I knew I'd be a crap bloggist: I lack the required discipline.
28.03.2010 - 07.04.2010 33 °C
So, 12 weeks in Makaibari have passed, and I've told you virtually nothing about it
A lack of valid opportunities to spend a long time online, combined with my general ach-it-can-wait attitude, have resulted in this being my first entry for about 7 weeks. I'm in Darjeeling town now (for various boring reasons) and I've got some time to kill, so I'll have a bash at writing something interesting about what I've been up to since the stuff I told you about last time. Update after some time writing: this episode will only cover my trip to Sikkim. See facebook for photos - i can't be assed uploading them to this as well
Better quickly have a look at the last episode to see where i left off
Done. So, at the end of the 3rd week, Melanie's time was up, and off she went back to Germany, amid tearful goodbyes (no doubt) from her homestay family. Melanie lives in a small town where they make the best part of the world's best party drink: Jagermeister. Apparently she wasn't aware of this until quite recently. Shocking eh? (Melanie, please correct me if some of the details here are wrong. If it's all totally wrong, just keep that to yourself).
Callously abandoned, I decided there was no point feeling sorry for myself: i had to suck it up and soldier on. In practice, this meant getting drunk with a couple of cool American lasses (see episode 2). Sadly, this was not a long-term solution: i had to go back to Makaibari and finish the Library! My enthusiasm was matched by 5 days of intensive painting, interrupted by occassional trips to Kurseong, for more paint. I listened to my i-Pod A LOT during this period. Here are some of the highlights (shout out to Kim):
Broken Bells: The High Road
Miike Snow: Black and Blue, Silvia (the guy is good, i wish he'd take out that stupid extra i)
The Temper Trap
The Cure: A Forest, Just Like Heaven
Hot Chip: One Life Stand
Smashing Pumpkins: 1979
Florence & the Machine: Rabbit Heart, Dog Days Are Over
Groove Armada: Paper Romance
Calvin Harris: Flashback
A Tribe Called Quest: Can I Kick It?
Outkast: So Fresh, So Clean
At the end of these 5 days, I had painted everything i could, and was waiting for the dudes to finish the plastering. Long-term, I was also thinking about doing the brick on the east wall - the "backside", in local parlance - but access was tricky and people were hinting it couldn't be done, so at this stage the project was only 3-sided.
Off to Sikkim
India is run on similar lines to the US: it's split up into states, each of which has its own government and largely takes care of its own affairs. Each state falls under the overall control of the central government in Delhi. The Darjeeling region (highly controversially, but now isn't the time) is part of the state of West Bengal, the capital of which is Calcutta. And it has a border with the neighbouring state of Sikkim.
The Lonely Planet gives Sikkim a brilliant write-up, but doesn't really say much about what you should actually do there, apart from trekking. I got round this by tagging on to a pre-arranged 4-night guided tour, so i didn't have to think at all about what to do. It happened like this: 2 English ladies from London, Barbara & Claire, had got in touch with Nayan and pre-arranged a guided tour of Sikkim, book-ended with a few nights in Makaibari. Nayan's friend & fellow VIM worker Passang works freelance as a tour guide, so he'd be in charge - it's kind of a side business right now, but they're hoping to make a living at it one day. I'd mentioned i wanted to go to Sikkim, so Nayan & Passang invited me along, on a costs-only basis. tidy.
Bright and early on Saturday April 3rd, I was perched on the edge of the road in the ungodly heat of the umpteenth week of drought. Eventually the jeep arrived, and we set off for Gangtok, capital of Sikkim, via Darjeeling, where we were due to meet up with Barbara & Claire. They'd left the day before on the toy train, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. (I'll let you decide how a train can be a 'Site'.) It's about the only commercial line in the world that still runs steam trains, and despite a shit reputation for reliability (the trains were built in Glasgow) is one of the top things to do in Darjeeling. Actually, this damned train is currently a bit of a sore point for me. I'm leaving Darjeeling tomorrow, and for the 2nd consecutive trip here I've failed to get a ticket - it's a bloody nightmare, don't get me started.
Anyway, the jeep broke down before we even reached Kurseong. After the driver had fiddled with the fuel system for an hour in the ungodly heat, the culprit turned out to be a blown fuse on the starter motor - we'd stalled when a giant truck forced us back down hill on a narrow section. To be fair, the fuel system had form, apparently, so it was a reaonable suspect.
