Darjeeling; In which I make a somewhat disappointing pilgrimage to the Queen of the Hills

I’m not a particularly respectful or reverent person (just ask anyone) but there is one thing that I hold sacred, and that thing is tea. I’m a tea-granny of long standing, and sometimes when I have money I indulge myself with estate teas. I’m not an intentional snob, but I’ve had enough tea in my time to have developed some preferences, and for my money tea from the estates of Darjeeling is the best in the world. One of the major reasons I wanted to visit India in the first place was so that I could make my pilgrimage to the Queen of the Hills, and I was very excited that the day had finally come.

I admit that I was partly looking forward to Darjeeling because the town is high in the mountains, and it was hellishly hot in Siliguri in the lowlands that day. The heat had us both dripping and short-tempered by breakfast. Sheryl nearly lost her temper with the creepy hotel guy when he demanded extra money for “service charges”. Neither he nor anyone else at the hotel had accomplished any action that could even remotely be defined as service and so she asked “For what?” Confronted, he changed his tune and said “Gift!”. She just walked out in disgust. He followed her out just in time to hear my jaded laugh as she told me about it. I’ve gotten to the point where I really can’t stand the sneaky, greedy side of India.

It was a hot walk to the bus stand past rank after rank of jeeps all shouting the names of destinations at us. It was intensely annoying, but not as obnoxious as I would have expected. Half the jeeps were covered with big Canadian flag stickers, I’m not sure why. At least, I’m fairly certain that they were Canadian flags - the maple leaf is hard to draw and these flags looked like the ones that kids draw at home - two red bars on either side of a white square, with a jagged, spiky hairball-looking splotch in the middle that’s meant to be a maple leaf. We heaved our heavy packs past them all, sweat dripping into our eyes, heading for the bus stand. We were determined to take the bus rather than a jeep, because it was half the price.

Once we got to the bus stand, though, we couldn’t find the bus. There were no English signs. The bus stand was choked with jeep touts all swearing blind that there’s no bus to Darjeeling and that jeeps were the only way to get there. We knew there had to be a bus, but even the ticket agents were part of the conspiracy and just grunted and shook their heads when we asked. We finally conceded the battle and trudged defeated back to the jeep scrum. I was prepared for a shakedown but the very first jeep asked for Rs80 and we’d been told by a few disinterested parties that that was the local price so we didn’t look any farther.

We knew the jeep wouldn’t be too pleasant. Tell someone back home that you booked a place in a jeep and they’ll think one driver, three passengers. Not in India. One driver, eleven passengers. This is normal here and it’s not our first jeep by a long shot, so it wasn’t a surprise. Sheryl got the best of it - all the men in my row were big.

The road was crazily steep, narrow and bumpy and the surface was badly potholed. It felt like we were back in Nepal. The heat of the plains quickly eased as we drove up into the hills, and soon it turned downright chilly. We began to drive through clouds and mist, thick, white and billowing. The cool was almost a religious experience. I can see why this is such a big vacation spot for Indians despite its inaccessibility and distasteful Raj-era history. I passed the time chatting with the young guy in the seat beside me. He gave us something he called hard cheese and it was exactly that. If it hadn’t tasted like cheese I’d have assumed it was a cube of wood. I stubbornly chewed fragments and shards off mine until it was gone and my jaw was aching. Sheryl was smarter and palmed hers in the beginning.

Darjeeling came up out of the fog, its shacks and grand hotels spilled down the mountain as if there had been a huge landslide. It’s an incredibly relaxed place for India. I’d assumed from long experience that we’d be swarmed by hotel touts the instant we got off the jeep, and I was slightly disconcerted when no one approached us. The town has a frontier feel and everything is incredibly lush and green, and covered in mosses and lichens. We hauled the packs up the steep and narrow winding roads and alleys to find ourselves a hotel, noticing that there would be an incredible view out over the valley, if we hadn’t been in the middle of a cloud.

Darjeeling is tiny for an Indian town. We had a look around the “Mall” - the tourist area of town, lined with stalls and shops. True to expectation there were lots of tea houses and tea shops. Chowrasta, the main central square and promenade, was full of Indian families on holiday and surrounded by old colonial hotels in genteel decay. It was twee but charming. I could see spending a couple of weeks here catching up on writing, but it really is time to leave India.

