Tuesday, April 25, 2017

4/20 -- Drive to Darjeeling

Today, we headed out of Sikkim and west to Darjeeling, which is 3000 feet higher. In part, our itinerary was designed to prepare us for the uphill hike to Tiger's Nest Monastery, at 10,000 feet.  Martam is 4500 feet, Darjeeling is 7000 feet and our next stops are 7600 to 9000 feet. We are being given opportunities to walk around, especially uphill. The first part of the drive was back down through Rangpo where we entered Sikkim. This time I was not worried about motion sickness because we were going so slowly and actually got to enjoy the scenery.

At one point, the road circled up several times around a hill like a corkscrew. One of the ways people try to make driving more safe is to sound a horn on the blind curves (or where people are in the road). In this case, the horn sounded solidly for several minutes.

The  lead bus below us -- there were lots of switchbacks, which
I actually got to enjoy because we drove so slowly.

We spotted several waterfalls.

Interesting looking house, no idea which village.

Macaques along the highway
There is a folktale about these two rivers as lovers, meeting
here and joining finally.

The overlook is a very popular stopping point. We talked to
to these Indian nuns (from an Indian only sect) at the point.

We stopped later at a lovely manicured park.

The steps at the park were decorated.

Looking across the park near the top. There are dozens of
prayer flags here.

Once we got to the outskirts of Darjeeling, the ride became challenging because of the traffic and geography here. We entered from the east side, but our hotel was near the northwest edge of the city, which is is long and narrow and shaped like an L with the long top part pointed east and the short bottom part pointed south. It is built on steep hills with narrow roads that have too many cars for the space allotted. There are no sidewalks, so the people compete with the cars. Near the end of our trip, our van needed to make a multi-point U-turn and swung to the left to begin it, next to a tall fence. Someone decided to start walking between the car and the fence. He was about even with me as the space he was in kept getting smaller and I was afraid he would get squished. 
One end of the 'Toy Train' which we will ride later.
A passenger section of the narrow gauge train."DHR" stands
for Darjeeling Himalayan Railroad.

Former city hall where we did a u-turn to get
into the street the hotel is on.

Our drivers are amazing. They weave in and out of the horrible traffic with only inches or less to spare.  The narrow driveway into our hotel has two switchbacks that take multi-point turns to negotiate. Amazingly the van is totally devoid of the scratches that you would assume they would have acquired just in the few days we have been with them.

Our hotel, the Windemere, is set on a hill top with what we are told is a wonderful view of the Himalayas, if only the clouds weren't so thick. It was kind of a club in the old days and has been maintained to keep its original character (and apparently the furniture) with modern upgrades like electricity and running water for the bathrooms. They say it has been restored but not renovated. That is clear from the bathtubs (clawfoot) and electrical connections (exposed or conduited wires along the ceilings and walls). One wonderful old feature is the working coal fireplaces which are lit for us each  night. There is no central heat and the small portable radiator is inadequate to the task of keeping the room warm by itself. In addition, the nightly turndown service includes placing a hot water bottle under the bed covers at the foot level.

After we had a chance to settle in, we took a walk around the neighborhood. On the north side of the hill (backside of the hotel) are a bunch of touristy kiosks. Nearby there is a large public square with markets going off in two directions. While we were walking around, we saw a large elaborate stage being constructed for a film that starts production tomorrow. Dinner is in a candlelit dining room that is not a public restaurant. Cellphones are prohibited to foster conversation with the people present.
St. Andrews Church, established in the 1800s

Nearby public square with a backwards aphitheater dwarfed
by a jumbotron.

Map of Darjeeling. We are at the top  of the left leg, on the
right edge of the little upside down L at the top. Gorkhaland
is what this section of West Bengal would like to be called
if they ever can break away into their own state.

Monday, April 24, 2017

4/19 -- Hike, Home Visits, School Visit

It was supposed to be rainy and chilly today, but that didn't happen. Unfortunately, we should have worn short sleeves for our hike through the rice paddies past several homes, with stops to visit the residents. This was intended to be our first training walk in preparation for Tiger's  Nest, although there was less of a challenging uphill portion than I anticipated. That was the good part.

