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It is drizzling again this afternoon, at almost exactly the same time as it did yesterday at around 3pm. The air is filled with the smell of rain, musty yet refreshing, and tinged with a hint of smoke, possibly from burning pinewood. Along the way, a handful of Nepali homes stand sparingly in the mountain terrain. An odd rooster, all shiny-feathered and exuberant, starts cuckooing out of nowhere, and children whizz by down a muddy slope, chasing one another in a rickety skateboard.
We are now 3600m above sea level, and have been walking for 7 hours on average per day for three days already. I have never walked for more than two days in my life, let alone go without showering for more than three. I am tired and hungry, and all the way up here at Phalut I am the lone traveler in the lone trekker’s lodge. Dinner tonight is once again a potato stir-fry and rice, cooked over firewood in a non-ventilated room we are hesitant to open the windows of due to the cold. It is 0 °C here, and with the smoke burning my eyes and mouth firing from the world’s hottest chili, I feel dizzy and nauseous.
“Don’t worry,” Sanu, my guide says while handing me a glass of water, and he promises that all this effort will be worth it tomorrow when I see the sunrise, or he will guide me for free. I am ready to take him up on his offer, and I seem to feel better already. I gulp my water, quickly finish my dinner and go to bed. It is only 8pm.
There are no words adequate to describe what I see the next morning. We get up at 5am and start hiking up to the viewpoint. A trickle of sunlight wades weakly through a thick blanket of morning mist and casts it beams behind my back. I turn around, and find a flicker of gold resting upon the bright red roof of my lodge. Beyond, a stream of clouds is dispersing slowly, like waves in slow motion. The grass beneath my feet is soft and golden, and when we finally reach the top, I am awestruck. Right in front of us, from a distance which seems like a few meters, lies the mighty Kanchanjunga range, snow-capped and immaculate. I feel like I am in the presence of something bigger and beyond me, and I start to quietly weep. It is funny how fragile one becomes in the face of beauty, and I turn to Sanu, “Don't worry, you’re still being paid.”
This is the highlight of my Kanchenjunga trek, an 88km course sandwiched between Nepal, Sikkim and Darjeeling District in India. From Phalut, we descend 15km slowly down to Gorkhey, a small village nestled in an idyllic river valley and surrounded by cornfields. On the creek bank, wood-beamed chalets glisten in the afternoon sun, while pots of rhododendrons sit neatly arranged in their front porch. I try my hands at grass-cutting and corn-shelling to the amusement of the locals, and for a moment there find myself utterly disoriented. If not for prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the occasional bouts of Nepali from the gossiping village girls, one could easily have mistaken Gorkhey to have walked straight out of postcard-perfect Switzerland. Yet, we are not even in Nepal but on the northern tip of West Bengal in India, an area dominated by the Gurkhas, a people originally from Nepal and known for their bravery and strength in the British Brigade of Gurkhas.
On my last day, we depart from Rimbik and onto Darjeeling, a hill station perched more than 2000m above sea level and internationally renowned for its tea industry and the “toy train”, a World Heritage Site built in the late 1800s by the British and still powered today by a steam locomotive. Everywhere you look you see remnants of its colonial past; schoolchildren dressed in preppy uniforms, rundown Victorian houses crammed up on steep slopes in most precarious fashion, and the tea gardens, acre upon acre of tea gardens, enough to make your heart flutter…
Breaking off from Sanu’s itinerary, I decide to check into Glenburn Tea Estate on my own. I have long heard of Glenburn’s beautiful tea plantations and warm hospitality, but nothing quite prepared me for what I am about to experience. My room, the Planter’s Suite, is any little girls’ dream come true, and arriving from a 6-day trek without shower I am so overwhelmed with joy I literally trampoline on my monster-king-sized-four-poster teakwood bed until I collapse in exhaustion. Then there’s the oh-so Victorian bathroom, the toile de jouy furnishings, the private verandah... At dusk I take a tour of the thousand-acre plantation with Prakash, a sweet, soft-spoken little man, and hear him tell me the story of the tea plant, camellia sinensus, as if they were his little babies.
“This one bud, and this one, very short leaf. Only picking like this, two leaf and a bud,” Prakash explains as a tea picker elegantly snakes her way into the bush near us and starts picking out the “two leaves and a bud”.
Back at the bungalow, after a nice hot bath, the hostess Mrs. [ ] informs me that we are having bonfire drinks before dinner, a tradition at Glenburn. I put on my best outfit, a loose T-Shirt and cargo pants, and head out to the lawn. I feel gravely underdressed amongst the perfume and polished leather shoes, but the guests here all seem to have adopted the “Glenburn aura” – friendly and disarming – that makes you immediately relax. Dinner is served with all the guests together in a round table, where Sanjay the estate manager, an avid cook himself, whips up his infamous crepe suzette. Laughter and conversation flows, just like at a friend’s dinner party, and when I finally retire to my gigantic bed, it is already 11pm.
Waking up to Darjeeling tea and biscuits in bed, with a view of Kanchenjunga in the distance, I catch myself with a smile on my face. Thus is the life of a colonial ruler.