The Last Jeep Out of Darjeeling

Before, when I heard the word “Darjeeling,” I thought only of tea and toy trains.  Now, I think of torches and a midnight escape.

My guidebook mentioned checking in on the political situation before heading to Darjeeling, but by the time I read that I was already in the jeep halfway up the foothills of the Himalaya.

I had wished to transfer to the toy train (made famous by Wes Anderson’s 2007 film, “Darjeeling Limited”) at New Jalpaiguri and ride the winding track up to Darjeeling.  A recent mudslide prevented that from happening.

Instead, I piled into a jeep with far too many passengers and braced myself against my bag for the bumping ride up into the heavens.   Having just completed my first overnight train ride in India from Kolkata, I was in no mood for 5 hours in a crowded jeep blasting Indi-pop – but that’s what I got.

After hours spent squished stiff, we raced through the clouds and emerged at the mythical mountaintop city of Darjeeling.  Were the clouds gone, I would have seen Everest from here.  Yet, the clouds never parted.  They sensed something was boiling.  They didn’t dare let the sunshine in.

I spent four days in Darjeeling and never once saw the famous Himalayan peaks.  Four days wandering through the clouds, not seeing up nor down until all I could see was the fire ahead and the headlights of the last jeep out of town.  Four days in a city that I would be forced to leave.

But what a four days they were…

Darjeeling was a famous hill station in the days of the British Raj.  In the mid-19th century the colonial government set up a sanatorium and a military depot.  Subsequently, extensive tea planting occurred in the region, resulting in an internationally recognized crop that ranks among the most popular black teas in the world and provides much of the economy for the town.

The poor roads and remote location keep mass tourism at bay in this romantic and mysterious region.

Darjeeling is nestled along the elbow of India’s eastern arm in close proximity to the Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Bangladeshi borders.  Consequently, to venture further afield, one must first obtain a permit from the Indian government.

I had no intentions of leaving Darjeeling for the nether regions.  My intentions were to stay for a week, breathe the fresh air, and escape the chaos of the low country.  But, India is addicted to a daily dose of unpredictability.

The people of Darjeeling run the gamut of Indo-European and Asiatic features.  With a large Tibetan refugee community, Newar Nepalese, Bhutanese, and sprinklings of semi-nomadic Himalayan tribes, the streets of Darjeeling offer an eclectic mix of characters who congregate daily in the town square, Chowrasta.

The origin of the name “Darjeeling” is most likely from the Tibetan words ‘Dorge,’ which means ‘thunderbolt,’ and ‘Ling,’ which means place or land.  Quite literally, it is the ‘Land of the Thunderbolt.’  Originally, this was the name given to the Buddhist monastery atop Observatory Hill but, over time, became the name of the entire surrounding area.

Two local boys in their early twenties beckoned me to join them on their walk up to Observatory Hill.  For them, this hill represented the ultimate Zen paradise.

Monkeys paraded about on the staircase up.   As we approached the hilltop monastery, we were absorbed into a thickly wrapped web of Tibetan prayer flags.  This oasis at the top of the hill was a religious carnival of color where locals gathered to thump gongs and gurgle baritone odes.  I’d never been anywhere quite like it.  So flashy, yet so serene.

I spent the following days wandering through the tea farms, chatting with local shop owners and learning from a slew of local tea experts about a drink that I had never thought much about.  Each seemed to share the same opinions.  Tea must come with milk, green tea is only to be used for medicine, and black tea should be served several times a day.  You can sniff out a top grade tea by blowing hot breath into a handful of leaves and waiting for the aroma.

At the Happy Valley Tea Estate, a drunk man who claimed to run the place took me on a tour of the plantation.  Picking started in March and there were not many people around when I arrived during pruning season.  What I could gather from his slurred and jumbled English, was that the buds of the tea bush are picked, placed on a mesh table and blasted with 8 hours of cold air and 8 hours of hot air.  This takes away 30% of the moisture, and then the buds get compressed in a series of machines and go through fermentation.  The tip of the bud produces the highest quality tea, then the larger leaves, and the stems go into the tea bags.

There are 84 tea gardens in Darjeeling.

