Thursday, December 31, 2009

The end of my East India trip

10th October 2009. 6.15 am. We had reached Sealdah. Am at a friend's house waiting to leave for the airport. Have traversed so many kilometres and (not) extremely thrilled that the end has arrived. Will leave you with a set of images that will ensure that one day you as a reader make your way to Sikkim and get a chance to experience its extraordinary beauty.

The one 'where the taxi driver goes wtf'

9th October 2009. A day that started lazily if a 8.00 am start qualifies for that. We had decided to have brekkie at Cafe Live and Loud and then catch up on some last minute shopping at M G Road.

Soulmate poster at Cafe Live and Loud..I missed them again :(

The sun was showing and the sky was blue. We walked arounf so much that I ended up removing my jacket. The warm sun felt good on my nakes arms. Such a pity we didn't experience this kind of weather when we were in North Sikkim.

M G Road

Did some last minute shopping and then found ourselves at Bakers Cafe on M G Marg for lunch. This place is a find. It had a fab view of the mountains and serves continental food. I had a yummy kapi and pasta after 2 weeks. The luxuries of civilisation :)

T's drink :D

We headed back towards the hotel, paid our bills and had a taxi waiting for us. The guy's cab was refusing to go up the incline at Mintokling. He says, 'The first time it happens. What the fuck man!' Hhahahahahahahahahha. It was a similar tone to T's - you gotta hear it to believe it...

Got the taxi to Siliguri for 130 bucks a seat. We bought 3 seats as always and had a super long journey to Siliguri. Am glad we started when we did - at 2.00 pm and got to Siliguri at 6.30 pm. Got another shared auto to NJP station. The train was waiting for us. An uneventful journey to Sealdah. No 'ta-ta-time -pa-pa-pass' kind of guys on the train this time.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The one 'where we hear Tenzing's life story'

8th October 2009. 7.00 am start for Yumthang Valley - no flowers if you please so we go to see an empty valley but the Teesta was flowing away merrily.

But first, the almost visit to the hot springs. T and me found a path and decided to follow it. We asked a local passing by where it led. He said 'Hot springs'. So we followed and entered these magical woods where there were wooden bridges made of tree bark, the path was made of marble and granite and the fall colours all around us. Pretty reds, oranges and yellows.

Wooden bridge with marble path

Fall leaves

We eventually ended up at a swaying footbridge over which I was petrified to walk over but did it saying lets do this in my head like a zillion times. I looked straight ahead and sort of forged ahead.

Gave up on the springs and walked back towards the Valley. The river beckoned and we headed towards it. Stunning mountainous landscape around us.

Heard there were landslides happening across the way and made a quick exit to Lachung. Had lunch at 11.30 almost immediately on our return, had a shower and left.

We heard from Tenzing today that he is a father of a two year old son called Pinchoe. Tenzing is 23 years old!! He bought the Maxx for himself when he was 17, got married when he was 19 and has been driving tourists around for the last 6 years! He is such an enterprising fellow and knows everyone on the road. Told T that Tenzing would definitely own a travel agency of his own in the next five years for sure!

Ended back in Gangtok by 6ish, early dinner again. Tomorrow we do our last bit of shopping and head towards NJP to catch the 'Darjeeling Mail'

PS: We met Pinchoe after we entered Gangtok. Tenzing was sweet enough to introduce us to his lil kid. He of course brought out all my maternal instincts :D

Friday, December 25, 2009

The one where 'I almost lose my life'

7th October 2009. The one where I almost died, where I stood at 17,800 feet, the one where T had his full of adventures, music and conversations, snowfall and rainfall and Army guys! What a crazy day!

3.30 am start. Tenzing, our drive said, 'Madam, char baje nikhlenge'. 4.45 am and no sight of the guy. 5.00 am chap shows up. Says a cheery hi and says, 'Chale?' Looking at his smile I could not even yell at him.

Tenzing our driver in a pensive mood

We left at 5.00 am and stopped at several checkpoints. Destination Gurudongmar - a lake 17,800 feet where a friend said, 'I should forget about shit and show the world the finger!' (which I did btw). We reached Thangu located at 13,500 ft and stopped for namak cha and brekkie - Maggi - the yummiest I have ever had. Namak cha had the aftertaste of butter for some reason.

