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EVER-CHANGING LANDSCAPES - INDIA NEVER DISAPPOINTS
 
(2012 - Fall Issue)

Writer: DOMINICK A. MERLE



Ahhh—the fireplace is roaring, a hot water pouch has heated my bed and I’ve just drawn the twin blankets up to my chin.

Oops! Forgot to make sure the windows are locked so the wild monkeys won’t jump in. They’ve been known to slip into bed and snuggle up right next to you, some claim.

No, this is no daydream or wild hallucination. This is simply India. And India is never simple. By 10 a.m. tomorrow, I’ll be down to a T-shirt and flip-flops, drenched in sunblock.

Where Glory Lingers

I’m in Darjeeling, the so-called queen of the Himalayas in northeast India. On a clear day, there is a magnificent panoramic view of the entire mountain range. Just outside the city, at a spot called Tiger Hill, the tip of Mt. Everest can be seen in neighbouring Nepal. The peak appears to be more a part of the sky than the Himalayas.

At more than 2,134 metres above sea level, Darjeeling can be so nippy at night that hot water pouches have long been standard bed equipment. Wild monkeys are also standard burglars and potential bedmates. A sign in my hotel room at The Elgin strongly advises securing the windows at bedtime to keep out the furry invaders.

Besides the unequalled sweeping views of the entire Himalayan range, Darjeeling’s next claim to fame is tea, for which it is known worldwide. More than 75 tea gardens surround the city, and tea harvested here commands the highest rates at public auctions held weekly in Calcutta and London before being exported around the globe. Tea pickers, primarily women from Nepal, earn less than $2 a day, a paltry fee but much more than they could earn in their own land.

No. 3 on Darjeeling’s tourist attractions is its 125-year-old “toy train,” a steam engine awarded UNESCO’s Heritage status, the only one accorded to a vehicle. One can ride the train from here to Siliguri, about two hours south, as it chugs along at elevations ranging from 152 to 2,134 metres.

Construction of the narrow-gauge line was concluded in 188l. Prior to that, Darjeeling’s only link to the rest of India was over a rugged mountain road. The original steam engines are still in use, albeit at a leisurely pace, and snake through colourfully-named spots, such as “Agony Point” and “Sensation Corner.” Throughout the trip, the Himalayas serve as a dazzling background.

But as with most cities, Darjeeling is perhaps best explored on foot. With a population of almost one million, it has tripled in size since I last visited here a dozen years ago. But the central square, called the Chowrasta, and the narrow winding roads leading down from it, haven’t changed much.

I stopped at the very same bank where I exchanged money 12 years ago, and had to sign what looked like the same musty blue ledger in several places before I could proceed to the next two cages upstairs and finally obtain my rupees.

Walking down the side streets I passed a number of familiar businesses and watched sidewalk vendors (perhaps the same ones) switch their goods from wool caps and scarves in the early morning to sunglasses and sandals by noon.

All along the way were the “deliverymen” or “coolies,” as they are known locally. A familiar sight throughout the Himalayas, they work as freelance couriers carrying huge sacks of supplies on their backs. They walk hunched over with the cloth handles of the sacks over their foreheads to ease the load. They are paid according to the distance and the weight.

Tibetan Influences

There are several monasteries on the outskirts of the city, the most famous being the Yiga Choeling Tibetan Monastery, built in 1875 and home to an enormous statue of the Buddha wearing a sublime expression. Most Tibetan versions depict him in aggressive postures.

The name Darjeeling originated at the nearby Bhutia Busty Monastery. Early monks referred to the region as “Dorje-ling,” which translates loosely to “land of the thunderbolt,” and the name was eventually anglicized to its present form.

While only about 5,000 Tibetans live in Darjeeling, their influence is strong, due mainly to the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre on the hill slopes north of the city. It opened in 1959 following the exodus of the Dalai Lama and his followers from Tibet after the Chinese takeover.

Although the production of handicrafts is the main activity, the centre also trains artisans and operates an orphanage and infirmary for the aged. There were only four workers when the centre began, however more than 650 refugees are there today, and twice that number have left to set up their own businesses in the Darjeeling area. Actor Richard Gere, a well-known supporter of Tibet, is a frequent visitor.

Back at the main square, the sun has set and the locals and visitors have left their benches for warmer climes. The nighttime “winter” is not far off. Time to fill the hot water bags and seal the windows.

Never simple or boring. 

Darjeeling was the midpoint of our travels in northeast India. Other stops included:                                                                                         

Sikkim

About three hours north of Darjeeling lies the Sikkim border. You need a special permit to visit this restricted area, in addition to an Indian visa. The capital city of Gangkok is a laid-back town (population 50,000) with houses spilling down the Himalayas. Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, dominates the landscape.

Sikkim is fast becoming one of India’s hottest destinations, imbued with mysticism, obscured by thick forests and guarded by a cavalcade of “holy peaks.” An ecotourism haven, it claims more than 4,000 species of plants, almost all of them rare.

Tripura

The second smallest state in India, Tripura is practically surrounded by Bangladesh, clinging to “Mother India” by a tiny umbilical-cord strip of land. Once a separate kingdom, Tripura joined India in 1949.

Of its 1.3 million inhabitants, one-third are members of hill tribes. We visited one tribe of about 500 people called Riang. They live simple lives—go to sleep at dark, awake at sunrise and work in the hillside step gardens during the day. Each tribe has its own language and customs.

Tripura’s main structural attraction is Neermahal, a fairytale palace—literally a water palace—in the middle of a lake. Built in 1930, it was the summer residence of a maharaja.

Assam

With a population of 35 million, Assam is the largest of the northeast destinations and is home to the one-horned rhinoceros, its state symbol. These both beautiful and ugly creatures were almost extinct in 1900. It is said there were only eight remaining when the wife of the British Viceroy to India began a crusade to protect the animals.

Today, almost 2,000 one-horned rhinoceros roam Kaziranga National Park in central Assam. We visited the park and were scheduled for an elephant ride to view the rhinos, but were told the elephants were “not available.” As it turned out, they were being used in a census to count the rhinos, and the census takers were using that lofty perch in the hunt. We managed to tour the park from a dirt roadway and could view the rhinos and elephants only in the distance.

The capital city of Guwahati, population about 2.5 million, sits on the mighty Brahmaputra, one of the four largest rivers in the world. Assam’s tea estates established by the British produce more than half of India’s tea.

Calcutta

We began and ended our tour in Calcutta—that much-maligned and often misunderstood city that practically defies description. There are neighbourhoods in this city where every street corner is a festival of life. One photo frame could include someone cutting hair, another washing clothes, a food vendor, a snake charmer and a rickshaw-puller on a tea break.

Traffic consists of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, some looking like they were hammered together that morning; cows; goats; dogs; pedestrians; even a few hand-pulled rickshaws—all vying for a piece of ground. Red and green lights mean the same: proceed with caution. Each drive is a continuous series of near collisions and perhaps a few small hits. No one stops—or can stop—for a scrape or dent. Drivers simply shout something to each other and move on.

Calcutta, like India, is never simple. And never boring.

 
 
 
 
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