Helen and Randall on the road

A bit about our adventures 2011-2012

Posts Tagged ‘Darjeeling

Thursday 5th – Monday 16th April: Darjeeling and the Singalila Trek

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After 38 degree heat in Delhi we were looking forward to the cool in Darjeeling, however on the 4 hour jeep trip from Bagdogra airport (on the plains) up to Darjeeling at 2100m it became clear that it was a little more chilly than we had bargained for:

Cloud, rain and thunder accompanied us, and didn’t let up after our arrival, although we did manage to get down to the main square to eat some of the great street food on offer; momos, parathas, omelettes, egg and vegetable stuffed pancakes.

The next morning it hailed, rained and thundered so hard that we were trapped in ‘Sonam’s Kitchen’ by a raging torrent running down the street:

Taken from the doorway of Sonam’s, looking up the street towards our hostel.

Hailstones

We spotted paper boats being washed down the street which was quite sweet although probably didn’t help with the major problem of blocked drains that contributed to the localised flash flooding. There was a lightening strike VERY close to us (all those tin roofs!) which may have contributed to the problems we had with electricity, hot water and phone reception over the next two days!

This enterprising small child made a snowman from hailstones.

One of the many dilapidated or derelict old colonial buildings.

To be honest we’d expected Darjeeling to be a bit grander, but although there were a few signs of its past as a colonial hill station it is actually pretty down-at-heel and tatty:

Dogs at Chowrasta, the main square.

After a couple of days of fog, cloud and rain we were actually quite glad to set off on our seven day trek on the Singalila ridge:

We would be walking along the border of India (West Bengal) and Nepal, and at one point almost into Sikkim.

As we knew the trek would be pretty demanding we had booked a porter, so we bought a cheap but rather excellent rucksack to pack our bits and pieces for the week into. The trekking company we had booked with, Trek Mate, picked us up from our hostel where they introduced us to our guide ‘GD’ and took our big bags to their office for safekeeping, and put us into a jeep for the hour’s drive to Manebhanjan, the start of the trek, where we met our porter.

As the trek trail meanders between India and Nepal we had to keep our passports with us, and to sign in at the start of the trek.

After a steep climb up a ‘jeepable’ road (their term!) we stopped for morning tea near the Chitrey gompa. The locals are a mixture of hindus and buddhists and often we saw temples of both flavours next to each other.

Randall on front of Chitrey gompa (buddhist monastery)

At lunchtime we stopped for instant noodles and soup and met a couple of young German hikers.  Their trekking company had planned a 3 day trek for them, with them covering in a single day what we would cover in our second and third days. This sounded pretty ambitious as our third day was a sharp climb up to the first peak, Sandakhphu, at 3600m.

That night we all stayed in the same trekkers hut, the Shikar Lodge, at 2970m (a climb of 850m from our starting point at Manebhanjan).

The path by which we arrived – in the clouds.

The lodge – just on the Nepali side of the border – was run by a huge Nepali woman, and was great:

Well-kept vegetable and flower garden

Our room – basic but clean and cosy.

Slightly alarming frilly pink bedlinen

Inexplicable tile picture of cowboys and indians in the bathroom.

Super hearty breakfast: porridge and Tibetan bread

Cosy common room with open fire

Locally made honey to put on our porridge.

The next morning we actually entered the Singalila National Park:

The following poster lists what tourists are supposed to do when entering the park:

Needless to say we were asked for nothing of the sort.

From Manebhanjan all the way to Sandakhphu peak there was a ‘jeepable’ road that we followed some of the time. While the road provides a vital connection for the people living in the mountain villages, it inevitably means jeep-loads of Indian tourists leaving piles of brightly coloured plastic rubbish in their wake, throwing mineral water bottles out of the back of the jeep as they go, so a bit of a shame from that perspective. GD told us that the guides and porters had been lobbying for the jeep tourism service to be stopped or limited as it obviously affected their business too.

Me and GD

Magnolia tree – we saw these throughout the trek.

Lunch, day 2

 At lunchtime we caught up with Lukas and Theresa, the two Germans. They had started early but slowed down once they had heard that there would be no accommodation available at Sandakhphu that night. Their trekking company had not reserved it, and a number of people there had stayed extra nights as the weather had been bad. As Theresa was feeling unwell this was probably not a bad thing, but not a great reflection on their agency.

Lukas and I at the lunch table.

We were now into the realm of no electricity except for small solar panels, so we wondered about how the locals kept themselves occupied when there were no tourists to run around after. Mainly with knitting and crocheting in this case as it turned out, as every surface and item of cookware was covered in a cosy or doily:

The hostel for this night in Kalapokhri was a bit grim:

Communal toilets and tiny rooms with wooden cots, no fire or heating in the common room, generally a bit miserable.

GD insisted that we tried the local poison ‘raksi’, a fortified wine made with ginger. Brrrrr! He also rather randomly asked everyone’s weight in kgs, and nearly fell off his chair when Randall told his…he then proceeded to tell everyone in earshot. This turned out to be a pattern – everywhere we stopped, GD would have a couple of ginger wines and then tell everyone around him, in three languages, the incredible fact of Randall’s great weight.

