Asia

Darjeeling: Up in the Clouds (Travels in India, Chapter 3)

Darjeeling is one of those places that almost everyone has heard of, and almost everyone has some pre-conceived notion of the place. The usual association one makes with Darjeeling involves a combination of Raj-era memorabilia and tea. Comparatively few people go on to associate Darjeeling with chronic diarrhoea and hours of sitting on the toilet. You see, we were sick as dogs – our dubious eating habits in India had finally caught up with us.

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[Context: When I finished law-school I set off on an extended voyage of discovery across Asia and Europe, with Camilla, my girlfriend at the time. This included backpacking in India for more than three months. I wrote a series of short stories about our experiences there. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to see them published, they have languished in my cupboard ever since. Not many people have read them but recently, a friend who has suggested I should dig out my India tales, edit and “publish” them via this blog – an online book of sorts. There are 18 “chapters” in total, and from time to time I will post the next one, although each can be read standalone. In revisiting these stories now, almost two decades after they were written, it amazes me how little things have changed in India. In many respects, the events described back then could just as easily have happened today. I hope you enjoy].

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Whether or not to eat street food in India had been a dilemma that we debated for some time, but eventually we had resolved that we were not going to miss out on what is a key part of participating in Indian life.

On arrival in the country we had started timidly enough – fresh orange juice from a street-side stall here, fried samosas from a hole-in-the-wall vendor there. When, to our great surprise we didn’t immediately keel over and die, we became increasingly fearless, and by the time we made our way to Darjeeling we were snacking on unrecognisable piles of mashed vegetables, scooped out of rusting metal buckets and served in funnels made from scraps of old newspaper. With hindsight, I guess we should have paid more attention when even seasoned backpackers looked at us with raised eyebrows as we recklessly tucked into a wide assortment of Indian culinary delights.

Getting to Darjeeling involved an overnight train ride to New Jaipalguri, the nearest major railhead to Darjeeling. From there, most tourists ride the famed Toy Train up the mountains to Darjeeling, so called because it runs on a narrow gauge rail, is steam-powered, has tiny, brightly painted carriages, and in all respects resembles a toddler’s dream Christmas present.

The Toy Train also performs about as well as your average Christmas present, completing the 70km journey from New Jaipalguri to Darjeeling in a staggeringly slow eight hours. The village boys who run alongside the train are able to outpace it on steep sections. Not to mention the train is crowded, with uncomfortable wooden benches, and the smoke and steam constantly blows back into your face. Those disembarking from the Toy Train in Darjeeling often look like they’ve just knocked off from work in a local coal mine.

We thus decided that we would pass up the opportunity of making one of the world’s classic rail journeys, and we opted instead for the much quicker alternative of a three-hour jeep ride. As we caught up to, and then whizzed past, the Toy Train, we waved with cruel gusto to a group of coughing backpackers seated in the front carriage. At that very moment, speeding up the twisting mountain road, I began to feel the first rumblings in my bowel – divine retribution, perhaps, for having taken pleasure in other people’s suffering. Although I was also sitting directly over the jeep’s rear axle, facing backwards and sucking in exhaust fumes, so it could have been that, too.

When we had arrived at the jeep rank in New Jaipalguri’s main square, we had been first in line, and had snaffled the two front passenger seats in our jeep, which we sat in patiently as the driver attempted to rustle up another six passengers. Twenty minutes later, with all but the backward-facing rear seats of the jeep filled, the driver’s teenage assistant poked his head in the window and said to me: “You, move to back seat“. The words were expressed as a command, and I didn’t really think to question them – I just changed seats as instructed. A few minutes later, an Indian woman in an elegant sari was escorted to my former seat, and the jeep driver’s assistant now ordered Camilla to move to the back seat next to me. A well-dressed Indian man, the companion of the woman who had usurped my seat, was hovering nearby waiting to occupy Camilla’s seat.

I asked: “Why should she move?