The place where we stopped was so small - barely 5 ft x 5 ft and all run by ladies. The men were nowhere in sight. 7.15 am, brekkie done we set off for Gurudongmar and it then started snowing by then!! T has never seen snow in his life and he was ecstatic to put it mildly. September - we had been told it never snows and here it was pissing down on us and the cold literally entered our bones. T, ever dramatic, said he could feel it in his bone marrow!! :D

Stopped at the final Army checkpoint before they let us through towards Gurudongmar. The Army guys were very polite - most of them had their snow gear on complete with sunglasses.

Then began the long ice-cold journey to Gurudongmar - took us more than a hour's drive from the Army checkpoint. We had almost got there and the driver informed us that the clutch had stopped working! Luckily another tourist vehicle came along and the driver helped us out. So, you climb a hill covered with snow - there were steps for those of the intrepid nature and you find yourself staring at this pale blue lake surrounded by snow clad hills.

There's a temple there as well as a sign commemorating Gurudongmar's existence. T & me had 'actually' planned to stay at the lake for a full hour! What a laugh! We lasted five minutes to ensure necessary photos and jumped into the car as quick as possible.

The snow fell soft and thick and at one point, we almost skidded off the edge down a twenty foot snow covered ravine. But it was beautiful - the first time I have ever experienced snow in India and considerting it wasn unexpected, totally way out!!

We headed back towards Thangu - stopped again to warm our innards and gulp some hot namak cha which is a local speciality. I smoked a beedi too after a long time :) Then began the long drive back to Lachen - enroute snowfall became rainfall as we descended.

We were almost at Lachen - I remember thinking how desperately I wanted to pee at that point- when we got stuck behind a long convoy of vehicles. We could see an Army jeep stuck ahead. 5-10 minutes passed. An Army truck came along and hauled the jeep. Our driver comes up and we think - finally the hotel till he says, 'Kuch try karna hai!'

We forged ahead without the two of us realising what we were getting into. Next thing I know our solid sturdy Mahendra Maxx is in the path between a waterfull full of rocks and a forty foot ravine at the bottom. There's a whole lot of people around us - all the drivers who are trying to get the car out of the mess we are stuck in and confusion at the same time.

T offers help and steps out. I am sitting inside at this point. I see T walk away from the car and still lost in my own world. The driver Tenzing rushes up to my side, yanks open the door and yells at me, 'Madam abhi chaliye!' I jump out and he drags me by the hand away from the car getting my shoes all mucky. I go wtf! I see people gesturing, 'Come here, get to a safe place'. I am still wtf. I look up and I see a gigantic stone weighing a tonne atleast hurtling down with force towards the car. I'm thinking, 'Shit our stuff is gone!!'.

The stone deflects and ends up about ten feet away from the car at the side of the road.

I see people walking around the car - an Army truck comes and tries to life it off the muck its stuck in. I walk through the muck to the other side and see T shell shocked staring at me. I am bitching about my shoes and jeans and he's looking at me like I am crazy. He says, 'In those three seconds, our four year association flashed in front of my eyes.' That threw me and I actually stopped and thought, 'What if!'

I was three seconds away from dying. I would not have got the chance to say goodbye to my folks, friends - people I loved because some dumb rock decides to come down on me. None of this struck me until much later! T is still mindfucked about it and I went into thinking mode after a while. Life's too fucking short. You gotta grab every moment and live it. Ironically apart from T no one knows about my near death experience because my network ain't working here!

How do I begin to tell people without sounding too dramatic...How do I use this chance that I have been given (because its that - pure luck, fate whatever you wanna call it) ...don't know yet but it makes me more determined to do the things I have always planned for in life and make sure I live each day with joy.

An uneventful journey into Lachung - Yumthang Valley being our next destination - we have had diner and almost sleeping as I pen this down. Tomorrow a 7 am start. Thank God for that. Thank the Lord for giving me these precious moments of life...

