Down Mall Road

On our first morning in Darjeeling wed decided to walk through the town. The previous evening I’d looked at all the pins on the map that I’d put and realized that many of them lay along the Mall Road. So the early part of our walk would be along that storied road. The later part would take us down the steep ridge on which the town lies, to the railway station and back up again.

We started with a short but steep climb from our hotel’s gates to the Mall Road. From there it was a pleasant walk up to the Government House. The building originally belonged to the erstwhile Maharajah of Cooch Bihar. The Government of India had bought it in 1877 CE to serve as the summer residence of the imperial Viceroy of India. It then devolved to the state of West Bengal, and remains a second residence of the governor of the state. Just beyond it is a terrace with benches which provide a lovely view of the Kanchenjunga hills. We sat there for a while, looking at the world’s third highest mountain floating white above a railing trailed with fairy lights. I thought to myself that it might be nice to come back for sunset, but I never did.

We turned past the little grotto with a statue of the famous mountaineer, Nawang Gombu Sherpa, and walked towards Chowrasta. The road was lined with tall trees. I recognized only the deodars, the storied Himalayan cedar. The tall straight trunks of this tree were in demand as far away as Beijing, where they were used as pillars in palaces and imperial tombs. But there were many I could not recognize. I think I saw a fugitive Pinus pinea, the Roman umbrella pine, hiding somewhere. In its imperial heydays, the British would have planted exotics in these hills. I found evidence of these crimes against nature elsewhere in the hills. Under the trees, there were shelters with seats. Perhaps they were bus stops, although I saw precious few buses in this town.

Further on, the highest point in this part of town was dominated by St. Andrew’s church. This was founded in 1843 CE by the Scottish engineers and army men who came here. The present gothic style structure dates from 1879. We walked into the grounds. The church was closed, and we were told that it opens only for Sunday services. No chance of seeing the memorial plaques that are said to line the walls, then. I took a photo of the door and waited for The Family as she took photos of the marigolds planted in rows of beds outside.

In front of the church was the most terribly impressive building that I was to see in the town. The ornate gates were shut tight and barred entry to anyone without appointment. This was the seat of the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration, which governs Kalimpong and Darjeeling districts. The rooftop finial didn’t make it into my photo of the gate, but fortunately I had a photo of the gurkha rampant with his kukri and bayonet atop the globe taken from further up the road.

As the Mall Road passes from the chowk between the admin building and the church, it turns into a pedestrian zone. The traffic passes through the lower road, which is the upper end of the oldest road in town, the Hill Cart Road. These two are called Nehru and Gandhi roads today, but known locally by the old names. The public library was closed. It was founded in 1958 and housed in this building which was earlier a hotel called Carlton House, and has been run by the district administration since 1975.

Every town worth its salt now sports a I ♥ <insert name of town> installation somewhere. We passed one with a distinct lack of selfie takers before coming to Chowrasta, the touristy heart of the town. Two of the institutions here have a long history. One is the Oxford Bookstore, with its interesting collection of books on the Himalayan region. I lost myself for a while there, browsing books which I hadn’t known that I need to read immediately. Fortunately they ship books to your home. I can’t figure out how long it has been in this location. its neighbours, the two curio shops, Habeeb Mullick & Sons, each belonging to one of the sons, presumably, was apparently the first business in Darjeeling to be owned by an Indian, when it opened in 1890.

We passed quickly by the shops and restaurants which we would come back to later, and came to the clock tower. This stands atop the municipal building. We found that the foundation stone of the municipal building was laid in 1917, and half the cost of the building and its 100 feet (30.5 meters) tall tower was borne by the erstwhile Maharaja of Cooch Behar. It was inaugurated in 1921. Across the Laden La road from the tower stood a whimsical building with a steeply sloping roof, pointy towers and gable windows. Built in 1920, this now serves as a hotel.

We stopped at the Himalayan Tibet Museum run by the Manjushree Foundation. Our next stop was the heritage building which houses the Head Post Office. We had to climb down a steep staircase in order to get to it. The building was inaugurated in 1921, and is on the UNESCO world heritage list, but it is a typical charmless post office from inside, run by a part of the central bureaucracy which runs on a shoestring budget. The outside was covered with bright signboards. The only charming thing about it were the chimneys. From here to the railway station took us through a narrow and steeply sloping path down a dilapidated house which turned out to be an interesting stop, our last before we came to the railway station.

We’d noticed that there are more wires per cubic meter of “open” space in Darjeeling than in most towns we’ve been to. Thick optic fiber lines entered this building which looked dilapidated even before its was finished. It belonged to an organization called the British Gurkha Ex-Servicemen’s Association, a reminder that the racial stereotyping characteristic of the Empire continues in its rump even today. We stopped at the corner and I took photographs of these shoes all washed and drying. I noticed that The Family was busy taking photos next to me. Later I saw that she’d found a view of Kanchenjunga from this spot. Neither of us saw what the other did! One day I’ll ask her to write about this walk. It might be an eye opener for me.


When you travel in the hills and mountains of India it is not uncommon to find the ruins from the late colonial era. The British tended to gravitate to the cooler regions of these higher elevations when possible. Often that meant that the administrative apparatus would go into very long breaks in the two warm seasons (summer and Indian summer). When the Raj collapsed, they sold what they could and moved back to the Old Blighty. What they couldn’t, slowly fell into ruin as the country reverted to its normal way of life.

