India usually conjures up images of dhoti-clad men and women in saris, cows wandering city streets, and devastating poverty. But it’s actually very diverse, as varied as Europe, with regions having as much in common as perhaps Greece has with Scotland.
This was our third trip to India. The first was to the standard “tourist’s India”: The Taj Mahal, Delhi, and Rajasthan. The second was to Tamil Nadu, the state in the southeastern corner of the vast sub-continent. This trip was to the northeast: Calcutta, West Bengal, Sikkim, and then to Bhutan.
The northern part of West Bengal and Sikkim are completely unlike the other parts of India in every possible way. In Rajasthan, we were hounded by merchants and touts, in Tamil Nadu we were constantly approached by curious people of all ages. In this section of India, we were completely and thoroughly ignored! While this was preferable to the treatment that we received in Rajasthan, it did feel odd… and limited our ability to interact with the residents.
The people of this region of India are of Tibetan, Lepcha, and Nepali descent, and most are Tibetan/East Asian in appearance. They are comparatively reserved. The architecture is influenced by Nepal and Tibet, there are as many Buddhists as Hindus, and, particularly in Darjeeling, the influence of the British Raj is quite evident.
Buddhism in this region is very different from that practiced in Thailand/Burma/Cambodia – and very different from Zen Buddhism. Stemming from Tibetan Buddhism, this region (and Bhutan) practice Tantric Buddhism- teaching that one should openly confront the obstacles on the path to enlightenment. As a consequence, the visible aspects of the religion include gruesome demons, depictions of terrible hells (both hot and cold hells), and more of a focus on the Bodhisattvas (saint-like demi-Gods) than Buddha.
We left Boston for London, where we met our friends, Tony and Erika. Together we proceeded to Calcutta, then on to Darjeeling (West Bengal), Gangtok (Sikkim), Kalimpong (West Bengal), Jaldhapara Game Park, and then to Bhutan, crossing at the border town of Phuntsholing and then visiting Thimpu, Punaka, Paro, and returning to Calcutta for our return flight.
bus_stop.jpg (23329 bytes)Our first stop was Darjeeling – in the foothills of the Himalayas – an old British ‘hill station’ (a place where expat Brits went to escape the summer heat of the Indian lowlands). Darjeeling is also the center of India’s Tea growing area, producing some of the world’s finest tea. It seemed that we passed millions of acres of tea. Darjeeling is high in the Himalayan foothills, and is surrounded by snow-capped peaks, including Mt. Kanchenjunga (28,200 ft), the third tallest mountain in the world. Our hotel was an old British mansion, complete with coal fireplaces that did little to ward off the damp chill. The town itself is “your basic small Indian city”, bustling, but unfortunately choked with exhaust, litter, and traffic. Indian’s use their car horns as sonar – a practice often referred to by travelers as the “Egyptian Brake Pedal”. The cacophony is predominant throughout Indian cities, and Darjeeling was no exception.
Darjeeling is also famous for the Toy Train. Built in 1870, the 2-foot gauge steam-powered railway is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It’s a mecca for railroad enthusiasts who flock to Darjeeling just to ride it for a few minutes. We were satisfied to just look at it rather than ride it.
Darjeeling also has an excellent zoo with a successful breeding program of red pandas (‘lesser panda’), Tibetan wolf, snow leopard, Siberian tiger, Himalayan Black Bear, and Himalayan Pheasant. While many zoos in developing countries are unfortunately more like animal prisons, this one was a model of a well designed, well maintained facility. Adjacent to the zoo is the Darjiling Mountaineering Institute, a school for VERY serious climbers. We also visited a US-supported Tibetan Refugee Center.
Unfortunately, our stay in Darjeeling was marred by rainy cold damp grey weather. Combined with jet lag (+10½ hour time difference from Boston), we were not as enthused about the sites as we could have been. The hotel- an oasis of British elegance – was charming, although cold. The common rooms were “heated” with open coal fireplaces, which did not do much other than fill the room with acrid sulfurous smoke. We did get hot water bottles in our beds, truly a great invention. But just enjoying being with our friends Tony and Erika, and overcoming the language barrier between American English and British English, made these into almost non-existent inconveniences.
