Sunday, October 28, 2007

Road to Nepal

My trip to Sikkim is absurdly short but then again I'm only visiting these few sights in India as an aside to the real purpose of the trip, to walk across Nepal. Or at least to try! Friday I was able to complete the visa application for Sikkim which required two passport stamps, making it almost a separate country. The trip to Phodong in northern Sikkim started like all of my days at 6am in order to make a 7am shared jeep which was to take me across the hills and valleys from Darjeeling to the former Kingdom of Sikkim. This ride is the reason they make Jeeps. The road is one long extreme grade both up and down with nearly impossible corkscrew loops designed to compensate for areas in which switchbacks would be impossible. It consists of hundreds of blind turns and the entire ride along the unguarded edge of a two thousand foot drop straight down. These drivers navigate by blind faith, literally, and excessive use of one's horn. It makes all the already lawless and organic driving in the rest of India seam tame by comparison. I mean what are close calls all day long if the consequence of a single mistake isn't sure death?

I only spent one day in Phodong but it was filled with many interesting conversations. My hotel proprietor and his neighbor, a police officer shred the opinion that the central government of Sikkim is not at all interested in the welfare of the people or infrastructure of the state. Judging by the condition of the roads they are right. The roads are worse than those in DC in the early 90's. Manny of the roads in the capital are still dirt.

Today I took a few hours to walk to the second oldest monastery in Sikkim but it's Sunday and just about everything is closed. It also appears to be the day to get drunk and talk to me at length about hair brained tourism ideas and political topics that everyone everywhere has already talked into the ground.

I still can't get over the prolific cellphone use! It's no different than being back home. In fact people keep asking me for my mobile number. Definitely not the India I left seen years ago.

Tomorrow at 7am I have a date with my least favorite place in India, a bus station. Bus stations seem to attract liers, cheats and thieves like no place else in India. Yesterday I had someone quote me 1200 rupees for a two hour ride at the jeep park here in Gangtok. The real price for the trip which I was able to get by walking 20 minutes up the road, 50 rupees. I'm heading to north east Nepal, directly west of where I am now but in order to get there I have to travel 100 kilometers south and another 100 back north in Nepal because there is no immigration office in the hills. In all it will involve four of more connecting buses and approximately 20 hours of transit.

Unfortunately I don't have my itinerary for Nepal with me but it will be about a month before I get to post another entry so hold tight and read John Pilkington's book if you haven't already.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tea in Darjeeling

blogging in the hills of India is a bit of a luxury, imagine that. This has to be quick but just keep it up to date I arrived here in Darjeeling yesterday after an 11 hour train ride from Kolkata and a 2 hour jeep ride through the hills from the last major train station in Northern India. Spent yesterday trying to get a permit to Sikkim (the area just north of here). The permit is a formality, it's free and anyone can get one, yet I must play the game and shuttle back and forth between government offices looking for the right bureaucrat with the right stamp. In the office yesterday there were several people, Indians and foreigners complaining that various permits that they applied for in 2003 were still stuck in limbo! Mine should be ready today, I hope.

While in this cybercafe I just noticed a young guy from Darjeeling flirting with someone in a chat room! Wow. Never expected that.

Darjeeling is an Indian tourist mecca, crowded and very commercial but it feels good to be back in the hills where it's cool and the people speak Nepali. At last I can follow the gist of what people are saying.

Oh yeah, 3 rupee tea in Darjeeling tastes exactly like 3 rupee tea in Kolkata. Hummmm...

I've also decided on a route through eastern Nepal... more on that tomorrow!

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

डेल्ही तो Kolkata

7 days into the trip and I haven't walked a mile on a dirt trail! I
left Washington DC on the 16th for London Heathrow where I had a 6

hour layover, not the 20 hours I originally thought. For some reason
the bulleted lines on my itinerary fell randomly across departures,
takeoffs and connecting flights. Really glad I caught that one! I did

have time to blow $40 on a train ride into the city and a quick snack
of my favorite UK "delicacy". A big pot of Onkin Peach Bio Pot

yogurt. It was worth the $12 train ticket for that alone. Walked the

Thames and gawked at house boats and fancy homes around the
Hammersmith Station. Got the feeling that I was being watched... a
lot! Poor London, the CCTV is really over the top. It's like a big

brother Sci Fi flick except it's real.

