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North End (India: Day Six)

Started: 2010-03-22 20:17:03

Submitted: 2010-03-23 22:27:23

Visibility: World-readable

Sometime before dawn, noise outside my hotel window in Darjeeling woke me. It seemed to be jostling of riders and jeep drivers to catch rides to watch the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a famous overlook somewhere south of town. (Tiger Hill was something both Willy and I flagged in our guidebooks, but the pervasive haze rendered the mountains invisible.) I went back to sleep until Willy decided I had slept long enough and woke me at 07:45, having already turned the small hot water heater in the bathroom on for a rare warm shower.

We set out in the general direction of the train station and ate potato curry with flatbread for breakfast at a tiny restaurant along Hill Cart Road. We tried to get tickets for the "Joy Ride" steam-powered excursion along the tiny-gauge rail line connecting Darjeeling to the rest of India; one counter offered same-day ticket sales and was sold out, so we went to the next window to try to reserve tickets for the next day (which involved filling out a complete reservation form), where we learned (after a great deal of typing behind the counter) that the next day's trains were also full. (Clearly it would be far too easy to have signs indicating whether the excursion trains were full.)

We headed north on foot, along Hill Cart Road, eventually escaping town above tea plantations. The sky was sunny but haze clung to the hills, washing out anything further than a few kilometers and making it impossible to see the snow-covered Himalayas.

Tea plantation in Darjeeling
Tea plantation in Darjeeling

We turned off the main road to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, collocated on the grounds of the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park. We paid the foreigner entrance fee and headed to the museum galleries at the mountaineering institute. One room discussed mountaineering in general and included one display of the world's highest mountains, with the Himalaya towering above the mountains on each other continent. The relief map (vertical scale enhanced) of the Himalaya avoided taking sides in Asia's border disputes by declining to mark international borders at all. (Most of the exhibits in the small hall were interesting, but the diorama of mountaineers climbing was pretty cheesy.) I spotted a Colorado Mountain Club patch on the wall of mountaineering organizations that had visited the institute.

The next gallery showed artifacts from famous Everest expeditions of the twentieth century, including George Mallory's ill-fated attempt and the successful Hillary-Norgay expedition. One packed display case included the expedition flags Tenzing Norgay waved on the top of Everest. I marveled at the primitive mountaineering gear circa 1953 and remained grateful for my proximity to REI and its myriad of high-quality gear.

We climbed a hill to the site of Tenzing Norgay's cremation, marked by a large slab of black marble, and a massive statue of him on top of Everest, waving his ice ax with his expedition flags attached. Willy and I took pictures of each other standing triumphantly in front of the statue, contemplating our next mountaineering expedition.

Jaeger with Tenzing Norgay
Jaeger with Tenzing Norgay

We returned to the zoo and saw a number of fascinating Himalayan animals, including red pandas, Asian black bears, yaks, and civets. Willy was excited to see a yak (albeit shrouded in shade), and claimed to have caught a glimpse of a tiger in its habitat from across the zoo. I explained civet coffee to him and he was appropriately disturbed.

Asiatic Black Bear habitat at Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park
Asiatic Black Bear habitat at Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park

We returned to the zoo and saw a number of fascinating Himalayan animals, including red pandas, Asian black bears, yaks, and civets. Willy was excited to see a yak (albeit shrouded in shade), and claimed to have caught a glimpse of a tiger in its habitat from across the zoo. I explained civet coffee to him and he was appropriately disturbed.

We returned to the main road and continued north, looping around the North End of Darjeeling, and stopped for lunch at a little restaurant along the way. (I outsourced most of my important food decisions to Willy, who had sufficient experience in eating Indian food in India to run circles around me. He usually started by asking for "veg", then tried to explain what they were offering. Having eaten Indian food before, I often had enough vocabulary to understand the basics. Kiesa specifically requested that Willy keep me from food-borne illness, which kept him from suggesting anything that looked too sketchy. Hot food was generally safe; fresh food was generally sketchy.)

