KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We left Gangtok for Darjeeling on Monday, April 9th. Arun and Neena had a train booking to return to Patna on the 10th. We originally had seats booked as well, but decided to stay in the cool hills a week longer in order to give us the opportunity to see Father Abraham in Kurseong. We first met father Abraham in 1984 when he was travelling across Canada on a fund-raising drive for the school he had built. I had come to Kurseong in 1995 with our daughter Adia and her friend Terri Hron. We saw the St. Alphonsus Secondary School at its best and I wanted Anil to see it too while Father Abraham was still living.
I was pleased to learn that there is a little-used road that joins Teesta Bazaar with Darjeeling and that we didn't have to go all the way to the plains again in order to drive back up another valley road in order to reach Darjeeling. Arun and Neena had travelled the same small road fifteen years earlier and had quite the story to tell about it. We were assured by people who know the area well that the road was now both safe and scenic.
We retraced our route down from Gangtok to the border of Sikkim and then followed the Teesta river to the point where the road to Darjeeling veers off to the right. Almost immediately, we started to climb the steep road into the forest. I was pleased that there was very little oncoming traffic because the road was very narrow and the curves were blind. It was nice to be in the forest again after several days in the crowded city. We climbed higher and higher until at last we were enveloped in the clouds; at times we could barely see the road ahead. When the clouds shifted slightly, we found that we were driving along the top edge of a mountain ridge and could see the valleys below on each side of the road. This is the view that had so unnerved Arun and Neena on their earlier trip to the area. It was easier this time as we had a driver who knew the road well and in the intervening years, barriers had been constructed to help prevent vehicles plunging into the deep valleys below.
We were delighted to find that tea gardens have been planted on some of the hillsides and dozens of homes constructed for the pickers. Suddenly the area did not seem so remote and we knew that we could seek help if needed. With every turn of the road, we saw more slopes planted with tea and the sun through the clouds helped colour the plants every imaginable shade of green. I would have to say that this road ranks in the top five of the most beautiful roads I have ever been on. I will never forget those couple of hours taking in all the lush tea gardens and the other hills in the distance.
At last we rounded another curve and the driver pointed out Darjeeling across the valley. The sun was showering long rays of light on the city, through the ever-shifting clouds hanging on the uppermost ridges. It was easy to see why the British had chosen this beautiful spot for a summer capital to escape the heat and humidity of Calcutta. Two British officers on patrol came upon the Dorje Ling (hence Darjeeling) Monastery in 1828 and felt it was an ideal place for a sanatorium. Eventually, tea plantations and colonial homes followed and the population grew to today's total of well over one hundred thousand. There are large segments of Tibetan refugees and Nepali labourers and along with the Bengali tourists, they swell the summer population near to bursting. There are chronic shortages of water and electricity in Darjeeling creating extra stress that no one needs.
After unloading the luggage and settling Arun and Neena into a so-so restaurant, we headed off with our trusty Lonely Planet in search of two rooms for the night. We were amazed to learn that there are almost no new hotels in Darjeeling and many of the ones listed in the guide book appear to have been built during the British colonial times and not renovated in the sixty years since Independence. The only one we found that was even remotely acceptable was already full. With heavy hearts we tried the Dekeling Hotel, our last possible choice, located just opposite the place where we left Arun and Neena. We hadn't considered it at first because it occupies the 5th and 6th floors of a wooden building and we weren't looking forward to all the stairs every time we wanted to go sightseeing.
Feeling desperate and very hungry, I waited on the main floor while Anil climbed all the stairs to have a look. He came back with a smile on his face thinking that he had found a gem. Indeed he had; they had two rooms on the attic level! The rooms were not free for a second night, but Arun and Neena were leaving to return to Patna and we could shift to another room for any additional nights so things all worked out in the end. They always do!
The Dekeling is much like the Cloud 9 in Kalimpong inside. All wooden walls and new tiles in the bathrooms and they have a large sitting room with a wood stove for the cold season. The staff were all really friendly and we felt at home almost immediately. In the end, Anil and I stayed there for a full week and ate almost all our meals at the Lunar Restaurant on the third floor of the building. The most incredible thing about our move to the Dekeling Hotel was the woman porter who was sent to bring our luggage from across the street. The woman couldn't have been even five feet tall, but she carried our suitcase as well as the two belonging to Arun and Neena, on her back in a sling reaching from her forehead. Anil insisted that he and Arun could each carry the smaller suitcases but she would have none of it. I was shocked to see her trudging up the final flight of stairs to our attic room with over 90 pounds of luggage on her back. One US dollar seemed inappropriate for such a load but she wouldn't accept any more than the going rate.
The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute and the Darjeeling Zoo are very highly regarded and located next to each other just off the Mall, so we headed out to visit them right after breakfast the next morning. The clouds were so low that they enveloped the upper levels of the city and it was like walking through thick fog to reach the Zoo. After all the sunshine we have encountered since leaving Canada, it was a refreshing change to be sure. It turns out that Neena likes fog as much as I do so no one was disappointed with the weather.
The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park is reported to be the highest altitude zoo in the world. Though it is small, it is the only high-altitude zoo in India and specializes in maintaining an ecological balance for breeding of endangered eastern Himalayan animals. It concentrates on animals comfortable at this altitude, temperature, rainfall and humidity level. Only thirty species have been identified for housing and planned breeding in the park. Some of the species we saw were Siberian Tigers, Snow Leopards, Tibetan Wolves and the very rare Red Pandas. The Zoo has had thirty-eight successful Red Panda births in the past ten years and is now regularly releasing the pandas back into the wild in the Singalila National Park. I managed to get a photo of the Red Panda, I thought you might like to see what he looks like; I had never seen one before.
