I slept well Friday night. I had to, for the next few days would involve very little sleep. I only managed a couple hours collectively over the next two nights — a few minutes grabbed on an airport bench, a few passed out against a wall, a few more in the shuddering seat of the Boeing 737 on my way to Kolkata. When I finally staggered into my home-stay in Darjeeling, India, I’d hardly slept in 60 hours. I was out as soon as my head hit the pillow, and I slept for 12 hours straight.
Since waking up Tuesday morning, I’ve taken my sweet time getting to know this hilltop city. And what better way to do it than to take a walk through the lanes and tea fields of Darjeeling?
Several small lanes drop down from the Chowrasta Mall — the heart of the town where locals and tourists alike congregate to sit on benches and relax in the sun. The din of merchants and motorbikes fade to a faint whisper on the edge of sense, but never disappear entirely. The narrow lanes are uneven and winding, motorbikes weaving around pedestrians as pedestrians weave around piles of dog crap. The houses are colorful and built on such a steep hillside they seem ready to topple down the face of it at any given moment.
“Where are you going?” a young boy asks as I pass him on one of many winding lanes.
“I don’t know,” I answer truthfully as we pass.
“If you want to go to the monastery, it’s up this way!” he yells, pointing up the hill. I glance in the direction and am barely able to make out the corner of the monastery’s roof.
Karmaa Dorjee Chyoling Monastery in Bhutia Busty is a square, squat building, beautifully colored and nearly deserted as I walk up. A man hustles off to find the caretaker as I take off my shoes; I sit on a bench and admire a Buddhist painting as I wait.
“Do you want to go inside?”
The caretaker, Aku, is a wizened old man wearing a dirty orange hoodie. What teeth remain in his mouth are stained, but his smile is earnest and his eyes kind. He unlocks the door and leads me inside.
Aku tells me of the history of the monastery, which is Darjeeling’s oldest, how it was originally on Observatory Hill, but moved due to noise complaints. The Christians didn’t like the sounds of horns and drums interrupting their services, and the British had the monastery moved to its current location. Home to several important Buddhist texts, its prize is a fragment of the legendary Tibetan Book of the Dead.
A pregnant silence stretches, interrupted by Aku’s creaking wheeze of a drone as he meditates. I pull out a small tip and offer it to him. He takes it and presses his hands together, bowing in thanks. “What is your name?”
“Nathan. I will pray for Nathan over this.” I smile in appreciation and bid him farewell, stepping into the light of the day once more.
I make my way out of the rows of houses, coming across a power substation as the road descends. Something crashes in the bushes off the side of the road, something big. I glance up and can just make out a shape leaping from one branch to another. Monkeys! Barely a minute later, I turn to find one of the Rhesus macaques following me at a safe distance. I take a quick photo, but let it pass me by. I learned my lesson in Malaysia not to let monkeys get too close…
At last, I make it to the tea fields. I’m distracted, however, by a colorful fluttering. Just off the road, a path lined with prayer flags leads down from a decorative arch. I follow the path to a small shrine on the hillside. A small cleft in the rock face has steps leading inside, the passageway just big enough for me to squeeze down. It’s steep, wet, and claustrophobic, but I can see the flickering of candlelight ahead.
A small space is at the bottom, with an alter, candles, and offerings. I stay for a few minutes, enjoying the stifling stillness of the cubbyhole.
An uneven road leads off the main lane and drops down the hillside, both sides thick with stocky tea trees. Every new bend of the road presents a stunning new perspective, every shift in the cloud cover paints the verdant hills in subtly different hues. It’s a photographer’s dream, and I’m the only one there.
I walk for well over an hour, savoring it; stopping often to drink water, nibble my oatmeal cookie, and pant in the shade. I can see the roof of the monastery, up on the all-too-distant hillside. I use it as my heading as I navigate the nameless, meandering paths.
Occasionally, I stop to ask directions, receiving cheery help from an old woman with a smile that crinkled her face so much her eyes all but disappeared and a young boy with a pocket full of firecrackers. “Happy Diwali!” he shouts as I carry on.
Houses start to line the path again; I think I’m getting close. Suddenly, I see a group of men huddled in a circle, an assortment of coins and bills on the mat in their center. It’s a familiar scene; I passed this group on my way down the path. I’d completed the loop.
I trudge the remainder of the way up the hill, my legs aching, but only with the deeply satisfying pain that follows a good workout. Time for some food!
What’s the last destination you explored by walking through? What was your experience like? Share in the comments below!