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.

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