Wednesday, September 7, 2011

A Short Trip to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling

The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, conveniently attached to the Darjeeling Zoo, was established by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1953, and partially run by the world-famous Tenzing Norgay, one of the original summiters of Mt Everest. It's a good day out if you're in Darjeeling and at a loss as to what to do with yourself.

I grew up fascinated by mountaineering stories, lore, and books - I must have read Into Thin Air five or six times when it first came out, I lapped up articles on Mallory, Conrad Anker, I read Outside Magazine obsessively and wished for the day I too could wander around in the Himalayas. Summiting Everest wasn't something that ever appealed to me - paying $50,000 for the privilege of facing death struck me as a bit wrong-headed - but I loved to read about it. Visiting the Himalayas and trekking in Sikkim was certainly the quiet culmination of a personal dream for me, and Tenzing Norgay must take at least some of the credit for that. (I had a pet hermit crab called Tenzing when I was six years old. I'm not sure if I should be embarrassed by this).

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited the mountain in 1953 and interest in Himalayan mountaineering began to surge soon after, especially in India. As the museum at the Institute explains, mountaineering prior to this time wasn't really something Indians did, except when in the company of (occasional) convoys of slightly daft Western adventurers. Norgay's achievement made the public realize that they could do this stuff too, and furthermore, the best mountaineering on the planet happened to be in their own backyard. Norgay became the first field director for the HMI: he'd keep the post up until his death.

The HMI is still going strong, and maintains a training center up on the way to the Goecha La in Sikkim, along the same trek I did. I remember noting with pleasure that a lot of young women were part of the training camps ranks, when I passed them up or down the mountain. Sir Edmund Hillary—who, I should add, had many wonderful traits, I should write about him sometime—took a dim view of women in mountaineering, but Norgay's institute has got past the mental hump. (And Sherpa women are tough as nails, as they would be).

The actual Institute is certainly worth a visit. The museum attache to the Institute is rather violently circa-1975, but I happen to find that sort of thing appealing. There's a scale model of the Himalayas with little light-up push buttons, displays of climbing gear that belonged to famous people—including Norgay, naturally—a number of maps, explanations of the chronology of professional mountaineering in India, displays of artifacts and clothing from the Himalayas best-known cultural groups, and dusty, taxidermized Local Wildlife. You can't take photos inside. I tried.

Padma Bhushan Tenzing (his full name) died in May of 1986, and was cremated in a traditional Buddhist ceremony outside the museum, attended by Sir Edmund Hillary, who according to a New York Times article on the event, "stayed on long after Tenzing's eldest son Norbu, a student at a New York state business college, ignited the sandalwood pyre, sending billowing white smoke into the mountain mists."

A large and triumphant statue of the man himself stands nearby.

There's a small cafe and people dressed up in traditional Himalayan garb ambling around the court-yard if you're in the mood for a photo op, though they're thankfully not particularly pushy. You can walk around the Institute's facilities if you'd like- a series of classrooms and some animal skulls and a display of climbing knots, nothing particularly exciting, though it's nice to know it's a living institution.

Any aficionado of mountaineering should pay their respects here.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Darjeeling Zoo: Red Pandas Are Totally Weird

A standard Darjeeling view. There are good reasons to come here.

Whoa, tourist stuff in Darjeeling? Yeah, there's tourist stuff. You can get bored walking up and down hills after a while, especially if you're walking up and down hills in a crush of people and are realizing (too late) that there is nowhere to pee anywhere in the city, and there's like six or seven restaurants open at any-given-time that actually have things on the menu that are written on the menu (the Indian affliction). This is when Thou Shalt Tourist. So Tourist I did.

I went up to the Darjeeling Zoo and the Tenzing Norgay Climbing School, which are conveniently located in the same very-vertically oriented park a bit out of downtown. Catch a taxi down there; negotiate hard on the price.

Maybe this awesome sign has contributed to the low rate of animal harassment at the Darjeeling zoo. Note the lion.

Now: zoos in Asia. Horrifying conceptually, especially if you've been to one and have seen what passes for "animal husbandry" in many parts of the world. (What, we can't eat it, plow with it, or make clothes out of it? Why do we have this thing again?)

The Darjeeling Zoo is, thankfully, a notable exception and seems to be doing a pretty good job with keeping the animals both alive and reasonably happy looking. Big exhibits with plenty of foliage and greenery, toys are provided, there's handy explanatory signs, no one is throwing things at the animals or torturing them in lieu of anything better to do - I didn't feel like an asshole for paying to get in here. Also, the ticket includes admission to the climbing school and comes to around five dollars so you're looking at an economical day out.