The road turned around to the south on the east side of the ridge. We cut through a tea plantation on our way to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Center, which we had trouble finding until we realized that the mostly-closed compound we found was in fact the center. A chalk note scrawled on the door informed us that it was closed for Losar. We spun prayer wheels at the shrines and climbed back up to Darjeeling, emerging on a footpath leading to Chowrasta. We sat on a bench looking out over the hills, gazing through the haze into Sikkim, and met a somewhat-lost middle-aged French woman (who asked us for directions, despite having been in Darjeeling for longer than us) who was living in India on a tourist visa and had just come back from two months in Kathmandu.

With our major objective for the day completed, we headed through town, through the local shopping district of Chowk Bazaar, in search of the Lloyd Botanical Gardens. The bazaar was much as I expected: tiny shops and stalls arranged by subject lining the twisting streets, so that the entire street was something like a department store, only with each department made up of a dozen independent merchants clustered together.

The Lloyd Botanical Gardens were a world away from the bustling bazaar just outside the walls. Sprawled across the hillside below Darjeeling, the gardens seemed to be one of the few physical artifacts left from the British Raj. Although the climate was warm (by Colorado standards), it was the tail end of the dry season, which seemed to function as something of a local winter. As a result, there was less to see in the gardens than there would have been at the height of the monsoon. Willy spotted a patch of California Poppies and took pictures.

Willy photographs California poppies at Lloyd Botanical Gardens
Willy photographs California poppies at Lloyd Botanical Gardens

Back in town, we indulged in a bit of shopping. Willy suggested getting some sort of cloth item for Kiesa and suggested the Manipur Handloom Store, on Nehru Road in the prime tourist district, as some of his students came from the north-eastern state of Manipur. The selection of shawls was daunting, and I kept having to convert the prices back into dollars to figure out how much I would really pay. I selected a hand-woven shawl, black with green, and avoided their attempts to interest me in further woven goods.

As the sun was setting, we wandered off the beaten path and quickly ended up on a hill overlooking Darjeeling on paths where only locals normally walked. It was quiet and peaceful, perched above the noise and pollution of the city. We continued up the hill and eventually found ourselves on the other side of Chowrasta. Willy engaged in a bit of shopping, looking at the Tibetan stores for a prayer wheel. (The little shops felt like they belonged on Pearl Street; I could get the same trinkets and idols as I could back home, only cheaper and closer to the source.) Willy found one he liked, and the merchant spent what seemed like a great deal of time reciting "Om mani padme hum" while spinning the wheel in the appropriate (namely, clockwise) direction.

We ate supper at a mostly-empty Stardust Restaurant at Chowrasta. (After our experience the previous night, we intentionally avoided eating anywhere with white people inside. Credit card logos on the doors were also an inauspicious sign.) At Willy's recommendation, I ate Kashmiri pulao, which turned out to be a cooked-rice dish with fresh banana and apple on top. The fruit added a bit of flavor and provided a sweet counterpoint to the dish, and to the rest of Indian cooking in general.

There wasn't much to do in Darjeeling after dark except eat supper and head back to the hotel. Willy loaned me his trade paperback copy of Escape from Kathmandu (which he purchased in Kathmandu); I lacked the energy to write about my trip, so I started reading, and immediately realized that I had experienced just enough of the Indian subcontinent to get far more out of the book than I would have a week prior.

Ok, well, the most obvious problem with [new years resolution
about getting a girlfriend] is that the intended outcome relies on
variables which are out of my control. It's a matter of chance,
luck, being in the right place at the wrong time, what have you.
Obviously, it also relies on the willful participation of
another human being. Since the only people we control are
ourselves, making resolutions -- promises to ourselves -- which
require the involvement of others, who may or may not want any
part of the game, is like sitting at home and cheering a
football team, and then saying "We won! We won!" when in fact
you had absolutely nothing to do with any of it. Or something
like that.
- Bitscape, Random Rambling, 01 August 2000