Approaching prayer flags on the Sandakphu Trail near the Nepal/India border. Photos by Brian Monnin

Darjeeling Free

“Have you just given up?” asks my office mate silhouetted by the rainy Redmond, Washington sky behind her. “Do people even know that you aren’t reading them?”

I shrug, ignore her and the 12,670 emails marked unread. Between the text messages, the constant squawking on the McCurdy broadcast system (a sort of walkie-talkie between our MSNBC.com online producers and their counterparts on the East coast) and three daily editorial meetings to cover breaking and developing stories, I don’t merit her critique of my negligent approach to email. My team of journalists and javascript hackers know how to tell interactive stories and I trust they will find me in person rather than my inbox if they really need my feedback. One email does catch my eye though.

Subject: Taj today, Goa tomorrow..

The note from my ex-girlfriend delivers the “I’m clearly doing better without you” message in no uncertain terms. She is more than happy tripping the light fantastic by trekking solo across Bhutan, Nepal and now India. “Damn, how am I going to get her back?” I think scurrying to my next five–ten person, noses in their own laptops, meeting.

That night I meet for the fourth Tuesday in a row with a small group of friends to pitch new business ideas. We are narrowing in on a concept that will help storytellers combine video, photos, maps and images without needing to know how to code. We’re making progress but there remains a swirl of un-certainty in the room. “When will you quit to start this?”, “ How much will I be making?” “Does that include a bonus? “Do I get the same health care as I have now?” Almost all of my answers are not what they were hoping for and nearly all are dreading delivering the realities of the new gig to their household partners. All of us are wondering who will quit their job first and who will see this idea through.

My partners are lukewarm to my next move as I both pull the trigger and blink first. I quit my job at MSNBC Interactive and Microsoft before them but tell my future co-founders that the start date should wait a month or longer because I’m traveling to India. I scramble to get my Malaria shots, my travel Visa and then book my airfare to India.

“Kind of desperate don’t you think?” my friend asks regretfully as he realizes that if he talks me out of going then I won’t move out of his attic bedroom he has let me crash in since my break up. “I’m not traveling half-way around the planet to find her,” I partially lie. I am burnt out from four years at Microsoft and badly need to re-charge my batteries if I am going to move forward as a first time entrepreneur. “Besides, I’m not going to Goa, India is a huge country.” I remind him (and myself). I am heading to Darjeeling by way of Calcutta to retrace the footsteps of my grandfather during his tour of duty in WWII.

Henry Valet served as part of the 2nd Weather Recon Squadron of the Armed Air Forces from 1943–1945.

Henry Valet, 2nd Weather Recon 1944

Stationed in Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka), Grandpa Hank was a photographer responsible for monitoring regional weather conditions on the supply lines to the Chinese and Allied forces fighting Japan. These were risky, high altitude flights over the “the Hump” as this portion of the Himalayas was known. The normal routine was sticking his head out of P-40's and opening the shutter of a single-lens reflex camera. First hand accounts for weather reports and terrain mapping were critical during wartime particularly in this vast stretch of unfamiliar territory. There were no API’s or apps to subscribe to during WWII.

“The 2nd delivers from a vast chunk of the earth’s surface and from the great layers of hitherto unexplored air that lie above it. It has 2,300 men spread thin — south, deep into the Indian Ocean far below the equator; north, to the Siberian border; west, into Baluchistan and Sinkiang; and east, to the China Sea. They work at some 100 stations, dotting a gigantic, rough parallelogram about 3,000 miles deep and 4,000 miles wide. They observe, plot and forecast weather for all planes that fly in India and Burma, across the Hump, and in China.”
-excerpt from a 1945 Newsweek article.
Preparing a p-40 for a weather recon mission in 1944. Photo by Henry Valet

Hank’s photos, journals and cameras are personal talismans for me to this day and especially while I was growing up. His wartime journey captured my imagination drawing me to photography and journalism. He brought back a documentary treasure trove of photos and negatives stateside in late 1945 when he was honorably discharged along with hundreds of thousands of other servicemen returning home at the end of WWII. It was an incredible volume of recorded life that took place in the Pacific war theatre. Hank deftly balanced the boredom between missions and sudden action that he and his fellow servicemen were called upon. It was all a far cry from the life of a bookbinder that he had left back in Middlesex, NJ in 1943. This familiarity with pre-WWII New Jersey working class life made deeply touching portraits of fisherman, traders and villagers in the remote reaches of India, China and especially the Himalayan foothills during the 1940's.