Sikkim has an odd history. This tiny kingdom, sandwiched between Bhutan and Nepal, was independent for centuries – but seemingly always at war with one of its neighbors and allied with another. The British took advantage of the complex situation by making Sikkim a protectorate, but then took away Darjeeling for growing tea. India followed this policy of semi-respecting Sikkim’s independence after India’s independence in 1947. In the early 1970s, during the border trouble with China, India ousted the Sikkim King (Chogyal) and annexed the territory as a state. Sikkim still has a bit of autonomy, but it’s hard to gauge how much. There was an active armed secessionist movement (the Gurkha Liberation Front), but that has now turned into a political party. There was a bit of ‘activity’ while we were there – it seemed that someone tried to kill the Gurkha MP leader a week before our arrival, but only succeeded in killing a few of his bodyguards. In protest against the apparent government non-investigation, there was a general strike. All tourists were required to leave. Luckily, the government caved in just a few days before our visit.
Gangtok is bustling small Indian city. Our hotel had a magnificent view of the valley below us and some of the nearby peaks, but haze obscured the distant mountains. We were unsure if the haze was humidity, pollution, or dust – or a combination of the three. Tibetan-style prayer flags topped many buildings, flapping noisily in the wind. We used the daytime to visit the 200-year old Tusk-La-Khang and Enchey Monasteries, shop for souvenirs, eyeglasses (a bit pricier than major Indian cities, 3 pair for US$50), and pharmaceuticals (see the note at the end).
The Buddhists of this region place prayer flags on tall bamboo poles – 20+ feet high. The flags are inscribed with auspicious symbols, invocations, prayers, and mantras. People place these flags outside their homes, places of spiritual practice, mountaintops, and atop bridges and towers, for the wind to carry the across the land. Prayer flags are said to bring happiness, long life and prosperity to the flag planter and those in the vicinity. They can be multicolored or all white. The multiple colored flags symbolize blue for the sky, white for clouds, red for fire, green for water, and yellow for earth. We were told that the all-white groupings of flags were a memorial to a deceased family member.
While we enjoyed our trip to Sikkim, it did not carry the mystique we had imagined it would. It was very Indian in look and feel, as well as being noisy and polluted, but with a bit less litter (plastic bags are illegal in Sikkim). The scenery was fantastic – we were surrounded by Himalayan peaks, and on the way there and back, traveled along winding river valleys, cardamom fields, pristine pine forests, and – of course – tea plantations.
One of the highlights of the long car rides in this area were the road signs, with pithy sayings discouraging speeding and poor driving, such as: -Better late than “the late” -If married, divorce speed -Haste makes waste -Better late than never -Drive in peace not in pieces. All were signed “-BRO!” While initially thinking this indicated an African-American influence, we soon figured out that the signs were placed the Border Roads Organization, which also had signs proudly proclaiming, “We build roads anywhere, except the sky!” and “Happy workers make happy roads!”
The language of the area we were traveling in was Nepali – which is vaguely related to Hindi, perhaps the way that French is related to Spanish. Bengali, the language of the southern part of West Bengal, is entirely unrelated to Nepali, about as similar as English. Being that so few people in India speak Nepali, the Nepali movie industry is small. Nevertheless, we located a Nepali film in Kalimpong and sat thru 90 painful minutes of it. It’s also interesting to note that Indian Nepali-speakers don’t want to be called Nepalis, as this could imply that they’re foreigners. They instead call themselves Ghurkas.
Kalimpong was a huge and busy market town. It’s a good place to shop – but not picturesque. The hotel was an old British mansion set in a lovely garden – still owned by an Englishman.
