health and Fitness Club (I think), and it was a very popular place to congregate for early morning exercise. Around the shelter and benches, before a steep, wooded descent into the valley below with its rounded slopes of tea, were roughly twenty men and women performing stretches, jumps and running on the spot. To the side of them stood a Buddhist monk with a large, round, hand-held drum, like an outsize tambourine. He was humming and banging on the drum, facing the east where the sky was ever lightening, singing in the dawn, I can only imagine.

I figured there was likely another twenty-odd minutes before the sun actually rose, so I walked to the back of the road, where Observatory Hill rose steeply, and began to climb a steep watercourse. Before long I was thirty metres up above the people below, with an excellent view to the hidden mountains on the horizon. I took the joint from behind my ear and, feeling ever the fugitive, crouched behind a shrub to smoke.

I was soon joined by a friendly dog; a healthy and clean stray who was scavenging for food in the trees on the hill. She nuzzled in and sat down beside me, deciding we were to be friends. I patted the dog just a couple of times, not wishing to encourage her too much for fear of having her sit outside the hotel for the rest of my stay. It was difficult not to show more affection to this attractive, light-brown bitsa. I hadn’t had much in the way of company for some time, and as the marijuana put me once again into very high spirits, I wanted nothing more than to play and wrestle with this lovely dog, then buy the poor thing a great feast and give it a bath.

The sun, however, was rising and I needed to focus my attention on getting the shots. I took some from where I sat; switching lenses repeatedly for a wider or longer focus, then descended back to the road. The dog followed me down, but had the decency not to hang off me. She skirted the exercisers nervously, wondering which way to turn.

The monk’s drumming and droning was all the more intense now in my heightened state, and I felt completely in the zone for shooting, targeting people and scenery alike. Just above the layers of cloud in the distance, long, bright rays of sun were spreading in triangular fans. The cotton wool, popcorn clouds, beautiful in themselves, were rimmed with a fiery gold that burned in the back of eye. Below, on the slopes and in the valley, the tin and iron-roofed houses nestled in a light mist that blew like puffs of smoke. Where the hills spread out in lower undulations, the rich green of the orderly tea plantations was washed with drifting coils of mist.

The monk continued his slow beat and droning, and I, taking refuge behind my sunglasses, watched from a short distance, shooting video. I wanted more stability for the long-range focus and, not having brought my tripod this morning, I soon moved to one of the benches, alongside the shelter, and rested my camera on the rail in front. On either side the locals continued their exercises; huffing and breathing loudly, but otherwise, doing their routine without a word. The valley below made a pleasant subject for study, and I spied on the activity of tiny distant people and dogs, drifting through the light cloud that brushed the tree tops. I could hear the happy singing of children from a school a couple of hundred metres down the slope; a dawn chorus of upbeat, unbroken voices, both energetic and joyous. What time did school begin here? Such happy singing seemed a very positive way to start the day.

When, at around 0630, the sun climbed atop the rounded crenulations of cloud, there was a splendid murmur of excitement. The lens flared with the light that shot in clear beams from the small orange arc of sun. The sun rose rapidly and the light fanned quickly across the hills and valleys below. The tree-tops lightened, the fog shone white, and the locals doing their exercises seemed to find an extra spring in their step. It was a powerful and uplifting vision, without a hint of anticlimax and, though I longed to see the mountains, I was happy indeed with this burst of sunlight.

I sat and stood and sat again, photographing the scenes around me in the growing brightness. I continued to hope that as the sun grew higher and hotter, it might burn away the cloud below and reveal the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Was this the beginning of a dry, warm, clear day in Darjeeling? Was I about to be treated to that mountain view at long last?

It was now that I noticed a change in the valley below. The mist that had, until recently, been sparse and thin, began rapidly to thicken. In the warming sunlight, the abundant moisture was evaporating and gathering into pockets of cloud above the vegetation. Slowly the iron rooves and tea plantations became more difficult to see as these blooms of mist spread and floated until, after about ten minutes, with the sun now well clear of the clouds on the horizon, the scene below was almost entirely shrouded.

This gathering cloud now sent up a long, thin coil of white mist. It rose in a tall column that stretched up high above the tallest trees near where I sat watching. This column of rising moisture began to widen, fattening until it grew dark and dense, like a pillar of thundercloud. At the top of the column the mist very abruptly spread sideways, like a flat mushroom cloud, colonising the sky with fog.

Once this process was underway, the speed with which it continued was astonishing. The sun, it seemed, rather than burning off the cloud, was having quite the opposite effect; vaporising all the moisture in the valley and lifting it into the air. From a meteorological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. The spreading cloud soon covered the sky immediately above, blocking all direct sunlight. The treetops began to dim, the golden wash turned silver then grey as the hills and valley below vanished completely from view.

Soon the entire sky, as far as I could see, was covered in haze and cloud. Great waves of fog rolled up the slopes and onto the heights where I sat, brushing my skin with cool moisture. By the time the clock struck seven, the fog had smothered everything. I could see no more than twenty metres.

This marvellous meteorological event was too exciting to allow for disappointment. So much for the mountains – I was perfectly content to spend another day in thick fog and try again the following morning. I took another joint from my packet and wandered back along the road I had followed to the look-out.

Silhouettes appeared against the wan backlight, and the trees, now full of enticing shadows through the filter of fog, seemed especially fecund with their newly wetted leaves. I smoked took photos, looking back towards the “Darjeeling Fitness Club” where several locals were still doing exercises. Their shapes made excellent subjects and I kept the camera trained on them for some time.

I drifted back into Chowrasta, towards the chai place on the edge of the square which I had adopted as my own over the last couple of days. The man and two women were all there, and the place was fully operational. I ordered tea and a chilli egg bun and sat down on the bench to watch them at work. It was sad how much I loved what they did, yet could not possibly love their life. To work such long hours and to be so constantly busy was not something to which I could relate. It was hardly a new sensation, this wonder at the workers of the world who slog it out all day. Yet, sitting so close to this dynamic trio, who gave me such pleasure with their excellent tea and lovely, simple food, I felt a passionate hope that they should find enough time to be happy outside of work. At least they were their own bosses, and perhaps this was the life they chose, but it didn’t exactly look easy. I stayed there almost an hour, and drank three cups of the best tea in the world.

Over the next five days, I repeated that morning almost exactly. I rose just before five AM, showered, dressed and set off towards the same look-out. There was, at Ghoom, the highest railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a very famous and better situated lookout called Tiger Hill, to which many people ventured in the morning to see the mountains. This, however, was equally contingent on the sky or horizon being clear and, without such conditions, it seemed pointless for me to take one of the many early morning jeeps there.

