Trekking in Sikkim and Darjeeling
- Submitted by: Kaye Stott, Australia
- Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005
This travelogue narrates a visit we (Geoff and I) made last year to India, mainly around Sikkim and Darjeeling, to trek in the Himalaya, although we did spend a short time in Orissa, towards the end of the trip.
With only had seven weeks leave from work, we decided to restrict ourselves to a small area, rather than try to travel large distances. This was our third visit to India, and we had previously trekked in Nepal. This visit took place from April to June 1992, in the pre-monsoonal period; it isn't an ideal time of year on the hot plains, but it is an excellent time to see the rhododendrons and orchids in the mountains.
Before leaving Australia we wrote to the Indian Tourist Information Office, outlining where we hoped to travel, and asking for conditions applying to entry to Sikkim. The travel guides we read were in disagreement about this, but generally suggested that we should apply to New Delhi three months in advance for the restricted area permit, and to the Sikkim Tourist office (in New Delhi) two months in advance for a trekking permit. The Indian Tourist Information Office re-assured us that we could obtain the restricted area permit in Calcutta; we decided to take our chances with the trekking permit. The Tourist Office is a great place to get pamphlets, maps and information, and should be your first port of call when planning a trip to India.
Part 1 - Perth to Darjeeling:
The cheapest route from Perth to Calcutta is via Bangkok, so we headed up to Thailand, with a two-night stopover in Bangkok, before flying on to India. Previous visits to the Thai capital had left us with a very strong dislike of the city - its noise and traffic can be oppressive - but we decided to ignore our own prejudices and try to see it with new eyes. Two days walking extensively around the city, visiting many temples, joining in a kite-flying festival, and generally avoiding the down-town shopping arcades and crowds worked - we both enjoyed the stopover, and set off to India happy with our decision to call in to Thailand again on the way home.
Calcutta. What can I say? We had only been there overnight before, not long enough to gain an impression, so arrived confident we would find something to like - after all, we had never been anywhere in India that wasn't fantastic. We flew into Dum Dum, shared a taxi into the city with another Australian woman, and headed off to find a hotel. The trusty Lonely Planet guide suggests several hotels around Sudder Street, but all were full, so we moved up-market to a rather run-down but air-conditioned hotel with big, if grubby rooms. Just enough time to dump our packs, have a quick shower, and we were off to explore.
Despite our confidence we never did find anything to like about Calcutta. We were both extremely happy to be back on the Indian sub-continent; we feel comfortable and at home there, and know just what to expect in large Indian cities, but Calcutta affected us in a way that Bombay, Benares, and other cities have not. It was unrelentingly oppressive, with no redeeming features, and sapped our energy in the pre-monsoonal heat..
Calcutta was a place for lots of organization, arranging our restricted-area permit for Sikkim, getting rail tickets to Darjeeling, and talking to trekking agency representatives about the Government requirements for trekking in Sikkim, since we were fairly certain we could not trek without a guide, and needed to find out if we could go as a couple, or if there was a minimum group size of four (our last information in Australia). The local Indian Tourist Office was very helpful, providing maps and updated information on visiting Sikkim.
The restricted area permit, giving us a 15-day stay in Sikkim, took 24 hours to be issued, available from the Foreigner's Registration Office. Meanwhile, we made an attempt to get a visa for Bangladesh, originally hoping to return from Darjeeling to Calcutta by travelling on the rivers there, but found that no visas were being issued for overland travel - tourists could only fly in and fly out, defeating our purpose. It was at this stage that we decided to go to Orissa if time permitted.
Rail tickets are extremely easy to arrange these days, a far cry from the old system of endless queueing at bewildering railway station kiosks. There is a separate 2nd class and tourist-quota booking office in the commercial district, where tickets are issued, although you have to pay in $US or produce proof of currency exchange when paying.
We were trying to book to Darjeeling, but the ticket office would only book us as far as New Jalpaiguri (NJP); from there, the toy train line runs up into the hills to Darjeeling. Although we asked about booking on the toy train, our requests were ignored without explanation, and we settled for 2nd class air-conditioned berths for the overnight journey.
I was quite upset by our inability to book on the toy train, but as we left the railway office a man came up and started to talk to us - apparently a railway official. We were walking back to Sudder Street (quite a long distance) and he chatted away to me during the walk, about where we were going, and my annoyance about not getting a ticket to Darjeeling. In hindsight, I can see that he concentrated on talking to me, effectively shouldering Geoff out of the conversation, but at the time I wasn't noticing, just talking to him, He explained that he was an engineer based in NJP, and although the tickets were normally only issued at the station there, he could get us tickets for the toy train. I really wanted to believe him, to the point of being a bit irrational about it, and agreed to let him obtain tickets for us; I even paid him for them! Believe me - he was quite convincing. Geoff was extremely pissed off with me with good reason - we never sighted him or the money again.
It was oppressively hot in Calcutta. We were walking a lot, since this is our normal way of getting to see and appreciate places we visit, but the heat and humidity were adding to our growing dislike of the city, and it was with great pleasure that we finally checkout out of the coolth of our room and set off to the Howrah Railway station, to while away the evening, waiting for our train to leave. In the late afternoon, vultures were circling over the meccano-like structure of the Howrah Bridge, riding the sweltering air.
I love Indian railway stations - so much life and interest. Howrah is no exception; although we had about six hours to kill we were never bored, taking turns to wander off or sit with the packs, reading, talking, enjoying the diversity of peoples, languages, colours and activity. The train was fine; 2A/C consists of a carriage with corridor along one side and curtained-off compartments with fours padded bunks, all kept pleasantly cool. You can order dinner from the staff, and bedding is available if you don't have your own. We shared our compartment with a young couple on their way to stay at the family home in Assam.
