(This is the text of a letter I wrote in 1993 about a trip to India in 1991. I have edited out bits that were nothing to do with that trip, and corrected a few typos, but everything else is much as I wrote it.)
The End of the World.
Well, that is what it felt like, high in the Himalayas – high by most standards, but not by Himalayan heights. This is Darjeeling, in India (that last letter, those twenty lost pages, were how I got there, the journey half way around the world and up a narrow, twisting mountain road)…
The End of the World…
The square at the end of the world, laid along a narrow ledge, a spur from the foothills of the Himalayas. It is cold, the air is thin and the sun is failing fast, giving little heat. We are tired; we were up at 4 am to catch a plane across India, and then had a madcap drive up the narrow road, trying hard not to look down over the precipitous ledge as the driver took the corners. We are tired, dirty, and tense: travel is not easy in India.
The square is sealed, but the road surface is cracked and breaking. There are pack-mules tied up in the corner; sherpas leading small ponies laden down with sacks are walking into the dusk. It is cold: it is November, and winter is coming to the Himalayas.
And off to the right, we can see the gods.
The peaks of Kanchenjunga look like they are floating in the sky. The snows are catching the last of the sun, gaining the advantage of their height.
[The man: singing.]
The peaks of Kanchenjunga look like they are floating. The square is emptying: the market stalls packing up, the people going home before it gets too dark and cold. The private generators have started up, giving the restaurants (a posh name for them: they provided food and shelter; but cafes would sound pretentious, pubs would be inappropriate) a cold blue light; the souvenir shops around the edge of the square had lit their propane gas lamps. The hissing of the gas-lamps and the chugging of the generators provided the background noise, where down on the plains it had been the chattering of cicadas and the roar of traffic.
The people were not Indians. Sure, their passports said they were Indian, if they had one. (I expect most didn’t.) But these were a mountain people: they were sherpas, they were Tibetans – there were large numbers of exiles. They weren’t the same as the Indians on the plains: they had broader faces, they were more heavily built, they were differently coloured; they were wrapped in huddles of blankets. These were mountain people, breathing thin air and used to climbing and trekking.
We were staying in the Windermere Hotel; this was a luxury: the most expensive hotel in Darjeeling (but hotels are cheap), and, hell! we were on holiday; and luxury made sense in the cold at the end of the world. The Windermere was a throwback to the British Raj. (A lot of Darjeeling was a throwback to the British Empire.). It was a fairly large hotel, considering the size of Darjeeling. Like the rest of the town, it was perched on the ridge, facing east; it had a view out across valleys hidden below clouds to the mountains, dark in the dusk, a mere graze against the evening sky.
We had a suite, one main bedroom and a small bedroom off it, down a couple of steps. Presumably this was for servants; but it is where I put G., because I had had too many sleepless nights in hotels whilst he snored happily away. So I was having the main room. We had a fire made up (no central heating; precious little wood, in the Himalayas), the smoke filling the room as it took. We were tired – the thin air making movement difficult- and it had been an early (4am) start; things happen early in India.
We had a drink at the bar; the talk was of (English) Conservative politics, and I got the feeling that the people talking didn’t really know what they were talking about. They certainly hadn’t lived what they were talking about – like most people with right wing views; but these views were held by comparatively young people. Maybe they just looked like they were thirty; prematurely aged.
The people at the hotel – including ourselves! – were like the cast of a nineteen forties Noel Coward comedy of manners: there were a pair of newly weds (he was in the army – or talked as if he was; she was attractive, blonde, petite, but hideously in love with her husband: the honeymoon period – after a couple of days, she didn’t look so enamoured); there were an tea-planter and his wife, who had been out in Darjeeling and had returned to look around; there were some obnoxious Americans, too rich for comfort (to get from the States to Darjeeling…); and some fat Germans.
There was one conversation going around the bar about Ireland; perhaps there had been some bomb or other, or a shooting. The views they each held (and they all seemed to be in agreement) showed a very weak analysis – like there was an easy solution, and as if it was the fault of the Irish.