The one 'where I drink a peg for 20 bucks'

6th October 2009. A late start today by our standards (10.00 am). We had breakfast in the sylvan surroundings of the garden at Mintokling.

The Mahendra Maxx came to pick us up and off we started on our journey to Gurudongmar and Yumthang - our destinations in North Sikkim.

Its a six hour journey from Gangtok if not more. We passed through absolutely stunning scenery. Mountains- endless, green, shrouded in mist and deep valleys where the Teesta flowed.

Stopped at Seven Sisters Waterfalls and got some photos.

Proceeded towards Lachen after stops here and there - the drive had to submit photocopies of our permits at various checkpoints on the way. It started pissing down at some point and our driver got worried about landslides happneing along the way.

The route to North Sikkim is heavily guarded with army checkpoints galore. At Lachen, we would be 45 kms from the Indo-China border. Apparently you get Tibetan refugees fleeing from China and making their way to Lachen. If genuine, they are sent downwards towards the plains or else sent back which would mean sure imprisonment and torture. All this was told to us a quarter bar cum general store cum wine shop which sold me a peg of 'Imperial Blue' whisky for Rs 20!

Dinner is done and its 8.30 pm. Will be reading some and sleeping. Have to be up at 3.30 am tomorrow to head towards Gurudongmar - a destination I have been dreaming about since I started planning this trip.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The one 'where the inquisitive monk asks life changing questions'

5th October 2009. Mr Bhutia, the man designated to take us around Gangtok showed up around 9.30ish in the morning. 1st stop - the Flower Show which took like 10 minutes.

Post that, a visit to the Handloom Centre which is soo government like its unbelievable! The mist had come into Gangtok by then.

We then took the Ropeway Cable Car wich had supersonic crazy views - you were about 5000 feet high up in the air suspended and after a while the height got to me and I sat down on the floor of the car and watched - suspended mid-air in disbelief :P

We then visited the Chorten Stupa and the monastery nearby.

This place was beautiful. It had well preserved Tibetan Buddhist artifacts like this one below

But it had also one more thing: 'The Inquisitive Monk' - this monk pestered T. He followed him around - asked his weight, height and what T did in Bombay. So T patiently answered and all this why they both turned the prayer wheels around. Let me illustrate my point here -

Then he asks T if I was his wife. T says no. 'Is she your girlfriend?' T says no. 'Would you like her to be your girlfriend?' T was flabbergasted at this point not knowing what to say to the 'agony aunty' monk!

Rumtek Monastery almost a hour's drive from Gangtok followed. Rumtek is sort of above cloud level. It was quite a forbidding place espcially because they had a lot of security at the entrance. The presence of the army at such a religious site was really disturbing. This was taken at the entry to Rumtek. Vehicles are not allowed inside at all so you make the long trek inside and uphill to the monastery.

They had a Golden Stupa here covered with actual turquoise and coral - the stones were as big as bird's egg and probably cost a fortune. There's apparently also some religious turmoil - the presence of two Karmapas adds to the problem and hence the need for such security.

Post Rumtek we went to Banjhakri Waterfalls - very developed. Its a perennial waterfall and the government has developed it into a picnic tourist hotspot. They have put in pagodas and what not jazz to make it exciting for the tourist.

We then proceeded towards Lingdum Monastery. I would recommend it over Rumtek anyday. It's beautiful, quiet and serene. Wonderful artwork and ever so quaint. Some details of the monastery here...

Tashi Point next stop. Completely pointless as it was misty as hell and I have photos to prove it as well.

Ganesh Tok was awesome. It really gave you a sense of perspective on how much mist had spread across the whole town. There's a heavy army presence in this are which is why we also managed to grab a cup of nice adrakwali chai.

Got back to M G Marg and wandered around. Had an awesome Tibetan dish at 'Taste of Tibet, at the corner of MG Road. Called shyaphale, these are fried momos with a mixture of meat and spices.

Dinner finished, we headed towards Cafe Live & Loud where we listened to a local band play. I consumed whisky to go along. Came back to the hotel and packed. North Sikkim starts tomorrow.....something I am damn excited about!

