Monday, 30 November 2009

Clapham Common or How to get political about South London

Clapham Common is one of London's largest green spaces, a place renowned as much for its moments of madness as well as its capacity to refresh the South London atmosphere. But first, a little history lesson is needed here...

Common Land is one of those unusual relics of Medieval law still (broadly) in use today. Basically, the locals adjoining the common have a right to graze their animals, collect wood or dig peat. Back 'in the day', when men were serfs, women were no bette than slaves and the vast amount of property in the country was owned by a handful of despots, people were tossed aside a piece of common land so they could eke out an existence.

But back to Clapham. A seemingly ordinary South London suburb, but thanks to the Common, it is now an area of high house prices, young hip things and Saturday Night bar brawls (which are actually quite amusing to watch as us Londoners fight like pussies). But yet, the people still come, attracted (mainly) by a triangular wedge of green surrounded by the A3 and the South Circular roads. And you know what, despite the toffs that surround this park, Clapham Common is a really nice place to venture, especially now as none of the locals are attempting to get a tan under the feeble British sunlight.

You can cycle across, ride a horse in piece or walk your dog. Go for a jog or stop off for the (obligatory) cup off coffee at the park's cafe. But more importantly you can soak up the relative tranquility available in this part of South London. This is a busy part of the world. The main aim in this part of South London is to get from A to B as quickly as possible, without getting penalised by the speed/red route cameras (ah - the joys of big brother!) While walking on Clapham Common you almost forget that you are surrounded by maniac drivers who have not yet realised the futility that is driving in South London.

(The A3 - Britain's third most important Trunk Route in a moment of relative calm)

One of the greatest attractions of Clapham Common is the bandstand. A tradition in many of Britain's open spaces, this one was built in 1890 and is the largest such structure in London. At one point it nearly disintegrated due to the 'competence' of Lambeth Council, but happily, this relic of Victorian London is back in swing.

Getting there and away:

Two tube stations serve the common, Clapham Common and Clapham South, both on the Northern Line. Bus routes 35, 37, 50, 88, 137, 155, 249, 322, 345, 355, 417, N35, N137, N155 and the G1 serve all parts of Clapham Common too.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Moving On...

Time is like a river and in the flow of this watercourse, you meet people on the wy, floating in the sae direction as you. Some may get caught on a snagging bush, others may take a different branch of the river, but all in all, there are many people you encounter, i this journey of life. And sometimes you may know them for a long time, sometimes for very little, but always, people, everyday, on this journey known as life make an impact on you.

It is hard saying goodbye. People come and go and life goes on. But wherever you go, good luck, you deserve it!

Saturday, 28 November 2009

In the news...

It has been a while, but here it goes, this week's news highlights. First, an anniversary and a sad one at that, one year since the Mumbai attacks. Called by many as India's 9/11 moment, it was only one of many such atrocities committed in India that year, but it happened to be outside Kashmir/Chhattisgarh and so was played out in front of the world's media. Many blamed the Indian government for the handling of the crisis, but the saddest thing was to see such a great city brought to its knees. The Mumbaites are stronger after the attack, but like the dwellers of any big city around the world, terrorism is a facet of life that they have learned to live with.

Second, Dubai is bankrupt! Hooray! Unlike Mumbai or India, the Gulf States of the Middle East are my least favourite places in the world. For all the wealth they had, they could have given the world so much. Instead, the leaders of those countries have given their populace fat benefits to sit on their backside, while those same leaders have spent their money on prostitutes of the Edgeware Road, Champagne on the Champs Elysees and Fifth Avenue shopping all the while importing an army of slaves for their own pleasure. Oh, and they have ski slopes. Wow. All that cash and you have managed to build a range of shopping malls. You make Thatcher look like a wise spender of the North Sea oil wealth...

Third, a light hearted one to end the blog post. Oysterisation or whatever you want to call it. Basically South London can now join the Oystercard party. However, this being London, it is not a straight forward touch in and touch out. Oh the joys of the Oyster Extension Permit...


Friday, 27 November 2009

London Diary (5)

As the tube train rumbled into the platform he stood up.

While waiting for the trains, he liked squatting down. Often it gave his legs a rest from the many miles that he did, pounding the unforgiving streets of the city. His trainers were worn out, after all, they were a cheap pair that he bought in some discount shoe shop a while back. Still, they came in handy for running, when the need arose, which was unfortunately for him, becoming a more frequent occurrence. The vantage point from a squatting gave him an unusual view of the tiling that adorned the tube station and he also got to see up the nostrils of his fellow passengers, also waiting on the platform.

The doors hissed open and there was that usual embarrassed semi-scrum that always accompanied the ritual of embarkation onto and disembarkation off a tube carriage. It was the proper thing to let passengers off first, but there was always that worry that the driver might be in a temper and shut the doors on you, so leaving you behind on the platform, stranded underneath the streets of London. Of course, this had never happened to any of the passengers on the platform. But the mere fear of having to wait three minutes until the next train was too much to bear and so as the last of the passengers were trying to alight, the crowd surged on. He joined them too, riding the wave, almost euphoric, of getting one step closer to a destination.

And what was that destination? The doors gave their warning before slamming shut and as the train slowly rumbled out of the platform, he began to think of where he was going. Life had not turned out all happy go-lucky. Those rosy-tinted days of looking forward to a future had given way to something more realistic - 'life'. For all the optimism that he should have felt, he in fact felt very lonely, despite the fact that his carriage was as crowded as ever. Standing, crushed against the plastic-enamel interior of the carriage, he may have shared the same thoughts, hopes, dreams and fears as his fellow passengers, as well as the same final destination, both literal and metaphorical. But of course, this is London, and while the whole train may have felt the same, for him, it felt that he was the only one that was experiencing it so vividly, with his heart racing away, as drip by drip, one second at a time, life itself slipped from his grasp.

The doors opened and he got off. He rushed towards the escalators, but for once, decided not to climb up and instead held onto the handrail and watched a few others overtake him on the left. The breeze from above ground hit him in the face, his nostrils picking up the scent of fried chicken and exhaust fumes wafting down the shaft from the street above. On reaching the concourse, he tapped his oyster and headed outside. It was a chilly night, and as he felt the sharp whip of the wind, he drew his collar close towards him. He still had a long way to go until he reached his 'destination'...

Thursday, 26 November 2009


Not the stuff in our wallets but the grain based substance that is available in virtually every society on Earth. Whether made from maize, rice, teff or rye, it is a common element of humanity to eat bread.

In the UK, most of our bread is made from wheat. We can get it in the supermarket or down the corner shop in polythene packets or we can head to the high street chain baker where they stock their baked goods fresh from the industrial estate. Occasionally however, there are still some bakeries that actually bake their own bread, within their premises. Early morning, as I am (often) coming home, these bakeries are open. The friend of all night shift workers, they are open at hours to suit us and so we can always pop in for a cup of tea and a bun and on the way home, get some bread.

