No way were we going to sight the highest peaks on planet earth—the clouds were just too overpowering. Yet, the stony faced driver’s insistent ringing at 3 am pushed us out of bed to confront the cold fog outside. “What are our chances?” I asked, staring at a white wall before the windshield incredulously. “There is always an element of surprise” retorted the local driver, falling back into his characteristic silence, uncommunicative and unhelpful. Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, shaking off the darkness to cover itself in the gold and orange of a fresh dawn is an awe inspiring vision we were told. Tiger Hill, a UNESCO world heritage site, situated at an altitude of 2590 m (8482 ft) and 13 km from the town of Darjeeling, is the place to be to ‘enjoy’ the magnificent view of the sunrise; and, on a perfect day, Mount Everest, too rolls into view—but we were not looking for perfection, just the ordinary.
The car sped through the haze the first 15 minutes and thereafter began our crawl to the finish line, up above the mountain, with roads that could be better off named ‘muddy pot holed tracks’. As we edged closer, a good hour later, soft rain started blotting our view—whatever little that we had of the road and the red tail lights of the cars that were before us. The Tiger Hill check post arrived at last…3.56 am…rain stronger…winds stronger…fog thicker….”What are our chances” I screamed over the pattering rain on the tin roof to catch the attention of the old man at the check post ticket counter. ” Your luck, madam,” he replied in studied sulkiness and handed me the tickets.
The view is splendid-most at around 4 am we were told. The sunrise point in fact offers many other delights for the adventure minded and one can trek downhill to visit the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary, and its two artificial lakes that serve as a reservoir for supply of water to Darjeeling town. We were set to make all of that a reality.
Beyond the check post we found cars parked in precarious angles all along the edge of the road leaving less than 6 to 7 ft across for other cars to manoeuvre their way up. After a point even that became an impossibility as we were wedged between cars on all sides. The driver switched off the controls, yanked the handbrake and asked us to take a walk to the observation area—just round the corner he said. It was a good km uphill, tiring us as we hurriedly puffed up through parked cars, braving the cold fog and rain. Watery coffee was pushed into our unwilling hands by local vendors, most of them being women, making quick sales amongst the thousands of tourists who had gathered here. Two beefy men manned the gates of the observation area that bears resemblance to an unfinished glass-house. In accomplished rudeness they demanded our tickets and, as I fumbled to locate them, shoved us to one side to let the others pass. Controlling my temper, and swallowing the disappointment of the still continuing bad weather, we walked up the stairs to the area that our tickets made us eligible to. For Rs 40 we could sit on plastic chairs in hall the size of a basketball field. The next and highest category is Rs 50 having only 40 seats which were apparently ‘sold out’. It was well beyond 4 am and as the clock edged towards 5, I began to consider leaving. The damp cold was now chilling my feet, especially with almost every second pane missing in the windows—making the hall draughty with rain lashing in spasmodically. Little kids, honeymooning couples and holidaying families huddled together to keep warm as they were totally unprepared for such an onslaught. A skirmish broke out for a seat sheltered beyond a particularly foul location, which died out just as quickly as it had begun. At about 5 am a middle-aged man walked to the head of the hall and began addressing the crowd. It is raining he said, but still you should stay put till 6 am or more, as the weather may suddenly clear out, and many people have had astounding sighting and so on and so forth. Then again, he said holding a package high up for all to see, there are CDs available at a certain cost that would give you a feel of what a delight Tiger Hill is. As the toddler enveloped in his mother’s arms whimpered in the cold once again, we gave up the search for the elusive mountains and walked out.
But, even though we left the hall there was no way that we could leave the Hill behind to reach the warm haven of our rest house. The cars jammed the roads and we had to wait for nearly two hours before we could even move. So then, I was not ‘lucky’ and yes I was ‘surprised’, not with the beauty but with the cheating that the State tourism department indulges in. In one day more than 2000 tourists visit the location on an average all through the summer from March to May after which the monsoons set in making the hills a less prominent attraction. But, has sighting got anything to do with luck? In that case why do we not leave monsoon forecast to luck too, instead of investing hundreds of crores in it. With weather forecast technologies reaching us real-time who are the State authorities fooling? Not one informed response lay in the official website/tourist advisories in the town, with the conniving drivers or the ticket collectors. The Authorities should have closed counter declaring that sighting the Kanchenjunga would be a near impossibility on such and such day—and even if one did sight it, it would be too transient. The weather and temperature advisories would have saved hundreds of tightly scheduled tourists from India and abroad, the harassment of wasting a whole day or very nearly falling ill in a destination like Darjeeling (as you just too tired to do anything after sleep deprivation, disappointment, not to mention the cold) and made the destination memorable for all who would find an opportunity to visit it in perfect weather.
Thinking from another perspective, I began to wonder what would have been my plight if I needed to seek any emergency medical care in a scenario where not a single car could move for over two hours. What the State tourism authorities feel about this will remain a mystery however, as G’nY correspondents were unable to ferret out a response from them. Even if by conservative estimates two lakh tickets are sold over three months, the Tiger Hill sojourn makes about Rs 60 lakhs for its keepers in one season. Surely that should be enough to maintain the road and a few glass panes. Cheating our fellow countrymen with CDs instead of the real thing is hardly what we expected would happen in the Queen of the Hills – Darjeeling.