Himalayan wildlife is reasonably interesting, and even has an adorable and charismatic Mascot Species, Your Cuddly Friend the Red Panda. (Red pandas are, if you believe the tourist literature, everywhere in Sikkim. Except for when you want to see them, but I'm told they're secretive).

They are cute little monsters who are, interestingly enough, not particularly closely related to anything else - they're usually stuck into their very own family of Ailuridae, a subgroup of Musteloidea, which includes skunks, racoons, and weasels. But they're not 100 percent on that one.

They also used to range all the way from China to Britain. Impressive for something so seemingly cute, fuzzy, and introverted. Unsurprisingly, the Darjeeling Zoo has a lot of them in a breeding program, who will either be found sleeping or pacing while waiting to be fed. Such is the way of zoos.

"Atcha, it won't move!" an old man kept on repeating to me while we both stood in front of the red panda cage, in a voice dripping with disdain and disappointment and misery. "Why won't he MOVE?"

"He's tired," I said. "Really tired?"

"I have this great camera," the old man said. "And the panda, he will not move. Why won't he move?" He sounded as if this was the great disappointment of his life. He had bought a nice camera, dragged himself out to the zoo, and now the panda wouldn't move. Maybe he was considering killing himself over this. Maybe it was the straw that had broken the camels back, the final disappointment in a long and generally disappointing life. I felt genuinely worried for the old man, for a moment.

"Atchaaa!" he said, and moved on to the cages next door, which contained exotic pheasants.

"Why won't the birds MOVE?" I heard him complain, five minutes later.

A pair of shockingly cute leopard cats, a domestic cat sized wildcat that lurks throughout South and East Asia. They can be found just about everywhere in Asia if you look hard enough (they don't want you to find them).

They're cross-bred with domestic cats to produce the lovely Bengal cat breed, which makes sense, since just look at those little carnivorous felid faces. Awww, damn, I want one.

A pack of Asian wolves, not doing a hell of a lot, as is probably their wont. They're lovely animals. A wolf is pretty much a wolf wherever you are in the world, with minor structural differences - and wolves are scarce indeed in India - so I won't harp on them too much. But everyone loves wolves! Except for Idaho cattle ranchers and people who live in poorly lit and remote villages in Uttar Pradesh. Then you have a problem.

My general opinion on bears is that they are dickheads. This is confirmed by a family friend who has been known to declaim loudly that bears are assholes to anyone who will listen. However, I'm rather fond of sloth bears, which are smallish, reasonably in-offensive, and really don't seem to care about much beyond foraging for food and taking extended naps. I mean, they subsist primarily on insects. Of course, they will nail people on occasion - I like this particular account of sloth bear attack....

According to Robert Armitage Sterndale, in his Mammalia of India (1884, p. 62):

[The sloth bear] is also more inclined to attack man unprovoked than almost any other animal, and casualties inflicted by it are unfortunately very common, the victim being often terribly disfigured even if not killed, as the bear strikes at the head and face. Blanford was inclined to consider bears more dangerous than tigers...

Another: "Captain Williamson in his Oriental Field Sports wrote of how sloth bears rarely killed their human victims outright, but would suck and chew on their limbs till they were reduced to bloody pulps."

Well, that's charming!

The Darjeeling Zoo has a lot of other animals beside these specimens, of course, except I was unable to get even half-decent photos of any of them. This was mostly due to operator error. There are also tigers, snow leopards, panthers of both the black and generic variety, more civets then you could imagine existed (The Himalayas possess a totally inordinate number of civets), and a whole lot of pheasants in increasingly surrealist colors and designs. Evolution has done very strange and perverse things to Himalayan pheasants.

There's also monkeys, but I hate monkeys and spend as little time looking at them as possible. Furthermore, you are likely to be assaulted by or at least menaced by a very large monkey with big sharp teeth and a pissy attitude at some point in your Indian Adventure, so why would I pay to see them? Pshaw.

I would add that, being a single blonde female and therefore a massive megaslut in the minds of many (I won't venture to say the MAJORITY of, but..) Indian males, I spent a lot of time being observed and photographed at the zoo.

Actually, I'd be observing or photographing an animal, and six or seven teenage boys would be observing and photographing me. While giggling a lot.

Apparently the multi-faceted wonders of zoology take a back seat to ogling sweaty foreign woman when you're an Indian guy of a certain age, I guess.

I wish I could have attached a DO NOT TEASE THE FAINE sign to my ass at that point, but it might not have worked the way I would have liked it to.