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The one where 'Gangtok steals my heart'

4th October 2009. Its 7.40 pm and tis pissing down in Gangtok. I'm sitting in a cafe called 'Cafe Live & Loud' and even stole a coaster from there. Its up Tibet Road and definitely a good find.

We started this morning at 6.30 am and waited till 7.30 until our share taxi to Gangtok got completely full. Nice ride to Gangtok- we kept passing the Teesta on our way from Darjeeling.

Took us about 4.5 hours from Darjeeling (not helped by an army convoy on the way). Our hotel Mintokling is a palace compared to Birds Eye in Darjeeling. Running hot water makes all the difference in the world. It has a very nice view (not as nice as the Khangchendzonga from Birds Eye) but lovely place and kickass food. Had something called Dhoe - Bamboo shoot with chicken and roti. The dal fry was awesome too...

View from our room balcony

Slept after a fulsome lunch and headed towards M G Road - which is a kickass High Street. Its like something out of a English small town's version of High Street.

We were walking around deliberating which travel agency to choose from for our trip to the north of Sikkim. We finally picked Lama Tours and Travels for our 3 day, 2 nights trip scheduled to Gurudongmar and Yumthang Valley. We are going to be paying about 12k altogether which sounds decent for exclusive transport, food and lodging at Lachen and Lachung. Touch wood this goes well.

Tried to find a place recommended by a friend and gave up. Ended up at Cafe Live and Loud instead and drinking beer called 'Dansbery Blue' - a local brew and waiting for the rain to dissipate.

Beer done am headed back towards the hotel. A full day in and around Gangtok awaits.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A city called Bombay

The Taj, originally uploaded by KittyKaht.

The Taj on 3rd March 2008. My world was right. This was taken at a early morning concert - one of those pre-dawn things for which you get up at a random time, take a train with the fisher folk and get to Gateway. I gave up on the Hindustani classical concert happening at some point of time and went wandering with my camera. It was peaceful and lovely at the hour without the usual cacophony of horns.

The Taj on 26th November 2009 - this night changed how I viewed my city forever. I wrote several posts trying to understand the outrage that had been perpetuated against my city. You can find them under 'Once Was Bombay', 'The Aftermath' and finally 'Retrospection'. I read those posts and realise that the anger and outrage has disappeared under the routine of everyday life. What happened to all those people on Facebook who added themselves to various groups against terrorism? What happened to asking the government to make a difference? What happened to plain ole voting? Are we so indifferent that we think about making the difference only when an anniversary approaches?

Suddenly the newspapers are full of stories. People. Victims. Kasab - that man (I can't be logical about this I am sorry) should be hanged. The Indian government is wasting our hard earned money on someone who has no right to live. I walk into VT for the past week and I imagine him spewing his venom through his machine gun on innocent bystanders. Which God tells you it is right to blow people up and you will win your piece of heaven for this?

I am still angry, I am still hurt. I can't get over the pain I felt. I cried. I ached for my city. The HOW DARE THEY question still makes me want to hurl things in rage. All of it lies suppressed under my routine life. I made it a point to send a sms to the two guys I was drinking with that night it all started. Toto's will forever be etched in my memory because of 26/11 and all its associations. You realise that life is too short!

I didn't lose anyone during the carnage of the four days but it was as personal a loss as any for me - my city bled. Her much touted spirit was in shatters. And the people - we carried life on as before. Tommorrow's newspapers are going to carry stories about how much people cared by lighting candles...yes and we know that is going to change the world. Cynical but true no?

My city will survive long after I am apathy, indifference, pain, anger, hurt - all of it will melt into nothingness. But what will keep is the pleasure of knowing this is my home and no one will ever take that right away from me - to walk down Marine Drive at 1 am with a friend super drunk, to eat the over priced kebabs at Bade Miyan, to think about taking my parents to the Taj for their upcoming 30th wedding anniversary - all of these are affirmations that life in Bombay goes on in its own peculiar way and baaki toh 'sab chalta hi rehta hai' :)

Monday, November 23, 2009

My life sometimes

The one where 'Tiger Hill goes bust and shopping happens'

3rd October 2009. Happy Valley - a visit rudely (at first interrupted by a landslide) but later taken up by Orjun, our taxi driver. Happy Valley is a tea plantation and factory whch exports tea exclusively to Harrods if you please. But I'm getting ahead of myself here....

