North India – Darjeeling (West Bengal) & Sikkim


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June 20th 2013
Published: June 20th 2013
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Delhi

The flight from KL to Delhi (4hrs 50 mins) goes smoothly – C feeling much better thanks to the restorative effects of a BK double whopper with cheese at KL!! We get to enjoy a couple of glasses of wine (yeaah! At last cries C) and M a whisky or 2, before arriving in Delhi 40 minutes early. It’s hot but seems less humid than Manila.

We get a cab to Namaskar India our hotel in Karol Bagh (INR 400 this time for the pre-paid taxi – rates have gone up in the 2 months we’ve been away though the exchange rate has also gone up in our favour – by some 10%!s(MISSING)o that helps a lot – now nearly INR 92 to the £!) where we usually stay, have a quick chat with the staff – who know us quite well by now, then hit the sack. It’s been a long day travelling.

Next day we have a bit of organising to do before we head off to Darjeeling. So first stop is Connaught Place (Rajiv Chowk) for cash and lunch at Khan Cha Cha’s – rediscovering their fabulous mutton kebab roomali rolls and a new item – chicken haryali which is awesome. Then it’s off to Khan Market and the Reliance offices (where M’s friend Tony works and has kindly stored our surplus travel gear), to put in store stuff we won’t need over the next 2 weeks and get out what we will - walking boots and waterproofs being the main requirement; the weather forecast for Darjeeling and Sikkim is pants so fingers crossed!

The metro is packed with loads of folk sitting on the stairs and in the passageways to the entrance to get some respite from the air-con from the station. It’s hot outside (though not quite the 45C they’ve had over the last 2 weeks). We make a bee line for the women’s carriage in the front for C and M goes next door – less packed and cool with the A/C.

At Reliance we catch up with Shankar – Tony’s right hand man – Tony and family have gone to New York and London on holidays so we’ll see them when they’re back in mid June. Shankar very kindly arranges for Tony’s driver Ashok – who we first met on our visit 16 years ago to take us back to the hotel. Much appreciated! Ashok has done really well for himself in the the 22 years he’s been with Reliance as a driver. He has a house in Gurgaon (designed and built by him) and a place in Paharganj. He does have to work hard for this though. Starts at 8am (after an hour’s drive in on a bike) and can go home anytime – most nights when Tony is in town & entertains it can be 1 or 2 in the morning – Delhites like late dinners! But well done Ashok. He’s a lovely guy & a great driver – calm and assured which is damn near impossible driving in Delhi!

We have a couple of beers in the room (Godfather strong beer , a first & last – no idea why the guy got us this when we asked for Kingfisher!! It’s not as good), then head to Punjab Sweet Corner for dinner where M had enjoyed great Chole Batura last time which we have again with mutter paneer. It’s so nice to have lovely spicy food again – though it’s not quite as good as before. However, the Kulfi and Rabri mix is great.

Next morning we take a cab back to the airport for our 11-15am Spicejet flight to Bagdogra. It’s delayed to 11-50 am, and we use the time to do a bit of gift shopping. Got to start thinking about all this now……………..time is running out till our return to London.

Darjeeling - “Queen of the Hills”

Arriving in Bagdogra after the 2hrs 15 min flight on its way to Guwahati (Assam), it’s a tiny little airport with a huge air force base next to it on the plains at the foothills of the Himalaya. It’s surrounded by fertile fields and rivers. Somehow it seems the ground staff weren’t expecting us. We all get off the plane and then stand around in the heat for 5 minutes while they find a bus to take us to the terminal.

We are met by the driver from our accommodation in Darjeeling – Snowlion Homestay – and then begin the 3.5 hour drive to Darjeeling. The transfer cost INR 2500 (but you can get it for 2,000 at the Taxi association Union rate). The first hour is through the town of Bagdogra (which is pot holes through and through) and then local villages. The driving is slow mainly due to traffic jams caused by impatient drivers who go on the wrong side to get past everyone and then cause mayhem. Horns blare to no avail. Dogs are everywhere. The roads have been partially washed away by the rains so are very bumpy. Welcome to the Hill country in India!! They have a saying in this part of the world that they have some tarmac on their potholes which seems extremely apt on many sections here.

