Written by Sarah Owens
(One of the runner-up entries in the City, Town or Village Writing Competition.)
“Madam. Darjeeling, this way. I do best fare.” His battered jeep is crammed with passengers. “Madam will not regret riding with Rashid.” He grins and tosses my bag on the roof while I squeeze into the back. “We are going to Darjeeling?” I ask my fellow travellers, but am far from reassured by a flurry of head wiggling.
We pull out of New Jalpaiguri Railway Station with Rashid honking his horn to clear the cows, goats, people and tuk-tuks out of the way. It is 55 miles up the mountain to Darjeeling and the road is single track, often washed away by landslides. Peering out of the steamed up windows, I glimpse shrouded mountains on one side and a sheer drop the other and grip the edge of my seat. The pungent smell of spices mixed with stale air is overpowering and my clothes cling to me.
We climb higher, grinding through dusty villages. Children tumble out of school in immaculate uniforms and clamber onto the roof of the jeep, clinging to the sides for a free ride home. Dusk is falling as we rattle into Darjeeling through twisty streets. I grab my bag and set off to find my accommodation. The thin high altitude air burns my lungs and I stagger up the last few steps to the Dekeling Hotel, panting for breath.
“Madam – Welcome.” Mrs Norbu wears a long dark dress with a brightly coloured striped apron. Her thick grey hair is braided and embellished with a woollen headband. She smiles and drapes a white katas scarf around my neck. My room nestles in the attic, warm and cosy, the air scented by logs burning in the bukhari. After the hustle of Delhi and the solo train journey to get here, this is heaven. Mrs Norbu brings me delicious hot soup and dumplings and later I crawl into bed and fall asleep to the ting-a-ling of bells from a distant temple. This truly is a best exotic hotel!
Next morning I‘m woken by the solemn sound of chanting. Sunlight streams through the thin curtains and throwing open the lattice windows I lean out to breathe the pure mountain air. Darjeeling, bathed in a red glow, sprawls down the valley, prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. In the distance, the snow-capped Himalayas gleam sharp against cobalt skies. Breakfast is served in the wood panelled lounge. I tuck into steamy porridge and lashings of golden hued Darjeeling tea, and chat to the other guests.
Later I join forces with two American girls, young enough to be my granddaughters to ride the UNESCO World Heritage Darjeeling Himalayan Railway. It puffs and whistles, zig zagging 1,000 feet up the mountains to Ghoom. Smoke billows, covering us in a fine dusting of soot.
The girls whine that it should be renamed the toxic train, but I love the ride along narrow streets, so close to houses and market stalls, I could easily reach out to grab a woolly hat or samosa. Children run alongside and everyone smiles.
Chowrasta Square becomes my favourite haunt in Darjeeling, surrounded by gift shops with wooden fretwork and pitched roofs and colonial mansions with sensational mountain views. It is a vibrant meeting place thronged with locals and tourists and here I meet Anesh, the young Manager of Café Coffee House, Darjeeling’s answer to Starbucks.
“Madam you come, I make coffee. I am barista. I had to go to Kolkata to learn. My mother did not want me to go. She thought the city would swallow me up and I would forget my home.” He pauses for breath and adds a swirl to my coffee.
“How is it you are liking my town?” I tell him I’ve picked early tea from the lush green slopes of the Happy Valley Tea Garden and watched carpets being woven at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre. But, most of all I love gazing at the majestic Mount Kanchenjunga. “Tomorrow you go early to Tiger Hill. Best view in the world.”
On my last morning I join the 4 am jeep convoy that snakes bumper to bumper for 11 km south of Darjeeling. Hundreds of us spill out onto Tiger Hill and jostle for position in the freezing mist.
Just before 6 am there is a communal gasp. Shafts of fiery red sunlight burn through the clouds to strike the mountains in a blaze of colour, but only for a moment before the mist closes and the Himalayas are again shrouded in mystery.
Posted 14th June 2015 by Steve Hanson on behalf of Sarah Owens. The photographs were supplied by Sarah Owens after the Writing Competition had been judged.