Song of the day: It Ain’t Easy by David Bowie: “When you climb to the top of the mountain…”
Luke’s alarm went off at 3am and we staggered into the town like two zombies from Dawn of the Dead. Darjeeling is a bustling town and rarely quiet, but at this time it seemed that the obligatory stray dogs were the only signs of life. When we get to the town centre however there was a long line of jeeps lined up with their proud Gorkha owners stood alongside them, waiting to ferry the tourists to Tiger Hill. For 200 rupees (a hundred rupees in a pound or thereabouts, remember), we were ferried up the hill with a couple from Chennai, who were holidaying up in the mountains. They were lovely people and explained that we had come to Darjeeling in the middle of the Indian summer holidays – how ironic that where us Brits seek warmer climes, many south Indians come up north to escape the heat for a few precious days.
The climb up to Tiger Hill was an interesting one. We passed the railway station at Ghum – the highest stop on the railway at some 7500 feet, before winding our way up a snaking, almost alpine road. We were in a convoy of perhaps 100 jeeps, all full of tourists. Once nearly at the top of the hill we got out and walked, to find a crowd already assembled. Women with huge pewter teapots called out “Chai chai chai!” and “Coffee coffee coffee!” and a couple of cups woke us up and warmed the cockles, as it was a bit chilly at this altitude without the heat of the sun. The crowds thickened and throbbed and we found ourselves immortalised in the background of a thousand odd selfies. I thought that the selfie craze was a western phenomenon, but I have to say that having been aroud South-East Asia and India this year, Asia’s addiction runs far deeper than our own. Rolling mists continually swept over the hill as the sun made it’s slow appearance over the horizon. Though the sunrise was beautiful and well worth watching, we couldn’t see the mountains for all the bloody fog! I must confess to feeling a bit disappointed about this and if there is an Indian Board for Himalayan Weather Control (not beyond the realms of possibility from what we’ve seen), they will be recieving a strongly-worded letter when we return home. During the duration of our stay in Darjeeling the mists continued to roll over, and for now my dream of looking upon the Himalayas is back on the shelf.
When we paid our 200 rupees we thought that we were paying for a taxi to Tiger Hill and back, but it turned out we had booked ourselves onto a 3-sight tour. We got back in the jeep and dozed for half an hour as the convoy was at a complete standstill. Eventually we moved off and made a painstakingly slow descent down the mountain to Yiba Choling Gompa – a beautiful Tibetan Monastery in the town of Ghum. There is something about Tibet and it’s people that’s always provided a fascination for me, and this monastery didn’t dissapoint. The wals were covered with handpainted murals and a five-metre high golden Buddha sat cross-legged at the focal point of the altar. Unfortunately with being on a package tour, we were accompanied by about three hundred others who barged their way about the place. Brits in Benidorm moan about the German inability to queue. Though we have found almost every person we’ve met so far to be friendly and warm, I don’t think it’s a slight on the Indian national character to say that they lack basic queuing etiquette, and respect for what we in England refer to as “personal space”. In a classroom round the back of the temple we were drawn to the sound of children singing. We peeped through an open door to see about thirty or so children in maroon robes. Unsupervised by adults, they were reciting a long list of mantras and prayers whilst banging various bells and drums. They were having a right good time of it and it was quite hypnotising to watch, until a multitude of cameras attached to arms and selfie-sticks were thrust in front of our line of sight.
The last stop on our tour was the Gorkha War Memorial – a statue and ornamental garden dedicated to the fallen Gorkha soldiers of various wars, most of which were fought in the name of Britain. The Himalayan Mountain Railway runs in a loop around the gardens. Traders around here must know the train schedule off by heart – or enjoy living dangerously – because they spread their wares and pop-up stalls all over the tracks. On the way back down Luke bought some bhajis that were being freshly deep-fried on the street. They tasted, in my opinion, like a much fresher version of Bombay Mix. They were washed down as ever with a cup of Chai. After this very pleasant morning we were dropped off back in the centre of Darjeeling – it was seven o’clock. We went back to the hostel for a shower and some breakfast. I say shower, but in fact Ringo’s facilities didn’t stretch to that. Instead we each had to fill a bucket of hot water and wash the old-fashioned way – again, I reckon John, Paul or George would have stretched to a functioning shower.
Our next stop was the Happy Valley Tea Estate – a working tea plantation that welcomes guests on a free tour of the factory. Unfortunately because it was the holidays there was no tea production in progress – with this and the missing mountains we didn’t have much luck in Darjeeling! We walked down a steep, snaking road to come to a large building with a corrugated roof. A girl took us on a tour of the various stages of the tea production process, which was fascinating and made us appreciate the efforts that go in to providing us in England with a beautiful, steaming cuppa. There are three types of tea produced on these plantations – white, green and black, and all come from the same tea leaves. Black is what we are used to drinking in teabags back home. White tea is the freshest and purest form of tea, but contains subtler flavours because it hasn’t been picked off the plant for as long. There are several differences in the production process of each type of tea which make it different to the other, but a lot is down to the amount of time the tea leaves are left out in the open air to “oxygenate”. The longer the tea leaves are left, the fewer anti-oxidants and the more caffeine they contain. Thus, white tea is the healthiest for you, followed by green, followed by black. I could go on and on about the production process but I’d probably lose you without providing diagrams and asking you to take notes, so we’ll move on.
By this point we were pretty knackered after our early wake-up, but we felt that we were on a roll. We took a taxi to Darjeeling Zoo, where we paid a pittance for access to the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We were both really interested in the Institute and made a beeline for it – some of the greatest mountaineers have passed through here, using it as a base for training and planning expeditions. A large group of kids in uniform did exercises in a school yard- the apprentice climbers of tomorrow. Though a lot of the Institute was out of bounds to us, there was a fascinating Everest Museum which told of famous expeditions to the world’s highest peak. All kinds of mountaneering memorabilia was here, from Tenzing Norgay’s snow goggles to a pair of specially designed mountaneering boots for a climber who had lost all of his toes through frostbite. The bit about Mallory and Irvine was particularly interesting – amazing to think that we’ll probably never know whether they reached the summit or not before perishing on the mountain. Outside was a stone to mark the spot where Tenzing Norgay – first man to reach the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary – was cremated. Norgay lived most of his life in Darjeeling and was instrumental in the setting up of the Mountaneering Institute.
We worked our way back through the zoo, which was quite sad. An impressive collection of rare animals no doubt, but it’s a sorry sight to see such amazing creatures in a zoo, let alone in such small cages. The Bengal tiger continued to stalk the same path over and over, displaying signs of stereotypies – a kind of insanity brought on by a large beast being held captive in such an unstimulating environment. Tibetan wolves were missing large patches of fur, and a snow leopard lay resigned to it’s lonely fate in behind the bars of it’s cage. I watched a program before we came away on the debate between keeping animals alive but in captivity, or allowing them to go extinct when their wild populations are extinguished. On this showing, I’d say the second option makes a strong case for itself.
Inevitably we had a late lunch at Hasty Tasty. Luke had biryani whilst I had paneer pakoras and a bowl of curd – a strange but tasty combination. We went back to the hostel and watched Leicester City draw closer to winning the title on Indian sports TV, before going to sleep. Another long but successful day!
Have a great day, whatever you endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey