A Travellerspoint blog

RIVERS OF HOPES AND DREAMS

THE SOURCE OF THE CHICKEN TIKKA MASALA

-30 °C

Neither Sarah nor John Connor had time for loose bowel movements when being pursued by liquid metal killer cyborgs from the future. Arnie's original creation has flesh and blood over his metal skeleton. He bleeds like you and I. Fortunately he doesn't need to contend with certain sanitary inconveniences in developing countries. "I'll be back after toilet trip"

It was literally the terminator number 2s that kept me in the hotel room for 24 hours. I had began to feel a little ropey the day before. Thankfully I was able lie down at Tipurs house for a couple of hours prior to an overnight train journey from Sylhet to Dhaka.{Did I tell you by the way that the majority of Bangladeshis who have set up Indian Restaurants in the UK derive from the Sylhet region?}. Fortunately the trip could have been more traumatic as the scarey squat loo on the train was not required. As soon as I arrived in the choking capital however the quesiness inside was a prophesy of toilet bound doom. Fortunately I was able to check in to the hotel at 6am (official check in time was noon) and was given a free upgrade to a relatively decent room. Every time I tried to leave the room nevertheless, a sinister gurgling sound in my bowels told me to stay put. Hence I was confined to watching movies in the room including Terminator 2.

The next day was the start of the Sunderbans trip. My guide Eusuf met me at the hotel the following lunch time when when by that time fortunately it was all quiet on the lavatory front. Even so he insisted on buying me some medicine to prevent any unwarranted sequel.

The most celebrated visitor attraction in Bangladesh was upon me as we took a psychedelic rickshaw to the departure to the ghat. Departure was late although this meant that we witnessed all the action at sunset. The challenging impossibly challenging maneuver of upmteenth vessels was paraded before us. As the sun disappeared the riverside factory businesses quickly gave way to mangrove forest.

Many of the more basic boats had no sleeping accommodation. I however had my on tiny room with no bathroom. Certainly it was adequate. It was clean and cool enough at night. Not a room on the QE2 but the views that awoke me from the windows on the next few days to come could not be beaten.

Basically the Sunderbans is a natural region in Bengal. It is the largest single block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. The Sundarbans covers approximately 10,000 square kilometres of which 60 percent is in Bangladesh with the remainder in India. The Sundarbans is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.There are apparently 400 tigers in the Bangladesh side and every year 20 to 30 people are succumb to fatal attacks.

Although I was wearing my anti tiger spray it was a case of safety in numbers as I was sharing the boat with approximately 30 others. Myself and a non English speaking 60 year old Japenese guy (the sun in-law of another passenger) were the only foreigners. I had fears of multi -lingual inadequacies confining me to room, kindle or MP3 player. It thankfully transpired that a good number of guests spoke good English. This meant I was able to share the jokes, and good natured banter with the other guests and staff. Once again the Bangladeshis were able to show another facet of their national character. They were a lot of fun. To my surprise we shared the same sense of humour. . I am so pleased that my experience was not diluted with the usual westerner backpacker conversation. Where are you going, where have you been and where can I get a Twinky bar '(for Americans)? After living with these people for 72 hours I certainly felt able to penetrate the national psyche even more and really get to know the people. Although people clearly cared for the country there was a feeling that corruption was stifling progress. 85 % of the population are Muslim although this cross section appeared to be very tolerant and far from fundamental. They do not pass judgement on any religion (or non religious choices). Nobody attempted to really lecture me. It was however a christian evangelical Whisky trader who came closest. On the negative side,there there is a feeling in the country that although they have a female prime minister (Sheikh Hasina) enjoying her 2nd term office, she has done nothing to further the repressed women of the country. This criticism however could have been leveled at Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan), Indira Ghandi (India) or even Heir Margaret Thatcher (UK).

The trip took us all the way from the capital to the Bay of Bengal. During this time we we moored up and went on various excursions to the exotic swamplands, to remote beaches. A memorable stop was the Rash festival at Dublar Chor, by the beach. This is a fine picture post card bay overlooking hundreds of small wooden fishing boats. The catch is often left in the sun so the dried fish can be taken to the market. As you can imagine the smell can be rather pungent. Hindu devotees believe that at this time, they can wash away their sins by bathing in the salt waters. I would have done the same but there was not enough salt in the sea. It was marvelous to see folks come from all over the country to enjoy the carnival atmosphere. Myself and Eusuf escaped from the rest of the crowd and explored this all ourselves as we felt that the other members of the group were slowing us down. Eusuf is as black as a Sub-Saharan African. I can vaguely do an American accent. Hence when approached by locals were adopted two rather unconvincing fake nationalities.