The next 2 hours are slow for a different reason. The road narrows and now winds uphill with u-bends and through small villages, stopping regularly to allow larger vehicles to pass. Most of the travel here is by Indian “Chelsea Tractors “or Tata built 4x4s (Boleros and Scorpions) which the roads were never built for in the 19th century and they haven’t changed much since. The mist and clouds swirl, making it very atmospheric. There are lots of waterfalls, tea plantations covering huge swathes of hillside, and occasional prayer flags show the Tibetan influence. We make a short late lunch stop at Kurseong – momo’s and Darjeeling Tea and look out the windows onto full mist. Can’t see a damn thing!

Once we get to Kurseong the road is narrowed further by the train tracks running along-side for the famous Darjeeling narrow gauge “Toy Train” – a Unesco Heritage site since 1999. Finally we arrive in Darjeeling, a typical hill station with houses spread over the hillsides and valleys below. It seems a lot more developed than we had expected. Not that we can see so much with the clouds and mist!

We notice that the faces of the locals are very much more Tibetan and Nepalese and signs for Gorkhaland start appearing all over – there are occasional agitations in this area as the folk seek more independence from India. It’s already a semi-autonomous area as a sop to keep them quiet.

Snowlion Homestay is a large house (crap external rendering with bricks exposed) with good big rooms with TV (when the electricity isn’t off!), and a family area upstairs where we have breakfast. Unfortunately due to the weather it smells a bit musty but the folk (it’s run by a Tibetan family) are friendly and we get breakfast included which is a surprise.

We go for a walk to investigate a little. Darjeeling is a very popular tourist resort for Indians seeking to escape the heat in the cities, and even despite the poor weather (Monsoon has come early this year it seems) the town is really busy. The main roads in town are also very busy with cars (and noisy as hell as the drivers use the horn constantly) but there is a pedestrianised street – the Mall – where most of the shops, cafés and market stalls are so it’s quieter.

At the top of The Mall is the large Chowrasta square where we find the wine shop for our Indian tipple, Signature whisky – no seedy back street joint here in this ex colonial heartland; this is a very retro and “nice” booze joint. Nearby are street food stalls cooking up BBQ corn, noodles, pakora’s and samosa’s. We’re not hungry after our lunch so just buy a couple of samosa’s to eat back at the room. Unfortunately the heavens open half way back and despite waterproof jackets and our trusty little fold away brolly we’re pretty drenched by the time we get back.

Next day we go out and buy a big brolly (for the princely sum of Rs 160 – that’s about £1.50 with the new exchange rate) and make sure we go out with our waterproof trousers on! This is a day for planning, organising and a bit of sightseeing. (Unfortunately the rains seems to have scuppered our plans for visiting North Sikkim we are informed by the Travel Agent in Gangtok, so we have 6 days to fill and will probably end up spending a few more days here after our trip to Gangtok, so we’re in no rush to see all the sights).

We head up Observatory Hill as the weather seems to be a bit brighter to see if we can get good views across the town. We can’t – the clouds roll in. It’s still a good place to visit though as the Temple at the top is a sacred site for both Hindus and Buddhists so it’s a traditional Hindu style but adorned with colourful prayer flags all over and is pretty colourful and includes the obligatory monkeys that thrive on the food offerings.

We later walk down through town to the train station to buy tickets for the Toy Train Joy Ride – a 2 hour round trip to Ghum (Rs 335 each). It’s already fully booked for the next 2 days so we book ahead for Friday. A train is about to leave (the engines are mainly small diesels these days not the small steam ones painted blue which look like Thomas the Tank Engine - they are all in a siding across the street from Darjeeling Train station). We take a few shots and then make the hard slog back up the hill and steps; phew – knackering or what! We are so unfit – not sure how we will cope with the Ladakh trek!!

Having had a filling breakfast we decide a light snack for lunch will do so head to Glenary’s – a local café, bakery and restaurant that is definitely from the days of the Raj. Looks and feels like it. We buy a few cakes – apple pie and a whole fruit cake. Not brilliant but quite ok with a cup of the local tea sitting by the window overlooking the town.

