Ashish Kaul is a travel writer, a landscape and outdoor portrait photographer, a trekker and mountaineer. He has traversed many trails in the Himalayas as well as in the Nilgiris.
Darjeeling & Mountaineering Ambitions! Just another visit and yet I call it home. Home of Mountaineering ambitions. Home to stubborn ambitions that doggedly resurface time and again. Obsessive, and welcoming. That strange corner of the Himalayas where the psychological gear truly shifts. Where the Kangchenjunga looms above, in formidable proportions. Rising every morning through the dark skies, bathed by a mere orange streak, that panoramically hits only those sacred peaks first, as if to lay down the true hierarchy of nature. The name has rolled off the tongues of tourists through the years – ‘Tiger Hill’
Brightly painted monasteries that hang down the mountainside like pendants in a necklace in the chain of mountain civilisations. Monks with a freshness rivalled only by mountain grass in the monsoons. Tea gardens, that heady British brew, that has earned Indian gratitude.
Yet there is nothing more pleasant than the slanted eyes and pretty faces, the cultural charm of ‘Darj’. Add to that the British churches and great educational institutions, cheese from Sikkim, confectionery from Keventer’s or Glenary, the hotels and cottages with their sloping roofs and wooden floors. Couple that with Landrovers (of the 50s !), music that mixes both Nepalese and Hindi within the strumming of the guitar. Noodles and thupkas that tickle the palette and nose alike. Darj stimulates all five senses.
There is that funny something about the place. The ambience is of a hearty healthy fullness of body and mind. It resounds with mountaineering legends. And tales of peaks. Some isolated references to the Yeti! Orchids of more than 600 varieties. Rhododendrons, magnolias and primulas, snow leopards and the quaint and cuddly Panda. The yak as the beast of burden at the higher altitudes and its cousins – the Dzo or the Orang at lower climes.
Glaciers, seracs and moraines which naturally lead to the inevitable: Darjeeling & mountaineering are synonymous. At Darjeeling is one of the worlds most reputed mountaineering institutes – Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Among the faculty today, are five Everesters ! Dorje Lhatoo a recipient of the Tenzing Norgay Award for contribution to mountaineering, Nawang Gombu, the present Director of the Institute, also the first man in the world to have scaled Everest twice, a worthy successor to Tenzing Norgay, the former Director of HMI. And of-course many, many sherpas who have left their footprints on the snows of Kangchenjunga, Everest and other eight thousanders. The next door neighbours of Darj include other enigmatic Himalayan regions: Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim, the last being the favourite trekking region of those who really know the Himalayas.
Darjeeling it is, a hill station, or a base camp, a tea town, or a mountain legend. But most of all -the home of mountaineering ambitions.