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200311-India-14-01
View? Call this a view?!
200311-India-14-29
The toy train to Darjeeling
200311-India-15-09
Listening to the Dalai Lama's lecture

Wake up, sort of, in the middle of the night, 4am, to meet Rishi at 4.30 for our dawn visit to Tiger Hill, from where we may be able to see the mountains lit up in golden colours and even see Everest in the distance. It’s still dark and cloudy. We drive out of Darjeeling towards Tiger Hill. After a bumpy ride of about half an hour we reach the top. Many other jeeps and cars are making the trip but much less than in the summer months Rishi tells us. There is a three storey building at the top. Ground floor is Rs.10, the top floor, Deluxe, is Rs.40. Inside the bare rooms are rows of plastic chairs. Most people stay outside the fence which encircles the building. Tea vendors abound. We have some tea while we gradually see the daylight appearing, which means the clouds turn a lighter colour, that’s about it. No stunning views of Kanchenjunga today. We’re a bit disappointed but don’t let it bother us. Do buy a few pictures and have our picture taken with a couple of lads from Gauhati in Assam, and then walk down the hill. Remember one of the American girls in the observation house commenting on the statue of liberty sign on the plastic chairs: “these are free chairs!” The walk down is nice. Close to the top of the hill there are strings of prayer flags. A dog friend walks ahead of us.

Then we meet Milan again, who has picked up a small family for a lift downhill. Then we head for another Buddhist temple (name?). The monks are absent, gone to see his lamaness, but Rishi manages to track down an elderly monk. He unlocks the temple. Photos are allowed for a Rs.10 donation. The temple holds a huge statue of … and is full of scared texts, prayer flags, drums, pipes, yellow hats, offerings of bowls of water, pictures and frescoes. There are prayer wheels of all sizes, two big ones inside the temple gate and rows of smaller ones all around the building (as we go round clockwise). An unusual sight we get to see is the cremation area. A pile of ashes and bones lie to one side. Macabre but different. Then we drive back through town to our hotel for breakfast. The town has now started to wake up. Shops and stalls are open and traffic is building up. It’s still early and we have a relaxed breakfast and time to spare before Rishi comes back to pick us up again at 9.30.

Now we’re off to see the Dalai Lama. We drive to the part of town where he is holding his lecture. Cars and people are thronging the streets and we have to walk the last part. Banners welcoming His Holiness the Dalai Lama in flowery language are stretched across the road. The welcome wishers/sponsors are indicated. “Your epoch-making visit”, “With deep reverence and joy”, etc. Stalls along the roadside sell souvenirs and trinkets, but there is no pushy selling at all. We enter the grounds where the lecture is being held. From a distance we have already been able to hear the Dalai Lama’s deep sonorous voice over the loudspeakers. It’s a mixture of to us unintelligible speech, punctuated by the Dalai Lama’s laughing and monotonous mantras repeated at high speed. It sounds like completely unintelligible babble. Now and then a phrase is terminated with “Om!”

There is a gate for VIP’s with passes. Rishi asks if we can go in but no luck. We walk down a bit further and get access through a public gate where people are spread across the hillside, listening attentively to the Dalai Lama. Below us on a football-pitch sized field thousands of people are sat. These are the privileged seats (huge sheets of canvas). The field is divided into squared off sections, like huge cattle pens, using long bamboo poles. A section at the front, nearest the podium, is where the red and yellow robed monks sit. A massive podium faces the field. Inside the Dalai Lama is sat centre-stage on a large throne with groups of yellow-robed monks sat on the left and right of him, facing towards the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama carries on talking and chanting. Another voice seems to ask him a question every now and again, to which he responds with a long reply and chanting. We walk back out of the public area and Rishi suggests we try a bit further along the field. An American girl tells Ness we can get in further up so we turn round, back to the VIP gate. RIshi tries to get us in one more time and succeeds! They ask for our passports. Don’t have them with us. Then they say the passport number will be enough so I say “sure!” and make one up. Then we’re accorded VIP passes as foreign guests, scribbled on a piece of paper which we have to hand to a sentinel further on. Unfortunately Rishi is not allowed in, which we feel bad about. With hindsight I wish we had argued on his behalf.

We carry on down to the football pitch and are shown into the foreigners pen. Most of the foreigners, a mixture of westerners and Asians, seem to be followers of the Dalai Lama and I cannot make out any tourists. We sit on the canvas, take pictures and let the whole proceedings wash over us. It’s funny watching the crowd and seeing how absorbed some of them are. Bits of red cloth have been handed out which people place across their foreheads. Later they remove these on the Dalai Lama’s instruction. It’s a very unusual atmosphere and , whilst it holds no particular significance for us, it is a very rare thing to see the Dalai Lama in person and especially in this setting. It’s only his second ever visit to Darjeeling. His usual above is in Dharamsala, to the west of Nepal. We go and find Rishi again. We are given two pieces of string which have been blessed by the Dalai Lama. I give Rishi one of the two red pieces of cloth we received earlier (I went and asked the ticket chap for them). Rishi also has a small plastic cup with what looks like a urine sample. It’s water blessed by the Dalai Lama. He gives some to us to drink a bit and then brush the rest over your head. Het gets another cup, for his family. Then we go back in search of Milan and the car. We make donations to two monasteries on the way out and I end up buying a very silly hat. Just in that frame of mind where common sense had deserted me! Milan is having friends round in the car. We drive back to our hotel and arrange to meet Rishi again at 2.30. I figure this will give him enough time to distribute his sample of holy water! And it gives us a quiet hour or two to unwind. Lunch is a club sandwich, finger chips and tea in our room, and we cuddle up for a snooze.