Of course, by the time I actually have some of this bread for 'my' breakfast, you would have already finished your lunch...

Wednesday, 25 November 2009


Probably the easiest phrase to say to someone in the English language but one of the hardest to listen to. After all, you cannot change the past, but learn from the choices made and continue living with it and improving yourself. That is the problem with fourth dimensional movement - it is only in one direction - forwards. Our existence means that we cannot simply go back and press the reset button, or nudge ourselves earlier on in the course of our lives to take a different path. What we have done is done and one of the certainties in life is that we will always lament the decisions we have made in the past.

Of course, it does not make it any easier to listen to the incessant wailing and whining of those who are supposedly near and dear to you, telling you that you should have done this and that when you were younger. True, but I also see that their own lives are not as rosy. They will also protest the loudest when it comes to highlighting the merest deficiencies in their own existences, usually referring to the weakness of their 'spirits' or some other mumbo-jumbo to throw you off course.

But I do look back and think maybe I should've done it in this way or that. Call it the human condition, but I can't help but look back and think, sometimes with a lot of regret about the amount of time I have wasted in my life. But this path is myriad in its ways and tugging away at the edges could unravel the tapestry of my life. However there is very little to sing and dance at this moment in time...

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Upgrade? Hell no!

I have two computers. A five year old laptop, still going strong with the original operating system installed on it. It is pretty bare in terms of ad ons and other apps on it, but it is functional. It works as a writing implement and as a way to show vids (via the HD or the DVD drive) on the go. I also have a newer, flashier desktop, just over a year old, with all the original bits, plus lots of funky ad ons. It really is a souped up machine.

Anyhow, switched on my laptop this morning to do my blog and when logging into gimpspace, (that link will soon no longer work) I got this message:

All good things come to an end. My computer is no longer cool enough to hang out with the hip young things and Tom. So sod it, I can no longer be bothered with myspace. It looks like another 'bye-bye' alongside my facebook exit. But unlike the facebook drop out, this has been forced upon me by myspace itself. I was quite happy to keep the account ticking over and to copy and paste my blog onto my profile but as I have no urgent need to upgrade my laptop, then my hand is forced and I must say toodles to 'Tom & Co'.

Interestingly, 'myspace' gave me my first outlet online. Long before I actually 'made' my own websites, or even got blogging seriously, my outlet to the wider world was via myspace. It is with a slight twinge that I am deleting this account, but with regards to the bigger picture, who really cares? My laptop has outlived my gimpspace account. Let us see what else it outlives...

Monday, 23 November 2009

Harry Brown

One of the best British films in recent years (view the trailer here), this is one flick that you must sere. Very rarely do I recommend something on these pages, but go on, treat yourself and watch 'Harry Brown'. Great story, set in London and no money shots of Big Ben or the Southbank. It is a 100% movie with great direction, great acting and great production values, but sod all that, the story is riveting and will make you think long and hard afterwards. Plus it is great entertainment - what more do you want from a film?

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Traveling somewhere?

I am of fleeting interest to this world. In about 45 years, if I go by the average lifespan of the British man, I will be dead. About ten years before that, my body would have lost all usefulness. So the pressing question is not 'who am I?' but rather, 'where shall I go next?'

I enjoy travel. It has bugged me that a major European airline has decided to cancel my flight, but with the cash refunded, I am feeling lucky. So where do I go next? Domestic or international? Back to India is certainly a possibility, but how about somewhere more exotic. The suicidal in me is plumping for Columbia, but I really want to see the mystique of West Africa before I pop off. Then there are relatives to see in far flung places, but it has been a while since I have set my eyes on a desert, forcing me back into the West African mindset.

Questions, yet to be answered, but all in good time. Let me have a cup of tea and mull over my options and my bank balance...

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Black Hole of Europe

(Date: 26th December, 2009)

Our top headline today, Switzerland is no more. The Large Hadron Collider has actually worked.

It produced a black hole and swallowed up the tiny mountain state in Western Europe, cuckoo clocks and all. At the time all the investment bankers, lawyers and tax dodgers of the western world were holidaying in their chalets in the country formerly known as Switzerland. They all got sucked up and vanished too.

Spontaneous celebrations are occurring in cities around the world as ordinary people take to the streets in order to mark the passing of the most reviled people on Earth.

The scientists behind the project are being hailed as heroes as they singlehandedly have wiped out centuries of nepotism and injustice in the flick of a switch. A spokesman for the group of doctors and professors behind the LHC told this blog:

'I love it when a plan comes together'.

Friday, 20 November 2009

London Diary (4)

It was night time, and the river lapped against the embankment. Two lovers kissed as the Autumnal air swept past them from up the estuary. Not that they noticed, enticed as they were by the rapture in which they held each other. Millions of couples have done this before, under Waterloo Bridge, dancing the dance of the twosome. But of course, for them, like every couple before them and for every couple afterwards, this was their moment, this was unique to them. It was a clear night, despite the wind, as their lips locked.

And then they stopped. They took a look at each other. Despite the passion, despite the intensity, they could see into each other's souls This moment, was as empty as it could get. Just another moment by the Thames, but in each other's hearts, they knew that this would be a fleeting moment in each other's lives.

But the kissing continued. Who cared if this was a fleeting moment. It was 'their' moment together...

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Is this the world's sh**tiest article?

I do not often criticise what I read/watch/listen/taste. I write too and I am attempting to become a film maker, so I am sensitive to the criticism that I dole out, as there is enough negativity in this world. But this is truly awful:

'My Girlfriend's Unusual Birthday Present'

I don't know what is more depressing, the fact that this guy is getting paid to write this drivel, the fact that I have just written off forty precious seconds of my life by reading this or that it was actually on the front page of this newspaper's website when I clicked on it.

The only good thing is that this was free, but if newspapers want to know why we readers don't buy them anymore, this is a good place to start looking.

The comments are far more interesting and informative than the article itself.

Even the London Lite was more inspirational than this.

But you know what the really s**t thing is. I can't stop reading this article, it is truly that awful. It's like some awful car crash, I can't stop looking.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Mission Istanbul?

That's annoying.

My flight back from Istanbul to LDN had been cancelled.

Now I have a choice.

To rebook my return flight or to get a refund on the entire trip (out and inbound journeys).

I actually wanted to rebook my flight, but, here is the rub.

There was a choice. However it was not presented free and easy, but more like a shotgun wedding.

Now my preference was to find an alternative return flight. The free transfer. That would have been the easy solution.

But given the fact that I was not allowed to browse the return days before choosing, I decided to plump for the refund.

Silly airline. Sometimes, we like to see what the alternatives are before committing ourselves.

But if you put a shotgun to our head, maybe we might just press the trigger...

