Published: February 5th 2009February 3rd 2009
Initially I’d wanted to take the scenic narrow gauge railway to Darjeeling (yes, I think I’m becoming an anorak), but that was before I’d been ill in Kolkata. The scenic train would take another 7 hours, assuming it didn’t come off the rails again(!), and having just about managed 10 hours on the overnight train from Kolkata without being sick I decided not to push my luck. Instead I hooked up with an Irish/Kiwi couple, a French/Belgium couple and a few locals, got a shared jeep. Two hours later saw us in Darjeeling where a hike up the steep winding streets with our rucksacks had us wondering why we’d picked the furthest hotel when every other building seemed to be one. Sat on the roof terrace a while later though it was all forgotten as I looked out at the most stunning mountain views.
I’d had lots of romantic notions about Darjeeling, picturing a pretty little hill station in a tranquil setting with stunning views of the tea plantations. Perhaps I should have read the guide book properly. Once upon a many years ago that’s what it was like, these days the steep streets of the centre are filled with
the noise of shared jeeps zooming along, the air is thick with exhaust fumes and the stunning mountain views are usually obscured by multi-storey buildings unless you find a roof terrace or venture out of town. That said there were gems to be found here, mostly involving watching locals going about their everyday life - the back streets well away from the centre where jeeps don’t go and children play cricket in the street (on a steep hill!), the market, dark, busy and with the heady smell of spices and the street stalls selling brightly coloured vegetables of all shapes and sizes
It was also COLD here!! By day skies were blue and sunny but once the sun set... seriously brrrrr. First thing I did was buy a pair of gloves and a shawl, in the process discovering that single white women get charged more than single white men... or at least the stall owners try to charge you more!! It was here that I also discovered the bucket shower - the way Indians wash, it was common to quite a few of the hotels I stayed in, perhaps because I was going cheap. Basically you get a bucket
of hot water, a small jug and scoop it over you. There’s usually a cold tap alternative but in this weather I wasn’t taking that!
We started early in our bid to see sunrise, wondering the streets at 4am (me armed with the blanket I’d taken from the bed - it was cold!) looking for a shared jeep to take us up to Tiger Hill, the ‘sunrise spot’. Fortunately the drivers know tourists are daft enough to do such a thing and were out in force waiting - we even had one mock run towards us to beat his compatriots to our custom! Sunrise when it happened wasn’t quite the calm, tranquil moment I’d hoped for, rather more an education in how Indians holiday. We arrived at Tiger Hill to find a hundred or more others had beaten us to it, few of whom were white. Our hotel owner had joked that in season here they didn’t need to go to Kolkata because most of Kolkata came to them. Standing there early that morning I understood what he meant Coffee wallahs competed loudly with postcard sellers to get your attention whilst spectators all around jostled and chatted. When the
sun finally came up everyone cheered. By then though we’d long given up on tranquillity and just enjoyed the ‘Indian experience’!
After chatting to other travellers here I had a change of plan. I hadn’t considered Sikkim, in fact when I applied for my visa I seemed to remember a comment on the form about not going there. But almost everyone I met was heading that way and I didn’t want to miss out - it turned out to be a great decision. Foreigners are allowed to visit Sikkim, a province in the east Himalayas that’s just 112km x 64km and borders Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan, but you need to get a 15day permit first - without it you’ll get turned back. At the Sikkim boundary I was the only one in a packed shared jeep who had to get out, but then I was the only foreigner in the vehicle. Getting the permit is easy enough and just involves a bit of leg work, literally, first to the Foreigners Registration Office and then across town to the District Magistrates Office.
Three shared jeeps and 7 hours of driving steep, narrow, winding roads through lush green tea plantations,
icy cold clear blue rivers and small villages and I reached Sikkim and the tourist town of Pelling. I say tourist town because whilst out walking I discovered that there’s really no ‘locals village’, rather everyone lives above or below the place where they work. Very few businesses here are owned by locals, my hotel being one of the exceptions. It was started by the current manager’s father who cooked for Sir Edmund Hilary and co when they came to acclimatise before heading off to Everest and higher parts. Then it was very different of course with no hotels or tourist infrastructure in sight.
