Travelogue: Darjiling and Sikkim (Part III)

Ahem! After a lot of avoidable delay caused due to laziness, here’s the 3rd part of my East Himalayan sojourn. Evidently the sodden wet Islamia dinner wasnt exactly nutritious food, as, 3 vomitings and an equal no. of trips to the lavatory later, I found out. However it was nothing to worry about for the intrepid traveller and with a stomach still groaning, I set out for Gangtok. The road is the same till Ghoom from where another road branches out to the forbidden land of Sikkim. It was raining as badly as it can (again!). The curving road and the jawdropping cliff on one side of the road did nothing to assuage our troubled hearts. Thick forests of sal and bamboo covered the hill slopes with the trunks of the trees easily a few feet wide. The altitude slowly decreased and thankfully so did the rain. We came to a damp and humid stretch covered by tea gardens on one side and forests on the other. We also saw a few vehicles like ours that had decided to go off-road and now lay in trenches 20-30 metres deep. Heaven help us. Far to the south the high hills surrounding D’ling were still shrouded in clouds, mist and rain. Soon we reached something called a view-point where one could see the raging Teesta battle its way past the mountains, its noise sounding something like a million serpents hissing. The climate was progressively getting warmer. Sometime later we crossed the Teesta via a bridge built by BRO which maintains all the roads in these parts. We were now barely 800 m above sea level (for comparison, Bangalore is 900 m). The sign of the plains were all around. Heavy trucks with signs like “Horn. OK. PLEASE”, dust, heat and lowland flora. We crossed into Sikkim through the town of Rangpo, which looked like a typical Indian town. About an hour or so later and after climbing steadily we were finally in Gangtok.

Gangtok is very pretty. A relatively small city, 1800 m above sea level, it has a quaint charm. We stayed at the State Circuit House near the Rajbhawan and the view from there was enchanting. Outside vehicles arent allowed to ply in Gangtok and one has to take a local taxi. Our driver Bhutia was an amazing guy, very talkative, friendly and always cracking jokes. That is the way most of the Sikkimese are. They are all fiercely patriotic, something very surprising in a land which was till 1975, an independent monarchy. The Gangtok bazaar was our destination that evening. It’s paradise for the shopaholics. You find items from God-knows-where. I sought out my favourite Momos and found that the Sikkimese version is even tastier than the Darjiling one! The climate is much more congenial to sight-seeing than the somewhat oppressive Darjiling cold. The people here speak excellent Hindi, proof of the popularity enjoyed by Hindi films here. Sikkim has made tremendous progress under its CM, Pawan Chamling. Today it is a power-surplus state and enjoys a high literacy rate. The social-welfare program too has been a success here and beggars who are a common sight in other Indian cities are virtually non-existent.

We were in Sikkim for only one day and hence decided to make the best of it. Setting out early, we visited the 200 years old, Enchey Monastery, next door to the Circuit house. The whole pathway is flanked by prayer wheels, the hallmark of Tibetan Buddhism. The main monastery itself is a beautiful building with bright murals and a serene atmosphere. Maroon clad monks were engaged in a chanting session in the main hall. Our next stop was the Tashi Viewpoint, which offers fabulous views of the surrounding mountains and you guessed it, Kanchenjunga! The high power telescope there is a real boon for tourists. En route we also came across a pretty waterfall that had the road passing beside it with a thoughtfully added viewing platform. Next stop was the Ganesh temple and the water supply station some distance away on the road leading to Nathu La. Both are lovely places with panoramic views of the countryside. Army trucks abound on this route as men of the Jat regiment proceed to their posts on the China border. From the Ganesh temple one can also see the famous Rumtek Monastery about 10 kms away. This is the seat of the Karmapa Lama, the second highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. What pleasantly surprised me here was that the Circuit House was barely 300 m away, on the hill slope. We had travelled 7 curvaceous km to climb 300 odd metres. The Orchid Museum with almost 300 varieties of orchids was a sight to behold. Sikkim has also adopted the Orchid as its state flower. Finally to cap up the Gangtok sojourn we took a ride in the ropeway that rises above the Hurhure darra, a steep cliff that looks down on a river near the main market place. The ropeway in my opinion is the best way to see Gangtok.  It also pauses for one agonising minute midway to allow tourists to take photographs.

