Thursday, April 05, 2007

Red pandas in the mist

Arriving in West Bengal at the foot of the Himalaya (without seeing it), I waited a few days for the weather to improve in the heat and mosquitoes of the lower plains. As it didn't I fetched my permit and headed for Sikkim. The roads are very good, no doubt thanks to the heavy military presence in the tiny state squeezed between Nepal on the East, China on the North, Bhutan in the West and just a few kilometers in the South Bangladesh. Gangtok itself is crossed by the highway and the traffic is almost unbearable. As the roas is very steep, and the jeeps and trucks belch noxious diesel fumes right into your lungs.

Fortunately the guesthouse was very nice (although cold) and the few days I spent there were very enjoyable. The smiles and friendliness of the (mostly Bouddhist) Sikkimese is very refreshing after the coldness of the Hindous. This feels like a different country. The food also makes for a good change, the Indian thalis making room for Tibetan momos (dumplings) and thukpa(noodle soup) . The beer is cheap too, but even better is the tongba, a kind of sake made from fermented millet.

The day trip to a lake at 4000m, above the clouds, was the only way to get a goof view on nearby Kanchenjunga, 8500m. In the couple days I spent in Western Sikkim I saw mist, haze and gray valleys instead of the "stupendous" views boasted by the guidebook. Oh well, after 4 months of solid blue sky..

Next stop is in Darjeeling, at 2100m (but it feels much colder than that). A heavy storm broke up the night before that cleared up (momentarily) the sky, so the ride up was fantastic, a very steep road (30% most of the time I guess) in the lush tea plantations until I reached the traffic-congested and misty ridge where Darjeeling is built. Only the British could have thought about built a resort in a place with such miserable weather.

Trekking was quickly dismissed in those conditions, but fortuntely again, the guesthouse was very cosy and hosted an extensive library which allowed me to get into some solid reading. I also bumped into some backpackers I had met before. That's also probably the only place in India where you can have good black tea; drinking "high tea" in a posh hotel makes up for the total lack of view.


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