A trifle annoyed that I should dare to question his authority, the jeep driver’s assistant (did I mention he was barely fourteen?) proceeded to explain: “Back seat, best seat. You see best view from back seat”. He smacked the seat so hard that the entire jeep wobbled, and continued: “Very comfortable. Special tourist seat“.

I was prepared to accept this at face value, but Camilla preferred travelling facing forwards, and she said: “Thanks, but I like this seat. I’ll just stay here“.

Quite agitated now, the assistant said with anger in his voice: “No, you must move to back“.

Raising my voice slightly to match his, I replied: “Look, she doesn’t want to move, so she’s not going to move. Do you understand? She wants the seat she is in now“.

Our refusal to meekly occupy the back seats as instructed was an unexpected problem. The assistant engaged in a heated exchange of words with the well-dressed Indian man, and the jeep driver, thus far uninvolved in the action, now strode over. After finding out that Camilla was unprepared to move into the back seat, despite his likening it to some sort of automotive Eden, the driver summarily ordered us out of the jeep, telling us that we would have to take the next available jeep. We refused to budge, waving our tickets around and pointing out that the jeep’s registration number was written on those tickets, and we would not be getting out of the jeep until the coming of the Messiah or our arrival in Darjeeling, whichever was first.

We later learned that jeeps plying the New Jaipalguri-Darjeeling route are permitted to carry only five passengers. But, the drivers aren’t really fussed with silly things like legality, safety or comfort, and just add an extra two “seats” to the jeeps by wedging a rough wooden plank in the luggage storage area (and luggage, in turn, gets strapped to the roof).

Naturally, those in the know (ie: Indians) avoid these uncomfortable-backward facing seats like the plague, so the obvious solution is to persuade unsuspecting tourists to occupy them instead. The two makeshift seats are so undesirable that they are usually sold for half the price of a regular seat, and often remain vacant. We, however, had paid the full price (plus a surcharge for our luggage), and the driver would have turned a tidy profit if we had sat in the vacant back seats. Unwittingly, we had wrecked this finally conceived scheme by having the temerity to occupy the seats we had actually paid for.

Eventually, an international relations crisis was averted when the well-dressed Indian man begrudgingly agreed to accept a partial refund, and to ride next to me in the back.

Anyway, as I mentioned, about halfway up the mountain my stomach went into official revolt, and I arrived in Darjeeling feeling like a plastic doll that had recently been chewed up and spat out by an enraged bull-terrier. Camilla wasn’t doing much better, and by the time we had checked into a small hotel (making sure that we had a private bathroom) we were both really quite ill, wracked with stomach spasms and fever. We spent the next few joyful days huddled in our sleeping bags, making frequent dashes to the toilet, and slightly less frequent outings to stock up on rehydrating salts, mineral water and dry bread.

Three days later I was largely recovered, but Camilla was still sick. The time had come to brave the wild-west of the Indian healthcare system.

Our first port of call was a nearby pharmacy. In India, where most people are unable to afford the cost of a medical consultation, the local pharmacist is an important source of medical advice. There is little system of regulation and pharmacists are free to dispense whichever drug tickles their fancy. Add to this that most available medicines are unfamiliar locally produced generics, plus the fact that Indian chemists also stock traditional herbal and ayuverdic medicines, and a visit to the pharmacy in India starts to resemble a thrilling game of chance – Indian Roulette, if you will.

In our case, the pharmacist, although barely conversant in English, instantly decided that Camilla should take an exotic Himalayan cocktail of two antibiotics, some black carbon pills, and ginger syrup.

Scared shitless by this quackery, we decided that perhaps it would be better to see a trained medical practitioner. Our hotel’s proprietor directed us to a nearby female doctor, who, having studied in England, serviced the vast majority of travellers falling ill in Darjeeling. Needless to say, hers was a thriving business, and the waiting room was packed to capacity. After listening with some amusement to our tales of suffering, she did some prodding and poking, diagnosed a form of giardia, and prescribed some pills.