Early the next morning the train pulled into NJP, where enquiries revealed that the toy train had not been running for some years, landslides having blocked the line, although some sections of the track were usable further up into the hills, and work was being carried out to repair the damage. NJP is still on the plains, sweltering and smoggy, and it is a twenty-minute rickshaw ride to Siliguri, followed by a four-hour bus ride, before you reach Darjeeling. The road starts along the flat, soon passing through tea plantations, before starting the climb up into the foothills. All along the route the toy train line criss-crosses the road without warning, sharing the same small route carved out of the steep inclines - there are 132 unsupervised level crossings! Near Kurseong we passed the toy train engine, steaming along a repaired section of track, but there were no passenger cars attached.
The road wound steadily upward, but the smoggy air didn't clear; the prevailing winds push the dirt from the plains all the way up into these high valleys, to mingle with the smoke from countless fires used to cook in every village and town. The views were spectacular, but diminished by the haze. Nearing Darjeeling we passed through Ghoom, with its classic Buddhist monastery. The road narrowed, having been designed as a cart track, rather than a two-way motorway, and the bus stopped frequently to allow on-coming traffic to clear before being able to proceed. There were endless jeeps pushing and bullying their noisy way up and down the route, horns blaring, scattering pedestrians with gay abandon.
Darjeeling is quite a big town, perched precariously on the steep side of a hill and straggling along the extended ridge. Just walking from the toy train station to Laden La road told us that this was going to be excellent practice for trekking! Pedestrians climb up the stairways between streets, while the cars wind their way up switchback routes. Geoff and I are middle-aged sedentary people, sitting behind terminals up to 10 hours a day; halfway up to the middle of town, packs on our backs, we questioned the wisdom of doing this sort of thing to ourselves. Its marvellous what selective memory does - you only remember the good bits from the last trip, and forget the hard work that went with it. It was very obvious that we'd need to do a lot of walking around the town and surroundings just to be in any fit state to trek at all.
We found a nice little Tibetan hotel (the Shamrock) on a quiet back alley. It was clean, had running water (a rarity in drought-struck Darjeeling) and you could heat up a bucket of water using the immersion heaters provided. The views across the hazy valley were great - theoretically you could see the mountains, but the smog imposed its own limits.
With a week in Darjeeling before our Sikkim permit started, we spent the time initially just walking around the town, up and down the hillside, then extending ourselves to places outside of town, taking the Cart Road out to the tea plantation at Happy Valley, visiting the zoo and mountaineering institute, walking the circuit right out the ridge to the ropeway, back along to the Tibetan Refugee Centre, then into town, ending up at Chowrasta, enjoying the views and food at the Star Dust Restaurant, a favourite with both Indian and foreign tourists. During the week we toughened up, finding the steps less daunting and the walking very pleasant. A visit to the Youth Hostel was rewarding, giving access to the comments of other trekkers in the area, and an informative talk with the manager. The Tourist Office wasn't really helpful, although they did provide a trekker's map (badly out of scale), but a chance encounter with 'Aunty', a lovely Sikkimese lady at the Pineridge Hotel tourist information booth, did give us renewed hope that we would be able to trek in Sikkim without first getting a permit. Aunty also provided maps of Sikkim, and hotel recommendations.
Tiger Hill is about 13km from down town Darjeeling. Our guide book suggested that accommodation was available, so we decided to walk there one morning, sleep over, and walk back the next day. There is a trail going from the top of the ridge across to Ghoom, avoiding the traffic on the crowded road, then a road up to the lookout. With minimum packs - just sleeping bags and a change of clothes - we set off, enjoying the walk until the very last section, beyond the pilgrim-crowded shrines, where it gets quite steep. At 9am we were sitting up the top, a mystical glimpse of Kanchenjunga rising above the clouds, looking like solid cloud itself. There were three British boys sleeping out on the summit, surviving on a $US5 a day budget - the sort of thing we used to do, but we were up-market this trip, averaging $US10 a day instead! Theirs was the only accommodation offering at the top, so after an hour or so we headed down again, to investigate a 'Tourist Lodge' part-way down the hill.
Despite the sign, the Lodge appeared decrepit and deserted except for a dog; it barked for a while, then launched outright war on us, getting me from the rear, but luckily only biting my pants leg, and not breaking the skin. The dog raced off around the building, and re-appeared in front of us, all teeth, snarls and attack, and there was nothing else for Geoff to do but kick it off, while we rapidly retreated. So much for an overnight stay. We walked down to Ghoom, and then back to Darjeeling along the road, just for a change, arriving in time for a late lunch.
There are two bus companies offering transport to Sikkim, booked through agencies at the bus station on Cart Road. It is a good idea to book early, since they are crowded, and are liable to cancellation. On the day our permit started we set off on the 7-hour trip to Gantok, going through immigration at Rangpo, in the impressive new police/customs building. Once in Sikkim the road improved, and the sides were planted with a wide range of flowering plants, not all native - we recognized bottle-brushes from Oz! - but including lots of native orchids hanging from the trees. Even the air was cleaner and crisper, and, despite the restricted stay, Sikkim seemed to be welcoming us.
