In Darjeeling: Tea and Revolution (1987)
Updated: Jan 20
This narrative forms part of our one year-round-the-world honeymoon adventure (1986-1987). We break away from chaotic Calcutta to head up to Darjeeling, the British Colonial hill station of in the Himalaya Mountains.
April, 1987: The New Jalpaigurijn Mail
Our driver was skilled at maneuvering the back streets of Calcutta, or I doubt we'd have made our train. People simply refused to get off the roads, considering it their thoroughfare, not the cars. So we darted down some alleyways, and eventually, we could see the large Howrah Train Station.
The stations in India have been well described by Paul Theroux in his classic book, "The Great Railway Bazaar."
"Inside, it is high and smokey from the fires of the people who occupy it; the ceiling is black, the floor is wet and filthy and it is dark - the long shafts of sun streaming from the topmost windows lose their light in the dust on the way down."
We didn't have time to take in the train station, much as I would have liked to poke my nose about. We found our train with little difficulty, a helpful porter steered us to our car, which was actually written on our ticket, since we'd reserved our seats. To our amazement, there was a list by the door, and our names were carefully typed with our seating assignments. Despite the slow pace back at the ticket office, we were very impressed with the Indian Railroad's efficiency.
But to our utter dismay, second class reserved in India was unlike Thailand. We were shown to a small compartment open to the hallway, with places for six seats. In the aisles, two more seats could be pulled down to share space. Fortunately, we were lumped in with two friendly female travellers from Australia, Sandra and Michelle, whom we were to travel with all the way to Chitwan, Nepal.
The bunks were simple wood planks, no mattresses or pillows. And they were stacked three high like a Three Stooges episode. Since there was only the four of us in our compartment, we used the top bunks for the backpacks. Unfortunately, our fans weren't working, and things was very noisy. Somehow, we all managed to get a few hours sleep, and awoke to dawn as we rode across the pancake flat Bengali plain.
It seemed western travellers were of great interest to the Indian men in our car. They'd congregate outside our area to watch our every move. They weren't malicious, just curious, but also, obnoxious. There wasn't much that could be done about it, however, except grin and bear it. We quickly realized we'd returned to the Indonesian style of travelling, crowded transportation and omnipresent gawkers.
The train passed near the Bangladesh border to the east, small villages and enclaves along this fertile plain, bone dry, thirsty in anticipation of the coming monsoons. Small children worked the land with their parents, water buffalo providing the plowing power. We did see some tractors and irrigation pipes, so modern farming had arrived in the region.
At one town, we stopped for a few minutes. I jumped off the train to stretch my legs, and was greeted by a tea seller yelling: "Chai Chai Chai Chai" at the top of his lungs right into my ear. Tea was sold in clay cups, pre-mixed with sweet milk. Cost was 2 for a rupee, or about 10 cents, so I bought a round for the group in our compartment. After one was done drinking the tea, the cups were smashed on the tracks, soon decompose and return to the land, a very environmentally conscious approach to selling.
We boarded a trishaw to Siliguri, where we hoped to catch the toy train to Darjeeling. Our pilot of the bicycle-powered taxi took us down a dirt track passed masses of village people off to who knows where. The scene intensely colourful, dark-skinned Bengali women in bright saris, men in loin cloths in the fetid heat, smiling and waving at the foreigners with their huge packs being propelled to the next station.
The toy train is an engineering marvel, a miniature engine with two small passenger cars chugging from the Bengali plain up to the 7,000 foot terraces at Darjeeling. It was reputed to be one of the top ten great train rides in the world, and we desperately wanted to take it.
Unfortunately, this turned into another debacle. At the toy train station, we were informed it would be several hours before the train departed. Then, we learned portions of the track had recently been dynamited by insurgents, the journey would require 14 hours, instead of the requisite eight. We were already thoroughly exhausted from the overnight ride from Calcutta, so decided to skip the train ride and board the bus into the mountains, a much shorter journey of five hours. Often, compromise is the key to get to a destination with one's sanity intact (somewhat!).
Naturally, the bus ride wasn't a picnic either. We managed to secure seats, but the bus was loaded like a submarine sandwich, people literally hanging off the over head racks. The seats were designed for Indians, not long-legged westerners; our knees butted up against the seat in front of us.
Michelle and Sandra fared somewhat better as they were smaller than Elaine and I, but they endured the indignity of Bengalis leaning into them at every curve, of which there were plenty on the switchback route up the Himalayan foothills.
We passed massive tea bush terraces, which looked like hedges common in North America. The fields were bright green with an abundant crop, as it was near picking season. We climbed up and down a series of valleys and hills, the road twisting and turning like a snake. At times only inches separated us from the edge of a cliff with a drop of several hundred feet. Yes it was terrifying at times. We chanted our mantra:
There aren't any atheists on a Third World bus.
