hillcountry hospitality

On this side of the border — due to comparative affluence, population dynamics, or the vagaries of history — the roads are paved, and there is a relative dearth of trails tempting me with the unknown. The hills are just as steep and (at lower elevations) covered with strangely mown looking tea bushes, here in the region the British called (quite rightly) the hill country. I’m wandering in Sikim (and Darjeeling): the northernmost bit of India which is sandwiched between Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal. Not surprisingly it is more culturally related to these neighbors, than to mainland India — they even speak Nepali here — the main difference being, the British. They conquered this bit of the himalaya despite resistance by the famous gorka fighters, whereas in what we call nepal today, the gorka managed to keep the mountains to themselves.

Approximately 100 years of british dominion doesn’t seem like much in the face of thousands of years and cultural/religious ties — which isn’t to imply that Sikkim is not its own place, with a long history of conflict with its neighbors — and this chunk of the himalayan foothills is very much a part of the tibetan plateau cultural/geographic region. Asiatic features, buddhist monasteries, precipitous mountains and all. But with a strong venier of British influence (shallow though it may be). Most obvious to my eye at least are the (crumbling) architectural monuments to this regions time as a ‘hill station’ in the days of the British Raj. The major towns especially, such as Darjeeling and Gangtok are dotted with ornate ‘victorian’ structures ranging in size from bungalows to palaces, and marble clad public edifices. In the more rural areas there are clusters of such buildings as well — still serving as the nerve centers of vast tea estates.

Tea is a plant that (like coffee) favors steep rocky ground, and according to a 3rd generation tea grower l stayed with, the potassium rich terroir of Darjeeling, is the the key to the famously high quality tea which is this region’s main export. This time of year (winter) the shrubs which are packed tightly together, and stretch as far as the eye can see, undulating with the dramatic topography, looking for all the world like a surrealist lawn. Or a sort of quixotic topiary obsession — all the the bushes meticulously flat-topped to exactly the same height. Most of the work of tea cultivation it turns out is pruning. Delicate hand harvesting of the young shoots (which we use to make the beverage) in successive ‘flushes’ as the plant re-grows throughout the season. Then in the colder months when the tea plant is relatively dormant, several passes of very heavy pruning — the last of which removes all green leaves, and a large percentage of the plant mass, leaving the bushes looking like field after field of withered stumps.

In all of its various stages, thanks to the ubiquity of the plants, and uniformity of their treatment contrasting with the extreme irregularity of the ground, tea makes for some fascinating vistas. Or at least that’s what I imagine. This time of year it is uniformly overcast, with varying degrees of mist cloud and fog. Which, although it prevents me from watching the green hills reaching up and out towards their snow-capped brethren, who are among the highest mountains in the world; peddling through the mist on extremely steep and windy (and thankfully little used) roads through the wildly green, but strangely ordered world of the tea plantations is a beautiful experience in its own right. Beautiful, and decidedly surreal — playing cat and mouse with a tiny steam train only heightening the unreality. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, perhaps the most audacious piece of the extensive network of train lines the british built to connect the corners of their indian empire, climbs from jungle flatlands, where l had the pleasure of riding elephant trails, to the former ‘hill station’ and tea capital Darjeeling, located on a knife-edge ridge 2000m above sea level.

The road l was following was built after rail transport had become superseded by the automobile, and follows the course of the railroad, taking advantage of the massive engineering effort it represents whenever possible. Such that the extremely narrow gage tracks, and single lane highway crisscross and run alongside each other in a symbiotic relationship l have never witnessed before. Thanks to all the (necessarily) unmarked crossings-at-grade, the trains, which run several times a day, blow their melodious steam whistles almost constantly. So l wound through the fog, to a soundtrack of doppler shifted and distance filtered and decidedly ‘old-world’ steam train noises. I only crossed paths with the little blue and extremely cute (Little Engine That Could anyone) steam train once or twice, it mostly passed in the night or early morning, headlight ghostly in the fog.

Luckily, I stopped for lunch and a stretch at one of the most famous, and unusual parts of the DHR, and had the privilege of watching a train (diesel rather than steam, unfortunately) go through Z reversal number one. An innovation pioneered on this railroad (with the inspiration credited to the chief engineer’s dancing wife) the z-reversal is a track layout wherein the train zigzags back and forth up the mountain side, thereby climbing terrain much too steep for conventional rail road engineering. As novel as tiny steam trains and unorthodox engineering seemed to me, it was all old hat to the railway workers, who were to a man (and they were all men) much more interested in me and my bicycle thank their work. Usually our interactions were limited to craning necks, waving, and thumbs up. But when l happened across an engine idling on a siding, apparently doing yard work of some kind, and enthusiastic, and coal dust covered fellow (it turned out he was the fireman) invited me to share his lunch of vegetable curry and chapati with him. Rather generous since he is the grunt worker of the engine crew, and his lunch wasn’t all that big, but generous hospitality seems to be the order of the day here.

I’ve had countless people invite me to tea, perfect strangers pay for repair work on my bike, hotel owners give me steep discounts unasked, and even spent the night in a few homes that didn’t really have room for me. Of course some of this generosity is tempered with desire to interact with me/ show me off while doing so. And sometimes the desire to help outpaces usefulness, and ‘the help’ puts me in mind of a childhood rhyme about the “kinds of help.” When l arrive late and cold and tired in a small town which seems to have no hotels licensed (this is India and everything requires too much paperwork – bureaucracy being one of the more unfortunate British legacies) to accommodate foreigners, having a charming and english-speaking boy escort me from lodge to lodge, and interact with the innkeepers on my behalf, is incredibly helpful. But when l arrive early and in no hurry, in a tourist town with hundreds of hotels, having an earnest young man –who as it turns out has no special knowledge of hostelry – their prices ability/desire to host foreigners etc — drag me from hotel to hotel, talking at high speed (and quite repetitively) the whole time, is well, “the kind of help that we can do without.” In general though the bent toward hospitality is quite pleasant especially for the solo traveler.

For instance I am currently sitting in what is incidentally the best cafe in the tourist town of Gangtok, typing on a borrowed laptop, enjoying complimentary cups of coffee, thanks to a friendly restaurateur who isn’t even here — seeing as it’s the day of the all important cricket championship between India and Pakistan. I could care less about organized sports in general, and cricket in particular, but cafe culture is a British remnant l quite appreciate. So it’s not idly that I call the coffee shop the best one in town. In the US l spend almost zero time in cafes, and don’t generally drink coffee. But living in public space as much as one does, while traveling, pleasant comfortable places – especially ones designed to hang out in become very important.

As do reminders of home. So when I’m in the sort of place that has café culture, l appreciate it. And when l’m stuck in town, for whatever reason – physical, mechanical, or logistical, l spend the down time visiting cafes (often in search of wifi). And along the way l have become something of an espresso snob (my brother would be proud). The hill stations, built as retreats, from the heat and reality of flatland India, for the British ruling class, are in a way monuments to leisure, and comfort. So its no surprise really, that I and the other travelers l have had the pleasure of sharing time space with lately (one of the perks of being on the more or less beaten track) find ourselves wiling away the days in various cafes enjoying spectacular, or just misty views through plate glass windows. Eating pastries, and sipping beverages, and genteelly enjoying a respite from life down below.

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