Part 2 - Sikkim
Gantok is a little like Darjeeling, but seemed more appealing. Despite the abundance of grey concrete buildings, we rapidly grew to like the town and the people we met. It is more Buddhist, with prayer flags in evidence on many buildings, and the people are mainly Tibetan or Nepalese. Aunty, in Darjeeling, had recommended the Tibet Hotel, run by the Dalai Lama's staff, so we set off to book in, dump our gear there, and do some initial sounding out of trekking agencies. On that first day we sewed the seed of our interest in trekking with three agencies - Tashila, Yak and Yeti, and Mountain Tours. In all cases we were met with the same information - we required a group of four (minimum), and cost was fixed by the government: $US35 per person per day. We suggested that they may join us up with other single travellers, if anyone else appeared interested.
Like Darjeeling, Sikkim is a town for strong legs, with steps joining the streets, and the town arranged in layers up and down the hills. There was an orchid show on, and a beautifully kept park, all up the top of the ridge, enticing us up to explore the heights. Our trekking enquiries bore fruit, with phone calls from two of the agencies. We quickly dismissed Tashila, since they seemed to be trying to officially link us to a group of Japanese visitors, but actually take us by ourselves; trekking is very tightly controlled here, and breaking the rules seemed to be asking for trouble. However, Dorjee at Mountain Tours seemed to be able to fit us in with a Japanese couple, so we agreed to meet him and discuss the possibilities. With some misgivings, we paid a hefty deposit, and committed ourselves to his organization.
Some of the major attractions in Sikkim are the monasteries. We were forced to wait in Gantok for our trek to sort itself out, but there are three monasteries you can visit from there. We hired a car to go to Rumtek, just across the valley and a one-and-a half hour winding drive away. The buildings are a concrete copy of original wooden and stone buildings in Tibet, and are beautifully done. There is both a religious and a teaching organization here, with a huge prayer hall where visitors are welcome to sit and join the puja. Around the back of the buildings is a rather bare and desolate hillside, hung with countless greying prayer flags, rather mystical and fairy-landish.
On the following day we caught a bus out to Phodong, to visit the monastery. Its a bit of hike up the hill, and even further up to the old buildings, but the walk is pleasant, with cardamom growing on the slopes and cuckoos calling from the trees. The forest above the old monastery is worth a bit of exploring too.
By this time we were getting anxious about our trek. With a 15-day limit to visas, and a projected 9 or 10-day trek, we were running out of time. Our mate Dorjee (by this time reduced to being called Dodgy) had not produced the Japanese, as promised, but was calling us daily, to re-assure us that he was doing what he could to arrange a trek. On the next evening all fell into place. Dorjee had been meeting all buses, asking any arriving tourists if they wanted to trek; a Dutch couple, Anke and Harm, thought they might like to come with us, so they turned up at our hotel and had dinner with us, giving us all a chance to see if we were suited. Luckily, we hit it off immediately. We were all worried the 'other couple' would be gung-ho. As it was, Geoff and I were older, more decrepit, but experienced trekkers; Anke and Harm were younger but totally inexperienced in Himalayan treks. We decided on the route, and arranged to go together.
As expected, Geoff and I were now pushed for time in Sikkim - we would have to cut the trek short to get back in time. Dorjee pulled out all stops, and sent us off the the right people in the ministry to get a very rare visa extension. We had do a lot of patient waiting around before we got to the right person, then stretched the truth a bit, pleading illness as a reason for putting off our trek until now. The official in charge didn't really believe us, but we were all very civilized, and we left with our precious 3-day extension.
We had another two days waiting to leave, since Harm and Anke needed to arrange their trekking permits. Geoff and I spent the time walking out to Enchhey monastery, then right to the other end of town, to the Research Institute of Tibetology. We also visited the markets, always a source of interest and enjoyment.
At last - the day to pack up the landrover and set off to the west. We didn't meet until lunch time, then had lots of time arranging and re-arranging things on and in the vehicle, before we finally crushed ourselves inside and drove out of Gantok. Our route took us back almost to the border, through Rangpo, then west along the river, before heading up north again. We had planned to spend the night at Pemayangtse (another monastery), but night and rain found us somewhat short of our destination, so we ate in a small town and found a hotel there to spend the night. Early in the morning we loaded up again and drove up to the monastery. There are a number of lovely buildings, and the main prayer hall has an astounding model of the Buddhist spiritual world, the life's work for a monk who lived there.
We then drove out to Khechopalri lake - the sacred lake where no leaves are seen to float on the surface; legend has it that as soon as a leaf descends to the water, a white bird will fly up and remove it. It is true that the surface is totally free of leaves, but there is a lot of man-made devotive offerings floating near the edge, since this remote high lake is a pilgrimage place, and very holy. Dorjee and his staff made offerings, then we headed off on the increasingly rough and winding mountain roads to Yuksam, and the first trekking hut.
In light rain, we unpacked the landrover and waved the driver goodbye - we were to be picked up 6 days later. The hut was impressive; a two-storied building, stone on the bottom and wood on the top, with one large room below and three bedrooms upstairs. The kitchen was out the back. We settled in and started to explore the town, while Dorjee re-assured himself that all was in hand - the yaks were coming, the porters and kitchenhands were there, and all was well.
The next day we began our trek, the four of us accompanied by our guide (Dorjee), his off-sider, a policeman (obligatory in this sensitive part of the world), a cook, four kitchen hands, four porters, a yak man and four dzos (cross between yak and cattle). The first day was relatively easy, 16 km from Yuksam (1780M) to Bakkhim (3005M) through lovely countryside, initially up a valley, then across the stream and up the hill to a forestry station, where we slept on bare-board beds, cold and comfortless, after a magnificent meal cooked by 'the boys' in a miserly little lean-to in the nearby paddock. Bakkhim to Tsokha the next day was very short and VERY steep. About 2 or 3 km, but it took us about 3 hours to do it! To add to the joy, I started to show sign of altitude sickness; three steps up, stop and vomit, then plod on again.