Every morning over the next five days, I carried the same hope around Observatory Hill: that today would be different; that the sky would clear completely for a spectacular view. Sadly, however, on every single occasion, the entire horizon was covered in fog.

In the later mornings and afternoons, with never a sign of the distant cloud lifting, I wandered around town, photographing the workers, shops and the closer views.

I spent some time up on top of Observatory Hill, stoned, lost in thought, watching the colourful flags of the Buddhist monastery flap in the persistent breeze.

I spent hours sitting with the monkeys at the back of the monastery, watching their antics, squabbles, grooming and occasional surliness. Some days I wandered quite a way out of town, floating along the curving roads through the smaller, surrounding villages. I walked up into the forest and sat amongst the trees; smoking, reading, dozing, lying, thinking, thinking, thinking.

I saw a man with a prize pig, a most flamboyantly feathered chicken, women breaking rocks for a roadway.

I walked all day, looking for photographs and vignettes. I followed the railway out of town into some of its slightly grubbier quarters.

A small, quiet man showed me around another monastery. He told me its quaint, unassuming history, then a story of the school they hoped to build if only they had the money. I made my donation on cue, then left, feeling disappointed with both him and me.

Every breakfast lunch and dinner was spent at my favourite chai wallahs. I never learned their names, and we hardly ever shared a word, but we had an unspoken friendship that lived in our genuine smiles. I was certainly curious about their lives, but, knowing how much I value my own privacy, I did not want to pester them with a bunch of personal and anthropological questions. I figured that if I just kept ordering tea and food, and they kept making it so well and serving me in so friendly a manner, then we already had a strong enough relationship.

When, on my ninth morning in Darjeeling, the horizon was once again covered in cloud, I gave up all hope of seeing Kangchenjunga. Two days before, I had booked my ticket – from Siliguri to Delhi – and I wasn’t about to miss my flight. I sat and watched the mist rise from the valley once more, then walked back to Chowrasta for a final breakfast.

On the way there, I passed the very Pony Boy from whom I had bought a bag of marijuana almost a week earlier. He was standing holding the reins of his horse, grinning enough to show his blackened teeth. He recognised me and said:

“Are you going riding again today, sir?”

“No. Thankyou!”

I laughed and smiled at his conceit. How sad and happy this little encounter made me feel. When I sat down on the bench and ordered tea a few moments later, I felt a choking thickness in my throat. How could I leave Darjeeling, having become so used to the place, and with my mission still unaccomplished? Did I not feel as though I were stagnating, perhaps even on the brink of a sort of dissipation, I might well have stayed on.

I knew that there could be only one cure for this growing burden of loss: to get back on the road and find new places and people. From Delhi I was flying on to Amritsar, right across India in a day, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. That morning, sitting there for the last time, I drank four cups of tea and made a new plan. From Amritsar, I would head north up into the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and see the Himalayas around McLeod Ganj and Manali. If the road was open and I could make it all the way to Leh, then so be it.

As many attractions as India might hold, the need for mountains was in my blood, and anyway, I preferred the cooler climate of higher altitudes. My mission in Darjeeling was indeed as yet unaccomplished, but if I couldn’t see the mountains here, then I would travel until I saw them somewhere. I had at least another month up my sleeve, and nothing, whatsoever, was calling me home.

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

“Do you sell cigarette papers?” I asked.

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

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

“No, sir. Roundabout.”

He pointed up the street.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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When I woke up the on my second morning in Darjeeling, it seemed as though the day had been cancelled. I pulled aside the curtains to a view of next to nothing. A pea-soup fog had settled over the town and visibility was reduced to the powerlines outside my window. The eerie, wan sunlight at the back of it leant the fog a disquieting luminescence; a sheet of pale gold leaf behind the swirling, moist air.

I stared in wonder and caught occasional glimpses of the ghostly satellite dish and the iron rooftops; their outlines seemed characteristically oriental, like the tops of pagodas. Darjeeling’s quaint brand of orientalised colonialism made it the most distinct indication of the long tenure of the Raj I’d yet seen in India.

I peered out into the corridor was greeted with curious sight. Down the other end, the door to the fire stairs had been left open and the fog had seeped into the passage. It too was lit by the glary white of the hindered sun and the corridor, cold, tiled and light blue, brimmed with arcane mystery.

I walked to the end and looked out from the landing. The road below offered up the occasional silhouette; a dog, a person, a rooftop, a passing car, but little else. It was a quiet world; the sound damped down by the heavy air.

I hurriedly got my things together and set off into the fog. It was seven AM and the street was eerily silent but for the squeaky sound of a panda bear-like dog mauling a foam box. I patted this playful beast and continued down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which ran along the ridge towards Chowrasta, the main public piazza on the top of the town. There was no one about, but plenty of dogs; huddled together against house and shopfronts, curled into balls along the road, nestling on door-steps.

They all seemed friendly and not cowed; their worn faces and matted hair were less saddening when one considered their general robustness and apparent, ruddy good health. For the dogs of Darjeeling were certainly the healthiest, if not the cleanest, I’d seen as yet in India.

The street passed many a wide-open vista, where a view of the valley and mountains beyond opened out. Yet, with the rolling fog, so constant and thick and the peculiar, seemingly paradoxical heavy wetness and icy dryness of the air, all light and white like smoke, all cloying and dense like fallen clouds, it was impossible to see beyond the wire fence that hugged the street’s edge. Here and there a local emerged from a shop or house, transformed until just a few feet away into a pale outline.

Less than half a kilometre down this muffled street, it dipped steeply towards a junction and there I spied a café called Sonam’s Kitchen.

I had seen the name in the guidebook and, as is usually the case, it had all the hallmarks of a place that catered almost exclusively for tourists. I was reluctant to try it, but paused outside just long enough to catch a whiff of their excellent filter coffee. I realised how hungry I was and just how much difference a good coffee would make. A moment later, I was seated inside studying the menu.

I ordered a pot of what they called “real stuff” coffee, along with eggs and hash-browns. It was comparatively expensive for India, but with fried eggs at just fifty cents, who on earth could complain? The lady who took my order was the same as the one featured on the laminated menu – Sonam herself. She spoke great English and was effusively friendly. I felt, as the name of the place suggested, that I was in someone’s home rather than a café or restaurant. Clearly this place was favoured with good reason.

I pulled out my laptop and surfed the internet, all the while eavesdropping on the conversations around me. When travelling I tend to be rather shy about approaching people, but once drawn into a conversation, I relax more readily with company than I would in my daily life. I spent some time playing the accent game; guessing where people were from. The tables were communal and around the time my food arrived, I was joined by an American, an Israeli and a Queenslander.

