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Great Eastern Ramblings

Travel, Greenery, sight seeing, Hills, Beautiful

Calcutta:

Landing in Calcutta is a pretty sight since all you see is little houses with lots and lots of coconut trees dotting the landscape. And once you step outside, you’re hit by the heat. Not to say Kerala isn’t hot, but what makes this unbearable is the humidity. The sheer intensity of it. Like the entire Bay of Bengal is evaporating to fit itself into this city. If it had been any more humid, I’d have to protect my ears from passing fish. On the way to the guest house, I was hoping to die a fast and painless death but this was not to be… I arrived angry, sleepy and dripping. When I was fit to explore Calcutta, I was left delighted by the sheer quantity of street food. I was on Park Street, which is the best place for street food in Calcutta as I had heard. It sure seemed that way. From chowmein to idli/vada to pizza to chaat and kulfi, the place is overflowing with vendors and people gorging on the food. I have always been of the belief that food tastes best when not fully hygienic, and this street was a case in point. Delicious food served with no unnecessary mineral water or the like, and ridiculously cheap to boot. I came across this one guy who was selling 10 dosas for Re. 1. That just left me speechless. A dip into the famous Flury’s after stuffing myself on the street and I was done.

Then I set off for sight seeing. We had heard a lot about the Indian Museum, but when we reached there, we were horrified. A massive structure, with guards insisting that you leave any and all sort of baggage at the counter, including bags containing lots of money, passports and cameras. That was uncomfortable right there. Some precautions later, we entered, only to get more and more disgusted with each step we took. This museum has zero maintenance. Once, my college took us to the hospital in Jodhpur for a field trip. The hospital was not in the best of conditions. This museum was worse. Stuffy, dusty and overcrowded with exhibits that couldn’t even be seen, we were only too glad to rush out. This museum is definitely missable unless you are a hardcore palaeontology fan.

Next stop- Victoria Memorial. Now this one is worth it. Lovely external and internal architecture, interesting paintings of places in India with very amusing spellings, given by the ancient British. Examples are Hindoo and Cawnpore (Kanpur). The Calcutta gallery is brilliant, depicting a very detailed history of Bengal and its famous citizens.

Then, Town hall. This desolated museum (we were the only ones there) is brilliant. It didn’t seem to be a popular tourist destination, but should definitely be visited. It is a storytelling museum in which they have created realistic scenes that depict Bengali life, from ancient village life to arts and crafts, to the whole Indian history shown in a 3D format, to recent Bengali movies! It was quite an experience.

The next day, we set off to Belur Math. This place is lovely. With a peaceful, serene and actually spiritual atmosphere, this museum about the Shri Ramakrishna and all associated with the mission is interesting, even for a person who doesn’t know much about any of it (read: me). With a brilliantly built temple next to it on the banks of the Ganga, this should not be missed on any trip to Calcutta.

Our next stop was nothing close. Dakshineshwar temple. It is noisy, it is filthy, it is full of beggars, and it is overcrowded. We hot footed it out of there (literally… we were barefoot and the ground was burning up!) as fast as we could. Worth a miss, definitely.

That’s all for sight seeing. Now a few random observations…

•Calcutta has at least 6 types of buses. I counted.
•The puchkas are nice but I think I prefer the pani puris of Bombay.
•The street food culture there is mind blowing.
•I love it that they call their streets Saranis. Like Ho Chi Minh Sarani and Shakespeare Sarani!
•Delicious sweets! Try the Prabhu Bhog at KC Das sweets.. or was they say, K Shee Daash.
•When it rains, it certainly pours.

Now we were off to New Jalpaiguri, from Sealdah station, so that we could go to Darjeeling.

Darjeeling:


Darjeeling is a 3 hour drive from New Jalpaiguri. This drive was one of the highlights of the whole trip. After around 20 minutes, we started climbing hills. The sights from here on were among the best I’ve ever seen. Greenery everywhere and a cool cool breeze, a welcome relief after the heat of Calcutta. The road consisted of constant hairpin turns on very very steep roads. The people here would have to be excellent drivers to manoeuvre on these roads, and at high speeds at that. Tea plantations grow everywhere on these hilly slopes. If you keep looking, you even see an occasional hen clucking and rustling about in the tea plants! Little houses perched on the hill all the way up with loads and loads and loads of flowers at each and every porch, looking like little toy houses. Not to mention the famous toy train that stops at little toy stations scattered all over the place. The tracks of the train go all over the place, in the middle of roads, through gardens, right at people’s doorsteps… It’s cute how it goes anywhere and everywhere… If you hear the whistle of the train, you step to the side of the road.