More than any other photograph, it is a picture made of Darjeeling, India that I kept returning to. Taken over an R&R weekend in 1944, the day-to-day life Hank captured of the remote, hilltop trading outpost during war was hypnotic to me. I set out to go there myself in the spring of 2000.

Darjeeling marketplace 1944. Photo by Henry Valet

“Siliguri, Siliguri, Siliguri” the young man bellows at the crossroads taxi stand. “Darjiiling, Darjiiling, Darjiiling” he repeats quickly. I approach him and we begin to negotiate a price. Having traveled from Calcutta to Darjeeling by train I am quickly growing accustomed to the constant bargaining in India. Whether it is a trinket, shirt or taxi ride, everything is negotiable here.

We settle on a price and I hustle through the throngs of strange faces and pungent odors of this North Indian backroads. Once my bags are tied down to the top of the jeep I cram in with at least four too many people to begin the winding ride up to the renown hill trek town of Darjeeling.

Darjeeling Himalayan Railway navigating Agony Point. Photo from Wikimedia Commons

In the 1940's Hank would have taken the famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railway also known as the “Toy Train”. A small train that looks like it belongs in an English Christmas legend as it winds up the steep slopes and mountain passes to the town center.

“From the vast, Gangetic plain, with its bamboos and paddy and Brown Bengalese you are rocketed to a land of Nepalese, Tibetan and Bhuddist temple….Nowhere else in the world is there a journey like this. And no journey anywhere has so dramatic a climax. The end of the trip brings you face to face with the greatest mountain mass in the world.
—John Thomas, British India Command excerpted from the essay "Travelling to Darjeeling in 1944" Heritage Publications

A portion of the gauge railway still operates today but it feels too touristy for me. The train takes an eight hour ascent to Darjeeling. Impatient, I am too close to arriving at my personal pilgrimage and believe choosing to proceed by jeep a far speedier alternative.

map by farfrontiers.com

I bump and jostle into my dusty companions hoping my bags are still tied down to the top of the crowded carrier during the drive up the mountain roads. The middle-aged driver takes the turns fast and hard simultaneously hitting the horn and breaking to warn or dodge the countless stray dogs living between small villages and remote hillside homes. I begin to think eight hours on a toy train may have been the way to go.

The sudden green appearance of the famous Darjeeling tea plantations soothes my queasiness and quickly swaps out any worries I have about lost luggage with bright foreign vistas. Local workers carrying baskets are walking in single file along the steep terraced rows picking tea leaves. They proceed slowly in their hard work at high altitude. My mind jumps from the source and origin of something previously exotic to the journey it takes to our stateside cupboards. Darjeeling tea is no longer a brand found in Whole Foods aisles or on coffee shop counters. The sublime setting blends people and their local practice with the rugged beauty of the hillsides.

Incredible possibly only to myself, I arrive in one piece and with my backpack still clinging to the roof of our jeep. I step out into the thin air and compare my sepia image memory of my new surroundings with the real thing. The Darjeeling marketplace is a vibrant gathering place for arriving and departing travelers complete with a mess of jewelry, fabric, spices, fruits and vegetables for sale. A constant buzz of Indian, Tibetan and Bengali voices provide the soundtrack.

Spices and salt found at the Darjeeling marketplace

The market sellers are quick to smile for a photo but equally determined to begin the negotiating. It was after all a marketplace and the rupees leap from my pocket. With new prizes in tow, I turn heel and walk up the steep hill from the the market to the main square where I was told I could find a hotel or inn. After two tries I find a B&B and immediately collapsed into the simple, clean room listening to solemn chants that emanate from a nearby Buddhist temple.

Ghoom Monastery
Darjeeling local

The same Buddhist chants that put me to sleep wake me up the next morning. Each evening and morning the chants accompanied by moody music are broadcast through the town’s PA system. After a strong cup of tea with milk and biscuits, I decide to follow the source of the chants. I walk down the winding, narrow streets and am rewarded with the Ghoom Monastery. Beautiful prayer flags on twenty-foot bamboo poles guide me in. I have the sanctuary nearly to myself in the early morning light. Chimes standing eight feet tall rotate after another woman sets the rotating chimes beginning her personal Buddhist homage.

After a couple of hours I begin the climb back to town center. On my walk I motion to an older Indian man and ask if I can take his picture. I pause a bit too long after getting the shot and he breaks the silence “Wat you doeeing? All done?”.


