Sunday, 2 December 2012

Dorje Ling - The place of the Thunderbolt

     Originally the site of a monastery Dorje Ling or Darjeeling was claimed by the British from Sikkim in 1817 and used as a site for a sanatorium and soon became the most popular of all the hill stations. The hill stations were retreats that the British Raj used to escape from the stifling heat and dust of the Indian summer on the plains, a sort of summer retreat and with the arrival of the British the town rapidly expanded in size. Darjeeling is approximately 400 miles north of Kolkata in the state of West Bengal and is located in the foothills of the Himalaya at an altitude of approx. 2200m (7000ft). The town clings precariously to its hillside location with the views dominated by the incredible mountain landscape of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. Put aside the usual perceptions of India, this is the India of dense forests, of cool mountains and lush green trees, and of tea plantations as far as the eye can see.

     Described as being of “faded grandeur” many of the buildings hinted at their grand colonial past but faded may be putting it kindly, many buildings appeared to be in a dangerous state of disrepair and near collapse including magnificent stone buildings which were clearly left over from the times of the British Raj now forlornly sitting with weeds growing out of gutters, washing strung out of broken windows, facades turned black with soot from pollution and large portions of what was elaborate brickwork and ornate stone masonry now crumbling or gone, probably for good
My first impression was of a town with its infrastructure in a state of near collapse, unable to support the demands put upon on it.  Roads were gridlocked with traffic with an endless line of jeeps and taxis picking people up, dropping them off and touting for business, indeed the appearance of fruit and vegetables on road side stalls seemed to differ depending on how close to the main thoroughfare the stall was located with the degree of difference measurable in level of appetising appearance. There are frequent power and water shortages, often during the night the power would go off in the hotel and once in a restaurant while whilst we were eating. As for the sewerage and rubbish disposal system….suffice to say I was thankful that we were staying at the top of the hill and not the bottom of it!
Jeep is the main form of transport to and from Darjeeling

Kwik Fit?
Hoping not to develop toothache while we were there...

The good ol' post office

      Darjeeling is famous for its narrow gauge railway the “toy train”, now a UNESCO world heritage site, which chugs, not without effort, up and down the hills and for the rail enthusiasts it is possible to take a two hour “joy ride” on this train between Darjeeling and the town of Ghoom. It is possible to take a diesel locomotive from Siliguri, the main transport exchange half an hour from Bagdogra airport, to Darjeeling which takes a painful 8 hours and is frequently held up due to land slippages and derailments. Instead of the train we opted to take the only other form of public transport to Darjeeling, that of the less than comfortable option of a “shared jeep”. To arrange this you turn up at the shared jeep stand in Siliguri and your luggage is thrown on the roof whilst the driver, assisted by the obligatory urchin who collects the fare and climbs on the roof and runs various errands, tries to cram as many individuals as is possible into the said vehicle. In this case there were 4 in the back, 4 in the middle and 3 up front including the driver and urchin. And then we were off for a very bumpy ride over the rough tracks and roads into the mountains.
The traffic jams could put the Haudagain roundabout to shame
It pays not to be in a hurry though as the jeep stops often to let people off in various places and sometimes won’t move again until new passengers have been found and the jeep is full. And then there was the obligatory chai stop…. As I was rapidly finding out patience is not a virtue in India, it’s a necessity. Anyway 3 hours and 350 rupees (£3.94) later we arrived, hot, dusty and weary in Darjeeling.
Chai Stop
      A minor difficulty was that we had no directions for the hotel and only the vaguest idea that it was at the top of the hill and we were given directions by locals…unfortunately they appeared to be total rubbish...until some other Brits saw us and took pity on us and pointed us in the right direction. It later became apparent that Simon was holding the map upside down which I suspect may have been the main problem. Another discovery I made about the Indians is that they like to be helpful and don’t like to admit they don’t know something so rather than admit they don’t know then they will tell you any old rubbish so it pays to be be a bit wary when asking directions.
The Viceroy Hotel
      The room in the colonially named Viceroy Hotel had the most amazing panoramic view over the mountain landscape of Kanchenjunga and so the first thing I did on arrival was order a pot of Darjeeling tea to drink whilst admiring the view. In the early 1800s the Governor General, Lord Auckland had his villa on the spot where the Viceroy hotel now stands and this was a centre of the Darjeeling social circle but after the old wooden structure of the villa fell into disrepair and was demolished in 2001 the 5 story Viceroy hotel was built on its location. It was a nice clean hotel and unlike many had a sporadic supply of hot water but it had absolutely no heating and the room was supplied with candles for the electricity black outs. however it had a great location and its hilltop location gave us a birds eye view of the comings and goings of the town below.
Drinking Darjeeling tea and admiring the view
The hotel didn't really have any heating...
      Darjeeling has quite a few very good restaurants but we rapidly worked out that our favourite was Glenarys, again a throwback to the colonial times with its ornate dining room, spectacular views and amazing array of cakes not to mention bright red telephone box parked right in the middle of the shop floor.
     Another great place was the lovely Windermere hotel where it was possible to order a very luxurious afternoon tea, to be had sitting in a quiet lounge complete with open fire, on ancient comfy sofas with the walls adorned with framed pictures and letters, all snapshots of Darjeelings history. There was some very interesting letters on display, correspondence between various generals, viceroys and minor royalty, such as invites to social events and events happening in Darjeeling at the time. If there is one place in Darjeeling to visit which evokes memories of colonial times this was it. Again the fixation with British street furniture was apparent, this time with a bright red post box sat on the terrace of the hotel, the post office being a British institution retained by India.

