India: North by Northwest. Part 3 – Darjeeling and Varanasi

Darjeeling

We flew out to Darjeeling via Bagdogra and took a jeep up into the hills. The air was fresh and crisp. The road was narrow, steep and windy and the hills covered with tea bushes which we saw being picked en route.  It was a slow drive – but the villages we passed through and the scenery helped pass the time. As we passed the Nepal border adorned with brightly colored flags we felt close to the mountains. Our anticipation grew. We pulled into Darjeeling, a town built of cascading houses on stilts, carved into the hillside. We made the Elgin hotel our home falling for its old world British charm, which made up for its disappointing food.

Darjeeling was something of a family pilgrimage for us. Both my grandfathers had spent time at this British retreat hill station when they were posted in East Asia in the late 1940s. They had both told tales of this town to their children; mum vividly remembering her dad talk of seeing the imposing Kanchenjunga on the skyline, and my dad’s dad of Chowrasta and the ponies that gathered there. Knowing both my grandfathers had walked these same streets made exploring this town all the more special.

The people here look distinct – warm looking with wide rosy cheeks and narrow eyes, and bundled up in blankets and animal fir. Hardy and fit for mountain life. The Himalayas dominate life here – the town home to Tenzing Norgay (Sherpa with Edmund Hillary on his 1953 expedition to Everest) who is a local hero. The mountaineering institute brings this and many more expeditions to life, its a treasure trove of mountaineering history. It is inside the zoo which is a nice stop on the way.

     

Our attempts to glimpse the mountains themselves were dashed on more than one occasion. We walked up to the viewing platform on Chowrasta, taking a picture of the ponies, but the mountains remained shrouded in cloud. Next we took the toy train – a UNESCO world heritage site – and a train lover’s delight. It runs on a two foot track, alongside the main hillside road, at present only as far as Kurseong . The train is slow and rickety, built in 1879-81. It has a coal fired steam engine, toot toot!, and I was sure it had not changed one bit since my grandfathers were here. It has two dinky carriages, which you can just about stand up in, first class and second class! If you want to spend time at Batasia loop, which on a clear day (not ours!) offers unsurpassed views of the Himalayas take the tourist train which does a loop. We got off in Ghum and walked back along Tenzing Norgay road – ask the locals for the turn! Its a lovely walk along the backside of the hill – littered with small villages and you pass a beautiful monastery perched on the hill.

    

By now we had been enveloped in cloud for three days without so much as a glimpse of the Himalayas which had such an impact on my grandfather. In a last ditch attempt we joined the huddled masses at Tiger Hill – a viewing spot another 400ft up the hillside – at 5am. I would suggest buying a ticket for the building unless you want to freeze and many cups of the sweet milky coffee on sale. We waited. The sky was brightening and we were staring so hard into the clouds that we were seeing things. Then suddenly, rising above the clouds stood the tip of Kanchenjunga, lit by the warm glow of the early pink sun. Mesmerizing and one of those moments you snap a still of in your mind to have for a lifetime. Here’s to you grandad.

Varanasi

Varanasi was our next stop, and a world apart from Darjeeling. A holy city, it is a place of tradition, ritual and pilgrimage. The main focus of the town is the Ganges with many temples, ghats, lining its shore. In the morning men come down at sunrise to bathe in its lukewarm waters. The women wash clothes and boat men take tourists on trips into the murky river. The town has special significance in Hinduism since if you die here your soul goes straight to Nirvana, breaking the cycle of reincarnation. There was a mixture of relief and inner peace in the people we met here for this fact, they feel lucky that they will die here. After death, the bodies are swathed in cloth (white for men and red for women) and carried down to the waters edge to be blessed with the holy water. In public view the bodies are brought up to the cremation ghats. The air is thick with incense, ashes and the smell of sandalwood. The families gather, comforting each other in their grief. It is a curiously uncomfortable sight for those of us who treat death and grief as so very private.

  

Back from the shore line, Varansi is a bustling town. It is made up of a maze of narrow alleyways no more than 2 ft wide but room enough for the bikes, cows and carts to roam at will. We stayed just back from the shore at the Kautilya Society Residence which was clean and friendly and fed us often. We had some of our best food anywhere here in Varanasi. Start with a sample of the wonderful sweets sold at the entrance of the old town and do not miss the Blue Lassi, one of those rare lonely planet havens which deserves its accolades. The seasonal lassis were among the best we had and my favorite du jour was the apple. VSB was a local favorite where a whole thali (meal) costs $1 and was both filling and delicious. Many of the restaurants will also make and pack up sandwiches for you which beats the offerings available at the station.

The garment district in the largely Muslim part of town is well worth a visit to see the saris being made by hand. The material patterns are hammered into the pattern board which then gets fed into the sewing machine which is worked using foot pedals to stitch the silk. A wedding sari can take a single maker six weeks or more. We also spent the morning at a local school supported in full by the German Bakery cafe. Catering to backpackers missing home the food doesn’t live up to much and is expensive but their help with our local itinerary more than made up for it. The school was a highlight as we spent the morning teaching the children about Christmas, trying to explain Christmas trees and holly.

    

The end

Before we knew it, our cross continental India trip had come to an end. We had been surprised, welcomed and enraged. Defining one’s first experience of India has stumped many an author. I found India dirty, busy and struggling. Traveling in India is hard work, it takes it out of you. Yet India is also giving and friendly. It is warm-blooded, full of life and unapologetic human energy. I can only say India left an indelible mark. We will most definitely be back.

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