Apart from dodgy impressions, other things did not go according to plan on the trip. The motor had to be cut for several hours on the boat while we drifted away from the shallows. As we often ran behind scheduled certain detours to the more dense tributaries of the river had to be curtailed. My fellow tourists were also very noisy hence we did not see so much wildlife. We iid not see any tigers although we saw some footprints, some of which looked suspiciously fake. To really penetrate the swamp lands you need too explore on a smaller vessel I conclude.

Despite some flaws of the trip it was very enjoyable ant It was actually quite sad to say goodbye but necessary to move on. I decided to focus my last few days in Bangladesh exploring the historical side. The Sunderban trip culminated in Khulna. This was a day trip to the Unesco site of Bagerhat to see the 60 dome 15th century mosque, A seven hour train journey took me the town of Rajshahi. This is the one town which could be described as being reasonably pleasant. Once again a fine riverside location awarded fine views at sunset. An excursion to Puthia took me to a lovely temple complex with. The caretaker took me around the Hindu site. He is a devout follower of Vishnu. He tells me that he saw a king Cobra in the village that did not bother him as he believed it was a reincarnation of Vishnu himself. When I am approached by such a serpent I do hope he produces ID before I decide to run.

A bus to Bogra took me to the the least appealing city of the trip. Much smaller than Dhaka although somehow as chaotic. The whole place seemed somehow ugly and dirty. Although I only found one in my room, you felt you were only a step away from cockroach at all times. Bogra was however a perfect base to to take excursions to impressive Paharpur to see the pyramid like remains of a massive 8th century Buddhist Monastery that apparently had 177 separate monk bedrooms. Another day trip took took me to lush green countryside to walk around the still intact walls of an ancient citadel.

It was whilst staying in Bogra that I was invited to another local family house for dinner. The father was an amiable guy who had worked in a number of NGOs. His teenage sun and 8 year old daughter were eager to chat and show me their impressive artwork and various photos. The girl who affectionately called me Gavin Uncle, had had an operation to remove a portion of bone from her wrist after she had picked up some information. Her arm was in a sling although she was clearly on the mend. Apparently her bone would grow back fairly quickly. I assumed that this could have been very serious. She could have lost her hand perhaps. Her father however told me that indeed her life had been very much in danger. The brother in-law in the family had been hit by tragedy when his wife died at a young age. His 9 year old son is currently been looked after by his eldest sister in Dhaka. He cannot understand why there are so many divorces in the West as he feels he would do anything to still have his wife.

The brother in-law took me to the coach station. I took a luxury coach to Dhaka (6 hours). This night journey really was Western standard at least. The seats went far back enough to sleep. The bus was spotlessly clean and if the AC was too cold blankets were allocated. At a mere 4 pound 50 this was twice the price of a standard bus. The bumpy road however was far from luxury.

So there you have it Bangladesh. There are brief pockets of AC luxury to be had in amidst the crumbling streets and buildings. In terms of blockbuster sites it cannot compete with India. It was however a trip I shall not forget. One place in the world where the assets clearly are its people. I most certainly will be back.

Posted by gavinbose 03:47 Archived in Bangladesh Comments (0)

50 SHADES OF GREEN

BANGLADESH WELCOMES

28 °C

"Manchester United are a load of shape shifting, holocaust denying morons and as for David Beckham, the baby munching tosser". No offence to any MANU fans. If only I knew the Bengali for this line, just to wind people up or just to add a little bit of variety to my retort to the usual response. Where you from?. Manchester. Manchester United?. David Beckham?. To be fair M.U connection fatigue complex was mainly just encountered in Dhaka and not the rest of the country. Even so the fine people of Dhaka seem to look at Beckham as the patron saint of hairdressers as his picture features in most barbers. I should not complain too much as the Manchester connection may save my life in the future. I can just picture the cold blade of the guillotine touching my neck at the Saudi execution yard. A last minute reprieve is granted for the MANU connection. Manchester united, "yes Royal pardon".

