From Delhi to the Himalayas and back again. Patrick Leclezio recounts the highlights of a journey through northern India.
First published in Sawubona magazine (February 2016 edition).
No view can compare to the view from the roof of the world. I’m completely certain then that for as long as I live I’ll see few sights to rival a sunrise over Sandakphu. It’s difficult to describe the extent of its impact. The unfolding of it was so spectacular, its searing magnificence so pronounced, that the experience, spiritual if ever there was one – and if you’ll humour such an overused and underappreciated expression, will remain with me forever. If you’re lucky a trip will be defined by a staggering moment, that on its own justifies (and amplifies) the time, the expense and the effort. Standing there on that mountain, amidst a jumble of emotions, that was my sense of things. I felt completely fulfilled. Sated. I had the powerful realisation that – wow! – I didn’t need anything more.
The journey to Sandakphu, located on the Singalila Ridge in the Darjeeling district on the Indian border with Nepal, is long and progressively arduous: starting with a long haul flight to Delhi, then onto the lottery of Indian air travel with a domestic leg to Bagdogra, followed by an initially chaotic, later winding and precipitous road transfer to Mirik (in my case) and then Mane Bhanjang, and ending with a bone-jarring, at times hair-raising, ride to the 3700m summit in ancient, bald-tyred Land Rovers. The final stage is hiked over a few days by many visitors to the area, or, as was the case with the party I was accompanying, an audacious few, the participants of the Himalayan 100 Mile Stage Race, it can be run. The result is the same, give or take a few doses of exhaustion. You find yourself off the grid – no running water, no plumbing, no mobile phone signal, and if that’s off-putting then it’s your loss – in a rustic place that it would be trite to describe as beautiful. It was overcast when I arrived: grey velvet draped over a dramatic landscape, primed for a grand reveal. We were up at 04h30 the next day, ready for the show, anticipation now properly heightened. And then there it was. When the sun rose shortly thereafter, it gradually illuminated four of the world’s five highest peaks. Everest of course, iconic, clustered with Lhotse and Makalu, but at a distance. The most impressive – huge, dwarfing the others from our point-blank perspective – was the broad Kangchenjunga massif, culminating in the world’s third highest peak. Its presence was so imposing that I felt it more than I saw it. I had no doubt that I had experienced something profound.
The experience of the Himalayas proved central to my enjoyment of India. The prime objective of travel is to experience new places and new cultures, but the real reward comes from stepping outside of yourself and of your fixed views and habits, and of experiencing their reality through the eyes of the locals, or even of your fellow travellers. I was prompted with this “insight” whilst visiting the fascinating Himalayan Mountain Institute in Darjeeling early in the trip. Everest was first summited by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. When I was growing up, learning history, Hillary was the central figure in the accomplishment, whilst Norgay was a footnote. In India, as I remarked at the Institute, those roles are reversed. A matter of perspective. It reminded me to review my own preconceptions – which made the trip, especially the parts of it in the Himalayan region, literally translated as “house of snow”, considerably more enriching.
One of the features of the Darjeeling district is of course its tea – the mountainsides are dotted with plantations – so in a when-in-Rome spirit I drank tea until it was coming out of my ears. We were afforded the opportunity to sample a variety of the Darjeeling styles but the one I found most interesting was a brew that we were served in the town of Rimbik – a smoky variety, the leaves clearly dried over a fire, reminiscent of lapsang souchong. My one regret, being pressed for time to make the departure of the Toy Train (officially the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway), was missing the chance to visit the Glenary Bakery, a highly reputed old colonial establishment which I’m told is the perfect place to enjoy these famous teas accompanied with some quality cakes and pastries.
With the race finished – five days of what seemed like torturous running and trekking for the participants, five days spent drinking deep of the stupendous scenery for me – we returned to Delhi, and to India proper. We would swap the teetering but relatively vacant roads, posted with signs imploring you to “enjoy the beauty of hills”, for an urban tumult of epic proportions. A Delhi traffic jam is bewildering. Every spare inch of road, the shoulders, the pavements and whatever other space is available, is utilised to bursting point, with the only rules seemingly being the same ones that govern the game of chicken. The city’s highlights for sightseeing include the Minaret, a structure that marks the onset of Muslim rule in the area, India Gate, the massive Arc de Triomphe style monument to the unknown soldier, surrounded by festive (during the weekend) parks, its many bazaars, which are overwhelmingly crowded, and the Gandhi Monument – at which I found it particularly interesting to tour the perimeter, where trees have been planted by representatives from countries around the world in tribute to this great leader, whilst everyone else was focused on the eternal flame at the centre.
A trip to India would not be complete without visiting its most celebrated structure – the Taj Mahal. I can’t say that I’m a connoisseur of architecture , but I’ve travelled Europe extensively and I’ve visited some of its most impressive historical structures, from the Colosseum and the Tower of London to Notre Dame and St. Peter’s Cathedral, and whilst I wouldn’t say that I’m blasé about it all I thought I’d be inured to more of the same. The impression that the Taj made on me though took me by surprise. It stands apart because of its simple, stunning beauty – both in conception and execution. The former is particularly meaningful. The significant buildings of human history are dedicated almost exclusively to the display of military, political or religious power, whereas the Taj is a memorial to love – the tribute of a king to his dead wife. Located some two hours (they say – in reality longer) south of Delhi, in Agra, a typically messy Indian town of haphazard construction, wandering livestock, and dense population, its pristine, shimmering white form in contrast eventually appears through the haze like a mirage in a desert. I was particularly taken with the impermeable white marble with which it was built, its feel and texture being as impressive as its appearance. It’s with no small reason that the Taj has become one of the most recognisable structures in the world.
India is a jewel of incomparable value and beauty, sometimes rough and unpolished, sometimes cast aside unknowingly. It’s worth taking the time to pick it up, clean it off and look at it with unencumbered appreciation. You get the feeling here that your experiences are often earned rather than just accessed or bought. And once earned it’s the type of place that rewards you tenfold. Bon voyage!
Cuisine: Their curries are legendary, vegetarians in particular will rejoice, but less well widely celebrated are the Indian desserts. I highly recommend the yoghurt based Shree Khand, a two thousand year old dish that has stood the test of time.
Airports: You’ll be required to show some proof of your ticket before being granted access to an Indian airport, which can take you unawares in this electronic age. Have a printout ready.
Yes or no?: Indians will shake their heads to signal an affirmative response, the opposite meaning to the rest of the world.
Lunch in Delhi: Escape the frantic bustle of the city with lunch at Lutyen’s Cocktail bar, one of Delhi’s hottest new eateries. Its colonial décor is a quaint throwback to the British Raj period, but more importantly – for me at least – is its wide range of imported beers, which provides a welcome respite from the diabolical (!) Indian fare.