A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 1

2009. Blimey, that’s almost 8 years ago, now! Doesn’t seem that long! So here’s a couple of extracts from my journal, plus apologies for only taking a few photos.

Friday 27th November 2009

(I’d not been well, and couldn’t face a 12 hour bus journey, so I took a flight to Dharamsala) It all goes smoothly, and we get away just about on time. The plane is a twin engine prop; lovely, and the flight is marvellous. We are crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jag up like freshly whitened teeth, from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approach, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We pass Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top has been sliced off – and perhaps it has.

Eventually we come into land – another tiny airport where the aircraft taxis up to the small building, switches off, and then when we get out all is quiet, the mountains staring down at us and the air clear and cool. Pick up baggage, out to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

At first, the roadsides are crowded with troops of monkeys – I quickly lose all idea of how many. We pass hundreds. But as we gain height, they disappear and we are surrounded by forest.

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In about half an hour, we get to McLeod Ganj and I check into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It is basic, but is clean, has hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I’m in no position to complain.

So the first thing that I do is go off to explore. I am surrounded by a busy little town full, largely, of Tibetans. Lots of shops and cafes, monks, monasteries, gompas and chortens. No hard sell. In my mind, I turn cartwheels. At the moment I am sitting up on the terrace at Village Meeting Point café, finishing apple pie and Darjeeling tea, watching the sunset amongst the mountains.

This is better.

Later, it gets colder.

Saturday 28th November 2009

I slept pretty well – it didn’t get as cold as I thought that it might. The shower was good, although the hot water didn’t last for too long. This morning I have wandered up through the town to Green Hotel for breakfast. Probably like most places here, it is filled mainly with westerners, discussing Tibetan politics. Most of the more upmarket places, that is. The Tibetans will be in the cheap eateries, since most are not exactly well off.

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There is a large ex-pat community of all sorts here, and one of the consequences of this is that such things as real coffee are served all over the place. Also Italian food, etc., etc. It is certainly no hardship for westerners, here. Everywhere offers yoga classes, meditation classes, massage, cookery lessons – you name it. Opportunities of all sorts for volunteering, too.

Today I am just going to wander around and get to know the place a bit. Try to feel the pulse of it, as it were. Like other, similar, places (Bodhgaya) it seems like several separate communities living side by side, interacting occasionally, but still separate. Or should that be different layers?

A sudden commotion beside me, as a monkey nips in through the window and nicks a bowl of porridge off of an adjacent table, making its escape out of the same window. No one seems too bothered.

After breakfast, I change some money and then stroll the kilometre or so uphill to Dharamkot village. The track goes through forest and I pass first through a troop of Macaque monkeys, who chunter a bit at me, but keep out of my way, and then pass lots of birdlife, including a small flock of birds that look a little like tits, with a mainly black head with a small black crest, and one beautiful bird, a little larger, an iridescent turquoise (mainly) like a kingfisher or a roller.

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Teashop, this way!

At the top of the hill is a little teashop where I get a lemon tea and join the other few people sitting there in silence. It is perfectly peaceful, a good place to watch the world go by, except that the world decides not to pass that way for the moment.

Back into McLeod Ganj, past the chuntering macaques, to Jimmy’s Italian restaurant for lunch. The rooftop has fantastic views over the town and across the mountains, and I watch a couple of kites slowly circling and calling nearby. If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to explore this fascinating place, I think that I could just sit here for the whole afternoon with a book.

In the event, I don’t do anything much more constructive than that. I read, I wander around; I go for tea and cake. After all, I’m here for ten days or so, so there is no rush to do anything.

I plan to walk to Dal Lake tomorrow, which is no more than half a day there and back.

 

Nepal – Annapurna Region

In 1988 I went to Nepal for the first time, travelling by bus from Delhi to Kathmandu. Although the trip took almost 2 days, and the bus was remarkably uncomfortable, it was one of the most spectacular journeys I have ever taken, and a most remarkable experience.