Tsokha was a joy to reach. There is a tiny community of Tibetan refugees, granted the land by the Indian government, and a trekker's hut as you come up over the rise. Sitting on the verandah, I could recover looking back down the valley in the direction of Yuksam, and our first glimpse of the snow-clad mountains revealed itself from the back of the buildings. Around the hamlet were rhododendrons and magnolia trees, and the hillside was so enchanting that within a couple of hours of arriving, exhausted, sick, and beyond help, I was off and up the hill again, just walking in the forest for the sheer enjoyment of it; I love the quiet and solitude such trees give - this is a forest out of Tolkein, with gnarled, twisted ancient trees and the path forming a tunnel below. That night we managed to get some chang (millet beer) from the local people, served in bamboo pots, and slurped up through slim bamboo straws. You refresh the beer by pouring hot water into the millet - it filters down through the grain, getting a yeasty flavour on the way, but little, if any, alcoholic content.
Our destination was Dzongri (4030M), only 10km away, but another steep climb. This would have to be some of the most beautiful forest in the world - massed flowering rhododendrons and magnolias, amid fir and spruce trees, with orchids in the trees, deep mosses and lichens, and thick, thick ferns on the forest floor. The crew went first, and stopped at Phithang (about the only flat spot along the way) to cook and serve lunch. They did a fantastic job, cooking on open fires, producing a full 7-course meal. As we climbed higher the cold set in, and it was snowing by the time we arrived at the hut in Dzongri. There is no village this high up the mountains - it is a yak high pasture, with one hut for the yak herder, and the trekker's hut nestles by a stream in a valley. The best view of Kanchenjunga is from a hill to the north-east, another 1000' climb. We had a bit of a walk around the valley after arriving, but the cold and dark sent us indoors. If anything, it was colder inside! We ate our usual great meal early, and all four of us retired to our sleeping bags to shiver the night away.
Early next morning we were up to climb the hill, hoping to see the mountains at sunrise. The climb took a surprising time, lungs gasping in the thin air, but it was well worth it; Kanchenjunga seemed to be only a valley away, looming over us with its five peaks turning pink and gold in the early morning light. This is what these trip are all about - a sense of awe that is almost religious when you stand near the top of the world and look out on it spread in front of you.
We were spending another night in Dzongri, and decided to walk out to a high, sacred lake, off the route to the base camp. Harm was feeling a bit down and exhausted that day, and simply couldn't believe it when our route led immediately up the nearest steep hill! The lake was still and beautiful, with patches of unmelted snow still on the ground, but we were unprepared for the chill wind that sprang up. Dorjee was putting up prayer flags and lit a small devotive fire, but we irreligious, freezing westerners voted with our feet and headed back to the hut, taking the policeman as guide and companion, leaving our great leader to his prayers alone. We weren't insensitive or disinterested we were just so cold we couldn't do anything else!
That afternoon the snow set in solidly, and the we were unbelievably cold. We huddled in our sleeping bags shivering, and philosophically reduced the necessary world to four things - warmth, food, shelter, and somewhere to go to the loo. You do get very basic under these types of conditions. Even the evening meal didn't warm us up, and we all spent a frozen night, looking forward to the morning.
The snow was still falling when we got up, and lay heavy on the ground - enough to build snowmen when it eased off. To Geoff and I from West Aust, where it never really snows, the sight was overwhelming, and we made many forays out and up onto the ridge, enjoying the novelty. The sky lightened, but Dorjee was reluctant to set off down the mountain. We were not looking forward to another frozen night, and after much debate again voted with our feet and said that we would descend to Tsokha. In the event we were right. Although we left in light snow, it eased off rapidly, and before we were half way to Tsokha I was once again walking in a t-shirt, rather than in the multi-layered clothes I wore at Dzongri. The walk down was wonderful, with snow laying on the stunted rhododendrons that grow at these altitudes, softening the forest still further.
From Tsokha we were to walk to Yuksam, not stopping at Bakkhim. Geoff and I were out in front as we headed down the hill, but we could hear Anke and Harm not far behind us. This wasn't unusual - we tended to walk in changing pairs or groups, different people taking the lead as suited them, and normally without sight of the trekking company people at all; the policeman usually walked somewhere near us, but not always. After a short time, we sat and waited for Anke and Harm to catch us up, but no-one appeared. After ten minutes we began to worry, then Geoff climbed back up the hill to investigate. eventually I joined him, and we walked back to Tsokha, now deserted by all the crew. About this stage we concluded that we had taken the wrong route in the first place, and headed down again, this time seeing a side track just as the main track took a bend. When we had first walked down here we had passed people on horse-back at this corner, and hadn't even seen the track going off. We headed off down this new route, looking for signs that we were on the correct path. Harm's boots had a distinctive sole pattern, but we couldn't see it in the mud. We sped down the trail, but never saw soul, The climb that had taken 3 hours on the way up reduced to about 20 minutes to get down, and we arrive at Bakkhim, expecting to see the group - there was no-one and no evidence that they had passed though. There was no alternative but to press on, down the steep drop to the river, where we left a pile of rocks with a note, in case we were wrong, and the rest of the party were behind us.
