Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Reflections

For new journeys like this India trip, we purposely never make detailed plans, so we never know exactly what to expect. For us, it's the serendipitous experiences and sights that we cherish.

India is a multi-cultured country and most everyone has and speaks their own language or dialect but it was welcoming to find we never had a problem conversing as English is taught in schools and spoken by almost all.

It's a land of intensities and extremes that can be observed in its geography and in the nature of its inhabitants. The foods are spiced with rich and exciting flavours. They dress in dazzling and vivid colours and paint their homes and buildings from a riotous palette. It's as if their bold displays compensate for and escape from the hopeless poverty that afflicts the multitude. But penury hasn't affected their friendliness and generosity.

Hyper-chromatic you can feel

A painter's paroxysm you can see

Colourful curries you can taste

We are quasi vegetarian and many in India are too; the availability was abundant so we had a great variety to choose from.

This is the quintessential tea growing area so we sampled and really enjoyed all the many different flavours available including the locals' favourite, masala, which is a milky and sweet tea, usually with cardamon and ginger. To most, this does not sound very good, but it is actually quite tasty.

We were expecting cool to cold nights at the high altitudes but we weren't expecting the hotels to be so chilly. Electricity is expensive and non-reliable so they don't have heaters, but they do provide blankets aplenty. Many evenings we spent wearing our down-filled jackets until we crawled into bed. Most hotels did not have double beds or larger, only single. We of course pushed them together or cuddled in one of the single beds for the extra body heat!

Fortunately the weather was favourable and dealt us mostly sunny days. We carried rain gear but only needed it once for 2 kilometres.

This area is at risk for seismic activity but one wonders, looking at the building standards, what would happen if "the big one" hit.

Fodder for the Earthquake Gods

India has recently implemented a clean-up initiative and in Darjeeling we saw it in action. The state of Sikkim has its own set of standards and it was interesting to read signs stating that smoking is not allowed and considered and offence as well as spitting or the possession of a satellite phone! We only noticed one elderly woman puffing away on a cigarette indifferent to the law.

But the most impressive memories of this trip were the Himalayas. Considering that their peaks and ridges stretch across many hundreds of miles, to be presented with our grand earth's third highest in the locale that we chose to visit was certainly serendipitous.
You cannot stay on the summit forever; you have to come down again. So why bother in the first place? Just this: What is above knows what is below, but what is below does not know what is above.

One climbs, one sees. One descends, one sees no longer; but one has seen. There is an art of conducting oneself in the lower regions by the memory of what one saw higher up. When one can no longer see, one can at least still know. (by René Daumal)

Friday, October 31, 2014

Wow! What a ride!

Early the next morning, we looked out our window to a cloudless sky at Pelling (India) so we scrambled out of bed and rushed out for yet another photo op. Perched at 2,150 metres, we were at one of the best spots to say Good Morning to the mighty Mount Kanchenjunga close by.

It was magic time for photos as the sun bathed the mountain tops with an incandescent warm glow. Only in nature can one find such enchanting beauty in rugged stone and gelid ice.

It was magic time for photos as the sun bathed the mountain tops with an incandescent warm glow. Only in nature can one find such enchanting beauty in rugged stone and gelid ice.

We came to the mountain

The trucks here take on a unique nuance and character of flamboyance...

Fancy ride

Arriving at the border of Sikkim and the rest of India, we had a friendly checkout from the attending soldiers who even posed for photos.

A cheerful checkpoint

The narrow suspension bridge was our gateway for the last leg of our motorcycle journey that would end us back in Darjeeling. It started out with muddy ruts up to our axles then transitioned into a vertigo inducing challenge and "don't stop" steep single-track lanes. However, the scenery was most spectacular as it took us through verdant mountainsides of tea plantations and tidy villages clinging to the vertical terra firma.

We arrived back in the din of Darjeeling by late afternoon to the frenzied rush hour traffic.

After completing 608 gruelling yet exhilarating kilometres in 6 days, Jordan said he felt like it was living the favourite quote of Jorge's, a fellow motorcycle rider and sailor from Columbia (by Hunter S. Thompson).
Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a ride!"

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Pelling

With Yuksom (India) behind us, we continued riding the rocky roads much of which clung to the palisades like vines. We stopped for a breather at a remote village lost in time perched high on a sharp ridge. I doubt there was a house without a shangri-la view. A couple of village ladies ambled by, displaying the customary nose jewellery and the old one the textured skin of many years.

Nose bling

And...more waterfalls and bridges. Khangchendozonga Waterfalls of West Sikkim is next to a sharp curve in the road and flows year round. But it is hidden behind a smaller set of falls and wasn't noticed until the 1990s! We were guided to the stairs leading up and behind for a view of Khangchendzonga crashing on the rocks below.

Smaller falls in front of Kanchendzonga Waterfalls

Hidden Khangchendzonga Waterfalls

It had been suggested that we visit the serene setting of the footprint-shaped "Holy Lake" called Khecheopalri not far from the falls. (This complicated name is pronounced ketchup-perry.) Both Buddhists and Hindus consider this Lake, formed from an ancient glacier and over 3,500 years old, to be sacred. Visitors are not allowed to wear shoes on the bamboo jetty - lined with small, easily spun Prayer Wheels - leading out to the Lake.