And then I trekked the Annapurna circuit, still considered by many to be one of the 10 classic treks of the world. It took 24 days to complete, and from the time we left Ghorka, until the day we walked down into Pokhara, we were travelling entirely on footpaths and saw no vehicles of any description.

Part of the walk is now over a new road, and whilst this is surely welcome to the inhabitants of the region, I suspect that it takes away a little of the magic of the trek.

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Village near Manang (posibly Mungji), on the Marsyandi River, close to the Annapurnas. In many ways, a typical Nepalese mountain village, it is built on man-made terraces, up steeply sloping mountainside, to avoid using any of the precious farmland available in the valley.

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View from Poon Hill. Poon Hill lies a little to the west of Ghorapani on the river Ghora (pani being water), west of the Annapurnas. Sunrise there consequently occurs behind the Annapurna peaks, including the spectacular Machhapuchhare, or ‘fishtail’ peaks. That said, this shot was taken towards the west, looking across the Kali Gandaki valley.

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This is dawn, though. Machhapuchhare and its double peak are shown clearly on the left.

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Mountains and glacial lake from the village of Manang.

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Lower down, the land is heavily terraced, fertile land being at such a premium that every available bit is used. These rice paddies are near the village of Chepe Ghat, on the Marsayandi River.

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Chorten. Chortens, or stupas as they are also commonly known, usually contain relics of saints or priests. The original stupas held relics of the Buddha, such as at the Temple of the Tooth, at Kandy, Sri Lanka.

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Mountains near the village of Muktinath. In the rain-shadow, here, the landscape is that of a high altitude desert.

 

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Mani stones on the Annapurna trail. Mani stones may be carved, painted or both, and serve a similar function to prayer flags, in that they either have a prayer or mantra carved on them (typically ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ – from which the name ‘Mani Stone’ comes from – meaning ‘Hail to the jewel in the heart of the lotus’ i.e. The Buddha) or they may have a picture of the Buddha himself. Although they may be encountered singly or in small numbers by shrines or at Gompas, at times they make up huge walls containing many hundreds of stones, some of which may have been there for hundreds of years. These walls, like shrines or any other Buddhist relics encountered here, are passed on the left.

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Houses at Manang.

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The Upper reaches of the Marsayandi, looking down to Manang.

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Snowed in below Thorung La. Not an unusual occurrence. Thorung La is at 5415m (17,700ft). We arrived at our campsite early afternoon with the ground clear of snow and the sun out. This was the scene a couple of hours later, delaying our crossing the pass (‘La’ is Tibetan for ‘Pass’) by 24 hours.

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Crossing Thorung La. On the day we crossed the pass, we left camp just after 4 in the morning, and were down the other side by late afternoon.

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Looking west (and down!) from Thorung La). On this side of the pass there is far less precipitation and the land is noticeably drier. This is looking towards Muktinath.

Himalayan Foothills

I am going offline for a few days, since I need a bit of a break, so I will leave you with a selection of photographs from the Himalayan Foothills, Northern India. When I log on again in a few days, I’ll catch up with everyone’s blogs and comments.

By ‘Foothills’ I mean the ranges of hills and smaller mountains that guard the approach to the Himalaya proper, where the big beasties rise up to heights of over 8000m with permanent ice and snow cover. The old Raj hill stations such as Nainital and Darjeeling were built at heights of around 2000m – high by UK standards, but certainly not by Himalayan ones.

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Naini Tal, Nainital Town, Northern India. Morning Light. Nainital lake, (‘naina’ is Sanskrit for eye and ‘tal’ means lake) in Hindu mythology, is one of the emerald green eyes of Sati, Shiva’s wife. This was my first view of it after getting off of the overnight bus from Delhi.

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Gadhar Kunkyop Ling Gompa, Nainital. Unlike many other Himalayan towns, Nainital has no sizeable Tibetan population, and this Monastery, perched high to the North East, overlooking the lake, is the only one in Nainital and home to just seven monks.

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Morning mist, Nainital.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill, Darjeeling. Darjeeling, unlike Nainital, has a large Tibetan population and many Gompas both in the town and the surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorje Ling, long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. The hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no Gompa.

