I’ve never wanted to go to India.
But somehow Carolann has convinced me to overcome my fears and find out if it’s love or hate.
Her strategy is to ease me into it by dipping our toes into the northeast part of India called West Bengal. Her hope is that this gradual immersion will prepare me for the full shocking plunge into the real India our friends have warned us about.
We left Kathmandu on a grey, drizzly day and drove through the mountains towards the southeastern part of Nepal. This was the shortest route to West Bengal – by distance only – as the mountain road was twisty, in very bad condition, full of switchbacks, and would take several hours longer. But we chose it anyway because it was said to be more scenic, if more dangerous.
As it turned out, we didn’t see anything scenic because of the fog and rain. After a couple of hours, our driver Birinda stopped at the highest point of the mountain range to have his breakfast and show us where Mt. Everest would be if it weren’t completely hidden by fog and clouds. It was cold and the chilling mist that cloaked the mountains was swirling around us as well. In spite of the fog, I took a photo anyway because it reminded me of an entirely black postcard I had seen in France depicting Mt. Blanc at night.
Birinda and his fiancée Suriyana, who had come along for the ride because she had never been to the far eastern part of Nepal, ordered their late breakfast from a small shack that looked like it was ready to fall down into the ravine. It was so cold we could see our breath and we hesitatingly went into the tiny shack just to keep warm.
I had to stoop under the doorframe to enter the darkened, dirt-floor room the size of a small “shed” where several Nepalese men were sipping tea.
Birinda ordered a bowl of greenish lentil soup and a cup of Nepalese Chai-like tea from boiling, dirty pots on an open fire at the entrance, the only place that had any light. He finished breakfast with a hard-boiled egg that was sitting on the counter. Thank God we had eaten breakfast at our hotel before leaving that morning.
Our trek to the India border was going to take us four days and nights with a stop at a wildlife sanctuary to break up the journey. It was three days of boring, mind-numbing sameness every day, with only two exceptions, some birdwatching in the Kosi Tappu Park and the sighting of a pod of fresh water dolphins feeding at a huge dam. It was quite strange to see these large, black dolphins so far from the ocean and close to the Himalaya Mountains.
After we left the mountains we drove for three more days through dull flat plains broken regularly by rockslides, washouts, and wide dry riverbeds that the locals were mining for gravel. These frequent dry beds were the only signs of the rivers that come down from the Himalayas and feed into India and eventually the Bay of Bengal. During the Monsoon season they would turn into raging torrents that tear up the roads, but now tractors and trucks were parked right out in the middle being filled with gravel and river rocks for sale in other parts of Nepal.
Our route was not on the tourist circuit; few people drive to India from Nepal. And for good reason, because each town we drove through was an exact duplicate of the previous one with dull, grey buildings covered in the grime of truck exhaust and open cooking fires. They had little or no sidewalks and those they did have were covered with stalls selling fruits and vegetables, chickens, and car parts. Then there were the sleeping dogs and cows.
It was all depressingly dirty with only the bright fruit and colourful saris of the Indian migrant workers providing any cheer for the people in these towns.
Western-style tourist facilities were nowhere to be found.
The hotels we had to stay in were the same as the towns: dull, grimy and depressing, catering only to Nepalese travellers. They never saw “tourists” and had only basic amenities, but no bed sheets, no heat, sometimes no hot water, and no decent restaurants. In these situations, we have learned to survive on bananas and egg fried rice. Of course, our silk sleeping bag liners come in handy too.
Thankfully Carolann had planned a two-day layover at the Kosi Tappu Wildlife Sanctuary. We slept in tents and had to use an outdoor washroom (which was actually better than most of the washrooms we saw in the hotels on the way), but, after days of rain, the sun had come out and we were able to do two wildlife “safaris” where we saw wild water buffalo (their horns are bigger than on the domesticated ones) and over 50 species of birds.
