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Round the World Journey

Sikkim and Darjeeling

INDIA | Monday, 9 October 2017 | Views [185]

It was a pleasure to fly over to Bagdogra - gateway to Sikkim after so many long jouneys on the road and rail.  It was a short taxi ride to our overnight digs in the scruffy town of Siliguri. For the second or third time our long booked hotel was however playing games having cancelled my booking on the day of the journey. I suspected that they wanted more money and as usual for 100 ruppees more we were told we could stay. Not that the room was a good one. I was glad to leave the next day and take a bus up to Gangtok.  This necessitated stopping at the border to Sikkim and getting a permit which proved to be straighforward.

Gangtok was a delightful surprise with a British inspired high street and smart, up market appearance.  The population seems mixed with many Tibetans, Neapalese and Bhutanese supplementing locals.  Sikkim is indeed a beautiful state with a rich variety of flowers recognisable from home including camellias, orchids, roses etc.  Close to Gangtok is a Tibetan monastery at Rumtek that I visited. Some kind of convention seemed to be happeniung which made for a colourful sight. I also visited the viewpoints above Gangtok including one spectacular monastery bizarrely aintained by the Indian army.

Shared jeeps being the main mode of transport. At best the journeys are cheap but I have learned the hard way to pay for an extra seat and to try and sit in the front or middle row since they generally insist upon 4 in a row which over gravel and scarred moutanins roads in the heat makes for an uncomfortbale journey. On the plus side the scenery has been stunning - following river valleys and winding up steep moutanin sides.

We overnighted in Kalimpong another hill town and enjoyed a 500 ruppee room in a home stay type arrangment. Spacious rooms in a 4 story house with the lower basement, still with views high up on the moutanside, all ot ourselves.

Sunday morning - we haggled and argued as ever for a taxi and eventually got one for 20 and not 200 ruppees to the Scottish Church named after its missionary founder MacFarlane. The worship was lively and good but i am afraid the Hindu sermon and long prayers did for me so I left after an hour and a quarter. I expected to pick up a shared jeep quickly but for some reason there was quite a queue and not a car in sight.  Declining to pay 2000 R to take a taxi we were eventaully rescued by a group of students who had hired a car and cip-opted us for the mcuh more reasonable 250 R.  

The drive to Darjeeling was a highlight with spectacular views. The scenery is remiscent of home with vistas vying with woodland and hillside flowers, some tended, some natural.  We really shiould have stopped and found a quiet hotel en route up the 20km or so moutanin road since when we reached Darkjeeling itself the urban sprawl and mess was a disappointment. There is the odd colonial building but none of the charm of Shimla and so much more filth and mess. Even the steam train is out of service due to problems on the track.

Darjeeling grows on you and on day 2 I wandered down a lovely quiet road to the zoo to see red pandas, bengal tigers, cloud leopards and other rare species in one of India's best zoos which provided a decent amout of space to the animals. A quiet cafe provided respite from the hustle and bustle of the lower town and I enjoyed taking in some of the older British architecture.  

In heavy rain we visited Happy Valley Tea Estate a few minutes walk from Darjeeling. Ladies with umbrellas were still in the fields picking the tips andin a tour of the factory I learnt the differnece between first flush (Spring), second flush (Summer), third flush (Autumn) and fourth flush (monsoon) teas as well as how processing varies for green (least processed), white and black tea, and how the tips are graded.  Fascinating and truly delicious tea that needed no milk or sugar and was so clear and fresh.

We took a shared jeep down a different route back to Siliguri enjoying fresh spectactular views as we zig zagged down the mountainside from 7000ft. Siliguri had not improved and we endured a Fawlty Towers like experience as I said goodbye to Andy, heading back to the UK, and got ready for a 4am start to Calcultta or Kolkata as it is now known.

I was in executive class so enjoyed Indian hospitality but the train was almost an hour late and arrived at the crowed Howlah station at 2.20 leaving just a few hours to cram in key sights. The Victoria Memorial built in the early 20th century was truly momentous and elegant - rather like the domed Sheldonian or St Pauls. Beautiful white stone and interesting exhibits which I skimmed before visiting St Paul's Cathedral which reminded me a little of Ely cathedral with its beautiful Bourne Jones window.  The interior was even better than the exterior and i felt the presence of God. As the traffic got worse a kind passer by put me onto a 7 ruppee bus to Dalhousie Square with Writers Memorial - an E Indian Compnay/ Goverment centre of the British but it did not thrill as the Vicoria Memorial did with its lovely grounds, and is now in use with the Indian Post Office.  

My final point of call was Mother Theresa's Convent which now contains of course the tomb of this amazing saint. Mother House is off a bustling, run of the mill trading street and the slums are close at hand. I was moved to visit this place including Mother's plain and box like room and to read the story of her upbringing and ministry. What a reach and work of God!  

The journey to the hotel near the airport took well over an hour as the grid locked roads showcased the difficult conditions that Mother worked in. So many slums. So much rubbish.  So many people living in shacks or on the streets. Such love to live in this place.

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