It took several days to settle into the â€œQueen of the Hills,â€ as Darjeeling is known; the town was totally socked in by an unseasonably cold fog, and it took some trial and error before we found the perfect guesthouse, a truly tranquilo haven atop the highest ridge in town. Guesthouse Andyâ€™s (Rs. 300, or less than $8 for a double) is run by a pair of sweet Nepalese Christians named Matilda and Genesis Gurung, who gave us an immaculate and ample room with private toilet and brought-to-our-door buckets of hot water for bathing, as well as hot water bottles for warming up at night.
But the real advantage of Andyâ€™s, the feature (besides cleanliness) which distinguishes an average backpacker flophouse from a true traveler retreat, are the common spaces where guests can easily mix, sharing stories and secrets from the road. Instead of greedily using every available square inch for additional rooms, the Gurungs have created a warm, comfortable library/lounge with inward-facing couches, as well as a rooftop terrace with a (almost) 360-degree view ofâ€”uh, clouds. At least, thatâ€™s all I saw my first time up there, during our tour of the place upon arrival. The next morning was different.
I rose at six, wrapped my lunghi around my waist, pulled on newly purchased yakâ€™s wool sweater, socks, and cap, and climbed to the terrace to see if things had cleared. They had. The scene was awesome in the original, magnificent sense of the word. I sat down on cold cement and tried to stack my spine â€œlike a pile of gold coins,â€ as I had once read one should in a book about meditation. It was one of those moments we long for as travelers; one of those defining peaks that would somehow become a part of me, though I didnâ€™t yet know how; I just knew to absorb it as best I could.
To my right, the sunâ€™s light stretched like taffy between thin strips of clouds which were draped over the nearer hills. To my left, the full moon fell, slowly, approaching a long, indigo ridgeline (possibly the Singalila, that high-alpine border between Nepal and India which I hoped to trek later in the week).
It had been a long time since Iâ€™d felt the earth-moving instant of sunrise-moonset and, as I thought about it, I realized I had only seen its dusky opposite, a decade before, in Maine, red sun dipping and full moon ascending as I floated on a mirror lake; there had been a blonde Labrador named Sully sitting quietly in the bow of my canoe. Now, that moment with Sully was connected to this one, in India.
But right and leftâ€”East and Westâ€”were nothing compared to what lay in front of me. The Mount Kanchenjunga massif floated supremely above the horizon like some alien mother ship. But she was very much a part of this Earth. Kanchenjunga is, in fact, the third highest mountain in the world. And there she was, in front of these wide-awake eyes and a stack of gold coins, wrapped in yak wool and wonder.