Just after the bridge we finally saw the boot print we were looking for, and knew that all we had to do was walk into Yuksam. After another 30 minutes we caught up to the policeman and Dorjee's assistant sitting, waiting for us - they had finally worked out that we must be behind them, although we had set out first. Apparently Anke and Harm had set off at full speed thinking that we were ahead, and everyone had hurtled down the hill to keep up! We weren't sure why, since the four of us had always walked 'together' up until then, and we would never have raced off and away from them. We all slowed down and had a leisurely walk into the town, finding Anke and Harm long since settled back at the trekker's hut, amazed to see us arriving so late.
We spent the night at Yuksam, throwing a party for the 'boys', who really did a great job. We went off to bed exhausted at 10pm, but the party carried on half-way through the night in the room below us. The last day was spent getting back to Gantok, but we called into Tashiding monastery, one of the most sacred in Sikkim, and the most impressive for us. We were able to visit the classrooms, where small boys chanted from Tibetan texts, and the workrooms where restoration work was being carried out on statues and temple fittings. We stopped for lunch at Namchi, a small village, where a request for the loo had me led by the hand down the slimy dark depths of the building to piss in a gutter while the lady chatted away companionably. A final stopoff gave us time to wander around Saramsa gardens, then it was back to Gantok for a final meal together.
Geoff and I stayed one extra day, calling in to say goodbye to Dorjee, then caught the early morning bus back to Darjeeling.
Part 3 - Trekking in Darjeeling
We arrived back in Darjeeling, booked in at the Shamrock, and started to immediately plan the trek to Sandakphu, and book out train trip back to Calcutta, since you must always get your reservations done early in India. A quick run through the days we had left showed we could have 6 days trekking, a couple of days in Darjeeling to recover, then it would be time to leave. With the train tickets booked, we bought tickets for the bus to Maneybhanjyang the next morning, and packed up our gear for trekking, leaving a box of heavy unwanted gear at the hotel.
Maneybhanjyang (2134m) nestles at the foot of a hill that goes on and on, so after one-and-a-half hours we were still above the town, looking down from an increasing height. Eventually the path took off at an angle, and we climbed up to Meghma (2900m), where we stopped for a cup of tea that turned into lunch, since we got talking to an Israeli boy who was doing the same trek and to the owner of the lodge. The weather closed in while we were talking, but the Israeli decided to press on to Jubari. By the time Geoff and I had finished eating it was hailing outside, working itself up to a tremendous electrical storm, with huge hail stones, and a blast of lightning that almost blew the front door in. We decided to stay.
Meghma is on the Indian/Nepalese border, so technically we spent the night in Nepal. The lodge has a private monastery attached; the lady's husband had died only 3 months before, and one of the sons was now taking on the responsibility of looking after the buildings. They were making butter candles for the temple, and when we showed interest we were shown over the monastery and chorten - it was astounding. The downstairs section of the main building had a huge prayer wheel, from floor to ceiling, but the real treasure was upstairs, where they had the only collection of Bhutanese Buddhist statues (108 of them) outside of Bhutan. They also had a large collection of manuscripts, smuggled out of Tibet. We felt very privileged to be shown over the monastery - the son told us that they rarely mention it to trekkers; it was only our obvious interest in Buddhism that decided in our favour.
Ice still lay on the ground in the morning, 16 hours after the storm, but we set out along the Nepalese side of the border to Jubari, stopping for tea, then walked on, planning to stop in Garibas. For almost of the walk the clouds had closed in, enveloping us in thick mist that only momentarily swirled away to give tantalizing glimpses of the hills, valley, and lush forests around us. We arrived at Garibas quite early, and not finding anyone at the trekker's hut decided to press on, heading for Kalpokhari. The mist, if anything, got even thicker, and just as rain began to fall we spotted the welcome sign of an approaching village, and walked along side the chorten that marks the start of Kalpokhari (3108m).
We stopped at the first building, which turned out to be both lodge and monastery, and we were welcomed in and given beds in a corridor just off the main temple. We had arrived on the last day of a special three-day puja, and the tiny village was crowded, with most of the crowd in our corridor, sitting on the ends of the bed, and generally making us central to the entertainment. Shortly after we settled in, the Israeli boy turned up, wet, cold and disgruntled. He had been caught in the hail storm on the first day and wasn't really enjoying his trek. His main interest was in architecture (European), he had Buddhism and Hinduism totally confused (perhaps not his fault - people in Nepal do tend to adapt!) and thought everything was very primitive, superstition-bound, and couldn't see any merit anywhere. We had a bit of trouble being sympathetic; this was a lovely place to trek, the people were interesting and friendly, and we had the good fortune be in the village during a festival.
Geoff and I asked if we could join the puja in the temple. Our request was met with a courteous 'Of course', and were given a place near the man organizing the ceremony. Although atheists, we are very interested in religious practices and happily joined in, guided by the organizer when the ceremony require that all participants take holy water, or perform some action.
The next day started out bleak, with the entire world wrapped in swirling clouds, and visibility down to a few metres. Undaunted, we decided to go early, hoping to avoid the afternoon rain we were predicting. It was only 8km to Sandakphu, but the last part would be up a very steep path, slowing us down greatly, so we figured on taking about three hours. The first hour or so was fine, but then it started to rain, lightly at first, but getting rapidly heavier. We were near some huts, so looked around to find shelter. The hamlet was muslim, and the women we met were reluctant to take us in, but eventually one girl invited us inside, and we huddled together in the low-roofed room, ignored by the owners, who seemed more hostile than friendly. As soon as the rain slackened off a little, we decided to head on, since our presence seemed to make the village people uncomfortable.
