Permit Me to Watch the Sun Rise
By Tab Paterson
Darjeeling – Queen of the Hill Stations. I fell in love with this mountain outpost the moment I arrived. As I was only able to spend four days in the city, it turned out to be a whirlwind affair that would live on in my heart long after we parted ways. In an effort to greedily squeeze every bit out of our fleeting association I had walked its narrow streets every day. Rugged up against the cold, I scoured shops for tea, pashminas and silver jewellery. I took in amazing vistas from Chowrasta, wandered through the pony stables and lost track of time in the Oxford Bookstore. I did the tourist thing and visited the impressively named Padmaja Naidu Himalaya Zoological Park and saw the beautiful snow leopard. My eyes were opened at the Himalayan Tibetan Mountaineering Institute and Everest Museum, which brings to life the perilous conditions of the region’s early mountaineers. A visit to the Gymkhana Club was like stepping back in time. The last bastion of the English Hill days, its resort buildings now stand as reminders of their prestigious heyday, when Queen’s men were offered such noble pursuits as badminton, roller skating and smoking. Chowk Bazaar was unlike anything else I had seen. The sprawling market left my Western sensibilities ducking for cover, precisely what I had to do as well, given the “Please Do Not Spit Indiscriminately” signs were routinely ignored. I became lost several times among the myriad of streets filled with innumerable stalls. I was swallowed up by narrow, covered laneways where people were burning things and sweeping things and pouring water over the burning things. I feasted my eyes on sacks of pink and green pulses, red lentils and a rainbow of ground spices. My constitution was tested as my nasal cavities were filled all at once with the stench of pungent dried fish, bloody meat and fresh dog turds. It was why I came to this place – for an assault on my senses that left me feeling alive and ready for anything. However, all this did little to prepare me for my last morning in the city: when I would purchase a permit to watch the sunrise on Tiger Hill. This is my story.
I stood with my travel companions next to what appeared to be the oldest jeep in Darjeeling at 4:15 that morning and braced myself against the cold night air. Still half asleep, I wondered why I was doing something so crazy. Well-meaning arguments in support of this venture had not convinced me. Why make a commercial event out of a natural phenomenon like the rising of the sun? Granted, making the effort to see this every day event transforms it into something truly special and memorable. I have always thought what an amazing show nature presents us with each day, gratis. Never in my life had I considered the prospect of paying to watch a new day begin. So why, I thought as I pulled my polar fleece tight around my shivering body, should I pay for it now? While I am not against paying for the chance to experience natural wonders – I’ll happily fork out money to enter a World Heritage area or to camp in a stock-standard National Park – paying for something I can watch from my nearest beach after a big night on the town seems unnatural. This was foremost in my mind on that icy morning. The previous two sunrises I’d made the effort to see were fantastic, and not one rupee was exchanged.
Whilst in the village of Sandakphu I had seen four of the five highest peaks in the world – Everest, Kanchenjunga, Makalu and Lhotse – along with several other snow-capped peaks glowing in the early morning sun. It was the beginning of day four of a five-day trek along the Sikkim-West Bengal border and I had got out of bed early to relieve my extreme thirst. On the way out to the tin shack that was used as camp kitchen I said good morning to our guide, Sommu. He merely nodded in the direction of the mountains and with a broad smile said “Clear day”. Running back to the cabin, I sounded the alarm to my companions and within minutes we were at the viewing area, sleepy-eyed with cameras at the ready. Behind us the sun made its way into the Himalayan sky and we witnessed those magnificent mountains come to life before our eyes. Sommu explained that the formation as seen from this vantage point is called “Sleeping Buddha” and to my eyes he really was there in regal repose, bathing in the misty morning light.
The week before, at the beginning of my last day in the Tibetan township of Rabangla in southern Sikkim, I trudged to the top of a hill along a track lined with prayer flags. It was still dark so I carried a torch as well as my camera, and the short journey was difficult, as I was still suffering with the less-than-mild symptoms of a mild case of altitude sickness. I had left the cocooned warmth of my sleeping bag in what appeared to be the middle of the night. Wearing as many layers of clothing as possible, I reached a hill on the edge of the town which granted me brilliant views of both the sun rising and the Kanchenjunga mountain range, which magically lit up with each second.
But here we were, our last morning in Darjeeling. Like many tourists to this city, we were encouraged by the locals to make the early morning trip up Tiger Hill, which at an altitude of 2,590 metres affords a particularly spectacular view of the sunrise. The popular destination has earned international fame for being the place to see an impressive 250 kilometre stretch of the Himalayan horizon light up each day. The non-profit travel website Darjeelingnews.net rather poetically describes the experience thus:
“In the fast receding glimmer of the night, the spectator finds himself standing on the mound bedewed with sparkling frost, plunged in hush and silence and steeped in frigid cold. A traveller whose vision has not been entertained with … sunrise from Tiger Hill, has missed a pleasure that does not lend itself to be substituted.”