Head decidedly attached, I arrived in Dhaka airport on 24th October after a mere 30 minute flight. Even this gave me enough time to munch through an anemic butty and flick through the inflight magazine. As usual for budget flight mags, it is full of advertisements and articles for luxury hotels that nobody on the aircraft (pilot included) can afford. As I looked out of the window at the labyrinth of cultivated fields and intertwining rivers below I am aware that at this point Vagina Rabbit Hatch Ltd is just a micro managed world away. My daily stats would be of not consequence to the 166,280,712 people of Bangladesh.

After the taxi touched down an uncharacteristically short 10 minute journey took me to my hotel in the Northern part of the city. After some
half-hearted unpacking (just enough to ensure picked up the correct luggage from the conveyor belt) I explored my immediate surroundings. Many trips to India had to an extent prepared me for some of what I was about to see. The streets and buildings surrounding the exotic/Orwellian sounding Uttara Block 6 district were dusty, dirty and dilapidated. With a constant soundtrack of honking horns, I walked down a road lined with crumbling buildings giving the impression of a war zone. There were beggars with pipe cleaner arms, venders, rickshaws, goats, the odd cow and err more goats. The poverty and the dirt in view was still shocking. Beginners Asia this ain't. The intensity of it sparks your senses more than India even. My immediate thoughts were What have I got myself into for 3 weeks.? I could have gone to Thailand! Fortunately it did not take long for me to realise that I had made the right choice and this was the beginning of a memorable trip.

Following instructions from the hotel and kindly passengers assisting, I took a rickety old bus on a bumpy 1 hour journey to the old town. Really not a great distance from the old town but travel in Dhaka is painfully slow. The traffic reaches unbelievable levels of congestion. 7 Km took 1 hour. Probably I was traveling not much faster than walking pace. I would have walked but I was scared of falling down a manhole or being embalmed in carbon dioxide. Looking out of the bus window it certainly seemed a more alien world than India. Hardly any of the signs used the English but Bengali Sanskrit instead emblazoned the numerous billboards .

There is no denying that Dhaka is hard work. It's sprawling, overcrowded, polluted. There are however some interesting sites, including 19th century pink palace museum, peaceful Lalbagh Fort, and the fine colonial buildings of the university. There was a very enlightening Liberation museum which provides photos and testimony of the genocide (as many as 3 million people) dealt out to those wanting to escape the oppressors of West Pakistan during the 9 month war leading up to independence in 1971. I spoke to a cafe proprietor about this and he told me that everyone had lost someone in the conflict. His own brother, a businessman, was fatally shot by an indiscriminate Pakistani bullet. It certainly brought it home.

The highly atmospheric little narrow winding streets and markets of old Dhaka are well worth a visit. It is as if life has not chanted for a 100 years. The old streets and indeed every street is lined with brightly decorated cycle rickshaws. A highlight of Dhaka for me however is Sadarghat, the main departure point for the city's river transport. It is not pretty and not quaint but it is fascinating and so vital to the country, 20 percent of the country is covered in rivers after all. All life can bee seen on the Buriganga river. Canoes, rowing boats, commercial vessels and ferries compete for often limited space. Ridiculous numbers of mainly none swimmers cram themselves on board, embarking on journeys that could even last days.

inevitably with a population of 15 million interaction with the locals cannot be avoided. This has proven to be one of the best aspects of the country. They are genuinely the friendliest most welcoming and helpful people I have met even though language is sometimes an issue. People really go out of the way. If there is one English speaker on a bus they would rush to my aid. I was slightly cynical at first when a student showed me around the old town. I assumed that he just wanted to earn a little money. No he just wanted to practice English. Coincidentally I bumped into him again at the end of my trip, took him to a local cafe and gave him 1 hour of English tuition. This was the least I could do. Its a shame I can't really speak English. Despite the hospitality, the constant chaos on the streets meant that I could only stay briefly (2 days). I needed to get out. I needed a chance to dry clean my lungs hence I got a train East to Srimangal, the tea producing area.

