A FEW MOMENTS IN NEPAL

THERE IS A SMALL BUDDHIST TEMPLE (a ‘Gumba’) next to our homestay in Darjeeling. It was built by the grandfather of our host. When I took a look at it this morning, our host’s aunt was walking around it clockwise, chanting and fingering a bead necklace, rather like a rosary. After she had been around the square gumba several times, she opened it up to reveal an elaborately decorated effigy of Buddha.

Moni, our driver of Nepali origin, collected us and drove along a picturesque road to Ghoom, whose railway station at just over 7400 feet is the highest in India.

A narrow rutted lane led through the centre of Ghoom up to the Yiga Choeling Buddhist monastery, which, having been built in 1850, is the oldest in the area. The interior of the inner sanctum contained a large seated Buddha and many smaller effigies of him. The sanctum was beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Butter lamps were burning. There were glass fronted cupboards containing numerous bundles of strips of paper with scriptural texts in Tibetan script. Words are inadequate to describe the beauty of this Buddhist equivalent of a chapel.

Offerings had been placed in front of the various effigies of Buddha. These included banknotes, packets of biscuits, fruit, and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.

A part of the monastery was a meditation room dedicated to the memory of Woody Strong (1914-2000), an American lover and helper of Nepal, whose papers about Nepal are stored in the Archives of Purdue University. When diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 77, he visited Nepal where a Buddhist priest told him that he would be healed. Miraculously, the tumour disappeared.

We drove from Ghoom along narrow, winding mountain roads to a recreation area called Jore Pokhri. On the way there and later on, we passed through small woods of trees with tall straight trunks topped with leaf bearing branches. These trees, a type of conifer, are known as ‘dhupi’ (in Nepali language) and are very valuable. Their value lies in an oil that can be extracted from its timber.

We stopped at Simana Viewpoint near to a small tourist market housed in corrugate iron shacks overlooking a steep drop into a deep valley. Where we were standing, at Simana, was only a few feet from the border between West Bengal and Nepal. A village with a name beginning with M lay on the opposite slope of the valley in Nepal.

We continued to drive close to the border until we reached the Indian frontier crossing post at Pashupathi Market. Moni parked the car and we went up to the immigration hut to show our British passports and our Indian residence permits (OCI) to two ladies sitting behind a desk with a large ledger.

Our documents were passed between numerous plainclothes agents and men in uniforms whilst a lot of heated discussion took place between all concerned. After a few minutes, more officials arrived and joined the conversation, the outcome of which was that we were petmitted to proceed into Nepal, which neither of us had ever visited.

We walked into Nepal past a small Nepali police or army barracks along a winding street lined with decrepit shacks an occasional colourfully decorated more substantial buildings. After about 150 yards, we turned round and walked back towards India.

About 50 yards away from the Indian frontier post, while we were still in Nepal, we heard drums. We looked back and saw a procession of people in colourful Nepali costumes approaching us. The march filled the whole width of the road and occasionally moved aside to allow cars and numerous taxi vans to pass. We learnt that the procession was something to celebrate tourism. As it was a Saturday, there were plenty of Indian tourists paying a brief visit to Nepal.

While I, the only European in sight, was taking photographs, a man in colourful garb approached me and shook my hand before inviting me to join the joyful procession. Then, he placed a garland of yellow flowers around my neck.

We left Nepal and Moni drove us back to Darjeeling, a journey of just over an hour. The road ascended and descended a series of hills. We drove through occasional clouds, that enshrouded the road in thick fog. We emerged from the clouds onto bright sunlight before encountering the next patch of cloud.

We ate a good lunch at Glenary’s restaurant, an establishment founded in about 1910 and housed in a picturesque colonial era building.

Before returning to our homestay, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes. The Darjeeling Police Band was giving a spirited concert of Scottish tunes on an open air bandstand overlooking The Mall. The pipers swayed from side to side as they puffed away on their bagpipes. I imagine that long ago when Darjeeling was a recreational resort for the British imperialists, it was likely that a band used to play for visitors promenading on The Mall as the sun set on Saturday afternoons.
Thus ended a wonderful day during which we saw many exciting things, superb scenery, and set foot in another country, Nepal, for a few moments.

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

OUR WONDERFUL DRIVER picked us up at 9 am and took us and our new friends from Lincolnshire sightseeing in the area around Darjeeling for over seven hours.

We began at the Japanese Temple and close by Peace Pagoda (a stupa), both Buddhist places of worship set in a well tended garden.

Next, we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the track used by the Toy Train. This road links Siliguri with Kathmandu in Nepal. The Nepalese border is about an hour and a half’s drive from Darjeeling and Kathmandu is about twelve hours away.