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The ‘Toy Train’ stopped outside Samten Choling Gompa at Ghoom, near Darjeeling. This train runs for 51 miles from Siliguri to Darjeeling, rising a total of just over 7000 ft. It has numerous steep gradients and sharp curves, including the famous one at ‘Agony Point’ – originally the loop there was a diameter of only 59.5 ft and the train literally overhung the mountainside as it rounded the curve. All in all, quite a remarkable engineering feat and deservedly a World Heritage site.

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Druk Sangak Gompa, a large Buddhist monastery on the edge of Darjeeling, West Bengal. A fairly new gompa, it was inaugurated by the Dalai Lama in 1992.

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Not Chelmsford, UK, but Darjeeling, West Bengal). Many of the old British hill stations, such as Darjeeling, still retain much of their colonial character.

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A clash of cultures! And what a clash. East meets west, with brass band in the park meeting the Indian Himalaya, courtesy of the Darjeeling Police Band. The band played in a bandstand on the Chowrasta, the open square at the top of Darjeeling, close to Observatory Hill. In the days of the Raj, this would, no doubt, have been familiar to all who lived there. Close your eyes and think of England…

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Tea pickers, Darjeeling. Think of Darjeeling, think of tea. In the hills surrounding Darjeeling are numerous tea estates, where the job of tea picking, sorting, drying and packing goes on much as it has done for the last 150 years.

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Buddhist painting on rock wall, by open air shrine, Darjeeling. As well as the larger gompas, you come across small shrines and gompas unexpectedly around odd corners everywhere.

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Prayer Lags in Yumthang Valley, Northern Sikkim. This is as far north in Sikkim that you are allowed to travel, just a few miles south and west of Tibet. Everybody is still very touchy about borders.

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Crossing a bridge in the Yumthang valley. It should be safe, considering the number of prayer flags!

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Unnamed 6000m peaks overlooking the Yumthang Valley. We asked our guide the names of these peaks, only to be disparagingly told ‘They don’t have names. They’re less than 6000m tall.

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And more prayer flags…

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Young monks on a hillside, Phodong Gompa, Sikkim.

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Monastery wall painting, Lachung Gompa, Northern Sikkim. Lachung Gompa is about 2km above Lachung village, at a height of about 3000m. It is not a ‘working’ gompa, the monks living down in the village rather than at the gompa, so it is generally kept locked and only used on festivals and full moon days.

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Monastery door, Tharpa Choling Gompa, Kalimpong, W.B. Kalimpong, not far from Darjeeling, but 1000 metres lower, has also a large Tibetan population.

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Statue of Chenrezig (Avalokiteshvara), Durpin Gompa, Kalimpong, West Bengal. Chenrezig (Tibetan) or Avalokiteshvara is the Bodhisattva (a being who has partly or completely attained the state of enlightenment) of compassion. The well-known mantra ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is dedicated to him.

Kalimpong market:

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I watched this gentleman for some time before I approached and asked for a photo. he was rapidly serving a succession of customers at great speed, making up little paper screws of spices and powders at a tremendous rate…

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…whereas this gentleman served his customers at a more leisurely pace, as if he had all the time in the world.

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This gentleman was delighted to be photographed with his fine collection of Kukris. As I prepared to take the photo, he picked up a kukri and brandished it with a none too convincing snarl, to the obvious amusement of most of the people around him.

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This stall-holder seemed to find it hilarious that I should want to photograph her.

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This lady, on the other hand, was delighted to be photographed; volunteering eagerly when a lady on a nearby stall refused.

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The Katherine Graham Memorial Chapel, in the grounds of the Dr Graham School and home, Kalimpong. Built in 1925, it looks to have materialised straight out of the Scottish Highlands. Dr Graham was a Scottish missionary, and built the home and school originally to educate the children of local tea estate workers. It now has a far broader intake.

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Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir. Unfortunately, it is still probably unwise to visit most of Kashmir, and things will probably remain this way for some considerable time to come. A pity, because this really is a most beautiful part of India and Pakistan. I took these photos in 1989, a very short while before the area became off-limits to tourists.