Arrived in New Delhi on the 18th at 5:30 am and made my way into town
in a shared taxi with a woman from Portland, OR who owns the Sari
export business, We shared stories of living in India
and she filled me in on the Delhi metro, as I was full of questions.
We opted for a taxi as the EATS bus, which costs a fraction of the
price, would have required a 3 hour wait!

Once in Paharganj, the tourist hood of New Delhi I checked into the
Hotel Navrang. At Rs.100 a night it's a dump but it's my favorite
dump in New Delhi, just around the corner from my favorite super cheap

14 rupee restaurant, the name of which I have no idea.

In the first couple of hours I got lost exploring the back alleys of
Pahargan and then made my way to the tourist ticket counter at the New
Delhi railway station where I bought a ticket to Kolkata aka Kalka
for the incredibly low price of Rs. 95!!! Thats a 20 hour journey for
about $2.25. After that I was off to ride the entire New Delhi metro

I have an odd personal goal of riding all of the Metro systems I come
across, from end to end, every line, through every station. First was
New York, then Washington DC, bits of the San Franciso system and eventually a pathetic stab at
finishing the London Underground in 2000. Riding the Metro from
Connaught Circus to Dwaraka 9, the eastern end of the Blue Line and
back took at least two hours and transported me from the dense urban
setting at the center of Delhi to the exploding suburbs of massive
concrete housing developments. Seven stories tall and the size of city
blocks these buildings are huge and just as ugly. A truly soulless new
New Delhi is emerging.

Shortly after this jet lag caught up with me and I headed
back to my hotel to sleep it off around 2pm. I awoke the next morning
at 4am, packed my bag and walked back to the train station to catch my
5:50am train. As we pulled out of the station I was surprised that we

were headed west but thought we must be heading for a junction or

something. The rising sun did little to allay my fears that I was
traveling in the wrong direction but I thought, hey I've never taken
this route so what do I know.

Two hours later the train filled up and the berth designed for 8 was
was somehow comfortably holding 19 people. When I finally asked the girls sitting across from
me where they were going they said Chandigarh! about half way to Simla and in completely the wrong direction. So I caught a commuter train back to Delhi, bought my next two connecting tickets to Kolkata (not
Kalka!) and Darjeeling before checking back into my hotel. In the end
the train ticket I thought I got such a bargain on cost me 2040

Arrived in Calcutta now Kolkata on the 21st and walked into town from Howra
station. It has been such a refreshing change from Delhi. The city
is beautiful and the people far more friendly than I have encountered
anywhere in Norther India. Air pollution is one major down side. Like all Indian cities the air quality along the major roads is dangerous. I checked into the Salvation Army Guest
House and scored a bed in the dormitory at 70 rupees a night. Lots of
deranged looking travelers staying here. I don't understand the need to become such a cliche'd hippie just because you are traveling in ndia? People the 60's are over, showers are back in vogue.

Having broken the bank on my train ride to Kolkata I have decided to
stick mostly to street food while in India. My technique for staying healthy
on such cheap food is to only eat at busy places that use banana leaf
plates and clay cups, neither of which get "washed" in potentially
tainted water between uses. Once finished you simply destroy your fired but
unglazed cups after you're done. If you were to refill these cups too
many times they would simply melt into your tea. The proper restaurants are at least 8 times as expensive as the street vendors but I had a dish of panier matar that transcended this world.

Everything I read about Kolkata said that it was a gastronomic
wonderland, and they were right, so wonderfully right! Everything
tastes better here, even the simplest breads are lighter and more
delicious, with a totally different quality that you find in Delhi or
Uttar Pradesh. Same ingredients, same cooking utensils, differen
results, it's amazing.

I have managed to keep up the same odd sleeping habits, passing out at
8pm and waking up at 3 or 4am. Days 2 and 3 in Kolkata have been spent
walking around soaking up the atmosphere and of course riding the
entire subway and a bunch of the trollys. I have been walking around a lot to break in my new shoes but it's obvious that they are the ones breaking me in. By the end of Tuesday I had two huge blisters that needed lancing.