This conversation had me worried: G. is vehemently Irish, a republican, though since a friend of his (an Australian lawyer) was accidentally shot by the IRA whilst on holiday in the Netherlands, he has become less adamant and less aggressively righteous about it. I thought we would get embroiled in some heavy discussion; I buried my head in my book, drank more beer; and G. must have done the same. Later he said, they weren’t worth arguing with…
At about seven pm, as we were deciding what to do about food for the evening, R. arrived. We knew he was in town: we had arranged to meet him before he had left London. R. is an old school friend of mine, and he had spent holidays with G. before too. He had thrown in his architecture job in London, and was travelling through Asia (he had already spent six weeks in India) to get to New Zealand in time to spend Christmas with his girlfriend. He just showed up in the bar as we were drinking. We had a couple of beers together, and then set out into the town to find some food.
R. is my oldest friend – I have known him since I was 11; R. and I had a falling out over a girlfriend of mine at the end of the 70s (I was going out with someone’s fiancee, and R. took a staggeringly hypocritical view of this…). Before that, though, R., G. and I had spent a lot of time together – so much so that we were thought of as a single character. We lived fairly close in London, and after I had moved back to Hampstead in 1989 we had seen a fair amount of each other. Neither of us had changed a great deal in the last ten years.
We went through the town, looking for some food. The air was still but cold; the sky was very dark, the stars clear. The air smelt heavily of smoke. There were very few lights on in the town – there is little electricity, and gas has to be carried up the mountain (and is therefore expensive). There were no other people out: the town closes down at dark. We found a small restaurant, the Shangri-La, which served some kind of local delicacies – Tibetan, maybe, or Sikkimese. It looked like the only place open, so we didn’t have a great deal of choice. There was however lots of beer – a necessary prerequisite for dinner with G. and R
R. told stories of his trip so far: he was full of them; given his trepidation about travelling by himself before he left London, the trip had done him a lot of good. He was now almost blasé about the whole thing.
He had grown tired of palaces in Rajastan; he gave me a couple of hotels to stay at in Jaipur (my next stop) and Agra. He had had a very good time; he had been roughing it slightly (well – compared to us; but he was to be away for a year; I just had two weeks, and comfort seemed cheap); he was tied to his budget.
It was late and cold when we left the Shangri-La; and the stars were out. Back in the hotel, the fire was roaring in the room (is there such a thing as a fire wallah?); it could almost have been Scotland. I slept well but not deeply, disturbed in the thin air. I woke up tired (and sometimes when I wake up, feels like I never woke up at all).
[There is a postscript to add about R. He got to Wellington, via Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore; he spent Christmas and a lot of the spring with his girlfriend touring New Zealand, and then he went to Australia for their winter. I know this because I had a postcard from him last August, a blue-sky shot of the Sydney Opera House and the harbour. The postcard said, I am sure nothing in London has changed… by this time, G. had got married, and I had moved to Brussels. But nothing changed.]
So; I woke tired. We met up with R. in mid morning (we had only just got up), and set off to explore Darjeeling. The smell of woodsmoke pervaded the air; fuel. It was pinous, as they burned all the trees.
We went first to the Happy Valley Tea Plantation. They grow a lot of tea in Darjeeling… The plantation – the closest to the town – was on the slope of the ridge out from town, and slightly lower. We missed it at first, and had to ask someone where it was. (In fact, it was all around us at the time, but we didn’t know that; we just need to find the path to the buildings.) There were a group of workers lounging around; some other tourists had just been shown around. (Trouble is, on the whole I dislike ostentatious westerners on holiday; I want it all for myself, of course.)
One of the workers got up to show us around; he was quite old – how old I couldn’t say (the air, the work, the food or lack of it, the sun; let us say that he had aged) – and dark. His clothes looked like they were too light for the climate, and they were dusty. He was barefoot.
He showed us around the machinery rooms; his English was poor, and I am not sure if he really knew what he was talking about – some of it didn’t make sense, in a technical way: the process didn’t seem right. But the machinery was beautiful, truly beautiful. It was all Victorian – the plantation had been owned by the British until Independence, when it had been nationalised. The machinery was all original, and had been brought out from Bristol and Glasgow; it was all over 120 years old and still working. There were lots of pulleys and mechanical sieves and conveyors. The equipment was steam powered. The smell of tea hung in the air; a fine brown dust covered everything, from the dried leaves. We sneezed. The spaces were large: great rooms where the tea was laid out to dry. It seemed very odd: the whole place seemed not to have changed in over one hundred years.
We went back out into the sun to wander around the plantation. There was alone picker, a woman; she looked like something from an advert for Typhoo Tea. In fact, she looked too much the part, as if she had just come down from central casting. Her head was swathed and she carried a large wicker basket on her hips; she leaned down, picking just the tips. I thought perhaps she was there just to keep the tourists happy; it was out of season, so there was no real need to have anyone picking (which is why there was no one else, presumably).
