11.06.2010 22 °C
One last great meal at the collonial mansion before we packed our stuff, got into the car and headed on to Darjeeling, passing steeply sloping tea gardens and mystical prayer flags shrouded in the mist. The first sign we were getting close was the railway running up the road, occassionally cutting across to keep a straighter line. We looked out for a train as one was scheduled but we didn't see it. We reached Darjeeling and found all things quiet at the station - all the steam locos were cold in the shed and the diesel loco was at the wrong end of its train. We carried on up the hill to our hotel, up an incredibly narrow, twisty and very steep road (I was amazed Gee made it up in the car). We were given a welcome cup of tea and some not so welcome news - Darjeeling is on strike and has been for 10 days, so no trains and very few shops. Fortunately most of the tourist attractions were open. The strike was held as a protest against the government as the hilly area around Darjeeling (know locally as Gorkha-land) wants to become a separate state and doesn't want to be part of West Bengal. After tea we headed into town to meet Simon, our Belgian friend from Mongolia who happened to be in Darjeeling completing a dentistry course. He took us to a nice restaurant for lunch before we headed to a shop selling photos of the trains from times gone by. After Dad had bought a couple he hadn't seen before we headd further up the hill to a Hindu shrine surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags; observatory hill is a sacred place to both religions. On the way back down we passed the government offices and a Christian church, this time in traditional style. We left our memory card that had the pictures wiped with a recovery shop and said goodbye to Simon as he was leaving Darjeeling tomorrow morning. We walked down to the railway station to look at the steam engines. They were in a sorry state, all dirty and not well looked after. Then back to our hotel for tea before watching an awesome electrical storm from our room.
We woke and had musty porridge for breakfast before setting off for Ghum, the highest train station in India. On the way we stopped off at Batasia loop to see the war memorial for the Gorkhas who fought beside the British in the 2 world wars. On our way back to the car we were passed by a large group of men with a look of intent on their faces, heading towards Darjeeling. Apparently there were to be 2 political rallies in Darjeeling today, for two different opposing parties. There was potential for serious trouble. Gee was pretty worried and when he got a phone call from one of his friends in Ghum saying there was trouble in town we decided to head back to our hotel. We got back to the news that someone had been shot in the main square and town was shut except for large gangs venting their anger. We were pretty shocked by the news. Amy and I wanted to go and observe but of course we were forbidden, probably quite sensibly. Instead we headed to the Japanese peace pagoda on the outskirts of town, well away from the gangs, and found a serene Zen Buddhist temple and a large Stupa decorated with large golden images of the Buddha. A drum beat was echoing off the hilside and we followed the noise into a shrine room with 2 large drums and lots of smaller hand drums. The 2 large drums were being played by monks and the smaller ones were for visitors to the Monastery. We sat down and joined in. It was very meditative and peaceful beating the drum and such a contrast to what was happening less than 5km away. We were joined by a couple of large Indian families who got pretty excited and got faster and faster with the beat and it was no longer quite so peaceful. One guy looked as though he was trying to break the drum he was hitting it so hard. We left quietly and went to admire the Stupa and found the golden images depicted Buddhas life story, from Birth to Enlightenment to Death via excess, starvation and nirvana.It was quiet and peaceful sat amongst the green trees on the hillside, that is until the Indian families came to scream and shout. We walked back into town and, as it was quite late, we decided to risk a walk into town to go to the hotel where Mum and Dad stayed when the were here 25 years ago. It was eerie walking down shuttered, quiet streets almost devoid of life. Anyone we did meet was subdued and quiet, not the usual Indian raucousness that accompanies a walk through the centre of town. We passed a house with broken windows and when we reached the centre of town a section of street was closed off. We made it safely to the Windemere hotel and had afternoon tea with stories of reminisence before heading back before it got dark.