The whole visit to the doctor, including prescribed antibiotics, came to a whopping $5 – back home, you wouldn’t be able to put your pinkie toe in a doctor’s waiting room for this amount. And, within a few days, Camilla was well again.

As our health improved, we increasingly ventured outdoors to explore Darjeeling. Physically, the town is ruggedly attractive, built along a steep mountain ridge. Darjeeling literally cascades down the sides of the hills it straddles, and the various levels of the town are connected by steep streets and even steeper cobbled stairways. In colonial times, the British lived on the top of the ridge, sparing themselves the effort of having to trudge uphill into town; the less fortunate Indian workers lived in the valleys below. Apparently, this segregation of rich and poor by residential altitude remains today, and it is no accident that almost all of Darjeeling’s hotels and clubs and expensive homes are situated towards the top of the ridge.

Darjeeling is also very green, the area having one of India’s highest average rainfalls, and coming directly from the heat-parched expanses of Uttar Pradesh, you cannot help but immediately notice the profusion of flora – shrubs and trees and tea bushes and thick foliage.

The single most distinctive physical feature of Darjeeling, however, is the sense of height: the constant reminders that in Darjeeling you are at an ear-popping altitude. Wherever you go in Darjeeling you find yourself looking out over panoramic vistas and across verdant mountain valleys. The air is rarefied, the climate cool and pleasant. The whole area is frequently blanketed in a thick mist, and on some days, when the mist settles in the valleys below, Darjeeling becomes an isolated island floating in a sea of haze, and at those moments it felt like we were up in the clouds.

It is precisely because of Darjeeling’s wonderful physical environment that the British, after being ceded the area in 1817, turned the town into their premier Indian holiday retreat. For over a century colonial administrators would flee the stifling summer heat of the Indian lowlands and make for Darjeeling, where the climate was more sympathetic to their fair-skins and Anglo-Saxon rosy cheeks.

In the process, the town was converted into a mini-England, and in its heyday Darjeeling supported the full range of social institutions that characterised any British colonial outpost: gentlemen’s clubs, theatres, music halls, snobby schools, tea houses, lavish gardens and even horse-races (the Darjeeling racetrack, still in use, is both the highest and smallest race-track in the world).

Many visitors to Darjeeling nowadays – Camilla and I included – come in the hope of finding this quaint colonial past, only to be sorely disappointed.

Our first port of call in search of the Darjeeling Raj was the Planter’s Club, the gorgeous old building of which still dominates the main street. But we quickly learned that the club has fallen on hard times and has had to move down-market to survive – an unsightly yellow billboard advertised “pool tables; day-membership available“. We next tried to visit the legendary Gymkhana Club, only to find that its member-base is now almost exclusively Indian. Our scruffy backpacker appearance obviously didn’t meet the mark as we were rudely ordered to leave by the receptionist, who made it clear that politeness, discretion and the British “stiff upper lip” had long since left the building.

Our search for colonial Darjeeling continued, but we found no eccentric looking gentlemen in white suits and fedora hats roaming the streets, and even the “complete English afternoon tea” at a bakery on the main street turned out to be a sorry mess of stale scone, tinned jam, runny cream and weak tea.

And then, finally, we stumbled onto the Windermere Hotel – a stunning Victorian building set in private manicured gardens, with sweeping valley views, and seemingly sole protector of Darjeeling’s Raj-era heritage. The hotel has been run for over fifty years by an imposing Tibetan matriarch, who as far as we could tell had sought to fastidiously maintain an authentic colonial atmosphere to the place. So much so that she had apparently refused to install new-fangled 20th century accoutrements in the rooms, such as central heating and, heaven forbid, televisions.

We weren’t staying at the hotel, but decided to splurge on dinner in the hotel’s dining room one evening. As is proper, we had to make reservations and meet with the restaurant manager the day before, to establish our credentials. We also had to pay in advance – it would be simply unbecoming to have to deal with the unpleasantness of a bill after a fine meal.