All three of them were travelling independently but, having been in town for a fair while already – two weeks in the case of the Queenslander – they all recognised each other. When they greeted me and asked where I was from, I was happy to be drawn into a friendly chat. They were good people and genuinely interested in the town and region, all with their own, quasi-anthropological zeal. They also seemed curiously as they ought to; the handsome young American, well educated and scholarly, with an old world politeness only the new world can produce; the glowing Israeli, tanned and well-fed, full of questions about the spiritual nature of the locals; the gruff and rugged Australian; realist, pragmatist, egalitarian. Rather unexpectedly, within five minutes the conversation turned to girls and growing marijuana. The American had experience of it in California; the Israeli had grown his own and liked a smoke as much as the next man, but, most importantly, the Australian knew where to get it.

“All this talk is making me want to smoke,” I said.

“Not hard in this place,” said the Queenslander.

“Really? How so?”

“Just talk to the pony boys.”

“The pony boys?”

“Yeah, the pony boys. The guys down the road.”

“You mean the dudes with the horses. In Chowrasta?”

“Yep, the pony boys.”

I had passed the so-called pony boys many times the day before, strolling up and down Dr Zakir Hussain Street which, along the stretch before it met with Chowrasta, was a popular thoroughfare lined with stalls and shops. Right on the edge of the square was an old concrete stable with space for roughly ten horses. These horses, traditionally used for transportation and communication, were now primarily used in giving joyrides to children and tourists. They weren’t exactly what I would have called ponies, in the miniature sense, but they were certainly small and slightly-built horses. According to the Queenslander, the pony boys also made a little extra from the sale of marijuana.

“Just look at their eyes,” he said. “Like piss-holes in the snow.”

“Goodness! I hadn’t noticed. Are they all baked?”

“Yep. They’re off their chops. Go have a look.”

“I think I will.”

I took a big sip of coffee, thinking how delicious it would be to get smashed in these winter wonderland conditions. I had smoked a little hashish in Rajasthan and Rishikesh, but had kept things pretty clean since then.

“So,” I pressed, lowering my voice. “Have you actually bought some from them?”

“A couple of weeks ago.”


“It was great. Very dry and seedy, very natural, wild stuff. But it’s got a great high on it and it’ll have you giggling like a little girl.”

“That is very tempting. How much did you pay?”

“Five hundred, for a bag like this.”

He shaped his hands to indicate a pretty serious nugget, about the size of a decent potato.

“It’ll take you forever to get the seeds out of it. But fuck it, you’re on holiday.”

I laughed at his laconic humour and knew my mind was already made up. Until I scored, I’d be salivating for a smoke like Pavlov’s dog.

I finished my breakfast and stayed chatting until my seat was required for someone else. When I left the café, I walked straight down the street to where the stables were, through a fog even heavier than it had been before breakfast. Only when I reached the line of stalls at the bottom of the hill, where the collective human warmth had caused the mist ever so slightly to dissipate, could I begin to see more than twenty feet. The stalls were a great spectacle in themselves. Mostly selling vegetables, these simple wooden huts, roofed with tarpaulins and plastic sheets, were attended by people who often sat cross-legged next to their wares.

The stables sat directly opposite two most excellent chai wallahs, who also cooked simple local cuisine in a steamer and wok. I sat down beside some locals on the long bench at the corner chai stand and ordered a cup of tea. I then turned my attention to studying the scene. There were just two ponies currently in the stables, the rest being out offering rides to children. Only an old man, whom I had seen there throughout the day before, was present, sitting on a step. Out in the square were the dim outlines of people and horses.

There was little hope of seeing their eyeballs, let alone their faces at this distance, in this weather, so I turned my attention to the tea, which, upon my first sip, sent me into paroxysms of pleasure. It was, without a doubt, the best cup of tea I’d had since arriving in India. It was only really at this point that my location hit home. Darjeeling – one of the tea capitals of the world!

I now studied the people behind the counter. There were three of them, two women and a man, all Nepali, likely in their mid thirties. They seemed to have their own particular role behind the stall. The man was in charge of the tea; using a large tin kettle in which he placed what looked like a home-made tea-bag the size of an apple. From this steaming hot kettle he would pour the tea into the regulation small tumblers one found right across India, mixing in sugar as desired and powdered milk. I was, initially, disappointed to see him use powdered milk, but by the time I’d finished the cup I was convinced that I’d never drunk anything so delicious in my life. I ordered another cup – at five rupees a piece, a little less than twelve cents – and watched the two women. One, whom I suspected was the wife of the tea man, was in charge of the cooking. She stood behind a large wok on a gas cooker, cooking noodles, frying eggs with chilli and heating buns by pressing them against the hot wok. The other lady, whom I guessed, again with very little evidence, might be a sister of one of the other two, was in charge of the momos. She stood marshalling a tall pile of tin and bamboo steamers, filled with what looked like delicious dumplings. I was astonished to realise that a mere fifteen rupees bought eight to ten of these soft, hot, fresh momos. Whatever was to come, I knew I’d be coming back this way for lunch.

When the tea was done, I thanked the people and stood up. Now fully fortified against the cold air, I had to work on my resolve to make an approach. I walked straight past the stables and out into the square, slowly walking towards the group of pony boys with their horses. The mist was especially thick out in the middle of the square and the Japanese cedars that lay behind the ring of orange and white park benches were lost a mere half-way up.

I hovered about for a while, feeling somewhat apprehensive. I wasn’t so much nervous as reluctant; not wanting to get involved in a misunderstanding that had the potential to turn sour. I watched the fellows for a while. They made very photogenic silhouettes in the fog and I took some photos whilst observing them. Many Indians come to Darjeeling when the weather heats up and this year was already particularly hot. In recent days Delhi had seen the temperature sore to fifty centigrade. The holidaying families were very distinct amongst the Ghorka, Nepali and Tibetan community. Several lucky children were being treated to rides.

I edged closer to the unengaged horsemen, wondering how much English they might speak. Would it be too confusing to begin with “I was told…?”

I tried to see their eyes. Who looked the most wasted? Fortunately, the first one I approached – a short, curly-haired man with a dark brown pony in tow – looked completely and utterly stoned. The whites of his eyes were the colour of lightly-flavoured chocolate milk and his pupils were hardly to be seen. I nodded to him and had his attention.

“I heard that if I wanted bhang, I should talk to the horsemen.”

The man said nothing, but examined me closely.

“I want to get some bhang, some grass… I was told to speak to the horsemen.”

