Wednesday, November 26, 2008

darjeeling, so lovely, so frigid

After catching up our much needed sleep we set out on foot to explore Gangtok. I had major tendonitis in my left hand from my clutch lever so it was nice to be off of the bikes. The switchbacky town roads are connected by steep stairwells and trails for foot traffic. We made our way to the central market and picked up fruit and locally made Euro style cheese. The people are a diverse mix of Indians, Tibetans, and Nepalese (among other ethnic groups) and it was easy to see why I was waved through the border crossing.

We meandered around, eventually making our way to the Enchey Monastery, which was founded in 1840 by a monk allegedly gifted with the power of flight. Unlike the other major Hindu temples we had visited in Kolkata no one tried to harass us about carrying bags or taking photos. In fact we were free to wander the premises unescorted. The temple contained a Buddha statue as well as some lesser deities. In the courtyard the young monks entertained themselves by playing hacky sack with a bundle of rubber bands. On the return we found a series of paths that quickly brought us back to the main market.

Jascha wanted to try the local cuisine and I wanted to try the popular Indian take on chow mein, so we opted for a cafe serving Indian, Chinese and Sikkimese food. We sampled momos, pakoras, chow mein, and a soup (kawri) with meat, vegetables, and dumplings made from momo dough. The food in this region tends to lack the fire of the south, but there's usually a jar of hot sauce nearby to spice things up.

The next day we decided to get our bikes worked on. My front brake was barely engaging and Jascha's pannier frame and brake light were both broken from Kolkata taxi encounters. Jascha found a place near our hotel that specializes in Enfields. They repaired his bike for 375 Rps ($7.80) and adjusted my brakes at no cost.

Sadly, the next day we had to leave our oasis for Darjeeling. We waited until noon to let the temperatures warm up. It had rained the night before and it took quite some time to start my bike. We passed over the same mountain roads we had ridden on the way to Gangtok, but this time it was light out. The granite boulder strewn river was spectacular as it wound through the forest. Every now and then we saw signs for a random pharmaceutical company. At the border Jascha was again stopped. I was scolded when I went to turn around to join him until the officer figured out I wasn't a local. We closed out our permit and headed out.

We left the main highway for the narrow, twisty road to Darjeeling. At times the hairpin turns were so steep and tight that our bikes threatened to stall. The road wound through tiny villages, tea plantations, and forests rich with lush ferns. By the time we neared Darjeeling we were freezing, but intact save a hole melted in Jascha's riding pants from his exhaust pipe. It took us several inquiries and one encounter with the law (for going the wrong way on a one way street) to find our road. The guesthouse was poorly signed, so we called for directions and the guy waited out front for us. We lucked out in that the roof of the place had gated parking, a rarity in Darjeeling, and an amazing view of Kanchendzonga (the third tallest peak in the world) . We donned our warmest clothes and headed out to the street stalls for onion parathas and potato pakoras. The frigid temps made for an quiet night of reading under our comforters.

The next morning we headed over to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, formerly run by Tenzing Norgay (whose remains are located on the site). The displays chronicled the history of Himalayan climbing, focusing mainly on pre-1985. Upstairs was a natural history museum with poorly mounted taxidermy specimens. The ticket included a joint pass to the Darjeeling zoo, which contained a number of (mostly pacing) exotic animals (including clouded leopards, Siberian tigers, and red pandas) in sadly outdated enclosures.

On the way back we visited the Hindu temple (covered with Buddhist prayer flags) which sits on the top of Observatory Hill. We removed our shoes as indicated by the shoe storage area and Indian visitors, but seemed to be the only non-Indian tourists to do so. The garish temple hosts a number of surprisingly inoffensive macaques, contrary to the signs. Not a single one tried to approach us. After another frigid evening in Darjeeling we are seriously contemplating abandoning the lovely scenery a day early for the warmth and spacious accomodation of our Kolkata hotel. Hope our bikes start.

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