We’ve read about a local bar called Joey’s Pub so head there for a pre-dinner drink. It’s a nice place and we get chatting to owners – Pooran and Sashi over a beer. They are a lovely local couple and very welcoming. They tell us about the corruption in local politics that is apparently resulting in many locals selling up and the huge amount of redevelopment going on in town which is not welcome and unsustainable (the town does look like a building site in parts and has many abandoned half built structures around with no work being done on them). They don’t seem to have much time for the “Gorkhaland” activists either. It’s a pretty informative chat and they definitely seem to hanker for the good old days post Raj. Then we head to Kungra, a small local Tibetan restaurant for dinner, which is awesome; a huge bowl of tasty beef Thenthuk soup (made with flat noodles and veg stock) which we share, followed by chicken momo’s. The owner & staff are very friendly and we went back there again and tried the Chowmein as well.

The days tend to go like this from here on – overcast and heavy mist in the morning then rain (of varying strengths), misty and dryer in the afternoon and if lucky about 5 ish a hint of sunshine and then misting over for the evening. One day we even get to glimpse of one of the 21 Himalayan peaks we should have seen from here. With all the rain we make good use of the TV to watch some of the French Open Tennis and the Champions Trophy Cup cricket in the UK. We also skype with Satish & Kaka as it’s Kaka’s last day in London before returning to India on the 7th June’13.

As we’re in tea heartland we try local Darjeeling Tea at Nathmulls; nicely served they decant the tea from the leaves into a glass pot so you can see the clarity of colour, but they give you the strained leaves to smell – almost like a fine wine. We plan to get some as gifts for folk back home. Another day we try tea at The House of Tea quite nice – 1st flush Thurbo - very delicate. But the service doesn’t have the same sense of ceremony about it as Nathmulls.

The trip on the Toy Train - when we get to it - is a feat of endurance! 4 rowdy Bengali families to share with – the fathers were like the worst behaved kids that you would wish to avoid ever meeting, the kids were totally out of control (not surprisingly with fathers like these for role models) and they all seemed to be suffering some hearing defect as they all shouted when talking when there was no need to. This with the constant blowing of the train whistle meant we were fairly deafened and frazzled by the time we got to Ghum (after a 10 minute stop at the Batastia Loop – where there is a memorial to the Gurkhas).

So on the return journey we strategically hogged one of the doors to take pictures and tried desperately to keep as far from them as possible. This worked to some extent. At the end of the trip M decides to go to one of the noisy fathers and asks very calmly in Hindi whether he ever considered that his behaviour made him come across as him being a complete idiot. He tried to shrug it off and M informs him that if you behave like this, what you think your kids will be like – embarrassed he walks away with the other assholes.

They are all West Bengali and really give that community a bad name and made M feel almost ashamed to be from India. This is not our first observations about the behaviour, manners or lack of them by Bengali travellers – we’d like to think that they are in the minority (though a large one we feel!). Complete fuck wits! This is borne out when we are in Sikkim & our guide complains about them too. The counterpoint to this though that should be noted, is that the Bengalis seem adventurous and do travel in India extensively and this includes their older folk, not just the younger generation – if only they could learn some manners and behave as humans.

As we have to leave early for Gangtok in Sikkim in the morning and won’t get a chance to have anything before we leave, so we get some amazing samosas freshly fried for breakfast and a couple for now as they’re so nice! We decide to go colonial for dinner so try Glenareys– mutton curry - definitely anglicised in flavour, pea pulao and tandoori chicken (overcooked). It’s a nice colonial room with old black and white pictures around the walls but that’s all.

Gangtok – Sikkim (Ex: Kingdom of Sikkim)

We get up early for the 7-00 am departure to Gangtok (which means Hill Top apparently) – and guess what. The sun is shining! The private car to Gangtok costs Rs 2000 for the 4.5 hours journey. This is standard via the Local Drivers Association which has its own stand to arrange bookings for cars at the crossroads where The Mall begins. As we head out of town on a back road winding up through the hills we get great views across the whole of Darjeeling for the first time, and far off in the distance we get good sightings of the peaks of Kanchengjunga rising out of the mist & clouds. At last! No time for photo stops though – the journey takes long enough and we are keen to get there early as the traffic will get worse. Apparently the weather in Gangtok is better – sunny in the day and only raining at night so hopefully we’ll get to see more of the Himalayan peaks from there.

As we drive through winding bumpy roads we go past villages with prayer flags, bamboo and pine forests, and tea plantations before dropping into broadleaf forests. We see many women already at work in the tea plantations & many on the way there, carrying umbrellas in case of rain. The road winds and at one point the road doesn’t just do a u bend – it completely corkscrews, as we drop down to the river Teesta and then along the valley into Sikkim. Also as we descend the weather feels much warmer.

