Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Days 16-19
The next few days were spent relaxing in Darjeeling and were uneventful on the whole. I have grown quite fond of Darjeeling away from the honking and polluting jeeps that invade the lower streets. I enjoy reading a book and drinking chai in the square and, like the locals, just doing nothing except enjoying life. I have found myself to be a little envious of the man I buy chai from. He spends his day chatting to friends and customers, doing little other than having a huge pot of chai on the brew all day, thus making a living. I no longer see having money as being rich, far better to be rich in time, I wonder how I can find a balance between the two? It was planned that Kerry and I would take a jeep to Sikkim on Thursday morning, but Kerry was very ill during the night with sickness and shits, so I left her in bed and visited a little monastery. I was befriended by a local Indian man and he gave a history lesson on Bhuddism. His English vocabulary was incredible but his thick Indian accent meant I understood little, which was a real shame. However, he did have a key for the monastery and so I was able to spend some time inside meditating, whilst he continued to walk clockwise around the building, to 'clear his mind' and 'gain merit'. Later that same day, from my hotel balcony, I could hear chanting from the streets below. I grabbed my camera and went in search of the story... Marching from the streets below to the main square, were children in protest or in support of the demand for Ghorkaland, an independent state for the Ghorka people of the Darjeeling area, which is currently governed by the state of Bengal. Next came the women and then the men, I can tell you the women made the most noise! They gathered peacefully in the square and sat to listen to some speakers. The reason for the gathering were talks being held in Delhi between Ghorka leaders, Bengali representatives and the central government. In the square, I was again befriended by an Indian and I learned a little more. So in the space of a few hours I was briefed in the history of Bhuddism and regional politics by Indians in English, I just needed a chat about cricket to cover all things dear to Indians.
With Kerry feeling better, we made the journey to the Sikkimese capital Gangtok, which appeared cleaner and wealthier than Darjeeling but lacked character. Rather than joining an expensive tour to north Sikkim, we decided to head to Pelling and trek to the surrounding villages, going as far north as our permit would allow. This was an inspired decision and lead us to meeting a great group of people including Michael, an Aussie biker, fellow Liverpool fan and a top bloke. One night by candle light and eating yak cheese mono's ( a Tibetan mini pasty ) we hit the honeybee brandy, joined by a couple of other Brits and Canadian lass. We got locked inside the little hut as there is a 8pm curfew here, and drank a beer called 'Hit', it felt more like a 'smack', I checked the label and found it was an 8% beer, there'll be trouble in the morning I thought. Trouble arrived around midnight but only for Kerry, she spent a half hour vomiting into our squat toilet bless her.
Trekking between villages one day, a young man passed us by and said, "Hello Uncle, hello sister", I can tell you Kerry was delighted to be his sister, whilst I wanted to give my nephew a clip round the ear...
Sikkim is a beautiful place,its the perfect tonic to crowded India, the only problem was I hadn't experienced enough of India to want to escape it. So I spent most of my time thinking this is great but its not India, so having used only 7 days of my 15 day permit, I found myself winding, bumping and honking my way back to Darjeeling, then to Siliguri and New Jaipalguri train station and onto a train bound for Varanasi.
After 16 hours on the train, I was surrounded by no less than 30 men wanting to take me to my hotel. I bargained hard and ended up in Satin's tuk-tuk. At full throttle he weaved through the heavy traffic breathing fire all the way, I thought about offering him double the original fare but I was too scared to approach the beast.
Varanasi is one of the worlds oldest cities and sitting on the bank of the Ganges River makes it the equivalent of Mecca to Hindus. Millions come here to bath in the sacred river which is one of the most polluted in the world. Words cannot begin to describe this place, 'a sensory overload' is exactly what this is. Its shocking, disgusting, exciting, intriguing and very overwhelming. Kerry was in tears within an hour and I thought we'd be leaving in the morning. There is a biblical feel to the place, poverty and religion are everywhere, a temple, a whailing mosque, a man with no limbs, a woman having a shit, a dead body, men touching each other, the stench of shit and piss, the sweet smell of chai, men with guns, people drinking the dirtiest water in the world, cows blocking alley ways, people collecting cow dung, endless touts offering boat trips or opium, scary looking sadhus with their face painted white meditating or smoking pot, the place is nuts. I sat down in alleyway with the obligatory glass of chai, in the 5mins it took me to drink it, 3 dead bodies were carried past me. In Varanasi, death is as much a part of daily life as drinking chai. To die here, offers the soul an escape to the cycle of reincarnation, 'go straight to heaven and do not pass go...' Wandering along the ghats, I found myself at the main burning ghat, I was curious to have a look without offending. Several fires were burning and more bodies were being prepared. I was standing just a few feet away from a fire and noticed the legs and feet of a body poking out untouched by the flames. It was a tough thing to see for me and I guess westerners. There appeared to be no mourners only men busy selling and preparing the timber for the next 'lucky soul' taking the shortcut to heaven. I was beginning to feel like my two year journey so far was an apprenticeship for India. I'm not sure if I could handle this place if I'd just stepped off a plane from England.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Singalila Ridge Trek