We did spend a couple of days in Darjeeling first, however. The weather was terrible the whole time, unfortunately. This is clearly not the right time of year to be visiting. We never had a break in the clouds, and when it’s cloudy in Darjeeling you know it - the clouds start somewhere far down the mountain and the town is stuck in the middle of them. It’s damp and chilly and a lot of the time you can’t see your hand in front of your face for the fog. But still, we stayed a little while. Not least of our considerations was that Sheryl had had her birthday four days before, on the 15th, and she’d been feeling so poorly that we’d decided to postpone it for a better time. We observed the occasion the day after we arrived in town. Sheryl decided that she wanted to go to the zoo (properly the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park) first, so we took the pleasant, misty 20-minute walk along twisting moss-choked roads to reach it. The zoo was excellent. It was very clean and well-kept, and the animals were healthy and housed in good, big, natural enclosures, and there were lots of guards around to make sure the Indian people don’t throw rocks at them. It was a hundred times better than the zoo in Trivandrum in Kerala, our only other experience of an Indian zoo. The zoo’s main attractions are the red pandas. I’d never seen one before, and they’re darn cute. The look like fuzzy red raccoon-dogs with black masks, white ears and long striped tails. In fact they reminded me of nothing so much as the half-mythical Japanese tanuki. Besides the red pandas there were slow and patient Himalayan black bears, wolves, jackals, tortoises and lots of birds and deer.

For me, though, the stars of the zoo are always the big cats. There were tigers rescued from the circus, pacing their enclosure impatiently, and calm and lazy leopards of the normal sort, plus clouded leopards, only the size of big dogs, with stunning tortoiseshell markings - fast asleep. The best by far were the snow leopards. There were two in separate pens, and they were so active and playful, running back and forth chasing each other through the fence, rolling around and jumping, and very curious about everyone passing. They wanted to eat one Sherpa carrying a basket and crouched with tails lashing and eyes fixed on him until he was out of sight. Maybe he was carrying food? They were beautiful cats. Their fur was thick and white and their grey-black spots merged into a line along their spines. Their tails were thick and fluffy and as long as their bodies. They were much smaller and slimmer than normal leopards, but their paws were gigantic - bigger than a tiger’s, with tufts of fur between each toe like natural snowshoes. At one point while I was watching them, one of them looked up and around and then froze, crouched and staring with wide eyes. I followed his gaze and saw a big round, orange tiger face poking out of the very corner of the tiger pen. I’d probably react exactly the same way as the leopard if I caught a tiger watching me. It’s especially interesting because tigers and snow leopards could never meet in the wild. It’s probably bad zoo practice to let such different animals see each other, but they didn’t seem too bothered. The tiger was just curious, and the leopard was perky before and after the encounter.

After the zoo we walked back to town for Sheryl’s real birthday celebration - High Tea at the Windermere Hotel. The Windermere is the grand old Raj-era hotel where all the nobility and dignitaries stayed during Darjeeling’s glory days. It’s come down in the world, as might be assumed by the fact that they let riff-raff like us in the door, but it’s still the most expensive and upscale hotel in town. Neither of us have ever been to a high tea and we didn’t really know what to expect. My wardrobe, especially, is suffering the effects of long travel and I felt very shabby and underdressed. The liveried servants conducted us to a high-ceilinged parlour with rippled dark wood floors and sagging window glass, a coal fire in the hearth and lilies on the mantel. The settees and side tables were all in dark wood with red velvet upholstery - relics of the Japonsime style of the late Victorian period. The walls were covered with old framed photographs and documents and the parlour’s pianos were shrouded in red velvet curtains. The battered brass coal-bucket and the fire-irons might have been the originals.

We were both a bit overawed by the surroundings at first, but we were the only ones to tea that day and our natural irreverence soon reasserted itself. We did, however, make very sure to point our little fingers properly when lifting the teacups. The service itself was not quite as classy as I would have expected. Melamine, stainless steel and glass instead of china and silver, paper napkins rather than linen, tinned shortbread and the tea rather over-steeped. But the cake, cucumber sandwiches and scones with cream were all present and accounted for. Sheryl was very happy with it, and that’s all that matters.

