Rachael and I keep talking, often joking, about “the real India”.  The one that isn’t on the tourism advertisements, all brilliant colours, clean air and precocious healthy children.  Apart from the mundane, grimy reality, the main gap between imaginary India and real India is cultural.  We are outsiders.  So, quickly enough, you learn that entering the core of India is pretty much impossible.  It’s more a question of getting closer, approaching through suspicions, feelings, assumptions.  And you learn the most, I think, from chatting with other people.

We met a fascinating travel agent on our train trip from Kolkata to Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri to be precise).  While keeping up a steady stream of salesman-speak, telling us how Australians were his favourite people (hmm…), he seemed to be genuinely taking us under his well-fed, middle-class wing.  He reminded us that India’s population is growing at the size of Australia every year!  At that rate, and with the extent of corruption and already existing poverty, it’s hard to imagine what this country will look like in the future.  The government and the people have a herculean task ahead of them.  Anyway, as it turns out, our train companion, as friendly as he seemed, disappeared soon after suggesting we get a taxi together.  Oh well.  Unpredictability is part of the fabric here.  So, Rachael and I wound our way through mercenary taxi touts and train-station homeless children tapping us on the arm, to find our way to the share taxi stop at Siliguri, where we finally start to leave the energy of Kolkata behind.

Ill health has reared its ugly mucus-smeared head.  Nothing serious, luckily.  I thought it was the leftovers of Kolkata pollution throat, but it was a potent little head cold.  I hit the worst of it – my nose becoming a river – in Darjeeling, which took the sheen off the place – and now (here in Sikkim) Rachael’s enduring it.  Still, the immense beauty of the hills penetrates pretty much anything.

We stayed at Andy’s Guest House again.  A simple place, Andy’s has a library stocked by fellow travellers, a fantastically friendly couple running the place (thanks Genesis for your shawl that morning I got up early to watch Khangchendzonga light up), and one of the best views in town from its rooftop viewing platform.  Cold, but worth it.

view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling
view from Andy's Guest House, Darjeeling

On our second day, the strikes began again.  As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the West Bengal Hills is still in the throes of the Gorkhaland movement, demands for more autonomy (or independance).  There had been violence surrounding two opposing marches in a town on the plains, so there was a sudden decision to shut Darjeeling down in solidarity.  Feeling sick and vulnerable, I just wanted somewhere to eat.  You realise, of course, that this is not your place.  Tourism is huge in this area, but really, it is someone else’s home, with all the cultural, political, economic, social complexities and complications.  So, we spend the next two days living off oranges and biscuits, but also managed to find two intriguing places to eat and socialise.

We found a hotel near ours that looked like it would have meals.  They didn’t but, almost whispering, they said they would ring their caterer and he might make us a meal.  While we waited for our order, the young assistant manager of the hotel, who looked late teens or early twenties, told us how he’d been studying marketing, is keen to try to save money so he can go overseas eventually (knowing it may take a decade or so), believes the gods will give you what you dream of if you keep asking.

The night after, we decided to approach the imposing black gates of the Elgin Hotel.  A sober, colonial institution, they do “high tea”.  Of course, the cakes were a little stale, the sandwiches bland, and it cost a thousand rupees, but the tea was great, and we met the owners of three other Elgin Hotels in India.  A wonderfully down-to-earth yet also managerial, somewhat elevated couple, they regaled us with eye-opening tales of the underbelly of the Hills.  Violence from police and Gorkhaland supporters was endemic in the 1980s; lax or non-existent building regulations leading to houses sliding down hillsides; corrupt government officials; monks acting in defiantly unenlightened ways…  Fascinating to get a glimpse into India we only suspected before.  Not being Bengali in background, they both had the insight of outsiders.  The impacts of colonialism, the caste system, government ineffectiveness, patriarchy, all seem to converge in India in depressingly potent effect.

While in Darjeeling, we didn’t just wander aimlessly hoping for the strikes (and my running nose) to end.  As it was for me when I was here a few weeks ago, one highlight was the breathtaking, expansive walk to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre on the outskirts of town.  This time, apart from browsing their store, we saw inside the carpet weaving workshop.  They were on a break, so we strolled around brilliant carpets and the resting tools with the patina of work and attention.  Something about it made me want to weep.  Beautiful and honest and rich and simple.

I also wanted to visit Observatory Hill again.  Strangely, it was pretty much empty – no tour guides, hardly any priests or monks, no beggars on the walk up the hill, not even a single monkey!  I’d built it up as being  pretty intense (see my earlier blog entry), but as usual, India does what you least expect.  A really palpable sense of the passionate devotion of people is here – webs of prayer flags, cave shrines, so much colour and sincerity embedded in the built environment.  And, in what’s becoming strangely, almost humourously common, we get asked where we’re from, then immediately offered grass!

The strike broke for a few hours, so we took the opportunity to head to Gangtok, Sikkim.  More about that next time – the majestic Teesta River, our smooth driver, the surprises of Gangtok…


Why proximity? Well, apart from the mellifluous sound of the word, it rather understatedly describes the toy train from Darjeeling to Kurseong and it’s scenery.