So there it is, a little bit more in my bank account. Always handy before Christmas.

Still, I would have liked to have seen Istanbul. Maybe not this year.

And next time, airline, don't behave like some playground group. We are all adults here, capable of making 'informed' decisions.

Ultimately, you are the ones that have missed out...

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Sugar and Slavery

I vowed to revisit the Museum in Docklands at a later date. Originally I went there as part of my series on Thames Crossings and my investigation into London Bridge. While I was at the museum, I pretty much headed for the exhibitions and artefacts related to London Bridge and skirted the rest. But there was one gallery that got my attention s I wandered through this wonderful building, and that was the gallery on Sugar and Slavery. The only permanent exhibition in the UK that takes a look at this country's role in the Transatlantic Slave Trade. You could see that the Slave Trade went far beyond London's Docks and was woven into the fabric of the city itself.

It is a sobering thought, especially on entering the gallery and seeing numbers on the list, and even more frightening to see the amount of 'unknown' numbers carried on the ships. Slavery did not stop with the various abolition acts of 1807 and 1833 as vast numbers of mainly Indian and Chinese labour were taken to the same colonies to replace the slaves as indentured labour. Even today in the UK, there is masses of Human Trafficking. Slavery is not a new phenomena, it is as old as humanity itself. But that does not make it right in the slightest, and it does take more than the collective will of the people to rid us of this curse.

The Sugar and Slavery gallery at the Museum of Docklands is a magnificent example of the slave trade in London. How the wealth of this city was built on the back of millions of people brought in chains halfway round the world. It is a reminder of what is one of humanity's greatest crimes, and how we are still living with those effects today. It shows the intolerable cruelty of humanity, and how easy it is to dehumanise a person on the basis of their origins and beliefs. We should also not forget that slavery will continue to exists as long as the laws of supply and demmand continue unabated with a restrictive migratory system. You only have to walk down a London street or take a ride on a bus to see it for yourself...

Monday, 16 November 2009

Sales Pitch

I am a pretty lousy consumer. First, I have zero brand loyalty. For example, I will buy whatever toothpaste is cheapest, not the one with the stripes or the extra mint.

Adverts do not impress me, no matter how much sex appeal they may have.

The flashy ones really turn me off. What, all those computer graphics and expensive sets just to sell me a hunk of metal on four wheels.

You see, if I want to make a large purchase, it is not a flash advert that will make me buy the product, but research on what it is. I will know the advantages and disadvantages to those products before I buy it. After all, why spend a few thousand pounds based on the whims of an ad.

For the cheap purchased, forget it. Unless you are advertising how cheap that product is. Then it is a different matter altogether! Brand loyalty does not exist with me.

So if you come to my home, the only breakfast cereal I will buy is the economy oats (because, let us be honest, how flash do you want your porridge?), my computers last me for years (as I do the research on them) and I watch the films that I like, not the ones splashed across billboards.

But if there is one place that I spend like a drunk, it is on my holidays. ;)

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Riding the Jeep...

On arriving at Jorethang, I treated myself to a couple of Samosas and a deep fried boiled egg. Trust me, it tastes better than it sounds, especially when dipped in a bit of chilli soy sauce. But I needed to get back to Darjeeling. And the sun was setting fast, had I missed the last bus. Well, the bus service does not really run in this part of India.

Okay, a little explanation is needed here for anyone who is unfamiliar with Asian travel. This is the world's most populated land mass. Six in every ten people live on this continent. They need to get around. Of course, buses will ply the major routes, the densely populated areas. But Sikkim, and other 'sparsely populated areas' do not have regular bus services, there is no money to be made. Plus the roads are almost impassable. We are not talking about long straight highways, or even metalled surfaces. We are looking at twisting hairpin bends in the Himalaya. So, there is a plethora of options available to supplement (and even surpass) the local bus service in most of Asia. Unregulated, untaxed and infinitely more fun, for those that travel regularly in Asia, hanging onto the back of a moving vehicle is not some unique thrill, but a way of life.

Being India, there was a cartel. Or a 'taxi driver's' association that controlled the route between Jorethang in Sikkim and Darjeeling in West Bengal. Some guy in a booth (in this case, a man with a pony tail) would take your money. This was one of the few times that I pretended I was from India (I can get away with it). I did not feel like getting conned and I was too tired of answering questions about where I was from. So this time I was a native of Cochin, that could speak Tamil, Malayalam and English. I do this in a lot of countries, pretend I am from a neighboring region, just to get better prices or sneak in and out on local transport. We waited, the other passengers and I. Oh, this is another thing to expect with travel (especially road travel) in Asia. A lot of waiting about.

Eventually 'Humlae' appeared. That was not his real name but our driver really looked like the character of Humlae from the film Ong Bak (the locals in this part of the world have exotic looks). The best way to describe our driver was easy - he was 'the dude'. Quite simply, he was one of the coolest people ever. Shaking hands and chatting loudly as he approached our vehicle, everyone knew him, and he knew everyone. He said hello to me, easily seeing that I was a foreigner, and leaped into the driver's seat, ready to take us back to Darjeeling. Any kids reading this (why?) do not worry about careers or cash, just be the coolest person you can be. And this person was definitely cool.

And we were off. Jolting up and down in the jeep, you must realise that any time spent waiting about is not in vain. It gives the driver a chance to floor it. Of course, 'flooring it' means no more than 40km/h on the roads of the Himalaya, and that is at a push. But this was Humlae's turf, as he greeted the border guards of Sikkim (more on that next month), he knew every bump and pot hole on this road, every twist and turn. Well, most of them. The sun was setting fast and there are no street lights in this part of of the world. You needed a guy like Humlae, you needed a cool person at the wheels.

We passed another checkpoint. It seemed that this part of West Bengal had its own unofficial, private police force. Unlike the Sikkim border guards, Humlae was more coy with these people, more fawning. They let us pass and onward we went. We went through our first village, dropping off a couple of passengers and on meeting another jeep coming towards us, it was Humlae who stormed through! We were the winners, and Humlae had the wheels to prove it as we raced through tea plantations and forest upwards towards Darjeeling.

Dusk was upon us, as Humlae decided to stop the jeep in the next village. he engine (unusually) was kept running as Humlae jumped out of the jeep, cigarette in hand, and took a bag with him. He lifted the bonnet and took his bag into someone's house. There, Humlae started chatting with the locals, and flirted with all the chicks of the village - hey, who can blame him - they're cute!

Humlae then came running out of the house with ONE jug of water and poured it into the radiator. Cap closed, he went back into the house and we could hear the lively conversation taking place alongside the illicit consumption of beer. Prohibition, whether enforced by the unofficial police or the real Sikkim border guards is useless. The village became a party zone and Humlae was at the centre of attention. Jovial and in his element, it seemed that everyone (except for the passengers in the jeep) knew his name. But Humlae was only there to kick off the party. He had brought the booze along, stayed for a drink, but he had a job to do! Off to Darjeeling we went!

