Saturday, May 17, 2014

Yuksom, The End of the Road

My time in Yuksom was magical.  There's something about the alpine quality of fresh, clean, crisp air and views to the high peaks that put me in that mood.  People there were delightful as well and as I mentioned in the last post always seemed to be singing.

My $25 room at the Tashi Gang Hotel was the most comfortable of the trip so I decided to stay awhile.  When you have a nice room with locally made carpets and wall hangings and a balcony from which to watch dramatic thunder storms you naturally want to linger (at least I do).

Yuksom is the starting point for a very famous 8-day trek up to a viewpoint pass called Goecha La at 16,000 ft. (5000m).  The trekkers I talked to said this is one of the more difficult climbs but exceptionally rewarding in beauty and views.  Hikers must spend a rest day at 14,000 ft. to acclimatize to the altitude, so it takes 5 days up and 3 days to return to a hot shower and a nice dinner in the hotel restaurant.

In my days of hiking in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California it was assumed you would carry a heavy backpack with everything needed for several days.  Of course there were the pack trains that used horses, but I was never one of the fortunate ones who could afford such luxury.

What I found out here in the Himalayas is that yak or pony trains carry all your stuff and you are not limited to what you can take.  (I remember cutting off the handle of my toothbrush to reduce the weight of my pack)  With a group of 4 trekkers a typical outfit would have 6 yaks carrying all the food, camping gear, tents, pots and pans and personal gear for the trekkers.  The trekkers would wear a small day pack with water, camera and maybe some snacks..... that's all!  While the yak tenders trudged up the trail (in gum boots no less), the trekkers wander up the trail rather aimlessly snapping photos
and looking at butterflys.  Trekkers don't stay with the pack train.  When camp is reached by the pack train, the tenders unpack, set up camp, tents, and begin to cook dinner.  When the trekkers arrive in camp, which could be before or after the pack train, they just kick off their boots, relax in camp chairs and wait for dinner to be served.  This wonderful service comes at a price of only about $55 per person per day.  A real bargain in my book!  Unfortunately I never saw a person riding either a yak or a pony, which would have to be my mode of transportation at this altitude.

During my stay in Yuksom I saw 4 groups depart for the high country.  One family on school holiday from Spain consisted of mom, dad, and 2 girls aged about 13 and 14.  It was the older sibling's birthday present to do this trek.  They all wore tennis shoes!
Treks from here ascend this steep valley and after 4 days of uphill climb the reward is a very close view of this peak, the third highest mountain in the world called Khangchendzonga which is 8,600 meters high.

The yak and pony pack trains know the trail very well and do not need anyone to tell them where to go.  Their tenders just follow.

It was a pleasure to walk the neighborhood in little gem of a town where everyone seemed to be going about their business singing.  Even the young kids sang while playing.  The population here is heavily influenced by Tibetan and Nepalese cultures.  The greeting here is "namaste" and I read that there are 11 languages spoken here, none of which is Hindi.

While the electricity went out fairly often, the kitchen could cook on gas and use candles for lighting so guests never went hungry.  In such a laid-back part of the country electricity is a luxury and residents just don't make a habit of depending on it.  It was mainly the ferocious lightning and thunder storms that came up each evening that caused the outages.

With my motorcycle rental period coming to an end I had to leave this idyllic Shangrila and venture back towards Darjeeling.  I wanted to see the only tea plantation in Sikkim, so I asked the desk clerk to make me a reservation at a hotel there.  It was said to be a 2 hour drive to reach, but without road names or numbers (or road signs) I got irreversibly lost and after 6 hours driving just switched off the motorcycle and stayed in a nondescript town where I just bought the tea from the plantation I had missed.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bad-Ass Motorcycling in the Himalayas

From Darjeeling I went further north into the most northern state of Sikkim.  Since shared jeeps are the only
transportation in these parts and the fact that you have to make arrangements a day in advance for each hop, I thought taking a motorcycle would offer more independence for a spur-of-the-moment itinerary.