Day 11-15
It was about time I hit the hills and so an early start and a couple of jeep rides later, I found myself in Maneybajang, where local guide Binod would guide myslef and Kerry through the Songilila NP. The highlight of the trek was of course the Himalayas and the various viewpoints along the way. The route taken weaves its way in and out of India and Nepal and infact our first nights stay was in the Nepalese village of Tumling. The guesthouse in Tumling was a real gem and for just under 500Rs ($10) Kerry and I had a nice double bed and a 3 course meal infront of a roaring fire. Next day, I found out that an eldery villager had passed away the previous day, and that meant the people of nearby villages would come to pay their respect. All that day, people passed by on foot, making their way to Tumling. It was incredible to see and when I arrived in Sandakphu, some 7hours walk from Tumling, our host informed Binod that her husband and son had infact made the journey and would not return until the following day. Life is hard in the mountains but simple, I look at our own society and sadly reflect how little time we have for each other. In New York, when a troubled soul had to pay to go and see a 'shrink', I remember Crocodile Dundee's response, "Hasn't he got any mates?" How true Mick was, so listen, if you need to talk, skype me!

In Sandakphu, the accomodation was very basic, the tight budget meant a dorm bed in a government run trekking hut, but good food and plenty of blankets made for a good stay. The third day of the trek was the most scenic. The route stayed high and followed a ridge leading to the mighty Khangchendzonga, the forests disappeared below and there was a real feel of iscolation that one finds in the mountains. The tea houses that dotted the route the previous days were gone, it was just us, the mountains, the yaks and the wind. The destination was Phalut, the name of a mountain not a village at 3600m. An unwelcoming trekkers hut would be home for the night, it was cold, dirty and there was a dog turd under my bed, reminding me I was still in India. Despite this, the young caretaker managed to knock up a real feast for tea on the open fire and clay oven so typical in these parts. During the night the wind blew and howled, whistling through cracks and seaped into my bed. It banged doors and rattled the rafters but come 5.30am I realised it had also blown the clouds away. Binod and I made the short 15min walk to the summit, marked by Tibetan prayer flags, which contrasting against a pure blue sky are a sight to behold. From here Khangchendzonga was the closest it had been and the horizon was a continuous stretch of white jagged peaks leading to, in the haze of the west, Mount Everest. I wish I could write that I saw Everest, but the truth is, I could only see the base of the mountain, her summit was lost in the haze, another day perhaps. I was standing at a junction of borders, to the east India, west Nepal, and north Sikkim. More importantly I was in the Himalayas, where the people are all the same and have lived the same for centuries, only having borders imposed on them by the likes of us, the imperial British. From Phalut, it was mostly down to the beautiful village in a valley, Ghorkey. Where flowers bloomed and the only sound was the river. I'd have liked to have spent more time here but my final night would be in Ramman, a small village clinging to the mountainside with stunning views of the valley and Sikkim. The Sherpas Lodge was a step up from the two trekkers huts and a nice way finish. Kerry and I even sampled some original Chang or Tsongba, a warm alcoholic beverage made from millet, it was quite unlike anything I've had but is well liked here in the mountains. The final day was a short 3 hours to Rimbick, where our jeep awaited. The 80km five hour journey backto Darjeeling was an experience in itself. At one point, we had 16 in the jeep and 3 on the roof. When the hail came and carpeted the road, we had 2 near collisions and once nearly took a short cut down the mountain.In Darjeeling, it was straight to Hasty Tasty where I ate a south Indian Thali, a kind of tapas of curries. The only thing missing was a cold beer, replaced by a pot of tea, what else.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Days 7 - 10 in India

