The name Calcutta evokes images of squalor and emaciated servants, living in a giant slum. That might have been the case when the British made Calcutta their capital, but today’s Kolkata is just a huge modern city. A lot of the colonial architecture has survived, and so did the huge park in the center. Much of it is a cricket field, and there is the Victoria Monument in a manicured garden at the south end. This being India, the park is cut into sections by large streets packed with thundering honking traffic, protected from pedestrians by fences. Sikkim was so peaceful…
Near the park is the New Market, an enormous covered market crowded with tiny stalls selling mostly clothes but also food, jewelry, toys, and various household goods. There is also a dark smelly cavernous meat section that probably hasn’t changed much since the time of the British. The market spills over to much of the surrounding city blocks. Unfortunately it’s infested with touts more than usual.
Yuksam is the site of the first Kingdom of Sikkim. There isn’t much left though, there is a Buddhist shrine at the site of the throne. It’s very scenic there though – Tibetan temples, lakes, waterfalls, beautiful views of the valleys and mountains and the beehive villages built up steep slopes, narrow winding mountain roads in catastrophic condition that are navigable only by jeepsies (Indian copies of old US jeeps), and a singing stone.
Which is a large rock that, when struck with a stone, makes a sound as if it were metal. Quite astonishing. Consequently, the region is called Ting-Ting.
When I woke up at dawn in Pelling and opened my eyes, there was the mountain panorama of the Himalayas, dominated by the Kangchenjunga massif. Kangchenjunga is at 8586m India’s highest mountain and the third-highest in the world, only some 250 meters lower than Everest.
The mountain views are even moire spectacular at Rabdentse, Sikkim’s second royal city, now in ruins. It’s location with the backdrop of snow-capped Himalaya peaks is fabulously scenic. I was the only visitor so early in the morning. Nearby is the Pemayangtse Gompa, one of the most important Buddhist monasteries.
The mountains around Rabdentse are criss-crossed by unmarked paths. There are many ways to discover these paths: logs worn smooth by passing feet, broken branches, exposed roots, lack of rocks… But I used none of those and simply followed the discarded candy wrappers. Sikkim is very clean, in fact smoking is forbidden in the state, but the tourists can’t seem to break the habit.
Across the valley from Gangtok is Rumtek, a small village that is essentially a Tibetan monastery, founded by Tibetan monks exiled by the Chinese cultural revolution. Atypcally, it’s guarded by the army, and entering requires a passport and inner line permit.
They have a large beautifully appointed prayer hall, and the monks were sitting in four rows, chanting. The chants were punctuated by Tibetan horns, bells, and drums. The ceremony was no different from others I have seen in Tibet. I watched and listened for a long time.
The ancient kingdom of Sikkim is now part of India, but requires a special “Inner Line Permit” to enter. Sikkim is a large rectangle, neatly boxed in by West Bengal, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It’s up in the Himalayas and is essentially all mountains. The culture is entirely Tibetan, except less rustic than Tibet. People have cars here, not yaks. And the momos (Tibetan dumplings) are not made with fermented yak butter.
The main city is Gangtok, like Darjeeling climbing up a mountainside, all the way up to the ridge and spilling over to the other side. It’s more orderly and less charming than Darjeeling, but there is still a lot to see here. It’s more modern when you walk the streets, but almost rural in the spaces in between, which are reachable only by interminable narrow stairs.
Back in the Himalayas, this time near Tibet! Darjeeling in West Bengal is another hill station, at 2100 meters, built on the side of a mountain. I can see the 8500m Kanchenjunga mountain from my hotel. The suites in the Dekeling Resort are incredibly comfortable, in 130-year old wooden buildings. During a heavy thunderstorm I had fires going in both fireplaces, listening to the rain drumming on the roof.
Darjeeling is in India, but almost all the faces here are Tibetan or Nepali. The dominant religion is Tibetan Buddhism. The two main roads wide enough to carry traffic are unbelievably choked with SUVs, but since the place is so steep there are narrow alleys and loooong stairways all over then place.
The main attraction – beside tea – is a British-era 60cm narrow-gauge train called the Toy Train. Its steam locomotive is wheezing down the hill to Ghum, just a few km away but the train is slow and the scenery pretty. At one point, it does a 360-degree loop to get over an especially steep section.