That night it poured with rain and hailed – in the morning we awoke to find snow on the mountain top where we were headed:

View of Sandakhphu from Kalapokhri, morning of day 3.

We hung around for a couple of hours waiting to see if the weather would improve as we had a short but steep walk: 3200m down to 3000m then up to the peak at 3600m, all over 7km. At around midday we decided to go for it, in full wet weather gear:

Gaiters and all.

We left the village in relative good weather – this is the view back down to where we had stayed.

The walk was fine – the final 2km were very steep but we stayed dry until the last ten minutes before arriving in Sandakhphu; about half a km away the cloud came down and the snow started!

Our hut in Sandakhphu

Snowman outside our hut!

The whole point of coming to Sandakhphu and walking the ridge is to see the amazing views of the Kanchenjunga range and Everest, so it was a bit of a disappointment to only have cloud and snow. Still, the next day was a 21km walk along the ridge (although actually quite a lot of up and down!) so we hoped for it to clear at some point.

Up above the tree line on the ridge between Sandakhphu and Phalut – pretty wet and cold!

The long and winding road (trail, anyway)

Wet, cold, but happy!

Weaving back into the trees

Once again, we arrived in cloud with no views. The hut stood up to the gale force winds and horizontal hailstones over night with only a few leaks in the ceiling!

The next morning GD knocked on the door to get us to come up to the view point – the clouds had finally lifted, at least partially.

The hut, night 4, Phalut.

Heading up to the viewing point.

GD looking out at the Kanchenjunga range

Randall trying to spot Mt Everest in the distance between the clouds

The sleeping buddha formation in the Kanchenjunga range, sadly mostly obscured by clouds!

Randall and Kanchenjunga (left)

Brrrr – time for breakfast!
Yak yak yak…

Breakfast in the sunshine! What a treat! Randall feeding his toast to the puppy.

The walking on day 5 was beautiful, not only because we finally had sunshine but also because we were walking down – a descent of 1300m – through lush forest.

Arriving in Gorkhey for night 5

Our hut on night 5 was in Gorkhey on the border of West Bengal and Sikkim – over the river at the bottom of the valley was Sikkim.

Empty bottle put in our rucksack at 3600m, squashed at 2300m.

Our hut, looking over the river to SikkimOur hut – the ‘hotel paradise’ 🙂

Inside the hotel owners’ kitchen where we ate. This is the same concrete/clay fire/oven arrangement we had seen everywhere in the previous three days.

The view around Gorkhey

The pretty river running down into the valley

Day 6 walking – Gorkhey to Sirikhola. Stopped in the yard of a primary school to admire the view across the valley.Morning tea break in Raman

Raman buddhist temple

Our guest house in Sirikhola – very civilised.

Fooding and lodging.

Bridge over the river at Sirikhola



Crazy locals ‘fishing’ with bamboo, wire and a generator, trying to electrocute the fish!

Day 7 walking – Shiva temple

There really IS an ice cream van (or shop!) around the next corner!

Arriving in Rimbik in the late morning of day 7, we were fed momos and tea before the 3 hour car journey back to Darjeeling. Phew!

After checking in to hot showers we headed to the Windamere hotel for their high tea.

Non-residents lounge at the Windamere

Drinking our Darjeeling tea

Sandwiches, shortbread, marble cake, flapjacks and scones.

We finally got some sunshine on Sunday:

View from our hotel window

And on Monday we finally got the amazing view over the mountains that is so famous:

Before heading to Keventners for their savage breakfast:

Happy man awaiting his breakfast.

The BIG breakfast.

Between hair and beard Randall was starting to look more than a little scary so he had decided to have a shave and haircut by a local barber in the marketplace:

The chair of doom.

Something for the weekend, Sir?

Randall getting in a lather

Being brave…

That’s a VERY sharp razor!

A very satisfactory result for less than a pound!

Now back down to the plains to catch the overnight train to Varanasi.

Tuesday 31st Jan – Tuesday 7th Feb: Bhutan

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After a very average night at an airport hotel in Delhi, on 31st January we arrived in Darjeeling/Bagdogra by plane from Delhi and had a 6 hour drive to the Bhutanese land border at Phuentsoling. Immigration on the Indian side was interesting; we arrived at the office and signed in with the armed sentry only to enter a deserted office. Eventually after sending said armed sentry to retrieve the immigration officer from his chai across the road we filled in the relevant paperwork and drove another 10 minutes into Bhutan to the very average Wild Orchid (retro Mickey Rourke, anyone?) hotel where our fantastic guide Kemey met us to sort out our Bhutan-side immigration forms.

The next morning we started the long drive on winding roads up to the capital Thimpu at 2300m. Lunch was at a roadside restaurant – possibly our best food of the whole trip as it included my favourite – momos:

Yum!