On entering the dining room our coats were taken by a liveried attendant, and we were seated in front of a slightly out-of-place crackling log-fire. Our meal was served on white china plates, by scurrying Indian waiters in white jackets, white gloves and gold turbans. The food – an assortment of typically bland old English dishes – fit the setting perfectly: clear soup; a plainly cooked joint of lamb smothered in lumpy gravy with accompanying steamed vegetables; a cream heavy dessert.

After dinner we retired to the smoking room, the walls of which were covered with neatly framed old pictures, newspaper clippings, letters and other memorabilia. Two items in particular caught my attention. One was a class photo of a group of sprightly looking English lads, in blazers and grey-flannel trousers. The scene could have easily been from Eton or any other private school in England, although the caption said it was a school in some Indian town I had never heard of before. The other was a letter of introduction from an English lord to the owner of a Darjeeling tea plantation, presenting his nephew and hoping that the plantation owner would introduce the nephew into Darjeeling society.

In the Windermere Hotel that evening we were transported through time, and for a few short hours we became a part of a vanished British-India that otherwise no longer exists. It was a special experience.

Outside of the Windermere’s grounds, Darjeeling has changed with the times, and I personally found modern-day Darjeeling to be a fine successor to the British colonial hideaway it once was. It is a remarkably cosmopolitan place. The town’s population is a mix of Indians from the south, Nepali’s from the west, Tibetan’s from the north, and culturally distinct ethnic groups from tiny Indian provinces to the east. Darjeeling is also a major destination for domestic Indian tourists, not to mention a constant flow of Western tourists. At any given moment the main thoroughfare, Chowrastra Street, is a melting pot of peoples and cultures.

We became regular customers at Dekeva’s Restaurant, largely because the German owner was sensitive to the needs of travellers in India – she fed us for three days on what the menu described as a “gastric recovery meal”: plain boiled rice, steamed vegetables, and unsweetened black tea. God bless her.

Dekeva’s was a haven for all manner of budget-conscious travellers, and meeting them made for some interesting and entertaining evenings. On one night we sat for hours listening to an English choral teacher drone on about the ups and downs of musical education in West Chichester. Another evening was devoted to comparing railway horror stories with a disillusioned management consultant from London. And one night we met David, a Californian Buddhist who had recently returned from a pilgrimage to see the body of a famous Buddhist monk, which had been preserved following the monk’s departure from that particular body in favour of a newer, younger model.

These sessions at Dekeva’s were part of our indoctrination into the Indian backpackers’ esprit de corps. A bond forms amongst long-term shoestring travellers in India, and often this becomes the only source of support and normalcy to be found in an otherwise crazy environment. As a backpacker you become part of a collective organism, and at any time you are able to call on this informal network for advice, for company, to exchange tales, or to watch your bags for a few minutes while you make a dash for the bathroom. Ragged backpackers stranded at an Indian bus-stop will almost always erupt into spontaneous conversation. Complete strangers, who under normal circumstances I wouldn’t give the time of day to and I will probably never see again, suddenly became my closest friends. More than that – for a brief period of time, these people became my family. It is sometimes really quite wonderful what travelling can do.

This sense of goodwill towards fellow travellers is fragile, however, and there is nothing like an encounter with a camera-toting, loud, and downright painful tourist to smash it to bits.

We were visiting the Snow Leopard Breeding Centre, which is a part of the Darjeeling Zoo. Unlike the rest of the zoo, however, which is little more than a depressing ensemble of concrete cages and miserable looking animals, the Centre is an enlightened attempt to keep the graceful snow leopard from extinction.

In a well maintained sanctuary, about half an hour’s walk from the main zoo, several snow leopard’s are kept in captivity, carefully monitored, and encouraged to breed. The success rate has been quite high, largely due to the quiet environment at the centre, and the lack of intrusive human visitors (Indian males at the main zoo, for example, seem to feel the need to prove their manhood by taunting, shouting at, or throwing stones at, the defenceless animals. Sometimes one wonders if the evolutionary process has made the occasional error).