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Panorama – Lake Dal, Srinagar, Kashmir). In the distance is the Hazratbal Mosque, a comparatively modern mosque, enshrining a hair of the prophet.

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Hindu shrine. Near the shore of Lake Dal in Kashmir.

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Houseboats around the shore of Lake Dal, Shrinagar, Kashmir. In the nineteenth century, the British, who first developed Srinagar as a hill station to get away from the stifling heat of the Indian Plains in the summer, found that the then Maharajah refused to sell them land to build houses. The solution? They built boats to live on…great, elaborate, ornate carved and decorated houseboats. These same boats, with many more recent editions, now function as floating hotels to tourists. The majority are moored not on the actual shore, but a little way off, often on the edge of small islands. This gives the local shakira (a type of small boat unique to Lake Dal) owners a chance to clean up, as a taxi service.

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Shakira moored on Lake Dal.

My First Long Trip to India (6)

There seemed to be so much rain falling in Sikkim that I began to wonder whether they had their own private monsoon.

It sounded as though it was raining all night, although ‘raining’ does not really do it justice as a weather phenomenon; that would rather be like suggesting that Lapland has a little bit of snow in the winter, or that it could sometimes be quite sunny in the Kalahari Desert.

It was hammering down.

It started whilst I was out in the evening, and it only stopped around dawn. When I went out to find some breakfast, thick, black clouds were still filling the sky, and it was much cooler than it had been the previous evening. Small rivers seemed to be hurtling along the sides of all the roads, and random lakes occupied much of the lower areas.

At first sight, I was really disappointed in Gangtok. It appeared very modern, with lots of new buildings and virtually nothing that appeared to be old. It was very clean (possibly due to it being extremely well-washed) and tidy. There seemed to be really very little for the visitor to see.

I decided to arrange to go on a trek as soon as I could.

Just to make it a little more difficult, though, all treks had to be arranged through officially approved agents, and there was technically a requirement for a minimum of four people per trek, although it was possible to do it with less.

And it wasn’t cheap.

Eventually, I ended up with a three day trip to the Yumthang valley – as far north in Sikkim as you are allowed to go – leaving the following morning. There were three of us: myself and a pleasant Swiss couple. After a lot of form-filling and passport photocopying, I handed over my money, and walked outside into the torrential rain.

The next day at dawn there was a blue sky, or at least as much of it as I could see from my window. A rain-washed blue, I’d be tempted to say. I packed, and then went off to the hotel where I was to meet the others. There I had breakfast, stored a bag for my return, and sat around reading and waiting to go.

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We set off just after ten o’clock in a jeep, and I was excited to be travelling again among the high mountains with Nepalese style villages. We stopped for lunch at an inn, which again was very clean and modern. And so far, the weather had been good. We had a good view of Kanchenjunga when we left Gangtok, and by lunchtime there were just a few clouds over the mountain tops. By one fifteen we had reached Mangan, the capital of north Sikkim, and another police check post, to show our passes. Only, this time the check post was empty – apparently, the fellow was at lunch, so we had to kick our heels for twenty minutes.

I was making quick notes as we drove along, which seem to give a good snapshot of the area. And so:

Gangs of women breaking stones to mend the road.

Suspension bridges.

Huge clumps of huge bamboo.

Bell flower bushes.

Masses of butterflies.

Gompas.

Landslides.

Rivers rushing across roads.

Good and bad bits of road.

Bottlebrush trees.

Orchids!

Buddhist symbols painted inside and outside buildings.

Long, long lines of prayer flags beside the road.

We reached Lachang, at 4pm, at an altitude of 8500ft or so. The hotel we were booked into was very smart and new, constructed and decorated entirely in Tibetan style. They gave us a supper of Tibetan vegetable soup, cheese momos and fruit, and then I went off for an early night.

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I awoke to blue skies and snow covered mountain peaks, and at seven o’clock the sun was streaming around some awesome jagged peaks towering over the village.

