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At the Happy Valley tea plantation
With Tibetan refugees (on left...)

Rishi meets us at 9.30 after we’ve had breakfast. No stunning views to be had, out of our bedroom or otherwise. The hill is still enveloped by thick clouds. It does make for a special atmosphere. First we drive a bit down the hill through town to the Happy Valley tea estate. The town is still waking up, stalls being opened, people on their way to work on scooters and bikes. The traffic is at a go-slow, queueing as it crawls downhill. The main type of car here is a battered jeep, ranging from 40 year old Land Rovers to not so old by battered and decorated Marutis and various other makes. Our driver is Milan, “like the town in Italy” gets a blank reaction, well, a grin. The drive snakes back and forth through the middle and lower town and then we turn off onto a narrow little road, barely wide enough for the car.

The tea “factory” lies in the middle of the tea fields. A factory worker takes us round. Inside are a range of large rooms with machines and trays for various stages of the tea making process. The first contains long trays where the tea is left to dry (cold air, then hot air). The next rooms have equipment for tea “breaking”, etc. and finally a sifting machine which splits tea into coarse, medium and fine qualities. The tea is packed in large chests and shipped off. The machines are old, made in Belfast. The whole set up is primitive and authentic. I had been expecting something more up to date, but glad that it wasn’t.

Then we drive back up the hill to the HMI, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, and Darjeeling Zoo. We have to walk the last little stretch up to the HMI + zoo entrance. To reach the HMI we pass through a part of the zoo with an Asian black bear, leopards, monkeys, etc. The HMI itself is a combined museum plus mountaineering school. The museum consists of two dusty halls with old exhibits, pictures, models of the mountain ranges, old bits of kit used by the mountaineering expeditions. Tenzing Norgay is revered as a national hero; Edmund Hillary has to play second fiddle. We also visit Norgay’s grave, or rather the spot where he was cremated. Then we walk back into the zoo and have a leisurely stroll taking pictures of the animals. More leopards, red pandas, and tigers. The zoo is covered in abundant greenery and most animals have large outdoor enclosures.

Lunch was supposed to be a buffet back at our hotel but we ask Rishi to drop us at Chowrasta, the main square, and to pick us up there in about an hour’s time. Gives us time to have some “chai” from “didi” and simply sit on a bench watching the world. Most benches are occupied with people just sitting, chatting and drinking chai. Dogs are playing in the square (randy dogs chasing a bitch on heat). We have a browse in the Oxford Book Co. across the square, a treasure trove of a bookshop. Most books suffer from damp and mildew. We still end up walking out with a shopping bag full, including Harry Potter in Hindi! Time enough for one more “chai” and then Rish reappears.

Our impressions of Darjeeling are of a green and pleasant town with a relaxed atmosphere. You can tell that it has grown well beyond its original size and building works everywhere indicate that this is likely to continue. It’s now a totally Indian town, although there are some architectural remnants from the British period. Apparently the last remaining Brits left en masse years ago, forcibly I think. The more recent constructions are of the typical Indian/Chinese quality, simple concrete or brick affairs, with washing hanging outside, loads of pot plants, and decorations and prayer flags of various colours.

We now walk down the hill again to a Buddhist temple/monastery. This is entirely different from the Hindu temples we have seen. The decorations outside are complemented by fluttering flags with prayers. On the walk down we passed a Buddhist wall shrine, simply cut into the rocks flanking the walking path. Prayers in Tibetan script were carved into the rock and painted in bright colours. We gave the prayer wheels a spin. We reach the monastery by walking through the village, residential parts. It’s a nice walk and we’re able to see plenty of Darjeeling domestic life around us. Kids are playing here and there. Small stalls dotted here and there sell the usual range of stuff, pouches of chewing tobacco, sweets, etc.