Each night, I holed up in my cold, unheated room with a cup of tea and fell asleep in my wool hat and gloves, buried under four blankets to try and block out the Himalayan winter.  In the mornings after tea, I ordered a bucket of boiling water, mixed it with the cold tap water, and splashed liberally as I rubbed a bar of soap over my goose bumped body until I could take it no more.

Somehow, I found this daily routine quite satisfying.

On what would become my final morning in town, I started the day at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (better known as the Darjeeling Zoo) where wild monkeys patrolled the perimeter laughing at their caged brethren.  At 7,000 feet (2,150 meters) this is the highest altitude zoo in the world, and it specializes in Himalayan Wildlife like the rare Snow Leopard and the Tibetan Wolf.

Also within the zoo grounds, was the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), which had a fascinating exhibit on the mountaineers who’ve braved the world’s highest peaks.  HMI is one of the premier places in the world to learn the science and art of mountaineering and its first managing director was also the first man to climb Everest (alongside Edmund Hillary), Tensing Norgay.

When I left the museum and zoo grounds, I noticed that the road was closed and that all cars were stopped from leaving town.  Soon, all shops closed their doors and I asked a policeman what was going on.  He informed me that three men had been shot in a nearby town and that an independence strike had begun.

Ghorkhaland is the name of the proposed state in India demanded by the Nepali/Gorkhali speaking Gorkha ethic group in Darjeeling and the Dooars and Siliguri terai contiguous to Darjeeling in northern West Bengal.  The movement for a separate state gained serious momentum during the 1980s, when a violent agitation was carried out by the Gorkha National Liberaion Front (GNLF).  Things subsided for a time, but in 2008, a new party called the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) raised the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland once again.

On February 8, 2011 (my fourth day in Darjeeling), three GJM activists were shot by the West Bengali police as they tried to enter Jalpaiguri district.  This led to violence in the Darjeeling hills and an indefinite strike called for by GJM.

Every store (save the Chemist shops) in the whole of Darjeeling shut its doors, while the citizens of the city took to the streets.  All roads out of town were shut, and pink posters flew up across the town stating GJM’s demands.

In Chowrasta Square, tribal families with elaborate nose jewelry sat on park benches next to young activists – everyone had something to say.

Down the street from Chowrasta Square, the West Bengali Tourism Building was set on fire.  I had stopped by this building twice that morning to find out information on the zoo and museum, but they were not open.  Perhaps, they sensed what was to come.

The whole town rushed to watch the fire as I looked around confused wondering, what am I to do now?  The roads were closed, the people angry, and I was stuck on the top of a Himalayan hill station with no way down.

I asked several people (the police, the lady at my guesthouse, another set of tourists on the street) what should I do?

What could I do?  Nothing it seemed.  Some said I should stay and wait things out.  Others said I should pack my bags and see if I could somehow bribe an official for a ride out of town.

I wasn’t terribly frightened, but the fact that the tourism building had been targeted irked me.  The police warned that strikes happen frequently, but that this one could be different because several activists were shot.

I waited out the afternoon in my room.  By dinnertime, the woman who ran my guesthouse informed me that the road would open for three hours that evening and, if I wanted to leave, this would be my only way out.  I packed my bags, marched to the bottom of town, and caught the last jeep out of Darjeeling.  In a jeep made for five people, I sped down the mountain well after dusk with 15 fellow passengers – inside, on top of, and hanging onto the frame of the fragile car.

The strike in Darjeeling lasted nine days.  For nine days, the town was paralyzed and shut off from the world.  The night I left, GJM protestors torched several government bungalows and looted ammunition from a police outpost.  There were several more deaths throughout the week and, though the town remains open again, the situation is still unresolved.

–Postscript–

After an unhappy night in Silguri, I caught a bus to the nearby Nepali border.  Finally, I thought, I could see the Himalaya without the clouds, without the protests, and with a bit of peace and quiet.

Little did I know that my plans would again be thwarted by a group of unhappy protesters in the political minority.  Little did I know that Maoists still existed in this day and age.

The Maoist Rebels (who hold a famously brutal reputation in rural Nepal) were holding a protest at the border.  All roads into the Nepali mainland were closed.

After my late night escape from Darjeeling, I was stuck in Nepal at a hostile border – the last place any traveler wants to be.

Check back for more MarkontheMap later this week as the blog heads to Kathmandu, Nepal!

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