We stopped to wander through a park that is laid out around the Batasia Loop which is where the Toy Train loops the loop. The centre of the park contains a monument to Ghurka soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for India since 1947. There were many Indian tourists, who were enjoying dressing up in colourful Nepalese and other local costumes that were available for hire.

Although many people disapprove of zoos, I do not. Some animals, especially the big cats and wild dogs – wolves, jackals, and so on, give the impression of discontent. Other creatures show their unhappiness, if any, more subtly. The highlight of this beautifully laid out zoo was for me seeing the rare red pandas, whose long striped bushy tails and appealing faces make them very attractive. A black panther looked like a very large pussy cat. The clouded leopard has fur colouring that resembles magnified snakeskin markings. We saw many other eye catching creatures.

A visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre established in the 1960s was moving and fascinating. A large collection of photographs depicted the sad history of Tibet during the twentieth century. We could not see any pictures or even mentions of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet after escaping from a British POW camp in 1944, and then tutored one of the Dalai Lamas. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” is a good read.

The Refugee Centre contains a children’s home, a souvenir shop, a general store, and a Buddhist monastery. We climbed up to this, passing lines of prayer wheels, and reached a shrine containing a Buddha and religious figurative wall paintings. The shrine abuts a room containing two huge metal prayer wheels, taller than most people. We met an old man, deaf and over 90 years old, who showed us how to rotate the heavy wheels. As they rotate, bells ring.

We stopped to look at a tea garden. The bushes were flowering with small whitish blooms. At a small stall nearby, built with corrugated iron sheets as are so many other structures in the district, we drank delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea.

The large house where Sister Nivedita, an Irish born disciple of Swami Vivekananda, “breathed her last” is called the Roy Villa. It contains the room where Nivedita died and a poorly lit museum.

Tenzing Rock was our final stopping place. This rock and others close to it are used by the Himalayan Mountain Institute to train mountaineers. Enthusiastic visitors can pay to climb the Tenzing Rock which, I guess, is no more than 30 feet high.

I have described the main sights of our excursion, but not the endless series of spectacular vistas and glimpses of aspects of the lives of locals. But, rest assured that even without seeing any of what I have related, the district around Darjeeling is fascinating and photogenic.

All along our route our driver, who speaks his native Nepali as well as Hindi, Bangla, and English, greeted people we passed. He is a very popular person in and around Darjeeling.

FIRST DAY DAWDLING IN DARJEELING

ISTANBUL AND GJIROKASTER (in Albania) share something in common with Darjeeling. The three places have no shortage of extremely steep inclines. However, Darjeeling beats the other two in steepness. Its footways and streets often seem almost vertical. The thoroughfares are so narrow in many places – wide enough for only one car, and as few of them are one way streets, Darjeeling’s drivers have to be skilled in reversing long distances along them. Driving difficulties are compounded by the oft appalling road surfaces, the steep drops along edges of some streets, and deep gutters.

The Mall and Chowrasta (a square where four roads meet) are vehicle free pedestrian precincts. Some of the buildings in this area are over 100 years old and recall the ‘heyday’ of Darjeeling, when it was a high altitude resort for British colonialists. One of these old structures houses the well stocked Oxford bookshop. It specialises in books about the Himalayas, tea, and natural history.

Two long straggling bazaars start at Chowrasta: the Mall Market that is under a fabric roof supported by bamboo poles, and the Mahakal Market. The latter runs along a path which overlooks a lower part of the town. The Mahakal Temple and a Bhuddist temple perch atop Observatory Hill. These can be reached by walking up a very steep winding path, which was lined by mendicants soliciting alms, often pitifully.

We ate lunch in the very popular Kunga restaurant, which serves Chinese style food. One visit there is enough for me. The restaurant is near a large Victorian gothic edifice with a tall clock tower. Built in 1850, this used to be Darjeeling town hall.

Our quest for a Samsung service centre led us down a long, perilously steep pathway to the busy Chauk Bazaar area. This typical bustling bazaar divided into areas that specialise in one line of business, be it, for example, vegetables or tailoring or sweetmeats or shoes, is laid out higgledy piggledy on an area of level ground that is large by Darjeeling standards.

A taxi conveyed us at great speed up steep winding streets to the huge Sinclairs Hotel where our new friends from Lincolnshire kindly offered us sundowners – well, the sun had actually set long before we reached them.

Returning to our lovely homestay, our young driver forced his poorly powered tiny Suzuki Maruti car along some absolutely appalling roads, which reminded me of some of the worst byways I have experienced in rural Albania and off the beaten track in South Africa.