From Darjeeling, the trip to Gangtok was surprisingly uneventful. Due to India's understandable paranoia about its border with China, you need a permit to enter Sikkim. We stopped at the border town of Rangpo to pick these up, and apart from the slightly unsettling experience of watching some little guy disappear with your passport, the whole thing was smooth as. I did nearly mess things up by not having a hard copy of my passport handy; there's a pic on FB of me on the roof of the jeep, where i was rooting around for it.
Shortly after checking into our hotel it became clear that there was no room there for Nayan, Passang and the driver. As luck would have it, i'd been given the biggest room in the place, which had a kind of living room separated by a door from the bedroom. So the three of them laid the sofa cushions on the floor, borrowed some spare blankets and pillows from my wardrobe, and made the best of it! We went for a wander around Gangtok, which i really liked, it's much more chilled out than Darjeeling and the main drag is car and bike-free. In search of momos (a local delicacy similar to Chinese dim-sum dumplings) we tried a couple of places for dinner, before winding up in the Hotel Tibet, which had the best Chinese food i can remember, except for the sketchy places we used to go in Edinburgh. It also had Dansberg Blue, made in Sikkim and probably one of the best lagers in the world. Certainly the best that ends in "sberg".
The sights, from Gangtok
The plan for our first day in Sikkim was to head out east, up into the mountains near China, to see Tsomgo lake. I don't understand why we can't just spell words phonetically when we translate them out of non-latin alphabets, but for some reason Tsomgo is pronounced "Changu". I know... Anyway, you need yet another permit to go to Tsomgo (if you have enough permits, this is proof that you are not a spy). Once that was sorted, we hit the road. And what a road - an incredible feat of engineering that clings to ridiculously steep mountain sides and at all times gives you the impression that it's about to fall thousands of feet into the valley below. And damn rocky. I put a picture on facebook last week - Vickie said she expected to hear a cocky "neep-neep" sound, which gives you a good idea of it. Unless for some reason you didn't watch WB cartoons as a kid. In which case this isn't for you.
The lake itself was truly spectacular, and a bit bizarre. It's about 3800m above sea level, and nothing during my time in India up to then had prepared me for the cold, or the amount of snow (it was a couple of feet deep everywhere), or the yaks. The pictures on facebook are better than anything i could write, and to be honest I didn't really do much there except walk around the lake a bit, take photos of yaks, get wet feet climbing up to a rock, and eat spicy fried rice. Passang and i took a bunch of photos of some paw-prints - looking at the caves in the rocks abve the lake, you could easily convince yourself they belonged to a snow-leopard. But on reflection, it was probably a dog.
That night we had another great dinner in a modern restaurant in Gangtok (memorable for the fact that you could have anything you wanted as long is it was the chicken kind). On heading back to the hotel it was already fairly late at the end of a long day, but hopes of going straight to bed were dashed. This big old guy was sitting on the terrace with a tumbler and a near-empty bottle of Johnnie Walker black label: turned out he was the owner of the hotel, had been drinking since 2pm, and insisted we join him. You absolutely can't refuse hospitality in this country, so of course we said "okay, just one". Another bottle of Black Label appeared, and two-thirds of it later Claire, Barbara & I were engrossed in the history & myths of Sikkim, plans to build a golf resort near the proposed airport, and ancient books from Edwardian times that the British used to keep track of who was king of what in this neck of the Empire. The old guy had very good English, and wasn't afraid to use it - eventually we were freed when the whisky ran out.
The next day we rounded up the sights in & around Gangtok. I'll stick to what was memorable. At the Institute of Tibetology (basically a little museum about Buddhism in general, and in Sikkim in particular) there are signs requesting silence, and forbidding photography. Of course the Indian tourists ignored all this: Indian tourists are unreal. When one of them used a flash powerful enough to host the Champions League final under to take a picture that actually INCLUDED the 'no photography' sign, Passang (a knowledgeable Buddhist) snapped and practically chased two or three of the buggers out of the building. Brilliant. Rumtek monastery was next, which was large. It is the seat of the 17th Karmapa, leader of a certain sect of Tibetan Buddhism. But his identity (ie reincarnation) is disputed: long story short, the Indian government won't let him move in because that might piss off the Chinese. So the kid's just hanging with the Dalai Lama - exile loves company. It was very hot when we were there. There are lots of monks living there and going to school and stuff. We had to get our photo taken with some huge Indian family - apparently it gets them kudos to have pictures taken with white folks. The head of the family was wearing a black double-breasted suit, and a tie. It was like 40 degrees. Indian tourists are unreal.