He continued to look at me, clearly totally oblivious to my cryptic remarks. I knew I had to word things more simply, but was nervous and verbose.

“Marijuana,” I said.

“Marijuana?” said he. “Marijuana, three thousand.”

“Three thousand? No, no, not that much. Less.”

“Three thousand.”

“No, less.”

“Ten grams.”

“Smaller, smaller.”

“Ten grams, one thousand.”

“Ten grams, one thousand? Deal.”

Considering that twenty-five bucks usually bought one gram in Sydney, it seemed a pretty decent deal.

The pony-man gave me a big, slow, stoned smile.

“You go here.”

He pointed down the street that ran from the southern end of Chowrasta. “Down here. I talk to boss.”

With that, he was off, suddenly energised, with a distinct and unexpected spring in his step. I felt quite pleased with myself and couldn’t help smiling. I was going to get baked after all! I drifted down the side road as instructed and lifted the camera to my face, returning to my disguise as a regular tourist.

The side road was especially misty and it was clearly a good place in which to make a deal. There were some local carriers resting with their loads underneath one of the tall cedars, and I walked down past these, stopped and turned back to face the town. I reached into my bag to find my wallet and got the money ready in my hand then took a few photographs of the shapes in the mist.

The carriers picked up their loads, slowly rising, a little stiff. They walked bent forward, stepping like giants, their parcels supported by ropes around their foreheads. How strong their necks must be! When the carriers disappeared from sight, I heard the rapid clop of galloping hooves. Through the swirling mist, the shape of the mountain pony-man appeared, a mere ghost at first, but soon he burst through and materialised in front of me. He pulled up his reins and brought the horse to an abrupt and dancing halt. He had a broad smile on his face and seemed to spring in tune with his mount on the saddle. I knew instantly that he was profiting handsomely from this and figured I should be paying about five hundred, as my informer had done. Still, it was a mutual happiness, as we were both about to make each other’s day.

He guided his horse until he stood right next to me.

“Here,” he said. He reaching down, holding a plastic bag tied with a rubber band. I held up the thousand rupees and took the weed from him. It was a large bundle. Light, springy, and leafy, I suspected, but certainly copious. Finding out whether or not it was actually weed would have to wait.

“Thank you very much!”

I shoved the weed quickly into my pocket and offered the pony man a salute. He said nothing, merely smiling and nodding, then wheeled his horse and rode off into the oblivion of the fog.

I walked away quickly, firstly away from the square, feeling an urgent need to get away from the scene of the crime. A moment later, I gathered my wits and turned around, heading back towards Chowrasta. The time had come to buy some papers and get on with it. I began a determined march back to my hotel room. Why wait after all?

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Had I known what the weather would be like for the next eight days, I might have acted more promptly. I had come to Darjeeling not only to see the marvellous hill-town, but also for its famous views of the Himalayas. It never occurred to me that seeing them would prove so difficult.

The first morning I awoke in Darjeeling the horizon was shrouded in a veil of haze. The room was cold with the seeping air outside and for the first time since arriving in India, I nestled under the blankets, feeling deliciously comfortable. The last two days had been exhausting days of travel – from Rishikesh to Delhi, across to Siliguri courtesy of Kingfisher Air, then up to Darjeeling by jeep – and I was happy to take it easy. I sat on my bed and snacked on biscuits, reading about the town.

Darjeeling had only come into prominence in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The locale first came to the attention of the British East India Company (BEIC) in 1828, when a delegation of company officials stayed in the town and realised how suitable the site would be for a military sanatorium. In 1835, the company leased the area west of the Mahananda River from the Chogyal of Sikkim, traditional rulers of the region. Over the next fifteen years, the population of Darjeeling grew one-hundredfold, thanks to the company’s policy of attracting workers to the region, mostly of Nepalese origin.

When, in 1849, the British East India Company Director Arthur Campbell was imprisoned by the Sikkim Chogyal, the BEIC sent a force to free him, resulting in the annexation of 1700 square kilometres of territory. In the following decades, the BEIC strengthened its grip on the region, gaining control of the passes through the hills, the town of Kalimpong and the area east of the Teesta river, from the Sikkim. In 1864 the town became the official summer capital of the Bengal presidency and by 1866 the district had assumed its current shape and size.

Commercial tea cultivation began in the region in the 1850s and many schools were set up by missionaries. In 1881 the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was opened, connecting the town with the plains far below and further increasing the pace of the town’s development.

When, after independence in 1947, Darjeeling was merged with West Bengal, tensions began to increase between the largely Nepalese population of the hill towns of Darjeeling, Kurseong and Kalimpong, and the Bengali population of the plains below. The Nepalese population agitated for an autonomous state and the recognition of the Nepali language as the official language of the region. The latter request was granted in 1961. When, in 1975, Sikkim was recognised as an independent state, it again brought calls from the people of the mountains for a separate state of Gorkhaland, with occasional eruptions of violence. In 1988 an agreement between the government and the Gorkha National Liberation Front resulted in the creation of the Darjeeling Hill Council. This, however, did not quell calls for a separate state, and agitation and protest continue to this day. In 2011 the government granted further concessions, with the creation of a new and autonomous elected body called the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which, whilst not governing a separate state, has more powers than its predecessor.

I found myself quite fascinated by the town’s history and was keen to explore further. Not only did Darjeeling offer exciting views, amazing geography, fascinating architecture, great tea and an interesting ethnic blend, but, perhaps most importantly, the large Nepali population guaranteed one thing: momos – and I love eating good momos.

At half past nine I found the housekeeper in the corridor outside my room. As soon as she saw me, she said:

“Your room is ready.”

“Great. Can I move now?”

“Yes, yes. Come, I’ll show you. It’s here.”

The room was diagonally opposite, across the hall – a mere ten feet away. She opened the door and presented it to me. It was smaller than the previous room, but with a double bed, coffee table and chairs, wall-mounted television, a bedside dresser and a stunning, wide-angle view of the drop into the valley below and across the foothills. At four hundred rupees, a mere ten dollars Australian, it also came with a large en suite. I stood by the windows and thought of the views I might expect when the sky cleared. For now, the horizon was covered in cloud and haze, and I could barely see into the floor of the valley below. The mist rested like hands upon the hilltops, fingers stretching down the wooded slopes.

It took two minutes to shift my few belongings and, at ten o’clock I set off in search of breakfast.

I followed the road down the hill, past the little restaurant and shop in which I’d dined the night before. After a steep and winding leg the street levelled out at what appeared to be another informal jeep-stop. Here the road split into two tiers and, at this junction of climbing streets, stood a triangular building with a rounded prow: Keventer’s restaurant. I’d seen the name in the guide book and knew it to be rather famous, as a shop, in the downstairs section, but primarily for its café / restaurant upstairs. What made this Raj-era throwback popular, apart from its relative antiquity, was the amount of meat on its menu.

