Hazy days in Darjeeling

Slightly jet-lagged after 14 hours of travel and two hours in the airport dealing with the paperwork required for lost baggage (thanks Thai Air), we found ourselves crossing the surreal landscape of empty Kolkata streets at 3am with only the odd stray dog or delivery truck disturbing the warm night air of this immense city. A few hours sleep and a freshen up and we were again driving the 25 km back to the airport for our flight north. What a difference a few hours makes! A seething river of humanity ebbed and flowed along the roads; people on foot, on bicycles, in cars, buses and trishaws, humans and vehicles merged into what seemed like one giant organism that thrived on chaos. Kolkata had awoken!

After a short flight we were met at Bagdogra airport by Wangchuk Sherpa, who would guide us on two of our treks, and headed off for the 4 hour drive to Darjeeling. The culture shock from the denseness of humanity in India was reinforced as we picked our way slowly along the highway through the heavily populated plains around Siliguri. Leaving Siliguri, we started the climb up through the Himalayan foothills to Darjeeling.

It was a fascinating journey along this narrow and winding road, where the steep drop-offs into the valleys became deeper at each bend. All along it, groups of people were carrying out minor repairs, adding concrete borders, guttering and terracing in an ongoing battle against the efforts of the monsoons to erode away and reform the mountain slopes. Without cement, the road would have long slid down into the valleys below. The villages lining it seemed to merge into one long thread of humanity, houses perched precariously on the steep slopes, surrounded by remnant forest and the textured mosaic of tea plantations disappearing into the mists of the valleys beneath.

Himalaya foothills housing

Haze over Darjeeling

The sun shone weakly through the haze as we reached cosmopolitan Darjeeling, a melting pot of 100,000 people of diverse Himalayan and Indian cultures, straddling a ridge at 2100m. Our bed in the cosy Hotel Dekeling, high on the slopes of Darjeeling, was particularly inviting as we settled in for our first decent sleep in 42 hours.

Beneath the prayer flags of Observation Hill

We were woken by the sounds of Darjeeling - the constant tooting of car-horns, the characteristic rumble of diesel motors cranking up the narrow people-filled streets and the chatter and noise of a city on the verge of rupturing its infrastructure, but vibrant with life. After a late breakfast, we spent the day getting a feel for this city of contrasts, where the new and the crumbling sit side by side, concrete buildings crowned by black plastic water tanks on every roof and a spaghetti of pipes running off in every direction. Concrete and diesel are the flesh and blood of this part of the world - without either it would not function. Colourful market stalls line the narrow streets and almost anything can be bought at a myriad of tiny shops, while buddhist and hindu temples and shrines sit side by side in a glorious melange of colours and scents. We liked it.

Mahakal Temple - Observation Hill

Hindu temple monkey

Wangchuk and Pasang in front of their alma mater
- The Himalayan Mountain Institute

Later that evening we caught up with our fellow trekkers, George from Sydney, and Chris and Hazel from England, getting to know each other over beers and dinner. A ferocious thunderstorm that night demonstrated why Darjeeling was thus named; from the Tibetan words "dorje" thunderclap and "ling" - place. The diesel generators came out in force as the storm knocked out the electricity grid, and Darjeeling rolled on. Despite our hopes that the storm would clear the air, the Darjeeling haze persisted, hiding the mountain views for which this town is famous.


The haze hides all but the nearest ridges in the Darjeeling Hills

The next day, Wangchuk took us all on a tour of the town. It was good to stretch our legs again and get a feel for these steep "foothills", taller than anything back home. Notwithstanding a dose of the Darjeeling dash as our gut floras adapted to a new diet, we were ready for our first trek.

The closest we would get to a snow leopard

Carpet weaver at the Tibetan Refugee Centre