A Travellerspoint blog

Darjeeling: no trains but murder

overcast 22 °C

One last great meal at the collonial mansion before we packed our stuff, got into the car and headed on to Darjeeling, passing steeply sloping tea gardens and mystical prayer flags shrouded in the mist. The first sign we were getting close was the railway running up the road, occassionally cutting across to keep a straighter line. We looked out for a train as one was scheduled but we didn't see it. We reached Darjeeling and found all things quiet at the station - all the steam locos were cold in the shed and the diesel loco was at the wrong end of its train. We carried on up the hill to our hotel, up an incredibly narrow, twisty and very steep road (I was amazed Gee made it up in the car). We were given a welcome cup of tea and some not so welcome news - Darjeeling is on strike and has been for 10 days, so no trains and very few shops. Fortunately most of the tourist attractions were open. The strike was held as a protest against the government as the hilly area around Darjeeling (know locally as Gorkha-land) wants to become a separate state and doesn't want to be part of West Bengal. After tea we headed into town to meet Simon, our Belgian friend from Mongolia who happened to be in Darjeeling completing a dentistry course. He took us to a nice restaurant for lunch before we headed to a shop selling photos of the trains from times gone by. After Dad had bought a couple he hadn't seen before we headd further up the hill to a Hindu shrine surrounded by Buddhist prayer flags; observatory hill is a sacred place to both religions. On the way back down we passed the government offices and a Christian church, this time in traditional style. We left our memory card that had the pictures wiped with a recovery shop and said goodbye to Simon as he was leaving Darjeeling tomorrow morning. We walked down to the railway station to look at the steam engines. They were in a sorry state, all dirty and not well looked after. Then back to our hotel for tea before watching an awesome electrical storm from our room.

We woke and had musty porridge for breakfast before setting off for Ghum, the highest train station in India. On the way we stopped off at Batasia loop to see the war memorial for the Gorkhas who fought beside the British in the 2 world wars. On our way back to the car we were passed by a large group of men with a look of intent on their faces, heading towards Darjeeling. Apparently there were to be 2 political rallies in Darjeeling today, for two different opposing parties. There was potential for serious trouble. Gee was pretty worried and when he got a phone call from one of his friends in Ghum saying there was trouble in town we decided to head back to our hotel. We got back to the news that someone had been shot in the main square and town was shut except for large gangs venting their anger. We were pretty shocked by the news. Amy and I wanted to go and observe but of course we were forbidden, probably quite sensibly. Instead we headed to the Japanese peace pagoda on the outskirts of town, well away from the gangs, and found a serene Zen Buddhist temple and a large Stupa decorated with large golden images of the Buddha. A drum beat was echoing off the hilside and we followed the noise into a shrine room with 2 large drums and lots of smaller hand drums. The 2 large drums were being played by monks and the smaller ones were for visitors to the Monastery. We sat down and joined in. It was very meditative and peaceful beating the drum and such a contrast to what was happening less than 5km away. We were joined by a couple of large Indian families who got pretty excited and got faster and faster with the beat and it was no longer quite so peaceful. One guy looked as though he was trying to break the drum he was hitting it so hard. We left quietly and went to admire the Stupa and found the golden images depicted Buddhas life story, from Birth to Enlightenment to Death via excess, starvation and nirvana.It was quiet and peaceful sat amongst the green trees on the hillside, that is until the Indian families came to scream and shout. We walked back into town and, as it was quite late, we decided to risk a walk into town to go to the hotel where Mum and Dad stayed when the were here 25 years ago. It was eerie walking down shuttered, quiet streets almost devoid of life. Anyone we did meet was subdued and quiet, not the usual Indian raucousness that accompanies a walk through the centre of town. We passed a house with broken windows and when we reached the centre of town a section of street was closed off. We made it safely to the Windemere hotel and had afternoon tea with stories of reminisence before heading back before it got dark.