As we left the Zoo and walked along the path to the Mountaineering Institute, I kept hearing rolling thunder. It seemed strange to hear thunder while it was so foggy, but then I realized that we were high in the clouds and in fact in the middle of the weather.
There were a few sprinkles of rain, but nothing to be concerned about. The Institute has provided training for many of India's leading mountaineers. The Everest Museum located on the grounds of the Institute traces the history of attempts to climb the world's highest peak.
Both Anil and I have each read "Into Thin Air" - twice. It's such a fascinating book and here we were viewing original clothing, equipment and photographs from many of the historic climbs. I found the custom boots made for Raymond Lambert (he lost his toes on an expedition in 1952) one of the most interesting things there. There are also scale models of the Himalayas - more than enough to warrant another visit to pour over all the display cases.
As we were walking back to the hotel it started to rain heavily, but it was time for Arun and Neena to leave so we loaded the taxi and rode with them part-way out of Darjeeling to the nearby town of Ghoom. We wanted to visit a famous monastery in Ghoom but we found the rain was too heavy to make sightseeing meaningful so we sent them on their way and returned to Darjeeling and our hotel for a quiet evening next to a roaring fire in the parlour.
It rained almost all night and we were told that when it rains, the skies are usually clear in the morning and it's a great time to get up early and head to Tiger Hill to see the sunrise and watch it light up mount Khangchendzonga. We booked a car to take us to Tiger Hill, near Ghoom, at 4:00 am. The clouds there were as heavy as all the other mornings, but we were hopeful that the additional height of Tiger Hill would put us above the weather. Hundreds of others had the same idea, and we waited inside a viewing tower dressed in our warmest clothes. We were pretty disappointed to see nothing more than thick cloud - somewhat lighter in one spot to the east as the sun rose. We headed back to our beds and slept late. We'd already been in the Himalayas for almost ten days and hadn't seen even a hint of the great mountain.
Later that morning we decided to walk to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. It was established in 1959 after China annexed Tibet and thousands of refugees fled into India. The Centre houses a home for the aged, a school, orphanage, a temple and workshops where the refugees produce handicrafts and weave carpets to raise money for the Tibetan community. The Centre is located down one face of the steep slope to the western side of the Darjeeling ridge. Along the way, we passed the Bhutia Busty Gompa which houses an original copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, permission is required to see it. There was no one around when we passed by, but I did take a photo. I am told that it is normally one of the most scenic monasteries in the area because on a clear day, Khangchendzonga hangs in the distance just to the right of the building. Our view, clouds and more clouds.
It was a great walk to the Centre with peeks through the clouds to the hundreds of houses spilling down the steep hills into the valley far below. We toured the workshops and watched the women weaving carpets. All of their production has been booked well into 2008. I would have been tempted to order a small carpet if I still had a home to put it in. They are magnificent works of art and craftmanship. We purchased a few small items in the showroom and then surprised the workers there when we told them we planned on walking back up to the Mall. "A very long walk" they warned us. There were no taxis in sight so we had no choice, we put on our mountain legs and hiked back up. A hot cup of Darjeeling tea revived us and after trying our luck at the internet cafe, we returned to the warm fire in our hotel and called it an early night.
There is so much to see in Darjeeling that we headed out early and walked in the opposite direction to see the train station and the narrow-gauge Darjeeling toy train. We considered taking the train down to Kurseong the following day but found the first-class carriage already fully-booked. The second-class seats are pretty uncomfortable for the three-and-a-half-hour ride so we abandoned our plan to ride the train. From the train station, we walked the full distance from one end of Darjeeling to the other - North Point and then back on another level to our hotel. I don't know where we were getting all our energy, but we made good use of it. The weather was cool and crisp, with no rain. We ate well, and slept like logs.
The next day was Friday the 13th. We had made arrangements to travel down to Kurseong and visit Father Abraham, a Canadian priest whom we'd met in 1984 when he was on a fund-raising drive for a school for the "poorest of the poor" children. I was feeling anxious about the superstitious date, but pushed it to the back of my mind and chose to look forward to meeting Father Abe again. I have made a separate entry for Kurseong, you can read about our visit there.
Our last few days in Darjeeling were full of long walks, great food and good books. We spent most evenings in front of the fire and learned from the proprietor that they are usually done with the fireplace by the end of February and that they were amazed to be still needing it in mid-April. Finally, on our last morning Khangchendzonga and the vast mountains ranges on both sides decided to reward us for our persistence. We hurried to the view points along the upper ridge and marvelled at the magnificence of the Himalayan range. The photos I took don't really do them justice, but I'm satisfied to have been given the opportunity to see them at all.
We had two more days in the hills, we were moving on to Mirik, a tiny hill-station that is off the beaten trail of most tourists. However, just as we were leaving the Dekeling Hotel, the manager of the hotel presented us with Tibetan prayer scarves along with wishes for a safe journey, health and happiness. It was such a surprise and very touching. I had seen the simple white shawls everywhere in Sikkim and Darjeeling and had wanted to take one as a souvenir, but never imagined that we would each be given one as a gift. Do I really have to wait a year to come back to this beautiful place?