You may have read in my last post, that beyond Kerala, we were struggling to feel truly at home in India and were defining our overall experience through Mumbai, Rajasthan and Agra in terms of ‘memorable moments’.
Well, that all changed as soon as we shifted course for the Himalayas and found ourselves just a little bit in love as soon as we arrived in Darjeeling. It’s clean! It’s green! The air is fresh! There are complete, continuous, excrement-free, pavements, everywhere! And no harassment from street vendors and rickshaw drivers! Litter is minimal and even the stray dogs look healthier. Surely this is the Indian dream. It certainly is for us as visitors here.
Darjeeling earned its place on the map during the era of the British Raj, when they used it as one of their main hill stations as the climate reminded them of home and offered some reprieve from the scorching Indian heat. The colonial influence remains, from the European church with its familiar looking tower, to the fancy period hotels such as the Windamere and its daily high tea service, down to the central Oxford bookshop and Frank Ross chemist, where, old school style, you order items one by one from the store assistant behind the counter. Glenary’s, a cafe, bar and restaurant that sprawls over three levels, becomes our favourite hangout – you can’t beat the views over the clouds as fluffy as the cappuccinos.
The city delightfully winds its way up and down a series of hills, roads spreading down, around and up like the arms of Ganesh doing the hokey pokey. Around every corner is a different, heart stopping view: of the tumbling houses and their downward gardens that plunge into the never ending valley below; of the endless verdant tea plantations that also put this place on the map; of villages on another mountain that look so close but are at least a day’s travel away. And, of course, the mammoth Himalayan peaks that stare severely down from their lofty perches.
The views also change according to the weather. Sometimes the clouds settle in for the day, coating the mountain side in a mystical fog that turns the valley into a swirling, smoking abyss that whole villages have disappeared into, making it look like the ridge we are on is the only thing that exists in the universe.
Tea, tigers and culture collision
With the help of the ever knowledgeable staff at the wonderfully cosy Hotel Dekeling, we plan out a couple of good walking routes that take in the city’s major sites, like the Happy Valley tea farm, which supplies exclusively to Harrod’s in London, and the zoo, which is our only chance to see the striking snow leopard, Bengal tiger and red panda, among other delightful creatures! And if, like most people, you’ll never get to climb Mt Everest, you can check out a bit about what it would be like at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (entrance is conveniently included with your zoo ticket). Most impressive is the primitive equipment used by the early adventurers that added more to the achievement than the 65,000 dollars required today!
What’s also amazing about Darjeeling is how both Hindu and Buddhist cultures are both so alive, and complement each other extraordinarily well. As we leave town on our walk to the Bustey monastery, we happen upon the Buddhist Sherpa Centre, whose rows of chanting monks catch our attention. The centre’s director notices us loitering at the entrance and invites us in for tea and biscuits. He shows us the temple upstairs, and tells us about the work he is doing to honour his late brother-in-law, who was the first man to climb Everest twice.
The next day, we’re lured from our bedroom by the sound of drumming, so we scramble up to the Hotel Dekeling’s common room to look out at what’s happening: it’s only a street parade for the Navratri festival, the one I mentioned previously! We seem to accidentally be following it around India! From our window perch, we watch as they saunter past: marching bands, martial arts dancers, colourful community groups and their proud banners, little girls in full make up atop white ponies, plus dressed up locals who decide to join in on their own.
It’s our first glimpse of Tibetan culture too, thanks to the large immigrant population, and besides the frequent pictures of the Dalai Lama in restaurants, hotels and monasteries, this also means there is delicious new food to be tried! Namely, at the humble but highly rated Kunga Restaurant, signature dishes include the region’s famous momo dumplings, fatter and meatier than their Chinese cousins, and the thentuk soup, filled to the brim with handmade noodle ribbons as fresh and silky as their Italian pasta counterparts.
Darjeeling cleanses our lungs, stretches our legs, refreshes our minds, soothes our souls and revitalises our spirits.
But it’s the neighbouring former Kingdom of Sikkim that really takes our breath away….more on this special place in the next post!