Just past the bazaar in Mukteshwar I came to one such set of buildings: a late colonial barracks. Mukteshwar was perhaps at its bustling busiest in the 1920s. There had been continuous growth since the beginning of the 20th century until the Black Tuesday market crash in New York. Arguably, the punitive taxes imposed by Britain on its colonies in the aftermath of the crash led to the invigoration of the independence movement, and Britain’s eventual exit from India. But this past is a prologue to the sunny day on which I took these photos and wondered what could happen to this row of two-room apartments, each separated from its neighbour by just one wall. I suppose it will be torn down, and the stones reused to build something more suited to today.

Perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of these old barracks was the miserly view they gave of the beautiful vistas behind them: the high Himalayas on one side, this lovely forest on the other. I left the ruins behind and followed the road, under the deodars and the firs, into a land full of the sounds of insects and birds.

Trees of the Himalayas

Deodrar tree in Paro

There was little time to prepare for our trip to the Himalayas. I worried about whether I should pack Pradip Krishen’s field guide to the trees of Delhi, but then decided against it; after all most of this book dealt with trees of the plains. There are excellent guides to the birds of India, one for butterflies, ancient ones for other animal orders, and certainly nothing for the trees of the Himalayas. One of the few useful resources I came across was an excellent blog post on the trees of Shimla.

The quick field guide which I made for myself can be useful on future trips. There is such an incredible variety of trees across the Himalayas that anyone could spend a lifetime studying them. The little part which is captured in this small list served me as landmarks to orient myself by.

(Cedrus deodara)
Himalayan cedar
1700-2750 meters
across Himalayas
conifer, 40-50 meters tall, 10 meters girth, generally grows on northern slopes
(Picea smithiana)
2250-2750 meters
Western Himalayas
conifer, 40-55 meters tall, 3 meters girth, higher branches are upward pointing, really long needles, generally grows on northern slopes
(Abies pindrow)
silver fir
2500-3700 meters
Western Himalayas
40-60 meters tall, 7 meters girth, gray-brown furrowed bark, overall conical shape with level branches, needles have a white streak on the underside, dark purple erect cones, generally grows on northern slopes
(Pinus roxburghii)
Himalayan pine
500-2000 meters
across Himalayas
heavy cone, 40-50 meters tall, 6 meters girth, rough bark, needles are arranged in bundles of three, prefers southern slopes
(Pinus wallachiana)
blue pine
1800-4300 meters
across Himalayas
long cone, 30-50 meters tall, needles are arranged in bundles of five, bluish in colour, generally grows on northern slopes
(Quercus leucotrichophora)
Himalayan white oak
1500-2400 meters
Western and central Himalayas
15-25 meters tall, twisted gnarled trunk, rounded canopy, underside of leaves is white and hairy, acorns edible
(Quercus floribunda)
(also Quercus dilatata)
Himalayan green oak
1700-2700 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 6-9 meters girth, straight trunk with dark reddish brown bark, leaves 4-6 cms long and green on both sides
(Quercus semiscarpifolia)
Himalayan brown oak
2800-3250 meters
Western Himalayas
25-30 meters tall, 4.5 meters girth, straight trunk with domed crown, dark grey bark broken into small plates, 2.5-10 cm long leaves, with brown underside
(Quercus glauca)
ring-cupped oak
also Japanese oak
widespread15-20 meters tall, straight trunk with domed crown, dark brown furrowed bark, leaves purple red when new, powdery blue-green underside when older
diverse genus
1500-3000 meters
across Himalayas
shrubs and small trees, glossy leaves, sometimes with a scaly underside, bright flowers

The tombs of the Ming emperors


The third Ming emperor, Yongle, brought the capital back to Beijing and began to rebuild the Wall. Thirteen of the sixteen Ming emperors, including Yongle, were entombed nearby. The site of these tombs is beautiful: mountains behind, water in front, “according to the principles of Fengshui” as our guide explained. We visited Chang Ling, the tomb of Yongle. Even on a weekend the place is fairly calm.

The emperor, his wife, and sixteen concubines are buried beneath the mound at the back of the complex. This is covered with trees, and has not been excavated. A visit takes in the buildings which lead from the gate up to the mound: the gate, the Hall of Eminent Favours, and the Soul Tower. The central road running through this belongs to the spirits, and is not supposed to be used by living humans.

We passed through the enormous gate (photo above) into the spectacular Hall of Eminent Favours. This is an all-wood construction, apparently containing no metal at all. The most impressive element of its architecture are the enormous wooden pillars: apparently built from the trunks of Himalayan deodar trees (cedar, nanmu in Mandarin) imported from Nepal. At the center of this hall a statue of Yongle has recently been installed, and the floor before it is strewn with money from favour seekers. The hall also contains an exhibit of imperial jade, including intricately carved pieces of soft jade.

soultowerYou can exit from the back into the second courtyard, and continue on to the Soul Tower (photo alongside). From this massive tower, which is the most peaceful part of the complex, you can see the tombs of other emperors. When leaving you are supposed to pass through the central gate in front of the Soul Tower in order to leave the world of the dead behind you. Most people do this, but a significant fraction break the convention of not looking back. It is hard to resist the impulse to turn back to take another photo of the complex before leaving.

We usually do not take guides, relying on audio guides, books and reading. Unfortunately, guide books to China, and even blogs, tend to concentrate on the practical, and leave out a detailed description of sights (I understand that the Blue Guide is an exception, but we did not get it before coming here). So, for this weekend he had with us a guide who did a good job of explaining the significance of various details we would have missed otherwise.

He explained to us that traditionally the Chinese associate tombs with bad luck, which is why the crowds are thin. Also, that one does not take photos of each other within the tomb complex. When we saw Chinese families doing this, he explained that they need guides.