Just as we started up the steep part of the track the rain came down stronger, and, as we climbed slowly up, the rain turned to sleet, then hail, and, finally, snow. It took us three hours to climb up the hill, hampered by the force of the storm, our frozen extremities, and my increasing altitude sickness. Geoff found his hands freezing, whereas mine glowed rosy red, so we would stop to let me try to warm him up; my feet and legs were beyond feeling at all, and I just trudged up slower and slower, stopping to be ill every now and again. Had I been alone I could have just curled up and died.
When we finally reached the trekker's hut at Sandakphu (3636m) we were welcomed in by the chowkider, who hastened to take Geoff's pack off for him (Geoff couldn't move his fingers to work the buckle), and provided us with a charcoal fire in the dormitory, where we could thaw ourselves out and attempt to get some of our sodden clothes and shoes dry. It took about an hour for us to get sorted out, and, as the storm cleared away, people from the nearby village wandered over to meet us, joke about our predicament, share our biscuits, and just enjoy each other's company. We were a large group at lunch, and, despite the language barrier, we managed to exchange information about where we were from, what we did, and life in general. We exchanged photos, addresses, and had a great afternoon. Towards dusk the local people left the treekker's hut, just as the Israeli boy arrived. He had waited out the storm and walked up in the relative calm of the afternoon.
We spent the evening huddled around the kitchen fire with the chowkider and his off-sider, while they cooked our meal and we stayed there to eat, since it was much too cold to move to any of the other rooms in the spacious hut. The local people were full of information about the area, and we only reluctantly went off to our cold dormitory as they packed up to go home for the night.
The morning dawned cold and clear, with Kanchenjunga visible from our bedroom window. We had a quick breakfast, and set out, leaving the Israeli boy in bed, beset by stomach problems and weighed down by misery. As we climbed up to the path above the village we agreed that THIS is what trekking is all about. The problems of yesterday's storm disappeared as the mountain views spread out all around us, and we enjoyed the best day's walk of the entire trek. Off to the west we could see the Himalayan range stretching off into Nepal, with Everest and Lhotse quite visible; ahead of us was Kanchenjunga, its five peaks gleaming in the sun; and all along the way were more immediate visual pleasures - rhododendrons, their petals strewn across our path in carpets of red and pink; streams rushing and tumbling down the hillsides; lush valleys, with soaks and streams reflecting silver in the sunlight, layed out below us in ever-changing patterns as we walked along the ridge.
Ironically, in the midst of all this, we experienced one of the few times we have ever been really scared. As we rounded a curve and stopped to look back at the view below us we heard a dog bark ahead - nothing unusual about that, but as we walked on the barking increased and turned to growls, and we came across two large tibetan hounds. We just kept on walking, and did actually get past the dogs. Normally, that would be that - just a couple of savage dogs - but this pair started to work together to attack us, and for the next five minutes we weren't sure that it wouldn't end with us in shreds. Eventually they withdrew, but I have never been so scared of a dog in my life - it was obvious that if they decided to really go for us we would come off second-best, and in this desolate place there was nowhere to go for help if we were mauled.
We were headed for Phalut, but as the clouds rolled in and obscured the view we were glad to see a rough sign to Molley, 2km down an alternative track, so we decided not to risk a repeat of yesterday's disaster and headed down. Molley has a great trekker's hut, amongst lovely forest which we explored between showers. Here we found cobra lilies, which we had only previously found in Sikkim. The path through Molley is used by local people bringing their livestock down to sell at Rimbik, and we sat and watched as two flocks of goats came down from the hills and narrowly avoided complete integration as they arrived at the trekker's hut simultaneously.
The morning mists were thick as we set out, unsure of where we would spend the night. The Hotel Sherpa in Ramman had been recommended by trekkers writing in the Youth Hostel book, so we decided to go there first. The path to Ramman from Molley isn't as distinct as other paths in the area, but someone has marked infrequent arrows on the trees and rocks, and we peered through the mist searching for pointers. We met a couple of people along the way, and were re-assured that we were on the right path. As we descended the hill the mist thinned, and we emerged to a blue sky. The walk down wasn't as pretty as trails further up the mountains, but we enjoyed the change from constant climbing, and, despite losing the path for a while, arrived in Ramman quite early in the day. We called into the Hotel Sherpa, decided not to stay, but ended up eating a meal there, more as a result of confusion than by design. We were told that there was a trekker's hut at Siri Khola, on the Siri Khola river, and decided to go there.
The path wound gently along the edge of the hills, offering very easy walking. The verges were covered in wild strawberries, tasteless if they were small, but the large berries carried enough taste to be worth gathering, and we stopped to enjoy the fruit whenever we came across large patches of them. We knew that eventually we would need to take a side track, to plunge down into the river valley, but no such track was marked on our map. We asked a group of giggling girls who came rushing past us from behind, and they indicated that the path down was still ahead of us, so we strolled on.
Eventually, as we were beginning to worry about missing the path, we saw an arrow scratched into the earth at the top of a very narrow track going off to the valley, and concluded that the girls had left it for us. Thankfully, we negotiated the knee-wobbling descent, and found ourselves on the bank of the river. A short distance up-stream we found the trekker's hut, still under construction, and a long way from being habitable. We were tired and dirty, and really didn't want to walk into Rimbik. At first the workmen were just dismissive of us, but eventually they told us that the house just across the creek took in trekkers, and we wandered up to be made welcome at the nicest little farm house, with neat guest bedroom, hot drinks and food available, a shower - everything a trekker could desire. Chickens wandered around the yard, and there were two pigs in the sty, blissfully finishing off the remains of last night's chang.