I had encouraged Jim to bring his lightly used hiking shoes and about 5-10 minutes out from the hotel, the glue on the right sole gave way and completely separated from the shoe, so he went back to the hotel to change shoes. I thought it was taking him a long time to rejoin us and discovered there was a good reason:  when he got there he found the car gate locked and the door at one side of it wouldn't open. The hotel is walled, and he walked all around it to find another way in, he pounded on the gate to attract attention, and finally decided to scale the 6-foot wall.

He got to the top okay, but was where the clothes lines were which were very close to the wall so he ending up jumping down -- remember, one shoe has no heel pad any more -- and bruised both heels, the heel-less one much worse. He found the staff at breakfast, which was why they couldn't hear him knocking. They got him into the room to change shoes and showed him that the weird round thing on the door turned to open it... He was able to complete the  hike, but was no longer walking faster than everybody else.
Jim's foot -- first day

The wall  he scaled -- landed behind
the gates where wire clothes lines were.

The door didn't push open and the
little round thing didn't look enough
like a handle to try turning it.

Foot the end of the second day.
We spent time visiting three families who live among the rice paddies and also learned about native medical remedies from a local. We ended up at a Hare Krishna temple. This is one kind of Hindu temple, dedicated to Lord Krishna, a reincarnation of Vishnu. Enup (eh-NOOP), our Sikkim/Darjeeling guide, is Hindu and explained the background of this segment of Hinduism. We asked the priest a TON of questions and many of us got blessings. We took so long that Chimi started wondering if we had been kidnapped. 
The low plants in the foreground are cardamom, a major crop here.
At the base of the cardamom are small yellow
seed pods, which is what is used.

Detail of the yellow jobbies
Our first family: gramma and shy granddaughter

She was a bit more relaxed inside

The kitchen

I got to present her with our gift for her help

One of the farms

Kids ready for school. Uniforms are free til 9th grade.

Another pair ready for school

A home from above

This home is built with bamboo lath in a wood frame, and
covered with colored cow dung plaster. The thatch roof is
getting non-traditional help.
A rice hay rack

Hiking uphill

The fields here are mostly rice and all terraced.

Another homeowner with Enup

Inside of the Hare Krishna temple.

Close by was a very nice multi-family home where we were served lunch. The food was good, but unfortunately, the family members spent more time serving us than talking. We did get an opportunity to try our hands at making kind of a thin rice flour doughnut- some of us more successful than others. It appeared that the most critical skill was stirring the dough around in the oil once it had been dropped in. Our hostess also used her hands to swirl the dough into the water, which was messier for her but gave her more control than the cup we used.
One of the wives demonstrating the process

Trying pour a doughnut shape from a cup.

Our lunch hosts. The man on the right was the chef.

Next was a stop at a local school that taught kids from 1st to 10h grades. We spoke with the head  mistress and several of the teachers, several of whom taught English, which is mandatory in the schools. However, they told us the high school kids were not as solid on the spoken language as we might expect and then gave us an opportunity to interact with them. It was fun and the kids were eager for the attention.

After a little time to recover for the  day, we met for a discussion of a topic that is controversial in the area and explains why there was so much security at the Rumtek Monastery. Before the previous  leader died, he was supposed to write a letter telling  how to determine the next leader, but his #1 subordinate would not reveal the letter after the leader's death. There were 3 other primary subordinates who aligned themselves into 2 groups and each independently picked a next leader. That was in 1980. The question of who is the true leader is still unresolved. The Dalai Lama stepped in and supported one, but that did not resolve things. Recently the other nominee decided to take himself out of the running and married, which is strictly forbidden. The true leader remains unresolved. The feelings on each side were so intense that the  monks were duking it  out and security was brought in to maintain the peace and ensure that treasured artifacts were not inappropriately acquired. They also check each person's ID at the gate to be sure  no one is sneaking in