Tiger Hill was a 'Virar' local at peak time and then some. It was utter madness and we paid some 30-50 bucks for some viewing platform thing which was utterly pointless. After a while, I could not bring myself to care if I saw the sunrise or not. The sea of humanity had taken care of that for me. I didn't feel the need to fight with people and their cameras merely to get a glimpse of this...This was taken at 5.25 am in the morning at Tiger Hill. Clouds completely obscured the view and we didnt see no sunrise!

However I did see this and this more than made up for the early morning madness we had indulged in.

We found Orjun by coincidence. We had planned a visit to Happy Valley, Darjeeling Zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We started at the Zoo and it was very cool to see bears, snow leopards and the like at the Zoo.

But the people behaved atrociously. They whistled, made cootchie coo kind of noises at the animals like they were dogs! I could not understand this kind of behaviour and inflicting this on the poor animals. The cheetah I thought reacted admirably to this!

In the HMI, we checked out the Everest Museum. George Leigh Mallory and his expeditions stood out for us. 'Paths of Glory' by Jeffrey Archer eloquently brings out the story of Mallory's expedition to the Everest to life. It felt momentous to see photos of Gen.Bruce, the equipment they carried on their expeditions amongst other things.

Then off to Happy Valley. We get to hear of the whole process of manufacturing tea and paid 200 bucks(!) for 100 grams of tea. Quite a foolish thing to do I might add but we went with the moment of being at the tea plantation.

Got back and ate pork momos and chicken thukpa at Penang. Small restaurant near the Rink Mall and they were quite delicious. Did some tea shopping at Nathmulls and T did sword shopping at the Mall. Yes yes he bought a 'katana' which he intends to lug back to Mumbai!

Met a talkative shop owner - Nepal Curios Shop on Mall Road who sold T the sword and me some fabulous silver jewellery. Walked back to hotel where I desperately read and finished Ian Rankin's 'Exit Music' - something I had started to read on the 2nd. Packed and got ready for a 6.30 am start to Gangtok.

The one where 'we decide to toss about walking to Ghoom'

2nd October 2009. 6.30 am and we got hold of a Qualis (shared one at that) taking us to Darjeeling. Stopped at Kurseong where I get my first sight of the Himalayas. Sublime experience. They towered over the rest of the mountains - glistening pale. It made me understand why mountaineers do what they do - to conquer that would be an achievement indeed!

Got into Darjeeling at 10 - we were actually stuck in a traffic jam getting into Darjeeling. Reached our hotel - Birds Eye Guest House - which has a fab view of Darjeeling and more importantly the mountains towering above it. Run by a couple of brothers - Uttam and Gautam. Its a lovely place which is reasonably priced and if you ever go to Darjeeling, I would recommend you stay here.

Left almost immediately after freshening up and headed towards Keventers to get some grub. Kevs (as the locals call it) serves the wickedest pork sausages this side of the Himalayas. Brunch finished, we deliberated on how we should visit Ghoom.

Ghoom is the town next to Darjeeling which has interesting monasteries and the like. We tossed a coin and decided to walk to Ghoom. Took us three straight hours but it was kickass fun. We stopped at myriad places and took a whole lot of interesting photos.

Taxi back to Darjeeling and we almost ended up at a beef market because T thought (from a distance) it looked like junk jewellery hung up!!

Glenarys for dinner - well I got interested because I thought I would have a drink but well Gandhiji intervened in my plans... :) Indifferent dinner finished, we trekked back to our hotel. Did I forgot to mention that our hotel is on top of a hill so after eating, the uphill climb was like climbing Everest herself! I exaggerate but you get the point.

Tomorrow morning, we start at 3.30 am to get upto Tiger Hill for a 5 am sunrise. Should be fun..