Ah Darjeeling, Queen of the Hills, how quickly you captured my heart!
Quieter than any of the towns or cities we’d visited so far, and small enough to walk around without the tourist-mongering of Pokhara, I was fairly instantly taken with Darjeeling. The TV in our ensuite room (two luxuries we hadn’t had in a while) certainly helped matters. The only problem was it was kind of chilly, like a damp autumn in England.
In fact, being in Darjeeling was like visiting a surrogate England. We went to the zoo and admittedly it was full of fauna more exotic than you’d find in a British zoo, with red pandas and black Himalayan bears practically showing off for us, and snow leopards and bengal tigers prowling back and forth in their cages in a manner that frankly broke our hearts. The zoo also contained the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute Museum, featuring interactive models of the Himalayas, equipment from the early expeditions to Everest and weirdly, a telescope given to the Institute by Hitler.
We saw Harry Potter at the cinema (on the plus side, reclining seats. On the downside, the projection popped and fizzed and went out of focus, before suddenly cutting halfway through the film for the intermission). We even took high tea at the Windamere, a colonial heritage hotel perched high above Darjeeling (the decor was cool, but the sandwiches and cakes a little stingy). The rest of our time was mostly taken up with eating fried breakfasts in the local traveller cafe (where the witterings of inveterate backpackers became tiresome but the food was too sublime to abandon) and drinking black tea with doughnuts in Glenary’s bakery. When it got really cold we huddled in bed and watched hollywood movies on our little TV. What intrepid explorers we are!
Darjeeling definitely doesn’t feel much like India, but what makes it really interesting is that it doesn’t want to be India either. Everywhere we went, shops and restaurants proudly proclaimed that they were in Darjeeling, Gorkhaland. Signs painted on walls welcomed you to Gorkhaland, and large murals proclaimed Gorkhaland to be the ultimate goal. Darjeeling and its northern neighbour Sikkim have a chequered past of changing hands between Nepal, India and the British Raj, but now they want to declare themselves an independent state from its neighbours and become Gorkhaland, merging with the eastern portion of Nepal that is the traditional home of the Gurkhas. However, because of the complexity of the political situation between Nepal, India and China, negotiations and protests have necessarily been taken softly softly. One of the great coups of the Gorkha movement has been a campaign to ensure a Gorkha native was the winner of Indian Idol, giving him a platform to raise awareness of their cause.
Over tea in a cafe, we chatted to an ex-sailor in the Indian Navy. He told us he was certain that within the next 10 years Nepal would become part of China and India would split into four separate nations; Gorkhaland would be established in the Northeast of India, the south would become a Tamil nation, the North would become a Sikh nation, leaving Gujarat and the centre to the Hindu population. Who knows if his prediction will come true, but in the same week India moved some 30,000 troops to the Northeastern border with China. It certainly paints a turbulent picture of the future of the subcontinent