     The central post office itself was opened in 1921 according to the inscription on the marble plaque inside the building which also lists the colonial dignitaries involved in its construction and its opening for example H.A.Crouch Esq. F.R.I.B.A – the Government architect. The interior of the post office looks as I imagine it would have on first opening although perhaps back then it was a little less tatty round the edges. I had another two weeks in India after the race and so I decided that I would try to post my running kit, race trophy, sleeping bag and bits and pieces of running related stuff home rather than lug it around with me so off I went to the post office. The parcel man starts work at 10am so I had a 5 minute wait until I was told to take my bag containing the possessions that I wanted shipped home to a table in the corner of the post office. The parcel man then proceeded to squash the bag and its contents down to a small cube shape that didn’t seem feasible (shipping cost depends on volume as well as weight, however, if sending valuables try DHL instead!) and wrapped  it tightly with string. Next the parcel is wrapped in newspaper and then finally white linen which is stitched up by hand and I was amazed to see such neat stitching carried out by this large man. Smaller post offices ask you to take the parcel to a tailor to get this wrapping and stitching in white linen carried out prior to posting. Finally the seams are sealed with dods of red candle wax dripped on to the seal from a lighted candle and the address label was also secured in the same manner and then you take your parcel back to the post office desk to pay. It was interesting to note that from start to finish the whole procedure took 40 minutes – so much for nipping to the post office in your lunch hour to post a parcel!  The parcel itself took less than 3 weeks to arrive in Aberdeen but by then my unwashed running gear was rather ripe…
The parcel man - with my running gear reading to be sent to Aberdeen
      Darjeeling is also home to the Himalayan Mountain Institute and Darjeeling’s most famous former resident probably Tenzing Norgay who summited Everest along with Hillary in 1953. The exhibition itself is primarily about Indian achievements in the high Himalaya and houses many interesting and historical artifacts such as Norgay’s  climbing gear. Norgay himself was director of the Himalayan mountaineering institute up until his death in 1986 and the forecourt of the museum houses his grave and a large memorial statue. Reading about the achievements of this modest man, who could neither read nor write, had no idea of his own date of birth, yet had the immense drive and strength to follow his ambitions in the mountains  was far more inspiring than anything the director of the 100 mile race had to say. One of the highlights of the little museum was a huge scale model  of the full Himalayan mountain range housed in a glass case with many red buttons on the outside of the case, each button labelled to correspond with the name of a Himalayan peak. When you pushed the red button a little red light would flash on the top of one of the mountains in the scale model indicating the exact location of that mountain relative to the others and to rivers and towns (not that there are too many of those in the Himalaya.) The Himalayan Mountaineering institute runs courses for wannabe mountaineers and is considered to be the home of Indian Mountaineering.

Memorial to Tenzing Norgay

     The Himalayan Mountaineering institute is located next to the zoo so we had a quick look round and although it had a fantastic array of Himalayan wildlife I found it to be as depressing as many other zoos that I have seen. I know they do fantastic work in educating the public and in preserving wildlife with breeding programmes but to see such beautiful creatures caged in very small enclosures and pacing up and down feels so wrong. Now i'm no animal expert but the rhythmic pattern of pacing and head swaying that the bear was demonstrating looked to me as though he was showing clear signs of stress and his mental health must be under question. All of the animals however looked well cared for and their cages were clean but sadly for so many magnificent species such as the snow leopard, Bengal tiger and Himalayan bear their habitats are under such threat and their fur is so valuable that maybe the zoo is their key to survival.