Jaldhapara Wildlife Sanctuary
While reading about this area, we discovered an infrequently visited nature preserve/park that offered elephant safaris to see the rare endangered one-horned rhinoceros (and rarely, tigers). This safari became our major goal. We were even prepared to overlook the ‘basic’ accommodations offered at the park. But when we got to the park, we were told that the elephants had Fridays off and we could not have our safari. Were they Moslem elephants? Was the park director just being arbitrary? Almost everywhere we traveled, we rarely ran across other tourists – so we couldn’t imagine that these elephants really needed a rest from their busy workweek. Further complicating the situation was the fact that our guide, Binay Sharma, quickly acceded to the manager’s cancellation of the elephants. (see note at the end).
But who are we to take ‘no’ for an answer? We asked to see the manager’s manager. Well aware of Indian and Ghurka social guidelines, we calmly pressed and pressed, meeting with one manager after another, telephoning, pleading, and cajoling. Ultimately, in the office of the senior manager, we exchanged glances, Phil left, and Susan did a solo plea (voice quivering just a little) that resulted in, somehow, everything being set for the safari ride after all.
After a painful night in the basic accommodations (bats in the roof being noisy and smelly), we arrived at the elephant camp at dawn. We hadn’t known that Jaldhapara was a center for orphaned baby elephants – that alone would have brought us there. Susan has a ‘thing’ for baby elephants. Being able to pet them, feed them, and generally just hang out with them was a peak life experience. Our safari elephant was accompanied by her 7-month old baby for the entire trip. We saw a single horned rhino, swamp deer and hog deer, a great hornbill, and a large number of other birds. We might have spotted more if Susan had looked around instead of being fixated on the baby elephant following its mother, getting her assistance to climb up the steeper mudbanks, stopping to nurse, and needing reminders from the mahout (elephant driver) to not wander off. Very adorable. At one point, Phil’s hat was brushed off by a low branch. We alerted the mahout (elephant-wallah) who gave a quick command to the elephant – she spun around and adroitly picked up the hat with her trunk, handing it to the mahout.
We crossed into Bhutan at about the halfway point in our journey. From Jaldhapara, we again drove past miles of tea plantations, across a staggeringly huge floodplain, to the border city of Phuntsholing. The most amazing thing about the border here was that there was none. On one street there was a decorative arch that seemed to mark the border, but on the side streets there wasn’t even a sign that said “Bhutan/India”. Even the border between Massachusetts and New Hampshire is more clearly marked.
monastery.jpg (46475 bytes) Bhutan may have the world’s most restrictive tourist policy – except perhaps for Afghanistan. Tourists must fly either in, out, or both on the Bhutanese airline, which only flies a few times per week. The mandated cost is US$200/day per person, inclusive of guide, driver, hotel and meals. This policy was created to prevent ‘undesirable’ visitors (ie. backpackers), believing that they would negatively impact the country’s social fabric. Bhutan, a totalitarian monarchy, also has a mandatory national dress code, required to be worn by all Bhutanese during the day. This contributes to the sense of another world, another century.
Bhutan was totally closed to the outside world until 1961, when the first roads were built, and the country is clearly in transition to the current century. As of two years ago, the government allowed TVs (there are two cable operators in Thimpu, the capital) and one year ago allowed Internet access. Thimpu is probably the world’s only capital city that has no traffic lights, just traffic police gracefully conducting traffic (very few cars, even on the “main street”) as if performing ballet.
The architecture in Bhutan is quite different from India and completely amazing. Bhutan is located between China and India, and, no surprise, the architecture and art reflect both cultures yet are also unique. The buildings are beautifully painted, with wood ornamentation with brick red, yellow, and blue predominating. Prayer flags are everywhere, as are paintings of dragons, Buddhas, demons, and guardian spirits.
We expected to see many Yaks, but only saw this one. Yak meat and butter was never on the menu.