Into the next village we arrived and Humlae knew everyone there too! As a jeep driver approached in the opposite direction, Humlae engaged him in some witty banter that put a smile on his face. Smiles abounded and we were off. And then we stopped! An old woman leapt out in front of us! Screeching to a halt, the old woman ran over to the driver's window and gave Humlae a letter. He was not just a transporter of goods and people but also the local postman! Whatever task you needed to get done, Humlae would do it. They chatted for a bit, Humlae as always, respectful to his elders before he floored it. And agan we stopped! A few more needed to squeeze in. We were probably the last jeep of the night, and obligingly, Humlae let them one, and we squeezed together, Humlae himself giving up his driving space to accommodate the extra passengers. Humlae was no mere taxi driver, he really was the dude, a pillar of the local community.

Kids, remember this, be cool, just like Humlae. Never have I seen a man more content in life, than our driver. It may have been the beer, but he was happily driving along. And his love was infectious. Whenever he passed someone by, he would stop and chat with them, putting a smile on their face too, before driving off. Forget about those crooked bankers, or idiots in suits that seem to be proliferating in this world. It is people like Humlae who keep the world going round. He may not have much, just the jeep and his wits, but he knew love, he knew how to spread it, and even though we were running well late, no one seemed to care. Hey man, this is India! Enjoy it, this type of thing won't be around forever...

And so, Humlae continued. By now it was pitch black outside. The bends were sharper as we climbed up towards Darjeeling. Vehicles were coming the other way, the road got rougher (a legacy of the monsoon) and Humlae concentrated on the journey ahead. But alas, we got stuck. We grounded ourselves on one of the bends. Now, travel in Asia, is not always smooth. It's the terrain, its pretty rough. And so we all jumped out, and all the men helped push the vehicle back onto the road surface. That was about ten minutes of revving and muscle, but at least I got to stretch the legs. Then we were on the way. Back through Lebong, the road that I had taken earlier that day looking familiar in the dark as we screamed towards Darjeeling.

And finally we arrived, in the lower part of town, where all the markets and stalls were located. Dusty from a full day's hike, where I got to see a world few other outsiders get to glimpse at, I stumbled out of the jeep. I wished Humlae good bye, and he warmly shook my hand. I do not know who he is, what is his history or personal life. But he was a cool guy. He was the dude! Like many other journeys that I have taken on this magnificent continent, he provided me with memories that were far more special than the destination itself. And you know what kids, spread the love. Be like Humlae. You may not be as wealthy as you had hoped, but you will be a lot happier. And that happiness is infectious!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

India 2 - A look back

Twice in a year, what a lucky guy I am and again to North East India. What a place to go, just go! Anyone (if there is anyone) who reads these posts must now realise how much I love India. Admittedly, I have only seen a tiny part of the country but what a country to visit! And the North East, what an undiscovered gem!

To be honest, most people (my own family included on their Indian trips) do not know much about the North East. Its isolation due to the geographical (wet and mountainous) and geopolitical (Bangladesh) reality means that it is a pain to get in and out of the region. So why bother when you can stick with the beautiful sights of the Golden Triangle, head south to Goa or take in the sights of eclectic Mumbai. And these are all great things to do, and activities that I will do one day. But for now, I am still captivated by the wonders of the North East.

Few Indians realise the beauty of this corner of their land and even fewer foreigners venture to this part of the world. Apart from the above mentioned difficulties, it is also a land that unfortunately that has had its fair share of internal turmoil. But move past these problems and you will see a magical land, untouched by the ravages of modern society. Traditions prevail here in the North East, proud traditions that have given the area far more advantages than the rest of India. Literacy in the North East is higher than the national average. Education and multilingualism is evident when traveling in North East India. Sikkim, Nagaland, Meghalaya and Mizoram do not have the problems with female infanticide that plagues the rest of India. Again this translates into more egalitarian roles for women. Unlike the rest of India, women are running businesses and controlling the wealth. Its location as well, at the crossroads of the North Indian, Tibetan and South East Asian worlds have given this area a fascinating backdrop and its people a richness in their culture that is unsurpassed in much of my travels. This is real fusion country, having a unique identity that is its own.

North East India, is not an easy place to travel round. Like the rest of the country, it is plagued by incompetence from upon high, and this area especially so as it is 'in the corner'. But it is a rewarding place to visit, it is a stunning part of the world to experience. I feel very blessed that I have been able to travel around the North East of India so freely and openly, one of the advantages to travel as a whole round this country. Wandering like I did in the countryside of Sikkim or chatting with the locals in Meghalaya would not be possible across the border in nearby China, the police would swarm around you in a few minutes. And I am also very lucky to have picked the North East of India as the first part of the country to visit. I do not know what the future holds, whether or not I shall return to India. But if my path leads to the North East, don't worry, I will be there in a flash.

And just in case, you have not realised from these posts, I love India. It is a tough country to visit, but man, is it a great place to visit. Everyone in their life, if they can do it, must see this land at least once before they die. You will not regret it!

Friday, 13 November 2009

India 2 - A walk through Sikkim...

(Continued from yesterday).

Refueled with Noodles, and with a spring in my spirit (a.k.a. stomach), I took my first steps on the road to Jorethang, the big 'market town' for this part of Southern Sikkim. Some 7km away, this would be only an hour or so by foot. Interestingly, this was the first time that the locals were unsurprised by the fact that I was prepared to walk it. Most parts of the world, people look at you strangely and even laugh that you are prepared to walk more than ten minutes. Here in Sikkim however, the walk to Jorethang was considered a 'short walk'. People after my own heart, they also had the same mentality a me. Why bother spending your cash on a four wheeled monstrosity when you can enjoy the scenery, keep fit and save that cash for some funky food at the other end. While walking from Majitar to Jorethang, I passed by people who were walking back from market and a few locals overtaking me on their walk to Jorethang (impressive for them, as I am a six footer, and my strides are a lot loner than theirs).

My path was a fairly easy one. The road to Jorethang was well paved and more importantly, followed the course of the River Rangeet upstream, meaning that it would be hard to get lost on the way to Jorethang village. As a true child of the Himalaya, the Rangeet had carved an impressive valley for me to walk through. Hard rocks, the foothills of the mountains to the north surrounded me as I meandered my way through South Sikkim. The river however, was always a raging torrent, although the valley it had carved was huge. I can only imagine what it would be like after the srping thaw or during the impressive monsoon season in this part of India.