After Rumtek we had a five-hour jeep journey to Pelling, in West Sikkim. This was rough, including a 20km stretch where the road was made entirely of sharp jaggedy rocks - it's amazing we didn't get a puncture. The whole point of Pelling is the view: the village is built so that every building points at Kanchenjunga, the world's 3rd highest mountain. But I wasn't optimistic: anyone that's seen my photos will be familiar with the ubiquitous haze, caused by dust from the long hot drought. Dawn is the best time to see it, so at 5am on the first morning, up to the roof terrace I went. Nada. Dawn was very pretty, but no mountain. [No luck on my two subsequent trips to Darjeeling either - haze the first time, monsoon cloud this time. As far as I know the damn mountain doesn't exist.]
On our first day in West Sikkim we headed off early to Keochalpri Lake. In another crushing defeat for common sense, this is pronounced "catch-a-perry" lake. Passang said you had to get there early before the Indian tourists ruined it - we were the first jeep in the car park. It's a beautiful spot, very peaceful and surrounded by steep green hills, one of which has a monastery on top that you can climb up to (we didn't though). You can easily see why it's so spiritually important to local Buddhists, but of course all its virtues were lost on the Indian tourists. They turned up in droves about 45mins after we did, and the whole experience became a ridiculous competition to see who could take the largest number of shit photos of carp eating biscuits. I'm sad to say that Barbara and Claire joned in: I suffered a slight sense-of-humour failure, and would've been happy to leave 20mins before we did. I had to laugh with this one Indian teenager though, who was reluctant to get her feet muddy in the fish-watching contest, and told her brother in perfect Indian-accented English: "Are you kidding me? This is stupid - those things are disgusting!" I told her she was damn right.
On the way back from the lake we stopped off at a waterfall, called Kanchenjunga Falls despite the considerable distance from the alleged mountain of the same name. I love waterfalls, and this was a belter; i paddled for ages and forgot all about the fish photo contest. I was gutted I didn't have swimming kit with me, it was crazy hot and the water was cold and perfectly clear. Eventually they dragged me away, and we headed off to Yuksom. Here we sampled the delights of the famous Wrecked Jeep, star attraction on the Lonely Planet map - Yuksom is very small, and a little light on landmarks. There's a monastery above the village, but the road was out of commission and the ladies didn't fancy the walk. Given the very high likelihood of seeing another monastery fairly soon, I wasn't that keen either.
That night we had a quintessential Sikkim experience: drinking tongba, the local moonshine made out of fermented millet grain. Our guides couldn't find a bar that did it; undeterred, they arranged for a local family to have us round to their house! It's basically millet grain (a cereal) and water in a big bamboo mug, with thin bamboo as a straw. The drink gets more alcholic as the millet ferments, but i doubt it ever gets that strong; when the water's gone you just add some more. I wanted to like it, but didn't much - it was like very raw-tasting cider, and coupled with the millet grains that kept making it up the straw, it was hard to love. I was glad to have tried it though, and the couple of times i've had it since i liked it better.
Interruption: So, I'm in Hanoi now - I am terrible at this. Just got back from dinner and i saw the internet in the hotel is working for once. It's gonna be bare-bones from here because i want to go to bed
The next day we headed up to Pemayangste monastery. Monasteries are nearly always up. The monastery itself was most notable for an incredible carving of earth, heaven and hell. It's about 10 feet tall, probably more in circumference, and all carved out of a single huge tree trunk, and brightly painted. it's incredibly intricate, and was essentially the life's work of a single monk, who worked on it, entirely alone, every day for 18 years. of course, my attempts to appreciate this achievement were compromised by one of my favourite owen wilson quotes from 'Meet the Parents'. Regarding the ill-fated wedding gazebo: "yeah, i carved it myself, out of a single piece of wood."
Other than the carving, the best thing about Pemayangtse was the ancient hill-top village that gave it its name, a peaceful ramshackle collection of wonky wooden houses, a few monks, and a cat. Peeping between the houses i could see our next destination: the ruined city of Rabdentse, seat of the royal family of sikkim from (let's say) the 13th to 17th centuries. This was quite good; the views were the best thing but of course my photos are largely haze.
and after this we drove home and it was hot and there was a river and i wanted to swim but i couldn't because i was sure no-one else wanted to so i didn't say anything and instead i tried to sleep but i couldn't. and it took a long time but eventually we were back in makaibari and that was that.
(i'm reading "the curious incident of the dog in the night-time").