Sunday, April 26, 2009

No chicken no egg

Everywhere in Sikkim when we try to order food, we are told "No chicken no egg". Sometimes there's not much else left on the menu. The problem lies in the neighbouring state - an outbreak of avian flu in West Bengal. Ironically we had no problem finding eggs or chicken there. In Sikkim we have become 'pure vegetarian'. On our way back to meet Ruth in Yuksom we have a transport problem - there are 7 of us waiting when a jeep with only two spare seats pulls up. A local man gets in and the jeep drives off. We are left in the company of three Poles, two dressed as Buddhist monks. One of them, a well-fed, bearded and pony-tailed man pops out his mobile and starts trying to summon up another vehicle. The problem seems to be that so many jeeps have been seconded for 'election duty'. That is, they are being used to ferry party cadres and voters to campaign meetings where food and drink is laid on to enhance their appeal. We are stranded. But fortunately, the monk has a silver tongue. "How much? Eight hundred rupees? Tell him when I see him I'm gonna kick his ass! No, of course I'm joking!" Eventually he agrees a better price and a jeep appears sometime later. They've been here to study? No, to practise. Practise what? Well.......... They tell us that they purchased 130 local goats in order to save their lives. The goats are still kept by the local farmers, but have been bought in order to save them from slaughter. We have visions of farmers surreptitiously pushing goats down the steep hillsides whenever they feel like a barbecue. But pony-tail monk is not a vegetarian - he describes himself as a "meat monster". They seem to have an adaptable approach to Buddhism.........
Our last stop is Gangtok, the current state capital, a large but fairly peaceful city that, like Darjeeling, sits on a ridge. It's hard work wandering around when there's so much uphill. In the centre is a pedestrianised main shopping street, full of benches and plants and completely clean and tidy - extremely un-Indian. Ruth and Laurence are on the hunt for presents and souvenirs to take back. I'm on the hunt for chicken or egg. Finally we head back to Kolkata, and catch the Darjeeling Mail overnight. We arrive at about 9 in the morning, almost three hours late, and it's already hot. Laurence is flying out in the evening and Ruth departs tomorrow morning so we have a quick shopping spree. The thermometer is pushing 40oC. Even the locals are sweating.
Saying goodbye to Laurence and Ruth makes us quite sad because we've really enjoyed being with them. It's only been a short while but it comes at a significant point in our journey - just as we are about to leave South Asia. It feels like we've just had a little holiday from this tough business of travelling. So we say our farewells to them and our farewells to India. The ride out to Kolkata airport early in the morning is a classic - with people up and about performing ablutions, setting out stalls, getting a snack to eat. A taxi driver is laid out comfortably across the bonnet of his Ambassador, oblivious to the city's awakening. We love India, for all of its faults, but it's time to move on.

time to pack

Monday, April 20, 2009

On a clear day you can see forever

'Ghorkaland for Ghorkas' proclaim the posters in Darjeeling. It's election time in India and over the next month up to 700 million Indians will have the opportunity to vote. We're still in the state of West Bengal, but having climbed the rough road up into the hills where Darjeeling sits, surrounded by tea estates, it feels a long way from Kolkata. The majority of locals are Ghorka and there has been some deal done where the local movement for an autonomous state has expressed support for the BJP (Hindu nationalist) candidate. This is horse-trading with a capital 'H'.

After our day's ride on the Kanchenjunga Express and a mosquito-ridden night in Siliguri it is a relief to get the shared jeep up to the old hill station. There's the occasional glimpse of the old colonial life - the Planters' Club, the clocktower, a couple of churches and the governor's mansion - but the town has sprawled over both sides of the ridge and is a maze of stairs and compact five-storeyed buildings squeezed together. On a clear day you can see Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak, on the skyline from the hotel rooftop. The weather has a distinctly English feel about it, with cloud and a bit of rain - a relief after Kolkata. The other English throwback is the tea and cakeshop, Glenary's, where we arrange to meet Laurence, who has travelled over two nights to get here from the other side of India. If we are John & Paul and Ruth is George then Laurence's Ringo makes us the Fab Four. But we're not, so that's alright then. However, it is a lovely feeling to have Ruth and Laurence's company even if it's only temporary. At the Happy Valley tea factory we learn how tea is produced. Quite simple really - it's picked, dried, aired, dried again and packed. There seems to be a lot of fuss over whether the tea is picked in Spring, Summer or Autumn and whether the leaves and bud are broken or not. Ruth remembers once being shown someone sweeping up in a factory and the guide saying "and that's what goes to England."