Varanasi is the most holy Hindu city. It is here where Hindus bathe in the Ganges, and where bodies are cremated in open fires on the Burning Ghats, stairs that lead down into nthe river. Much of Varanasi’s waterfront is a series of ghats, often backed by palaces. Boats go out on the river with a great view of the fires – I saw ten of them going – and the daily celebrations with chanting and dances. Bathing, praying, and dying in Varanasi is a ticket to Nirvana in Hindu belief.
The old town begins on top of the ghats. It’s narrow in the south and widens to a large neighborhood in the north. It’s a dense maze of narrow twisting alleys, often so narrow that I can touch the walls on both sides. It’s very easy to get lost even with GPS. The buildings are very old, poorly maintained – I saw some that have collapsed – and very uneven. The alleys are crowded with people at shop fronts, cows, and of course motorcycles. Lots of trash, because there was no collection during the Holi festival they say, but I am not sure I believe that.
Holi is the Hindu spring festival of colors and love. Years ago I have been in India during Holi so I knew what to expect and bought a big white shirt to wear that day. Everybody carries a small plastic bag with brightly colored powder, which they dab on other people’s for heads and cheeks in liberal quantities, wishing a Happy Holi. Soon everybody is a riot of colors.
Children find this inefficient. They mix the color powder with water and fill bottles, balloons, and water pistols to do maximum damage. Everyone’s clothes, the streets, and even the cows are soon covered in red, purple, or yellow colors. For some reason my big white shirt seems to have attracted a lot of extra attention, and my face was changing colors every few minutes.
Here is how to make Indian Puri bread. First you need a restaurant with a kitchen. Form a small ball of dough with wheat, water, salt, and oil. Flatten it and throw it on the inside of your buried tandoor oven, where it will stick to the wall. Pull it out with a long poker after two minutes, rub some butter on it, and add a pinch of salt. Very fresh, very tasty. Pro tip: don’t let the customer see the chai sieve that looks like a rat had died in it years ago (not shown).
My hotel in Khajuraho is so much more pleasant than the one in Gwalior! I have a door that leads into their beautiful garden. It’s also only a few minutes from the Western Temple Complex.
Khajuraho has 22 temples, all a thousand years old and in almost mint condition. The ornamentation, the multiple bands of statues all around the temples, the friezes with elephants and warriors, and the interior is almost perfectly preserved, in sharp detail with almost no weathering. No surface here is flat, other than the floor. It’s absolutely incredible, and a UNESCO world heritage.
The statues are not quite what you would expect in, say, a church. There are various gods, and thousands of curvaceous women in exotic dancing poses – this has got to be bad for the back, especially for women as top-heavy as these! And it doesn’t stop there, many panels are clearly taken for the Kama Sutra, with a preference for the more complicated poses, and some are just orgies in sandstone.
We are lucky that the Mughals never took control here; Islam is even more prudish than Facebook and would have wiped out this architectural wonder.
Between Gwalior and Khajuraho is a small rural village with a huge hulking Fort, at Datia. The entrance leads to a series of big dark caverns and wide stairways and arches, more felt than seen in the darkness. Two floors up it opens to a large square with connecting walkways, in various stages of charming disrepair. The central tower rises up to seven floors. Balconies with stone grilles look out far over the countryside. Some rooms still have the original paintwork. One large hall, the painting gallery, is behind heavy wooden doors locked with a massive chain and padlock. I know the door is heavy because the guard picked it up and heaved it to the side so I could enter, without paying any attention to the lock. This place was very beautiful before it was abandoned.
The Sun State Hotel in Gwalior is the second-worst hotel in the world. Its business is tip extraction. First the guy who didn’t carry my bag for carrying my bag, then the guy who replaced the unused towel with another unused towel for replacing my towel just after getting to the room. The room has hot water but the hot water isn’t working so I got a bucket. Much later someone unlocked the door I had locked and stood in the room demanding a tip for that too. There are soggy bricks in the bathtub that fell from a hole in the ceiling.
(The prize for the worst hotel goes to that windowless cell with half-collapsed ceiling in Yuncheng, China, a few years ago, where the receptionists moonlight as prostitutes and I had one standing in my room at midnight who didn’t like being thrown out.)