The river is a hive of industry now that the monsoon is over. The rough pebbles in the bed of the river were being exploited by the local building industry, while the sand banks left behind by the meandering watercourse are utilised as paddy fields bringing rice to the local populace. And nets were cast throughout the watercourse, catching the many fish that populate this part of the river. The Himalaya gives a lot to the local land. Its fertility is a gift to India, and this part of Sikkim is one of the first places to receive its bounty. But it is also a harsh land. I was traveling in this area through the benign post-monsoon season. But during the rains, it would become almost impassable. Landslides are common, and the river itself is a dangerous child of the mountain, sweeping all away in front if it when the rains leave it full.

But life goes on. In amongst the landscape, the many trees and plants that sheltered my way during this sunny walk through South Sikkim, were signs of civilisation. This is one of the least crowded parts of India, but all through business takes place, people are living their lives and despite the many hardships and Blessings of the land, people are just that. People. Eating, going to work, loving, arguing, laughing and crying on their journey through life. One thing you learn very quickly in your travels, whether it is to the local shops or halfway around the world is how similar we all are. It is that rather than the differences which is the biggest eye-opener. And so I arrived in Jorethang, another bustling town on my wanders through life. A cross roads of sorts, nestled in the foothills of the Himalaya.

What a walk! Started in touristic Darjeeling, I quickly left behind all sense of backpackers and travelers and was truly by myself amongst the tea plantations of West Bengal. Crossing the River Rangeet, I made my first, tentative footsteps into Sikkim, a name synonymous with intrigue and mystery. Finally I made my way into 'Real Sikkim', and got to saw life first hand, without the help of a TV screen or a hastily written guidebook. I do not know when I will return to the North East of India, hell, I do not know when I will next come to India. But it is a land that I have truly fallen in love with. A beautiful country, filled with intrigue to satisfy even me, the most curious of all people. And if my path takes me to this country again, I hope to revisit this magical place, nestled in the shadow of the Himalaya.


My walk complete I managed to grab a space on a jeep heading towards Darjeeling from the 'local cartel'. But that of course, is another story...

Thursday, 12 November 2009

India 2 - A walk into Sikkim...

(Continued from November 10th).

I crossed the Rangeet river over the Mangitar Bridge and took my first steps in Sikkim. A land that has fascinated me since I first heard of the Himalaya. Nestled in the mountains, this little known part of India is not exactly the 'classical' India of the tourist trail, the India of the Taj Mahal, Delhi or Goa, but like the rest of this country, it is hard to pin down. And Sikkim is proof, if any was needed after these blog posts on India, that the diversity of this country will amaze and astound at each and every turn.

Sikkim does not fail to amaze, and it is surprisingly different from neighbouring Dajeeling in West Bengal. For a start, it is clean. Really clean. Darjeeling was clean, but Sikkim was pristine. Secondly, the people were different. Slightly. The mountain culture of Darjeeling is shared by Sikkim, but there is less of the polyglot sense that there is in Darjeeling. Darjeeling is a melting pot of cultures from throughout this area, but on crossing into Sikkim, especially this little visited part of the state by the Rangeet River, it is much more homegrown. The culture is indigenous, and there is an attachment to the land.

This part of Sikkim is also incredibly poor. It is the first time in my travels around North East India that I actually felt that. No, there were no starving people or amputees wandering the streets, but there is a sense that India's economic miracle has yet to penetrate this mountain hideaway. Now, this is not a comment on the state as a whole, just this part of the state between the villages of Majitar and Jorethang. I have barely scratched the surface of this evocative state, and it is a place that I really want to return to.

Over the Rangeet River I went and into mythical Sikkim. My first stop, Majitar Village. I grabbed an (expensive) bottle of water and a (cheap) bowl of noodles. Oh yes, this is fusion food at its best. Spicy noodles with dahl. A mixture of the the cultures of China and India, this Rs5 bowl was more that refreshing but an anthropological treat! Instead of spending time in colonial era societies, why don't those useless anthropologists just open their eyes and the rest of their senses to the flavours of this world? A large tree dominated the centre of the village where (a lot) of children played around. The noise of the rapids and kids' voices filled the air as I slurped on my noodles.

I had a choice. To walk back the way I came, or to head deeper into Sikkim. On one hand, I had the unknown ahead of me. No guidebook comes out this far into the state, nor are there any maps. Plus, this being the tropics, night falls quickly here. Then again, to walk back, along the same path I came along would be so asking the directions to the town with a bus/jeep link back to Darjeeling, I was told that Jorethang was only a 4 mile hike. Well, I had already done over 20 miles, what was another four to these tired legs. So I set off, further into this journey, along the Rangeet River. This short stroll was turning out to be something a lot longer!

I climbed up the mound past vegetable patches and a primary school towards the main road above the village of Majitar. And I took one last look at my first footsteps into Sikkim. I had finally done it! A sense of achievement came over me, as I finally entered Sikkim. I am not sure if the locals realise how famed their state is, nestled as they are in the shadow of the Himalaya. A place of wonder, a part of the world that so many people wish to visit, and I was one of the few that had made it, possibly via one of the most unorthodox routes possible. But there was no time to dawdle. The sun would be setting soon, and I had still had a few miles ahead of me yet!

(to be continued)

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

India 2 - The Ghum Memorial

The Gorkhas/Gurkhas form the fighting units of five countries. The UK, India, Singapore, Brunei and their native Nepal. In the UK they have been treated intolerably. While much of the world has moved on from the racist attitudes of the colonial era, the British Government still decides to act unscrupulously when it comes to the Gurkhas.

India also has its fair share of Gorkhas, many residing in and around the Darjeeling region. As a result, thee are calls for a separate state within the republic, which may occur depending on Central government. Like in the UK, the Gorkhas of India have fought for their adopted country in many wars.

War is a futile excuse for humanity to practice, but for now, we humans are still mistrustful of our neighbour and so war is a direct consequence of that. I never mock those who are in the armed forces, I only wish I had their bravery. I don't. But I do despise the politicians who send people off to war. While their own children are safe and sound, it is the children of others that has to fight in battles that will be forgotten in the future. Enemies become friends, new priorities take place and the cycle of war takes place elsewhere. And the lists of the dead get longer...

The war memorial at Ghum is a beautiful place. Located in the hills surrounding Darjeeling, it is a well maintained kept area, and a sombre reminder of the number of Gorkhas that have died in conflicts. The scary thing is the number of names on the memorial and the space left for future names.

Today is Armistice Day. To commemorate the war to end all wars. It has been hijacked for political reasons by politicians as always, by sections of the media as always. Some like to use it to wave a flag, an arbitrary symbol of identification. I have never lived through a war, I have never fought in one, but I have visited a war zone, but luckily, I was able to get out. War is nasty, it is terrifying, and the only winners are the arms dealers. War will continue for many years to come, we as a species have not overcome our mutual distrust of one another. But it is important to remember, that behind the names on these memorials, scattered around the world, are families left behind, in grief on all sides of conflicts. They are the names of real people on those memorials, and there are many more unnamed. It is tragic that these battles will still continue, more names will be added, more tears will be shed. It is important to remember this tragic loss of life before encouraging more destruction in the future. And it is important to respect the memory of those that have gone before, without the cheap politicising of such memories.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

India 2 - A walk round Darjeeling...

