‘There is an elasticity of the air in these mountains, and a freshness, … exercise gives all the pleasant glow of an English walk on a frosty morning.’-.T. Pearson, an army surgeon who arrived in Darjeeling in 1839
When you feel, below, dead-beat,/Overpowered by trying heat,/Worn by day, at night no rest;/ Then, ’tis surely manifest,/That you should at once take train;/ Come above, and health regain —-Keble JA. Darjeeling Ditties and Other Poems: A Souvenir. Calcutta: 1908
It should not be surprising to me by this point, and yet, it actually is, to find an area of India that looks totally unlike any area of India I’ve ever seen before. And yet, come to think of it, in other very big ways…it’s really actually not.
Let me backtrack a year and some change. Speaking with a French woman at the Mumbai Film Festival within the first few months of arriving in Mumbai, someone who had lived in multiple places in India, I asked her what she thought of the other cities she’d seen. She paused, in that wonderful way the french have, and then gave what can only be described as a Gallic shrug. “All the Indian cities I’ve seen, they all really look the same.” she confided, much to my dismay. At that point I hadn’t actually been anywhere in India outside of Mumbai, and the idea that everything would look like Mumbai was, well, troubling to say the least. There are a lot of nice areas in this city, by Indian standards, but again, I didn’t really know what Indian standards were at that point, and the idea that everything would be a badly connected open construction site with luxury high rises towering over slums and the odd goat meandering around was troubling, to say the least. Of course, now I know that Mumbai is a cosmopolitan paradise compared to every city I’ve seen in this country, which, by the way, is a whole other kind of troubling, but I digress.
The point is, as I traveled to other cities, from Bangalore to Hyderabad, from Kolkata to, horror of horrors, Delhi, I realized with a sinking heart, the French woman had been correct. All Indian cities do look, for the most part, like other Indian cities. They are, at least, all the ones that I’ve seen at least, populated with the same little stalls selling the same (in my opinion completely disgusting) masala flavored Lays chips and chewing tobacco and sodas. The people dress the same, the streets look the same, the cows are either more or less in number, but they don’t really change in appearance. In any given Indian city that I’ve been to, you can find someone burning garbage somewhere, in an open-flame kind of situation that would be shut down in a Western city in no time flat, you can find a decent amount of livestock with no apparent owners (except for goats, people seem to hang on to their goats and you know what, GOOD FOR THEM, what are all these animals doing RUNNING AROUND WITHOUT OWNERS?), and regardless of the intended architectural style, you can find a whole lotta cement.The character, then, of the Indian cities I’ve visited, is no immediately apparent in its appearance, and can give the traveler who is passing through the sense that everything in India looks and is like everything else, so you could wake up in Kolkata and fall asleep in Hyderabad and not know, really, the difference.
But the Northeast, at least, is something truly different to my eyes. And I’m not the only one, historically. For decades Darjeeling was the favorite holiday spot of Colonial administrators, desperate for cooler climes and clearer air after months in muggy Kolkata. After a long back-and-forth with Sikkim, then an independent nation, the East India Company negotiated a deal to lease Darjeeling as a sanatorium for their delicate troops, and eventually acquired the land for themselves. Soon, overheated British officers and their wives and children would flock to the tea estates and colonial society of Darjeeling, enjoying their daily cuppa and the restorative breezes. These days, however, Darjeeling’s charm is largely built over, at least, to my weary eyes. But I still understood, looking around, how once it was a bit of a paradise, while now it is an overgrown ill-tended to town, but hey, the landscape is still pretty!
Settled in the mountains, Darjeeling is a gateway to the newly acquired Sikkim, a state in India on sufferance, uneasy in its political status, but stunning in its landscape. From there, heading North, you can hit the Himalayas, or just look at them from Gangtok, a city on a hill with views of the mighty Kanchenjunga, which Sikkim shares with Nepal. Here, you are surrounded by trees, otherworldly landscapes with new plants at each elevation, misty mountains peeling back condescension to reveal rocky valleys and intrepid yaks. Here, in between the trees and moss, the cuisine shifts from spices to herbs, from curries to soups, and from farmland to the spoils of the forest. We dined on nettle soup and ferns sautéed with yak milk cheese, and momos, everywhere. What is a momo, you ask? It’s a dumpling. Why don’t they just call it a dumpling? Who the hell knows, it’s India, I’m letting it go.
It’s like a different world in Sikkim. Even Gangtok itself, which has so many of the trademarks of an Indian city, is also somehow a bit different. For one thing, it’s built over a series of hills, so you end up burning up your legs on long steep switchbacks. For another thing, this is the land of the Buddha, and monasteries are everywhere, with prayer flags fluttering around every corner. All the fresh mountain air makes you forget about the smog and smoke of other Indian cities, and the scrupulously clean streets speak to a citizenship that cares deeply about their region.
As we drove up and down, from Darjeeling to Gangtok, we noticed a curious theme on all of the many roadsigns. Each one, like a member of a UPenn fraternity, started it’s message with “bro”. Bro, Drive Slow, Save Life. Bro, Army Territory. Bro, Educate A Woman, Educate a Generation. Bro, Reach For Your Dreams. I did not make any of these slogans up. They are all things we saw along the way. Don’t believe me? Check out this fan favorite:
Bro was with us all throughout this trip. Bro told us not to use the horn, a useless piece of advice apparently because no one followed it. Bro told us our hearts were cut in facets like diamonds. Sometimes Bro was practical, asking us to slow down, pay attention to the impossibly curvy roads. Sometimes Bro was playful, like we passed an area called “Bro Camp”, which we could only assume was some kind of popped-collar Polo scented summer program. Bro was often inspirational, encouraging us to be our best bros possible. Because bros stick together, you know?
Later, we realized that BRO stands for Border Roads Organization, but by that point, bro? It was far far too late.
So there are a thousand and one ways that the Northeast is wildly different for me than the rest of the India that I have seen thus far. Momos and bros. What more can you ask for?
Now, some photos:
The Northeast, bro. You gotta go.