We sat and watched for some time, lying on a terraced lawn under the sun. Lizards played; some children watched us. It was easy to do nothing.
We walked back up the hill, through the Botanic Gardens; they were lacklustre (mainly coniferous trees; and no ferns. A cardinal sin), aside from a small greenhouse full of orchids. Most of them were the same kind – they were being grown for some purpose other than display – perhaps to be sold, or for some experiment, or for breeding. We then followed the contours around the spur, on a small path. It went below the main part of town, looking on the backs of houses.
(why me – the saddest question)
The path wound below the houses, across a creek (a narrow wooden bridge). There was dust everywhere; mostly on the washing hanging out to dry. This was the dry season (you don’t want to even imagine the wet season: roads disappear in floods; people die. In the dry season, the roads blow away, dust on the wind; and people die), and the fine yellow dust covered everything – the leaves (hard to tell weeds from trees; a weed is only a plant you don’t want to be there). The houses were built onto the side of the hill, on stilts, crowded in case they might fall down, leaning against the hill like a string of drunks. They were all wood, slatted together, with steep paths from the track to their doors, at different heights up the hill.
They looked over the valley, the stream far below. On the other side, miles away, the hills were creased and cut by rivulets; there were no trees (just dust), and the erosion had crinkled the land.
We walked around the ridge, below the houses, and then cut up to one of the main streets, through the crowded bazaar. Because the whole town was on the ridge, it was all up and down, hard work; the locals were fit (they climb). And hot. We sat in a cafe, drinking beer and tea and coffee. (I rarely drink tea; I had a nasty experience with tea, several years ago; I went on never to drink tea. Except at altitude. Same way, I never take sugar in my coffee, except at a great height, when the comfort of sweetness coursing down my throat always pays off.)
That afternoon, we slept; there had been too many early morning starts (in India, if it happens, it happens early; the altitude, the booze, god knows; but I crashed out, very happily. In the evening we ate in the Windermere; a curious experience, full of flunkeys and cold English food – roast lamb, mint sauce, roast potatoes and coagulating gravy. It was a curious atmosphere – I am not very good at being waited upon. The other guests were very pally – the middleclass raj. The newly weds, the Americans, the Germans – they made me angry. I am an intolerant bastard; but their tourism seemed very superficial (…not like mine at all…), and they seemed very unaware, easy in their middle-class attitudes (whilst I am uneasy with mine).
Later, we went out drinking with R.: he was leaving early the next day for Nepal – Kathmandu – for a couple of days, from where he was flying to Thailand. We sat drinking beer- Tiger, Elephant – from large brown bottles; the bar-restaurant smelt of wood-smoke and incense. It was dimly lit, workmanlike. American heavy metal – Guns’n’Roses – was playing over the hi-fi.
I got up early the next day to sort out my plane out. I saw Kanchengunga by the pink light of sunrise; it looked like cake icing, close enough to dip one’s finger in. The travel agent was on the main square, the Chowrasta, at the top of the ridge. (The main bazaar was on the west slope.) The shops around the square – mostly tourist places, ethnic antique shops with buddhas and bells and batik hangings with elephants on them – were opening up. There were some ponies tethered to the railings; frontiers-ville.
The travel agent wasn’t open: the only shop in India not to open at eight. I strolled about in the cold morning air, looking at the blue sky and wispy cirrus clouds, still dyed pink, like something left in the wash.
A man came up to me; in India, people were always coming up, just starting talking, a stream of questions – hello my friend, where you from, what you do, what car you have (for some reason, they all wanted to know what kind of car I drove – more materialistic than the Belgians…), you like India, you want to buy something in my cousins shop – sure I am cynical, but they almost always ended up with an entreaty to visit some stall or other: a jewellers, a carpet shop, a brothel, a hotel. I got very used to it, happily going along with it until it interfered with my plans. In Agra, I was kidnapped – the rickshaw driver took me to his friend’s enamel shop, instead of the palace I had asked to go to; he said it would cost three times as much if we didn’t make the detour… It cost next to nothing, anyhow, and if he can get a cut from the shopkeeper, fine; I didn’t buy anything, anyhow.