The view from Gangtok ropeway.     View from Tashi viewpoint   Orchids in Orchid Museum

 The Hurhure darra in olden days was used as the place where convicts were tied up in sacks and thrown to their death several hundred metres below. A short journey to the taxi stand and a delicious meal in a Marwari restaurant there (they really are Pan-Indian!) we set out on the road back to New Jalpaiguri. For those with more time (and warm clothes!) I would suggest a trip to the 4600 m high Nathu La where the Indo China trade takes place and also to the nearby Tsomgo lake, a gem really. The more adventurous can go to Guru Dongmar Lake in the far north. At 5200 m, its the highest lake in the world and you need to acclimatise to the rarified atmosphere. But with views like this, I guess it’ll be worth it!

Tsomgo lake   Guru Dongmar Lake 

En route we came to Melli where one can have the ride of a lifetime on a bobbing raft down the white waters of the Teesta. Some distance ahead we see the Teesta Hydroelectric Project in full swing, proof that “development” has finally reached here. It is sad to think that this gorgeously magnificent beast of a river will now have an ugly concrete structure in its midst! We reached NJP at about 5 30 PM after a journey of 120 kms that took close to 5 hours. I looked at the hills from the guesthouse rooftop. The sky was slowly darkening and the hills appeared like a vast black monolith with lights twinkling in them here and there. I knew I would be back. I surely will be. Someday!

Advertisements

Travelogue: Darjiling and Sikkim (Part II)

Darjiling was all misty and rainy when we reached. And that is the way the climate is throughout the year. From being a tiny holiday resort with a few thousand people, D’ling has today come a long way. It is a sprawling town with more than 100,000 inhabitants spread over more than 10 kms at an altitude of 2134 m. Unplanned growth and lack of restrictions on settling has made it like any other Indian town; dirty, smelly and crowded. The town is mostly populated by Gorkhas, the indigenous inhabitants of this place who share a lot in common with their brethren in Nepal. A Gorkhaland Movement demanding an autonomous hill state in Darjiling was in ascendancy throughout the 1980s and early 90s. Through a truce conducted with the Govt of India, an Autonomous Hill Council has been created with the leader of the Gorkhaland Movement, Subhash Ghisingh as the Chairman.

The rain prevented any sightseeing that day. From the balcony of my room in Craigmont, a guest house located about halfway up the hill overlooking D’ling, I could see towering mountains barely 5-6 kms in front of me. Tiny lights twinkled in the cottages spread throughout the tea gardens. Darjiling itself was awash in light with traffic in full flow. The temperature in Darjiling always hovers around the 10 C mark. It is never bone-chilling cold and snowfall is quite rare. Sadly, the much yearned for peace was nowhere to be sought. Honks of taxis and cars could be heard far below. I spent the night watching news channels interview a psycho who claimed to be Abhishek Bachchan’s girlfriend.

At about 3 AM the next morning we set out for Tiger Hill, a hill top at 2585 m about 11 kms from town which we were told offers great sunrise views. Apparently a lot of other tourists were told so too for the roads were chock-a-bloc with tourists at this unearthly hour. A drive of 45 mins through Ghoom and the Senchal Wildlife Sanctuary and a hike of 15 mins through a rock outcrop brought us to our destination. There were close to 300 people there, all waiting for the same sight. Soon the sun rose and painted in pink a massif that rose 8586 m in front of us, Kanchenjunga! The third highest peak in the world! Far to the right peeped out Mount Everest flanked by Mt. Makalu. The colour soon changed to a bright orange. The Teesta and its tributaries flowed towards the south. The snow-capped Chol range too made an appearance. People stood where they were…transfixed by this appearance of superb beauty.

Kanchenjunga from Tiger Hill     The Batasia Loop   Ghoom Monastery 

When the spell broke we all proceeded back to D’ling. En route we stopped at Ghoom Monastery, a beautiful building with brilliant paintings whose entrance serves as a much sought after market for local goods. Further ahead we stopped at Batasia Loop, probably the most famous loop in the entire DHR system which too offers mind numbing views of Kanchenjunga. The track here looks down to a deep gorge on one side and the Gorkha War Memorial on the other. A recently planted garden here took away, in my opinion, much of the pristine beauty of this place. The rest of the day saw us exploring the Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park, a beautifully maintained zoo that is a treasure trove for people who want to know about Himalayan fauna. The elusive Red Panda and the Siberian Tiger are the prime attraction here. Adjoining the zoo is the Tenzing Norgay Himalayan Mountaneering Institute which was run by the great mountaineer himself. My favourite spot though was the untouched jungle that abutted the zoo and a trek into which was allowed. After barely walking for half a kilometre, you notice the utter loneliness around. There is no human sound to be heard. Cicadas and birds chirp. Thick Sal trees are all around. The ground is covered with fallen leaves. To your right the hillside descends steeply to a river flowing far below. For the third time that day I was bewitched! We also visited a beautiful butterfly museum and the ropeway site which was then sadly out of order. The hilltop is a particularly good place to check out the Mock Tudor Villas of the erstwhile British planters.