The lower part of the monastery is closed, something to do with the many monks who have travelled here to see the Dalai Lama. Upstairs two young monks are playing a game that involves shoving small pucks across the board in an attempt to dislodge an opponent’s piece from a scoring spot and score points yourself, or something like that. No photography allowed inside again. The room is dark and decorated with wall paintings and statues. Mats are piled up on one side of the room. Prayer wheels made of very light paper with vents at the top are stuck on thin poles above candles, to give effortless revolutions of the prayer wheels and send the prayers skywards. The deities are totally different from the Hindu ones, although there is some Hindu heritage. Various offerings are placed in front of the gods, bowls of water, rice, etc. The gods look fierce, more like demons, with necklaces of severed heads. Outside we make a clockwise walk round the temple. It only now dawns on me that this is a ritual or meant for good fortune. We manage to glimpse into the lower temple which looks the same as the one above, a bit larger and with hanging drums. The Tibetan Book of the Dead, discovered here in the 20th century, is kept here, somewhere safe.

Ness sends a couple of million prayers heavenwards with this massive prayer wheel
Buddhist prayer flags everywhere, flapping in the wind. Very colourful!

Next we carry on walking through the village parts along the hill, stopping at a roadside stall where I try “aloo dum”, spiced potatoes in a small leaf bowl, simple but delicious. The people are very friendly, a bit shy and wary of strangers, but having Rishi with us makes the difference in crossing the divide, language-wise and culturally. We make our way down to the Tibetan Refugee Centre, a group of recent buildings (well…) where Tibetan refugees are housed. The balconies are decorated with the traditional colours, red, white, yellow and blue. The workshops are closed today, most have gone to see the Dalai Lama, but some children are playing and we can look into the weaving, leather working and painting workshops, full of primitive tools.

Then we make our way back up gradually, taking it slowly as neither of us is fit. Eventually we end up back at Chowrasta and have more chai from didi. As a last bit of sightseeing for the day, Rishi suggests a walk to the joint Hindu-Buddhist temple on Observatory Hill. It’s only just behind Chowrasta up a small path. The entrance is full of monkeys. It’s wonderful sight to see two monkeys huddled together tightly to keep a little one warm.

The top of the hill is covered in strings of prayer flags everywhere. A few small open temples are scattered around. Monkeys all over the place too. We do our bit at the main temple and are rewarded with a “third eye” which is accompanied by a blessing and are given small balls of something sweet (laddhu), which we feed to the monkeys after taking a bite. Again we make a clock-wise tour of the temple. We do another bit at a small Kali temple where I receive a “second third eye” and a piece of red gauze, which comes from the statue, as a wristband. The attendant priest asks my name and includes it in his blessings. The spots, wristband, twirling the prayer wheels and doing clock-wise tours should be enough to wash away any past sins and have some credit left with Shiva and his pals.

Then we head back to Chowrasta and our hotel, straight into the wood-panelled bar for a cocktail. Excellent spicy bloody mary for me, Ness has a clove-flavoured hot Ghurka punch. The fire is lit for us, and as a special treat we get the finest “Bangla” music, including a Hindi version of “I’ve got the power”. Not feeling so colonial now! Still can’t talk Ness into a game of pool. “After dinner”. Clever delaying tactic I suspect – Ness will either have to genuinely dash off to the loo or pretend to. I thought Rishi was up for a game but that fell by the wayside, and the guy playing on his own was hotel staff and would not have felt like playing with a hotel guest I think.

Today has been a “gentle whirlwind” of new sights and experiences. So different again. Shame about the lack of views. The cloud has stayed around Darjeeling all day. Tomorrow is going to be an early start, 4am wake up call. Don’t hold much hope out of the clouds clearing but let’s give it a shot. After catching up on diaries (up to previous sentence) we go through for dinner. First managed to get a game of pool in playing a member of the hotel staff, whose place is taken by a higher ranking member of staff halfway through the game. I am totally demolished, didn’t even get to pot a single balll!

No buffet tonight, no à la carte either. It’s table d’hôte ce soir, gourmet evening. An umpteen-course dinner follows. Soup, then a whole range of dishes, veggie, rice, fish, chicken, chappatis, dal, paneer, etc. Ness should take it easy on the spicy food but the smiling waiter won’t take no for an answer. Then it’s time for pudding, first a wobbly looking concoction. Ness leaves hers so I feel obliged to finish mine. Just when we thought we were safe Ness goes “uh oh” and our smiling waiter arrives with a huge bowl of pink rice pudding. Given half a chance he would have heaped generous ladle-fulls of the stuff on Nessie’s plate but she pleads successfully for mercy. I’m the next victim and put up less resistance. Then we waddle up to bed.