Somehow, we arrived in Darjeeling, fabled as a cool retreat from the heat and dust of Calcutta. By now, it was late in the afternoon, so decided to stay at a Youth Hostel, which we'd normally pass on, as hotels were so cheap all over Asia. But this hostel was reputed to be one of the best in all of Asia, so we staggered with our packs up switchback roads to the hostel, above the city on a cliff.
We were led into a great room replete with fireplace, which we decided to share with Sandra and Michelle. We realized it was our first year wedding anniversary, and found it pretty ironic to be halfway around the world in Darjeeling, India, standing on our balcony gazing upon a mysterious and magical setting in the clouds, buildings clinging to terraces as held by some magnetic force. It seemed pretty bizarre to imagine how far removed we were from our wedding day at a small country church in rural Ontario the year before; we were still on our "honeymoon" so long after the fact.
Our relationship had survived a lot more excitement and adventure than most people have in a lifetime in our first year. We'd discovered many things about ourselves, our ability to struggle through difficult, trying times, periods of isolation on remote islands, immersed in exotic surroundings and cultures; and hadn't driven each other nuts! With many exciting destinations ahead of us. Little did we realize how close we were to near disaster, waiting just around the corner, up ahead in Kathmandu.
You Say Want A Revolution
It took a moment to appreciate the cool air at 7,000 ft., as we were hot and tired from the non-stop 24 hour journey. By evening, we'd cooled down considerably and took to wearing jackets and sweaters, something we hadn't done since Mount Bromo in Java four months previous. After the blast oven of SE Asia for the past five months, it was refreshing to chill out again.
Darjeeling was fascinating, the walks around town put one in shape in no time. The city fathers had constructed buildings on a series of terraces, so it was necessary to climb up and down to get to a particular destination. As the youth hostel was at the highest point in town, we had a steep descent into town, and an invigorating climb back up.
The locals in Darjeeling were largely Gurkhas, light skinned people, unlike dark Bengalis down on the plain. The Gurkhas resented being governed by Calcutta, and wanted home rule. We saw lots of graffiti spray painted on walls and buildings. declaring: "Home Rule Now." The week before our arrival, Darjeeling had been closed to all foreigners, as there'd been bombings of government buildings; Indian troops had arrived to quell resistance, but a few had been shot and killed in squirmishes.
We didn't especially feel any tension, although there was a sense of trouble in the air. Many troops had been deployed; we'd witnessed patrols passing by in jeeps, soldiers toting antiquated rifles.
We stopped into a restaurant for some Darjeeling tea, warmly were greeted by a Gurkha family. Normally, the locals were reticent to discuss the political situation, but one man in the restaurant seemed upset and wanted to discuss the matter with some travellers.
"The bloody Indian government should realize we want our independence from the Bengalis, because as you can see, we don't have anything in common with our dark-skinned neighbours of the North Ganges Delta, and don't appreciate their rule," he began.
"What the government in Delhi has to recognize is that we are the best trained fighters in the world, and many of our fellow countrymen are willing to come back to Darjeeling and fight for our cause."
"The Fighting Gurkhas are one of the most famous squadrons in the world. There was an old saying that the Gurkhas were always the first ones into any battle, as their fierceness and determination was an inspiration for all soldiers fighting in any major British campaign for the past three hundred years. In The Falkland Islands campaign, the Gurkhas were the first ones to land. Our people have no fear, especially of the Indian troops."
"Because we are so valuable as a fighting force, we get some of the best training and education available from the British. I know because I spent many years as a Gurkha soldier, and I've lived all over the world. Our main base is in Hong Kong, and many active soldiers are ready to come back and defend what we believe is our right."
I'd remembered encountering Gurkha soldiers stationed in Belize to defend the border with Guatemala. Several years ago, the Guatemalan government had foolishly declared a section of Belize as its own, trying to muscle its way across the border. The Gurkhas were called in and made short work of the Guatemalan troops. I'd met many soldiers and had some interesting conversation with them. I found them to be almost without exception extremely friendly, but they also had that look in their eye that said: "You fuck with me, and you're dead meat."
Our mysterious narrator continued on about the problems in the region. "Things are going to get a lot more violent before this matter is resolved. It's probably the only way we'll get the attention of the Indian government, after all. There's been a rash of bombings, and the roads been closed several times. And, we expect the jeep drivers, who provide a service up and down the mountain, to call a 24 hour strike this week, which will effectively close the road to all traffic."