Posted by SamAmy 02:25 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Kalimpong and sight seeing


We woke, admired the foggy view, had breakfast and set off for Kalimpong. We reached the Sikkimese/West Bengal border and stopped to get yet more stamps in our passports, this time for leaving Sikkim. We found a guy sat playing a Serangi on the steps to the building and sat down to listen. I brought my instrument I had bought 2 days ago and he set it up correctly, tuned it and played it a little. He wasn't impressed and tried to get me to swap it for one of his but I liked mine and his was bright yellow! He taught me how to play it properly (not like a violin as that makes it sound horrendous) before it was time to leave. I thanked him for his impromptu lesson and we set off again. We arrived in Kalimpong and pulled up at our hotel, the Himalayan retreat, which was a grand colonial building with awesome rooms that had high ceilings, lots of dark wood furniture and open fireplaces in each room. We met an Indian couple who had lived all over the world at different parts of their lives and now shared their time between California and India. We headed down to the dining hall with its 2 old gramaphones and a wind up, fixed mouthpiece telephone and enjoyed a good meal.After lunch we went for a walk into town to a Christian church that was locked and a Buddhist monastery that wasn't. As we walked in we got yellow holy water to drink (which no-one actually drank as it also smelt funny) and then we were inside a smallish monastery with suprisingly blank walls. We looked closer and realised they were being repainted and all the figures were in different stages of detail. It seemed the pictures were painted in reverse, with all the jewellery and clothing finished before the face detail and the hair. In the centre were a lot of wax sculptures and in the corner was a monk meditating. We span the prayer wheels outside before wandering back to the hotel for tea and bed.

We woke, had a good breakfast and went to meet Gee who took us to a cactus nursery. It was somebody's garden that they had completely given over to large polythene tents completely filled with cactus', some short and fat, some tall and thin, some hairy, fluffy, spiky, rotund and even some flowering. After we had admired all their hardwork in growing cactus' in one of the wettest parts of India we carried on to another monastery, this one being Gee's sect of Buddhism, the yellow hat sect. It was a very well maintained monastery with lots of religious imagery depicting stories with obvious meanings, rather than just the usual deities and auspicious symbols. A monk came to unlock the main prayer hall and showed us around, pointing out the three huge golden buddhas (just in case we might miss them). There was a throne for the Dalai lama if he were ever to visit, and above the prayer hall were his quarters. We spun the huge prayer wheel before heading further down the hill to a Christian church in a local style. It had a double layered, almost chinese style roof and a minimalist tower, and inside the altar was decorated with buddhist style carvings. All over the walls were pictures from the bible stories but the characters all had Tibetan faces and there were the Buddhist 8 auspicions everywhere. A strange blend of cultures and religions. We headed back to the hotel for lunch before going to a paper factory in the afternoon. The process starts from the wood of a particular tree being boiled in a huge pot before two ladies take out the stinking slush and separate it into bits suitable for paper and bits that aren't. Then the bits that are are put into a huge mincer and made into a slush with water. This slush is then sieved by 2 men with large flat sieves into thin, flat sheets which are piled up then squeezed in a press. The paper is then coloured before rolling them flat and smooth, then making it into books or cards or just left as paper. Of course we bought some before heading to the market for Dad to buy tea and Mum to buy a bag to take all her souvenirs home in. We headed back to the hotel and sat on the balcony waiting for tea. We were playing with cameras and showing Mum and Dad different things they could do with them. Then Amy accidentally deleted over 1000 photos! Not good! Amy quickly got on the phone to her brother to see if it was possible to recover them and he confirmed it was. Good news! Dinner was called and we headed down to eat before heading to bed.