With the exception of early on day7, Darjeeling has been engulfed in cloud, so no mountains. The last few days have been uneventful, I have just been hanging out drinking chai and eating lots of curry and street food. I very nearly joined a 7 day trek to the base of Khangchendzonga, but it was too soon and too expensive and as it happens Kerry has been ill, so it was a good call. Today, Thursday, Kerry and I should have left to go trekking, but as Kerry is not 100%, we'll go tomorrow. Darjeeling has really grown on me and you really shouldn't judge a book by its cover. The town is mainly on the west facing slopes but it creeps up and over a ridge and this is where I've been hanging out, listening to the distant sound of the traffic. Looking east the mountain falls away into a deep valley and at night it is like seeing a stary sky below which merges with the sky above, its a surreal sight.
Connection or coincidence?
I was sitting in bar here in Darjeeling, drinking coffee by the way and I saw something strange. A local poured himself a beer, took a pinch of the frothy head and put it in his pocket, strange hey? I was quite shocked to see this as its not the first time I've seen it. A similar thing takes place in Bolivia, when the person with the biggest head on their beer, takes a pinch and pockets it thus preventing bad luck. I questioned the local but he was too drunk to explain and simply stated it was his style.
Another thing happened too, you'll often hear the local women singing around Darjeeling and I did infact hear them singing a song to the tune of 'Blowing in the wind' by Bob Dylan. Once again this isn't the first time I've heard this sung with a religious connection. The other time was at mass in the highlands of Guatemala, strange but true.

Day 6

At 5am I was sure the room was getting lighter, I got up and creeped outside, I was wrong, it was still pitch black and fog was all around, gutted. At 6am without much hope I checked again, and there they were. The Himalayas and Khangchendzonga the third highest mountain in the world standing at 8598m, it was a sight to behold and I stood mesmorised by it.

I have just realised that my love for the mountains started almost exactly 10years ago. It was March 2000 and I was trekking along the Overland route in Tasmania. A recommended side trip was to climb Mt Ossa, which was the highest point in Tasmania. It was tough and relatively dangerous for a complete novice to the hills like myself. Upon reaching the top I remember being slightly overwhelmed. The 360 views were unforgettable and the feeling of being out there in the wild, days from civilisation must have stirred something inside me. I shared the moment with Jay, a welsh lad I was travelling with and an older Ozzy bloke. He informed us that in all his years as a keen hiker, he'd never been to such a ruggedly beautiful place. We shared a hip flask of whiskey and headed back down. Summer 2003, on top of Mount Snowdon in Wales, a break in the clouds revealed the world below and suddenly I felt the need to climb a big mountain. I was with my mate Ste on Snowdon, and whether or he was feeling the same as me, he came along for the ride. Jan 2004, in wintry conditions, myself, Ste and our guide stood on top of Ben Nevis, kitted out in crampons, ice axes, harness, rope etc this was real mountaineering, I loved it. July 2004, I attempted to climb Mount Blanc(4808m), the biggest in western Europe, with Ste. Altitude sickness and poor weather conditions denied us, but I'd had a taste of mountaineering in the Alps and knew I would return. July 2005, unguided and against the odds, along with Ste and new team memeber Gary, I stood on top of Europe. Jagged peaks all around reached for the sky but none higher than me, I was so exhausted the moment almost passed me by, but reliving that moment again now, I realise it didn't pass me by at all. June 2008, Peruvian Andes. Sunrise, in an area desribed as the greatest mountain range outside of the Himalaya, I reached high and smashed my ice axe into the face. I hauled myself onto the summit plateau and rolled away from the edge. All alone I stood on top of Nevado Pisco (5752m). There was no feeling quite like it and getting there and more importantly getting back down alive is the greatest achievement of my life. So, a decade later I find myself starring at the Himalayas and wonder if fate has lead me here. I know for sure its not my time to climb a big mountain, but there is a chance I could climb a 6000m plus peak. For now, I'm happy to admire from afar but for how long?

Day 5

The overnight journey to New Jaipalguri was an easy one. My sleeper class bunk cost 260Rs(4quid) and was really quite comfy. I shared my compartment with Kerry, a Slovakian girl called Katarina and an Indian family of eight sharing five bunks. From the train station it was a further 3hours by jeep (120Rs) to Darjeeling with our new friend Katarina. On first sight, Darjeeling is a little on the ugly side and not the mountain retreat I had imagined.After a bit of a hike and viewing a couple of shitholes, Kerry and I, both short of breath, found 'The Grace Inn' and dumped our bags. By this time it was early afteroon and Darjeeling was well and truly in the clouds. It was frustrating not being able to see the mountains but it gave me chance to see the town. After the heat of Kolkata, Darjeeling felt freezing, and so drinking chai is what people do here. Up above the ugliness of the main through road is a pedestrianised square, where locals sit on benches, chat and drink chai, it's just perfect.
A short walk from here, past market stalls selling all the essential woolens, an enticing cafe called Hasty Tasty was having a magnetic effect on me. With large glass windows offering sweeping views of the valley and a menu full of the tempting unknown, I had a feeling i would be spending alot of time here. After a great meal and some more chai in the square,it seemed Darjeeling was heading to bed, so I followed suit. If the early bird catches the worm then the early Neil sees the mountains. I set my alarm for 6am, had a final look outside for the mountains, no show, and hit the hay.