Sikkim is stunning - steep sided valleys thick with dark trees and snow capped mountains looming in the distance, amongst them Khangchendzonga, the third highest mountain in the world. People are friendly, look more Tibetan than Indian and the air is fresh and smog free.
At nearby Pemayangtse is a monastery, its main hall brightly decorated with colourful thangkas and surrounded outside by large prayer flags. I was lucky enough to arrive whilst a puja (prayer) was underway and sat outside listening to the chanting for a while before going in. This monastery is
touted as being one of the best in Sikkim and whilst it was lovely but I preferred the older Sanga Choelling Monastery. Built @ 1697 it sits on top of a hill a few km from Pelling. It’s literally at the end of the road so there’s no traffic and the approach is rather Rapunzel like - the road zigzags up the steep hill flanked by a stone wall with a white painted top. It seemed like you should be walking up to a castle, except what you find is a monastery - small, with large whitewashed stuppas and surrounded by colourful prayer flags fluttering in the breeze. Young monks lay relaxing in the sun but jumped up to unlock the main hall and show me around and there was a small tea shop where I relaxed drinking chai, eating momo’s and looking at the amazing mountain views.
Rabdantse, also near Pelling, is a ruined palace from the 17th century that was once the capital of Sikkim. Approached through forest along a stone path there wasn’t much to see in terms of palace (the sounds of chisels and hammers made me wonder how much was ‘original’) but it was
peaceful, had stunning views and I sat there for ages undisturbed and enjoying the views.
My last stop in Sikkim was Khecheopalri Lake, only a few hours from Pelling but the journey took all day counting the time spent waiting for a shared jeep to pass through. It would have been faster to walk! Once there a steep climb took me to the guest house I was staying at - the family had sent their grandson down to meet me and as I huffed and puffed my way up I listened as he told me how sometimes he had to go up and down 10 times in a day. Think I need to do more exercise!
I arrived just in time for dinner, a fantastic huge home cooked veggie meal eaten round an open fire. The guest house was basic with an outside squat toilet and hard beds in rooms that had no glass in the windows - at over 2000m that meant it was cold at night! By day though the sky was blue, the views of the mountains amazing. The village was small but as I walked round there was a lot going on - young
monks in their red robes were having an English lesson at their school, a single room that they all packed into and at the site where a new monastery was to be built they were having, in the words of my host, a ‘little puja’. Later another puja got underway, this time in the middle of a grassy patch to bless the land on which a house was to be built for some newlyweds. My host was an interesting guy too - many years ago (he was now @80!) he used to cook for the Dalai Lama, travelling wherever he went.
On the journey to Kalimpong I discovered that not all shared jeeps are equal. Previously I’d been spoilt - the drivers were mostly maniacs, we’d been crammed in like sardines (3 rows, 10 people plus the driver) but there had at least been glass in the windows. Four hours on mountain roads with no windows and I was seriously cold. Feeling slightly disturbed I then watched in horror to find that suddenly there were 4 people in the front row and the driver had to reach across someone else to get to the gear stick - I daren’t
think whether he was managing to reach the breaks! Kalimpong was a nice town though - stunning views, although not the snow capped mountains of Darjeeling, it was quieter than the latter, far less touristy and I think I preferred it.
Eventually though my fun in the mountains came to an end. The train to Varanasi pulled in around midnight and I got on to find the carriage in darkness and someone in my bed! Unsure what to do I got off, found the ticket inspector and returned to wake up the bed thief who said ‘ahh but you can have my bed over there above the window’. The ticket inspector was happy with that and headed off. I was not and threw a strop. Again. India is turning me into a very argumentative person... or maybe that’s assertive. Not all beds are the same and after too much time analysing them on the previous train (yes, sad I know I am a train nerd) I was pretty sure that those parallel to the side of the carriage (like the one he wanted me to take) were narrower and shorter than the perpendicular one that I’d booked. The latter
allow your feet to hang off the edge, the former leave taller people crippled at the end of the journey. Remembering it wasn’t me that had deliberately gotten into the wrong bed I refused to feel bad about making a fuss but when I saw an Indian making the same ‘this is my bed’ fuss on my next trip I felt much better! The joys of train travel in India!
Next up: the religious cities, Varanasi and Amritsar.
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