I reached the hotel, and was welcomed with a silk scarf draped around me as well as a tiny goblet of a red liquid. Surprisingly, it tasted a lot like cough syrup. Only like cough syrup with a liberal shot of vodka in it. It warmed you from inside like exactly that. In that cold climate, it felt heavenly albeit wierd. Later I discovered that it was non alcoholic cherry brandy. How on earth that could have been non alcoholic, I am still left wondering… And this was repeated at all the hotels we went to in the whole trip. Seems to be a local tradition.
I couldn’t help but notice, all the animals in the city, and in the other places I went to in the North East look like they have just come out of a spin cycle in a washing machine. Very very fluffy.
We visited the “Mall” as the locals affectionately call their local market. It is a wonderfully quaint little lane filled with proper shops on one side and street hawkers on the other. And at the end was an open space with a stage which the political party used to inspire the people by talks aimed at their goal- Gorkhaland. Peacefully noisy and teeming with “stray” dogs and monkeys, it was awesome… a far cry from the malls we all know.

The people here are really friendly. The girls are beautiful here, with their clear skin, long hair and Jamini Roy eyes. Guys look good too, only so many of them are the wannabe dude types with baggy jeans and spiked up hair.

The next day we rise early to see the sunrise over the Kanchenjunga, from the highest point in Darjeeling- Tiger hill. The view is spectacular. The snowy far off peaks of the Kanchenjunga, highlighted by the pink clouds of dawn and the brilliance of the sun, coupled with the beauty of the valley below was more than worth getting up at 4am to see the sight.



After this, we set off for Mirrick, some sort of picnic spot 3 hours from Darjeeling. On the way we see forests so dense that not a ray of sunlight can pass through. Trees so tall that we crane our necks to see the top. We stop at a particular spot that lets us view the Indo-Nepal border. It is freezing cold and mildly foggy. Down in the valley below us was a zig-zag path that denoted the border. Meanwhile, we had to bear with several Nepali women perched where we were standing, trying to sell their wares, which were mostly toffees and unheard of chocolates. These ladies had a unique technique of marketing their wares. If you glanced at one, she would call out to you while the others started screeching out “Madaaaaam! Sir!!!! Come hereeee!!!”. All with a big grin on their faces. The racket was deafening, and quite amusing. And then it started raining. The drops were the size of bullets, which surprised me. I’ve seen all sorts of rain, but this was new. The weather was gorgeous, what with the cold, the rain and the mist. We were soon on our way again and at times, we even passed through Nepal. For a person like me who has been only in 2 countries her whole life, it was a big deal. I was surprised; I was under the impression that borders were more stringent and that one would have to pass through loads of barbed wire and guards to even go near another country.

Then we reach Mirrick. Has a very pretty lake and dense green forests. The whole area looks as if someone sprinkled magic dust on it and willed every possible square inch of the place to be as green as possible, with trees on ferns or flowers or even moss! With a kaleidoscope of flowers to match, it’s quite lovely. The perfect picnic spot, with places to eat, horse rides, paddle boat rides, and loads of flowers being sold, along with their seeds.
One lovely car ride back and we had to say goodbye to Darjeeling; a lovely green quaint city with tiny winding lanes that make you constantly unaware of where you will land up. Beautiful place.

Gangtok:

This is again a 4 hour drive away. The driver is a dude in cargos and glares who could not talk in a more slang-ish way if his life depended on it. Chatting non stop with my dad he talked about how Calcutta weather was terrible, how Bombay taxis looted him once, and rafting. He went on and on about river rafting. I had tried the previous day to convince dad to go rafting, which I knew would come on the way, but to no avail. This guy was better at this it seemed. The marketing went on and on for 30 kilometres, maybe more. Then he just did not give my dad a choice. We reached the river Teesta and he just parked the car at a place you could get a raft and got his friend to give my dad all the info. Me; all this time I was sitting and silently laughing hysterically out to see my dad handling the tapori rafting agent with his less than perfect Hindi, hoping he would agree. He is left with no choice but to agree, what with an overenthusiastic driver, an enthusiastic daughter and a not-unenthusiastic wife. Off we went.