Even though Sikkim is part of India we have to go through a border control (about 50 kms from Darjeeling) where we get our permits and passport stamped! The Permit is obtainable in Darjeeling at The Sikkim Tourist office – a small little area shared with a Hotel reception – and the whole process - as long as you have your passport, copies of it and the India visa - takes all of 10 mins and costs nothing.

Sikkim used to be a Kingdom till 1975, when India took it over as the majority of people here had become Hindu Nepalis. China was not best pleased, and in fact didn’t formally recognise Sikkim as part of India until 2005!

The relationship between India and China is pretty interesting (read google about the details and the History of Tibet & why the Chinese claim it as theirs) and it seems like they have 3 political pressure points where they dispute territory – near Kashmir & Ladakh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh where China says it was part of outer Tibet – their land! All 3 areas border Tibet. They fought a war in the 1960s over this (and India were woefully unprepared) and since then it seems they have played cat & mouse over these areas – all high in the Himalaya – hardly the best areas to conduct an all-out war? We suppose it keeps the pressure off the other inadequacies of both governments. They seem to have spent a lot in getting troops amassed on either side and so have constructed some roads – which helps the rural isolated locals if no one else.

The towns in Sikkim seem quite colourful – the buildings look better maintained than elsewhere in India and quite affluent – apparently India has pumped a huge amount of money into the area to foster pro Delhi sentiment. Compared to Darjeeling this is clean and colourful – not all mouldy and mildew covered as is the former. However, it does have its share of drains running freely by roads and lanes, some decrepit properties in the centre and dogs galore. A plus point is the fact that drivers are not obsessed with their car horns – they only beep when the have to largely to avoid an accident or say thanks. Things change once they get onto the narrow winding roads when the bigger the vehicle the more reckless they become, pushy, noisy and overtake at the most inappropriate moments – welcome to Indian hill driving – landslides or no landslides!

At Gangtok we drive through what is a much bigger town than we expected to a road at the top where Mintokling Guesthouse is. It’s a nice place run by a bright young woman called Pema (daughter of the owner a retired doctor). Our room has views directly onto Kanchenjunga apparently – though cloud cover means we can’t see it and never did in all our time there. Thankfully there are shortcuts via steep steps down from Mintokling to the town. 5 minutes down, 20 back up!

First stop is to Namgyal Tours (who come recommended by LP and Mintokling) to see whether we can head to North Sikkim after all; the weather seems to have improved and like the man from del monte, he says yes!! So it’s back to the guesthouse to get all the documents we need for the additional permits we will need (4 each in all we are told) – at least we’re getting some exercise! And no more stressing about what we’ll do with all the time we have. The trip costs Rs 45K all in with driver and guide, plus more permits, all meals, hotels etc. However, we later find that he has sub contracted the trip to Galaxy Tours & Treks and we wonder if we would have got a better deal going to them directly! Travellers note!!

Then we head off for some lunch (very late – it’s now 2-30 pm) to Allen’s Asian Kitchen recommended by Pema. It’s an interesting place – lots of posters of musical icons & stars from the 60’s and 70’s all around the walls and on the ceilings as well. We try a local speciality – Gundruk soup (fermented greens) which isn’t bad with rice and spinach with paratha – ok. We go back there on our last night and enjoy some noodles and Newari chicken dishes. Not quite Nepal we feel.

After strolling around and getting a feel of the town, taking pictures and getting more funds to pay for our trip from Punjab National Bank ATM (which now allows Rs15K max withdrawal a time to your daily limit with your bank), we go back to the hotel to rest and have dinner there. When the time comes, we find they don’t have any of the Sikkimese food we would like to order so we decide to go into town. On the way we get a couple of beers Rs 90 each here at a small bar (even though it’s dry day due to some religious event). It’s Wang’s Restaurant & Bar. The owner we learn went to school in Mussoorie as well. Alcohol is freely available everywhere and cheap here as its tax free.

We head for the Taste of Tibet – quite popular and have some Momos and Shyaphale (fried meat filled pasties) which is pretty good though C is feeling under the weather and it looks like she has a recurrence of her problems in the last days of our travels in the Philippines.

Next day we take it easy so that C can get well – she starts antibiotics and we buy some fruit from the huge fruit and vegetable market by the cinema which is swamped by fans queuing to see the latest Bollywood film with Ranbhir Kapoor & Priyanka Chopra. Some things obviously never change in India.