Day 4

Having missed out on the flower market yesterday, I made an early start and along the way found a streetside tea and toast man. I was delighted for two reasons, the tea and toast was absolutely delicious and the price was 15p, at this early stage on my Indian adventure I'm quite sure this will turn out to be the cheapest place I've travelled around.
It seems the closer you get to the river in Kolkata, the poorer it is, and the flower market proved to be no exception, but I felt neither threatened or hassled. If India is colourful, then a flower market in India is like like looking inside Austin Powers' wardrobe on acid. The flower market exists purely because of the Hindu faith and the peoples desire to make an offering of flowers when visiting a temple. I think for this reason alone many thousands of Indians are able to eat each day. The flower market itself gets a bit overwhelming and it was a welcome sight to see an escape up onto the H Bridge, said to be the busiest in the world. As far as vehicle traffic goes I'm sure its no busier than any other city bridge, but pedestrians, well thats a different matter. I crossed the bridge going against the flow and from start to finish there were crowds of people crossing and all eyes were on me. On both sides of the river there are ghats, which are steps leading down to the river, where locals bath in the filthy brown water. Like the advert says, India really is incredible and Kolkata is at the heart of what India is about, both good and bad. It has an energy that just picks you up and carries you to somewhere new, a new stage where you can buy a cup of hot fresh chai and watch the show. During the interval follow your nose and discover the tastes of India and beyond. It doesn't matter if you cannot find your way back to your old seat because a new drama is unfolding before your very eyes and sometimes, you are the main character.
The day before I arrived in Kolkata, Monday, was Holi, a Hindu festival involving throwing powder bombs of colour around. Well now on the Saturday after this event, its funny to still see people and dogs still stained by the red dye. Its not just the odd person either, it seems like one in fifty. Another thing I have noticed is the amount of men here in comparison to women. I'd guess for every woman I have seen, I have seen a hundred men. Some of these men walk holding hands or arm in arm, a strange sight to see where homosexuality is both illegal and generally not accepted by society, so why? This I'm not sure of yet but endeavour to find out. Sadly, Kolkata is home to many homeless, an alarming amount. Even sadder to see is the amount of street children and babies that sleep on the streets. In a place where it costs so little to eat it is truely heart breaking to see. On my travels I have seen a huge amount of money being given to the church, wats, mosques, temples etc and cannot help but wonder if this money was given to those in need, then maybe it would go along way to solving this problem. Afterall, surely God would rather help the poor.
I caught a taxi to Sealdah train station, boarded the Darjeeling Mail and said farewell to this amazing city. I felt like a little boy on Xmas eve, tomorrow I would see the Himalayas, the greatest mountain range on the planet.

Day 3

After a fruit, muesli and yoghurt brekkie, I was heading on foot to the BBD neighbourhood, where colonial builings dominate the skyline, including the columns and domed roof of the immaculate white washed GPO and the spire of St Johns Church. I did have a purpose for being here, I was headed to the Houghly River and the flower market below the 'busiest bridge in the world', but first I had to buy a train ticket to Darjeeling. This was my first taste of Indian beaurocracy and the first time in 20 years I saw a BBc computer. I collected my number and sat waiting. Two of the three counters were open but that soon became one even though three operatives were there. Anyway an hour later and I had purchased two of the last three sleeper beds on the Darjeeling Mail leaving tomorrow night. I couldn't walk past the man selling dosa masala, a veg and potatoe mash served in a giant wrap/roti (15Rs) with three dips, I was happy again and washed it down with a sweet yoghurt drink called a 'lassi'. There was no time for the flower market as I had my ticket for take two of the presentation at the planetarium. My guidebook said 'thickly accented english', but for me it was just occasional english which really was a shame because the visual effect was amazing. It was back to Sudder street after that just to relax in familiar surroundings. It had been a very hot day, high 30's and I was really fancying a beer with my curry, but when in Rome etc...