It was beyond brilliant. The river is beautiful and clean and clear. The water is ice cold from the glaciers which they originate from and lovely to wade in. Rafting on those rapids with waves crashing over the whole raft, soaking you from head to toe, rowing to set the raft right, getting down on your knees and leaning out to keep the raft balanced equally... It was an exhilarating, fantastic experience. A lovely sight is the confluence of the rivers of the rivers Teesta and Rangeet. You see a clear line where the rivers meet, with distinct colours for each. In our raft were 4 guides, all around 20 years of age, and they were good fun. Not only did they keep pushing each other out and start impromptu water fights between themselves and with us, but they also saw their girlfriends across the river and screamed out “I love you!!!” for the whole city to hear. After rafting, we are of course soaked to the skin. We meet the driver again. I thank him for convincing my dad where I had failed. He is amused. I praise his advertising and marketing and wonder aloud what his commission will be. He is embarrassed and sheepish.

After that adventure for one day, we reserved our energy for the next day. We were to visit the Natu-La pass. 65 km away from Gangtok, it is the pass that also serves as the border between India and China and is also the highest motorable road in India, being at 14,200 feet. However, you require a pass to visit this earthly paradise. On the way we come across Steep steep, very narrow roads. As we ascend further and further, it gets colder and colder. We are enveloped in a cloud the whole way up, which feels very surreal.

When we reach the pass, we see snow everywhere. That was the first time I had ever seen snow so I was excited to say the least... and promptly started a snow fight which lasted till we left the place.The most beautiful view I have ever seen. Tall snow covered mountains whining brilliantly with the sun right behind them, green valleys with a beautiful calm lake in the centre. There were Indian soldiers who looked amused, and Chinese soldiers, who looked thoroughly bored what with all the tourists who treat them like animals in a zoo ogling them and saying hi to them. It was like sight seeing in heaven.



Then we go to Baba Mandir. I was under the impression that you see one temple, you’ve seen them all.. But this temple is an exception. It’s built in the honour of a soldier who died and someone dreamt that he wanted a temple built and it became like a shrine. What’s interesting about this temple is that people say that someone has to wash and iron his uniform everyday because it gets crumpled and dirty. He even gets a salary and regularly gets promotions! Strange but very interesting; it is another very popular tourist destination.

On the way back down, we stop to return the coats we had rented. These are needed since the temperatures really drop at the top. I see a yak for the first time ever. A very docile confused looking animal. Here, I also had the best momos I’ve ever tasted and had thukpa for the first time (noodle soup- Tibetan dish). And trust me, having momos and thukpa which are piping hot at 13000 feet near the India-China/ Tibet border while sitting in a hailstorm which converts to a rainstorm while its freezing outside is like nothing else. After an eventful ride back to Gangtok that involved heavy rain and a tiny landslide, we were back, exhausted. It was worth every bit of trouble we went to to go there.
The next day we prepare to go sight seeing in Gangtok itself.

This city is filled with monasteries, silent and spiritual, with a lovely serene atmosphere, the most famous of which is the Rumtek monastery. Many monks live there and learn Buddhist teachings from childhood. We saw many little monks, no more than 7 years old, dressed in saffron robes with shaved little heads. Each monastery has rows and rows of prayer wheels which one is to rotate while waling along. Despite these monasteries being situated at a height requiring a tedious walk on a very steep slope, I saw very old infirm women making the trip up to satisfy their spiritual side. It was a humbling experience to witness how the monks lived and prayed. The institute of Tibetology is also worth a visit, with exhibits and paintings depicting ancient life in Tibet.

After enjoying the beauty of the hills for a blissful week, it was time to head back home. As we departed, I looked back, wanting to stay longer, to enjoy the lovely crisp cool weather, the never ending mountains, the widespread greenery, and the narrow winding roads. One can never tire of this place and as I jokingly conveyed to a friend; If you don’t visit this place before you die, you should kill yourself.
Published: 2008-05-31
Author: Divya Ramesh

About the author or the publisher
I have a passion for writing and am interested in doing so in any and every field. I am an avid blogger and have written regularly for a society newspaper; reviews as well as general articles. I was also on the editorial committee for my college newsletter. I have a strong vocabulary and a good method of expression. I write about humor, philosophy, lifestyle, travel, legal and social issues and other matters.
poignantrose.blogspot.com

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