On arrival at Srimongal station I witnessed an apparently regular display of public dissatisfaction with the leadership. Public protests in Bangladesh usually coincide with public strike days. There was a march on the platform that day that was a border line riot. Eventually this spilled out onto the train. To avoid this explosion of anger I deliberately jumped off the wrong side of the train with 2 boys and their uncle whom I chatted to during the 7 hour journey. They directed me away from the scenes at the station and insisted on helping me find some accommodation. This is typical of the kindness of the locals. I found at that there would be much more to come.

Apart from the little show of emotion at the station, Srimangal seemed to be a a small, forgettable dusty little town. However the countryside surrounding it was a huge patchwork of paddy fields, assorted crops (including beetle nut), gentle hills and endless tea plantations spread out over gently undulating hills. I stayed at a lovely Eco Lodge in a village out of town. This was the only place on my travels where I really met any foreign tourists. I got chatting to a very adventurous Australian pensioner who seems to be traveling perpetually ever since some property sky rocketed in the 90s. There was also an English family and an English couple also to exchange stories with.

Most of the conversation happened at breakfast time. One day after a substantial breakfast I decided to hire a good quality mountain bike and explore the area. It is a is a cyclists dream. The roads are not too complicated to navigate, they feel relatively safe, are well maintained and relatively quiet. Despite being easy to cycle it is never less than scenic. Amazingly cyclists are allowed to freely roam around the vast tea gardens of the plantations. If that is not pretty enough I also visited the enchanting Madhabpur lake. On this day in which I cyled 60 KM Kids and adults would run up to my bike. People would even cycle with me for a bit. As the only foreigner around I was treated like some kind of celebrity.

It was good to have a day on my own steam. On another day however a guide was certainly required to accompany me on a half day jungle tour through some pretty dense foliage. During this time we were treated to the the peculiar sound of the notoriously illusive barking dear and the sight of different varieties of Macaque monkeys. With every step I was conscious of avoiding a common species of brightly coloured spider as large as my hand span. This creature would perch itself menacingly on its dense web often just above face height from me. I kept getting told that they were harmless. Physically harmless but certainly mentally damaging if they were to land on me though! With every sense of arachnophobia vanished from my being, the guide finished the day by taking me around the village and introducing me to the village leader who apparently worshipped nature as his god. This no doubt including canine impersonating deer and orb spiders.

Plans were stuck in a web a bit after that due to another strike. Striking always affects public buses; with little car ownership this often drives the country to a halt. I had not intended to visit the town of Sylhet as I believed that I would be seeing more of the same, ie tea plantations. It however transpired to be a worthwhile trip. Sylhet is famous for the Keane bridge over the river. This was a magnificent spot at sunset where I chatted to the locals about this 100 year old iron structure, built by the British and damage in the war with Pakistan. It is a very narrow bridge, unsuitable of large vehicles. It is also fairly steep. Local guys wait around eagerly to earn a few Takas helping to push the rickshaws over the bridge. It was at Sylet that I made friends with a telecoms engineer who invited me around to his house twice for dinner. HIs wife made a decent bengali dish on the first night. That evening I told Tupur about the excursion that day I had taken to Jaflong near the Indian border. The journey, across some very rough terrain, was nevertheless through some pretty impressive scenery of wide winding rivers and jungle topped peaks. Jaflong is on a picturesque river setting. A popular tourist spot for locals is also a place where the river is mined for sand and stones.

Tupur saw me off at the train station for an overnight journey bound for Dhaka again. This was to be a 24 stop prior to a Sunderbans river trip that I had arranged with a guide in Srimongal. I had plans in my mind for a 1day detour from the madness of Dhaka to the intriguingly named "golden city'. But alas my mischievous bowels had cruelly decided to put me under house arrest for a day. The shit didn't quite hit the fan but at one point I thought it might.......

Posted by gavinbose 22:52 Archived in Bangladesh Comments (0)

TITTERS AROUND THE TREE OF ENLIGHTMENT

More Kolkata Plus Bodgaya and Shantineketan

33 °C

Buddhist meditation is all about thinking positive thoughts. So why did I have to think about burning butterfly's wings?

The benign presence of Buddhism can be felt all over India in especially in the Northern states, in places like Sikkim and Darjeeling. Buddhism is indeed effectively an off-shoot of Hinduism. Sam identifies herself with this religion. Although I am a card carrying atheist (I knock on people's doors and preach "don't believe") it is a religion that I respect as there do not appear to be many fanatical followers or indeed radical instructions passed down from the leaders. Can you imagine if the Dali Lama ordered death threats on those who did not laugh jovially or incarcerate people for not being able to follow the chosen path (for heaven's sake it is signposted well enough).

