NE India 1: The King of the Mountains

Day 283 – Saturday, February 1st 2014

We awoke in that most colonial outpost of North East India: Darjeeling.

At 2000 meters above sea level, it had been refreshingly cool overnight – calling for cosy thick bedcovers, and within a few minutes’ walk of the Gymkhana parking lot we would be treated to a view of the world’s 3rd highest peak. Reaching up to 8586 meters, Kanchenjunga and her formidable neighbours cast an impressive backdrop to the town.

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Inspired by the snowy peaks around us, and the news that we may be able to catch a glimpse of Everest, we went off in search of trekking information. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) was located within the confines of the Darjeeling Zoo, so despite the complete lack of useful information at the HMI for our trek, we could console ourselves with sightings of, among other animals, Asiatic Bears, Snow Leopards, Red Pandas, and a proudly meowing Bengal Tiger. The HMI did have an interesting exhibition covering many of the Everest expeditions, and the life of Tenzig Norgay (the first Sherpa to make it to ‘the roof of the world’), but alas, no-one could give us any info for our lowly stroll along the Sandakphu ridgeline.

During our wanderings we did come across a kind of haphazard rally that was going on, the racers had left Kolkata quite some days ago, and today would be the final stage and the conclusion to the event. All of the participants lacked nothing in enthusiasm, but the differences between this and a western event were plain to see – they were all road going machines with very little modification to turn them into racers, without a GPS system the motorcyclists all had a buddy riding pillion to read directions that were written on the riders back, some of the motorcyclists protective gear included cut up plastic sheeting to act as knee pads, and the most difference of all; the roads were not closed – not even at the start as they blasted through the town!

We got chatting to one of the bikers, and it turned out he was the current leader by a fair margin – he was a really nice guy and he told us that his dad had also participated in the sport, and (we think) had been the first Indian to race in the Isle of Man TT. We stuck around to wave him off, and saw in the paper the next day that he had maintained his lead and come away with much-coveted winner’s purse of 60,000 Rupees.

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It turns out the aptly named ‘Tourist Information Centre’ was in a much better position to tell us all we  needed to know about the trek, the ‘toy train’, and even which tea plantations to visit. With all that research under our belts we free to spend the afternoon eating, tinkering with Ivor, and fighting our way through the bureaucracy that Vodaphone India have installed to prevent hapless tourists from topping up their SIM cards.

Day 284 – Sunday, February 2nd 2014

Choo-Choo!!! We were off to catch the steam train out of Darjeeling at 10:30. The Unesco protected line weaves its way through the towns streets and through the tea plantations towards the town of Ghum. An out-and-back route, that makes a stop at the Bastasia Loop is known as a ‘joy ride’, and drops you off back in Darjeeling just in time for lunch – Perfect.

After a quick break for Vaughan to get a short back and sides and a traditional shave from a guy in a roadside hut, we hunted out a pizza restaurant run by a French guy, so we could get a hit of western cuisine.

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We explored the town a little more, and gave Ivor just a little more tinkering – since he still seemed determined to drip coolant onto the feet of the passenger.

That evening we searched out a local bar, it was the owner’s birthday so we were offered cake to celebrate, and all the local patrons were in good spirits. We got talking to a doctor who had been living in Canada for a while – and at the end of the night he gave us a lift back to Ivor.

Day 285 – Monday, February 3rd 2014

This morning was one of those ‘getting stuff done’ times that makes for neither interesting reading nor interesting writing, so how about we skip straight onto the afternoon; when something actually happened.

So the ‘thing’ that happened was afternoon tea, and we took it at the Windermere Hotel no less. It’s quite the event in Darjeeling, the tea being accompanied not only by scones, cakes, and a variety of confections, but also by nostalgic leftovers from the colonial era.

In amongst the cobbled together decor were hand written poems by Jan Morris, among others, and a signed letter, addressed in person to the owner of the Windermere from a certain Mrs Aung San of Burma. It was certainly a different level of class from a typical afternoon of overland travelling through these lands.