Visitors who agree to maintain the quiet and not disturb the sensitive leopards are welcome at the Breeding Centre, and it is an uplifting experience to see the work being done to save these endangered animals. That the Breeding Centre exists at all is largely due to the single-minded determination of the man who runs it, Mr Moktan. The leopards are his life. He knows each one by name, watches over them like a father, and records every movement, sound, or action they make into one of three huge ledgers.

Mr Moktan had welcomed us warmly on our arrival at the Breeding Centre, and had spent more than an hour with us, introducing the leopards, explaining the coding system in his ledgers, and instructing us in the finer points of leopard breeding. Suddenly, the peace was mercilessly shattered.

Scooz me, mate, you got any film?“, an undoubtedly Australian man screeched at the top of his lungs, literally causing the leopards to bolt for cover.

We turned around to find ourselves confronted with what can only be described as the ultimate stereotype of an Aussie, his Sheila in tow. No exaggeration – he wore beige shorts four sizes too small, a pink baggy singlet vest with the word “Bali” printed across the chest in fluorescent yellow, and a crumpled baseball cap. And, as if you would expect anything else, a pair of thongs dangled from his feet. “Me wife“, as he poetically referred to her, was similarly attired, minus the hat. Camilla and I cringed at the thought that Mr Moktan might associate us in any way with these antipodean Neanderthals.

You see, we’ve been taking lots of photos, and we’ve run out of film, and we saw this place and we thought maybe you’d have some“, the Aussie continued. For some reason he assumed that we were all deaf, so his words were yelled at us at full volume.

No, I don’t really. I’m very sorry,” Mr Moktan apologised, politely.

What is this place then?” the Aussie shouted.

Mr Moktan gave him an abbreviated explanation, and tactfully dropped in the fact that the Breeding Centre was supposed to be a silent and peaceful haven for the leopards.

No shit“, the Aussie exclaimed, even louder than before. “So where are the leopards? Can we see `em?

I would have shaken this moron by the shoulders and told him that he had scared the leopards away, the trauma of his very vocal arrival perhaps condemning the entire species to extinction. But, demonstrating a remarkable degree of patience, Mr Moktan instead escorted the two newcomers around, showing them the cages, and he even managed to coax a few of the leopards out of hiding.

After about ten minutes of this, Mr Moktan then turned and told us all that he had work to do so we would have to leave. We were disappointed to have had our visit cut short, but we said goodbye to Mr Moktan, tactfully declined an invitation to stroll back to town with Aussie and Wife, and began walking briskly in the opposite direction. We hadn’t got very far before we heard the  Australian bellowing at Mr Moktan: “By the way, mate, do you sell any leopard T-shirts?” We hung our heads in shame and walked faster.

Tea was first introduced to Darjeeling by the British, and quickly became the backbone of the area’s economy. Although only about 3% of India’s tea crop comes from Darjeeling (the bulk is from the neighbouring province of Assam), the quality of the local tea is such that around the world “Darjeeling” has become a word virtually synonymous with tea of distinction. It was therefore unthinkable that we would leave Darjeeling without a visit a tea plantation.

So one morning we headed off to the Happy Valley Tea Plantation, about a half hour’s vigorous walk from the centre of Darjeeling. It was the second day of the annual tea harvest, and so we were able to enter a large factory to see tea processing in action (after making the necessary donation to one of the tea plantation workers who, seeking to boost his take-home pay, hangs around the front of the building and takes visitors on unauthorised guided tours). Tea-making is a complicated business, in which leaves plucked from the tea-bushes are dried, crushed, dried again, sorted into different grades and then packaged.