Last time I talked about Darjeeling and it’s undeniable cliche-factor.  Well, I went one up – the toy train.  I booked a 1st class seat because I wanted to make sure I got not just a seat but a window.  I am so glad I did.  144 rupees is a bargain in my book.  It’s a three hour trip, slow and meandering down the mountainside, past sublimely breathtaking scenery.  Dramatic plunges of hills, snow-draped Himalayas, lush fernery, roadside temples and prayer flags, shops and houses literally inches away – yes, inches – there were tree branches being snapped off and falling into my lap.  I have footage (thankyou Norman, the camera is superb!).  It made me giddy like a schoolboy, I am not ashamed to admit.  The carriage itself is just three seats and an aisle wide, with detailed pressed-tin inlay ceilings and rickety fixtures.  We all have our windows open and our beanies and scarves on tight.

yes, this is how close the toy train comes
yes, this is how close the toy train comes

That’s it for this post.  I’m in a beautiful small town called Mirik, but it has dreadfully unreliable internet access.  Next time, the run-down on my time in Kurseong – the prison-cell-like hotel room, the aggressively friendly local improv tour-guide, monkeys, and more (really?!) mountain views!

The one other thing I’ll just slip in is that I’ve really felt poetry starting to come out so cleanly and freely recently.  At first, the words were frozen in a kind of shock, I guess.  India is, in a way, indescribable.  Not in an “Incredible India” tourism campaign type way, but just monumentally complex and confounding, full of facets that you just don’t expect to harmonise, but of course they do.  Anyway, I’m beginning to write more, make attempts to approach the indescribable….  a bit like this, but with line breaks, and able to be shaped into ghazals!

Oh, yeah, and Merry Xmas, internet people!  Today, I strolled around two Hindu temples, one on a tiny island in the middle of a lake, and felt a tear of uncanny sublime resonance lodge in my chest….  and later, gorged myself on mushroom butter masala, an 8% Sikkimese beer called “He-Man”, and assorted mithai!

undeniable cliches

First, sorry for those pedants out there (myself included) – I couldn’t work out how to insert an accent over the “e” in cliche.

Now, for Darjeeling.  I have probably seen more non-Indians here than everywhere else I’ve been combined.  It’s tourist central – and not just people from overseas, but many Indian middle-class people make the trek up here.  And who could blame them?  A cliche is a cliche because it’s so compelling.  The town is a cluster of homes, shacks, shops and hotels around a steep ridge, around 2000 metres above sea level.  Many centuries ago, it was home to the Buddhist kings, then to the Gurkhas, and in the 19th century a few pasty white people decided they really liked tea (and the strategic and scenic location), so Darjeeling became firmly entrenched as the archetypal hill station of the British Raj.

I stayed at Andy’s.  Of course I did.  It’s actually run by Andy’s very fatherly dad Genesis.  Andy moved from India to marry an Australian woman, in Melbourne, would you believe!  So, I was meant to stay here (who knows, maybe I’ll move to India with Rachael ;)….)!  From the rooftop viewing platform at Andy’s, on a clear day (and they all were, while I was there), you can see the Himalayas, including the breathtaking sight of Khangchendonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world.  I got up at 5.30am to watch the sun slowly illuminate the peaks, pink-orange sunrise wash to the right, soft wisps of mist rolling across the foothills.  Cameras can’t capture it, but of course we all try.

Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre

I met some interesting people here, too, the happy compensation for Darjeeling being such a tourist mecca.  I could feel the bunched up words itching to get out of me – finally some conversation!  So, just in case you’re reading this, “Hi!” to Phil the Brit who drinks the local water, Andres (best of luck extending your stay here – your thesis will be much richer and so will you!!), and Kasja!

One of my highlights of Darjeeling was definitely the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a few k’s from the centre of town.  It was founded in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, by a handful of refugees.  It’s expanded hugely now, and includes a school, medical clinic, and a variety of workshops, which feed the shop, selling carpets, shawls, jewellery, etc.  A beautiful place.  For the first time since I’ve been here, I decided to turn the line of prayer wheels, walk around them…  I can’t describe it really (yes, I’m a writer, I should be able to, but…).  While I’m still an outsider to so much of the acrued traditions and rites of Buddhism, there’s a kind of resonance in this place – deeply human and open.  And politically aware (unavoidable really)  – the centre includes a moving photographic exhibition and a printing press which was used in the early days for a Tibetan newspaper.

The other highlight was Observatory Hill.  Another well-trodden path, but for a reason.  A monk named Dorje originally lived here (hence, Darjeeling…), and the site is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.  I’m not sure of the whole story (it’s a blog, dammit, I can be slack with my research, I’ll read up later…), but somehow they’ve managed to have a joint temple – you enter the front gate and to your left is a monk, to your right a Hindu priest, sitting side by side.  The hill is covered in prayer flags, swimming in incense, and has many small shrines, including one inside a cave which is both a little eerie and deeply moving.  Since one of the Hindu gods worshipped here is Hanuman, the monkey god (to grosslyl simplify…), the hill is also home to a large number of marauding monkeys (who are very happy to eat offerings presented at shrines!).  I was a little nervous, but they’re more focussed on fighting each other than hassling humans, though I’m told they’re keen on stealing….!

Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags
Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags

I’ll leave it at that for now.  Darjeeling’s pretty amazing, and I’m wondering why I left after only four days.  I guess I just have perennially itchy feet at the moment.  My current challenge is to try to direct my meagre rupees to businesses other than those listed in the Lonely Planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fantastic meals in restaurants that the guidebook-bible lists, it’s just that I know that such listings almost guarantees success – there are other amazing places, and to try to find them is part of the adventure.  Oh, but now I’m starting to talk about Kurseong….  which is my next post (plus a rave about the Toy Train!).

Miss you all (apart from those reading this who I don’t know, but maybe I’d miss you too if I knew you…).