Since arriving in India, I hadn’t eaten any meat whatsoever – this despite ordering a mutton biriani in Rajasthan, which contained two large pieces of gristle that I promptly discarded. Here at Keventer’s they offered a variety of meat products, almost all made from chicken and pork: meatballs, sausages, bacon and the like. I sat right near the kitchen – a counter behind which men cooked methodically – in the run-down old interior. Around the walls hung pictures of the views across to the mountains, which only served to whet my appetite for the peaks I’d come to see.

I ordered pork meatballs and bacon and eggs, drawn wholly in by the old world atmosphere. The view offered a splendid fore and mid-ground of rusted, corrugated rooves and wonky wooden frames stacked down the forested hillsides.

The coffee was not great, but passable, and I soon fell to chatting with two young Indian guys; students up from Calcutta. They were friendly and charming and curious about the photos I ’d been taking. After a while they invited me to drinks that evening, and I said I’d certainly consider it, though I knew somehow that I wouldn’t go and felt an early regret at this. Having spent most days walking and taking photographs through the daylight hours, I was almost always too tired to be sociable at the end of the day. I was also enjoying staying completely off the booze on this journey.

After breakfast, I took a long walk around town; down to the bottom of the town, where I’d arrived the night before.

I wandered through the back streets, up and down long flights of steps; found a lane with closely packed stalls behind which men and women worked with old Singer sewing machines. I shook hands with locals, answered their friendly inquiries as to where I was from, and eventually wandered into the meat market. There, in this dirty old shed hung with carcasses, I chatted with several of the butchers and asked them about their work.

One man approached me and said:

“Come with me. I’ll show you how I make mince.”

He led me to a corner of the shed, where, on a heavy, round wooden chopping block, using only a machete, he threw down pieces of meat and hacked them into mince with swift, strong blows.

“How long have you been doing this for?” I asked; a little squeamish from the proximity of his fingers to the blade.

“For twenty years,” he replied. “I am the mince man!”

I watched him hack away at the mince for a couple of minutes; lifting the blade just a short distance and bringing it down with surprising force and accuracy. I took out my video camera to film his impressive action, and it wasn’t long before he had turned the large chunks of fatty meat into finely chopped mince.

“There,” he said. “Mince.”


I thanked him for showing me his trade and farewelled him.

I continued my wandering about town, plunging into the tight alleyways of shops and stalls. As with so many places in Asia, the businesses tended to group together according to what they sold: spices, shoes, tea, vegetables. I drifted in and out of the lanes, taking photographs here and there. Most people were friendly and generous with their smiles. Unlike other places I’d been in India, rather than trying to sell me things, they seemed merely to want to be acknowledged.

I took a walk around the circuit of Observatory Hill, then returned to Chowrasta, the main piazza at the top of the town. The horizon remained shrouded and I could see only the foothills. These, however, were beautiful in the dull light; wet and fecund, cool and, here and there, dressed with tea.

Three o’clock found me sitting in another Raj-era café, Glenary’s bakery and restaurant, situated just a little up the hill from Keventer’s. The pale mint walls, white wooden beams, wicker chairs and corrugated iron roof gave it a classically colonial appearance. I sat in the back section, like a wide, closed-in verandah, where a bay of windows faced the valley and the still-obscured mountains. I surfed the internet, ate pastries and drank two rather disappointing cups of tea. As the afternoon had progressed, the air had become increasingly damp with pending fog, until finally, at around a quarter past three, it began to rain.

Having been in India a month during the dry season and having seen no rain for some time, the idea of rain had hardly occurred to me. Perhaps some uprush of humid air from the Sundarbarns had met with the chill mountain breath and dropped its bucket, but whatever the case, once the rain began, it came down hard as hell. It poured for two hours, with little let up, striking hard on the iron roof. It was as beautiful as it was surprising, and for a long while I sat and watched figures darting through the wet below, with torrents in the gutters and cascades from the rooves. The pigeons opposite, huddled under the eaves, were positively ruffled on their multi-generational pile of droppings.

When the rain did finally stop, something extraordinary happened. I was sitting, face pressed close to the glass, watching the play of mist and light across the valley, when suddenly the clouds parted and opened a clear view to the horizon. All the haze had been washed from the sky, which was transformed to a pale blue, dotted with cotton wool clouds. I tried to shoot through the window but the curve of the hill blocked the bulk of the view. I wanted a clear line of sight, for I was dying to see Mount Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world at nearly 8600 metres tall.

I stood up, stuffed my lap top into my bag, sorted myself out and hurried off. It was still drizzling a little, and, worried about my camera, instead of going straight to find a vantage point, I decided to head back to the Hotel Tranquillity (sic) to pick up the small but sturdy umbrella I’d packed in a moment of boy-scout foresight. I raced back to the hotel, which took a good ten minutes, grabbed my umbrella and was about to head off, when I heard voices from the roof, just up the next flight from my room. I walked up the stairs where a door opened out on a flat concrete roof, flooded with rain. Here I found Tenzing, the hotel’s owner, talking with two other guests.

“Hello!” said Tenzing. “Come to see the mountains?”

“I hope so!”

The two other guests were also Australian and we smiled and nodded at each other. Their attention, however, as mine was soon to be, was rooted in the distance. And there, sure enough, was Mount Kangchenjunga. I gasped when first I saw it, amazed by its sheer size. How high up it seemed to go into the sky. It had an unnatural quality to it, as though its extension from the Earth was somehow impossible. How could anything be so big? The towering peaks of stone and snow were nothing short of fantastical. The only problem was that much of the view was blocked by an inconveniently placed radio antenna, a hill and trees. I could see roughly half of the mountain, and that through a tilting of the head and shifting of angles.

I looked as well as I could, but the lack of a clear line of sight was simply too frustrating. I needed a new vantage point, for now clearly was the time to go shoot the mountain. I took a few snaps, made some cheery remarks, then fled down the stairs and out onto Dr Zakir Hussain Street, figuring I should make for the road that circumnavigated Observatory Hill. I scurried down the street towards Chowrasta, past all the stalls, butchers, fishmongers, bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers, chicken and egg sellers; many of them seated up on the boards of their wooden stalls.