Seven thirty and we were on our way by jeep again. The last twenty one kilometres was through an area that is designated a ‘prohibited area’ – no one is allowed in without a permit, and cameras are strictly prohibited. Naturally, when we got to the valley there were plenty of people snapping away, despite the presence of numerous soldiers. When I saw soldiers actually posing for photographs, I decided it was probably safe to get my own camera out.

More notes:

Glaciers.

There are thirty one species of rhododendron in Sikkim.

Landslips.

Tibet just a few miles away.

The valley is at an altitude of 11500ft.

There was a cold wind blowing up the valley from the south. Yumthang is 140km from Gangtok by road. I wonder what it is as the crow flies?

Butterflies – clouded yellow, painted lady, tortoiseshell – they all seemed to be ones that I knew from UK.

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We walked 8km back and then the jeep picked us up. It was beautiful.

Hot springs just below Yumthang – a malodorous, sulphurous pool in a stone shed!

Clouds were dropping down as we headed back to Lachang for lunch.

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There were a number of tall mountains to the south of the valley, and I asked our guide their names. They have no names, he replied. They are all less than 6000m, so they don’t bother naming them in Sikkim (although I’m sure that traditionally they must have had names – all the mountains seen from a town or village would have had names, even if just local ones).

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I think it was at this point that I decided I would have to visit Ladakh.

In the afternoon we drove up the other side of the valley to visit Lachang Gompa. It was not a ‘working’ monastery, since the monks live down in the village. Therefore it was locked, as it is only used on full moon days and festivals. But we could at least go around the outside, to see the huge prayer wheels (and spin them) and see the beautiful frescoes.

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The following morning we left at 6.30 on a fine, clear morning. The idea behind leaving so early was to go to a viewpoint high above a valley, but by the time that we got there it was the usual mass of clouds drifting above and below us. Some rain at times. Sunny periods. Outlook changeable.

And so back to Gangtok.

That night it poured with rain again, and the following morning, as usual, there was thick, low clouds filling the skies and the valleys. This was followed by another heavy overnight rainstorm.

Time to move on.

I had breakfast, checked out, and went straight to the jeep park. Just after midday, I was in Kalimpong. On the way, the sky soon cleared, and it was hot sunshine long before we reached West Bengal.

My First Long Trip to India (5)

I picked up my bus ticket from the travel agent, and went for lunch. Whilst I was eating, I looked at the newspaper and noticed that the ‘People’s War’ (Naxalites) had blown up the railway line near Jehanabad again. It was a good job that I had decided to get the bus to Patna.

And so, the following morning, after packing, having breakfast and attending to a few final tasks that I had promised I would do, I went off to the Project to say goodbye. I knew it would be difficult! It seemed as though everyone came up for a hug, and then I went off with the manager back to my guest house to pick up my pack, and then off to meet the bus. One final, slightly teary, goodbye, and I was on the bus and off.

Four and half hours later in Patna, I was set down amidst total chaos. There were flashing lights, seas of red flags, loud music blaring through countless loudspeakers,millions of people, it seemed, singing – another Hindu festival. I found the station, with a little difficulty, and then the nearest restaurant and bar, for some sustenance.

I learned that the chaos had a name – Ram Naumi.

As I ate, it felt quite odd to know that outside was Patna, and that the Project and the open countryside weren’t just around the corner. It rather felt as though I had just left home.

My train left roughly on time, and I slept well until the morning. We then trundled along gently, getting in about one thirty (two hours late) to New Jalpaiguri. It was slightly cooler, and felt almost refreshing. I hadn’t expected a temperature drop then, I must admit. Presumably it was because we were that much closer to the mountains. Soon, I found myself and my rucksack jammed into a bicycle rickshaw heading north through the long streets of Siliguri, at the foot of the Himalaya, during what should have been lunchtime. There followed a three hour jeep ride in which we immediately began to climb up away from the plains as we left Siliguri, through farms, tea gardens and jungle that gradually began to look more typical of Nepal than of the India that I had lived in for the previous month and a half.