Shit, I don’t have a plan. I really have not come to India to find my ex-girlfriend but companionless and now with the fading buzz of retracing and photographing where my grandfather had walked fifty-five years earlier complete I need something more to do.

In my constant up and down march I notice several trekking and adventure outfitters. As an avid kayaker and rafter I look to book an overnight boat trip on a local river. Unfortunately there are none but plenty of hiking treks appear on the posted maps.

The head of the expeditions outfit indicates that although there are no organized treks this late in the season I can hire a private guide for the nearby Sandakphu trek. A five-day walk in the foothills of the Himalaya sounds exactly like what I need. We negotiate a price and I meet my guide who is introduced to me as “Jii”. He nods politely and smiles several times. “Does Jii speak English” I ask nervously. The owner frowns and then smiles just as quickly. “Of course” the merchant says elbowing him. Jii fidgets and manages to say “Eenglesh”. The owner interrupts, “Meet at the bottom of the hill tomorrow at 7 AM, OK?” rushing me out the door before I can change my mind.

The Sandakphu trek winds through local villages along the Indian, Nepalese and Sikkim borders. Part stone and earthen trail, the trek roller coasters up and down multiple peaks and ridges from 6,000-to 12,000 feet finally reaching Mt. Sandakphu; the highest point in West Bengal, India. Still, this peak is only a footnote to the towering Mt. Kachenchunga and in occasional line of site to Makalu, Lhotse and Everest itself. From the visual splendor to the lung-aching uphill strides this trek is the very definition of breath-taking.

Photos by Brian Monnin

Jii finds me as promised and we begin our mostly silent five day journey together. I stumble out of the bus into the crisp Himalayan air. I hope that hiking for three days at 6,500 ft will have acclimatized me. In the first twenty minute climb from the bus stop I am already breathing heavy. Jii insists on carrying my back pack. I feel guilty but let him as he does not appear ready to take no for an answer. Another thirty minutes and I stop panting to see three local women in colorful apparel with enormous woven baskets full of firewood coming down the trail towards us. I ask Jii if I can have my backpack. He looks at me oddly and it finally hits me that he really does not speak any “eenglesh”. We play a brief tug-of-war until he finally relents giving me a universal “foolish foreigner” look.

“Short cut” near the India-Nepal border

It turns out Jii does have a few words we can share. Every couple of hours he stops and points in three directions. Each time he says the name of a mountain, country or “teee house”. “Bhutaaan, Siiikkim, Maaakalu”. After the pronouncements are complete he immediately points to the trail and in some cases a steep stone path and says “short cut”. Hard as the climbs are becoming it’s an easy release to simply follow on march on. With no map and such little advance planning on where I am going I appreciate the lack of debate even more.

The reward for hours of silent hiking is the sudden transition from trail, trees, rock and vistas into into a village speckled with huts, horses, farmers and children. We walk through the center of town (there is no other way as most occupy a single lane along a ridge) and find our tea house lodging for the night. Two straight days of this rhythm and I have yet to see a single westerner nor an electrical wire for that matter . There is always a welcome smile from the host family especially in the slow season of March.

Our end of day activity is falling into a routine. Jii negotiates a rate, I play the part of goofy Westerner until money changes hands and we are welcomed to join the family around a stone hearth with fire, tea and a well-needed meal. The cuisine is simple, usually a protein (often yak) and rice. Some of the owners brew their own warm, rice beer called Chaang served in a wooden mug and sipped with a metal straw. The guide books tell me to steer clear of local meats and Chaang. Both the yak and home brew are excellent and as satisfying a post-hike buzz as I’ve ever had.

The Tibetan and Nepali faces now far outnumbered the Indian/Bengali ones as we travel further north. New villages spaced ten to fifteen miles apart greet us with prayer flags and a solitary white Pagoda statue. Each cluster of mountain dwellings has the same rural pace of a 17th or 18th century hamlet: a buddhist monk, farmers, children, livestock and ever-present stray dogs.

In the morning there is hot tea and a quick goodbye if any words at all. Jii and I begin walking in silence. There is no chit-chat, leading to a decision-to-be made or debate followed by a back and forth of life’s mysteries. There is simply following, walking, looking and listening to the wind. The further we go the colder it becomes. It is Spring at the top of the world so there is occasional snow and a swift wind that catches us as we round every other bend.