Posted by SamAmy 01:35 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

Rumtek monastery

sunny 22 °C

Today we drove on to Rumtek after an early stop at the Cottage Industries place which was closed yesterday as it was Sunday. There were lots of little stalls in a marquet selling all handmade wares from jewelery to pickles, material woven items to wooden instruments.
I persuaded Sam to have a go of one of the wooden 'violin-like' Selangis hanging on the wall of one stall. It didn't sound too good but with practice I think it will sound a lot better and it was only 1200Rs. The museum of handicrafts upstairs was intriguing, there was a 300 year old wooden pillar from a monastery, an assortment of Tibetan clothing and artifacts, paintings and carpets. We had a look in the two open classrooms, the first contained 5 or 6 girls, each with a giant loom. They used their legs to keep tension on their work, but when one girl was being helped by the teacher she leg her legs relax and swiftly recieved an almighty slap on the thigh from the teacher. I couldn't help but imagine how boring it must be to weave metres and metres of the same pattern! The second room contained boys diong many different handicrafts, painting, drawing the 8 auspicions, painting little coffee tables, carving and mask making. It is nice to see these people learning trades so that they can produce handicrafts to sell. After seeing the people making the items we went back downstairs and bought some more of their wares.

It was 24kn to the Rumtek monastery but due to the pot-holed and windy roads it took just over an hour. The monastery holds the seat of the Kagyud order of monks-the black hats, one of the four major Tibetan Buddhist sects. Once inside we had a quick walk around and a monk started to ring a gong so we sat down to see what happened. A flock of hundreds of monks fled into the building at the centre of the complex. We presumed that we wouldn't be allowed inside but wandered over just in case and were ushered inside by a monk. We stood in a corner and absorbed as the chanting, drum beating and occasional musical interlude played out around us. It was surreal and beautifully calming. I could have happily sat in there all day. The monks read from loose-leafed books with each sentence being the same number of syllables and chanted in a monotone manner. Every now and then the older monks would shake bells in time with the chanting and the three drum players with larger drums would hit them so hard that my insides vibrated! It was magical. The ceremony looked set to go on all afternoon and there was nowhere for us to sit so we had a look around the room, behind the Buddha and at some of the black hats, wrapped in black silk.

We found Gee outside polishing the car engine- no joke it looked brand new and the car is a fair few years old! We had chai and bananas and drove the 15 minutes to our hotel. In the afternoon we went for a walk in the surrounding area, through the steppe fields, stopping to investigate the odd bright green crop of newly sprouted barley or rice and tiny weird looking white insects. After a loop of the steppes we headed uphill on the opposite side of the road and came across a newly built monastery, as large as the one at Rumtek but still only made from concrete with no painting. The Buddha was already inside and covered with a plastic sheet to keep it clean. It was an experience. We had a wander along the road to the next little village when a little boy and girl asked Sam to take a photo of them so he obliged then we went back for dinner and sleep.

Posted by SamAmy 01:30 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

The Institute of Tibetology and Enchey Monastery

sunny 25 °C

Kate "knocked us up" (knocked on the door) at 7.30 for an 8am breakfast of porridge, toast and omelette which was a brilliant start to set us up for a morning of sightseeing and afternoon of shopping!

The Enchey monastery was first on the list of stops, built on the site blessed by a tantric master known for his ability to fly. The main temple room was ornately decorated in a rainbow of colours and room posed a full blown assault of the senses. A kind man explained about the 'wheel of life' to us as we were looking at a painting outside the main door, it was the transition through life to heaven and hell. There was a room full of oil candles that devotees lit for a prayer and a little room with a holy man in where the devotees can go to pray for things for themselves. The man earlier had explained that people pray to Buddha for world peace and happiness and to the holy man for themselves. We walked around the building three times spinning the hundreds of prayer wheels, thinking about the bad in the world the first time and the good for the last two.

Back into the car and to the 'Flower complex'. I had no idea what to expect and it didn't look very large from the outside but the inside was a blur of colour- lots of orchids and some other flower. Sam had fun getting lots of close-ups and it kept everyone entertained, me more so as I'd bought some pink candyfloss!