Next up was a dance performance by two student groups representing Nepali and Bhutia peoples. We were invited to try to dance along with them too. At the end, we were all going to dance together and a guide, Sujay, who is assisting Chimi on this first trip on this  itinerary, asked if we would like to learn some Bollywood steps, so we all signed up. He said we could make up dance steps from normal activities: flying a kite, picking fruit from trees, grinding corn  the old way, and simultaneously screwing in a light bulb and turning on a faucet behind you. It was  hilarious, and really kind of worked. After all the laughter, we had a shamanic demonstration, then adjourned to dinner and then bed.
The Nepali group

Above and below: Bhutia group

Lynn demonstrating the 'grinding corn' step.
Sujay did a much deeper knee bend.

Shaman demonstration

4/18 -- Monastery, Nunnery

Recognizing that we were pretty exhausted from 2 long days, Chimi flip-flopped the schedule and we left at 10am to go to the Rumtek Monastery, the largest Bhuddist monastery in Sikkim. It was established in the 1960s by a lama who escaped from Tibet and is a very popular tourist stop. The head lama gave us a tour of the temple (no pictures allowed inside) and then led us upstairs to a classroom for a lesson on meditation, complete with a practice session. Unfortunately, photos were not allowed inside anywhere.
Entrance to Rumtek Monastery. Note the guards.

Prayer wheels--The Tibetan influence is obvious

Entrance to the complex

Entrance to the temple--Lama, Chimi (Tour Leader),
Enup (Local Guide), and Sujay (Logistics Specialist along
because this is only the 4th time this trip has been offered).
Our group: Sharon, Shelly, Chimi, Lynn, Cynthia (front),
Lisa (back), Lily (front), Jim, Lloydene

Central atrium

Roof decorations

Finally, we had a chance to view a stupa (grave), but it was up a bunch of steps and I was surprising lethargic. I think it was a combination of dehydration and the altitude of 5200 feet, so I bailed on the last section and had a nice chat with another  lady from the group, Sharon, who was also not quite up to the extra steps.

Next on the agenda was lunch, followed by a visit to Mahatma Ghandi Way, a pedestrian shopping area in Gangtok, at a higher altitude than we had been before. It is a major city built on steep hills. Four of our group (not us) agreed to split into two teams and see how much different stuff they could buy for 200 rupees (about $3). The rest of us wandered around the mall to see if there was anything interesting to buy. There was also a lower  market, 135 steps down, which I declined to look at, given my earlier challenges.

Ghandi and the mall behind him

Sign in the mall. Apparently betel nut chewing makes this
a serious problem here.

Decorations for a Chinese restaurant

Forget the  narrow alley--look at the steep stairs.
Finally, we visited a Buddhist nunnery. There are about 25 nuns in residence, ranging in age from 7 to 91. The youngest came to them from a family who lived two days walk away. They chose this place as a refuge from family difficulties for their daughter because her 14 year-old sister is also there. We had an opportunity to ask questions, got a tour of the kitchen, and were invited to watch a service which featured chanting and tooting on several sizes of horns. After observing for about 20 minutes, we left for the hotel.
Nunnery entrance. Note the lack of security, which is more
normal than what we saw at Rumtek.

Two of the younger  nuns in their room

The worship service. The two long things are deep horns that
are played during the chanting.

The internet was finally up and we had about 20 minutes to catch up before a talk by a young woman who had written a couple books about Sikkim culture and ethnic groups.

Before dinner, we had a presentation from the two teams who had taken very different approaches to the challenge.

One of the books our presenter wrote
Shelly and Lisa decided not to spend more than 10 Rupees (15 cents) on anything and even scored some 1 Rupee items. They had an eclectic collection of more than 20 things,and we roared as they explained their finds. Lily and  Lloydene took a different approach and got enough good luck charms for each of us and our guides by using  Lily's superior bargaining skills to get them all for about half price.

After dinner, it was time for bed again. We are slowly adapting to being halfway around the world. We get to sleep at 9:30 and wake up the first time about 2:30am, then  4:30 and finally 6, although the alarm is set for 7. The real milestone for me will be when I can get to 4:30 without being awake enough to wonder about the time.