Sadly we didn’t spot any of the wild elephants that were raiding the local rice fields. Fortunately, they were also absent from our campsite, which was protected by an electric fence.
We noticed that this southern part of Nepal was more Indian than Nepalese. Our driver explained that it has been settled by Indians from across the border with the encouragement of the Indian government and with the inability of the Nepalese government to prevent it. The government doesn’t even collect any taxes here.
India and China are both aggressively competing for control of Nepal’s resources, mainly hydro electricity, to feed their insatiable appetites for growth at any cost. Some fear that the two will split up Nepal into fiefdoms the way it was centuries ago and pillage its resources. India has already gained its foothold here; China is talking about building roads either through Burma or West Bengal to get to the ocean.
After four days we reached the border crossing into India.
Although it looked like chaos, with cars and trucks lined up everywhere, it actually went quite smoothly. It seemed like we were the only ones who actually stopped in at the Nepalese immigration office – everyone else either just walked or drove across. Consequently there was no delay on that side.
From the maze of hundreds of jeeps parked on the Nepalese side, I scouted out one that looked to be in good shape and had seatbelts, while Carolann guarded our luggage. Negotiating a price for the three-hour ride from the border to Kalimpong, our first stop in India, was quite comical.
First, I had Birinda inquire about a price in Nepalese, then I walked around and talked to the drivers while inspecting their vehicles. As I went along, the other drivers followed me in a pack waiting to see the outcome. When I finally settled on a car and driver, there were smiles all around. I’m not sure if that meant I got a good price or not, but it seemed quite reasonable and the jeep had seatbelts (rare in this area) and was in good shape.
Once on board our jeep, we had to stop at the Indian border where a lone immigration official sat in a darkened hut at the side of the road. Again we were the only tourists; nobody else stopped. I guess we could just as easily have driven right on through and nobody would have cared. At least not until we tried to leave India and they discovered we didn’t have our entry stamp on our passports.
The ensuing drive up into the mountains on the India side was uneventful. It seems that we have become blasé about twisty, winding, dangerous mountain roads now. We just kept climbing up and up from Siliguri on the Bengal plains into the Himalayas until we reached Kalimpong town at about 1,500 metres.
One unusual feature was a 360-degree loop in the mountain road, where it actually passed back under itself. It was so narrow only one car could squeeze through at a time and our driver honked continuously to warn any truck or bus that we were coming.
At the top, we discovered the small town of Kalimpong, which was built as a summer hill station by the British so they could escape the stifling heat of Calcutta. The town was stapled into the west facing side of the mountain to catch the sun’s rays in winter. It’s pastel coloured buildings of pale blues, pinks and yellows ran down the hillside and looked quite beautiful in the sunlight.
But the reality was revealed on the dark street side where we found just another dirty, grimy steetscene of broken sidewalks, decrepit buildings, and a jumble of honking cars and trucks. It’s like a painted movie backdrop, pretty on one side, wires and dirty supports on the other.
Luckily our guesthouse, Holumba Haven, was on the edge of town and we rarely had to venture into Kalimpong town itself except for banking.
Kalimpong is located at the southernmost point of the Himalayas in West Bengal, India, at the base of a triangle, with Nepal and Bhutan on the two sides. Because of its location south of the Himalayas and north of the warm Bay of Bengal, this mountainous region is quite temperate. Temperatures range from a low of 3 Celsius in winter to 35 C in summer in Kalimpong, but they never get frost. We arrived in late November and it was quite warm during the day, with the temperature dropping to around 8 Celsius at night. This wouldn’t have been too bad, but our cottage had no heat and neither did the dining room. Very few places do in this part of the world. So we were quite chilled the first few nights.
The gorgeous gardens and views of the snow-capped mountains in the distance, however, made up for this inconvenience. And the cottages at our homestay were beautifully decorated with pots of azaleas, colourful bromeliads in shades of pink, red and purple, and lovely two-toned yellow orchids. In bloom when we arrived were orchids, a lovely fall-blooming cherry tree, roses, camellias, and several types of azaleas.