As we found out from our hotel proprietors, it’s also a catered affair with tea and biscuits included in the 40 rupee permit. But that was just it – there was a permit I needed to buy. I was highly skeptical about paying to see something I’d always considered priceless.
The Indian obsession with bureaucratic processes, particularly those of the pen-and-paper variety, is legendary. The associated administrative fumbling can be infuriating. Nowhere is “red-tapeism” more evident than in purchasing a permit. What I might flippantly call an ‘entry fee’ is dubbed ‘permit’. Along with this semantic discrepancy comes a seemingly endless process of identification paper checks, manual recording of banknote serial numbers and waiting in slow-moving queues. The purchasing of a permit to watch a sunrise from a hilltop whilst sipping tea seemed to take the cake in red-tape-overkill and I originally wanted no part in the lunacy. And yet the lure of the world-famous sunrise was too strong for me to resist. I answered my 4am wake-up call and prepared to make the trip up Tiger Hill.
Fifteen minutes later I climb into the ancient jeep equipped with everything from a dashboard statue of Lord Vishnu to Bambi seat covers. Following our departure from the jeep rank we take every single back street and narrow alley in Darjeeling to reach Ghoom – a railway town on our way up Tiger Hill. I wonder if we have forgotten to pay the flat-rate fare and our driver is capitalising on our sleepy states. Convinced that this is indeed the case, I look frantically for the secret taxi metre I’m sure is hidden under the dash. The jeep swerves around tight corners and as the rattling of the chassis transfers directly to my spinal cord, I realise in horror that neither my fellow passengers nor I are wearing seatbelts. In truth, should we meet with any misfortune nothing short of rally car helmets will suffice.
Upon reaching Ghoom the harsh reality of our endeavour to watch the sunrise from a hilltop whilst sipping tea becomes apparent. The jostling rally-style driving is now replaced by a slow crawl, as we become part of what appears to be a convoy of similarly decrepit jeeps filled with bleary-eyed tourists all taking the same overpriced journey. The morning sky is still a rich ink-blue, and behind us the surrounding nothingness is punctuated only by twin-sets of piercing headlights. Ahead, devil-red taillights lead the way to our ultimate destination.
The “permit office” looms at the base of Tiger Hill and turns out to be a ramshackle jumble of toll booths. Here the massive jeep convoy splits into many smaller streams, like the Ganges River as it flows into the Bay of Bengal. Permit sellers, or “officials”, lumber from vehicle to vehicle, check personal details, passports and the quality of paper currency. Offer ripped, crumpled or dirty rupee at your own peril – I found this out the hard way back in Darjeeling. Once the checking is done, the purchase of the permit takes place. Someone in our jeep is told by a permit official “You must ensure that the serial number on your permit matches the serial number of the permit believed by the permit official to have been issued to you”. This sentence proves to be more than my 5am brain can handle, and I pass the remaining time in the jeep in a haze managing only to focus on the ever approaching hordes behind us.
It is still dark when we reach the top of the hill so there is no view to speak of. Someone more cynical than I might believe they’d spent close to an hour and a half of precious sleeping time and 40 rupee worth of smooth, unblemished banknotes to visit the place where Darjeeling jeeps come to die. The parking lot is a cleared piece of land at the apex, dusty and smelling faintly of urine. Upon alighting from our cramped jeep we are accosted by at least four people selling hot beverages. My breath is visible with each exhale, and now that I am outside and at an altitude of 2,600 metres I abruptly realise I’ve left my treasured Thinsulate™ gloves in the hotel room. Spilling out of rusting jeeps, the multitude of fellow tourists are blowing their noses, taking photos and generally making what I consider too much noise for this time of the night. Winding his way through the maze of people is a man with what appears to be a knitted red and blue tea cosy on his head. He carries several 50 year-old metal thermos flasks on a tray supported by a belt slung around the back of his neck. As he approaches I hear his comforting chant of “Chai, coffee, coffee, chai”, and to my over-stimulated brain it comes across as an invocation to induce sleep. Then I remember and look down at my permit: we have purchased berths in the “Super Deluxe Lounge with Complimentary Tea”. I try to ignore the absence of the words “and biscuits” on my permit – surely my hotel proprietors would not have duped me in this matter. However the presence of the word “lounge” is perplexing, as my only observation of my surrounds is the aforementioned sea of jeeps and a low log railing. I soon find out that the lounge is in fact located in a pavilion situated behind the car park, so it gives you not only a view of the sunrise but also lets you watch the driver of your jeep lean on his bonnet and smoke a packet of cigarettes before the drive back down. The pavilion looms like a huge white ocean liner of the 1930s which has found itself stranded on a rocky outcrop. The Super Deluxe Lounge is on the second floor and boasts panoramic windows, coin operated binoculars, over stuffed sofas and armchairs, and coffee tables. There is a trestle table directly to the right of the entry, where the self-serve tea and coffee awaits. Sadly, my rupees have bought only the right to drink from Styrofoam cups. And there are no biscuits!