No swimming is allowed and no animals can enter the water (remember, it's "holy"). Fish of course were an exception and many were swimming close, hoping to be fed, which amused the children present. Interestingly, no leaves ever float on the lake as the birds assiduously pick them off as soon as they drop!

Children were laughing and playing, adults talking. No notice was paid to the sign requesting Silence please.

Fluttering Prayer Flags were evident everywhere, and a monk inside a small one-roomed temple was chanting the words from his sacred manuscript while beating a drum. Outside was what looked like a smoking brick oven but no doubt was really only used for certain rituals.

Hmmm, pizza?

Occasionally we would pass some workers, both young and old alike, on the other side of nowhere, working along the side of the road tediously breaking rocks into small pieces, We assumed these were the poorest of the poor with this work being the last resort. But we later learned that they were happily sundering the slag for a whopping equivalent to $3.00 a day compared to other labourers who make only about $2.00 a day.

A family production

The roads could be really atrocious, leaving us going only 10 to 20 km per hour. Some days, we would rarely get out of first and second gear!

At times, we would also negotiate water along with the large boulders, and at other times, we struggled through deep mud tracks. Jordan would stop, contemplate the tricky area directly ahead of us like a lion sizing up its prey, and then he would go for it! He was an amazing driver with no major upsets and no injuries.

Actual road near Pelling (copied from internet)

We manoeuvered on many roads just like the previous photo! Approaching curves, there was always a lot of horn blowing by drivers to warn other drivers of approachment.

Waiting our turn

We stopped for the night in Pelling, another town perched high on a ridge with alpine vegetation, where we breathed air at 2,150 metres. The food was local and good and we found a very basic motel but with a million rupee view of Mount Kanchenjunga.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Yuksom

Leaving Singtam, we were off to Yuksom (India). Again was the profusion of waterfalls, bridges, and scenery that defied description and photos couldn't do justice.

One vehicle at a time please

A long way down for this car

A further familiar sight was the multitude of roadside Poinsettia that grew with gusto - nothing like the tiny plants back home in Canada.

And it's not even Christmas

One more convergence of the carmine kind was our happening upon a troop of red-faced monkeys along the roadside but they were too timid to stay still enough for a photo. Throughout our travels, we had also seen several regular cute monkeys running freely about, and at one point, we watched as they teased the dogs trying to get close. But of course, the monkeys were much faster!

As you could expect for a kindred scene were these friendly natured, long-haired, trodding bovids. Yaks prefer the colder temperatures, unlike me!

Yak, yak, yak

Yuksom, a very tiny remote village at road's end and up against the border of Nepal, is where all the trekkers head to make their assault on the craggy peaks. It has many hotels for such a tiny village - a very popular haunt for the brave tourist.

The village is devoid of urban normalities like ATMs, gas stations, and big fancy restaurants. Their "market" is a couple of tiny wooden huts with little to offer. The one large and ornately decorated building contained several giant Prayer Wheels. These large Prayer Wheels hold millions of mantras inside their structure. Upon entering the building and trying to spin one, I found it to be extremely heavy and very hard to turn!

Jordan dwarfed by large wheels

The day ended up drizzling and electrical power was in and out to add to the mood.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Welcome to North Sikkim

Once again, we were up early (05:30!) for photo ops at Tashi View Point only 7 kilometres outside of Gangtok (India), but there were too many clouds to see the majestic peaks.

Typical scenes of the day for us as we travelled were intrepid roads carved along the sides of mountains with hairpin curves aplenty...rickety swinging suspension bridges...warm valley bottoms nurturing a diversity of tropical species...large butterflies constantly flitting about...hillsides covered in a green carpet of lush vegetation including abundant stepped rice paddies swaying in the breeze and acres of cultivated tea plantations.

Mr. Tea

Tea bushes are pruned to waist height for ease of plucking and to encourage new, tastier, and more tender shoots with only the top 1 to 2 inches being used; India and China are the top producers of tea.

These varied tapestry scenes were vertically seamed together with splendid cascading waterfalls, crashing uninterrupted onto the rocks like the heartbeat of the world. In number, it seemed as if they were non-stop, from small delicate trickles to grand gushers.

Cascading onto rocky road

The other constant was bridges and their varied integrity was as diverse as their types. But one similarity of many was the ever visible Prayer Flags. The robust ones gave passers confidence but others were a bit heart stopping with views through the gaps of rapids below - will it hold us??

Some even had signs stating that only one vehicle could cross at a time. Others were deteriorated to the point of closure with alternate crossing. Some places didn't even merit bridges and we had to cross through the water over rocks and boulders while raising our feet to keep them dry.

Welcome to North Sikkim

Safely on the other side

Riding yesteryear's technology, as robust as they are, one still needs to be prepared to give it some sweet talking and attention. Gatty equipped us with essential tools and parts that proved to be a prudent move when at one lonely part of the road Jordan needed to replace a broken clutch cable.

The tools and parts came out, the old cable was extracted, the new one was in and adjusted in a few minutes and we were on our way, ending up that day in the grotty valley bottom crossroads town of Singtam (East Sikkim) situated along the river. The town roads were lined with transporters and taxis, waiting for their next fare.