When I reached Chowrasta, however, I could see already that I was too late. The sky in the distance was thickening again with white mist and soon everything would be hidden. I broke into a run, down along the side of this hill with its famous monastery and tall Japanese cedars. Yet, by the time I reached the far end of the road, the mountains had once again vanished behind haze and cloud. I stood cursing, deeply regretting having gone back to get my umbrella, and shook a fist at the sky. I wasn’t sure quite how long I was planning to stay in Darjeeling, but figured that some time in the next couple of days I ought to see clear skies. The rain began to come down again and I popped up my umbrella. Stuff it, I thought, there’s always tomorrow.

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When I stepped down from the back of the jeep in Darjeeling, I found myself in the middle of an intersection. This was no formal station, just a central location which the streets attended from what seemed to be unplanned angles. The lights were a very dim orange, barely illuminating the shuttered and shabby shop-fronts and the greasy road.

It was half-past eight in the evening and I was pleased to be on my feet again. The prolonged journey up the mountain had been very beautiful, but being two and a half hours behind schedule, I was concerned that my room might not still be available at the Hotel Tranquillity (sic).

Overhead hung countless lines of multi-coloured triangular flags; the green orange and white of India barely discernible in the sapping light. I turned a slow circle to take it all in. There were a few stalls lit by kerosene lamps and tapers in bottles; on one a steaming wok in which noodles were tossed, the cook’s face visible in flashes of fire. On one side of the road two wide-fronted fruit and vegetable shops remained open; shallow holes in the wall, the wares bathed in low-wattage lamplight, each tended by a patient, smiling man. The air was damp and a thin fog lurked above the corrugated iron roofs, threatening to descend as the day’s last warmth was leeched into the night. It was comparatively chilly after the stifling humidity of lower altitudes, but the close air and absent breeze kept me from shivering. Cars and jeeps rolled slowly out of shadow, their headlights blinding in the mist.

I looked around for street signs; any indication of where I was and where I needed to go. The light was so poor, I had to take the small bicycle light from my pack to read my inadequate guidebook map. There was no signage anywhere, and rather than finding out where I was, it made more sense to ask after my destination. I approached one of the fruit sellers to enquire where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. The man spoke just enough English to tell me it was up the hill.

“Up, up,” he said, waving vaguely down the street to my right. “Go up the stairs. Then go up more.”

He was struggling to articulate exactly where to go and I rightly guessed it was because the town sprawled up the hill and the streets wound back and forth on lines that followed the natural contours.

I thanked him and walked away down the dark street. Had I not already been in India for a month, I might have found the darkness more forbidding. There were groups of dogs curled up against the closed shops and lone men shuffling through the night. The damp and weathering had rusted, blackened and warped almost everything, and nothing seemed new or recently renovated. It had, of course, a derelict charm which I appreciated, but having no knowledge of what this part of town or its inhabitants were like and, uncertain as to whether or not I was in any danger, I remained on my guard. I walked slowly, not knowing where I was going, and after a moment, felt bold enough to take out my video camera and film my journey.

Presently I rounded a corner whereon stood a late night chemist shop; illuminated with bright, white light, which shone across the narrow street. Three men stood out the front, chatting with the man behind the counter. I approached them and asked if they could tell me where Dr Zakir Hussain Street was. They pointed to a place directly opposite, where I now noticed a long, steep flight of steps that creeping up the hill between the tall, leaning buildings.

“Go up, up,” the man said, much as the other had done.

“Do you know the Hotel Tranquillity?” I asked.

“Yes, yes. It is up the hill. Go up the stairs. Then up again. Up to the top.”

Clearly, I had to go up! I took the stairs which cut a significant shortcut through the winding, contoured streets. About half-way up, as I walked filming with my camcorder in one hand, my thongs slipped on the wet stairs and I fell on my hands, just managing to avoid damaging my camera. I cursed and dusted myself off, feeling clumsy and stupid and pleased no one had witnessed me stumble. This, however, was as nothing to what greeted me at the top. I stepped out onto the road, and, in the near total darkness, put my foot into an open sewer, filled with a sucking muck. The muck was so grotesquely thick and clinging, that I had to reach down to extract my thong. My foot was covered in slime to above the ankle. I couldn’t bear to think what bacteria lurked in that drain, particularly as I had many cuts and cracks on my battered feet. I tried to wash it off with the last water from my bottle, but this was inadequate to the task, and the only other option that presented itself was to stick my foot into the water flowing down the street’s gutter. It was, at least, decidedly cleaner than the gunk I’d collected, but the whole experience left me with a deep feeling of disgust and I longed to reach my hotel to shower and soak my foot in the Dettol I carried for emergencies.

I pressed on up the hill, soon arriving at another intersection of zig-zagging streets. Cars pushed past and edged me onto the narrow pavement. The headlights lit up the rolling fog that was seeping down the slope.

I turned on my camera again and began to narrate as I walked, feeling a mix of discomfort and relief that I would soon be in a hotel room. Where the streets levelled out, I asked directions again from a man behind the wheel of a jeep. He pointed to the steep road leading up to my right and said, as all had done before, “Go up. To the top of the hill.”

It was some time before I reached the top of the hill. The street wound back and forth and grew ever steeper, stacked on either side with wooden houses and concrete apartments. It was so dark in places, I narrowly missed falling into a vast pot-hole. When I finally did reach the summit at a quarter past nine, I felt surprisingly short of breath. Even at an elevation of just over two thousand metres, the air felt thinner in my lungs. I paused beside a large satellite dish, backlit in pale orange light, a mere silhouette in the fog. On either side of the road were closed wooden stalls; booths that sold fruit and vegetables, snacks, cold drinks and cigarettes.

I was about to ask about the Hotel Tranquillity, when I saw its sign just ahead of me. The two ells were quaintly attractive, curiously welcoming, and I rubbed my hands together with glee.

The chap in reception was very tall indeed; around six foot five. He was a Ghorka man, with high and wide cheekbones and a strong jaw. I never caught his name and for the rest of my stay in the hotel, just thought of him as Tenzing. He stood behind a closed-in counter, rather like a toll-booth. The room around it had the aspect of a cheap European ski lodge, the décor of which had not been updated in years. If somewhat unattractive, it certainly felt very homely and the smile on the man behind the counter was reassuring indeed.

“We do have a room for you,” he said. “But it is a triple room. Three beds. There is a bathroom, of course, and tomorrow morning I can put you in a double. Also with a bathroom.”

“That sounds excellent.”

“How long would you like to stay.”

“I don’t know. I’ll say three nights for now.”

The room was only six hundred rupees, fifteen dollars Australian. Despite being more than I had recently been paying, it was ridiculously cheap. Towering Tenzing showed me up the stairs to a large, carpeted room with three single beds. Noticing how cold it was in the room, I chose the bed furthest from the window and threw down my bag. Tenzing showed me around and switched on the hot water.