There are many Indian tourists here. The central area of the town is pedestrianized and has No Smoking, No Picking Flowers, No Spitting and No Drinking signs up all over the strip. It’s quite quaint and peaceful even though it’s crowded as its peak season. Thankfully here the sun comes out during the days and its pretty hot work walking up and down the hills here – despite the locals saying its cooler here?

This is also the place where we see a slogan on a T-shirt that we feel is the saying of our trip this time: “Don’t ask the meaning of life; You define it!” Awesome.

M tries the local Roll House – Paneer kathi roll for lunch – pretty mediocre but cheap and C has more gentle food and fruit at the hotel before we skype with Sarah – just returned from Croatia and go to the room for R & R so C can feel better for the 5 day trip ahead. HBO TV shows some interesting films so it keeps us occupied.

We have decided to eat at the hotel today as they have made and effort to get all the stuff for the local Sikkimese dishes. Soucha (Nettle Soup), Keytse (Fern) stir fried + some general Indian fayre with a local beer (for M) Dansberg Blue (weaker than Kingfisher but ok).

North Sikkim 5 day Trip

Next morning it’s an early rise, quick breakfast, settle bills and leave some laundry and one big bag here, as Alok from Namgyals is meeting us at 8 am and the Jeep will arrive at 8.30 we are told – no such luck – it’s Indian Standard Time again and we eventually get picked up at 9.30 after many phone calls from Alok and leave the Main Jeep stand at 10.30 am.

We have Kamal (the owners brother who’s a final year student doing Commerce and helps the business during his summer vacation) as our guide and Ratan (aka Vikas for some unknown reason) as our driver and the adventure begins – it’s a long, long, long drive much of it on dirt track with huge pot holes, for the next 7 hours to Lachen our base camp for the first 2 nights. We pass some decent countryside and plenty of awesome waterfalls – stopping at Seven Sisters Waterfall for some pictures. Thankfully the day is dry and bright. One of the key issues on the trip is that if the weather is poor not only do you not see much but there are real risks of landslides and that could mean us getting stuck somewhere for a few hours or a whole day.

After hours of being bumped around and dodging dogs, cows, goats and horses apart from pot holes (somehow M manages to doze off for a while despite all this) we get to our first check point at Toong, before stopping at Manok for lunch – basic rice, daal, veg and some chicken. At Chungthang we peel off left toward Lachen. We’ll be back this way in 2 days to take the right fork to Lachung. The journey gets a bit tedious after a while and at last we arrive knackered with numb bums - we do wonder why we are putting ourselves through all this? Well at least the weather is a whole lot better than Darjeeling so some consolation.

Lachen

The Hotel View Point in Lachen is pretty nice – apparently one of the better ones and it has the look of something out of Bhutan with drawings on the outside and inside – and it is as it says with lovely views over the town and valley with snow covered mountains in the distance. We seem to be given the best room in the house – really big with lovely furnishings & decorations. Later we discover evidence of its Bhutanese links, there’s a large painted penis (Bhutan style) painted on the top floor side wall of the Hotel.

Lachen is petty unique in our travels as a place that has banned bottle water. They have posters everywhere saying they will provide a safer cleaner alternative and to be fair the water we’re provided with at the hotel does taste good. We’re a bit surprised then when we pass one of the drinking water tankers at the side of the road getting refilled by a hose pipe from the local waterfalls!

Unfortunately, we are re-introduced to one of India’s most persistent and recurring nuisances; dogs and more dogs – which bark all night & sleep all day. So wish we had some stones to throw at them! C randomly tries to get her own back by shouting at some sleeping in the road in the day – they don’t seem to notice. Too much hot sun M thinks!

Tsopta Valley

After a 7.30 am breakfast we leave at 8 am for the 2 hr trip to Thanggu and the Tsopta Valley. The road (or what passes for one – even dirt track is giving it too much credence) hugs the hillside and goes along the Teesta River which we cross a few times as we traverse up and down. It’s a gloriously sunny day and we can see the higher peaks covered in snow. The town looks good in the sunshine – all the prayer flags fluttering in the wind and the colour adding to the beauty of the scenery.