So I thought this guy was the same. He was dressed in brown and orange, and he was short, his hair cropped against scalp. He asked me where I was from, if I liked Darjeeling, what my job was, and then he handed me a piece of paper. I thought he was trying to sell me something, or to get my address, so I refused to take it, but he insisted that it was for me, and when I took it, he went away, immediately; he didn’t want the 50 rupee note I tried to give him. (This in itself was pretty surprising: the whole population in India seemed to be after a rupee from us: which is understandable, since we had lots, and they didn’t.)
I looked at the paper, purple with handwriting in blue ink. It was torn along one edge, as if pulled from a small book(I still have it, somewhere; I thought it was in my wallet, but it is not there. I am surprised; I am superstitious. But also, I am not wrong: it was in a different part of my wallet; I am saved.) It was covered with epigrams, in English, written in a careful but undeveloped hand. It had that days date on it – it must have been written early that morning – and a signature at the end – I cannot read it, but it is something like, Collection Sam. Each epigram was numbered with a roman numeral. Both sides of the sheet were covered, seventeen sayings in all:
I. In bad luck, hold out; in good luck hold in.
II. As long as there is desire, there is anxiety.
III. Even the greatest creations start from small seeds.
IV. Time passes but the word remain. [sic]
V. Well-being is not being in a well. [I like that one particularly!]
VI. Mental worry is loss of strength.
VII. Allow no man to be free with you as to praise you in your face.
VIII. A wicked man is afraid of his own memory.
IX. Better an egg today than a hen tomorrow. [Not sure about that one – a hen tomorrow means eggs forever…]
X. Everything is hard work, if you do not know the job.
XI. Patience is bitter but its fruit is sweet. [Fuckin’ A!]
XII. Do not be ruined by listening to everybody’s advice.
XIII. Sharp tongue becomes sharper with use.
XIV. Know a friend when you are in adversity.
XV. Everyone is a king or queen in his own house.
XVI. Better bend than break.
XVII. He who speaks the truth will have many enemies.
I have no idea what to make of this: was he trying to practice his English (like everybody else in India) – some words were crossed out and corrected – was he trying to pass on some wisdom, some part of his god (Hindu? Buddhist?) – was there any communication? Perhaps he was just trying to confuse the white devils: many of the aphorisms are ambiguous. It was a very curious encounter, east meets west – and for that I am grateful to the guy for picking me out: his very action (and his refusal of my money!) made me rethink my actions. It can only be healthy. (And just in case it some Buddhist treatise, I have kept it with me ever since; it would be very bad karma not to respect it.) [And, sixteen years later, it still sits in my wallet.]
After breakfast, we went back to sort out my ticket. The agent said it was very good for me to book my ticket, yes! because there was a transport strike the day I wanted to go, so I couldn’t. I decided to go a day earlier, and after perhaps half an hour of phoning (to the airport, to the airline, to the credit card company, no doubt also to his wife and brother), he issued me with a ticket. (He also confirmed my flight back to London. Sensibly, when I reached Delhi the day before I was due to fly out, I checked with the airline; it wasn’t confirmed, after all. Somehow the computers in India don’t work in the same fashion as they do in Europe…)
We then switched hotels – something less opulent than the Windermere: the Planters’ Club, another throwback to the Empire, when all the teaplanters used sit around drinking gin and watching the sunset. Then, we walked to the toy train station, to take a ride. The train is famous: it is one of the highest trains in the world (maybe except south America: I think there is some line over the Andes, and that must be higher). It is half-gauge, which is why it is called the Toy Train – it looks like a model railway. It runs from Siliguri, a town that sprung up at the junction of the Delhi-Calcutta line and the Siliguri-Darjeeling line; it was the way the tea moved out from Darjeeling, through to the Empire.
We had wanted to get the toy train on our journey up to Darjeeling, but it takes twice as long as a taxi. (It is probably less frightening though: the road is nothing but hair-pin bends, and at each corner there is a milestone urging you to drive carefully, in the same language as my seventeen purple maxims: they say things like, “it is better to arrive late than to be the late”, and, “do not worry, please don’t hurry”. The milestones also gave the numbers of accidents on that corner, which did nothing for the worry-factor.) For a lot of the journey, the road and the train run beside each other: the rails zigzag back and forth across the road.
Which is how we found out we had made the right decision: we couldn’t have taken the train had we wished, since there were large amounts of rock covering the tracks at several places, the results of the autumn rains.