I simply think less and less of what I had left behind. I am bored of my self-examinations & second-guessing on the girlfriend problem (I blew it) and I am bored of questioning whether I know what I am doing talking two friends into leaving their great jobs into the unknown (I don’t). I play the ping-pong match in my head no more. I am left with only solitary walking as we pass only one other trekker in two days.

Three hours of hiking on the 3rd day we suddenly come to a border crossing. After so much time shared in silence practically anything new is a surprise. “Naypaul” Jii says. “We’re going to into Nepal?” I ask. He turns and keeps walking until he stops next to a cabin strung with laundry. After some more motioning, the ringing of a bell and waiting a border agent arrives between the laundry and looks us over disapprovingly and says “passport?”

Arriving at the India-Nepal border crossing

As the temperature drops again I can’t help notice how little Jii has. I give him my shell and buy him a new pair of shoes at the make shift general store at border crossing. He doesn’t thank me, just nods and we continue. “Short-cut” he says pointing to the steep trail cut into the wooded Nepalese hillside.

Another two hours we turn a bend with Mt. Kachenchunga clearly in the distance. Staring at the world’s second tallest peak with my own eyes is astounding Jii points and says “Kachunga, Nepal, he points to the NW, “Bhutan” and then to the SW “Siihkeem”. He turns, looks at me with his own tired eyes and I know it simply means we need to get moving if we want a warm meal before nightfall.

Jii gives me new appreciation for the role of a guide, especially on a multi-day trek. Available to point in the correct direction at a fork in the road, humorless but affable enough and most importantly able to quickly negotiate a rate for a meal and a nights rest. It doesn’t make for a Tolkien-esque tale of adventure and bonding but it gives me safety, just enough traveller independence and most importantly time to my own thoughts.

The following morning we are walking through 2–3 inches of fresh snow approaching Mt. Sandakphu at roughly 12,000 feet (3,658 meters). What’s remarkable is the feeble nature of this otherwise worthy accomplishment because of what you are left looking at. The summit that took us four days to reach is puny compared with the towering 28,209 ft (8,598 meters) Mt. Kachenchunga, the world’s third tallest mountain behind K2 (8,611 meters) & Everest (8,848 meters).

Only 187 climbers have made it to the top of Mt. Kangchenjunga since 1955 with close to a 22% fatality rate. It lacks a direct route to the summit and is plagued by avalanches and fierce storms. Meanwhile, at 12,000 feet I’m blistered, tired, hungry and can’t even come close to imagining what it takes to summit a mountain of this magnitude. A local boy snaps me out of my scenic infatuation and asks if he can carry my bag. Jii shoos him away and we walk toward a warming hut.

A group of trekkers comes in from the opposite direction. It is an organized mission for Doctors Without Borders who are trekking across Nepal from West to East delivering supplies and services to remote villages. Despite all they have seen (Everest, Anapurna, Katmandu etc..) they each pause and give praise to this unique Himalayan vantage that this portion of their trek gives them. Perhaps it was just because they know they are near the end of their trip but it makes me feel I have chosen (or stumbled) wisely into a great choice for a personal journey.

We don’t waste time. Jii knows we are short on food and we don’t want to make the steep, winding descent in the dark. After another three or four hours (roughly 15 km) we finally lay our eyes on the ridge town of Molley in the landlocked Indian state of Sikkim. This is only a partial win as the slope and trail are steeper than others we have been on and I am clearly beaten up. My feet hurt and my knees wobble downward. Jii ignores me completely so I take comfort in the fact that this was tough on him as well. Gradually the trail seems to fall apart and we are walking through local back yards. I wrongly think we may be unwelcome visitors through these gardens but we get mostly curious smiles and wagging tails. “Jiii” I call rhetorically. “Jii..” No reply, just his backside as he must be watching his own footing down the loose slope as we approach the end of our trek.

The blend of Tibetan, Nepalese, Indian cultures and terrain in Darjeeling and on the Sandakphu trail are without comparison. My lack of planning works in my favor and the language barrier with Jii opens up a pedestrian meditation I could never have planned for in advance. The steady rhythm of my steps on the trail are interrupted only by the wind, rustling trees, calling birds or a sudden panorama freeing my mind from past mistakes and opening myself up to future possibilities.

After a long jeep and bus drive back to Darjeeling I collapse into my hotel for a fifteen hour sleep. I awake to evening chants hungry, ready to return home, start a new business and feeling free.

The one land that all men desire to see, and having seen once by even a glimpse would not give that glimpse for the shows of the rest of the world combined.

— Mark Twain in 1896 after visiting Darjeeling at age 61