Darjiling is also the best place to have Momos, a tibetan speciality. It is a dumpling with a filling of either vegetables or meat (usually beef or pork).

Momo     

The boiled vegetarian Momo was heavenly! And who can forget the Darjiling Tea? The locally available brew has a lingering aroma and a taste that is quite unlike the Darjiling we people have in our homes. Evening saw me visit Islamia restaurant in the main market for some taste of North Indian food. The return journey was a disaster. I walked back home in heavy rain (Darjiling has no public transport for city travel). Being unfamiliar with the route I took a longer route by mistake and was thoroughly drenched by the time I reached. The rain in the hills is nothing like the placid one we have here. It stings the skin and is cold, very cold. The wet Islamia dinner (Darjiling has no plastic bags) was what I had to make do with. Tomorrow would see me in Sikkim. 

Darjeeling Chowrasta

Travelogue: Darjiling and Sikkim (Part I)

For some reason travelogues are the most read blogs. My previous one has almost double the readership of the others. So another one would do my hit-o-meter no harm! [:D]….So here comes my own Himalayan sojourn.

Darjiling (meaning the Land of the Thunderbolt) is a district in North Bengal. Before the 19th century, it was a forested uninhabited land, ruled alternatively by the Kingdoms of Sikkim and Nepal. Then came the British. Charmed by its climate and beauty, they made it their favoured summer getaway, a second Shimla for the Raj’s civil servants of Eastern India. They also introduced tea cultivation here, something that is synonymous with Darjiling now.

The journey from Hyderabad to New Jalpaiguri was a long one stretching for close to 40 hours. The Guwahati Express in which we travelled was maintained by the North East Frontier Railway and its condition, to put it mildly, was pathetic! Dirty curtains, hazy glass, soiled linen, old foam…and all this in AC 2 tier! What a contrast from the spic and span railways of South India. The journey till Calcutta was on familiar terrain and I wasnt very interested in the coutryside. However once we made our way into interior Bengal, the countryside changed. Flat paddy fields stretching till the horizon, tiny villages that wont look out of place in a Saratchandra novel and the smell of rain in the air! Ah! Heaven!

Bardhhaman, Rampurhat and Malda town later, we finally reached the bustling town of New Jalpaiguri, the Gateway to the North-East and the guardian of the Chicken’s Neck, the 21 km border that India shares with its North East. NJP as it is called is named after Jalpaiguri, the district headquarters about 50 kms to the south on the old Saidpur-Calcutta line. In the pre-partition era, this was the route that trains used and Jalpaiguri throbbed with life. Today it is an outpost on an insignificant branch line, condemned to slow decay by the inexorable hand of history while its upstart cousin flourishes barely 50 kms away.

NJP is a widespread town. Soldiers, traders and smugglers all flock to it, trying to make their way to Assam and beyond. The climate is damp, humid and warm throughout the year. It is also the starting point of the 87 km long Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a 127 year old Narrow gauge line that is a World Heritage Structure and for years was the only comfortable way of reaching Darjiling from the plains. We bundled into the first class bogie of the tiny train; hauled by a diesel loco, to my extreme disappointment! The train moves very slowly..Indeed for the first hour, it was a very uncomfortable and hot journey for the passengers as the train slowly made its way past the streets and bylanes of Siliguri, the largest town in this area and the former terminus for this line. Soon forests started appearing along the Hill Cart Road which is today the fastest way to reach D’ling and which accompanies the line all the way. Tea gardens also started appearing but there was no sign of any mountain nearby. And then came Sukna, suddenly the landscape changed dramatically. Gone were the flat plains and the rice fields…thick wooded forests became the norm…there was a marked increase in the gradient and the train journey was in full flow. Rangtong and Chunabati were soon left behind and we were surprised to find ourselves on a mountain with the Teesta flowing far away. The train huffed and puffed its way past Tindharia, the place where the loco repair and maintenance workshop is located. Soon followed the jaw dropping Agony Point, the tightest curve on the line.