So we took 16 + hour train journey (the train was 4 hours late) from NJP (gateway to the Darjeeling hills) to Bodgaya. This is the most sacred pilgramage destination for Bhuddists in India. It is apparently were Gautama Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment under the Banyan tree. This relatively small town is dotted with temples and Stupas representing much of the Buddhist world including China, Japan, Taiwan,Thailand etc. The focal point is the Mahabodhi Temple Complex . Even as a non believer you can still loose yourself for half a day wandering around the temples and man made ponds, observing meditation practices of monks and followers. Especially with all the chanting that takes place, it has the same vibe as the Golden Temple in Amritsa (for Sikhs). It is obviously more low key though.

Whilst wandering around the inner core of the complex, admiring a sacred cutting of the tree of enlightenment (you will not get that at the Chelsea flower show), we were collared by an elderly monk. Together with a very earnest looking Italian guy we took place in a meditation session. With my eyes closed and ears open I deduced that a main thrust of this type of meditation was breathing. The monk demonstrated with rapid breathing in and out through his nostrils. Now I was just recovering from a cold (a souvenir from the mountains) and was fairly snotty. He instructed us to follow. I tried to concentrate hard. Any mucus accident on my part could have caused a diplomatic incident and required a hot boil wash for the monk's robe. I opened my eyes and glanced at Sam. "Eyes close" the monk shouted as if addressing a naughty school boy. I was expecting Sam to be already drifting half away to Nirvana. No instead of this she let out some uncontrollable giggles. Unfortunately it was more instantly contagious than Ebola. I was off tittering too. Horrible images of burning butterflies were traversing my mind as an attempt to curtail this childishness. To no avail. I had a brainwave though. Like the sickly child excusing himself from Games I pretended that I had asthma. The monk with a degree of concern agreed that I could sit the breathing out. The giggles abated slightly. As far as Sam was concerned however the laughter persisted. I had visions of her getting existential detention.

After 2 full days in Bodgaya it was time to leave on the night train. A tail end of a hurricane had hit parts of India. Certainly we did not witness any extreme weather, although although when we arrived at Gaya stations at 10.45 pm travel caos had hit typhoon proportions. The omen could be seen straight away like extras from an end of the year saga. It was difficult walking without stepping on the families strewn at every available corner of the filthy platform. This could only mean severe delays! To our horror we find that our train had been diverted to one of the bottomless catacombs of hell: Patna. This is only 100 km away but only 2 1/2 hours on a ridiculously slow, tatty and filthy local train. Apparently most people jumped on this train without paying the 30 p fare. Clearly there were no funds available to clean the filth ridden, rickety, rusty carriage. Apart from an inexplicably weeping local lady, Sam was the only woman on board. For the duration of the journey she was stared at like a 5 headed green alien. This coupled with the lack of toilet facilities introduced Sam to travel hell Indian style. Travel is notoriously unreliable in India although to encounter such hell only her second train journey was very unusually unlucky for Sam. The gods were clearly sleeping on duty!. The day was not over. We left Putrid Putna station at about 1 am and tiptoed across the medieval cesspit outside into the refuge of a 0 star hotel. Fortunately we established that the train was now running and would intercept us at 4.30am. We boarded the to be honest fairly clean and cose sleeper and arrived in Kolkata shell shocked and 7 hours late.

We made our way to the clean, calm and comfortable oasis of my cousins house. He introduced us to the new family member a 45 day old Rotweiller pup called Mojo. Security Bunty says is the reason. OK he is adorable and cute if fairly incontinent. He also very playful and is clearly at the teething phase. He has a particular fondness for my toes. He cannot pierce my skin yet. I will shortly be away in Bangladesh for 3 weeks. As he will be considerably bigger by the time I get back I will be wearing chainmail armoured socks to protect my digits.

Hopefully the traumatic night for Sam was partially remedied by an excellent continental meal at Buntys' cousins posh restaurant. It would have been worth visiting without the food (best meal of the hols so far). This is a no licence restaurant, although the hilarious parading of the plastic bottled water by the waiters as if it was a 63' bottle of Lafite had to be seen to be disbelieved.