Thanggu has the highest Indian Army transit camp at 14,000 ft (we learn that we are only 15km from the border with Tibet – no wonder there is such a large army presence here!). We hadn’t quite realised that we would be so high but its good acclimatisation for Ladakh in 2 weeks’ time. The drive there takes us past some lovely scenery with lots of colourful birds and even some black faced langurs up close.

We can see why folk come here after all – mostly Indian tourists we understand. Most of them come in large parties and fill a Tata jeep with about 6 to 10 adults and a few kids for good measure – how they cope stuffed in like sardines we will never know – we have a whole jeep to ourselves with the guide and that makes us rattle and roll enough. We’re also amazed to hear that most of these groups do the trip in 2 to 3 days max, but going even further up the Yumthang valley to a point known as Zero Point. They hardly have time to get out and look around before they pile back into their jeeps again and head back! Madness or tight fisted? We’re not sure which.

We take a short hours walk into the Tsopta Valley which by now has lost most of its rhododendrons and the mountains most of their snow but it looks impressive none the less. We can only imagine what it’s like with loads of snow and in full bloom. There are plenty of primulas around to make up some of the short fall. Apparently April is the time to come for snow and flowers – though there is the risk that the roads may not be open? The sun is still pretty hot but there’s a high wind which makes it feel cold – so it’s extra clothes on.

Back at the ranch we explore what there is to in the small town of Lachen after lunch and take plenty of photographs. The locals are very friendly and want us to take their pictures rather than the scenery – a novelty for us. The day ends with cloud cover and mist coming in and we can only hope the good weather holds for the rest of our time in North Sikkim.

Lachung

We’re woken early – very early – by other guests knocking at our door looking for their driver; they assume because we’re at the top of the house that we must be the management. At 4-30am they get short shrift from M. Twice! The fuckwits come back a 2nd time to see if we know where the management might be??

Anyhow, we get up again at the proper time and are on our way after a fruit and toast breakfast for Lachung. The route retraces our steps from Lachen along the river Teesta to Chungthang and then goes up the other valley along the Yumthang River.

We’re expecting a 4 hour bone rattler but the roads are pretty clear, and not quite so pot holey so we make it in 2 ½ hours even with a couple of photo stops for waterfalls (one at the insistence of Kamal as they’re named the Amitabh Bachchan falls – tall and thin like him! This is taking Bollywood mania to new heights we feel).

Kanchendzonga Residency is a bit more basic than the hotel at Lachen, but we again seem to have the best room they have – at the top of the building with views onto towering craggy mountains with cascading waterfalls. Very atmospheric as the mist rolls in later. It really reminds us of Scotland. We eventually get a cup of ginger tea to welcome us and then some home-made soup and chips as a snack courtesy of the cook!

As the sun is shining we decide to head back through town for a walk to some prayer wheels and stupa’s we saw as we entered the village. Lachung is much smaller than Lachen (though it is spread out over 2 sides of the valley so appears larger) but has masses of prayer flags and the bridge across the river is festooned with them – though most are old and tatty – but it has lovely views upstream.

Lunch is a pretty uninspiring fried rice with chicken (though we’re not that hungry after the snack) and then after a brief rest Kamal takes us for a short walk up to the Monastery. It’s closed as the monks only come here for new and full moon; the grounds are looking a bit overgrown and the paintings a bit decayed but it’s very much like the Gompas we saw in Bhutan with very elaborate paintings of Guru Ringpoche and decorated windows and doors. The Dalai Lama as the west know him is not the bees knees for Buddhist here – as in Bhutan it’s Guru Rinpoche. This again is a fascinating tale of the different strands of Buddhism and make us realise how little we know about this and the history of Tibet in the west. It all pretty amazing, fanciful and complex to say the least!

As we head back down it starts to rain a little and we hope this won’t cause a problem tomorrow. The road beyond Lachung had been blocked earlier by a landslide last night. More rain could mean we don’t make it up the Yumthang Valley but fingers crossed and the rain soon eases off.

As we have plenty of time on our hands M makes a start editing some of the photos we’ve taken. 2 hours later and he’s just about done Boracay. Only another 10,000 or so to go! Looks like this could be a full time job when we get back home.

As night draws in the lights in the hotel attract all the critters – plus some awesome very large moths – their expansive wings are like marbled colours of blue, green, yellow and white blended together in the most beautiful mosaic any Mughal would have been proud of. (M waxing lyrical here!)

We go veg for dinner – by choice, as we are concerned at the freshness of any meat products here and decide to stick with it from now on. Great decision - the food is lovely.