“Do you have a restaurant here?” I asked.

“No, I’m sorry. Have you eaten?”

“Not at all.”

“Ah,” he said, in an oddly disconcerting manner. “Then you must hurry if you want to eat. In Darjeeling, everything shuts very early. You might not find a restaurant.”

“Oh dear. Thanks for telling me.”

As soon as he mentioned this I felt ravenously hungry and dreaded the idea of snacking on crisps and biscuits for dinner as I’d done once or twice when so caught.

“The front entrance will be closed at nine thirty. If you go out, you must come in through the back. There is a small door, up the driveway. It leads through the kitchen. The door will be closed, but you can open it. Just make sure you close it behind you.”

After a much-welcomed, but brief shower, I dressed again and went in search of a restaurant. I first stopped at the stalls and bought some crisps, fruit and biscuits, water and mango juice. If I did get caught short, I’d at least have something to eat.

I walked down the steep slope in the descending fog, determined to enter the first restaurant I found that was open. One hundred metres down, where the road turned in a hairpin, I found a small shop with a restaurant attached. The space inside was cramped and triangular, with wood board panelled walls that gave it a very dated look. The tarnished glass counter was full of packets of sweets and biscuits, of crisps and chewing tobacco, old toys and mobile phones. The old furniture – linoleum-topped tables with metal rims in which lurked ancient grease, attended by wooden benches – reminded me of the old diners and cafés of Sydney which seemed no longer to exist. I sat down and picked up a sticky menu, quietly loving this place for being so enticingly run down; honest, simple and, as was so often the case in India, unbelievably cheap. It felt like the past.

The menu was a little like Darjeeling in microcosm. The Indian staples were joined by Chinese, Nepalese and Tibetan dishes; momos, spicy soups, noodles. I ordered hot and sour soup, dhal with paratha and a bottle of Coke to cleanse the palate. The man who served me kept quietly busy, and when I placed my order, he disappeared through a curtain into what appeared to be his home. I caught a glimpse of his wife in the back room, standing before a stove. The dim sound of a television snuck through into the restaurant.

I took the chance to photograph the shop, particularly interested in a very old public phone upon a stand. Many times in India I had been reminded of my holidays to the Blue Mountains as a child. For, whereas Sydney had, even in the late 70s and early 80s, kept somewhat up to date, the small towns like Katoomba, Leura and Blackheath had always been well behind the times, both in style and facilities. My brother and I had found endless satisfaction in the relative cheapness and antiquity of things, and such was the case in much of India.

The food was not long in coming, and when I tasted it, I was surprised by how good it was. I felt briefly guilty for suspecting otherwise, but had often found restaurant food to be not as good as that of the street. My father had always said that the best sauce in the world is hunger sauce, so perhaps my ravenous appetite coloured my opinion. Either way, I felt very content when I farewelled the quiet man and left to walk back up the hill.

On arriving at the Hotel Tranquillity, again finding myself out of breath, I did as instructed and walked around the back of the hotel. The door opened into a tiny kitchen, and in it I encountered a lady whom I assumed might be Tenzing’s wife. She was sitting on a stool in an upright posture, resting it seemed, and enjoying the peace of the quiet and shrouded night. I nodded in greeting, grimacing a little to convey an apology for disturbing her. She gave me a big smile in return and gracefully motioned towards another door which led to the hotel stairwell.

Later, as I lay back on the bed with my feet soaking in a bucket of hot water and disinfectant, I found myself pondering how utterly different this place was from everywhere else I’d seen in India. The cool, the damp, the faces and architecture, and here, at the foot of my bed, several extra blankets neatly stored in clear, zip-up plastic bags. That I should feel cold at all, after a month of forty degree heat, was a clear sign that this was a whole other world altogether. Being one born to suffer greatly in hot weather, though less so in the dry than in the humidity, I was excited by the chill feeling and the cold, clinging damp. It reminded me of living in Cambridge and I felt a clear-headedness I’d not felt for some time.

Most of all, however, I was excited about what the next day would bring. For then I should see what I had come here to see. The Himalayas!

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It was late afternoon when I climbed into the back of the jeep in Siliguri, having paid a mere 92 rupees ($2.25 Australian) for my seat. After settling in and stretching my legs on the surprisingly comfortable bench, I was soon forced to shuffle over to make room for someone else. It seemed that, in fact, 92 rupees bought only half a seat. This was going to be a fun ride.

I had flown into Bagdogra airport that afternoon, one of the few destinations in West Bengal for  budget airlines. The flight was stunning. Heading east from Delhi, the plane’s path tracked the line of the Himalayas, bathed as they were in bright sunshine; below, the yellow dust and fecund green of the great Gangetic plain lay dry, flat and ancient.

From Bagdogra, I had taken an autorickshaw into Siliguri – the nearest major town, situated roughly twenty minutes away. The drive took me past tea plantations and the roadside workshops of countless cottage industries; carpenters, woodcutters, masons, banana sellers. It was a lush and moist landscape; a welcome sight after the dusty dryness of Rajasthan and the baking heat of Delhi.

It took roughly half an hour for the jeep to fill and we set off immediately afterwards; around four in the afternoon. There were thirteen people inside: four across the front seat, four in the middle, including a pedigree Pekinese called Nora, and four huddled into the back with me. They were an interesting mix of Bengalis, Gorkhas and assorted other ethnicities. Already, just waiting around in Siliguri, I had noticed quite a number of people with very Asiatic features; some passably Chinese and others who struck me as ethnically Nepalese or Tibetan. A young Gorkha couple sat opposite me, the lady wearing a gorgeous bright blue sari, and something told me they were newlyweds. They had an air of amorous conspiracy that made one want to wish them well. I sat quietly in the back, smiling and nodding to everyone, then got on with listening to my iPod and shooting video through the open window.

After half an hour driving through a forest flashing with sunset, we reached the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The road narrowed and began to wind, and very rapidly, the landscape changed in character. The dry, bright green and yellow-leaved forest had been cleared from the slopes and terraces to make room for tea and wheat. The rich soil was dotted with quaint, modest dwellings amidst fields made tropical by the occasional spray of banana leaves. Behind it all, the sharp rise of the mountains halted in a nightcap of fog.

Soon our driver brought us to a roadside bungalow, crowded about with other jeeps. He pulled in and hopped out, muttered something, then set off with his henchman into the bungalow. I climbed out from the back of the jeep, walked over and peered inside. It was a diner of sorts and, despite having stood around in Siliguri for half an hour before our departure, it seemed our driver was about to have his dinner. I shrugged and smiled at the ways of the world, then followed the lady with the dog as she wandered off down the road.

