It was time to get away from the heat of the plains and only the north could deliver on that. We had never been to Darjeeling or the state of Sikkim before so that's where we decided to cool off. We took an exhausting train journey from Varanasi which still only got us as far as Siliguri. From there it was another 3 hours by jeep up into the northern mountains of West Bengal. Darjeeling is one of those places that you've heard so much about yet didn't really know what to expect. With mountainsides dotted with tea estates and a toy train winding its way up to the ex-colonial hill station, it conjures up images of lush green charm. However, upon our arrival we found something totally different. The streets were narrow and congested with fume-belching jeeps and throngs of people squeezing between them to get where they were trying to go. I thought it would be a small and charming town but it is actually a sprawling city of over 100,000 inhabitants. But charming it still is and as the days passed by the more charming it seemed to get. It was a world apart from the city of Varanasi that we just left behind. It didn't feel like India at all. The air was cool (even freezing at times), the streets were clean, and the demographics reflected the neighboring Himalayan states of Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and some of the north-eastern tribal territories such as Assam, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh.. It was so nice to be surrounded by people with faces constantly locked in smile mode and be embraced with their warmth and hospitality. The food too reflected Himalayan preferences like momos, thukpa, thanthuk, and shyabhale– the ultimate comfort food for cool days and colder nights. We pretty much sustained ourselves on those four dishes the whole time we were up north. We were in Himalayan heaven!
April is not the best month to visit Darjeeling or Sikkim (from a clear skies point of view), but this April was particularly cloudy and rainy. It rained at some point every day we were there. The morning we went up to Tiger Hill for the sunrise views it was a complete white-out. Still we woke up early every morning to see if we could catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, in particular, Kangchenjunga (Khangchendzonga)- the World's third highest mountain at an elevation of 8,586 meters. One morning we did see some of the peaks briefly but Kangchenjunga remained hidden in the clouds. But on the morning after we returned from Sikkim, the clouds parted just after dawn and revealed a completely clear view of the prize mountain and its companions. Other than mountain gazing and momo munching, there are a few other things to do in the Darjeeling area. We took the Toy Train to Kurseong and back on one day, walked to the Japanese Peace Pagoda and the Bhutia Busty Gompa on another, visited the zoo as well as the Happy Valley Tea Estate. All were very worth while except for maybe the Happy Valley Tea Estate which was not one of the better we have seen. As you enter the estate a sign proudly proclaims that the tea produced here is packaged exclusively for Harrods (of London fame) yet the tea bushes were less than healthy looking to say the least. To make things worse, we found out from a local that the tea pluckers employed here work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. and only earn 65 rupees per day- that's like $1.20 A DAY! Harrods will no doubt market the inferior tea in fancy packaging and sell it for a premium price. Remind me again how the rich get richer and the poor poorer?
We also arranged our permits for Sikkim while in Darjeeling, which is good for the south-east, central, and western parts of the state and valid for two weeks. To visit the northern reaches you must obtain an additional “restricted area” permit which is easily done from Sikkim's capital of Gangtok. Gangtok is even bigger and busier than Darjeeling and it is also far more commercial and modern, but I liked it almost immediately. The food we ate (again Tibetan) was the best we had on the trip by far and the people were still smiling and friendly. But it is still just a city and it held our attention only long enough to organize a trip up north to the scenic Yumthang Valley which we enjoyed with some fellow travellers that we met already on the train from Varanasi.
The drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok was beautiful, but it only got better from Gangtok to the Yumthang Valley. Sikkim's “National Highway” is nothing more than a potholed gravel 'road' barely wide enough for two vehicles to pass. It's a slow road which was made even slower by our novice driver. It is a stretch of road susceptible to landslides and other harsh weather conditions and the ride at times is the very definition of discomfort. But beautiful it is. Sheer rock walls on one side and sheer vertical drops on the other. You pass by lush, steaming jungles, pristine waterfalls, amazing valley views and gorgeous Himalayan mountain scenery. Well worth the discomfort! We spent two nights in the peaceful village of Lachung and from there we explored the wild Yumthang Valley- 27 kilometers to the north. Lachung sits at the bottom of a lush valley split in two by the icy Yumthang River and surrounded on all sides by high Himalayan peaks- some spilling long ribbons of water from their precipice. Again, Himalayan heaven. It also has a small but interesting monastery worth a visit and wonderfully warm townsfolk decked-out in traditional Tibetan and Nepali garb. The last 27 kilometers into the Yumthang Valley is about as scenic as it gets. The road twists in hairpin turns another 1000 meters in elevation passing many yaks along with their herders and revealing more stunning mountain vistas. By the time we arrived in the valley the mountains were already being concealed with the daytime cloud cover. Withing a couple of hours it began to rain, hail, and even snow a little, and as a result, I took very few photos. It just gives me a great excuse to visit this area again soon. One more night in Gangtok, two more nights in Darjeeling, and then it was time to take the longest train ride of our trip- nearly all the way to the other side of India. From Darjeeling we would travel to New Delhi and from there another 6-hour train trip to Sawai Madhopur where we would again try our luck at spotting tigers in Ranthambhore National Park.
A staggering 231.5 hours of road and rail travel to date and soon to get much longer!