Yumthang Valley

We are up really early to shower and get ready for the day trip to the Yumthang Valley when we discover there is no water supply – possible landslide which has severed the pipe or jammed the flow we are told – some poor boy has be despatched to find the cause and fix it. It does make one wonder how folks survive here - they have the Monsoon and winter snowed in to contend with too. We make do with a bucket of water to get ready, have a quick breakfast and are off at 8 am by which time the weather has cleared and it’s another glorious sunny day – boy are we lucky.

It’s 24 km to the Valley high point, but it actually starts about 10 kms into the drive where the Rhododendron sanctuary begins. We go through another army check point – more permits to hand in – and then enjoy the ride over initially pretty good tarmac road, then no road just landslide debris with teams of folk including women shifting rocks and digging out hardcore – even one woman with a very young baby strapped to her back! Then streams cross the path and eventually a river. The valley is pretty lovely with snow covered peaks in the distance. The mist coming up the valley adds to the beauty of it all.

We have a passenger with us – the cook who lives here and has never been up the valley and has asked to come along for the ride and we have agreed. We’ve come thousands of miles to see this and this poor guy hasn’t had the opportunity or couldn’t afford the trip up this short distance. He does enjoy the experience. Makes us appreciate how lucky we are.

Travelling deeper into the valley, it’s obvious that a visit in April early May when the rhododendrons flowers would be in bloom would be more spectacular than the Tsopta valley as the Rhododendron bushes are all around. Also the snow line would be lower. One can but imagine the scene – awesome we feel vs higher risk of travel disruption of course!

The journey only takes 1.5 hours and we head off for a walk along the valley – which has a stupa, prayer flags and the source of the river Teesta running through the middle all against a backdrop of high craggy snow capped mountains. Beautiful. We take loads of pictures on this sunny day then after some tea and the most expensive pee stop (Rs 10 per person! C goes and M finds the bushes), we head back, soon to stop at a Hot Spring – yes here at 8,000 feet and it’s free to use. Wow! However, we hear that it’s a bit basic and not too clean so we give it a miss; beside after Japan’s Onsens, hot springs will never be the same – free or not!

One thing we notice is that we seem to be the only non-Indian visitors in this part of Sikkim. We did see some others in Gangtok!

Before making it back to our hotel for lunch and a free afternoon we make for a New Monastery being built in the village next to Lachung as we’ve seen the Stupas from our hotel window. It’s closed and still a work in progress but quite pretty and we enjoy an illegal look around and take loads of pics.

It’s a lovely vegetarian lunch and then a relaxing afternoon. We realise that we have been pretty fortunate with the weather here after our unfortunate experiences in Darjeeling. We’d definitely recommend folks coming up this way – it’s a different experience of the Himalaya from North India, Nepal, Bhutan etc. Though come prepared for the long and bumpy rides and bring some warm clothes. It’s also best to allow time for unforeseen events – just in case. Most problems are sorted within a few hours – they are resourceful here – though one could be stranded for up to 24 hours if there’s a bad landslide.

Return to Gangtok

And so it’s time to return to Gangtok, so we’re up early for a 7-00 am departure – which we just about achieve by badgering the staff and our guide and driver to get organised.

We have three stops to visit on the way back (seems a bit daft to have included them all on the final day rather than do some on the way up too, we think ) and Kamal thinks we should get back by 5-00 – so a long day of bumping and rolling again.

As on the way, there are many areas of landslip where roads are being reconstructed. It occurs to us that much as the labour is manual and looks back breaking; it is at least an opportunity for employment for the local folk in what are otherwise quite rural, subsistence farming communities. In some areas, buildings look to be damaged too and Kamal explains that a severe earthquake and flash floods hit Sikkim in Sept 2012, and areas are still being reconstructed following this. The epicentre was Changthung – the entry point to the Teesta and Yamthung valleys. There are monuments along the road side to those killed (apparently nearly 1000 folks died).

Our first two stops, after lunch at the same place as on the way here, are Labrung and Phodong Monasteries about 30kms from Gangtok. Labrung was badly damaged in the earthquake and is being rebuilt but you can still see how beautiful the paintings and murals inside are. There are monks here chanting and playing instruments, including some very young ones who are much more interested in us than in chanting!

