|There were two reasons I wanted to come to Darjeeling. Firstly to visit the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI), founded by sherpa Tensing Norgay, who with Edmund Hilary was the first man to climb Everest. See the next log for photos of the HMI.
The second reason was to stay at a Raj era hotel. Darjeeling is a hill station in north east India which was set up by the British to escape the heat of the Calcutta summers. Darjeeling is 7,000 feet above sea level, hence temperatures are cool. In the good old days of the British Raj, Darjeeling was known as “The Queen of the Hills”.
The British also introduced tea plantations - Darjeeling tea is now known and drunk around the world.
As I did my research on somewhere to stay I found the Planter’s Club – now also know, perhaps for polictial correctness, as the Darjeeling Club. The Planters Club was set up by the British as somewhere for the British plantation owners/managers to meet and relax. Membership was exclusive and limited to the British (and I think the Maharaja). The club is now a hotel and I was able to book myself a room there.
What I didn’t know until I arrived in Darjeeling was that the Planter’s Club was also the base for organizing expeditions to Everest in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Before Nepal opened its doors to the outside world after the Second World War, Darjeeling was where the Sherpas lived and were recruited for Himalayan expeditions. Expeditions would start out from Darjeeling and walk in to Everest and other Himalayan peaks.
When the British needed porters and sherpas they undertook their recruitment from the Darjeeling club. Sherpa Tensing Norgay himself, who after a childhood in Nepal lived in Darjeeling, stood in line at the club whilst attempting (successfully it would appear) to get a place on expeditions.
And there’s more. Mallory and Irvine, the famous Everest explorers who in 1924 died whilst climbing Everest – having been last seen just 1,000 feet from the summit – started their fateful 1924 expedition from the Planters Club. Outside the entrance to the club are oxygen bottles from the expedition.
I had a wonderful time at the Planter’s Club. It is steeped in history. Mallory and Irvine must have drunk and played billiards at the same bar in which I did the same. Perhaps the room I slept in was used by one of the previous great Himalayan explorers - Shipton? A room boy attended to my (almost) every need, bringing me Darjeeling (of course) tea in the morning, making me a fire at night and even providing me with a hot water bottle. When was the last time you got a hot water bottle at a hotel? Granted it was cold and there is no "central heating" aside from the fire.
The club is quite dilapidated these days. Membership is down, as is true with most gentlemen’s clubs throughout the world. Politics has also not helped – there is a liquor ban in the state – part of the political games resulting from disputes between Gorkhaland and the Indian Government – hence one of the main reasons for coming to the club has been removed. I can imagine that this is also an expensive property to maintain – it is wood throughout, and wood needs a lot of care and maintenance. Darjeeling has also become a holiday destination for Indian tourists (and in my opinion completely destroyed as a result), and I don't think that Raj era hotels appeal to Indian tourists. Beside that it's too expensive for them.
Still, the ambiance of the club overcomes any of the issues associated with the outside world. Enter the club's doors and you are transported to the past, to what must have been glorious days in the Queen of the Hills (if you were British…..).