December 8 2015 – Darjeeling
75 at 7000. That is how many stair steps it if from the entrance lobby to my room, and the elevation in feet. 55 is where I have to stop and 'look at the scenery', before going back to my room to pant. I tell the locals I am old and fat, but mostly fat, so I go slow.
Yesterday the plane landed in Bagdora right on time. Both my pieces of luggage made it too. I always count it a minor miracle that me luggage ends up the same place I do. I've had my bags go on completely different vacations than I have. One time I had a hard sided suitcase plop over the baggage belt looking like PacMan. Except instead of eating dots it was dropping pieces of clothing. This time it all worked out just fine.
I thought I might want to go to Sikkim, but foreigners need a special permit to go there, so I stopped at the Sikkim tourist kiosk to find out how to get the permit. He told me how, drew me a map and then got me a taxi to Darjeeling. A little bitty 8 passenger van, that might hold 4 Americans. I took 'shotgun' and soon wished I hadn’t. The engine is in the rear and the nose is flat. Nothing but a piece of sheet metal and a headlight between me and the oncoming traffic. This driver was sane, but the other drivers had gone to the same school of driving as this morning's Calcutta driver did.
The road was nice and flat and the traffic moderate. We crossed over a bridge and people were digging pits in the sand. I asked the driver why the pits, he said they were looking for semi precious stones and occasionally gold. As we drove on we entered an Army base. It was kilometers and kilometers of soldiers. I guess they are still grumpy at Nepal and have a big army presence just in case a country the size of Rhode Island decides t take over a country the size of Texas. I can certainly see the threat.
After the small arms firing range the road took a left uphill. For the next two and a half hours,, except for about 5 miles it was up and up all the time. It was a two lane road that wound through the mountains. The road, as expected was home to little mini buses, big trucks, even bigger water trucks, SUV s, regular cars and pedestrians all thinking that where they had to go was more important that anyone else's place that they needed to go. Narrow, congested, and windy. Bring a pillow cuz this is going to take a while.
Guard rails? Ha ! Concrete with round flat rocks stuck on edge marked most of them. Occasionally there were the knee high black and white concrete barriers that look like castle battlements. Mostly it was just the side of the road and then right next to the road nothing for a few hundred feet where you saw the tops of 100 foot tall trees. It would be pretty quiet for several seconds of the wind whistling by before you hit the ground. I did tell you it was narrow didn't I ?
Slow trucks are best passed on blind curves. All trucks must be passed at all times. The occasional part where the roadway had washed away, should be traversed best when there is a truck coming in the opposite direction. At construction delays lay on your horn, because that makes the construction go so much faster. Accelerate in curves covered in water and gravel whenever possible. I think those are the rules of mountain driving here.
Once we got up the mountain and into town the streets got even more narrow, plus the added bonus of many more pedestrians and the vehicles parked on the streets. Unbelievably it all worked out and in little more than 3 hours had me at the gate to my hotel in Darjeeling.
About now I'm glad I brought my trusty purple coat. It's kind of chilly. Well at least I won't be walking and sweating up here. Reception was nice wood paneling with windows that looked to the north and the Himalayas. Except like Mt. Rainier near Seattle the mountains were not out today. Paperwork was processed and as the desk clerk was telling me about the hotel, an Indian man rushed in and interrupted him with “I have a reservation.”. Instead of the usual ignoring the current client and serving the new vocal client, he said to him “Have a seat there, and I'll be with you when I finish checking her in.” That was an absolute first for me. Really.
About now I noticed an actual slight chill in Reception. There wasn't any heat in the lobby. There was one vertical space heater that I might use in a bedroom, but not to heat a space the size of a hotel lobby. The bellman soon had my luggage and Reception was soon forgotten. Not having a heart attack or passing out from hypoxia were my foremost thoughts as I tried to keep up.
We entered my room. A really nice sized wood paneled room with a great view to the north, a bigger than King sized bed, dressing table, free snacks and sitting in the middle of the room a small space heater the size I used to have under my desk at work. The bellman bee lined for it and turned it on, then went about turning on the other lights. This hotel was not designed with winter in mind. This hotel was one of the high end properties in town, with only two that were higher in cost (by quite a lot) according to TripAdvisor. Then I remembered Helene, from the Sunderbans saying that in Nepal she was always cold because they didn't heat any of the rooms. Then I was glad for the luxury of the space heater. My room is what I'd call a semi suite. There is an attached 7 by 9 room with chair and ottoman and a side table and lamp that is all windows on two sides that is really a sweet deal. Right now me and the space heater and in that room and cozy as could be.
For my $100 (+/-) a night, I get this nice suite-ette, breakfast and supper. Hot water in the morning and evening and all of Darjeeling at my feet. Now if those darned mountains would just come out.
I wrote yesterdays entry in the unheated restaurant until the sun went down and then climbed to the top floor and my room. I honestly don't remember what happened between dark and dinner at 730. I waited a few minutes after 730 to make my appearance at supper. I didn't want to be too fashionably late, but I didn't want to appear too eager either. It was the first time I've ever had dinner inside where half the patrons wore parkas with the hoods up. The remaining diners just had parkas. I had long sleeved blouse and Scott e Vest on, I was a little chilled, but tolerable.