For the third stop we visited the "Namgyal Institute of Tibetology" which housed relics and information about Buddhism. There were lots of statues, posters, human skull cups used to store holy 'nectar', human thigh bone trumpets and some religious scripts in the usual loose leaf form bound in cloth. We spent a while reading the signs and avoiding the Indian people who didn't find it all at rude to stand in the 30cm gap between you and what you are reading before walking up the road to a chorten. It was built in 1945 and contains religious objects such as a set of the holy books and mantra. There are 108 prayer wheels and several people were busy spinning them and chanting "Om Mane Padme Hum" translated as "O Jewel in the Lotus".

In the afternoon we caught a taxi with Gee to 'the market' which meant the shops. Kate and I did a bit of souvenir shopping and when the boys seemed to be getting bored we stopped for tea and cakes in a cafe. On the way back to the hotel we noted that the crazy traffic and bad wiring on electricity poles (which resembles something not dissimilar to birds nest) are two things that haven't changed in India in the last 25 years since Kate and Dave were last here!!

We went back to the hotel and freshened up before another night of dinner in the dining hall filed with beautfiul orchids (some even as wall decorations hanging from a fixed piece of wood!) The food was lovely too, Tibetan style :) with lots of vegetables and sweet and sour chicken- yummy.

Posted by SamAmy 21:40 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

An amble in Gangtok

sunny 33 °C

Up and in the car by 5am as there is a strike on here today and we don't want to get stuck by the roadblocks! We drove along winding roads through the mountains all the way to our hotel in Richenpong which took about 3 hours. It was a little Tibetan themed place on a mountainside with stunning views of the steppe fields across the valley and the air was peaceful. We sat ouside our rooms under the thatched room with some white furry moths and ate our packed lunches. Amy got into bed after as she still wasn't fully recovered and Sam and his parents went to explore a monastery and the king of Sikkims brother's house. It was a nice walk from the village along a country path to the King's brother's house and when we got there it was a picturesque 2 story house made of wood. We weren't allowed close as the 2 gardeners came across, banned us from taking photos and said we weren't allowed to look round. Apparently the money from the government for being a 'tourist attraction' hadn't come through so no foreigners were allowed. We walked back towards a monastery hidden in a forest of prayer flags where we found a Buddhist prayer session going on. It was a tiny monastery and the hall was packed with monks, with the younger ones having to sit in the aisle. We stood outside and listened to the chanting, interspersed with rhythmic music. It was very serene and peaceful. We walked back and on the way met Amy, looking much healthier and happy. We all enjoyed a nice meal before heading to bed.

We left Richenpong in the morning for a 6 hour drive to Gangtok, stopping for lunch at a picnic spot with a lovely view down into a valley below. We arrived mid-afternoon and Kate, Sam and I decided to go for a little explore. Armed with a photo of the name of our hotel in case we get drastically lost we headed off up the hill. We walked up lots of steps, past children playing hop-scotch and with a tin-lid on the end of a stick, past lots of houses and little streams of rubbish being carried along the open sewers and we arrived at a main road at the top. We walked along the road, admiring the people as we went and decided that we'd walked far enough just as we got to a stadium. We went for a closer inspection and a girl of about 15 intercepted us on the way and asked if we'd like her to show us around, of course we would. She showed us the football pitch which looked a little worse for wear but we can't complain before the monsoon! She then took us to the rear of the complex and showed us the sports hall where some men were doing martial arts, the table-tennis room and the room where she was playing badminton in a few minutes. We thanked her for the tour and set off on our way back. We came across a little monastery with a few child monks sat on the wall and as we approached one of them came and opened the gate and waved us in. Three children showed us around the main room with Buddha and lots of ornate painting and hangings. It was as beautiful as monasteries always are. We said thank you and Sam took a couple of photos of the monks before we re-traced our steps to the hotel. We reached a point with an orange house which we'd noted as a landmark on the way up and as we looked for the way down, I glanced across the road and a man in the shop opposite pointed down the steps, he was looking out for us :)

Posted by SamAmy 21:30 Archived in India Tagged backpacking Comments (0)

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