Waking up to a view of Kangchenjunga, the allure was just there. What was north of the clouds, a land of mystique and intrigue. I consulted my map, and the Sikkim border was only a 15 miles or so away. An easy distance to walk, and somewhere I have always wanted to go. To mystical Sikkim, to the land of Shangri La. Come on, this is me, 'El Director', if there is one tenant of my personality that is predictable, it is my sense of curiosity and wanting to see what is beyond that next ridge. So after a hearty plate of momo's (top picture in that link), I set off towards the Rangeet River, the water course that was the border between the states of West Bengal and Sikkim.

On I walked, downhill towards the valley floor, past tea estate after tea estate and through villages not often seen by foreigners in this much detail. While there are many travelers from beyond India's borders, few of them avail of the opportunity to see what lies beyond the air-conditioned jeep that takes them from tourist honeypot to sight seeing opportunity. And while Badamtam or Lebong may not feature high on a visitor's 'to-do' list, they are remarkably peaceful places in the foothills of the Himalaya.

This was Gorkhaland that I was walking through. If you are looking for a new Indian state, this will probably be the place to look out for. The government of West Bengal is fighting tooth and nail to hold onto its hilly areas, but the local people are firmly up for their own separae state. And it is a land of the Gorkhas, with symbols of the Nepali community everywhere and with hints of the lands further to the north, the Tibetan plateau is everywhere to see. As you walk through row after row of tea bushes, prayer flags flutter in the wind, villagers pray at shrines and temples and there is a sense of mystique in the air...

Onward I walked, continuing downhill, and all the time talking with locals. Just past Badamtam a group of children asked me where I was from. A range of ridiculous guesses (Poland) and not so ridiculous guesses (Brazil) came forth until I told them the truth. There were a few surprises but after buying a bag of tomatoes I bid them farewell. You see, it is far more entertaining to walk than drive. You meet people, you feel the vibe in the air and you can nibble on some great local produce. The tomatoes were reviving as well as a great source of Vitamin C and a handy way to rehydrate myself on the walk. For you see I was descending further towards the River Rangeet. In the distance I could hear the water rumbling off the rapids. The tea estates had given way to tall forests as the climate became warmer. Yes, I had descended quite a bit towards the Sikkim/West Bengal border. Then I turned a corner and saw it, my destination. Just beyond the water, the fabled land of Sikkim...

(to be continued...)

Monday, 9 November 2009

India 2 - Darjeeling

Wow, wow, wow. What a place to go. Yes, it is the original tourist trap and for good reason. It was made well. And so welcome to Charlie's official guide to Darjeeling town...

I arrived in Darjeeling after a day's journey from Shillong. First a bus to Siliguri then a jeep for the four hour drive up to Darjeeling. On arriving in the town, I was not impressed. Dirty, chaotic and swimming in sewage there is no ceremony on entering Darjeeling. Bit I persevered. With a backpack filled with goodies and souvenirs, I trundled up the slippery concrete steps, my legs still aching from the trek in and around Nongriat Village. However, I came onto the main square of Darjeeling and I was suitably impressed. This looked more like a hill station of world fame.

I tried a couple of cheapie hotels, but they were full, it was peak season after all. Then I suddenly had a brainwave. This is Darjeeling, right? Sikkim was only a few kilometres away. I wander if there is a 'view' of this fabled land somewhere in the town, and a hotel nearby. So I hiked it, after a quick aloo chaat round the ridge of the town. Here I went past small Buddhist shrines carved into the mountain face. Darjeeling is located in between Nepal and Bhutan with Sikkim to the north and Tibet not too far away, the influence of the Himalayan cultures is strong on this town. You will probably find more authentic Tibetan culture here than in China, and certainly they are far nicer here than their compatriots to the north.

So onward I made my trek and suddenly I turned the ridge and saw a wonder to my eyes. Kangchenjunga - the third highest mountain in the world, located on the Indian/Nepal border stood proud in the near distance. The Himalaya, my first view of it since 2002 when I crossed the China/Pak border. Beautiful and breathtaking, there is a good reason why I love this part of the world. Acting as the buffer between the two most populated nations on Earth, there is an air of tranquility when you see the majesty of the Himalayan range. I found a hotel and could look out every morning at Kangchenjunga. But I wanted to do more than look. The land of the Himalaya was calling to me once again. Sikkim was in my sights...

General guide:

Darjeeling is a four hour jeep/bus ride or a (fun) seven hour train ride from Siliguri, the nearest town on the plains which is linked by train, road and air to the rest of India.

There are plenty of hotels to choose from but if you are really fussy then book in advance. The crowd seems to stick to the main area near the main square, but there are plenty of places to stay along the northern ridge of Darjeeling with (fantastic) views of Sikkim, instead of looking out onto the green tea estates that surround Darjeeling.

Food is readily available. If you want western sit down fare, you can find it here. The bazar in the lower part of Darjeeling is the place to pick up your fruit and veggies, fresh. At night however, it is the dirty, 'lower' part of town that is filled with hawkers trading their freshly made banquets onto a hungry populace. Avoid the advice in the guidebooks and head down to the more funky part of town for cheap and tasty bites.

Beware of the monkeys...

Sunday, 8 November 2009

India 2 - Mighty Meghalaya

Beautiful Meghalaya, India's self styled abode of the clouds just happens to be one of my favourite places on this Earth, and I have barely scratched the surface of this state. Dominated by the matriarchy of the Khasi, Garo and Janita peoples, it is essentially is one large, wet plateau. And it is gorgeous. Lacking in nightlife, but making up for it in the daytime, the people of Meghalaya are fun loving, hard working and surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. Green hills as far as the eye can see, waterfalls everywhere and of course hidden villages filled with mystique and intrigue...

And as I have mentioned earlier in this blog, there is a rich culture to discover in this land. Along with great food, Meghalaya is a destination that is much maligned by travelers to India. The North East has a reputation for being remote (true - but only due to the farcical Bangladeshi border) and dangerous (not the parts I have been to). It is left untouched by the common tourist. Many people within India (including the immigration officers at the airports) are surprised that I am willing to travel to Meghalaya, but for people beyond India, it is a place that is not even on their tourist radar. Quite simply, it is not well publicised. A shame for the local tourist industry but blissful for people seeking a little bit of peace in one of the world's most crowded countries, it is bliss to find this empty quarter. Both times I have traveled to Meghalaya, I have only bumped into foreigners twice, which is surprising when you head into the rest of India and meet the rest of the world coming to see this fantastic land.

And contemplating my next big trip, I think I know where I am heading off to...

Saturday, 7 November 2009

India 2 - Kolkata Nights...

