Twice yesterday I was accosted by men. At the New Market (which smelt of human excrement – not what you want when you’re looking for a juicy pear), I met a man who had once been to Birmingham and was now involved in condom distribution to the poor; that was when he wasn’t running a market stall selling cheap socks and undies. He took me to meet his brother who had a stall selling saris and pashminas. Here, we shot the breeze over a chai and his brother tried to sell me one of his outfits…”I think you would look very beautiful in a sari”, and “Darjeeling is very cold. Let me show you my lovely pashminas”. I thanked them for their interest in my comfort and appearance and left, hopping on the metro where despite the warnings, I wasn’t mugged, gobbed on or ‘eve teased’ (I’m not altogether sure what ‘eve teasing’ is but there are signs telling men not to do it everywhere alongside instructions not to spit.
At the bus station I had a mare of a time trying to find the right bus for the Botanical Gardens. I went from one end to the other in search of the number 55a (the advice of the man who sold me my breakfast veggie balls at the side of the road) but when I finally found it and got on, within a few metres I was advised by a couple of veiled schoolgirls sat behind me that I was on the wrong bus. They put me off at the next station which is where I got accosted again by another man who wanted to come with me to the Botanical Gardens. I now realise why. The Botanical Gardens are a hotbed of snogging and lady fiddling. Everywhere I turned there were couples getting jiggy with it on benches, behind umbrellas and in amongst the foliage. Another curiousity was the proliferation of park wardens riding around the park on bikes. I saw one get off his bike and rush into the bushes with a big stick. Later on, another stopped me and asked if I was alone. When I said yes he told me to be very careful as there were some Muslims who’d been jumping over the park fence. I didn’t quite catch the rest of what he said but I did see a man lying propped up on his elbows on the other side of the fence and I swear to God he was naked.
At 10.05 last night I got on my night train to NJP. This was First Class AC (air conditioned) but the facilities were basic; the toilet still had piss all over the seat and there was no toilet paper. However, the bed was very comfortable and my four male companions and I were given clean sheets, a blanket, pillow, and a flannel (which I was tempted to use on the toilet seat). I wasn’t looking forward to a night of hawking, spitting into carrier bags, snoring and farting but funnily enough, the only person that made a racket was me when I woke myself (and probably the rest of the compartment) with a large trumpety snore.
At the ungodly hour of 7.30am we arrived at NJP station, 80 miles south of Darjeeling. On exiting the station I was coralled into a rickety looking jeep with another bunch of men for an hour and a half of boneshaking as we made our way up the perilously narrow and badly maintained switchbacks. Higher and higher we went up the lush hillsides festooned with big orange and red flowers with the occasional glimpse of teapickers hard at work. The road was packed with permanently honking vehicles, everyone driving like mad men around each corner seemingly not caring what was coming the other way. How we avoided collision I don’t know. Not only did our jeep have other vehicles to contend with but there were numerous people on foot going from one village to the next and plenty of roadmen vainly trying to keep the road from falling even further apart.
Darjeeling – a sort of Himalyan Victorian seaside resort, thronged by a melting pot of ethnicity – Nepali, Tibetan and Indian; Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim, all seemingly living and working in harmony. My guest house is perched high on a ridge and from the terrace I can gaze out at the cliff-clinging city in all its dazzling colours and prayer flags flying, and in the distance, the snowy peaks of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, and the mountain I’m going to walk tomorrow! No just joking. I’m doing the Singalila ridge, probably on my own because as KK my hilarious Nepali guide tells me, it is the end of the season and there’re a bit low on tourists. There are a couple of hippie Germans staying in my guest house and a bald Englishman called Kim who’s on a 6-month motorbike tour and that’s about your lot as far as potential hiker buddies go. More to follow…..