A town in the Himalayas

“NO PATH IN DARJEELING IS STRAIGHT” is the title of an excellent small book about Darjeeling and its environs. I bought a copy shortly after spending an enjoyable week in the Himalayan hill town close to Nepal and Sikkim and not too far from Tibet. Being so near to these places on the fringe of Central Asia, the area in which Darjeeling is located is populated by a large number of different ethnic groups. The book describes some of these and their histories.

Written by someone who lived and worked (as an academic) in Darjeeling for several years, the author Parimal Bhattacharya, provides an evocative series of observations about the town and around it. He imparts much fascinating information about the place and its people and their problems in almost poetic prose. He also manages to convey his feelings of delight and excitement with the reader.

If I have any criticism of this wonderful book, it is that he does not provide any reference to further reading about the Hungarian explorer and orientalist Sandor Csoma Koros (1784-1843), who died in Darjeeling on his way to the Silk Road. But, this is only a minor criticism.

This book, which I loved reading, gives a great sense of place. It will delight readers who have visited Darjeeling, and will intrigue those who have yet to do so.

A HIMALAYAN HOTEL AND WHO WILL BE THE NEXT MR SIKKIM?

The hotel where we stayed in Gangtok (Sikkim, India) had a spacious, clean, comfortable bedrooms. However, it was staffed and managed (rather, mismanaged) by amazingly incompetent people. To avoid embarrassing them, I will not name the hotel, which was, surprisingly, highly rated on a well known travel website.

On our first night, we ordered dinner to be served at 830 pm. The manager said that would be alright and that he would call us in our room when the food was served. At 840, we had not heard anything. So, I rang reception and was told that the food would be ready soon. It was after 9 pm that we were served an unappealing meal.

Some days later, we met the owner. He told me that we complained because as we were “Britishers” and we believed that “the sun never sets over the British Empire”, we expected dinner to be served on time. I pointed out that my wife, although British by naturalisation, is an Indian and I am only first generation British because my parents were born outside the former British Empire. So, our complaint about the meal had nothing to do with nostalgic ideas about imperialism, but much more to do with the poor management of the hotel. I have described this in detail not because it was the only or worst example of the establishment’s failings. It was just one of very many.

Because our hotel’s carering was so unsatisfactory, we dined in another hotel nearby. On our last evening, the dining room of this hotel filled with young Sikkimese men, all with carefully styled hair. We discovered that the hotel was hosting the finalists for the “Mr Sikkim 2019” competition that was soon to be judged. All of the finalists looked pleasant enough, but none of them appeared to be particularly outstanding. I thought that the judges would have a tough time choosing the winner.

After dinner, we walked back to our hotel to settle the bill for our accommodation. We had been assured several times that payment by card would be acceptable, but when we arrived with our card, the manager (hotel owner, possibly) told us that because of poor internet signal, card payment would not, after all, be possible. In that case, we replied, we would not be able to pay. Expecting to pay by card, we had not drawn out nearly enough cash. The manager called one of his assistants, a room boy, who appeared to be savvy with mobile phones. He managed to get the card machine to work, but charged our card one percent of what we owed. Being honest people, we pointed out his error. The young man who was not challenged by IT, was weak in arithmetic skills. Much palaver ensued whilst we waited for him to set up the payment system once more. Throughout all of this, the manager, rather than assisting his numerically challenged employee, stood by, watching helplessly. Meanwhile, I had to stifle my laughter. This cumbrous settling of our bill was yet another example of what John Cleese would have considered fine material for episodes in the comedy series “Fawlty Towers”.

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.

Toy Train to Darjeeling

My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.

Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.

We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.

The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.

The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.

The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.

The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.

Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.

Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.

Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.