Prior to our Darjeeling trip we had already visited the school that Sam's Grandmother studied. We also returned to Park Cemetery to establish the family plot in which an ancestor Abraham the printer had been buried. So after a bit of souvenir shopping it was time for Sam to depart and status as a solo travel was to start again. She had certainly been a fine traveling companion although next time should gem up on the scrabble rules.

My first taste of solo traveling on this trip was a mere 21/2 hour train journey to Shantinekten (means peaceful abode). Such a brief journey although I was still able to get a front row seat into the poverty through the window. I could see could see scrawny old men on the fields ploughing the land with the aid of cattle. At one of the stations we passed through I could see 2 little boys of about 10 earning a meagre living by collecting discarded plastic bottles from the railway tracks. We had been taken to an orphanage in Bodgaya although the demand for such care seems depressingly endless. Apart from the usual poverty, the town itselfis leafy and sleepy little place in which for the main cars are banned in favour of cycle rickshaws. This is where one of India's most celebrated citizens set up university. Rabindranath Tagore was a writer of novels, poetry, music, articles. He was a political activist and advocate of peace. He was an architect,an artist and a horticulturist. He no doubt even made a mean Masala omelet.

From Eggs to existentialism (oh look it up) I think I've covered enough of this. I must crack on. To be continued....... Bangladesh beckons.

Posted by gavinbose 02:40 Archived in India Comments (0)

DIRTY GIRLS LIKE DIRTY TRUCKS (probably dirty trekkers also)

Darjeeling -Sandakphu/ Phalut Trek http://ashmitatrek.com/darjeeling/trekking-in-darjeeling/darjeeling-sandakphu-phalut-trek.html

I casually slipped off the warm memory foam mattress, underneath the smooth silk sheets and into the aromatic hot tub below. My arm is outstretched. "Bucks Fizz Kabhi". It is 5 AM and a rude knock on the door awakes me from my dream of soft mattresses, hot water and clean western toilets. I emerge from several layers of blankets and drag myself off the bed and disconnect the fantasy. The mattress is so thin that I can feel every knot and every splinter from the wooden bed.

We are in a mountain lodge 3600 metres above sea level (3 Ben Nevises). B.B.C , Basic but Clean it is, I.T,V (Intercontinental, Taj, Victoria) it ain't. Sam (sorry Petula) crawls out of her incredibly compact but warm down sleeping bag and joins me and our guide as we trudge up a hill to see sunrise. My lazy alter-ego wanted to stay in bed but the drill instructor inside my head gave me a kick up the backside. We get to the top and are joined by a number of sunrise worshippers. This is the second time on the trek that we see the full Himalayan Mountain range. Dead ahead and so clear you feel you can touch it is Kanchangunga. Further to the West is a trio of 3 peaks. the one on the left seems the biggest although the one in the middle (still clearly seen) is much further North. At a height of 8,848 m, for the second time we see Mount Everest in all its glory as the rising sun illuminates the mountain show.

So 6 days and 90km. Was it worth: the early start; the thigh straining squat toilets; 2 smelly hot water free days; the ridiculously early cold nights; the arguments over pocket scrabble; the pain, blisters; the 495 "are we there yets"?. The answer is a resounding yes. Worth every minute.

On the first day of the trek we were met at the hotel by our guide, 41 year old Nepali Banad. He is a man of a few words although very knowledgeable, especially on flora and bird life. Without fail he put our interests firsts. A real captain Oates if you like. Every morning he would wake us up with a welcoming ginger tea. Judging by some of our fellow traveler's experiences our guide was certainly the right person to have around rather than some of the cowboys we had heard of. We drove to Maneybhanjan (India/Nepali boarder) on 6th October to commence our trek with a relentless climb, just after the route's first Bhuddist temple. It was particularly tough for Sam. In addition to daily regime of applying copious quantities sun cream and and plastic melting fly repellent she also had a pre-existing leg pain to contend with. She did however remarkably well and did not moan. PS I have to say that or she will kill me.

The terrain and the flora offered great variety from bamboo to pine forest to jungle. From rhododendron trees attempting to bully their way to prominence to the more delicate bright yellow mountain flowers. We even came across a patch of gently undulating hills that reminded me of Derbyshire Peak District. Of course we frequently had to descend before going up, The up and down meant twice we reached a height of 3600m.

