30th April – Darjeeling

Song of the day: Thomas the Tank Engine theme -Why? Well, we saw a steam train, and Thomas the Tank Engine is narrated by RINGO STARR, who’s room we are currently staying in, so it’s highly relevant.
Darjeeling in the light is quite a sight to behold. Hundreds, maybe thousands of coloured buildings yawn across the steep hillside for about a mile or so. Although Ringo did not provide the same panorama as John or George, we walked out early and looked out over the hill station. We walked up Ghandi Road and made our way up one of the main thoroughfares to Square – the focal point of Darjeeling at the top end of town. It was early in the day and all sorts of strange sights were on display. Women carried huge wicker baskets the size of paddling pools on their heads, full of live chickens bound for a sticky end. Stray dogs of a Tibetan origin recline lazily on the pavement – occasionally they will go for each other but not once during our stay did we witness them troubling people. They have handsome faces and fluffy coats and were it not for the scabs and constant scratching I’d take one home with me. By far the most intriguing sight of all is to witness the heavy loads that people of Gorkha origin carry on their backs, using a rope attached around their forehead to keep hold of it. Large gas bottles, crates of booze and wooden fold-away tables are but some of the loads we’ve seen these people carry up gradients which are exhausting even when unladen. Most of these people (men and women) are bent double in order to carry the weight, and their faces are furrowed with the exertion. Whether they can straighten up once their cargo has been jettisoned I don’t know, but I’d fancy that most of them would kill for a good chiropracter.
We walked around a very Victorian-looking path lined with cast-iron railings that clung to the hillside. To our right the mist was thick, but we were able to see the tiny dots of houses lining the bottom of the valley, perhaps 1000 feet below? Don’t quote me on that, but it looked liked a long way down. The odd monkey could be seen chilling out in the grand old trees that lined the path. We sat on a bench that on a clear day was supposed to offer a beautiful vista of Khangchengdzonga (spellings are multiple), but for Luke and I provided only a vista of cotton wool clouds. Khangchengdzonga is the third highest mountain in the world behind Everest and K2, and the highest mountain in India. As we sat relaxing in the morning sun I was approached by a tiny chappy who appeared to be without abode. It is difficult enough to interpret the utterings of a mountain man who does not speak a word of English, but it seemed that this chap was not even capable of speech. This mute became more and more animated as he told me his life story: “Unh, Unh, UUUUNH!” and I politely nodded along, whilst Luke couldn’t help but creasing up in laughter at my predicament. The mouthless mountain man made hand gestures which seemed to indicate that he lived down the hill, needed money, and would be dead soon. He indicated death by sticking his tongue out to the side and rolling his eyes, before miming digging a grave. Unsure of the best course of action I provided him with ten rupees, which he seemed highly delighted with. I took his photograph which he seemed equally as pleased about, and then we wished him good health before fleeing the scene.

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As I have adhered to previously, the hills of Darjeeling ensure a certain degree of fitness must be maintained in order to conquer them. Luke is a recent veteran of multiple marathons, whereas I am a recent veteran of multiple meals. I was left trailing in his wake as we ascended what appears to be the highest hill in Darjeeling to the site of the ancient Dorje Ling Monastery, from which the present Darjeeling name was derived. Though the orginal monastery no longer stands, there is a beautiful temple dedicated to Mahakala – a deity sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. I have to say, of all the many temples I have visited this year, this one has to be the one that has impressed me so far. Rather than beeing a feat of architecture covered in gold and trinkets, the temple on the site of Dorje Ling is more of an ethereal, atmospheric place. There are no roofs here – the temple is an open air complex stretching over quite a wide area. Multi-coloured prayer flags hung from every possible location flutter in the breeze. Various bells with a soft, soothing chime are rung by entrants to the temple, and mani wheels are in abundance. Mani wheels are bell-like objects mounted on a pole, with various incantations written upon them. The idea is that when people spin them, the prayers that are written upon the mani wheel will ascend into the heavens. We spent a good deal of time here, enjoying the purity and peace of the place. I don’t consider myself to belong to any religion, but in my opinion places like this are about as close as you can come to feeling that spiritual nourishment without having to commit to anything in particular! Far from the madding crowds of Kolkata, and further from the oppresive dinginess of most roofed places of worship, the Dorje Ling sight was a real find of a place.

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We came down from the heights and went downhill, checking the treasures at various antique shops along the way. In true British fashion we wandered into a tea shop – Nathmull’s, and ordered a plethora of mind-expanding brews. The varieties of tea on offer is a complicated business – like wine-making, the region, season and production process impacts heavily upon the flavour. I will explain the subtleties of this process in the fullness of time, but for now you should know that we drank an abudance of tea whilst reading the Indian Times and planning our itinerary for the next couple of days.
Feeling suitably refreshed we moved further downhill and came upon the Darjeeling Himalaya Mountain Railway. This line was built in 1881 under the British Empire to transport tea down to the lower ground – presumably eventually ending up in the homes of British toffs. It was interesting looking round the station as a steam train puffed in. According to the Lonely Planet guide the scenery along the route is breathtaking, so we decided to take a ride. When we got to the counter however, the ticket vendor informed us that the computer which sells tickets was broken. You would think that this issue was easily resolved by selling the tickets by hand, but this is India, and things are never as they seem. The decision was taken to cancel all trains that were running that day rather than continue without the assistance of the primitive computer system. You have to chuckle. As we came away we could hear the loud splash of liquid hitting a hard floor – was it raining? We looked aroud to see a man sat on a bench in a woollen hat, who was quite publicly pissing himself. A deluge of green liquid seeped from his trousers and onto the floor, whilst he sat with the faraway, contented smile of a man who had achieved alcoholic oblivion. Feeling like we had entered the twilight zone, we checked out a tiny Hindu temple which afforded spectacular views over the sprawling backyards of Darjeeling before returning again to the hostel to regroup.

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We decided that the following morning we would get up at 3am in order to take a trip up to Tiger Hill – a local viewpoint for where you can watch the sun rise and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, including Khangchengdzonga and the mightiest of them all, Everest. Because of this we needed to eat early then turn in. We stumbled upon a place called “Hasty Tasty”, which was very much the latter but not so much the former. We later read that this place was reccommended in our Lonely Planet Guide. This place is quite typical of Indian cafes – extremely scruffy, even dirty by English standards, but with a good heart and always, always packed to the rafters. Upon our first of three visits I very politely asked a lady if we could sit at the end of her table as they didn’t need al the space. She said something along the lines of “We haven’t finished yet”. Spotting this the waiter came over and pulled out a vacant chair at the table. “This is India man, just sit down!” So we did. Luke has so far displayed an impressive knowledge and exquisite taste in Indian cuisine, so I trusted his recommendation that we buy two Thalis, one North Indian and one South. A Thali is the closest Indian dining comes to tapas. We were presented with two trays full of small samples of a variety of curries, complete with chapatis, pickles and curd (a soothing yoghurt-like mixture). We also ordered two Idlis – a kind of soft rice cake which you eat by dipping in a small stock-like curry. We were able to see subtle differences in the flavours and ingredients used in North and South Indian cooking, but there were that many different dishes on offer that I couldn’t tell you now what these differences were. By eightish we were in bed, ready for the earliest of early starts on the morrow.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

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