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Day 286 – Tuesday, February 4th 2014

The bells and music of the Puja in town lifted us from our slumber. The Hindu celebration involves all the followers making their way to the local temples to provide offerings and receive blessing in return. Small rupee bills and loose change found their way into the beggar bowls that line the path leading up to the temple on the observatory hill, in exchange for words of gratitude, and a dash of powder added to our foreheads. The whole town had come out for the morning, and everyone took their turn in making their way to the temples. Later in the day sound systems would be out, and celebrations would take over from religious ceremony.

In the afternoon we took a rickety old cable car down the valley towards the Puttabong Tea Estate. We arrived at the processing factory to find that it was off-season for tea-production, but a proud worker was only too happy to show us around. Much of the baking, shaking, and sorting machinery dated back to the 1800’s, and had been brought over by the British during the height of the East India Company’s control of the region – still complete with their ‘Made In Birmingham’ plaques.

We were given a complimentary tea tasting where they explained the difference between the different plants that had been used to make the brews, including some green (boiled, rather than withered), oolong (totally made by hand), glorial (young plants), and some from the original ‘Darjeeling’ bushes planted by the brits all those years ago – though the crispest taste came from glorial plants, which were all younger than 15 years old.

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Day 287 – Wednesday, February 5th 2014

5:30am came around all too soon, and before we could register what was happening we were staggering away from Ivor, leaving him in the capable hands of the security guards at the Gymkhana club. With backpacks loaded we were off in search of a shared taxi that would take us to Maneybhanjyang, so that we could find ourselves a guide and make a start on a 5 day trek along the Sandakphu ridge.

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Taxi drivers are an unscrupulous bunch at the best of times, and in India they hunt in packs. The Tourist information had told us that the taxi would leave at 7, we just had to get in the one with ‘Maneybanjang’ written on it – it sounded so simple that even our pre-caffeinated minds could cope with it. The reality was of course a little different – there were no taxis going where we wanted, and we were told that even when they did come, they would wait to be full before leaving – which could take all day – It would be much better for us to catch one leaving soon to Sukya Pohkri, and then arrange onward travel from there.

Hmm, so who do you trust – The tourist information guy, or the guy who stands to make money from you getting in his taxi?

The taxi driver was right in the end. Ohps. We wasted a good few hours waiting around before going for the Sukya Pohkri option – and when we eventually did all went smoothly – It didn’t even end up costing much more than the route straight to Maneybanjang. Double ohps.

Sorting out our trip took no time at all, we took the next available guide – an amiable fellow named Umesh, and were taken out for Mo-Mos (Tibetan dumplings) while Umesh went to pick up his trekking gear.

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The time wasted with the Taxi debacle had not even cost us too dearly in terms of time on the trail – since our target for the evening was the village of Tumling, the best part of 900 meters above our starting point, but without too many kilometres to cover in order to get there.

We reached the village in a few hours, and were privileged enough to walk in on a village party to celebrate the coming-of-age of one of the boys. It was his 13th birthday, which meant (in order) – he gets his long boyish hair cut short or the first time in his life, everyone in the village come out to a feast, and the house with the biggest rooms in becomes party central for the evening – with dancing and merriment going on late into the night. One of the men we had shared a taxi with was there, he spoke good English so could explain what was going on, and even emailed us some photos after the event since Kim’s camera was misbehaving.

Considering that we didn’t know the people, the language, or the music – we were openly invited to join in wherever possible – and everyone seemed to take great pleasure in making sure we felt comfortable and accepted enough to join in – even our food for the night was ‘on the house’.

In a change from parties we were used to, it was the boys that took to the dance floor first, and the women of the village took a lot of encouragement to show their moves. There was a kind of battle of the DJs with two different sound systems, and the revellers flocking to whichever room was playing the best tunes. A favourite of the youngens was clearly ‘Pani Pani Pani’, the dance to which basiacally involved jumping around and laughing a lot, as far as we could tell.

It was great fun and we were very lucky that we had come out of prime trekking season – since the village was quiet enough that the inhabitants could resume their normal life, and since we were the only tourists there we were given a unique chance to look in on it, and even to be a part of it for the evening.