The trek frequently meandered into the Nepali boarder. In fact we stayed in Nepal on 2 occasions. This Sikkim (formally an independent state) border appeared to be always close by. There were many check points leaving the Nepali border. The frequent banter with the boarder soldiers no doubt helped relieve their boredom. The security was brought about following the slaughter by insurgence of the Nepali Royal family in 2001. India is keen to keep any trouble in check. Also in the distance we could frequently see the pyramid shaped peak of Kula Kangra (7500 m), the highest mountain in mysterious Bhutan.

We encountered few western trekkers although we came across plenty of Kolkata students, breaking away from their highly competitive university life to enjoy the Puja holidays. It is a very reassuring trend that the young in India are starting to explore the hills. I have always thought that for many middle class Indians their legs were practically redundant in a nation that would drive to the bathroom if they could. It however gave me cruel satisfaction to see people half my age grimacing in pain and fatigue. Of course those W Bengali holiday makers not wanting to strain their legs were able to take a jeep for some of the way on the trek. Their carves and thighs remained unharmed although there backsides remained hemorrhoid inducingly tender. Where vehicles could not cross we also passed many a trader using mules to transport their wares. We saw little girls taking there even smaller brothers home from school, all with immaculate school uniforms. We passed through many a village with multi coloured Bhuddist prayer flags wafting in the wind. We passed goats with almost human expressions, cows with red hair (honestly - not joking) and bush tailed Yak/cow crossbreeds. No Yetis, although after 6 days without a shave and shower I could pass as one! In the lodgings we met a couple from prospering Bangalore, apparently the in place to live. We also met an Israeli couple, one half had lived in a kibutz. Over the years I have noticed that post national service (3 years for men and 2 for women) India is deemed to be one relatively safe, and welcoming place for Israelis to visit. .

It was nice in the evening to dine with our fellow trekkers although dressing for dinner was a case of donning a t-shirt that had just about avoided desertion. The food on the trek was basic, repetitive, but substantial. The kind of porridge soup with honey and sweet tibetan bread was a winner as was the honey bee brandy, my high altitude nightcap of choice!

On the last day an easy descent thankfully beckoned. It was however offered a fine view as it skirted half way down the valley, above a fast flowing river below (roughly translated Mr River). That day I felt refreshed. The previous night on the trek had been relative luxury with hot water and A CLEAN WESTERN TOILET. Yes we even had to photograph it (pre use of course). So the trek was ultimately rewarding and enjoyable. I may have felt dirty at times. Dirt however can apparently be a virtue in the West Bengal hills. Trucks and jeeps are adorned with amusing proverbs, sayings and words of wisdom. I usually have no truck with silly quotes although one such vehicle did declare that "dirty girls like dirty trucks".

Posted by gavinbose 23:49 Archived in India Comments (0)

PETULA AND TARQUIN PREPARE TO TREK

A Cup of Darjeeling. No Milk of Course.

Go Airways did as it said on the label. Fortunately there are no Indian airlines called "Breakdown", "Engine failure" or "crash".

GO took us to the romantic sounding Bagdogra, the main airport serving the West Bengal Hills. Politics cannot be ignored when travelling in India. So a bit of a background. The state of West Bengal, with its capital in Kolkata is rather like a plump goose. The Darjeeling region sits in the neck and the head. With tea and tourism however it brings plenty of money into the state. Protesters in this region have been seeking an independent Gorkhaland state for years as its believed that disproportionately more is swallowed into the belly of the W Bengal Government than is given back to build universities, hospitals etc in the area. To speak in metaphors, Darjeeling produces Pâté de Foie Gras and the Government gives them luncheon meat in return. There have been Sporadic outburst of protest over the years that has strangled the infrastructure making travel difficulty. In 2008 and in 2011 I had to change my plans due to this. Much has been done to appease dissent and more power has been decentralised; although huge cultural differences abound even in language as many of the Darjeeling folk speak Nepali. Physically many have an oriental appearance.