The big bad city of the Bengal, home to 13 million people (give or take) and on of those places that I always held in anticipation. After all, the notorious nature of the city, with the infamous 'Black Hole' tag has always meant a certain amount of intrepidation from the lowly traveller.

How wrong I was. Far from being a city filed with woe and dread, it was a city of fun! Fantastic sights to see, the best street food in all of Asia and a city with a metro - always important when you need to navigate around a metropolis. Sure, you had to keep your eyes and ears peeled for the net con, but overall, it was nothing that I could not handle. Plus, I really have to go on about this, the food was spectacular!

So what to do while there? OK, I only spent two nights in Kolkata, so this is only the briefest of write-ups. But I would definitely recommend the following:

1) Eat your way through the city.

I cannot overemphasise the quality of food available in Kolkata. From the humblest puri stand to elaborate stalls with seating areas serving rice and curry, the food of Kolkata is fresh, cheap, varied and readily available. And the amount of fixed price stalls means that there is no need to check your prices with the owners. Bliss!

2) Make some time in the Maidan

One of the world's largest urban green spaces, the Eden Park is a beautiful part of the city. Along with the Hooghly River, this space provides a much needed lung to the city. Cooling, filled with greenery and grazing cattle, the Victoria Monument and Cricket Ground also provide tourist gems to take in. Simply one of the best parks in the world, not something that you would automticaly associate with Kolkata.

3) Hop on the tram.

Slow, old, rumbling, but the fact that they all originate at Esplanade means that hopping on one of those beasts of the road will always take you back to 'square one'. Plus at Rs4, who can really complain? India's only tram system, the oldest in Asia, and by a miracle of the engineering crews, still running, despite the government's attempts to repeatedly close down the system. Ride it while you can!

4) Catch a flick!

'Nuff said.

5) Take in the Nightlife.

Kolkata really comes alive at night. The air cools down from the heat of the day, and the city comes out to party. Everywhere I have been to in India (except Meghalaya) livens up after sunset, but in Kolkata the city itself changes character. Its life is lead on the streets, with millions of residents and tourists alike coming out to enjoy the air, do a bit of shopping and of course, indulge in the culinary delights that vie for your attention. Forget about slinging back whisky in some lousy hotel bar, if you wan to really enjoy Kolkata, then head out into the night...

Friday, 6 November 2009

India 2 - Eating Well

Oh, that is one thing I did in India. The cuisine of a vast country with its cultural whims and ways, means that the food on offer is spectacular and tasty. And trust me, the cultural influence of India is evident in the eclectic nature of the cuisine. Dumplings in India? Whether it is an influence from Nepal or Tibet it is now a Bengali speciality. Being India it is a country that grows all its food, so eating is fresh and cheap! Also, I am a bit of a hungry fella, and for me, nibbling my way around a country is as important as breathtaking sights and meeting the locals. The experience of my stomach is as important as any other experience.

And remember where to get the best food. It is at India's street stalls. No matter where you go in the country, there is always someone with a little kerosene/gas stove and a handful of ingredients cooking up a delight that will fill up the casual traveller such as myself. Cheap, cheerful and fresh, I never once got sick in my travels through this country and I ate at every imaginable street stall around. And it was not just a diet that did not just kept me in survival but gave me the strength to meet the Khasis, hop on the train, cross a tree root (rubber not bamboo) bridge and watch great movies. I also did a lot more during my second trip to this wonderful land, thanks to the great food on offer. Stay tuned fr more travel tales from wonderful India!

Thursday, 5 November 2009

India 2 - Catch a flick!

If there is one country you have to catch a flick, it has to be India. And while I was in Kolkata, I had to dive into one of those wonderful picture houses.

Dil Bole Hadippa was not the greatest film around, but it was entertaining. I do not understand Hindi and with a lack of subtitles, what I really need is a simple story, a few good songs and pretty girl on the screen. Dil Bole Hadippa amply filled this need. And being a film lover, it was not just the film, but the atmosphere, munching away in the cinema all those great snacks.

One guaranteed way of entertainment while in India - hit the movies!

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

India 2 - Crossing of a few streams in Meghalaya - Living Root Bridges

From my first visit to India, I recommended the traveller to partake in five activities. I have already talked about meeting the Khasis and hoppping on a train. But where would I find an iconic bamboo bridge to cross a body of water? Well, only in India would I find something better than a few bamboo stilts. How about a living tree root bridge. Mystified? Well, let me explain to you, dear blog reader, about a wonder found near the border of Bangladesh, nay, let me tell you a story of my wanderings in Meghalaya...

It started in Shillong. I was talking to the manageress of the hotel and she told me of the living tree root bridges that existed near Cherrapunji. I had also read about them in a pamphlet I picked up at the local tourist office. I was mystified. A bridge, made of a tree. Not some dead log, but the live roots of a tree, spanning across running bodies of water? How was this possible? Surely, the weight of a person should collapse the root? Wait, a bridge made from tree roots? I was more a doubting Thomas than a believer in such propaganda.

But I organised a trip to Shillong with a local friend. We took in the sights and the surrounding area. He showed me some of the spectacular waterfalls that dotted the landscape. After all this was the wettest place on Earth. Another record for India, but luckily for me, I had visited the edge of the Shillong Plateau on one of its dry days...

Now, if you want to know why this is the wettest place on Earth, it is a simple lesson in geography. A couple of hundred miles to the south lies the Bay of Bengal (the largest bay in the world - a lot of records here in India). Its warm waters are ripe for generating lots of storms, plus the general wind flow of the South Western Monsoon means that a lot of wild weather is pushed up towards the land. The shape of the Bay of Bengal is akin to a funnel. And just like any good funnel, the Bay of Bengal concentrates all the moisture towards one point. Now Bangladesh is only a few metres above sea level, so it gets a bit of rain. But the real storms hit the Shillong Plateau. You see the Shillong Plateau is not a gentle sweeping rise up, but has the shape of a cliff face. All this warm, moist air from the Bay of Bengal hits the Shillong Plateau is forced to rise up. It cools and so squeezes the moisture out of it like a sponge. This water becomes rain, and it absolutely buckets down on Meghalaya. Cherrapunjee, right at the southern end of the Shillong Plateau get pelted. Here's a photo to illustrate:

Yep, that's the edge of the Shillong Plateau. You see how the hills suddenly drop off into Bangladesh. You can see why Bangladesh is always under water, it is due to being downstream of the wettest place on Earth. All the water that falls on the Shillong Plateau has to end up somewhere. Oh, and one more thing, note those tiny bits of white in amongst the green. They are settlements and people live there in those little villages. But how do you get to those villages. No road can actually be placed on the side of those hills, the slope is just too steep. But yet, there are people living there. How do they get to and from their village?