Day 288 – Thursday, February 6th 2014

Thin on breath, we plodded up the dark path to the top of a hill near the guesthouse in time for sunrise. The moment that the pink light of the morning fell on the snowy crest of Kanchenjunga we knew that the efforts of the trek had already paid for themselves – above a bed of soft cloud, we could see the world 3rd highest peak standing proud. If the weather stayed like this, then tomorrow morning we may even be able to catch a glimpse of Everest.

The villages were slow to rise this morning so our breakfast would be a couple of charotis (a kind of fried bread) left over from yesterdays feast, and a few cups of tea to get some warmth back into our fingers.

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Today was set to be one of the most difficult for the trek since we had 21km to cover, about 600 meters to drop into a valley before gaining another 1000 to reach the peak of Sandakphu at 3536m. We stopped in at a small tea hut for lunch, and the chowmein could not come soon enough – the two small breads of breakfast had been used up long ago.

Just as we finished our ascent to Sandakphu, Umesh discovered that all of the guesthouses were full – though not normally a problem in this season, a school’s worth of pupils had been ferried there by Land Rover, which only left spaces at a way-out-of-our-budget hotel. Luckily Umesh knew another place – a couple more kilometres along the ridge were a few shacks.

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Saying goodnight to 'The Sleeping Buddha', as the range in known locally.

Saying goodnight to ‘The Sleeping Buddha’, as the range in known locally.

A young boy had been left to look after the place as his family had made a trip into town – he opened up a room with some beds for us (though had to bust through a padlock, since his parents had not left him with all the keys), and Umesh cooked us a tasty dinner of spicy dried yak meat and rice on the wood fired hearth.

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Day 289 – Friday, February 7th 2014

We were out in the bitter cold for sunrise once again, and what had been an envelope of cloud over Everest the night before was now an unobstructed view of the tallest mountain on earth, along with another clear view of Kanchenjunga. Even as we watched, clouds formed and covered the mighty peak once more. We’d been lucky, since a glimpse is in no way guaranteed, and particularly in the off season.

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Finally using that tri-pod

Finally using that tri-pod

 

Filled with a breakfast of tea and fried rice we set off further towards the mountain ranges along the ridgeline to the tiny outpost of Phalut – essentially just a couple of small huts and a small army base – separated from each other by a couple of kilometres.

The whole of the route skirts the border between India and Nepal, so there are regular military checkpoints as you pass from one country to the other. We interrupted a game of cricket to register our passport details as we re-entered India on route to Phalut. The soldiers were only too happy to chat with us, and said that their last posting had been on the India / Pakistan border, so they were grateful to have been given orders to spend 6 months in the tranquil area of the Nepalese frontier.

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Just after our chat with the soldiers the clouds began to thicken and drift across our path. It was not long before visibility was reduced to tens of meters, and an increasing number of layers were transferred from our backpacks to our bodies to fight off the bitter cold.

Despite the weather, or perhaps even because of it, we had made good progress. Stomping to keep warm we’d covered the 21km by 1:30, and were happy to get inside the guesthouse, get some hot tea inside us, and then get inside our sleeping bags listening the wind buffet the outside of the hut, and it wasn’t long before we nodded off.

We were woken by the manager of the guesthouse asking if yak meat would be okay for dinner, and not long after we came into the kitchen to huddle around the stove as the food was prepared. Another benefit of making this trek in the off-season is that we were always invited into the kitchens – the only room with any source of heat – Umesh told us that it just isn’t possible when the guest houses are at capacity.

Day 290 – Saturday, February 8th 2014

We were up before the sun for the fourth day in a row; this would be our final chance to see the Everest range. The wind had dispersed shifted the cloud, and just like the previous morning we were granted a clear view of the magnificent mountain-scape surrounding us. Kanchenjunga in particular was a lot closer that it had been for our last sightings. The freezing clouds being blasted across the hillside had left behind dramatic ice crystals that protruded downwind from anything on which they had managed to gain purchase, adding further to the other-worldly feeling of viewing the giants of the Himalayas from above the cloudline.

