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     Volume 4 Issue 24 | December 10, 2004 |

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Where Clouds Give Way to Roads

Imran H. Khan

(continued from last week)

Like the wonders of the world, in Darjeeling, the points of tourist interests are subdivided into different areas and routes for the convenience of the tourist. The three-point route consists of Tiger Hill, Batasia Loop and Ghoom Monastery, all conveniently located close by. The five-point route consists of the Museum, The Japanese Temple, Lal Kothi or the Council House, Ava Art Gallery and Dhirdham Temple. Finally, another package consists of the seven points: the Zoo, Tenzing Rock, Tea Garden, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Ropeway, Gorkha Stadium and the Tibetan Self Help Centre.

Since we had already visited some of the spots, we decided against the package tours and went to see the sights on our own. First, we gravitated towards the Mall, the heart of the city. This particular morning, I heard the distinct sound of Bangla music playing loudly from one of the shops. Intrigued, I approached it and read the nameplate. It said 'Pleasure Hut'. Captivated by the name, I gave in to my curiosity and stepped into the shop a little nervously. I had mixed feelings when it turned out to be a Bangladeshi restaurant serving dishes reminiscent of home. Two days away from home I felt nostalgia rush up like a wave. I came back with my companions and ended up eating at this restaurant for the remaining time of our stay.

The next spot on our itinerary was Mirik. The road leading to it was decorated on both sides with tea gardens and tea resorts. The mountains were at an angle of about 65 degrees. One wondered how tea-planters kept their balance while picking the tender shoots.

Forty-nine km away from Darjeeling town at an altitude of about 5,570 feet, lies Mirik Lake on a five-acre level stretch. The lake itself is about 1.25 km long and is impounded by construction of a weir. The temperature here is higher than in Darjeeling and as we all got off the jeep to follow hundreds of others on foot, I shed two layers of clothing. I had expected the lake to be something out of a movie and I must say, was a little disappointed with it but the overall serene atmosphere and the panoramic sights were surely worth the trip.

We set aside the following day to witness the sunrise from Tiger Hill, about 11km from Darjeeling town. Happy in the knowledge that it was not too far we got a rude shock when the driver of the taxi we had hired to take us there, told us he would pick us up at 4 a.m. He mumbled something about "taking a position before others get there." I felt a twinge of the typical tourist jitters: Was this a game that the locals played at the expense of the tourists? If so, we didn't know the rules. At least at his hour we would have the roads to ourselves.

Four o'clock found us in the Tata Sumo barely awake, huddled in fumes of sleep, driving through the streets of Darjeeling. The first few kilometres were blissfully quiet. However, as we got closer to our destination, other vehicles joined us until we were travelling at a snail's pace. Once we reached Tiger Hill, the driver's pick-up time made sense. Close to four hundred sun worshippers (a.k.a. crazy tourists) had turned up at that unholy hour to watch the sunrise. This vantage point, 8,482 feet above sea level, apparently offers the best view of the the mighty Kanchanjunga and its snowy crest, in all its grandeur. Some 225 km away was the general direction of Mount Everest but it needed a very sharp eye to discern its outlines hidden behind a curtain of clouds. It is said that when the sun rises over the hill it paints a picture in your mind that can be cherished for years to come.

By 4:40 am we were still cocooned in a mantle of semi-darkness. The impatience was palpable. Finally, it dawned. Not the sunrise. No. The thought: it was too cloudy to see the sunrise. While we had been focused on welcoming the first glittering rays of the sun, daylight had crept upon us on steady feet. We were enveloped in light. It was disconcerting and tiresome to have waited for so long for something that was not meant to be. Baffled, bewildered, bothered and betrayed, we slowly made our way down the hill.

Our next stop was the Ghoom Monastery. At least a man-made structure would not let us down. It didn't. Built strategically by the main road a flight of steps lower, Ghoom Monastery was a blend of old and new. Two other structures reflecting the beauty of man's creation were the Batasia Loop and War Memorial, not too far from the Monastery. The Toy Train has tracks through and around this site in loops and twirls, around the beautiful shrubbery and the clusters of flowers. A different breed of vendors was visible here. They were selling sight...telescopic views to various scenic spots, especially the Kanchanjunga.

We spent the last day of our trip back on the streets of the Mall. Despite our numerous visits here, it did not lose its magic. By now, we were low on finances. Being broke at the Mall is like being a vegetarian at a Bangladeshi wedding feast. Such is the charm of the Mall that with one hand it picks your pocket and with the other, it pats you on your back, leaving you grinning foolishly with happiness. The sad thing was, we had had Taka in our pockets that we hadn't changed to Rupees at the border and there was no money exchange in town. Beware those who hope to change your money here as the only medium of change is Rupees and Dollar.

Our empty pockets compelled us to move away and we decided to explore some of the paths off the beaten track. We took a road by a horse stable that led to a rundown village. Suddenly we realised that instead of us taking in the sights of the locals, the locals were taking in the sight of us! We turned back to the Mall. Another road led us to a restaurant named Mayfair. The entrance was via two flights of stairs below road level. Statues were on display all around the compound and each of the thirty-one rooms possessed its own spectacular view. Excited, I asked the cost of the accommodation. Just a couple of nights here was worth another visit to Darjeeling. A poker-faced attendant told me that it was Rs 6,000 per day. The words of the Canadian gentleman we had befriended on our first night in Darjeeling, echoed in my ears. I turned in haste and retraced my steps to the Mall and its surroundings where normal people dwelt.

The walk had worked up our appetites and we found ourselves at Minute Meals Fiesta, a fast-food restaurant. We decided to have our 'last supper' here. It looked like a nice little place from the outside until we got inside. The restaurant had three stories, the first level (at the bottom) for heavy food, the next level for sweet dish items and the uppermost level (by the roadside) for light snacks. The different levels had different interior designs and simply going down the stairs transformed the scene and one's sensations. The food not only complemented the architecture but provided some humour. Two items caught my attention on the menu: the Cheese Paratha and the Paneer Paratha. The former cost Rs. 40 and the latter Rs. 35. Curious, I asked the waiter what the difference between these two 'cheese' plates was. He smiled and said, 'Five rupees sir.' Others before me had obviously suffered from the same curiosity. Of course, we ordered both and he was right! The only difference was five rupees.

Finally it was time to leave. The trip was over.

It is true that people fascinate me: the way they dress, the way they eat, what they eat, where they eat, what they do, why they do the things they do. Darjeeling's breathtaking beauty and its colourful people was a joyous respite that will be hard to forget.


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