Friday, October 9, 2009

Darjeeling: Toy Trains and Close Shaves

I am currently sitting in our room on the third floor of Hotel Tranquility. The hotel essentially sits atop Darjeeling, which in turn is one of the tallests "hill stations" in the region. During the colonial era, the British would flock here from Calcutta to escape the blistering heat and disruptive rains of the monsoon season. Thinking about it, this must have been an easy no-brainer for the British. In Darjeeling, the air is cool and clean and the city bustle is far tamer than in the plains. The jaw-dropping views of the Himalayas don't hurt either.

I spent the first two days here so sick that something fundamentally amazing never really sunk in for me. We are literally in the foothills of the Himalayas! The world's tallest mountains are within striking distance. In Darjeeling, as far as these mountains are concerned, the star of the show is Khangchendzonga, which is the world's third tallest mountain. Khangchendzonga is perhaps 70 miles north of Darjeeling and its snow capped peak allegedly inspires awe as it manages to tower over Darjeeling even from such a distance.

The problem? As I sit in our room on the third floor of Hotel Tranquility and look out the window, I can see maybe 15 meters worth of the "view." This view essentially consists of the roof of the building across the street. After that, it's pure white. White as far as the eye can see, which isn't actually very far, since the white is what's disrupting the view. That's the problem. We've been here for over three days now, and Darjeeling has been trapped inside a hazy fog for nearly the entire time. On a rare instance, the immediate fog has cleared to reveal a beautiful valley, which in turn is also covered in clouds and fog. At these moments, the view was indeed quite attractive. But even in these times, the clouds in the far distance also remained, continuing to thwart our attempt to enjoy the mountainous might of Khangchendzonga.

OK. Speaking of white, I just told told a little white lie. There was actually a twenty minute period yesterday morning when Mimi was able to catch a glimpse of the mountain, albeit through a maze of clouds and fog. I almost didn't see it at first because the white of the snow blended nearly perfectly with the white of the clouds. But sure enough, off in the distance was an enormous (or to use the parlance of our times, "gi-normous") mountain. Would I describe it as towering? The verdict is still out. I'm still waiting for a clear day.

View from Hotel Tranquility. Darjeeling, India.

Khangchendzonga peaks out from behind the clouds. Darjeeling, India.

Yesterday was the first day that I felt well enough to actually go out and do something. We didn't do all that much, but I finally got a chance to walk around the steep, winding streets of the city. As I mentioned, the Darjeeling was built along a very steep and dramatic hillside. This feature completely dominates the layout and architecture of the city. You can't really go anywhere without walking up or down a hill. If you want, you can take one of the cement staircase shortcuts that cut through the streets and buildings, but we haven't really figured these out yet. The way the buildings work is very interesting as well. What might be the third floor of a building from one perspective could actually be the first floor from another perspective. Are we entering from the top of the building? Or is it just the first floor of a building with three levels of basements?

Darjeeling is also considerably more laid back than Kolkata. The motorbikes and jeeps that hog the streets here still honk their horns like crazy. But it is with less intensity than in Kolkata and somehow less obnoxious and intrusive. Then again, maybe I'm just getting used to it. The people here are also quite laid back. Shop owners don't follow you down the street here in attempt to get you into their shop, and if you do go into a shop or look at a stall, the owner doesn't aggresively hover over you the entire time. I bought a pair of wool socks and the experience was completely stress free! 

Yesterday had several highlights. The first interesting thing we did was to take the Toy Train from Darjeeling to neighboring Ghoom, a small town about eight kilometers down the road. I think I got the date wrong in a previous post. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was officially opened in 1881 and was actually for many years the world's highest railway system. Sadly, they are phasing out the steam engines in favor of diesel engines, and the train we took was a diesel.

It was very fun to ride the train as it weaved along the side of the mountain. At Ghoom, we checked out the tiny museum dedicated to the train's history and learned that the system had recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train had a pretty modest top speed, but it didn't really matter. The thrill of riding on one of the world's highest train systems was enough for me. Here are some pictures.

Dogs sleeping on the tracks.

Toy Train curves along the mountainside.

Train atop the Basatia Loop with flowers.

Mimi hops on board.

And now for the second interesting thing I did yesterday. For weeks, I have been contemplating trimming my beard or perhaps even shaving it off entirely. In an effort to pack light, I had had left my electric beard trimmer back in New York. So if I was to maintain a presentable appearance, it would have to be at the mercy of a local barber. Well, as we walked back through town after our train trip, we stumbled upon a small but clean looking barber shop. After a few minutes of debate, I decided to go for it.

As many of you probably know, I've pretty much had a beard for the last eight years of my life. You might even say that I've had a beard ever since I figured out that I could grow one. I hate shaving and I think a beard suits me well. On a rare occasion, I will give myself a clean shave, but mostly I just rely on my electric beard trimmer. Not today though. Today, I was going to get a shave and a haircut at a veritable Indian barber shop.

The barber, a young and friendly man, took care of my hair in under five minutes. He chopped with verocity but accuracy and left me with a short but decent haircut. The shaving, however, was a slow, cautious and elaborate endeavour. There were so many different steps to the process that I eventually lost track. I think this sums it up though: an initial scissor trim, a round of water spray, several different cheek massages, several rounds of talc brushing, about ten minutes of lathering, a power failure, two rounds of actual shaving, another water spray, a mystery balm, and finally, some aftershave and cologne. Needless to say, it was a damn good shave. To top it off, he threw some gel into my hair and gave me a stylish image perfect for the modern Indian man. Here is a before and after:



I have quite a bit more to write about, including my thoughts on the vibrant political movement here for an independent Gorkhaland, but this will have to wait for another post. Over and out. 


  1. Toy train, Khangchendzonga, deluxe shave and stylin' cut... sounds like things are getting back on track for you two!

  2. Love the new look! The view might have been white, but what a glorious, exhilarating white. And Mimi, you look so cute getting on the train :)

  3. michael you look silly

    by the time you read this though you will be back from your hopefully amazing trekk and probs have some of that hair back.

    hope all is well!