Darjeeling is an exquisite hill station endowed by nature with a beauty that is quite ethereal. As soon as you turn from the Gangtok-Siliguri highway and start ascending the narrow road to Darjeeling vast expanses of tea gardens beckon you from either side with a haunting charm. A few kilometres up on that steep climb our Tata Sumo stopped in front of a hut. The driver who was quite morose throughout the journey disappeared into the hut without a word. From the snacks that dangled in front of the hut in multi-coloured polythene containers and the diminutive signboard announcing the availability of tea and coffee we understood that the driver was granting us a tea break. All the ten passengers in the Tata Sumo followed the driver into the hut; but the driver was not seen there, he had gone into the inner chamber from which he would emerge half an hour later with the smell of beer in his breath.
The driver was a young boy in his late teens or early twenties. It appeared that he had no habit of bathing himself at any acceptable intervals. The long and unkempt hair that looked brown and dusty accentuated the ruggedness on his face. He was driving quite rashly and one of the passengers had requested him many a time to drive more cautiously, but to no avail. He did not even heed to that passenger’s request to turn down the volume of the music in the vehicle. It was the only journey Maggie and I had undertaken in a shared vehicle all through our tour.
The journey had started on a bad note. There were many Tata Sumos waiting for passengers in the Gangtok taxi stand. I wanted the two seats in front and I was told it would delay our journey by half an hour. I didn’t mind that. The four seats in the middle row had already been booked by a family . As we waited for the last four seats to fill the driver took away my ticket and changed the numbers to 9 and 10: the last two seats were being foisted on us. I was forced to give him a piece of my mind before I could get the seat numbers changed back to the original ones. A few minutes later I saw the driver being chased by another person. The two were soon engaged in fisticuffs during which our vehicle’s rear view mirror was broken. As soon as the fight was over the driver mounted on top of the vehicle, tied down the luggage kept there and covered it with a plastic sheet. And then began our journey to Darjeeling, as rough as the driver could make it.
When the driver came out from the inner chamber of the tea shop, with the smell of beer in his breath, he looked less ominous. He muttered something about the loss of his rear view mirror, loud enough for us all to hear. The passenger who had given him many suggestions earlier about the music and the speed asked, “What was that quarrel about?”
“For passengers,” said our driver. “He wanted to steal my passengers.”
“But there’s a counter that manages the passengers in the order in which they come,” said the passenger.
“Humbug, that’s what it is. They are all cheats.”
The driver was now kind enough to accept the passenger’s request about the volume of the music. Sometimes a beer can work miracles, I said to myself.
There was a happier miracle awaiting us in Darjeeling. Our brief stay there was sandwiched between two hartals. Darjeeling was closed down the day before we arrived and would again be closed down a day after we left it due to the hartal called by the Gorkhaland supporters. The decision about the second hartal would be made, however, only as were travelling from Kurseong to Siliguri. So our tour was not afflicted with worries about the imminent hartal.
The demand for Gorkhaland was raging for decades. It appeared as if there was nothing else that mattered to the people of Darjeeling. The young girl who managed the cash table in the tea shop on our way to Darjeeling had said, “The demand was started in the time of my grandfather. My father also fought for Gorkhaland. Now we are continuing the struggle.”
You can see the strain of that struggle on the face of every shop keeper in Darjeeling’s Mahakal market. There were very few shoppers when we entered the market and shop keepers looked quite depressed.
Every signboard in front of the shops in Darjeeling carried the name Gorkhaland. The name of the state, West Bengal, was not written anywhere.
The natural beauty of Gorkhaland is breath-taking. There is little else to be seen though the tour operators will take you to many places. Standing on top of a mountain covered with tea gardens, we were able to see the snow-covered peak of Kanchenjunga. It is an unforgettable sight. The Natural History Museum is another place that will hold your attention with all the stuffed animals and birds which look life-like.
We had woken up at 3.30 in the morning as we were told that our vehicle would be ready at four to take us to the Tiger Hill from where we would be able to see the delightful sunrise in Gorkhaland. It had been raining the whole night. It was drizzling when we woke up at 3.30. I rang the reception to ask whether we would be able to see the sunrise. “Most probably no,” said the receptionist. We decided to try our luck.
As we left the hotel with the umbrella lent by the receptionist I told Maggie, “Probably we’d be the only fools this morning to go with an umbrella through the mist and drizzle in search of the sunrise.”
We were not the only ones, however. There were at least 30 vehicles full of tourists waiting on Tiger Hill for the rare sight of a resplendent sunrise. “The sky will turn orange if you’re lucky,” said our driver.
But we were not lucky. We left Tiger Hill at 5.30 having seen mists and the drizzle. The sunrise was supposed to be at 4.45.
The next morning was clear, though. Just as we left Enchey monastery in Gangtok for a future visit, we decided to leave Darjeeling’s sunrise too for the future. We went to the railway station and booked two tickets by the ‘toy train’ to Kurseong.
The train snaked its way down the exotic hill to Kurseong. The rail extends to Siliguri and takes 9 hours to reach Siliguri. But the Kurseong-Siliguri track was closed down due to its bad condition. The train itself was in rather bad condition. The first class cabin looked dirty and in disrepair.
The struggle for a separate state is eating up the tourist potential of the hills. The filth in the first class cabin of the toy train proclaimed that Darjeeling tourism left much to be desired.
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