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I arrived in Darjeeling at dusk, found myself a room and settled in to enjoy a week’s rest. I then proceeded to explore the temples, markets and surrounding countryside, make plans to move on to Sikkim and dropped into Joey’s Bar for the odd beer.

Later, I decided to have afternoon tea at the Planter’s Club, a hangover from the tea planting days of the Raj. It’s something that I felt I ought to sample.

I wasn’t disappointed. Inside, I was the only customer and it was much as I had imagined that it would be; dark wood floor and ceiling, brick fireplace, piano in the corner, trophy heads high up all around the walls. I was served tea by a Nepali who wanted to talk politics. That morning there had been a strike that had closed the town down for several hours, over the irregularity of water supplies. We agreed that it was down to the government. And when that’s finally solved, he added, then there’s the electricity…

He asked if I wanted music and I said yes, almost immediately regretting it, but was surprised when it was classical music. Looking around, it really did look as though the Colonels and their ladies had gone home and everything was still waiting for them. Outside, it was raining gently and just above me a couple of lights glowed yellow in the afternoon gloom. The shade of Miss Haversham from Great Expectations seemed to hover at my shoulder. All that was needed was a thick layer of dust over everything and the image would have been complete.

Also, it was strange that there was nothing Indian in there, and if it was in the UK, then it would look really ordinary, yet it had a powerful atmosphere there. Only, I suppose, because I knew that I was in India. And then, as Fur Elise played softly in the background, I was suddenly, utterly and helplessly homesick. Nothing like the continual yes, it’ll be nice to get back and see everyone once I’ve finished here, but I could picture myself strongly, sitting in an old stone inn somewhere in Wales having a beer with friends, or perhaps sitting around a log fire with close family. Seeing my family! As the music continued, I sat at the table with my tea, unable to think of anything but home.

It finished, and another piece started. I forget now what it was, but I had to literally shake myself to break the spell. I sat a while longer, paid the bill, and left.

A couple of days later I went and had tea again at the Planters – this time there were several Indian families in there and some Hindi pop playing – a decidedly different ambience! Although the afternoon was again gloomy, the piano still in the corner and the threadbare heads staring balefully down, I was unable to conjure up anything like the same feelings. It seemed impossible that I should have felt so differently here a couple of days before. I felt that I had re-joined India.

Darjeeling still retains much of its old colonial character, in places.

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The Oxford Bookshop, on Chaurasta, where I spent far too much and had to have my purchases shipped home.

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A sea of prayer flags on Observatory Hill. Darjeeling has a large Tibetan population and many gompas (monasteries) both in the town and surrounding hills. Observatory Hill is the site of the original temple of Dorge Ling , long destroyed, but after which the town was named, once the British had persuaded the then ruler of the area, the Chogyal of Sikkim, to lease them the land to build a hill station. the hill is now home to a Hindu shrine, with the British-built church of Saint Andrew close-by.

But no gompa.

After a week in Darjeeling, I moved on to Sikkim. After a really cold night, I left Darjeeling in a share-jeep for Gangtok on a lovely sunny morning, with clouds ebbing and flowing across the horizon and in the valleys. I got there about two, and then got a room in the travel lodge. It was big and clean, with lots of hot water, and the rest of the day I spent looking around the town.

A Day in Ladakh

Wednesday 13th April 2005

This morning, there is a clear blue sky, with just a couple of clouds sitting on top of the Stok Mountain Range. It doesn’t seem quite as cold in the morning as it has been recently.

I go for breakfast at the Budoshah. I don’t really know why I eat here (I certainly don’t always), unless it’s because the morning sun warms the corner that I’m sitting in. I’m the only person here and when I walk in, the waiter always seems frightened to see customers. When I’m eventually given a menu (and everything is always ‘off’ – it’s a Kashmiri restaurant, so two thirds of their dishes are chicken or mutton. The day before yesterday, people were being told ‘no chicken no mutton’.), I ask for scrambled eggs on toast.

I’m told no, they can’t do it. Fried, boiled or omelette, yes. But the cook obviously can’t scramble them.

And black coffee.

‘Pot?’

