Conveniently, “namaste” (literally: I bow down before you) is good for both hello AND goodbye, effectively doubling my knowledge of Hindi. Inconveniently, West Bengalis speak Bengali and Sikkimese speak Nepali, so I am back stumbling around in the linguistic wilderness. I am writing from Gangtok, the capital city (pop. 30,000 = Kalgoorlie) of the state of Sikkim, which is in the Indian Himalayas north of West Bengal. Tim has got the flu or a cold, and is resting under the influence of some “flu tablets” a roadside stall lady pulled out of a large bucket of random pill boxes…. I’m sure the foaming and that mouth and uncontrollable spasming is a harmless side-effect.
We found our way into Darjeeling, West Bengal, via a 13 hour train ride from Varanasi to Siliguri, and a 4 hour jeep ride up into the hills. The jeep ride was sensational, if only for the hand-painted roadside safety signs, many of which would have had all 10 of us (yes 10 in a jeep) plummetting to our bloody deaths in hysterics if I had been at the wheel. “Hurry burry spoils the curry”, “If married, divorce speed”, “Safety first, speed next” (Australian road-train drivers would say “Speed first, whiskey next, cheese sausage at Eucla”), “Better late than never dead” (I challenge anyone to explain what that means – it occupied my mind for two hours), and my favourite “Don’t gossip, let him drive”, which assumes that (1) the man is always driving, and (2) the woman is constantly interrupting his Johnny Cash tape with idle gossip…. so true, so true.
Darjeeling is tea country, and a select few of you will be recieving your very own packet of India’s finest tea upon my return – (start sarcastic tone) oooh what excitement that will bring to your lives! (end sarcastic tone) I was tempted to mutter “Sri Lanka”, and specifically Dilmah, whenever an Indian told me that Darjeeling produces the world’s best tea, but I held back in fear of fisticuffs breaking out. Surely Merrill J. Fernando (the founder of Dilmah for the uneducated amongst you) lies not when he says “Dilmah, the finest tea”?
The hills of the tea region are MUCH bigger and steeper than the gently rolling hills I had imagined – think mountain goat country. The weather up here is quite cloudy and drizzly most of the time – a point not-so-subtley reinforced by the owner of our hotel in Darjeeling. He was a small Asian-looking fella (as many are up towards China) with crooked teeth and coke bottle glasses, and he said to Tim and I, while staring off into the clouds, hands behind his back, “You should have come in October (long pause) when the skies are clear and sunny (longer pause) you feel cheated, not only by the people of Darjeeling, but also by nature”. I said (after a long silence) “Well we do now”.
After a few restful days in Darjeeling and another 5 hours in an overcrowded jeep, as always blaring with tinny Indian music and falsetto female vocals (yes Indian music is just as you imagine it – no unfair Western stereotypes there), we got to Gangtok. On the way, Tim and I reviewed our high-school geography knowledge of the “rain shadow effect” – a universal phenomenon whereby the vast majority of rain falls on the leading edge of a mountain range. We therefore declared with considerable surety that Sikkimise skies would be a clear, azure blue. It’s a lie! We still haven’t seen the mystical Khangchendzonga mountain (kang-chen-joonga), which (so the postcards and books tell us) dominates the skyline from almost anywhere in Darjeeling or Sikkim.
There isn’t a heap to do in Gangtok, so we went on a 3 day tour into the Yumthang Valley in far northern Sikkim, close to the Chinese border, staying both nights in a town called Lachung – all the place names, people, and food are more “chinesey” up here. The highest we got was a spectacular river valley at 3,400 m – this elevaton is not immune to the curse of Indian littering (un-bloody-believable), but IS apparently immune to the rain shadow effect. How were we to know that at 3,400 m, we were still on the “leading edge” of the Himalayas?
Lachung was in a valley bounded on both sides by tremendously steep mountains – a whole other level of jaggedness than Darjeeling, which I thought was pretty wild at the time, but is now a mere molehill. We couldn’t see the tops due to cloud, but I got up early the first morning and saw the jagged, snowy peaks of the highest one – woohoo! It was cloudy when Tim got up, but I described it to him and we decided to call the mountain “Old Saw Tooth”. We both saw it on the second morning and as we were leaving I asked our guide what the mountain was called. “It doesn’t have a name because it is below 6,000 m” he said. At first we were deflated because we thought the mountain was so spectacular, but then happy because we had named our first mountain!
The roads through this area are absolute madness – single lane, and rockfalls everywhere! We saw a little truck crushed by a massive boulder – it happened only 2 days ago! I asked the guide how often jeeps roll off the edge and he said “At least 15-20 per year”. You are only inches or seconds from certain death at all times.
Anyway I had better go and check on Tim. At this stage we will PROBABLY still go through Kolkata and the Ganges river mouth, before heading back to Mumbai. I have been wearing my money belt everywhere so it is quite smelly, but I might take it off in the Ganges delta – there won’t be any theives there because “the Phantom is rough with roughnecks*”.
PS. Every Indian keyboard has a dodgy letter – this one is “i”, so excuse any that are missing.
* Old Jungle Saying