Phodong is very much an active monastery, surrounded by small bungalows – the living quarters of the monks. There are lots of monks and a couple of younger ones escort us inside to see the murals. No photos are allowed inside but they are very similar to the Gompas we saw in Bhutan.

Our final planned stop is at Kavi Lunchok where in the 13th Century the leaders of the Lechpa and Bhutia tribes swore a blood brotherhood. It’s in a small glade marked with lots of prayer flags and stones, and nearby a bronzed statue of the tribes leaders. Apparently all you pray for here comes true – we feel we shouldn’t miss the opportunity.

We’re ahead of time and expect to make it back to Gangtok by 3-30pm when it all goes pear shaped! A combination of poorly planned road works, impatient drivers, and badly parked cars at a tourist site (waterfalls with a zip line!) brings the whole place to a standstill. Neither side can budge. Eventually the police force their way through and gradually things move (though in all honesty we think this is more despite the police presence than because of). We get back as Kamal had anticipated at 5-00, transfer to a small car and return to Mintokling Guesthouse just in time for a downpour.

We had thought we would stay for a day and then go back to Darjeeling for another couple of days before the flight back to Delhi. However, the weather forecast suggests we’d be better off here so we stay for 3 days, catching up with emails, skype and blog stuff and having some easy R&R. It’s a shame we didn’t get to do all the things we could have in Darjeeling but that’s Monsoon for you. Its Wang Restaurant & Bar near the guesthouse run by a friendly couple for a beer and dinner -they do a good noodle soup and chow mein. Other nights we eat at Taste of Tibet, Allen’s and in the guesthouse again.

On our final day, the sun is shining so we head to Rumtek monastery an hour away – the home in exile of Buddhisms Kagyu (Black Hat) sect. There are loads of monks so lots of photo opps – if it weren’t for all the other tourists!! There’s also loads of police which we discover later is due to the fact that there have been violent attacks there as there are disputes about the current spiritual leaders accession. Not quite the peaceful image of Buddhism!

It’s an early start (6.30 am) next morning for the 5 hour journey back to Bagdogra airport and our flight to Delhi. It’s a glorious day. Looking at the weather forecast and the news on the net, there have been floods in Delhi and passengers had to wade through water at the airport; fingers crossed that we get through ok despite the fact that as we hit Siluguri the heavens open and Monsoon greets us.

The Monsoons we learn have caused havoc in Uttarkhand and Himachal Pradesh – scenes from Haridwar & Rishikesh where we were earlier in our trip shows the water levels to be at flood point and the landslides causing real problems for road traffic – thankfully we have been spared all this. About 100,000 folk are stranded in various locations and over 170 are known to have died – wow – we really have been lucky.

We make it just in time to check in, have some lunch at the Airport Co-op restaurant and board the flight via tight security – we wish all the airports would be consistent about what to take off and leave on as it’s a bit of a pain when you are constantly told to do this and that while halfway through the process as we were here.

The Air India flight is quite good. They provided quite good lunch and also had programmes on their entertainment screens – not something we got with Spice Jet, but then again we had one screen between the 2 of us and it didn’t work. No worries – the flight was only just over 2 hours. We touch down at Delhi and taxi it back to Hotel Namaskar India with the best room for us as we are now regulars.

It’s dinner at Roshan De Kulfi after a few chilled beer (Kingfisher this time at least!) – Pretty nice. And we plan for the next 2 days when we have to prepare and pack for our time in Jammu & Kashmir – after some shopping for family and friends.

Next – the final blog from us …………………………………………………………………………..this time around!!


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20th June 2013

7478 words!
A very interesting journal of a very interesting area - but I had to read it in three instalments! Looking forward to reading about your adventures in Jammu & Kashmir.
29th July 2013

7309 words!
Hi, just thought i ought to warn you. We're just posting our final blog for this leg of our travels (Ladakh) and it's another long one!! Hope you enjoy it all the same. Caroline
20th June 2013

We've spent very little time in India
We'd like to visit again. It sounds interesting the way the vendors market their teas in Darjeeling. Glad you are feeling better.
30th July 2013

Your next blog is only 3826 words...
...you're slacking! It's only half the length of this one, so I read it all in one sitting. Next instalment please. :0)
6th June 2014

North eastern part of India is very beautiful and also gets explored by tourist even I am looking forward to visit India and this blog really helped me to know about this part of the country and the best way i heard to travel in India is by Booking tickets online

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