Instead, the train was running just between Darjeeling and Karsiyang (or Kurseong), the next town down the line. This was mainly for tourists – just one or two trains a day – but there were a lot of locals too, taking things to sell. The train was busy; the station was rather farcical, the way of all Indian train stations: buying a ticket is difficult, involving several different levels of bureaucracy. We finally sorted out the tickets, and got on; we grabbed seats by the window, since the main thing about the journey was the view. There were chickens wandering around, large sealed boxes, wrapped in sacking and string; and tourists with their cameras and videos. (I know; I am guilty.) There was a group of New Zealanders, loud but friendly; some Americans (loud, obnoxious). There must have been some Scandinavians somewhere too, there always are.
The train was pulled by a small blue tank engine, run on coal. Whilst everything else in Darjeeling was covered in a film of dust, the steam engine was shining clean; it spewed out smoke and grit, fragments of coal, but it was clean itself. I like steam trains: part of my childhood; the sight of a steam locomotive beside the tracks of a British railway sends my spirits rising. This was the first time in ages that I had ridden a steam train. We had a good look at the loco, breathing fire; it too was Victorian (Indian railways are kept going by old British locomotives, and their engineers’ skills), riveted and oiled; and getting up steam.
A brown cloud of smoke rose from the funnel; the whistle blew, repeatedly, and we took our seats by the window. The tracks round back and forth through the town, rising and falling in altitude along the ridge. We passed clean washing, pink and yellow, which must have been dirty again after we left it. We steamed through terraces and across streams, passed tin-shacks and concrete palaces. The views were quite beautiful, across the valleys, the trees; the mountains in the haze. (I think we saw Everest; we may have, so I say we did.)
There was short break, where the track doubles back on itself, a large loop in the track, a turning point with views. Everyone got down, there was a volley of camera-clicks, everyone got back on, and the train set off again, cutting back and forth across the road. It went slowly – the half hour ride was far slower than the journey by road.
At Karsiyang, we got off and waited at the station; everybody else either stayed on the train, or went quickly about their business. We watched the train leave; instead of going straight back (the only train of the day), we wanted to walk around. G. had a cup of tchai, and we decided what to do.
We started off by visiting a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, about a mile away, called Ghoom. It was down a track, lower on the ridge, just passed a power-station for the town; this gave a curious outlook, the ancient and modern. We hadn’t looked at a monastery before, although we had passed several on the drive up the mountain. We were greeted by a monk in his saffron robes, who invited us to look around. The outside was brightly decorated, with pagodas in red, blue and yellow, and dragons rampant on the corners; the roof was richly tiled. Inset along the walls were nooks and niches, with ornaments, statuettes, prayer-wheels and offerings. From small poles hung prayer-clothes. (I like the Buddhist view of prayer: tie a clothe, spin a wheel… sounds like Vegas.) Inside the temple itself, it was very dark; there were a few candles lit, but the main light was from the door, down a short corridor. There was a shrine, behind wooden railings; incense was burning, and it was stuffy. There were stacks of prayer-books, old heavy handwritten rolls of paper, a different set of prayers for each day. They were stored in cases at the sides. There were smaller shrines as well, small offerings scattered about. It was an odd mixture, quite amorphous, and very crowded.
The area was full of Tibetans, refugees from the communists: they had left in the ’50s when China invaded Tibet. They kept their lifestyle in exile: the Dalai Lama has his headquarters on the Gangetic plain. The Tibetans now living in India – especially Darjeeling – seems to go backwards and forwards over the boarder without hindrance (other than the distance – it is a long walk to Tibet!).
Back in Karsiyang, we set off in the other direction, on a walk to a mountain lake. There were no real maps of the area, but the lake was marked on the tourist sketch maps, and the guide book we had said it was a popular spot for picnics with the locals. We followed the track, along the contours; it ran through dry scrub. We passed three boys on the path, and they told us we were on the right track. They asked briefly where we were from, did we like India, what cars did we have, what were our jobs… We followed the track round, in and out of the mountain. We could see some forest in the distance. We came across some workmen; most of them were not working. They looked at us as if we were crazy – it was hot now in the sun, and they were mostly resting, drinking flasks of tea; as we stood chatting, two small children brought their lunch. They too said we were on the right road.