I found an outfit that would rent me a motorcycle and provide all the protective gear necessary.  Actually motorcycle rental is not legal in India, so I was provided with papers saying I was buying the machine and taking it out of the country.  If I was asked, I was supposed to say I'm buying it.  The other issue is that only a 500cc bike was available called a Royal Enfield, an unruly hog of a thing.  The cycle was housed several miles out of town and I had to go there the day before to prove that I could ride the thing.  Of course it had to be worked on for an hour first because it wouldn't idle and was very difficult to start.  The next day I returned to pick it up for the excursion, but still it had to be worked on some more.  They gave me a tool kit and extra spark plugs explaining that I'd probably have to change them since the bike couldn't adjust the air mixture for altitude and the plugs would foul.  I really began to wonder what I was getting in to when they also packed a spare clutch cable.  Was I really going to have to repair this hunk of metal on the road?  As it turned out I was indeed going to the "end of the road" where services were nonexistent for motorcycles and barley so for humans.

The motorcycle was too big for me and I realized at the first stretch of rocky, switchback road that this thing was in a power struggle with me and it wanted to be the boss.  We wrestled each other for many miles when I also realized it may be silently  plotting to hurt me.  On the very few sections of road where I could get it into 3rd gear, it simply refused to allow a downshift to 2nd, it always went into neutral and required a quick upshift stab.  When stopping for a rest, it took a very long time to persuade it to go into neutral and starting from a dead stop on a steep road required the finesse not normally in the repertoire of a rider with an automatic transmission history.  The roads were bad enough, but added to that were sheer,
precipitous cliffs always on one side of the road or other.  At one point I ran the bike into a pile of rocks when traffic from behind came so close I could reach out and touch it.  I bent the leg guard and the gear shift lever, which gave me an excuse to beat on the beast and straighten things out a little.  A second nearly disastrous situation came along when a fully loaded gravel truck squeezed me nearly over the side of a
sheer drop.  I was completely stopped and made a  quick wish that the truck wouldn't hook my handle bar sending me on a flight to heaven.  The third and final scrape was when a car approaching from behind actually sideswiped me scraping the motorcycle leg guard.  I surprised myself by whispering "Oh, God, Oh God".  I could see that I left a long scrape in the paint of the car as it went merrily on its way.

My solution to feeling a little overwhelmed by the motorcycle was to just not ride it much.  I spent a couple days in Pelling which had really good views of khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world.

Another  thing to note about the roads in Sikkim, is that they have no names or numbers and have no signs at intersections.  I finally found a map, but it looked like a 5 year old child just drew squiggly lines from one town to another, rather useless because there were many more roads than were on the map.

Leaving Pelling I figured out which of the 5 intersecting roads to take and drove sort of aimlessly for over 6 hours for what was supposed to be a "couple" hours drive to the town of Yuksom at the furthest northern point one can drive.  I settled into this cozy little village for 4 days happy to leave the motorcycle in the hotel parking lot for travelers to admire.  I became somewhat of a celebrity when folks found out I was "ridding through" Sikkim.  Apparently it is not a normal thing to do.

In Yuksom everyone goes about their business singing.  I could never figure out if these were temple chants or songs or just what they were, but everyone young and old were doing it.

I upgraded my hotel in Yuksom and paid about $25 and it was well worth it.  I had a TV and could take meals in my room if I wanted.  Even with the electricity going out quite often, I enjoyed my comfortable digs with a candle when necessary.  I took many walks during my stay and found many things that would have been overlooked if I had been on a more aggressive schedule.  This town was the original capital of Sikkim and the stone coronation throne still exists where four Abbots from Tibet, Nepal, and elsewhere came together to found the capital.

The majority of people here are from Tibet and Nepal with others mixed in.  I read that there are 11 languages spoken here, none of which is Hindi.  Everyone was so friendly saying "namaste" in greeting and the children trying out "How are you"?, then following me chatting and playing as we walked.  I met several trekkers starting out on a very well known 8 day itinerary up to a pass with views of a large section of the Himalayan peaks.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Darjeeling: All About the Tea

Darjeeling town is at an elevation 2135 meters (7,000 feet) spread over a steep mountain ridge with a spectacular backdrop view of some of the Himalayan peaks, all snow covered.  A rather gorgeous place to hang out and considering the altitude, a welcome relief in temperature from the lowlands.  My hotel room cost $10 and was very comfortable with plenty of warm blankets and 24 hour hot water, something not always available in the mountains.