Red Panda
Himalayan Bear
     Watching the sun rise over the highest mountains of the world from the view point of Tiger Hill is advertised as one of the key attractions of Darjeeling. Tiger Hill is approximately half an hour away from Darjeeling by jeep and having witnessed the sun rise over the great mountains of the Himalaya when I was  at Sandakphu during the race I was keen that Simon should witness it. However this time I was in for a very big surprise. Watching the sunrise from this viewpoint has become not just an attraction but a major attraction attracting some 1500 – 2000 people each morning in the tourist season, the huge queue of jeeps setting off in convoy from Darjeeling in the early hours of the morning and returning after daybreak in time for breakfast. I let Simon fight his way to the front of the ticket queue while I took in the spectacle of the crowds before joining the throng of warmly dressed people walking up the hill in the dark to find the best viewpoint. Peaceful it wasn’t…. especially when the sun rose and the crowd let out a cheer. Although this had an almost carnival atmosphere at times I suspect my experience of watching the sunrise in the stillness of Sandakphu may have been altogether more inspiring.

     Up on the hill above the town where the main square is located along with the larger hotels there were more shops aimed at tourists especially those selling Pashmina shawls and Tibetan clothing and artifacts. The owner of one shop was happy to tell us about the different types of Pashmina and the various quality of the shawls for sale. Pashmina wool comes from the first “crop” of wool to be shaved from a goat and is often blended with silk as pure pashmina has more of an open weave but the shop owner had pictures of hand embroidered pashmina shawls that have been known to sell for 3 Lak, 1 Lak being 100,000 rupees (£1,300.00 approx). I settled for a 50/50 Pashmina silk mix shawl. Pure pashmina is also an off white colour so any white pashmina shawls for sale have been bleached white. Many shops sold colourful saris and skirts, woven Tibetan clothes made of wool and hats and scarfs. This might be India but this is at 7000ft and it was cold at night.

Pashmina shawls
Shopping for Pashmina shawls
      It doesn’t take a genius to work out the main industry in Darjeeling and what Darjeeling is most famous for – Tea. Although indigenous to India the story of tea in Darjeeling only goes back to the mid 1800s when a Dr Campbell planted some tea plants in his garden in Darjeeling. These thrived and so the next step was to expand to tea nurseries in the area. At this time Darjeeling was simply a hill station but tea growing is very labour intensive so as the industry grew so did the population of the town. In 1866 Darjeeling had 39 tea gardens producing 21000kg of tea per year. Now Darjeeling has over 80 plantations producing 10,000,000kg of tea per year. We spoke to the owner of a tea shop where not only it was possible to buy a huge range of teas, it was also possible to try them first and he explained that 3 tea crops are harvested in a year. The first crop is called the “1st Flush” and this is harvested in the spring, the second crop is the “2nd flush” harvested in the summer and then finally the “3rd flush which is harvested in the autumn and of these the 2nd flush tea is the superior. I bought some white tea which apparently has a huge amount of antioxidents in it and also some flowering white tea where the idea is that you put a bulb in the tea pot, pour boiling water over it and some 8 minutes later the bulb flowers and you then drink the tea. On being let loose in the shop I seemed to manage to buy a ridiculous amount of tea – good thing that I drink a ridiculous amount of tea.

Tea shop
Try before you buy
Put this little bulb into a tea pot, ad boiling water and watch.....
......and after 7 or 8 minutes it flowers!
     Simon braved going for haircut and shave at one of the little barbers stalls and all the while this was happening there was a constant trail of local youngsters popping in and out of the little timber and steel barbers shack to take a look at themselves in the barbers mirror and squirt water on their hair and comb it back into place. Many of the lads seemed to have moved away from the traditional flat hair with the side parting and had gone for something “bigger”, sort of George Michael circa Careless whisper. The visit to the cinema was another interesting experience. The cinema itself was in a new shopping centre like building and so felt similar to any multiplex cinema here…apart from the metal detector and security screening that you have to undergo to get in. After the events in Mumbai a few years back security in places such as this does seem to be a concern as does the agitation of the GJM (Gorkha Janmukti Morcha) and their continued demands for an independent state of Gorkhaland leading the asassination of an opposition member in 2010. The large new building on the skyline of the town was apparently a new administrative building for Ghorkaland. The majority of people in the Darjeeling hills are of Gorkha ethnic origin.

