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Tuesday 23rd November - Darjeeling
By Claire
Saturday, 27th November 2004 09:33

We had a jeep waiting for us at 4am, and Tassy took us on the half-hour drive up to Tiger Hill. There were a surprising number of people trying to flag the car down for a lift, too. We only stopped for one thing, though: a large, dark red, fox-like creature that walked sedately in front of the car. It had very short legs, a very long, thick bushy tail, and white patches on its face.Tassy didn't know what it was.

At the top of the hill we paid the highest tariff to be allowed into the indoor viewing area, and we took a seat by the windows and waited. The BBC told us that the sun would rise at a minute past six, and it was only just gone four-thirty, so we had a long wait. The room filled up quickly, though, and at one point a man came in to tell us all to have tea and that the sun would rise at ten past six. It was freezing cold, even with one of Mikey's gloves on.

The sun rose over the clouds in the east, and illuminated a spectacular range of mountains including the third highest mountain in the world, one beginning with K. Everest was, unfortunately, somewhere in the haze and cloud, a hundred and eighty miles away and didn't want to pose for pictures this morning. We joined our driver in the queue for the exit, and he took us to the Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Ghoom, just below Darjeeling. It was a brief stop (shoeless, the stone floor was too cold to stand on for long) and slightly strange: we traipsed round a small room, painted with images of plants, animals and flowers on a glossy turquoise background, with a giant Buddha staue in it, while an eight-year old boy in monks' robes bashed the donations box in front of the statue and looked angry. Then Tassy took us to the Batasia loop, a bit of the train track in Ghoom that does a circle round a staue and a small garden. Some people in local costumes tried to sell us some local costumes, plastic flowers or a go with their telescope, and then we went back to the hotel.

We slept for another couple of hours, and had breakfast. We went to the bank to get some money out, and then joined a long queue inside to change the impossible-to-spend 500 rupee (six pound) notes for something smaller. The man looked in his desk drawer and then pulled a battered black canvas holdall from under the desk and handed me a bundle of brand new, consecutively-numbered 50 rupee notes all tied together with a white paper band, just like in bank robberies. It was very cool! There were too many for Mikey's wallet, though, so I put some in my pockets, and we walked out of the bank looking very suspicious!

We retraced yesterday's walk, but went a bit further today: up to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, where Tensing Norgay and companions set up a school for Indian mountaineers. We had to go through the zoo to get there, and it was one of the nicest zoos I've ever been to. All the animals were endangered Himalayan beasts, and all had huge enclosures of their natural habitat. The zoo has a very sucessful breeding programme too, and is the only place to have produced Tibetan wolf cubs, and one of the few to have bred snow leopards. But we walked quickly past the animals on the way up to the Institute.

There was a big museum here all about climbing Mount Everest, with displays of equipment, pictures of people who had done it and three-dimensional maps. There was another museum all about the attempts to climb the mountain, and further up the hill was a big plaza dedicated to Tenzing Norgay Sherpa, one of the first two guys to climb the mountain, in 1953, and the place where he was cremated.

We spent a lot of time walking down the hill and through the zoo. It was here that we saw a large, dark red, fox-like creature with very short legs, a very long, thick bushy tail, and white patches on its face. It was a red panda, and the thing that walked in front of the car this morning! Wonderful to have seen one in real life. The snow leopards, my favourite, were lovely, too. They have incredibly large feet and long, thick tails. There were two, in adjacent cages, and they kept racing one another up and down their mountains. They looked like they were having fun. The zoo also had two of the world's remaining 200 Siberian tigers, which looked a little worse for wear, but they could have been quite old. There were a lot of wolves and peacocks and masses of red pandas. The only one we didn't see was the Himalayan newt, but I don't believe in them anyway, so it's not surprising.

We had another look in the shops on the way down, and a man talked me into buying a pashmina. I don't really know what they are, other than really, really soft shawls, but I remember a Friends episode where Ross strokes one. The man tried to tell Mikey it was an investment, but it was very inexpensive and the man handed me a lilac one and said, "There, that's your colour," which was exactly the right thing to say, and it was sold, just like that. I bought another, purple, one too which is supposed to be pure pashmina rather than a silk mix. I can't resist shiny things or purple.

We had supper, and I tried to read for a while but Zoolander was on telly and that's funnier than it should be, so I watched that. Then Mikey saw the Superman film that has General Zog and Niagra Falls in it but I went to sleep.

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