Here, I must sidetrack to a subject not often talked about; squat toilets.  If the idea of touching your own
shit with your hands makes you squeamish, just skip this paragraph.   I am a little concerned that I became so cozy with wiping this way so easily, but cultures have done it this way for many thousands of years.  Only the higher-end restaurants and hotels have western toilets and even with a western toilet, you use your hand.   The reality is that you won't have a choice when traveling in India unless you never get out of high class hotels.  My problem with this is that most often there is no soap to wash your hands after using the toilet.  Using hand sanitizer is the most logical solution.  As a side note, it is the custom in India to use your right hand to eat (Indians eat with their hands), conduct business, or offer someone something.  To use your left hand is considered dirty, leftys be damned. If you have more interest in this subject than you really should have, learn more at:

Tea growing is the claim to fame for Darjeeling, so I thought it might be a good idea to do some independent study on the subject.  What I found out is very much like the nuances found in wine, although I found that I am better at discerning the differences in wine tasting than in tea.  In simple terms tea becomes stronger in taste with each later picking of the season, but the best tea comes from the very first pick, called "flush".  First flush demands the highest price other than "white tea".  White tea comes from the first flush, but is not fermented (oxidized).  It is simply dried right after picking.  The process for black tea is a short drying period after picking, then it goes into a "roller" machine that breaks it up for the next step which is oxidation.  It is allowed to sit and turn dark, but it is a misnomer to name this process as fermentation, but nevertheless this is the term used. To stop the "fermentation" warm air is pumped up through the drying tables to complete the drying.  The tea is now ready to pack and sell.  The pictured tea plantation and factory produces a good quality tea for export only to high-end retailers, one of which is Harrods in London.  If one buys Darjeeling tea in Harrods, it came from this plantation and yes, all that background of rolling hills is planted in tea.  There are 61 principal tea plantations in Darjeeling.

The light tea in the champagne flute is white tea.  The light colored tea in the teacup is "first flush".  I couldn't tell the difference.  They are both so light and subtle with nice tea flavor, but you would never add milk or sugar which would completely obliterate the flavor.

It was a joy to visit tea houses and sample a few of the hundreds on offer and to see in the factories just how it is processed.  When learning about and tasting tea, one becomes relaxed (it must be the effect of the tea) and the mountain views become the focus of the moment.

India Part III Kolkata to Darjeeling

Trains in India fill up quite quickly, often weeks in advance.  I tried to make reservations from home but the Indian train website would never load properly on my computer.  Making reservations after arrival in Kolkata for 3 days later I found the 2nd class option was already filled and 3rd class sleeper was all that was available.  In 3rd class there are 3 tiers of bunks without curtains, so you are staring at the person sleeping directly across from you.  Linens and a blanket is available, but you have to fight a crowd and pay 25 additional rupees.  The train cost somewhere near $20 and left Kolkata at 9:30 PM for arrival in Jalpaiguri (late) at about 9 AM.  With the medicinal wonders of  Xanax I slept the whole way.

From this point one must take a shared jeep either all the way to Darjeeling (about 4 hours) or half-way to Kurseong to catch the "Toy Train" the rest of the way to Darjeeling.  I wanted to experience this historic and UNESCO designated narrow gauge railroad just for the fun of riding.  It follows the road up to Darjeeling, but passes within inches of businesses and shops and crisscrosses the road often bringing the road traffic to a standstill.

Of course before the train could leave, maintenance had to be performed on the engine.  As far as I could see they were pumping grease into a reservoir in the undercarriage.

Officially the name of this train is the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway and the construction of the line was finished in 1881 and was the first public transportation in and out of the region.  Tracks are a mere 2 feet wide.  It felt a little like a Disneyland train ride looking at artificial snow capped mountains, but this one was real.

Friday, May 2, 2014

India part II

All the airports I've transited (changed planes) have had provisions for keeping passengers  on the "air side" of the airport (inside security check), but not so in Kunming.  All passengers are sent through immigration and the officer expected me to have a Chinese visa.  After considerable discussion that I was just changing planes I got sent to the officer who obviously was the boss.  He thumbed through my passport and examined my printed itinerary and finally stamped my passport with "temporary entry" good for that day only.  Seems like a weird practice.  I could have easily walked out the front doors of the airport and been an illegal alien.

On from Kunming to Kolkata, a 2 hour flight.

My $26 room was on the top floor of this pink building, the Sunflower Guest House.  A pretty comfortable place with a very old style elevator that needed an operator to control.
On the 6th floor where my room was, there was also a rooftop patio with a decent view out over the city, but actually not much to see since the view was mostly tops of buildings.

My first impression of Kolkata was the indiscriminate use of car horns.  This place is loud.  Also I found people actually living on the street, cooking and bathing right on the sidewalks.  There were water hand pumps spaced at about 50 meter intervals where men stood soaping up their naked bodies (except for underwear) and pouring buckets of water over themselves.  I never found out when the women bathed.  The city seemed to be to be a man's world.  Not many women out on the streets and not in businesses on the street.