Dinner was, guess what? Indian food. There was a nice Minestrone that wasn't too spicy. I knew I'd be close to civilization most of today and took a helping of each of the cold salads. I got a large spoonful of the various things in red and cream stuff. I did skip the creamed spinach though. – when I checked in he asked me if I was vegetarian or non. It took him until the third time before I got what he was asking. I explained that I thought PETA stood for People Eating Tasty Animals, by saying “I eat meat.'. – Everything at dinner so far was vegetarian, where were the warm critters? Then I noticed in an alcove way off by itself containing a single steam table. Like it was there so as to not offend the vegetables. Inside was chicken in a sauce. It was really in an obscure place. Kind of like the smoking section, yes it is legal, but the right kind of people don't go there.
I heard a smattering of Indian English, a lot of what I can only assume is Hindi and one lone table of American English. A couple who like me that knew the 60's were more than just a decade your grandparents talked about.
After supper, I trekked to my room and tried to read for a while but soon succumbed to a full day of moving from one place to another.
I woke at 4 am with a big headache. I didn't drink as much water as I had been, because I wasn't sweating. Maybe that was the reason for the headache. Or it could be caffeine withdrawal, because I didn't have my after noon jolt. Maybe it was from the altitude. Can you gt altitude sickness at 7000 feet? I got up made some Starbucks and took an Aleve, that should cover all the possibilities. Then I couldn't go back to sleep for some reason.
Breakfast where I spoke with the American English couple from dinner last night. They live in Mumbai and work for an NGO, formerly of Taos and Portland. The said the altitude didn’t bother them, because Taos is at the same height. We talked through breakfast and I doubt either table could tell you what subjects were covered.
I grabbed my purple parka that has served me well since Macedonia in '95 and started walking. The nice thing about his hotel is it is pretty high on the mountain and it's all downhill to town. A nice morning stroll until I came to a place where I had to make a decision. Up or down ? Down or Up ? Decisions, decisions. No decision is also a decision, or so they say. Next thing I know I'm talking to this man who just happens to be a taxi driver. For the price of an IMAX movie he'll make all the up and down decisions for half the day for me. Sold.
I plopped down where the steering wheel should be, buckled up and we were off to a temple. Immediately after the first curve he says “Here we have two seasons. Monsoon and Winter, which makes our weather Monster. Yes, we have two seasons raincoat and overcoat.” I have a sneaking suspicion he's done the taxi driving thing before. Like for the last 20 years or there abouts. He's worked the tourists before and knows exactly how much each country is good for. For Americans it is IMAX, maybe Germans are just a regular movie, with popcorn, the French? They'd wait for the DVD and then bitch about it.
There was the Japanese Peace Temple and adjoining stupa. The toy train in operation since the 1800's and nearby Tibetan temple. The zoo and Himalayan Mountain Institute, and option to ride a ski lift sort of thing down and up the mountain, which I passed on. Four hours passed pretty quickly.
Most of my time was spent at the zoo and HMI. The Himalayan Mountain Institute (HMI) was created by Tenzang Norgay (I know iI’ve butchered his name). He and Sir Edmond Hilary made the first successful climb of Mt. Everest. He was born in Darjeeling and after the climb began the HMI to teach other men how to climb and to Sherpa. He really is my hero in some ways, because without him Sir Edmond would still be just good old Eddie. But it was symbiotic I guess. Hilary got the headlines and could have just blown Norgay off as just another porter. Instead he gave him full, second place credit. Norgay died in 1986 and in interned on the grounds of the HMI.
The HMI has a great museum dedicated to climbing the Himalayas showing the actual equipment used at various decades from the 1920's to present day. Those men who tried and failed in the 20's were men of steel. There was also a representation of the whole mountain range, where you would press a button and the particular peak would light up. The kids were having a ball randomly pressing the buttons.
The zoo was not horrid, but it was of the old style. More thought going into containment than habitat. The Red Panda and the Snow leopard are both unique animals to the area so it was a treat to see them. Oh ! I did also see a Royal Bengal Tiger. Whoopee do.
After we parted for the day we set up a potential date for tomorrow. A trip to a local mountain where you can feel surrounded by the Himalayas. That is providing it is clear. If it isn't clear I'm not sure what my day will hold. Maybe ride the toy train. I need to find an internet connection to see about moving on, day after tomorrow.
I changed some money with a private exchange, not a bank. The guy quoted me a good rate. He counted out all the big bills and shook my hand. Uhhhh …. what abut the other $16 ? Oh, ya. Oversight on my part, sorry. F'ing Cockroach!
Did some shopping for tea friends at home. I don't drink tea, but they do and it would like visiting Seattle and not having Salmon, to not get Darjeeling tea in Darjeeling. I did try a small pot of Darjeeling tea for my afternoon break and it really does have a different and noticeably better flavor than Mr. Lipton bags up.
It's now a little before 7. Dinner in 45. Maybe I'll wear MY parka tonight.