Just finished reading A Walk Across America, a story of a young man who walks from NY State to New Orleans in a year and a half, living and working along the way. This and the last book I finished on a Brit's walk across western Nepal in 1983 have set the tone for this trip, I'm only going to read books about long walks that are more difficult than mine! That will keep me in check when I want to complainer about blisters...

The buildings here in Kolkata are a combination of decaying Victorian houses and
office buildings and modern but stylish almost "modernist" cement
structures. I have to say this is rapidly becoming my favorite big
city in India! One thig about getting up at 5am is that nothing official or professional in this city opens until 10am. Must have to do with all of India being in the same time zone. It makes sense in Delhi but Kolkata has ended up with an odd late start to the day.

Tomorrow I have a 10pm train to New Jalpaniguri the connecting point
for travel to Darjeeling and Sikkim. My eyes haven't had their fill of this city but my lungs are about to quit on me. More when I get to the Himalayas.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Since so many people asked me about what I was bringing on a 7 month trip across Nepal, I thought I would break it down.

1 pare of pants,
1 pare of good light weight hiking shoes (in this case La Sortiva Trango Light Low's to be specific),
1 pair of shorts,
4 shirts,
Thermal tops and bottoms,
A wind proof hat,
4 pairs of socks and underwear,
A down sleeping bag,
Cheapest possible 12 year old sleeping pad,
Gortex bevy,
Cheapest gortex rain coat,
Flip flops,
Medium weight jacket,
Wind up flashlight!,
Maps and language books,
Hat, sunglasses, bandanna,
Hygiene / medical kit,
Quick dry towel,
Whisperlite MSR camping stove and .85 lieter MSR titanium cooking pot,
Lots of plastic bags,
A bit of rope / twine for hanging a mosquito net and laundry,
Mosquito net,
About $2000 in mixed form + credit cards,
And one luxury, a pair of small binoculars.

All this goes in a $100 medium sized (maybe 45 liters?) cheap'o backpack from REI, I think the model is called TourStar. Its about 12 years old and a bit beat up.

If I remember correctly I will want to get this down to two shirts and two pairs of underwear ASAP once I start walking. I will most likely dump as much of the excess unused items as well. No one ever said walking across Nepal was glamorous!

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Yesterday was my last day of gainful employment. Yikes!

The flyer at left is the last publicity campaign of my life as it exists now. This blog is intended as a way to document and share the experiences of my upcoming trip to Nepal, a 7 month trip during which I hope to traverse the country from east to west.

Ever since my first trip to what was then the Kingdom of Nepal in 1995 I have been preoccupied with returning and visiting as much of the country as I possibly can. The forces of supply and demand, namely the lack of enough time and money to undertake such trips has keep me state side more than I would like to admit. A cheap group house, good job and a concerted effort to save money over the last 2+ years has enabled me to finally get back.

Prior trips have taken me and my traveling companions through the Helambu, Langtang, Ganesh Himal, and portions of the Far Western region. This trip I aim to pass through all 5 regions of the country, and as many of the 14 zones and 75 districts as possible. Due to political instability I may have to forgo the Midwest region, but that is yet to be seen. All in all I spent about a year and a half in Nepal over the course of the 5 years between 1995 and 2000. 3 months here and 4 months there… piece by piece.

The first trip was with Sojourn Nepal, now known as the Passage Project. Highly recommended for any 19 year old. Hell anyone of any age would benefit from joining that program. It was a great crash course in the wild city of Kathmandu. Living with a family, taking language courses, attending lectures on culture, politics, economy and the like. Trekking through the countryside and ultimately undergoing the final “disorientation” before leaving to return back to the states. In my case it I was off for another adventure as an organic migrant farm worker after my first trip to Nepal, which considerably softened the blow of returning home. No one tells you that returning home is by far the most disturbing portion of traveling for protracted periods of time. Everything you know as familiar is cast in a new and strange light, people and places you knew look fresh and different.

More on this after I box up my life.