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.
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….!
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…).