Wake up. Slap on the face. No more snoring. The political bit is over now. After 2 1/2 hours on the road, including one taxi and one shared jeep we arrived in Kurseong to meet Mr San in a cafe. I know this type of rendezvous sounds a bit John Le Carre but he was our guide to introduce us the the hosts of our Homestay, a few miles away in Makaibari, a village dominated by tea plantations of its namesake. Makabari teeters on the edge of the plantation. When the cloud retreats the stunning views in the valley below are revealed.

The villagers seemed to be preoccupied with playing a local game on the streets where chalked lines were drawn and the mild gambling commenced. But nobody was working. The actual tea plantation had been closed for the Purga holidays hence the laid back atmosphere. So no discos, museums or action packed itinerary. This was just 24 hours enjoying the tranquility and the geniality of our host family. So no sounds. None of the constant whine of the fan and aircon at this height of 4600. No not needed. Wrong. In our basic but clean abode it was hot, sticky and like Stockport County fanless. To top it all the constantly quarrelling stray dogs on our doorstep meant that sleep was taking no orders from us. Not even John Lennon promising Instant Karma on my MP3 (I'm old technology and proud) could help. "All we are saying is give sleep a chance".

Despite the lack of sleep it was a real experience as was the 30 km (2 hrs 45 mins) journey on the Himalayan Railways train form Kurseong to Darjeeling. Although the trip was on a diesel and not a steam train (only available on a small route) it was still a narrow gaged, Unesco status delight. as the train negotiated track parallel to the seemingly impossibly busy back streets of Kurseong. The train goes through the country's highest train station Ghoom ( 2,226 m). It spirals a near 360 degrees around the Batasia loop, circling at the same time a small public park that commands views of the Eastern Himalayas. As the train approached Darjeeling however it appeared sprawling, although our eyes were quickly diverted by the views.

We were determined not to get a taxi to the hotel as in a couple of days time we were to embark on a 90 km trek that would have but such a ride shame. After 10 minutes or so we settled in to the Snow Lion hotel. This was lovely clean hotel run by a Tibetan family. It is festooned with ethnic ornaments, paintings and various memorabilia. Nature painted the finest landscape in the morning overlooking the breakfast room. Kanchanjunga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world could be seen in all its bright and vivid splendour.

First time round in Darjeeling we could not help in feeling slightly disappointed. This feeling was reversed on a latter trip. As a town it does of course have an impressive backdrop and very much its own identity. We were yet however to find its colonial heart. A real problem was the congestion on the streets. Had this been Europe then traffic restrictions would certainly have been in place. Also the overfed Kolkata tourists taking a respite during the Puja holidays crammed the streets and took some of the ambience away from the main square (the Mall). Still stunning views could be seen all around. Dining out proved to be a problem as the whole town is nicely tucked away in bed at 9pm. Dining after 8.30 can be difficult, hence a KFC one night, albeit a very good Thai the other night. OK we succumbed to a chain. I must confess that I openly seek out one chain at every available point in India. This is Cafe Coffee Day. With this Indian chain you will be greeted with a smile at any available point. This chain is relatively expensive for Indians (although not for us).The service maybe a little slower than the likes of Starbucks or Caffè Nero although the quality of the coffee is certainly on par. You are also guaranteed a relatively clean (including toilet) AC haven from the sweaty, dusty rigours of Indian travel.

Sorry for digressing (and plug). In fact let me digress further. An explanation is warranted. Myself and Sam have long awarded ourselves with colonial names. Ie Tarquin and Petula. These names are well equipped to combat the starched collared, pink ginned and ironed newspapered world of the colonial Brits. We imagined ours Victorian selves with our servants, cooks and general entourage of staff conquering the great trail. Two twits in tweed more likely!

Second digression over. After our KFC Tarquin and Petula had to get back to the hotel for a briefing by our tour agent Subhash. During the brief, even to myself he seemed to complete every sentence with the words "my dear'. After clarifying that 90 km lay ahead of us over 6 days maybe "oh dear" might have been more appropriate.

We had an early night for the following day the trek was to commence. Kanchanjunga has been designated a sacred mountain and hence cannot be climbed. It appears nevertheless that is forever watching over us. I am not a religious man but that night a prayed to the 8,586 m beast and asked him to go easy on our souls, soles (ie blisters) and our arseholes ie (easy on bowel movements).

Posted by gavinbose 03:48 Archived in India Comments (0)

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