Grey clouds blanket the skies over Pune today, quite like how I’ll remember Darj…
Set in the cradle of the Himalayas, at a height of 2050m, this colonial town first greeted me simply with its rains. Over my few and frequent trips to Darjeeling, i tried to understand the city’s code and culture. And when night fell over the lovely town.. lit in a thousand lights, it was the prettiest sight from HMI. Darjeeling still bears that colonial air, but unfortunately finds it a little difficult to tackle the problems of the ever-increasing tourism, its subsequent demands and pollution. There’s a blend of Gorkhali, Bengali, Nepali and some Tibetan dialects and culture (muffled in May by the incessant chatter of the tourists!)
I remember the first time I read the board saying “15 minutes walk to HMI” at Chaurasta and feeling its taking much longer than that. In the month that followed, however, the walk from HMI to Chaurasta on the beautiful VIP road became routine and in the short half-day breaks and a few longer ones, I tried to explore a little more of its tiny lanes and big markets!
Without a doubt, the place I knew best at Darjeeling was HMI. And what more can I say about it? Every nook and corner is traced in my head, associated inseparably with all the memories and people I shared the space with. The Zoo is one of the best ones I’ve ever been to, very well maintained. The HMI museum, as I mentioned earlier, is an excellent insight into the lives and times of some of the most extraordinary mountaineers and the legacy of HMI. Tenzing Norgay’s samadhi lies in the quadrangle in front of the museum .
Shops and restaurant line the street leading to Chaurasta, overlooking a beautiful valley. If you’re lucky, you can get to witness some local musicians playing on these streets. There’s handicrafts and trekking equipment and of course, woolens. The familiar holy fragrance of the incense sticks and chants flow out of some of the little dimly lit shops. The branded stores and fast food chains stand a striking contrast to the quaint street. The mall market is set in a tiny lane. You could get a plate of hot momos for barely 10 bucks along with some decent woolens if you’re lucky! There’s so much to choose from, and so many pretty things around.. And again, there’s huge scope for bargaining! 😉
We visited the Japanese Temple and the Peace Pagoda one of the days. The place has such a different, positive vibe! Chanting the mantras with the monk adds to the effect. There’s also the St. Andrew’s Church painted in a refreshing yellow. Having roamed all this and more, we were still trying to squeeze in the Tibetan Refugee Centre.. But we didn’t make it in time. (On the must see list for the next trip!) 😉
Extensive tree gardens cover the valleys of Darj. And you wouldn’t go there and miss the authentic Darjeeling tea! Black and Green or just milky and sweet, like we’re used to! They’re quality is based on the time of harvest and the storekeepers are more than willing to help you pick the right one based on your taste.
The food in Darj! Hah! This was going to be a separate post earlier. There is so much to shoes from! There are classy restaurants – dark wood, yellow lights, full-length windows and an open bar. And smaller, decent ones which serve good food minus the extravagant ambience and prices! My favourite ones were the small restaurants, their walls lined with wood and an inviting ‘OPEN’ sign on the door. Always housing more tourists and trekkers than they could hold (and yet one more would walk in and pull a chair!) the warmth of the place and people there was exactly what you needed on a cold Darjeeling evening. They serve the best traditional Thukpa and momos!
Having ordered almost everything from the menu at Chopsticks by this huge HMI group of ours that crashed there, the pork ribs would be my favourite, hands down! Followed by the chilly chicken momos. And we had to practically hunt down Penang to try its famous traditional Nepali thali and we kept picking others base on their reputation or simply the inviting ambience. But there’s also a certain beauty to the little shacks that sit by the side of the road. In spite of having tried the best restaurants, you wouldn’t want to miss out on stepping into one of these.
Then there’s Glenary’s and Keventer’s. Two of my favourite places in Darjeeling! Remember the old Darj I was looking for, these places gave me just that! Keventer’s still serves cold coffee and milkshake in the classic milk bottles. I had my Barfi moment sitting in it’s balcony, the clock tower on the other side! 😉 after having an incredible lunch at Glenary’s , we still tried almost every sweet on the shelves of the Glenary’s Bakery! And packed some more to take back home.. One thing I loved doing was sitting at a cafe at Chaurasta, watch the people go about their own work, read, write.. Unhurried and peacefully.. And only at that pace can you see beyond a bustling tourist destination, the life in a day of Darj…
And yet, my favourite has to be the simple ‘HMI Zoo Cafe!’ So many evenings spent there! So much chatter, and coffee and plates of momos and wai-wai and french fries! (we never got sick of those) the entire hostel would be crammed in that space, and we didn’t mind a bit. The vacant look it bore on the last day really got me to tears!
Darj let me do that and a lot of other stuff. Darj gave me friends and freedom. Wandering about its streets alone, this is the first time i felt independent and confident of being able to take decisions (some stupid ones too, but I’m learning 😉 ) and carrying myself in a new place. Darjeeling gave me friends and memories to cherish for a lifetime. I’ve loved and hoped and hated and learned, all in a month there. It was like a few years of my life contracted into a month-long roller coaster of experiences and emotions! And in such a short while, darjeeling had become home. One I long to return to…