How big is the pot? I ask.

‘Ah…I get one’. He disappears back into the kitchen, never to return. I sit back and contemplate the Ladakh Mountains in the sunshine, prayer flags waving lazily beside the temple. With luck, it will be another warm day. I think I’ll catch a bus to Thikse Gompa.

My coffee arrives. In a glass.

The toast arrives with heart-stopping chunks of Ladakhi butter – like everything here that calls for butter. I thought at first that it must be cheese. It seems to be the Ladakhi/Tibetan way. I made a mistake and had a cheese sandwich the other day – the cheese is just like butter, so you can imagine what it was like for my poor western tastebuds. I had to scrape most of it off.

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It’s 12.45, and I’m sitting on a rock in hot sunshine at the foot of Thikse Gompa. The bus ride here was remarkable (and where else in India would you find that the driver would wait a few minutes whilst a passenger nipped off the bus to buy some bread?). All the way here, we passed through this wonderful desert scenery, with fairy-tale castles and palaces and the like clinging precariously to the tops of cliffs.

The Ladakhi buses are like all Indian buses, though. Today’s had plenty of pictures inside and on the windscreen (The Dalai Lama, Buddha, etc.), two vases of flowers and a fancy piece of wooden scrollwork on the dashboard, and several drawers incorporated into this.

At the moment I’m having my apricot and water lunch to the accompaniment of drumming in the background; a ritual going on somewhere. There are so many gompas here, and every private house performs their own pujas, that it could be coming from anywhere.

We passed through Shey on the way here. More of this tomorrow, I think. I intend to spend the day there.

I ‘strolled’ up to the gompa, and was shown around by a monk. We chatted in a mixture of Ladakhi, Hindi and English. He is a Ladakhi, in fact all of the monks here are. There are no Tibetans. In fact, despite the large Tibetan population here, he says that there are only two monasteries with Tibetan Lamas.

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We watched a group of young monks kicking around a football, a hundred metres or more below us.

Do families still send one son to be trained as a monk?

No, but there are still many coming.

I was first shown the giant statue of Maitreya Buddha, which is fairly modern, then the fourteenth century gompa, which is very dark and unlit, which made it difficult to properly see the wealth of thankas and statuary. I had to tell him about my family, job and anything else he could think of. That was quite hard going, and I don’t think we totally managed to get through. A pigeon flew into the gompa and started a discussion (not literally, you understand). In Ladakhi, pigeon is (I think) Po-ro, fairly onomatopoeic. In Arabic, I told him, it’s Bulbul, also onomatopoeic. Possibly it is the same in Hindi and Urdu.

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Back for tea and a bucket shower.

Later, I’m walking around the market. How strange to go around market stalls and shops in India, not getting pressured and hassled at all. At times it seems almost unreal. You wonder whether suddenly it’s all going to crash around you and normal India will be resumed as soon as possible. The longer that you spend here, the more laid back you become. I don’t think you can help it! Everyone strolls around smiling and Julay-ing you and each other. I know that Ladakhis consider it the height of bad manners ever to lose one’s temper, but it really does seem unreal. I think it would be easy to just sink into the ambience of it all and find you’d suddenly missed your flight out and had overstayed by weeks, or months…

Andrew Harvey said, and I’ll have to paraphrase because I can’t remember the exact quote, ‘The wonder of Leh is that there is absolutely nothing to do. Nothing to do except slow down, switch off and just observe. Just be.’ I understand that, now. I realise that that is what I have been doing the last few days without realising it.

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I had Phung Sha and rice for supper at the Amdo -a Tibetan dish. It is a sort of thick vegetable stew, which I shall certainly have again.

I have always wanted to read Rumi, the thirteenth century Persian mystic and poet, and I picked up a copy today from the little bookshop. I am now wrapped up in my blanket reading it by the light of my candles.

Downstairs, my hostess is singing again. Last night, I tiptoed out to the landing to listen to her singing what I was told this morning were Ladakhi folksongs, and I creep out again to listen now.

This time it’s ‘Bob the Builder’.