At 2.30 we meet Rishi again, for a walk through the markets and botanical gardens. We walk through the shops, stalls, eateries and hotels of the upper town, down towards the middle town. It’s bustling with people. Lively shopping streets full of little booths, stalls and shops, selling all kinds of stuff. And then we turn round a corner and down some narrow alleyways into the market. Wow! It’s like stepping into a different world. It feels like… well… something out of a film. Dark small booths are displaying a colourful variety of vegetables and spices. Some are only lit by a candle or two. The narrow alleys between the booths are covered with plastic sheeting. It lets light through but altogether the place is dark because the booths are spaced so closely together. We’re not harangued by traders, in fact they don’t mind us simply browsing and taking pictures. Playing kids run through the alleys, and do a double-take or simply stop dead when they see us. This is not a place for westerners! After the veg and spice section we pass through various other parts of the market with clothes and textiles, toys, decorations, Indian make-up and accessories, religious articles and offerings (bits of red gauze with gold coloured edging such as my wristband), and it goes on and on.

200311-India-15-23
Darjeeling fishmonger proudly showing off his wares
200311-India-16-09
It's my game and I'll play black if I want to!

Rishi walks us through the various parts of the market and then through various other streets. We go through an area of tailors, cobblers, etc. In the market and everywhere there are lively little cafés. Some are packed full of people chatting and eating, others are empty. The little alleys are dirty, unhygienic, etc. Wouldn’t be caught dead going to the equivalent area in England, but here it has the charm of something exotic. Do feel a bit of a hypocrite though. I’m happily snapping away, lots of opportunities to capture people’s faces here as they go about their daily business. We make our way further down the hill towards the meat and fish markets. The fish “market” is a small dark corridor with about eight or ten cubicles on raised platforms. The fish vendors sit at the back of their cubicles, a bit like an animal in a zoo, which are dimly lit by candles. The vendor in the first cubicle poses for a picture with a catfish. Quirky. Then cross the road to the meat market. We enter through gates at the side, through an internal warren of dark narrow passages. This brings us to the middle of the building. Behind a gate which bars either side lies the meat market itself. Vendors with lumps of dead animal (mutton?) hanging behind them, chopping blocks, bloodstains, bits of offal. The corridor is lit and defined by light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. We leave the market and cross the road to walk further down the hill to the lower town where the tea plantations are and the botanical garden. Just before we enter I spy a shop which sells the local moonshine, “licensed” for consumption on and off the premises. There are two tables inside. The stuff looks clear and mean, and for once I’m not inclined to try it!

The botanical gardens are wonderful, looking a bit damp and dreary and in need of TLC by English standards, but here it’s a totally unexpected luxury. All kinds of tall green trees, plants, a rockery, an orchid house (would contain more than forty varieties normally, now only three), a greenhouse with chrysanthemums and other flowers. We carry on ambling down. A loud chanting monotonous voice can be heard in the background. He sounds as if he has been going for hours. Then we start walking back, uphill all the way. Oh yes, on the way down I tried some “paan” from a kiosk. A large leaf which is brushed with two or three different substances and filled with a few indefinables, then wrapped up into a small parcel which you pop into your mouth and chew. I pretend it’s “mmm, good” to the vendor (with gob full of the stuff), then promptly spit it out again as soon as we have turned the corner. Here’s one addiction I won’t be taking up! We take a different route back up, passing by some of the places we went through on the way down. It’s already getting dark by now. Stops on the way up for cashpoint (being a bit of a nerd, I like to see the exotic location on my bank statement), curio emporium and tea (shop). The curio shop is stuffed full of weird and wonderful things. It may be aimed tourists first and foremost but they also sell to monks. Rishi patiently waits inside while we are shown a variety of little statues, prayer wheels, ornamental daggers to chase away spirits, tooters, jade cups decorated with silver, etc. We settle for a prayer wheel with Bhutan coins and a tooter made of a bull’s horn. Makes a farty sound when you blow it properly. We head for Nuthmalls, the best tea emporium. Perfect for buying presents. They also have green tea for Mama and we buy several packs of “normal” tea as presents. Inside the shop three boys are sat behind a counter to one side, where they sit and pack, wrap and label the tea directly from the tea crates which are stacked behind them. From here we walk through the stalls up to Chowrasta and have a final chai from didi with Rishi. It’s been a great day, packed full of stuff. Whilst Darjeeling has a lovely feel to it, a relaxed atmosphere (by Indian standards), it’s time to move on. Three nights, two days, seems to be about the right amount of time to spend in one place before moving on. It gives you enough opportunity to get to know the place a bit, see some sights, not have to bother with unpacking and repacking for a few days and grow fond enough of a place to be sad to leave it or otherwise bored/sick of it that you’re glad to be moving again. Ness and I have also admitted to each other that right now we would happily settle for a lazy Sunday at home, watching a nice film at home, have a nice non-spicy home-cooked dinner, and maybe wander down the road for a pint or two!

Speaking of pints, back in the hotel we head straight for the bar and after a while Ness agrees to a game of pool. The longest game of pool in history follows, neither of us able to pot a ball for long spells. We decide to call it a draw after I pot the black in a different pocket from the one nominated (both of us had, somehow, managed to pot all our balls by then). Up to our room, freshen up, relax, shower (Ness) and then our last dinner in Darjeeling. Opted for the hotel restaurant out of convenience but later we agreed that this was probably the best place to be: the (wood-panelled!) dining room feels warm and welcoming, there are a few other tables with diners, candle-lit tables, friendly waiters. Afterwards, in our room, I jump into bed early – grumbling guts and sore bum on account of copious chilli intake!