October 28-30, 2015
Getting to this antiquated hill station is no easy task. Having been in India for over 3 weeks now, I fully understand the traffic (total insanity) and the roads (completely unmaintained) but did not anticipate these two factors hosting a 2-way thoroughfare on a single-lane road going up the side of a very steep mountain… at night. So today’s gratitude was simply in arriving here safely, because there were moments…
I am lodging at a Homestay that used to be part of an old monestary before they relocated it many years ago, and the view from my window is one of a typical Darjeeling landscape… tightly spaced housing complexes that have no rhyme or reason and no discernible boundaries… there are shared yards, gardens and clotheslines overlapping one another up and down the lush, green hillside.
My first morning I wake up to gentle Tibetan music drifting through the air outside my window, accompanied by roosters crowing in the distance, and it is lovely. Soon hot tea is delivered to my door.
In the distance lies India’s tallest Himalayan peak, Mt Kanchenjunga and beyond that, somewhere in the distance, Everest. The cloud cover today prevents a clear view of the magnificent mountain range, but I’m told on a clear day you can see well past the Indian border. Regardless, it is gorgeous.
My hosts here are lovely people, tending to my every need… hot chai when I awake followed by a simple yet lovely home-made breakfast in their adjoining house. It is as sweet as can be.
My first day is spent getting acquainted with the town, and my initial stop is the nearby outdoor Mahakal Temple.
It is a stunning array of color exemplifying the Tibetan influence here. There is even a holy cave, the history of which I do not know, but I get on my hands and knees and crawl in all the same. After Rishikesh, how could I resist?
Next, I take a two hour, steam-engine train ride on the infamous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. The DHR is the highest running railway in the world, the Ghoom station (one town over) sitting at over 7400 feet.
The ride is both scenic and amusing, and I marvel at all of the homes that are situated quite literally an arms reach away from the tracks.
Now that I’ve had a chance to explore Darjeeling in daylight, I keep forgetting I’m still in India, as the Asian influence here is quite strong considering this little outcrop of Northeast India is surrounded on three sides, from west to east, by Nepal, China and Bhutan.
This is not only noticeable in the Tibetan Buddhist temples and prayer flags everywhere, or in the fact that you are surrounded by Himalayan peaks, but mostly in the faces of the locals. The genealogy is clearly not the same here, and although I haven’t understood the language in any of the places I’ve been, it’s discernibly different in Darjeeling… and I learn later that’s because most of the people here are actually speaking Nepali.
The beauty of this old British Colonial town built on the side of a mountain is quite stunning to look at, although I have to say, after spending my first day exploring on foot, there is one factor here that greatly and adversely affects my enjoyment… and that is the pollution… which is a terrible irony considering the town is surrounded by such natural beauty.
There is a single main road that traverses the region and it is very busy… and virtually every vehicle, from the plethora of tourist jeeps to the numerous water tankers, is spewing thick diesel exhaust into the air. As a result, I am literally having trouble breathing. Regardless, I am here and insistent upon seeing the sights, so I wrap my scarf around my face and do my best to steer clear of the main thoroughfares.
In light of this issue, I decide to spend my second full day out of town and sign up for a one day trek, which is actually one of the main draws of tourism in the area.
We drive for about two hours to the small village of Dhodrey, and I am surprised when we stop at an office and I need to present my passport. Apparently we will be hiking along the India-Nepal border, and border patrol wants to know who’s in the area.
My guide speaks perfect English and since it is just the two of us I learn quite a bit about the history of a once-orphaned Darjeeling while we hike in and out of bright sun and thick fog… mostly thick fog.
And to my delight, we actually cross into Nepal for a good long while and have lunch at a busy Nepalese trekking lodge.
My love for Nepal was the main reason I decided to come to Darjeeling in the first place, as I knew the influence would be felt, so hiking the area and actually setting foot on Nepalese soil was just sweet icing on the cake.
The day is outrageously beautiful but quite long, and after 17k I am ready to relax. Back in the village I spend about $2usd for several samosa’s, some sort of breaded chicken and a large Kingfisher beer, and head down the long, winding path home.
After I finally reach my room, I am exhausted and looking forward to doing nothing, so I find it appropriate that this is when the power goes out. Not uncommon in India, from what I understand, however the couple times it’s happened thus far have been very short lived. But tonight it is for a good hour or more, and I’m actually thrilled I get to spend my solitude by candle light. I wrap myself in one of the many warm blankets the hosts have provided (and thank goodness for that… the nights here are actually very cold and I do not have sufficient warm clothing) and settle in, watching the lights start to dot themselves all over the hillside.
My last morning I get up early and walk the tight, winding, alley-like foot paths that traverse this neighborhood. Early morning here is similar to the rest of India… a lot of washing, cooking, opening up shop and getting children off to school.
Dogs sleep curled up on porches and chickens peck around for food, and the busyness has a calming sort of peacefulness to it. No one here is rushing or stressed, unlike our mornings back in the states, and from this, I believe there is much to learn.
On the walk I stumble upon a colorful Tibetan Monastery. I linger about for a bit, taking in yet another pretty viewpoint, and as I start the walk back uphill, I inwardly laugh, thinking these hills make San Francisco feel like prairie land.
As I am packing up to leave, I take one last look out the window, and as if subtlety saying goodbye, the clouds have cleared just enough to give me a glimpse of Kanchenjunga…
It is a sweet farewell indeed, not just to Darjeeling, but to all of India. And so, until we meet again…