We continued on, and came to some large pipes, carrying water away from the lake. The track went on, into the pine forest, and we went with it. It was cooler in the trees, and grass grew luxuriantly: elsewhere, all the grass had been dry, grey, covered in dust; here, it was a true green. We came to an aqueduct, and decided the best way to get to the lake was to follow that: we were losing interest in this lake, doubting its very existence.
We cut up the hill, forging a path, and walked beside the aqueduct. It was overgrown, dense and tough; this wasn’t too popular a picnic place. We walked on and on; I looked at the purple page given to me that morning, expecting to find one that said, if you seek you shall not find…
Finally, after maybe an hour and a half’s walk, we gave up: it was time to walk back, anyway. I believe that this was a Buddhist’s zen lake: the lake that is buried within each of us… and the aqueduct carried away the water to wash our sins… But I don’t think it was really there.
We walked back to Karsiyang, hot and tired, and sweaty. We ate some bananas, and got a madcap taxi back to Darjeeling. For some reason, there were few taxis, and it took us ages; the one we finally got had a squabbling family in it. The taxis in India are shared, people crammed in to bursting. They are always surprised to have Europeans, and we always seemed to get the best places; still, they were crowded. This taxi went by a very indirect route, stopping to pick up and drop off, and then the squabbling family demanded to be dropped at their door, down a steep, narrow alleyway. The taxi eased itself down, gently, afraid (justifiably) of scratching the white paint; then, it had to be turned around, an excruciating manoeuvre as we churned up the gears.
We finally got back to the Planters Club, to find there was no electricity. The people there – the staff – were very unfriendly: it still seemed to be run as if it were a club, and we weren’t members. So we went off to the New Elgin, to see if there was any space there. There wasn’t, but we stayed and had a drink anyway; and then, we had another. The atmosphere at the New Elgin was good – there were the same pompous prematurely middle-aged people there (let face it, we were there…) – but it was a lot more relaxed than the bar at the Windermere, and more stylish than the bars in town.
Whilst we were there, we started talking to Kit. This was travellers’ talk – where’re you going, where’re you been (I have been here there and everywhere) – looking like a born again, living like a heretic. She had been in Nepal, and was working her way to Goa for Christmas (although she wasn’t too sure: she was thinking of heading down to the plains for a month, and then back to stay at the Windermere over Christmas, where they put on a bit of a party; we put her off that idea: if she was into dropping drugs on a Goan beach, we didn’t think turkey and crackers at the Windermere would be quite her style); she had been on the Burmese/Thai border (she witnessed firefights between the border guards); she had got about. She had been away for eight months; before that she had worked as a photographic printer in London – she and I had an intense discussion on the philosophy of photography. (In a nutshell: at what stage does the photograph exist – when you print it? when you develop it? when you take it? or before – and then what happens if you don’t take it? Personally, the photograph is in the eye of the photographer, not the viewer; and it doesn’t matter if you take the photograph or not: it is just that no one else can see it. But the viewers are not important.) She must have been good to fund eight months of travel – she was doing it in some style.
We went out to dinner together, to a Nagaland restaurant (a province in north east India, where they are fighting a separatist war; this goes for most of the provinces in north east India; and those in the north west, too). Since she was looking for someone to go to Calcutta with, G. suggested they go together; I think she had been angling for it. I was curious: I know how G.’s mind works – it is very similar to mine; and I wondered what K. would make of him sharing a long train ride with a girl.
We crashed out later than we had planned; we had to get up early. We had to get up early, to catch the dawn. Not just any dawn, but the dawn on Tiger Hill. All the books said that you had to get up at four or so, but we got up at five thirty and had plenty of time. We had originally thought about walking to Tiger Hill, several kilometres away, but after our abortive search for the Zen lake, that idea didn’t appeal; we’d have got lost.
So we took a taxi. The night before, we had been quote silly prices: hundreds of rupees. As it was, we walked down to the Bazaar and found a LandRover to take us for 35 rupees, which means we were still being ripped off… We slung ourselves aboard, waited for the vehicle to be filled, and headed off into the dark. It had filled with two blonde, buxom Swedish girls, who G. and I tried in vain to chat up; it isn’t easy to chat someone up at five thirty in the morning. (It isn’t my fault if Europeans conform to their racial stereotypes!) Cars and Girls…
There was a stream of four wheeled drive cars driving to the Hill: a line of white lights up the mountain road. Everyone goes to Tiger Hill if they are in Darjeeling: it is one of the things to do; in fact, that are no other essential things – no unmissable restaurants (nossir), no unmissable sights (except Kachenjunga, which you can’t miss since you can see it the whole time). We reached the top of the hill, which was a radio station (in as much as it was a mast) and a car park. All the cars parked, lined up; we were told a registration number so we could find the right vehicle again (I think anyone would have taken us down, though; in the chaos at the end, people must have got left behind. I was half thinking of walking back, along the ridge; this was the romantic half: the tired, cold, sensible half said, no way, so I took the car back). As we walked off to watch the heavens crack open and gives us a preview, the driver settled down to sleep in the back.