After capturing the best of the sunrise we were forced to retreat from the cold and bitter wind in search of porridge and tea that could fuel our descent from this 3600 meter crest. The path down was sedate to start with as we passed through the tree line, but as we dropped further the valley sides steepened, and when combined with some of Umesh’s shortcuts became quite the challenge while loaded up with 5 days worth of gear in a backpack.

Again, we made good time time though, and stopped for some noodles at a village at the valley floor at around 11am. Having dropped from icy mountains through woodland, we were now in dense jungle like forest, and our rucksacks were bulging as were in T shirts again by mid morning. The route stayed at a low altitude for the rest of the day, but was ‘little up, little down’, as Umesh put it, so we still had some work to do. We pushed past the planned night stop at Raman, pausing only for some sweet tea, and made it all the way to Sirikhola, so we would only have a short hike to catch a shared taxi back to Darjeeling the next day.

Day 291 – Sunday, February 9th 2014

Enjoying a lie-in ’til 7am, we hit the trail at 9, and were having our passports checked at the final border post of Rimbrik by 10:30. We shared some Mo-mos with an American couple we had met at the guesthouse the night before, and were compressed into an overloaded taxi for our journey back to town.

It took a good 6 hours to get back to Darjeeling, for the majority of which one of the passengers was stood on the rear bumper just to keep to the door from swinging open as they rounded the mountainous switchbacks.

We were unfurled out from the back row of the cab back in town, where our priorities were a hot shower (at a local guesthouse), a good meal (at the Darjeeling institution that is ‘the Glenary’s’), and a couple of cold beers (at Joey’s bar). The latter of which was spent in the company of an incredibly friendly couple from Kolkata, who so very nearly convinced us to change our plans and come to the city on our way further East. If only we’d had the time they had offered to sort pretty much everything out for us, but unfortunately the border crossing into Burma was looming just that little bit too close.

Day 292 – Monday, February 10th 2014

So one last day in Darjeeling – we had some normal to-do’s, but the one’s that stand out were:

  • Try some proper posh tea at Nathmulls tea house
  • Hand the winter sleeping bags back to the shop that we’d rented them from
  • Get one last dose of good french pizza, and pick up some supplies from the owner – who now supplied all of the top hotels in North-East India with cheese and sausages. (In his words “they have all the ingredients to make great food, why can they only cook dhal curry and f**king rice”, we too were missing some variation in our diet)
  • Restock on fresh food from the local bazaars
  • Buy a poster of the panorama seen from Sandakphu, to remind us of the trek, and add a little colour to Ivor’s white walls

Upon retuning to Ivor after all our jobs were done we found a note left by the American couple, Andrew and Chia, who we’d met while trekking. We managed to cross paths with them and went out for some vegetarian Indian food before, finding all the bars closed, retired to Ivor to polish off some Kyrgyz vodka that we still had kicking about in the spirits cabinet (i.e. rammed under the worksurface/counter somewhere).

Day 293 – Tuesday, February 11th 2014

Having read an extract in the local paper regarding the seizure of a western TV crews satellite telephones, and all sorts of bother involving embassies, the local police, and no doubt many thousands of rupees in bribes (though this was not reported) – one of our first jobs was to stash our sat phone in a secret compartment that even the most over enthusiastic of border guards could not locate.

Pretty soon we were ready to hit the road, and we managed to clear the worst of the winding road down from Darjeeling to the flatlands further south before the masses of mentalists in charge of shared taxis hit it in force for their daily passage to Siliguri.

The road towards the deep north east was in surprisingly good condition, and we cruised through the tea plantations and military training grounds at a fair pace. There were even sectiosn of dual carriageway but, as we had experienced elsewhere in India, the locals were yet to receive any instruction as to how it should be used – all lanes being considered fair game for any speed or direction of traffic.

We had hoped to spend the night at a National Park, but for reasons best known to the rule makers the gates were shut at 2pm – and since we had got there at 2:30, we would not be allowed to enter. Without too much disappointment at failing to find a picturesque camping spot, we got a few more miles behind us and pulled into a petrol station just before dark, cooked up some ‘bangers and mash’, and got an early night.

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