I was surprised we hadn't read anything in the world press about the Darjeeling situation. Problems with Sikh extremists and the fiasco at the Golden Temple in Amritsar had been common knowledge, but we came to appreciate India's fragile democracy, split into numerous special-interest groups. For example, up the road from Darjeeling was the resplendent state of Sikkim, closed for all practical purposes to tourists. However, Sikkim, with a mix of Tibetans and Gurkhas, had more in common with Darjeeling than Calcutta.
Our best strategy was to lay low and not become embroiled in political debate while in the region. We'd play the part of tourists, enjoying our stay in the cool green hills. This was not difficult, for we discovered Darjeeling was full of surprises, as it had retained so much of its British flavour as a hill station for parched expats.
One of our first discoveries was beautiful cheeses produced in the region. We found a store selling yak and buff cheese, along with beautiful breads. We were also pleased to see enjoy bottled apple juice sold in many shops; we enjoyed little picnics in the town square, watching colourful citizens walking past. Tibetans carrying huge stacks of wood tied to their back, Gurkhas with giant baskets of tea, Bengalis riding carts full of produce, children wearing their British school uniforms running home from class.
We quaffed buckets of tea, very civilized, served in fine china. The local architecture was late Victorian and Edwardian, ornate carved gables, tri-coloured paints. We were in a fantasy-land, the air very fresh and cool, walking through the terraces in the clouds.
Speaking of tea, one day we played tourist to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, on the outskirts of town. Along with several other travellers, we were provided a guided walk through the process of making world-famous Darjeeling teas. Unbeknownst to us, Darjeeling produces many varieties of tea, as we discovered later when we purchase several 100 gram packets to bring home as exotic gifts.
The tour was basic; our guide spoke little English. We saw how the tea was picked off the hedges, which rolled down the hills in neat rows. Smiling women picked the green leaves, then threw them over their shoulder into a huge basket strapped to their forehead. Often, their children would be playing at their feet, with a young one in a sling hanging onto a breast.
We also stopped in at the Tibetan Refugee Centre, set in a small valley over a ridge, about a half hour walk from the square. We were witness to a mass exodus of Tibetans following the Chinese invasion at the rooftop of the world in 1959. Many Tibetans continued to exile their homeland, due to a series of atrocities committed by ruthless Chinese usurpers.
Their journey was long and perilous down from the highest mountains in the world; many Tibetans ended in Dharamsala, where the 14th Dalai Lama, the religious and political head of all Tibetans, resides and carries on the ancient cultural traditions.
We witnessed Tibetans making carpets, created from scratch. We saw how sheep's wool was washed, spun into yarn, dyed, set on the looms, then manufactured into sophisticated patters and designs. The total time for fifty people to make one rug was nineteen days, but as it was a continuous assembly process, the output was prodigious. We really wanted to purchase one, a beautiful eight by ten foot model, which would have been shipped to Canada for around three hundred US dollars, but we simply couldn't afford it.
Later, when we were back in Canada, this one item was what we wished we could've been able to purchase.
We also took in Darjeeling's small zoo, filled with exotic animals from the Himalayan region. After the disgusting conditions of the zoo in Bukkittinggi, Sumatra, we were somewhat reluctant to stop in at any Third World zoos, but this wasn't bad. The animals were kept in small cages, but didn't seem to be abused at all.
We'd heard April was one of the better months for gazing upon the Himalayas, especially, Kanchenjunga, a mountain name we'd never heard. We were surprised to learn it was the third highest peak in the world. For five days, the skies remained overcast and rainy, with the nearby terraces obscured by clouds.
A taxi strike shut down Darjeeling for 24 hours, as the situation grew more tense. We were then informed we'd have to evacuate once the highway re-opened; the potential for violence was on the upswing. We tried to organize a trip up to Tiger Top to witness sunrise, a hill with a stunning view of the entire region, from the Bengali Plain to the Himalayas, but for four mornings straight, it was overcast.
Naturally, on the day we were forced to evacuate, the skies cleared. I was awake at 5 am to watch the sunrise from the balcony of our hostel. There it stood in all its glory: the magnificent Kanchenjunga, an immense mountain. A pink sunrise reflected off its snow covered slopes, a spectacular sight. Along with several other travellers, we stood silent, in awe of such a splendid display of mother nature.
A fellow traveller produced a pair of powerful mini-binoculars. From our perch, I witnessed snow swirling around the summit, whipped into a fury. I was happy to be on a porch in Darjeeling at 7000 feet, not on its slopes. especially as I wasn't much of climber (we'd found the terraces of Darjeeling challenging enough!).
The caretaker of the youth hostel provided breakfast for the departing travellers; we were all forced to leave that morning, as Darjeeling was literally closing the border again to tourists. We left en masse for the bus depot, over twenty five of us, and almost to a person, we were headed in the same direction.
As Bob Seger put it: "I think I'm going to Kathmandu."
The shitshow was about to begin.
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