The thing about Tiger Hill is, it is exposed. It is the highest point around – hence the radio mast – with clear views to Kangenjunga to one side and the plains way below on the other. This means the views are great. It also means it is fucking cold. Cars and Girls… The sky was pretty clear – the stars hanging like crystals – and that also meant it was cold. (The stars weren’t too special: we were on fairly northern latitudes, there were stars you could see from England at one time or another.)
It was crowded: I was surprised that all these people could lose themselves in Darjeeling: it must take a real, studious effort not to bump into all these people. There were tea-sellers walking around with samovars, shouting, Tchai! Tchai! Addled by the cold – I had lent him a sweater and a jacket – G. was walking behind him, shouting, Tchai! Tchai!, at half the price. To start with, the tea-seller didn’t get the joke, but he warmed to this crazy Irishman, especially when he bought some of the tea.
Dawn came slowly. The sky grew lighter, changing from a thick squidlike dark ink-blue through a strip of sea-blue through to day; and Kangenjunga, opposite the sun, turned from a shadow of rock to a crystal of pink. Covered in snow, the rills and crevasses showed as stretches of shade, etched in black, where the sun hadn’t reached. The pink stated at the summit, and slowly worked its way down as the sun rose higher; and it started a dark, deep red, and finished off, later, at white.
(I have seen the dawn several times; if you like mountains, it is one of the things that is recommended time and time again. I have seen the dawn from Arthur’s Seat, a mountain in central Edinburgh; from Ben Vrackie; from Mount Kinabalu; from the top of Lupanga; from the bottom of 72nd St, New York; from an Oxford College and a London carnival; from a midnight party and a lovers bed, in pleasure and depression.
And I always wonder, why.
There is a passage in Titus Alone, by Mervyn Peake, where they sell tickets to watch the sunrise.
The sun; the ultimate tourist attraction.)
As the sun rose and the sky got brighter, the hills down to the plain stood out in silhouette, ridge after ridge in dramatic relief. Below Tiger Hill, there were Buddhist offerings (perhaps Kangenjunga is a god; perhaps we are), bits of cloth strung out along wires, like a maypole (an English or Celtic sacrifice). They blew in the wind.
It was quite beautiful; exquisite. That is why.
After the sun had reached a certain elevation the sun-worshippers started to drift away. There had been a party atmosphere on the hill, as everyone warmed up; we were quite chatty with the Swedish girls by now (although they had met up with their Swedish boys). But tired. We sloped off, in convoy with all the other Land Rovers. We stopped off a couple of times, the first to look at a small roadside market outside a temple (the driver was in for a cut?), the second to take in the view of Darjeeling strung out along the ridge, with Kangenjunga towering over it, a hundred km away. (It was then that I think we saw Everest, over to the west.)
We had breakfast, in a cafe (the word doesn’t describe the place: a tearoom, bar, restaurant, milkbar; not a cafe as we know it; but no other word seems appropriate) that we had adopted. I always had scrambled eggs, doused in liberal helping of ketchup; G. diced with death and had sausage, a hamburger, anything that could possibly go off (as long as it had a sufficient fat-quotient). I had mud-tasting coffee, G. had tea. We read – I am distressed by the fact that I cannot remember what I was reading – painful (was it good or bad? It must have been long: I was on holiday. I can picture a pile of four or five books in my rucksack, but I cannot see what they are).
Later, we went with Kit to sort out the tickets for their trip to Calcutta. There was a queue at the train station, at all the windows. The windows do not do the same thing: at the first, you must buy your ticket; at the second, you must make a reservation. Then you must go back to the first, to confirm your reservation. You cannot make a reservation without a ticket; you cannot confirm a reservation at the reservation window (I kid you not). There is a Dickensian – perhaps Kafka-esque – procession, from one window to another, collecting forms and chits and receipts, all of which have to be kept. I sat in the sun lazily, reading (whatever it was, it must have been good) whilst G. and Kit dealt with the bureaucrats.