Sidewalk etiquette was a surprise to me too.  People didn't move aside when passing on the sidewalk.  They appeared to not pay attention, then at the last minute swerve just slightly and graze your shoulder.  If you carry a bag, it gets hit often and becomes an annoyance.  Even though everyone is very friendly and willing to give directions and advice, this sidewalk habit was difficult for me to get over.  Driving was somewhat the same except cars did not sideswipe each other.  They drove with apparent inattention either in the middle of the road or even in the wrong lane, then swerve aside at the last second.

Getting a SIM card for my cell phone was a 2-day process that involved filling out a lengthy application form needing a passport photo.  After the application is turned in to the main telecommunications office (Voda Phone in this case) I had to call a number and provide many details confirming what was on my application for proof of identification.  I can only assume this process is to discourage some kind of cell phone scamming.

In the three days spent in Kolkata I visited several restaurants, the National Museum, and did a lot of walking just exploring around. I found the food I encountered not to be very interesting.  Most was just bland combination of meat and vegetables but maybe this is what West Bengal food is normally like.

The National Museum was quite a large place with an interesting division of statuary, different ancient artifacts as well as a natural history section of preserved animals, and animal skeletons. Immediately noticeable was that mothballs were scattered in every display causing a very disagreeable odor which forced me to "move along".  Mothballs are a neurotoxin - especially those made of 1,4-dichlorobenzene which is a carcinogen.  I later found mothballs also used in the Darjeeling Museum of Natural History where displays were in very poor condition.

Kolkata would not end up on my list of favorite cities, but neither would it qualify as the worst.  The heat of April, exhaust fumes, and noise make it just another big city where one seeks to find little hideaways and quiet spots among the din.

Monday, April 28, 2014

India Travel in 3 (or more) parts

Now that my year-long Thai class has ended and the fact that Chiang Mai is pretty hot and smoky this time of year, I felt it was time to take a little vacation to somewhere cooler.  At the suggestion of our choir director Clare, I decided to go to Darjeeling in North India high in the foothills of the great Himalayas. Also in the itinerary was a tour through the even more northern state of Sikkim where the mountains are steep and the population is heavily influenced with Tibetans and Nepalese.

At the outset I have to admit to making a mistake in arrangement of flights.  Something I learned many years ago is not to book flights through a second party booking site like Travelocity or the several similar ones.  On a previous trip to Greece I booked through one such site and when it was time to check in for the flight it happened that the airline had added a leg to the journey but I was never notified by the booking site.  I was not allowed to board that flight and had to rebook for the following day.  That meant a nights lodging in LA and a nearly missed appointment with a travel agent in Athens where I was to pick up 6 airline tickets for the group I organized and was responsible for.  Travel can have "Oh, my God" moments like this.

So I had forgotten my lesson and booked India travel through Travelocity.  For the preceding month before my travel date I received no less than 5 "flight change" notifications from Travelocity.  Each time I crossed out the changed flight and added the new on to my printed itinerary.  The curious thing was that the next change was always back to the original flight time.  At this point I began checking with the China Eastern Airlines website where I found a "confirm your flight" tab.  It turns out that all but one of the changes were not changes at all on China Eastern's part.  Apparently Travelocity has in issue with their notification system algorithm.  Anyway, I have relearned the lesson and pass on the information to you.

Since Darjeeling is supposed to be the best tea growing region in the world, I thought it would be a good time to actually study up on tea in general while there.  So with cool climate and great tea ahead, off I flew from Chiang Mai airport changing planes in Kun Ming, China.  Price for the RT Chiang Mai to Kolkata was $400.

First thing while checking in at Kun Ming, some Indian guy wanted me to check one of his bags under my name as he saw I had only carry-on.  He explained that his business is a shop in India selling women's undergarments that he buys in China.  He even opened one of his bags to show me the bras he was (probably illegally) importing.  Says he does this all the time and there is no problem as his checked luggage is limited to one piece.  Others standing in line said he had asked them also.  I later saw him on the "air" side of the airport (past security check point) and apparently he got someone to check it in for him.  I thought to myself that the scams are already starting and I'm not even in India yet!

I'm always interested in airline meals I suppose because they are included in the price and can be interesting.  China Eastern served a beef flavored thing with rice along with 2 different packets of mushrooms and one of kimchee.  The after-meal breath tablets were seaweed flavored.