Agony Point

There was a nip in the air now and high mountains could be seen all around. We sat fascinated by the gorgeous scenery. Powering its way past Gayabari and Mahanadi the train reached the large town of Kurseong (pronounced: Khar-Sang).

Kurseong

En route it passed 6 Z shaped curves where the train reverses and then moves up another line to a higher altitude, a real engineering marvel. We switched to the road in Kurseong after having lunch there. It’s a picure-postcard colonial town dotted with many boarding schools which give a distinct Oxford like aura to this place. At about 1458 metres above sea level, we had climbed over 1350 m in 57 kms.

The journey by road is quicker. Tung, Dilaram, Sonada, Rangbul and Jor Bungalow all went past in quick succession as the road climbed rapidly. Clouds and mist obscured the vision and beautiful tea gardens and forests covered the steep hill sides. We reached Ghoom, the highest point en route to Darjeeling a little while later. At 2225 m above MSL, the feeling is at the top of the world. It is almost always misty and drizzling in Ghoom and the town itself is dominated by the magnificent Ghoom Monastery (more of it later!)…A short descent and the awe-inspiring Batasia loop later, we had finally reached Darjiling, our destination as of now!

Ghoom Railway Station

Orissa Travails

Just had to write something. So here is one of those conversations that well, just happen with me

X: Abdaal bhai, you are a Bihari na?

Me: Umm..no

X: You look like that!

Me: I am not!

X: Dillee then?

Me: Nopes!

X: Where are you from?

Me: Orissa.

X (all clouded up): Orissa……

Me: Is a state in India

X: He he I know….where exactly is it?

Me: Between AP and Bengal…

X: (still confused)

Me: Puri temple, Konark temple, Cuttack…ODIs..Hirakud Dam, Ashoka…killings..Super cyclone…get it?

X: Oh you mean THAT Orissa!

Me: Right!!!

Travel Diary: Daulatabad and Khuldabad

This autumn I had been to Aurangabad and its environs for a short trip of 3 days. Aurangabad is located in the Marathwada region of Maharashtra. Being ruled by Sultans of Ahmadnagar, the Mughals and the Nizams one after the other, the city in many ways resembles some of India’s great Indo-Islamic cities like Hyderabad, Shahjahanabad, Lucknow etc. Its a fascinating place for a history buff. Ruins peep out from unthinkable places, the pace of life is slow and unhurried, the people are refined and cultured and whether Hindu or Muslim, speak pure Urdu, a version rarely heard outside old Lucknow. Aurangabadi Biryani is one of the tastiest versions of the dish, second only to the much hyped cousin of it’s, the Hyderabadi Biryani.

Daulatabad is a small town about 16 kms from Aurangabad. It’s main attraction is its fort, one of the largest and THE most magnificent in India. The area near Daulatabad has been inhabited since about 100 BC. There are the remains of a few caves here, called the Aurangabad Caves. Though not as well known as the Ajanta Caves which are about 90 kms from here, they nevertheless resemble them in quite a few aspects. Then known as Devagiri, Daulatabad was the capital of the flourishing Yadava dynasty. Alauddin Khilji’s General, Malik Kafur ended the Yadave dynasty by defeating its ruler, Ramchandradeva during the course of his South India campaigns. Daulatabad again rose to prominence when the eccentric Tughluq Sultan, Muhammed bin Tughluq shifted his capital from Delhi to Daulatabad. It was under him that the existing Daulatabad Fort was refurbished, strengthened and given its present appearence. Huge banyan trees planted by the Sultan to shade his subjects in the long march from Delhi to Daulatabad still survive. Unfortunately the Sultan failed to provide for the lack of water in the arid Deccan wastes and had to move back to Delhi in a few years. Daultabad again fell into disrepair till the Bahmani and later the Ahmednagar Sultans repaired it, recognising its value in guarding the vital Golconda road. However the city itself never attained anything of its past glory.

Daulatabad Fort and village

The elevation of Aurangabad as the de-facto capital of India during the last quarter century of Aurangzeb’s life gave Daulatabad renewed importance as it guarded the direct route to it. However when the Mughals’ successors in the North Deccan, the Nizams shifted their capital to Hyderabad in the 1760s, Daulatabad again became a mere outpost subject to frequent pillage by the Marathas. The long rule of the Nizams saw the irretrievable decline of Ahmednagar, Aurangabad and Daulatabad and the ascendancy of Hyderabad as the new capital of the Deccan.