G. and I then checked into another hotel, the Pine Ridge, on the belief that if the hotel we were in wasn’t any good, why pay for a good hotel. The answer to that is that it was better than a bad hotel, which the Pine Ridge was. Not bad like awful, but bad like, very cold at night. This is a good lesson to learn. It is a pity we had to learn it, later that night.
In the afternoon we pottered about, walking out along the ridge. It was my last day. So we went to the zoo – rather unpleasant: sad looking animals (bears, tigers, wolves) in tiny cages. They deserve more dignity than that.
The other side of the zoo was the Himalayan Mountain Institute. This was set up Sherpa Tensing, who was the first man to climb Everest (he lead Hillary, forty years ago). This was a fascinating place: the mountains were the true heroes. There was nothing spectacular here -lots of photographs of mountains, some stuffed animals, biographies of climbers – but it was wonderful. It was hypnotic. We went through each room, entranced.
There was a caption to one exhibit, to a photograph perhaps, or a display, that I wrote down. It said: Sighting of a whale at sea is a traditional way of referring to what and when. I have no idea what it means, but it is great.
Somehow, we managed to miss all the restaurants that evening; we ate oranges and bananas. No wonder it was cold! Then the next day, before breakfast, I left. For all the travelling I have done – flown around the world on the wings of a jet – I am not a good traveller. I don’t like waiting to travel: I want to go, now. I don’t like hanging around. So for my 12 noon flight to Delhi (connecting with an afternoon flight to Jaipur), I left at 8 am. Plenty of time.
Since no one wants to go to the airport, the taxi ripped me off; but I was happy to be ripped off. Instead off waiting to fill the seats, the microbus drove off with just me: the price he had quoted me was for the whole thing; no wonder it seemed (relatively) expensive.
The combi took the road out of town; smoke hung around the houses; I could see the view in the rearview mirror. There was the driver and – an assistant. They always travel in pairs, whatever the taxi. I don’t know why. As far as Karsiyang, it was the same road as we had driven up: that was back along the ridge. Then, at Karsiyang, we turned right instead of heading straight on down; and it was very different.
At a lot of places, the road had collapsed, and we limped passed; but when we came up, it was through dry scrub; down, we were in forest; and we were in ferns. I saw my first (and only) tree ferns of the trip, glades of ferns amongst the rain forest trees, long detached from the rest of the forest. It was a wonderful drive down: the trees were tall, and green; we snaked down the side of the ridge, over an hour, across fallen bridges and collapsing spurs. At the bottom was an oasis, an agricultural college of some sort: a tea college.
Then we crossed the plain, and arrived at the airport at about 11am.
This was fine; this was fucking marvellous. The previous plane, due at 9am or so, hadn’t bothered to land. Having been lost in a rain forest Eden on my way down, I was now drowning in India again. There was a crowd – not a large crowd (it wasn’t a large airport) – waiting for the previous flight; and they were getting my flight.
I had breakfast; scrambled egg in the canteen.
This might not sound serious: so the plane was double booked: an every day tale of airline folk. Except that I had a connection to make, and there was this transport strike due to hit round about midnight. Things were not looking healthy.
I sat and read; I walked about. I talked to all sorts of people that otherwise I wouldn’t have, and I was polite to them when I would probably have been rude before: but here I was, stuck with them at Bagdogra Airport. And there was nothing to do, except read, drink beer, and eat scrambled egg.
The plane was late; it was five hours late. I was stuck in this place for seven fucking hours… We had started to develop emergency plans – some people had made bookings with the hotels in Siliguri – and then somehow they managed to fit us all on the plane, which was five hours late. It was sunset when it landed, my connection long departed.
But I know, I didn’t want to stay there. No.
We finally arrived at Delhi late, coming in over the city in the dark. I like night flying – there is nothing more beautiful than flying in over a city at night, the lights blazing (London is best – the mass of lights, and then suddenly some small detail hits, and the puzzle falls into place, the blaze of lights resolves itself into the city, place I know – the streets, the parks, the shops, the bars; and my heart is soaring way above the plane).
There were problems. Big problems: the strike was going to close Delhi airport down for 24 hours, and there were no trains moving, either. There were only two flights out of Delhi the next morning, before the strike was due to take hold. One of those was the Jaipur.
I was on it; at six in the morning, of course.