The next day was supposed to be a relaxing and tea-drinking day, but we had to run a bunch of errands. First among them was to go don to the post office to mail home the fossils that we’d collected and I’d carried on my back all the way from Nepal (there can’t be many people in the world who would carry a couple of kilograms of rock in their backpacks on a world tour). This took a lot longer than we expected, because parcel post in India is a strange thing. Packages have to be boxed, wrapped in linen, and the seams sewn up and sealed with wax. It’s a fascinatingly time-consuming process and it’s a mystery to me why it’s necessary, but necessary it is. There’s a parcel-wallah outside every post office who takes care of this for a small charge.

Our other big errand of the day was to arrange a plane ticket to Japan. This wasn’t a trivial matter - I’d been fighting with the Air India website for days, and I finally managed to get it to accept my foreign credit card. This might not have been wise - Air India is in dire financial trouble at the moment. It has delayed paying its junior employees’ June salaries by two weeks, is facing bankruptcy and is demanding a financial bailout package from the Indian government. Still, it’s the cheapest flight to Japan we could find. Strangely, it’s cheaper to fly from Kolkota to Delhi and Delhi to Osaka than it is to simply fly from Delhi to Osaka. With business practices like these it’s no wonder the airline is in trouble. I admit I could care less about their long-term fate - I just need them to keep flying for one more week.

Our last morning in Darjeeling was an exercise in frustration. The weather hadn’t improved in the slightest. The fog is very atmospheric but the chill and the lack of visibility gets gloomy after a while. We had a ticket booked on the so-called “toy train” - properly the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway - to Kurseong that morning. We hustled down to the station only to find that the train was cancelled. We could take a return trip to Ghoom, 8km away, except that that trip was sold out. I’d been looking forward to riding the train and was pretty disappointed. We decided that, since the train would have taken us only to Kurseong, that we’d jeep there, spend some time visiting the tea plantations there. My whole purpose in visiting Darjeeling, after all, was to tour some of the famous tea estates, and we hadn’t done that yet. It wasn’t the right season for the tea harvest so there wouldn’t be much to see, unfortunately, so it would be an anemic pilgrimage - but a pilgrimage nonetheless.

It had been very difficult to get directions to any of the estates, but we’d managed to track down a sketchy map that purported to show the locations. The plantation I wanted to visit most was Margaret’s Hope. Tea from that garden is one of my very favourites and I’ve been drinking it for years. It seemed from the map that it was too far away from Kurseong and too far from the road to visit while carrying the packs, though. Imagine my disappointed surprise when the jeep drove right past the sign for the estate, a few kilometres north of the village. I barely noticed it through a haze of motion sickness from the jolting, the bad road and the diesel fumes. I’m not normally bothered by motion sickness and I should have seen it for a warning sign that my Perpetual Food Poisoning was returning for a rematch.

Kurseong is a grotty, noisy little place with a cute little station for the toy train. A sign billed the station as India’s most tourist-friendly railway station, but I admit I didn’t find it so - everything from the ticket office to the toilet was locked up tightly. And there was no cloakroom, either. We narrowly avoided having to haul the heavy packs around with us through the kindness of a small restaurant owner who let us leave them with him.

With Margaret’s Hope a bust we decided to visit Castleton instead - another very famous tea garden. We got mangled directions to what I thought was the right place from the restaurant owner, and went down and through the village past a bunch of buildings and a lot of tea bushes. I was very happy to see the bushes at least. They’re a lot less manicured up close than they seem from a jeep, I noticed. There were a few pickers out with big bags slung around their forehead. They waved cheerfully to us as we passed.

After twenty minutes’ walk we found a gate and driveway marked Castleton House. When we tried to go in a guard stopped us and pointed down the road, farther on the way we’d been going. We kept walking for ages past a colonial-era cemetery and an old overgrown church with a tree nestled in the chimney, tea fields on either side of the road. It seemed like we’d come way too far and we finally gave up and turned back to catch another jeep back to Siliguri at the bottom of the mountains. The jeep took the same road we’d been walking on, and with no exaggeration, the Castleton estate was a couple of hundred meters after the point where we’d turned back. I was crushed. It had certainly been a day for disappointments. I was saddened by the whole Darjeeling experience, to be honest. It had been such a long way to come for so little, and at very much the wrong time of year. At that point I decided I’d be happy if we could just manage to get to Kolkata without further mishap.

Flourish

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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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