Darjeeling, a former jewel in the British crown, lies across the Himalayan foothills like some dirty folded blanket, its inner creases the grimy streets or trash strewn lanes, its outer folds the ramshackle and rundown hotels that cling to the hills as mere shadows of their former splendor.
When I imagined Darjeeling I saw a shining town sitting proudly on its mountainside, vast swathes of verdant tea fields rolling gently down into the valleys, and snow topped mountains glistening under clear skies all around. I was only half right. The mountains are there, looming magnificently in the distance. The tea fields are there, sloping off in all directions, their fragrant crops the life blood of the town.
But I was wrong in one thing; this town hasn’t shone for apparent decades. No street is swept, no paint unpeeling. Broken windows go un-repaired, and stray dogs lay dying, too sick or lazy to eat. And behind the smiles of the colorful locals I see an innate melancholy, weariness that comes from too many poor years. They are tired, as this town is tired. Even our hotel is exhausted. The polite staff are friendly but lethargic, and rooms go unmade. Curtains hang dirty on too few hooks, and refuse to close, the permanent ray of sun illuminating the layers of dust. Taps drip through the night, while the hands on a broken clock don’t turn.
But as I peer through the curtain’s ever present gap, I’m reminded why I traveled so far to get here; the view is quite simply spectacular. Off to my right I spy the brilliant white caps of Everest and Kanchenjunga, the world’s 1st and 3rd highest mountains. Straight out in front the early sun casts an ethereal orange glow on the far away hills as the world comes alive. The sky is vast and blue and clear. I open my window, and breathe crisp cool air, a far cry from the stifling, choking polluted air of Kolkata. It instills in me an energy and effervescence not felt in months, and it’s good to be alive.
But I look down, and below me, a slowly waking town dawns. Cockerels crow, and the locals yawn along with the emaciated strays. The energy I feel is not evident in the town’s people. As I look forward to striding out into the stunning landscape, hiking the trails and basking in the glory of nature, they must face the prospect of another day of slack business in the market place. When you wander through those chaotic and colorful markets, it is all smiles. But they are forced, and fade quickly as you move on. You stand and watch, admiring the vast array of wares on display, from fruit and vegetables, to fabrics and shoes, to tools and tea…so much tea. But one thing is obvious; no one is buying. Plenty are looking, but little money changes hands.
Times are hard in most of India, and in Darjeeling, former crown of the British hill stations, times are hard too. The people are weary, as the town is weary. It needs some Himalayan giant to grab the ends of the dirty blanket that is Darjeeling, raise it up and shake it down, as you would when making a bed. Shake away the dirt, and shake away the melancholy. There are political issues here. The region is known locally as Ghorkaland, and it has long been in a struggle with the Indian government for independence. It might just be that successful independence for Ghorkaland could be the shake up this worn out town so desperately needs. Maybe then the jewel might once more shine under a bright Himalayan sky?
All images by the Nomad.