The slope rose sharply to the left of our heading; huddled with squat, dark and damp tea-bushes. Even here, at less than six hundred metres elevation, mist had begun to creep down in the cooling mountain shadow. A few workers were still in the fields, though they seemed, at this time of day, to be merely passing through. I took some photos, watched the men waiting by the jeeps, then sat down on the roadside to stare into the valley below.

I was soon roused by the sounds of an argument. It seemed our driver had finally returned to the vehicle after forty minutes and something was up. I assumed it was the length of the delay causing trouble, as none of the passengers had wanted to eat and were all waiting to leave. I wandered back over and stood to the side, watching. Despite not understanding what was being said, with the argument being conducted mostly in Hindi, Gorkha and Bengali, I soon determined that the dog cage of the Pekinese had fallen from the roof of the vehicle at some point on our journey and now seemed irretrievably lost.

The driver and his henchman were very defensive at first, almost dismissive. Yet, when the argument was joined by several other passengers, who cornered the driver and his sidekick to press their demands for justice, the response changed dramatically. One chap in particular, a very tall man with Han Chinese features, took up the lady’s cause and argued a strong case against the driver. I could only determine this from his gestures, from his tone and air of authority, yet whatever he was saying, he was saying it very well. It was his championing of her cause that really got the driver scared. Being lectured in his native Gorkha tongue seemed to turn the tables on him, and, when he realised that he might be held financially accountable, he seemed to panic. He ran across to all the other jeep drivers, asking if any had seen a dog-box. He got on the phone, frantically calling people in Siliguri to see if the dog box had been left behind there. I gleaned from occasional English usages that the box was valued at around 2500 rupees, almost 75 dollars; a princely sum for any working-class Indian. Needless to say, the dog box was not to be found.

With all the passengers now deeply restless, we finally piled back into the jeep and set off again. The tall man had been sitting next to the driver in the front seat, and so he was for the rest of the journey. The multi-ethic, multi-linguistic debate had not stopped at all, but continued for another hour in the vehicle. I was impressed by the quiet dignity of the woman whose cage had been lost. She never raised her voice, and spoke with a polite and stern measure. The driver went very quiet; clearly downtrodden and pondering his liability. I began to feel sorry for him as it was a debt he could never afford to pay, and I doubted his bosses were likely to take responsibility. I still wonder whether or not he was ever held to the debt, or indeed, if the box was found.

Meanwhile, I returned to my iPod and stared through the jeep’s back window. Now almost five thirty, the equatorial sun was in rapid descent and, as the elevation rose sharply, we entered the mist and cloud. The mountain road was potholed and open to a steep slope; crisscrossing it at various points ran the tracks of the so-called toy train; a narrow-gauge steam-engine which began operating in 1881. It was now merely a tourist attraction and slowly chugged its way from Siliguri to Darjeeling. The journey could take up to ten hours, and I’d read that it moved so slowly it was possible to hop off and shop, then catch up and hop back on.

The darkness settled in rapidly, as did the mist. By six o’clock, we were driving through a cold, white fog, backlit with the last reflected light of the sky. Through the back of the jeep, the road swung and wended, and soon the headlights of other jeeps began to sweep across the bends in the road. As the night took hold, we reached the half-way mark; entering the town of Kurseong. It was little more than a single strip of houses and shops, backed against the rising slope of the mountain. The wooden doors and stock bins of the shop-fronts sat tight on the railway tracks; barbers, grocers, cobblers, knitwear vendors, chai wallahs, and the ubiquitous general stores of India. Everything was just a little shabby like the road; damp and plundered daily by the weather.

The main, and seemingly only street, was clogged with traffic and we slowed to a crawl. I watched bearers carrying huge loads alongside us; straps hoisted up around their foreheads to take the strain on the heads. I watched a young man being shaved in a faded pale-blue barbershop; his face padded softly with a large sponge. A young Gorkha man did his hair in the window, checking and re-checking his fringe. The moustached hot-food seller behind a glass case full of samosas eyed the jeeps suspiciously, wondering why we stared yet did not stop to eat. It was clear that we had entered a different ethnic zone. This was the beginning of Gorkha-land, something broadly proclaimed in neat, functional graffiti on various walls.

We soon edged past the toy train’s shed; the only place where the town appeared to spread out across the small, flat ridge along the slope. As we left the town, the shops and houses rapidly thinned until there were no permanent dwellings on the roadside. In their place sprang up a line of small wooden stalls; mostly covered in fruit and vegetables; lit only by oil lamps and candles. It had an ancient quality about it; such oil lamps and tapers have been lighting market stalls for thousands of years. The heavily shadowed faces that peered in chiaroscuro were mostly local Gorkha people, yet occasionally the darker-toned, heavier features of the Bengalis were apparent.

With Kurseong behind us, the road became once more a potholed, narrow curve around the mountain. I went into an even quieter mood, skipping the more upbeat tunes on my iPod and settling instead for more meditative music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bach, Chinese traditional musicians, Pink Floyd. I felt a great welling of emotion within me as I stared through the scratched glass of the back window, watching the swinging headlights from those following. I was missing a girl I had farewelled in Rishikesh; I was missing the lost possibilities of a girl; I was missing something so utterly different to where I now was, that I felt only the loss but not the desire for what was lost. For in truth, nothing had prepared me for the beauty of this ride. That it could be so uncomfortable, so cramped, so cold, so dark and so much longer than expected, and yet, so compellingly beautiful, was a fortunate paradox.

When my iPod randomly offered up “This is Hardcore” by Pulp, this new, sad mood reached its zenith. The brooding, almost menacing creep of the keyboard – melancholy tinged with anxiety – the sexy noir of the lyrics, the sadness of a loss from which there is no return – all these elements were apparent. As the lengthy song reached its quiet break before concluding, I was overcome with emotion.

“This is the eye of the storm.

It’s what men in stained raincoats pay for.

But in here, it is pure, yeah.

Oh this is the end of the line.

I’ve seen the story line

played out so many times before…”

Indeed, I whispered to myself. “This is hardcore. There is no way back for you.”

And the jeep drove on through the thick fog; spotlighted in the sway of those jeeps that followed. The train tracks that had for so long, resolutely stuck to the side of the road, now seemed regularly to cross it, from one side to the other. Then, just as the tracks settled once again against the inner slope, we caught up with the train. Its steam engine chugged and puffed, and as we passed, the driver let out a great whistle; an ancient train in a more ancient land, singing like a lost soul in the heavy fog. Unexpected, and, in the dark, unseen by the others, I began quietly to shed tears.

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