Today the fort at Daulatabad seems a mere shadow of its former glory. It is strikingly located, perched on a 200m high hill that dominates the landscape. There are extensive ruins along the fort perimeter, remains of the one time capital of India. Present Daulatabad is a tiny highway side town whose income entirely depends on tourism and supplying food to the highway commuters. The entry to the fort is a nominal Rs 5/-. There are massive bastions guarding the main entrance. Cannons lie around, ornate Mughal ones, early Nizami ones and the mobile British ones.

Daulatabad Fort from afar

Besides the fortifications Daulatabad contains several notable monuments, of which the chief are the Chand Minar and the Chini Mahal. The Chand Minar is a tower 210 ft. high and 70 ft. in circumference at the base, and was originally covered with beautiful Persian glazed tiles. It was erected in 1445 by Ala-ud-din Bahmani to commemorate his capture of the fort.

The Chini Mahal, or China Palace, is the ruin of a building once of great beauty. In it Abul Hasan, the last of the Qutb Shahi kings of Golconda, was imprisoned by Aurangzeb in 1687.

Chand Minar, Daulatabad

The climb to the summit is very hard. The only means of access to the summit is by a narrow bridge, with passage for not more than two people abreast, and a long gallery, excavated in the rock, which has for the most part a very gradual upward slope. The summit has a magnificent Mughal era pavillion along with a cannon called Mendha Tope (Sheep cannon). There is also a Bhool Bhulaiyya or maze with many false routes all of which lead to a trench! Ideal for the enemy to get lost in. At one end of the Fort is a small open air gallery consisting of Jain, Buddhist and Hindu relics unearthed in the neighbourhood. A standing Parasvantaha looked quite impressive to me. The Fort also contains a structure called Bharat Mata temple. This has been a Jain Temple, a Hindu temple and a Muslim mosque before it attained its present form in 1948.

Bharat Mata Temple, Daulatabad

A few kilometres from Daulatabad lies Khuldabad. A small town, it is dominated by the shrine of the Sufi saint, Khwaja Burhanuddin Gharib. Sufi qawwali and the chants of the Bhadra Maruti temple mingle in its air. Adjoining the saint’s dargah is a small enclosure. It contains an earthen grave with a few tulsi plants on it. This is the resting place of the last of the Great Mughals, a man whose writ ran from Ghazni to Chittagong and from Kashmir to Mysore, the Emperor Muhiuddin Muhammad Aurangzeb Alamgir. Six and a half feet of earth is all that he requires now. The puritanical Emperor had forbidden any strucutre on his tomb and had asked that the money he had earned by sewing caps alone should be used for his funerary expenses. The marble flooring and the jaali are the gifts of the Nizam and the British who thought that the Emperor’s resting place was a bit too modest. I uttered a silent prayer for the last Mughal. It’s hard not to feel pity for the man, how much evil he may be accused of. Thankfully, Modern day historians are gradually disproving the many myths regarding Aurangzeb. One day maybe, he will take his true place as one of the greatest administrators of Medieval India.

Aurangzeb’s tomb in Khuldabad

(15/12/07)

A diatribe against Coolness/Hotness

For a long time now, I had been consumed with the idea of appearing cool, hot and any other heat related adjective. After a lot of futile effort and false starts, I have given up, feeling like the absolute ass that I was. The reasons behind this perceived failure are not far to seek

* I dont believe that a Pulsar is an indispensible asset.

* Branded clothes dont exactly make the best purchases. Most of the times, they are overhyped and are obscenely priced.

* Having a girlfriend is quite a pain in the ass. Hence I have decided to abstain.

*Travelling in public transport in no way compromises you or affects the kind of human being you are

* Hairstyles are a bourgeoisie past time.

* Partying Sucks. Period.

* Bunking college isnt cool. Its plain stupid.

* Fridays neednt necessarily mean a trip to IMAX.

* Small time hotels serve food tastier than Pizza Hut or KFC.

* There are better ways to commit suicide than smoking.

* Drinking can give you cirrhosis along with pleasure.

* Discussing history and politics isnt being boring.

* Reading books is preferable to watching MTV.

* Cellphones arent my idea of making a statement.

* There is a world beyond Baristas, grande-coquettes, discotheques and bedrooms.

* You neednt necessarily have Britney Spears’ posters in your bedroom.