Dry land, chaotic traffic hindered by the sacred cow strutting down the middle of a dusty road, hot summers and pungent smells – a universal image of India. Lesser thought of is endless routes of greenery, climates cool enough to freeze off your toes and pine-scented fragrances – that is Darjeeling.
Darjeeling was our first port of call of many on an adventure spanning across the north east landscape of India. Getting there was a trek and a bit of a gruelling process; even getting the e-tourist visa for India is a process more complicated than its neighbouring countries. What nationality are your parents? Do you have any identification marks? What’s your inside leg measurement? (I jest about the last one.)
Our mornings started when I felt it was technically still night – but after the initial moaning and groaning of waking up, I can’t imagine having woken up with the sun in the sky. The early mornings were needed to get to places at their optimal time – it seems Tenzing, our driver and someone who came to resemble a loyal uncle of not many words, knew what he was talking about.
A perfect example was the 2.45 am start on our second day for a sunrise. It was still pitch black when we reached Tiger Hill – which, slightly disappointingly, is inaccurately named. There are no tigers on Tiger Hill, only other cars and at the top, crowds of mostly Indians from all over the country. Getting there early gave us a front row seat, where we stared at the black hill in front of us in 3° celsius, which is a bit of a shock from the 44° heat of Thailand 24 hours earlier!
Slowly, wisps of fog and mist rose from the hills and forests below and the sun started to come out of hiding. It’s a beautiful sight, but its the magic it spreads on Kanchenjunga on its left that if I close my eyes now, I can imagine still so clearly, and feel almost as dazzled. Trying to describe the colours that play on the clouds and mountains is like trying to describe the colour blue to someone who has been blind all of their life. Those who see Tiger Hill will know the play well. Those who don’t will never know it.
On the way back down from the clouds, the Japanese Peace Pagoda lies in the heart of a mountainside. Inaugurated back to 1992, the peace pagoda was initiated by Fujii Guruji. A founder of ‘Nipponzan Myohoji’, a Buddhist order for world peace, Guruji was close friend of Mahatma Gandhi and had seen an overwhelming amount of tragedy in 1945 following the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.It’s been said that the peace pagoda is in itself an embodiment of Buddha, radiating the message of non-violence and purifying the land and minds of its people. The pagoda therefore sits as a core of peace and spirituality.
In the surrounding bluish green hues of trees, bright colours of blossoming trees were starting to flourish. Most of the flowers were alien to me, and because of that, probably a little more beautiful.
The early morning view left us inspired to explore. Darjeeling is home of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where you can get an educative serving on the history of climbing the Himalayas, as well as the mother of mountains, Everest. The institute is right in the middle of the zoological gardens, which are just depressing and unfortunately the fee to get into the Institute also funds the zoo. Inside the institute, however, were treasures of artefacts and before the visit, I’d never considered in depth the strength and ability required to tackle Mt. Everest, let alone reach the summit. Some of the Sherpas bags can weigh up to 75kg! The museum celebrates the triumphs of Tenzing Norgay, Edmund Hillary and other victors, as well as commemorating the efforts of the fallen. Displays are made of the previous materials needed for the trek, and how those materials have varied over the years. I was awed; Sometimes, I get so impressed with what humans are capable of.
As tiredness started to peak from the early rise, we took an hour’s ride from what looked like the tops of the hills (only when you get to these hills do you find that there are more hills) to the depths of the valley and back up in the Rangeet Valley cable car. The cable was originally used for carrying tea goods from the gardens in the valley as the easiest method of transport, and was the first cable car in all of India. Rangeet refers to the Little Rangeet river that flows underneath.
I felt my mind go blank. Who in Darjeeling can think of anything else at this point except the Kanchenjunga range which fills up the whole sky, and the lush green tea plantations the car glides over? Perhaps the urge to have a nap, too.
Enter #3: visiting the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre. This place was an orphanage, monastery, clinic and home for the aged, all in one complex. The activity outlets of the centre is a playground, surrounded by a few craft workshops that visitors can dip in and out of and watch those who live at the centre make a number of items from wood, wool and other materials. In a showroom, visitors could then buy the products, their money going back into the centre. Best of all, I came across the smiliest of men I think might ever have lived, making woollen hooded jumpers as bright and beautiful as his face.
Sometimes, it felt as though we were forever moving uphill and twisting along hairpin bends, narrowly avoiding the village communities that sit on the leafy corners of the road. The long drives were made bearable by the landscape and the occasional tea stop – which incidentally is probably the major pin putting Darjeeling on the map. As three avid tea drinkers, the pit stops became more frequent throughout the trip, the tea pouring from teapots in dining establishments, in pagodas on the edge of cliffs that looked out onto sweeping panoramic views, in tin huts that are three feet away from the gardens the tea was plucked from; this was in fact where the tea was at its best! The typical Indian way of drinking the local produce is as black tea with milk and an (un)healthy dose of sugar. Green tea is more often drank by locals for its health benefits, rather than the taste.
Though Hindu and Sikh temples are dominant in many states of India, the influence of Tibetan culture is so strong in the north east that Buddhist monasteries frequent. Previous experiences of the temples of Thailand made me feel that not much changes from one to another, and only a few keep their wonder time and time again. Almost every day, both in Darjeeling and the rest of our journey, we visited a Tibetan monastery, and every time, every temple, my eyes opened and jaw dropped. In the suburb of Ghum, Samten Choling looks to be from the outside a very small and quite uneventful monastery. I don’t know if it was again the planning of Uncle Driver or just coincidence that we should visit when the morning light was shining its rays through high set windows and into the centre of the building. Picture the enlightened space moment in films where light shines down and angelic voices start ringing from somewhere, only with the exotic flavour that it was, in fact, in a Tibetan monastery. Magic moment #17, or thereabouts.
It’s strange how quickly you get used to running a jeep up ribbons on bluish mountains, swallowed in the sal forests, and brushed with cool air. The roads of Darjeeling are basic but undeniably beautiful. The only thing that could make me leave was the promise of what next was in store.