Inside, the air was overpoweringly pungent with the smell of tea, and after a short tour of the processing factory we were glad to be able to walk in the fresh air amongst the tea-bushes. We saw women with hefty wicker baskets strapped to their backs hand-plucking the tea leaves, then tossing the leaves over their shoulder into the basket. The women worked at a furious pace, their nimble hands a blur. Our guide explained that a good tea-picker can do about 1,000 bushes a day. We also learned from him that the work is tiring, and is mostly done by women, who are considered to be faster and gentler on the leaves. Not damaging the leaves – and in particular the tiny young leaves at the tip of each branch – is crucial, as unbroken leaves make for the most expensive teas.

Now, although tea might be what Darjeeling is best known for outside of India, Darjeeling is known throughout India, above all else, as being a holiday town. So on our final day there we decided to do as the local tourists do, which is to watch the sunrise. We thus found ourselves being bundled out of bed at 4:00am, to board a packed jeep for the half hour ride to Tiger Hill, from where there is an uninterrupted view of various Himalayan peaks, including Mount Everest.

It seemed as if every person north of the equator had a similar idea that morning. Although still totally dark and so cold that each breath blew out a cloud of condensation, the top of Tiger Hill in the pre-dawn resembled a bustling oriental marketplace. A crowd of close to 500 tourists mingled with an equal number of girls selling coffee and tea, young men selling camera film and souvenirs, and photographers offering their services to those without cameras.

A frigid wind was blowing, so we bought VIP tickets that supposedly gave us the right to watch the sunrise from a slightly elevated platform with protective glass windows, a free cup of hot tea included. The platform was so crowded, however, that in the end we wound up standing on the exposed terrace, where we joined a frenzied crush of people, all anxiously straining to catch the first hint of sunlight.

Eventually, at 5:57am precisely, the sun made an appearance, reluctantly peeking up from beyond the horizon as if aware that a huge crowd was watching.

Truthfully, it was less than spectacular. The mountains were so far in the distance they looked like mosquito bites. The star of the show, Mt Everest, was covered by a stray cloud, and the incessant chatter of the surrounding mob drowned out any possibility for a quiet moment of reflection. I have seen some memorable sunrises in my time. This was categorically not one of them.

A small Indian man was standing beside me, wearing only a striped cotton T-shirt, slacks and sandals – not nearly enough to protect him from the elements, and he was quite literally shivering from the cold. He turned and asked me to take a photograph of him against the backdrop of the rising sun, handing me a camera that Sotheby’s would auction as an expensive antique. I took the photo, and between chatters of his teeth the man said to me and Camilla: “Isn’t this beautiful? I am so happy. This is the greatest day of my life“.

It occurred to me that this fellow had most likely endured considerable hardship to be on Tiger Hill that morning. I imagined that he had probably scrimped and saved to pay for a third class train ticket to Darjeeling and a hotel room in town that not even a backpacker would stay in. I thought of what life might have in store for the man I had just photographed – how he would almost certainly never know the joy of a morning walk at Bondi Beach, or of watching the sunrise over a lagoon in Thailand, or of seeing the dawn break over the Manhattan skyline.

I looked at the rising sun, and as I inhaled a sharp breath of icy cold air I was overcome by a sudden sense of deep thankfulness, that I am one of the lucky few who can take a sunrise at Tiger Hill for granted.

[The next post in this series will be in about four weeks time: Chapter 4: Calcutta]

5 replies »

  1. Just finished reading ‘Darjeeling: Up in the clouds’! You write well!

    My parents are from Darjeeling. I grew up in Visakhapatnam – a town on the Eastern Coast – and have been living in Bombay, my birthplace, since 1992. I, along with my wife (who is from Hyderabad), will be visiting Darjeeling (& hopefully Gangtok) during the second half of March this year. I was doing a bit of research today on Darjeeling and came across your blog.

    Thanks, and once again: you write well!

    • Hi. Thank you so much for reading and for taking the time to send me your comment – I really appreciate it. My trip to Darjeeling was some time ago, so I would be really interested to hear how it may have changed, and what has remained the same. Have a great trip there.

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