The barber shop
Cut throat razor!
     We managed to see the new Bond film “Skyfall” and it has to be said that the screen was slightly fuzzy and we couldn't really use the term HD to describe it... The film also stopped for an interval at an exciting point so everyone could get their ice creams or snacks. During the scene in the casino when the girl lit a cigarette a little message flashed across the screen – “warning: smoking damages your health”. I wasn’t expecting that!


     A wander round the botanic gardens was a good way to escape the busy town and the gardens proved to be a little oasis away from the noise and general mass of people. The same could be said for the little Monastery on the outskirts of the town and the temple located on the observatory hill where the prayer flags strung between the trees fluttered in the breeze and the sounds of the chimes and chanting drifted through them along with the scent of burning incense. In amongst the temple monkeys sat around and browsed for food while their baby monkeys played and amused themselves by swinging from the prayer flags.  Monkeys are supposed to be a manifestation of the monkey god Hanuman and the Hindu religion forbids harm to them and so people have always fed them however their semi tame or feral nature, the destruction of their natural habitat and competition for space amongst an ever increasing population and explosion in the monkey population have lead in many cities area to these primates becoming a menace. The Hindu tradition has been to feed these animals and it continues consequently like all feral animals they are not afraid of humans and they have become aggressive and destructive, attacking people for food and getting into homes and public buildings. Signs around the temple warn visitors to beware of the biting monkeys. I later found out that the death of the vice mayor of Delhi in 2007 was attributed to a monkey attack so I maybe should have paid more attention to the signs posts. He fell from a balcony whilst fighting off an attack by monkeys.
Prayer flags
Perfect for baby monkeys to swing on!

He looks as if butter wouldn't melt in his mouth...
     On reflection Darjeeling is a pretty good introduction to India and I really grew to like the place. It’s a lively friendly colourful town and it’s just like the larger Indian cities in miniature in terms of levels of general filth and chaos, noise and colour with all of the senses under assault but without the terrifying scale. It is an introduction to how life in India is lived very much on the street and out in public in a way we in Britain with our reserve, need for privacy and personal space struggle to adapt to. Cooking, eating, washing, socialising and business are carried out on the street and at one point we even saw a corpse carried on a stretcher along the high street in full view whereas in the UK the ambulance or hearse would be parked up against the back door of the house and the body whisked away safe from prying eyes, that same level of squeamishness doesn’t exist in Indian culture where cremations on the ghats of holy rivers still take place in public.
Darjeeling at night was a lively place with a holiday atmosphere with shops and eateries open and street vendors operating by candlelight, with amazing rich aromas of spices and curries coming from them, it was even possible to go for a pony ride through the town if you felt so inclined. All the action seemed to go on in the main square where there was a stage set up and performances with singers and dancers seemed to take place every night. The main square housed what appeared to be an off licence where I spotted monks appearing from the shop doorway clutching brown paper bags. There was also a bookshop stacked to the brim with books selling new and second hand books with the books on display in a sort of semi organised semi chaotic manner, with wonky shelves looking like they would fall off the wall if another book was added to them. I think it is one of the best book shops that i have ever been into in terms of a random eclectic mix. The job advert on the wall also made me smile “Wanted: Browsers – no experience necessary”
Street Market at night

The centre of Darjeeling housed the Bazaar, a chaotic ramshackle mixture of shops. In India the term bazaar means something quite different to our gentile Christmas bazaars in church halls up and down the country. In Indian bazaars the shops and stalls are cheek by jowl to each other, spilling out on to the narrow winding streets in all their noise and colourful displays with vendors doing their noisy best to entice prospective purchasers in. India is all about noise and chaos whether it’s the seemingly endless mass of people moving through the streets, the dogs barking, the hooting of vehicle horns and Darjeeling baazar was no different. This area of Darjeeling was damaged in a fire earlier this year but other than looking a little charred it did not seem to have stopped the thriving shops and stalls. Many stalls sell food cooked on the stall and the small of this adds to the general bombardment of the senses when you are walking around but many also seemed to sell sweets and fizzy drinks such as cola. As far as I could see the obesity problem affecting the UK was not apparent in Darjeeling but the sweet stalls appeared to be populated by the children out on their lunch break so maybe its just a matter of time. I was gratified to see that there was no McDonalds, Subway or Starbucks in Darjeeling though. Further down the hill still was as area of houses and dwellings, mostly in a chronic state of disrepair with chickens running around outside and yet in amongst the filth of the surroundings women were outside washing clothes and cooking pots, sweeping out houses and turning out their school children immaculately dressed and clean. Despite the squalor of their surroundings the people had a pride in themselves and their own property.

Sweets and crisps - same as back home

The food smelled so good!


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