My friend and I were riding along and we got talking about the living root bridges. Sure they existed, but I wanted to see them. To my surprise, he had never seen them, despite knowing where they were. The weather was never right, always too rainy. But today was as bright and sunny a day as we could get. I was up for it, and I stated why not. It was late in the day, coming up to 1pm, but if there was a time to start, it might as well have been now...

So we descended the hills. In the space of 5km we had dropped some 800m - and you could feel the heat rising up from the plains. We were a few km as the crow flies from the edge of the Republic, and more importantly at the end of the road. The road just stopped. A dirt track for the last kilometre, suddenly there was a small turning circle and a set of steps leading down. So this was how those villages negotiated those steep hills. Not by wheel, but by foot.

Now there is a reason why you have to watch out for the weather. This is one steep set of stairs, not always in good condition, and sometimes made out of granite rocks rather than concrete. In other words, in the rain (or fog), you will slip. Badly. And it is a long way down. Still, this was the only way to get to the valley floor and see the living root bridge. So my friend and I walked down each step, chatting, sipping on water and chewing on kwai but wary of the steps that we were walking on. We eventually came to a village, and much to our mistake, decided to turn left. On and on we went until we realised that wandering through jungle was just not going to get us nearer to that famed bridge.

We were tired. The heat was killing us both. There was a hunger in the stomach and pain in our legs. But there was also something calling to us. The unknown, a willingness to explore and the knowledge that our destination was so close. So we headed back to were the path diverged and took the right hand path. In a few minutes, we arrived at a village and we heard the water from a nearby river. Sure enough, ahead of us, stood the first of many living root bridges that dotted this part of the world:

Yeah, I was a believer. These living root bridges really did exist. And my goodness, it was scary to cross. There was a bit of shaking, and those rapids beneath were terrifying as they were loud. But they were a crossing point, and something that definitely put a few hairs on my chest. Amazing, as these bridges could live up to 200 years. Amazing, as despite all the modern technology available, these would outlast the modern steel footbridges that were placed elsewhere in the valley. Amazing as this was a piece of human ingenuity from the depths of antiquity. How long have people been tapping the roots of these vast trees to cross the river? When was this discovered? And it is interesting to see its spread along this part of India. The local interactions, the flow of knowledge across the land. An anthropological feast for the senses as well as a feat of engineering, merging a biological and ecological wonder into a humble bridge for local residents to go about their daily business.

But...ah yes, there is always a but...there was another bridge that I wanted to see. And it was in the next village. Time was running out. Climbing back up to the road would be no fun in the dark, but we had both come so far. So on we pressed, further into the forest, crossing stream after stream, some on those wonderful wooden bridges of the living trees and some on shaky modern suspension bridges of wire and concrete. But there was one bridge I had to see, unique in the world, and possibly the highlight of my trip to India. It was coming up to 5pm, the sun was fast descending behind the hills and time was limited as we virtually ran the rest of the way to Nongriat Village. Up a final set of steps, round a corner and suddenly, there it was, before my eyes, a wonder to behold!

Getting there and away:

There are plenty of root tree bridges in the Khasi and Janita Hills Districts of Meghalaya, but the 'double deck' living root bridge that is unique (yes, the only known double decker in the world - another record for India), is only found near Cherrapunjee. It is 13km from Cherrapunjee town, 8km by road and 5km by foot down some damn steep steps. Take good footwear, be prepared to go barefoot on the slippery granite parts and take supplies. Be prepared for wild weather and sudden changes, and to be blunt, you need to be fairly fit to do this. But the challenge is there, waiting to be discovered. And remember, there are people living here. If they can climb up and down those steps, so can you...enjoy it, respect it and love it!

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

India 2 - Hop on a train...The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway

I really liked Darjeeling. Really liked. It was a good place to go. Really good. Darjeeling to put simply, was one of the most fun packed places a traveller could visit. But a bit of history is needed before I continue this blog post.

Darjeeling is a British invention. The hills and surrounding countryside has been there since India smashed into Asia 50 million years ago, but it was the cold loving British, needing a place to rest from the heat of their old capital that founded Darjeeling as a hill station and a centre of tea growing. In 1835, the lease was secured on Darjeeling by the British and so begins the history of one of India's oldest tourist resorts. Right from the beginning, Darjeeling has attracted a multitude of visitors from both far and near to take in the hills, enjoy the cooling climate and to revel in some of the best tea grown anywhere on Earth.

Of course, being perched on top of a hill, people needed a way to get to the hill station. You could have taken a horse and cart. You could have walked. But it was an 80km hike uphill. And there was a need to get the tea off the estates and to Calcutta for export. So in 1881, the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway opened for business. Granted UNESCO heritage status in 1999 (later joined by the Nilgiri and Shimla Railways) it represents one of the finest examples of 19th century engineering to be found on Earth and is fully operational. It is also fantastic fun to travel on!

I have never seen so many people smile as when the steam train puffed into the platform. Whether they were jaded local or train spotting geek, there was never a scene of so much happiness as that surrounding the steam filled frolics around Darjeeling station. Shunting away, whistling to and fro and with the local traffic playing a cat and mouse game with the locos, the Darjeeing Himalayan Railway is probably the happiest place on Earth. Or one of the happiest. You see, we humans do not care about speed and efficiency (the railway takes twice as long as the equivalent road journey), we just want fun! And there is plenty of fun to be had by riding the rails here in the hills of North East India.

And my goodness, do the staff of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway put on a show! Despite the multitude of languages thrown at them (remember, this is world famous railway) they handle us passengers with remarkable patience and skill. Spectacular in every way, my only complaint about the railway is that there are not enough trains put on. Demand far outstrips supply, especially in the peak tourist season for the 'toy train' as it is locally known. Whether you want to take the little tourist ride around Darjeeling or the full seven hour journey down onto the plains, make sure you are ready to wave at all passer-byes on your rail journey. Despite the daily running of the train, the local people are very friendly and are obviously proud that this train passes right in front of their homes.

To be honest, I was happier than a kid in a sweet shop. Like every other person, I love trains! My father was a fireman while in Sri Lanka, my Uncle was a train driver and my Grandfather was a station master. So this form of transport has always resonated with me. Plus compared to any other form of transport, the train is infinitely more civilised. Gently trundling through the countryside, with complete right of way, able to stretch the legs and chat with my fellow passengers, the train is the most enjoyable way to travel India. Whether a quick rattle on a local train, a long distance journey or even a mountainside treat, the train is the only way to see India. And the only way to see the hill country of Darjeeling is by the toy train!

Getting there and away:

The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway runs pretty much everyday from Siliguri to Darjeeling calling at every station en route. In the monsoon (May to September) there are plenty of landslips and interruptions, but outside this, it will pretty much run come what may. There is also a special tourist train that does a loop around Darjeeling, taking in the war memorial at Batasia and the museum at Ghum. Tickets can be purchased anywhere on the Indian Railway network, online or through travel agents.