On arrival at Thimpu we did some minor sightseeing – the Memorial Stupa and a visit to a sanctuary for the national animal the Takin:

and a short visit to the town itself with the beautiful clocktower in the square:

and our first real experience of the traditional architecture:

The traditional architecture is protected by the king and government – all new buildings must conform so even new office buildings, car showrooms etc as well as homes have the beautiful carved and painted woodwork. As well as ensuring that the landscape and cityscapes are not spoilt by inappropriate architecture and development this also ensures that the traditional skills of woodwork, carving, painting etc are maintained, and ensures employment for the artisans trained in these skills. We later learned that vocational education is available for anyone who does not progress to further academic education, and this vocational education includes these skills, so that this one mandate covers a multitude of benefits; employment, cultural preservation and of course maintaining the uniqueness that draws in tourists. Very smart, and part of the now famous Gross National Happiness initiative. We highly recommend looking into the above link on GNH and following the references – it’s the kind af alternate measure of success that the Acampada movements in Spain and the subsequent Occupy movements all over the world have been trying to promote.

Finally we checked into the charming Peaceful Resort for the night:

Cosy heated room

Huge comfy bed

Chilly but lovely view from the balcony!

After breakfast the next morning Randall had a bit of a runaround on our transport for the next few days:

The classic Royal Enfield Bullet.

Rrrrrrrrmmmmmmmmmmm!

Quality model name.

Given that I have always been terrified of motorbikes and don’t even like going on the back of people’s scooters I was a bit nervous – this was definitely a ‘for Randall’ bit of the holiday. However it turned out that I LOVED being on the bike (as a pillion) as the two things that scare me about bikes – speed and traffic – just weren’t issues; there is hardly any traffic and you can’t go above about 25mph on most of the roads because of the conditions, so it was just great!

Amazing moment, cresting the Dorchula Pass at 3100m to be presented with snowcapped mountains and the 108 stupas built there.

The stupas at the top of the Dorchula pass:

From the Dorchula pass it was a couple of hours drive with our support vehicle, the tour mini-bus with driver and guide plus luggage, alternately following and leading, to the fertility temple on the way to Punakha where we had our lunch stop:

After lunch we called in at the Fortress at Punakha where we learned about the traditional structure of these fortresses – half administrative and half religious, to reflect the structure of the country.

Finally, exhausted, we arrived at our stop for the night, the Punatsangchhu cottages where after an early dinner we crashed out (we blame the altitude!).

The next morning it was back on the bike and off to another fortress, this one under construction, which was actually really interesting as we got to see some of the techniques used to build in the traditional style.

Huge posts being carved by artisans

Details of carvings

Woodcarver

Careful carving

Painting the wood.

Carpentry workshops set up for the renovations.

Traditional building without nails, just well put together wooden joints.

Scary bandsaw with a large plank about to be pushed through.

On the way to lunch we had an unscheduled stop because of a rock fall blocking the road. We had to wait for the digger to clear it!

jk

After about 20 minutes we were able to pass (presumably the queue of about 20 vehicles on the other side had been waiting longer) and have lunch before driving on to Gangtey:

Gateway to Gangtey town

where we visited the monastery before heading off on a short nature hike across the Phobjika Valley to see the rare and endangered Black Necked Cranes whose habitat is being preserved in Bhutan to the extent that the electricity supply to the local villages was delayed until the cables could be buried instead of going overhead. Lessons to be learned by certain parties in Mid Wales.

At our hotel that night we were the only guests. We were charmed by the wood burner heater in our room, and even more so by the hot water bottles they provided us with!

The next day was a long bike back to Thimpu in the sunshine:

then a short drive to Paro where we lodged for the next 3 nights at Khangkhu Resort.

The next day was a slow and careful snow and ice laden drive up to the Chelela Pass, the highest motorable road in Bhutan at 3988m:

From here we hiked for 45 mins or so up a ridge amongst windblown prayer-flags for stunning 360 degree views of the valleys to either side.

Jomolhari mountain

On top of the world!

Stream crossing the road – solid ice!

Randall has to check that it really *is* frozen…

After lunch in Paro we called in at a ruined monastery, Drukgyal Dzong:

Before an early night for an early start on the Tiger’s Nest hike:

It’s a LONG way up!

Tea stop half way.

The hike isn’t as scary as it looks although it is tough because of the altitude (up to 3200m). The path winds steeply up the mountainside across from the monastery, then there is a steep staircase down into the gap between the two mountains and up again to the monastery itself.

The path goes down and around the mountainside on the left and then climbs steeply up the mountainside up to the back of the monastery.

Looking across from one mountainside to the other.

Nearly there!

Waterfall dropping onto snow, spraying us with mini snowballs as we crossed the bridge between the two mountainsides.

About to start the ascent to the monastery.

Pleased with self – halfway back down tea break.

After a final fortress visit, we relaxed with cake and wine on the balcony of our hotel room before dinner in town with our fabulous guide Kemey then an early night for our 5.30am start flight to Kolkata. Bye bye Bhutan! We’ll be back!

Rest of photos are here.