A few minutes later, I'm on my way up the long flight of narrow stairs to Hotel Dekeling. The reception is on the fourth floor. It's a charming place owned by a Tibetan family. The room tariff for a standard room is 1600 rupees plus taxes. The room is small but the bed linen and towels look spotlessly clean. The youngster managing the place agrees to give me a discounted rate of 1200 rupees including taxes. I make an advance payment of 500 rupees for booking the next day's stay. The hotel has plenty of guests, mostly foreigners. On my way downstairs, I see a small group of French tourists huffing up the stairs to the hotel. I return to the Nehru Road. It's nearing 7:00 PM so one by one all the shops are starting to pull the shutters down. I reach the Mall, a wide promenade atop a ridge lined with shops and restaurants. A pedestrian-only zone, free of vehicular traffic, it's a place where one can sit and chat, bask in the sunshine, watch the sunrise or sunset over the mountains, or just spend some blissful moments in silence. Looking around, I see the Oxford Book Store, a more than 60-year-old landmark, built in a typical hill-style architecture with pitched roof. I quickly run my eyes over the books on display before moving on to the counter where packaged Darjeeling tea is sold. They have a small variety of teas. I buy a small pack of black tea and green tea. I was under the impression that they also provide a cup of Darjeeling tea. They don't, but just next door are two tea lounges cum retail outlets of packaged teas - Nathmull's Tea and Golden Tips Tea Lounge. I enter the nearest one, Golden Tips Tea Lounge. They have all sorts of teas and tea accessories as well as gift and souvenir items. I take a good look at all the stuff. It being a late hour by Darjeeling standards, there are just 3-4 people in the lounge. The menu card lists different types of teas along with vegetarian snacks. I choose Oolong tea which soon comes to my table steaming hot in a large, green cup. I still haven't got over the lousy dinner which has worsened my cough. After two sips of the tea, I'm coughing again. I pay the bill and leave the place. The next door Nathmull's Tea Lounge is a similar place but it has more variety of tea and goods. Both outlets belong to the same reputed tea merchant family which is strictly vegetarian. So that explains the reason for serving only vegetarian snacks! The manager is busy explaining the fine details of different teas to his customers. It's a well-known fact that the world's best tea comes from Darjeeling. It is the ultimate tea with has its own unique natural aroma and flavour. Commercial tea cultivation in Darjeeling began in 1856. Extensive tea plantations were established in the region, and tea growers developed hybrids of black tea and created new fermentation techniques. The resultant distinctive Darjeeling tea is internationally recognised as the most popular of the black teas. Like Champagne andTequila, Darjeeling Tea can only be produced in the hills of Darjeeling and cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. Besides numerous lush green tea gardens, the "magnificent sunrise" from Tiger Hill and the Toy Train ride, the other attractions of this popular hill station are the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), Himalayan Zoo, Ghoom Monastery, Tenzing Rock Garden, Japanese Temple, Tibetan Handicraft Centre, Ropeway (India's oldest passenger cable car) and the Botanical Garden. On the way to Darjeeling, the taxi driver had told me that most tourists take a private or a shared vehicle for sightseeing tours because some places are very far to be walked out, above all, Tiger Hill. To watch the sunrise from Tiger Hill, which is at an altitude of 8,482 feet, one has to wake at 3:00 AM and drive 13 kms on a rugged, narrow, uphill road. At sunrise, on a clear day, the golden rays of sun brush the Kangchenjunga (at 28,169 feet, it is the third highest mountain peak in the world) and fill the entire eastern Himalayan Mountain range with its golden ambience. Even Mount Everest (the world's highest peak at 29,029 feet) is visible from here as a small triangle speck. I'm not going to do the "tourist" thing. Considering the foggy weather, I don't think that the sky will be clear to see the sunrise the next morning. The last thing I want to do is spend 2000 rupees to travel in the wee hours of the morning, on an uphill road, probably packed with tourist cars, just to see nothing but dense fog. Neither have I made any plans to visit any of the town's attractions. All I want to do is walk around the nearby places and bask in the fresh, clean air. My first day in Darjeeling hasn't worked out so well. Thanks to the bad dinner, I have lost my appetite for non-vegetarian food. My hotel is not what I had expected it to be. I now realize my mistake. It's the Annex of Main Olde Bellevue Hotel which means it's the cheaper or budget wing of the hotel. The one I was looking for is right here on the Mall. And now, I find out I got nothing to see or do except maybe sit on a bench like a few others. The place becomes empty by 8:00 PM! When I had asked the taxi driver if it was fine to stay out till 10:30 - 11:00 PM, he had given me a horrified look. I return to my hotel. It's only 7:30 PM! I haven't yet called up home. I ask the hotel manager if he knows where I can find an STD phone, he tells me it will be at the Telephone Exchange. He tells a hotel attendant to take me there. It's somewhere near the Mahatma Gandhi Road. I follow him in the dim-lit streets. We reach the Telephone Exchange but just as I expected, there's nobody around. The guy climbs up the rest of the floors to look for the security guard. When he returns, there are two guys with him. One is the security guard and another, an employee who looks like a North Indian, from Uttar Pradesh. The latter, when he finds out that I want to call home in Mumbai, immediately offers his cellphone to me. So sweet! It costs less than ten rupees to make the call but I didn't like asking strangers to lend me their cellphone to make a one-minute call to Mumbai. This kind person has just made my day! Within a minute my call is over and I offer to pay for it but he refuses. The call probably cost him five rupees but the value of his kindness cannot be measured. God Bless! The hotel attendant is flustered. "If I had known you wanted to make a call to Mumbai, I would have given you my cellphone." While returning, he repeats the same thing to me more than 5-6 times. Yeah, whatever! I most definitely had told that to you and to the hotel manager. Well, it wasn't their fault. Quick thinking just doesn't come easily to some people! Back in my room, and off for sleep.
A person with a traveler soul. Wanderlust!!