Upon entering the Super Deluxe Lounge it becomes clear to me that this outing is considered a prime destination for Darjeeling couples. Women with made-up faces, dressed in beautiful saris sit coyly next to men steeped in aftershave and wearing crisp white business shirts. Upon our arrival they pretend to look for a glimpse of the rising sun. They fool nobody – everyone here knows it’s still practically the middle of the night and no one will be seeing anything even resembling the sun for quite some time yet. I feel uncomfortable as we seem to be intruding on a private sanctum. I imagine it from their side – you’re settling down for a romantic date watching the sunrise and in come a noisy rabble of tourists heading directly for the tea and coffee on the trestle table and complaining about the lack of biscuits. I look around and see one shy couple purposely brush each other’s upper arms by accident as they point to where the horizon will appear much later on. Here in this pseudo-lounge room that we have invaded, the local art of sexual suggestion seems alive and well. There is an intense closeness of bodies, where nothing is touching but everything is implied. Does our preoccupation with the tea and biscuits while such sexual intensity simmers just metres in front of us say something profound about the way sex is perceived in the West? Maybe. Still, without those biscuits the prospect of breakfast now seems an eternity away.
The sofas prove popular for bodies accustomed to still being in bed. They are comfortable and we settle in to their soft recesses. No one minds that when you are seated the view is obstructed by the binoculars. As I gently blow into my Styrofoam cup to cool my tea, I glance up at the clock on the wall. It shows 5:20am. In a display of panic that can be excused from someone who feels cheated of the deepest portion of the night’s sleep, I begin asking all watch-wearers if the Super Deluxe Lounge Clock is correct. To our mounting dismay, and rapidly declining levels of caffeine, we resign ourselves to the fact that we will be sitting here on grandma’s sofas sipping tepid tea for at least another hour before anything notable happens.
Sometime after this, a bright orange shimmering ball pops over the horizon. Amidst oohs and aahs and even some screaming worthy of teenage girls at a pop concert, amidst camera flashes and home movie makers and people getting a shot of their friend “holding” the marble-sized sun between their finger and thumb, amidst smoking jeep drivers and dogs yowling in hunger and the “Chai, coffee, coffee, chai” man, it happens the way it always does. The way it has throughout millennia and the way it will until the end of time. The sun makes its daily journey to begin a new day. “Seen one, seen them all,” I think in retaliation as I begin to scrunch up the dreaded permit. I am already using my vantage point to mentally carve out a route back to the jeep when something catches my eye. I make my way through the crowd at the window to get a glimpse and finally understand what all the fuss is about.
Right in front of us, almost close enough to touch, is the reason we’re all here. Two glowing orange triangles – the twin peaks of Kanchenjunga, lit up like flames. They make my heart feel both light and heavy at once. Their imprints flash across the inside of my eyelids. The lower peak is pink, less intense than the orange but more interesting. The darker side of this peak, the last to receive the sun’s rays, is a deep purple hue. Beneath the peaks, the mountain sides are an almost fluorescent icy blue, and my fingers tingle as I again remember my gloves lying forgotten in the motel room. Next to this spectacle, the peak of Makalu can be witnessed as it begins to turn vibrant orange. It’s a beautifully clear morning so Everest, 172 kilometres away, is just visible in the distant background. Further away down in the valleys are the meandering silvery scrawls of the Teesta and Mechi rivers.
I now recall feeling a wonderful sense of calm as I watched the changing colours of those frozen peaks, the rolling ranges and icy plains. I truly felt at one with the place and all the people there. The absolute beauty of the surrounding landscape’s illumination by the sun brought home to me the charming nature of the absurd experience leading up to it. In a second it had all been well worth the lost sleep, the crazy jeep ride, the purchase of the permit and the absence of biscuits. At that moment I did not know what the rest of the day held for me, but if nothing else I could say I’d seen the top of the world come to life from Tiger Hill. And I had the permit in my pocket to prove it.