We had enough daylight left to explore, crossing the river at the bridge, finding paths up the far bank, and crossing back on the top of the dam wall, since the river had a small dam just below the farmhouse. As we sat on the dam with our feet in the freezing water a movement caught my eye; a water rat was swimming back and forth at the base of a submerged boulder. All around us the hillsides rose, some still timbered, but others criss-crossed with the myriad terraces that provide a living for the people from this region. It was a peaceful end to our trek.
The next day saw us with a short, easy walk into Rimbik. The bus back to Darjeeling was due a 1pm, so we left our packs at the beautiful hotel near the centre of town, and explored for a couple of hours, returning to the hotel to have lunch and admire the garden, full of orchids and bright flowers, lovingly tended by the elderly owner.
Our few days back in Darjeeling were taken up with last strolls around the town, and we managed to take the toy train down to Ghoom and back, just for the pleasure of riding on the tiny steam train. All too soon it was time to head back down to the hot plains, so we caught the bus back to New Jalpaiguri and the train to Calcutta.
Part 4 - Orissa - Perth
Leaving New Jalpaiguri late at night, we arrived in Calcutta in the morning, and went immediately to the booking office, eager to go straight to Orissa and avoid staying in Calcutta, even overnight. The best we could do was a 2AC berth to Puri, leaving late that night, so we decided to go with it, bought the tickets, and thought about what to do for the afternoon. At that time of year Calcutta is hot and tiring under the best conditions; with packs on our backs we were loath to see more of a city that had not made a good impression last time, so we opted to go to Howrah Railway station early and wait there. This is not as boring as it may sound. Life at the railway station is fantastic, with people coming and going, living out their lives in the foyer (or so it appears, from the semi-permanent camps set up by many families), and there is always someone to talk to or something to look at. After dinner we took advantage of the 1st class waiting room to have showers, get changed, and prepare for our journey.
As the time approached to leave, we haunted the announcement boards, looking for our reservations to be posted, but nothing happened - our train didn't appear on the lists. Trains came and went, as did our departure time, with no announcements. Finally one of our fellow-travellers told us that there had been a derailment and that our train would be some time yet. We finally pulled out of Howrah at 1am, and fell into bed and asleep immediately.
Morning found us a long way from our destination, slowly chugging through the flat lands of Orissa. The countryside was green and lush, and all along the way we could see temples in even the smallest villages. We crossed the wide Mahanadi River, and worked out that this was Cuttack. It seemed to take a long time to reach Bhubaneshwar, and then an eternity to get to Puri, such a short distance away; the train was slow, and stopped frequently.
We finally reached Puri, where Geoff and I decided to walk from the station to the beach, much to the dismay of a rickshaw cyclist, who insisted on accompanying us, his price for the trip dropping lower and lower as we got closer to the beach! We stayed in the Z Hotel, in a huge corner room with canopied bed, mosquito net (much appreciated) and reasonable food. Best of all was the view from the roof, taking in the wide beach, temples along the way, and the fishing village to the north.
The beach isn't a great place to swim, being used as a huge open-air toilet, but the fishing village is an interesting place to visit, especially when they are bringing in the boats. These are just some roughly-hacked tree trunks, bound together into crude boats, then unlashed and left on the beach in pieces to dry when they aren't being used. The fishermen bring in a wide variety of fish, from tiny to large, including rays and sharks. Shark fins are cut off immediately, on the beach, since they are prized exports to China.
Puri is home to the Jagganath Temple, closed to non-Hindus. We walked around the perimeter, then sought out the library, to gain a view into the temple compound. The library staff are well practiced at extorting large donations out of curious travellers, presenting you with a book recording other donations, some of staggering amounts. We paid our more modest but still rather exorbitant amount and were led up to the tower. In truth, the view into the temple was less than exciting, although the tower does offer a great view over the wide main street leading from the temple to the beach, and it was almost worth it to gaze out over the town from such a good vantage point.
One of our days in Puri was spent going out to Konark (Konarak), to the Temple of the Sun. This temple was only uncovered this century, although it dates from the 13thC, and its state of decay and status as a national monument make it open to all visitors. It is a really wonderful temple, covered with high-relief carvings in a style similar to those at the famous temples of Khajuraho.
We spent a lot of our time in Puri just wandering around the town, looking at the small, local temples, visiting the wood-carving centre and stone-carvers. On or last day we walked the length of the beach, when I saw a piece of palm-leaf book in the sand - palm-leaf that had Sanskrit text scratched into it, then dye used to highlight the writing; there was a hole in the middle, where string would have been threaded to keep the book intact. As we walked along, more and more of these leaves were to be seen, so we collected them up, and ended up with a substantial number of pages from an old text. We took them back to the hotel, cleaned them up, and kept them as an unusual souvenir of our trip, assuming they were washed in from a ship. Later we saw a book of this type in Bhubaneshwar, selling for some hundreds of dollars.
We caught the early bus to Bhubaneshwar, renowned for its temples. We had time in the afternoon to look at some of the closer temples, but the heat was oppressive, and we left it until the next morning to explore the extent of the buildings around the town. The temples are impressive, with extensive carving, and many are set in gardens. I was led off to the depth of one dark temple by the priest, intent on extorting donations, and given a lecture on how I would have lots of babies and be very happy. I paid up, not bothering to tell him about my tied tubes! When we were exhausted from the heat and suffering temple-overload, we headed back to our air-conditioned room to recover, emerging to explore more of the town in the evening. Bhubaneshwar has a lovely park just up from the railway station, an excellent place to sit on the lawn as the shadows grow long, and observe the flow of life around you.