We head north into Sikkim, changing jeep in a little town plastered with election posters and flags for the main Sikkim party, the SDF. Their symbol is, appropiately, an umbrella. Each party has a distinctive symbol which appears on the voting machines for anyone illiterate. The road we take to Pelling winds its way up and over ridges and down into valleys - there's plenty of traffic in both directions, mostly jeeps. Suddenly we are engulfed in a heavy rainstorm and the driver slows down slightly, which is a relief as he can't see the end of the bonnet through the windscreen. At one point he stops. There's been a mudslide across the road and the smell of wet earth fills the jeep. The driver gets out in the rain and pokes his toe into the mud tentatively. Then he gets back in and starts driving forwards. To get across the mud he drives across the shallow side, on the edge of the road with the big drop off. And stalls right in the middle. We're stuck, it's still raining heavily, and we're inches from the edge of the road. A couple of the passengers get out to push. We four are jammed in the back row, with no door, and while we wait for someone to let us out Laurence pulls himself out of the window. The driver tries to move forward but the back wheels are spinning and sliding around from side to side. We want to get out right now, but no-one else is budging. Laurence sticks his head through the window with a worried look, "Aren't you getting out?" It occurs to us that there are some occasions when you don't want to be in a vehicle with a driver who believes in reincarnation. Eventually, in a panic, I howl in anger and we are allowed out, to wade through the mud, whilst Laurence helps the others shove the jeep free and across. We pile back in and the driver gives us a big "What's the problem?" grin, and then all the locals have a good laugh at my outburst, mimicking it for laughs. Later we stop for a puncture and they all smile when they see our boots and trousers caked in mud. Funny folk, these English.

We walk up to one of the old monasteries that are dotted around in strategic positions in these parts. In an upper room is a fantastical model representing the Buddhist world. Around the walls are the usual stylised paintings of Buddha and his disciples in various scenes and postures. Some of them are covered, and underneath we discover scenes of tantric sex - presumably they are covered to protect the modesty of visitors. On another knoll, just below, are the ruins of one of the old Sikkim capitals. There are views overlooking the deep valleys and out over to other ridges, other monasteries. From Pelling we head on to Yuksom, stopping off at a holy lake en route, which is more of a tarn, but impressive nonetheless for the masses of prayer flags, row upon row, around its banks.

Yuksom is the site of the first Sikkim capital, with the original stone thrones of the coronation now dwarfed by a huge tree. The village is busy with trekkers heading off northwards for a closer look at Kanchenjunga. The days are cloudy and sometimes rainy and not so promising. We leave Ruth here and walk for a day along old paved paths that link the high villages and lead us to Tashiding. We stop for lunch by a gompa with a view, of course, and are greeted by cavorting young monks. When we move on they have disappeared, but from a windowless shed there comes the sound of chanting students repeating their lines. After a lovely long walk we arrive in Tashiding just as torrential rain begins.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Oh 'eck! Calcutta

We meet Jess & Duncan on the Naxalite Express to Kolkata (or Calcutta for anyone over 20 years of age) and it turns out that they too are intending to meet visitors, Jess' parents and sister, at the airport there. We're meeting Ruth, John's sister off an Emirates flight. Jess' sister is called Ruth and also lives in Hulme, Manchester. And they're all going to be on the same flight. Wha-hey! And on the basis of such coincidences we bond quickly and before you know it we're playing Scrabble in 2-tier A/C luxury aboard the night train. Amazingly, everything is still cordial and jolly even after the game, which is a new experience for me and Gayle - we had to give away our travel set after 18 months because the game always led to spelling disagreements, arguments, and sulks....usually before we'd even started. Anyway after a short kip we pull into Howrah station at the unearthly hour of 4.30 am, which actually turns out to be the best time of day. We take a taxi, a bouncy old yelllow Ambassador, on deserted roads to Sudder St. and head straight for a chai stall. The sky has brightened quickly and there's a stirring on the streets of men in vests and checked lunghis. Some are still stretched out on charpoys. Taxi drivers recline on their back seats. It is very warm and it's only 5.30 in the morning. What's it like during the day?