It was difficult, in fact, to remember that this was part of India, because the area is actually more Nepalese than the southern part of Nepal was. It was originally part of the Kingdom of Bhutan until the Bhutanese lost a battle against the British who eventually turned it over to India at the time of independence. But most of the people here are descendants of Nepalese or Bhutanese immigrants or refugees and have the same “Tibetan” look, culture and lifestyle.
Until recently, a rebel Maoist group was fighting for an independent state they want to call Ghorkaland, after the original inhabitants of this area. The group had resorted to killings and intimidation in the past, but was now using political means like strikes to shut everything down.
For the last two years, they have “encouraged” locals to withhold payment for utilities. This latter practice just ended a month before our arrival and seemed to have some effect because the West Bengal government in Calcutta was apparently offering some concessions.
Everywhere we saw signs on storefronts that read “Ghorkaland.” And their green and white flag was prominently displayed on cars, buildings, and on banners spanning the roadway. Our guidebook reassuringly cautions that strikes may shut things down, but adds that there has been “little violence” recently. (Update: just after our departure we read that one of the leaders of the rebel movement had been killed in a shoot out and there was a bomb attack elsewhere.)
We were told that the major complaint is that the Calcutta government (which is way to the south) takes hydro electricity, other resources, and tourism dollars from this popular area but gives nothing in the way of services in return, hence the protest.
And, in fact, while this part of India may look like Bhutan, it’s really Bhutan run by the Moldavians. There are constant power failures, crumbling infrastructure, packs of barking dogs that keep you awake at night, and little order on the streets.
Snaking lines of exposed one-inch water pipes run alongside the road supplying spring water to stores and homes, but tripping up unwary walkers. I don’t even want to think what happens to the wastewater. Landslides regularly cut off the main highway and train tracks. And every morning at 9 and every night at 5, the power would shut off at our homestay.
It seems we may have ruined the romantic illusions of Kathmandu and Darjeeling for some of our friends. These are places of history, traditional customs, and iconic landscapes. And truth be told, the visions of snowcapped peaks and fields of lush tea trees cloaking the verdant mountainsides are still lovely – when you can see them.
Supposedly we’ve come at the best time for viewing. November is the time for clear-blue skies and no rain. But we’ve had rain and grey skies on and off for a month. Maybe this year was an exception – trekkers were stranded by bad weather at Lukkla and Jomosom in the Himalayas in Nepal.
Maybe global climate change is affecting this part of the world too – the snow on Mt. Everest is melting away. Or just maybe if you stay at the one or two high-end hotels in these towns, riding around in an insulated air-conditioned bubble, protected from the noise, smells and dirty streets, and never going downtown, you might still find these places romantic. I don’t know, we just report it as we see it.
But the lovely gardens, mountain views and temperate climate (ideal for gardening) still made this town worth visiting. Cherry trees covered in exquisite pink blossoms, six-foot hedges of blooming azaleas, and orchids dripping off the trees in November can soften a lot of hardships and make you forget about the dirty streets.
The people here are friendly, so very helpful and generous in that Buddhist way that we have discovered from Bhutan to Nepal. And, luckily for us, at every stage in our journey the sun has appeared at just the right moment to allow for trekking or viewing the mountains or enjoying the blooming cherry trees.
Would we go back? Good question. There is a region just north of here, closer to the Himalayas, called Sikkim, where wild elephants and one-horned rhinos still roam in uncut forests. It’s like Bhutan without the huge entry fees. Maybe we’ll visit the next time we’re in the area.
But this wasn’t really India; it was like a poor man’s Bhutan. Nevertheless, now that we’ve dipped our toes into “India,” it’s time to dive in all the way.
We’re off to see the real India, starting with Delhi.
Travel diary shared by Dan Cooper