We spent a day out at the Khandagiri and Udayagiri caves. They are quite a way out of town, requiring a bus ride and then a walk, but we found them even more interesting than the temples back in town. Udayagiri has some impressive caves carved into the hard rock on the face of the hill, but the most interesting things are the granite boulders, hollowed out as dwelling or storage spaces, with doors and windows opening out onto the world. Even small boulders were carved into rooms, just big enough for me to crawl into, and one tall rock was two-storied, with entrances on opposing sides for the top and bottom rooms. Right at the top of the hill we came across a curious set of trees, where stones tied in red cloth were attached to the tree branches. We were unable to find anyone who could tell what this was, or why it was done. Khandagiri is reached by climbing steep steps, with long-tailed monkeys scampering up and down, or sitting along the edges of the masonry. The caves were not as interesting as Udayagiri, but we climbed to the top of the hill for the view back to Bhubaneshwar.
Having a couple of days left before we were due to fly out of Calcutta, and being reluctant to return too early to that city, we decided to go to Chilka Lake for a couple of nights. We caught the bus down south, but part of the way to the lake a fight broke out between the bus driver and some of the passengers, and the bus staff seemed to go on strike. Mind you - that was our interpretation, since no-one spoke English, and we lacked any local languages. Eventually, all the passengers left the bus, gesturing for us to do so as well, and we clambered out, reclaimed our luggage, and tried to work out where we were and what to do about it. We were just deciding whether or not to walk, when a shout went up; another bus pulled in, and everyone jostled aboard. Somehow or other we all fitted in, crushed together in the aisle.
We decided to get off at the first town on the lake - Barkul - and had the people next to us point it out. In the event, we were set down some distance from the Government Tourist Bungalow, but helpful people gestured us in the right direction, and we walked into the tourist compound, much to the surprise of the staff, used to much more affluent visitors arriving by car. We booked in, and set out to explore the area, but found it very disappointing. At that time of year (June) there were no migratory birds, so the water was desolate. In addition, a massive water sports 'baths' was being constructed just near the Bungalow, with dusty earthworks and noisy machinery. We managed to amuse ourselves for the day or so we were there, but wondered at the well-off Indian families who spend their entire holidays here, with nothing to do, nowhere to go, limited choice of menu for meals, unreliable electricity and voracious mosquitoes. we weren't unhappy when the time came to pack up and return to Bhubaneshwar.
After one last day in Orissa, looking at handicrafts, we caught the train back to Calcutta, arriving the next morning. We booked back into the hotel we had used on arrival from Australia, enjoying the airconditioning to fight off the oppressive heat. We had another full day before we were booked to fly to Bangkok, and spent it shopping, mainly in the extensive Hogg markets, looking for silk saris and material. During the afternoon it poured with rain, and we waded ankle-deep down Sudder Street to find a restaurant for our evening meal.
We left for the airport, quite happy to leave Calcutta behind us. On the plane we scanned the papers, and were horrified to read of the slaughter of democracy movement protestors in Bangkok, just happening. We landed in the early evening, and caught the train in, seeing deserted and barricaded roads, fires burning in the middle of the intersections, and a hushed and unhappy group of commuters. Although it was barely 8pm the streets near the railway station were deserted, and the hotel was shut - curfews were still in place. We rattled urgently, and the hotelkeeper let us in by the side door, provided us with a hurried meal, and we all scurried off to bed.
Although the curfew was lifted the next day, life was subdued, and people watched the TV, read the papers, and listened to the radio, all anxious for news of what was to happen as a result of the demonstration and deaths. Everyone we spoke to was horrified, although I had a little deja vu, having been in Bangkok in the 70's, when students were hung in front of the University for some of the same reasons that they were shot this time.
We caught the early train out to the airport, happy to be heading back to democratic Australia. However, that was not to be. Although no flights were affected as a result of the uprising, our flight was cancelled; the democratic baggage handlers in Perth had decided to withhold their labour, and no flights were going into or out of Perth for an indefinite period! People were rushing here and there, trying to switch to other flights, and a number of the passengers managed to get through to Melbourne or Sydney. We were on cut-price tickets, and had to take whatever was offering; Thai Airlines booked us onto a flight three days away, and we headed back to the city.
We decided to move upmarket to a better hotel with air-conditioning, and found a reasonable place near the main shopping area. We could spend one day shopping, but aren't really excited by endless Pierre Cardin and Guy Larouche outlets, and didn't really want to go uptown to the area where people had been shot - it seemed a bit goulish. We compromised, and went to sleazy Pattaya, where people shop for flesh and probably should be shot!
Our next trip out to Don Muang proved successful; the baggage handler strike was over, and six hours later we were home.
We were very happy trekking in India. Although the treks were quite different, both were fantastic in their own ways, despite the odd hardship encountered. After you have returned home you always forget the worst bits, but the good parts live on for ever.
Before this trip we would have said that there was nowhere in India that was not worth visiting. I'm forced to admit that Calcutta was not enjoyable, and I would not urge people to visit it, especially in the pre-monsoonal months. We also admitted to boredom in Orissa, something that has not happened on such a large scale before. Partly that was due to the need to stay fairly close to Calcutta, having to make it back in time for our scheduled departure; under different circumstances we would simply have left Orissa earlier, as soon as we had exhausted the attractions that appealed to us.
I would still encourage anyone with the slightest interest in India to go there almost everywhere is worth visiting!!!