Hot. Very hot. Unseasonally hot, apparently. We wander the streets and take occasional refuge in air-conditioned shops, cafes or restaurants. I'm not sure if this survival method works - the body has to adapt from hot and humid to cold and dry and then back again. But c'mon, we're not dinosaurs. We really enjoy the city. My preconception of the city is based on an old English cliche - "it's like the black hole of Calcutta", Mother Theresa's work,and the film 'City of Joy' starring that bloke from Dirty Dancing which I've never actually seen (I mean City of Joy and Dirty Dancing, although sadly, and to my shame, I did see Ghosts twice), so to find wide tree-lined roads, uncrowded pavements (wow, pavements), and some attractive old buildings scattered around comes as quite a pleasant surprise. The Black Hole turns out to refer to a cellar in which some annoying English were locked up overnight by an irate Indian, in the early days of the East India Company. Many suffocated. The city's main post office now stands on the site of this infamous incident which seems quite appropiate. If you can survive the heat and the sort-of queues to buy some stamps for your postcards, there's the umistakable feeling, as you hand them over to the franking clerk behind the counter that they are destined for the black hole of the Indian Post Office.

It's great to see Ruth at the airport - she's been here before, a long time ago - and we spend a couple of easy days pootling about. Early one morning we wander off up to the Hoogly river, through streets that are full of the usual public daily rituals of bathing, breakfasting, clothes washing and teeth cleaning with those frayed twigs from the Neem tree. At the river the ferries are busy with commuters and school children. By 10am we're hot and exhausted and done for the day.

Our plan is to head up to Darjeeling, meet up with our good friend Laurence from home who is also in India at this time, and go on to Sikkim. Ruth specially requested that we take the day train northwards out of Kolkata, to enjoy the scenery and the train 'action', and there's plenty of it. Throughout the day there's a steady stream of people through the carriage. Small boys crawl along with a rag in their hand, wiping the floor and asking for tips. A respectable looking sadhu in bright orange robes gives us a tune, George Formbyish, on his tiny ukelele (not a bad Scrabble word, if only I could spell it). A couple of times hijras (transvestites) strut in and go up to the men, say a few words and collect a few rupees - it looks less like begging and more like extortion - some men look very uncomfortable. It seems the hijras hold sway over them. And then there's the chai and snack wallahs. As the journey progresses, there's less food and more stuff, like toys, torches, tea towels and at one point, a man with a casio keyboard. Imagine buying a keyboard on your train home? Our journey to the foothills takes us through miles and miles of fields and over the Ganges. We stay in Siliguri which is a little bit cooler than Kolkata, although after a twelve hour 350 mile journey we are still only 100 metres above sea level, so not quite in the hills yet........

Sunday, April 5, 2009


After nearly three weeks of walking we're ready for a rest and some relaxation. Living up to our name we then spend the next fortnight virtually immobile. Someone we meet asks us if we don't get tired of travelling. It's a little hard to explain that travelling for us can sometimes mean going nowhere and doing little more than eating, reading and sitting in the sun. To be fair we haven't had much beach time in the past year. A typical day involves getting up at about 7 to buy milk off one of the vendors on the street corners and then returning to have our cereal in bed. A little bit of laundry and some reading in the morning sun on the roof terrace. John wanders off for a cup of real coffee in a little side-street cafe, Gayle peruses the choices in one of many bookshops. Occasionally we discuss the possibility of the chance of perhaps maybe considering the likelihood (or not) of us actually doing some sight-seeing, but then we have to break off for lunch before reaching a conclusion. Afternoons seem to fly by and before the electricity goes off we meet up with Jules for tea and get to Weizen's Bakery by 8 for their half-price sale (strudel being the main objective here). How on earth could anyone tire of this?
Okay, we do actually sort out our new Indian visa, which requires an early rise, some queuing and an awful lot of just hanging around talking to other travellers. The process itself is thankfully straightforward. In anticipation of a return to that crazy country and the inevitable dreadful bus journey to the border, we take it easy for a few more days before finally packing our rucksacks and saying our farewells to the dope peddlers, tiger-balm pushers and chess-set hawkers of Thamel