Bhutanese cuisine relies on a lot of meat, tons of chilies, and cheese. As we were avoiding both, the food served in most hotels, which cater to tourist’s tastes EXACTLY like Chef Boyardee Macaroni and Cheese. And all dishes taste EXACTLY the same. Some had tons of hot chilies, some had none, but no dishes had only a few chilies. But all had precisely the same cheese sauce. This isn’t bad… Phil was raised on this concoction. It was just surprising. However, Bhutan “beer” is by far the worst Phil ever had, tasting and looking like flat yeasty dishwashing liquid. But we didn’t come to Bhutan for the food. Every other meal was Indian style food, all very well prepared.
Considering that Bhutan didn’t even have roads until the sixties, the journey from Phuntsholing to Thimpu wasn’t too bad. On the other hand, although the roads are better than India’s, this was a long trip (over 7 hours) thru very rugged terrain. At the hairpin mountain turns, there were what we thought were pieces of art, but later learned are Tibetan Buddhist symbols, placed on the road to reassure travelers. They didn’t reassure us – we were in a large van, the road was barely large enough for us. When passing other vehicles, we both squeezed by, with 200 foot sheer drops inches from our wheels.
The countryside started out semi-arid, but we quickly got into huge valleys, steeply terraced, but sparsely populated. By law, all buildings must be of a traditional design; most are lavishly decorated with dragons, very explicit phallic symbols, and animals. Some houses have 9-foot satellite dishes and SUVs in front.
Thimpu is a quiet town. We were told that during the festival, there are 600 tourists in town – which would completely overrun it. There were a few other tourists during our visit, but none of us were acknowledged by the local residents; the same treatment we’d been receiving in India. We were continually struck by how different our reception had been in southern India, and in other parts of Southeast Asia, where the residents seemed genuinely interested in foreigners. Were people here jaded by a steady stream of travelers? Were they reserved? Respecting our privacy?
We visited chortens (religious monuments), dzongs, and the weekend market. Bhutan is known for its Dzongs – religious fortresses. They even call their language “Dzongkha” – language of the fortresses. The country has continually been at war with Tibet. The fortresses were built in the 15th thru 18th centuries for defense, typically at a confluence of rivers or overlooking a river valley. Our hotel was next door to a ‘supermarket’. All the food there was from India except for a few packs of cookies. Bhutan has no manufacturing base.
In the evening, we arranged for a cultural show – a group of 8 young men and women performing folk songs and dances. The music was very Chinese in style played on what appeared to be Chinese instruments. But every tune was the same, every dance identical. Will MTV and Hindipop trounce this culture? Undoubtedly. Would this be a bad thing? Hmmm…
We drove towards the center of the country – thru tall mountains and broad valleys. The country is very sparsely populated. There are only 600,000 people in Bhutan, despite the UN’s official tally of 2 million. Our guide said that the Bhutanese wanted to qualify for a status that only this large a number would permit – so they fudged a bit on the entrance form.
Punakha is tiny. We were there to visit the huge dzong, but other than that, there does not even appear to be a town in the western sense. Punakha Dzong was strategically built at the junction of the two rivers in the 17th Century to serve as the religious and administrative center of Bhutan. It remained the capital until the 1950s. To reach the Punakha Dzong, one needs to cross a swinging bridge – wildly decorated with prayer flags. Unlike the other dzongs, this one was very busy with temple-goers.
It was a 5-hour drive back to Paro. Paro has Bhutan’s only airport and is the home of Bhutan’s only airplane. (‘One Nation – One People – One Airplane’ said our guide jokingly.) It seems that the country is so mountainous, that this was just about the only place that could have a runway. Paro has the National Museum ( Ta-Dzong) in a huge 17th century dzong.
It also has the famous Paro Dzong, home of the Paro Teschu, an annual festival that attracts tourists from around the world. When we were in Paro, the king and a number of ministers were gathering to inspect a school (we weren’t sure why), and foreigners were strictly prohibited. Our hotel was going to host one of the ministers, and was therefore crawling with “secret service equivalents” and nervous staff. Not allowing their King to be a tourist attraction is wise. We’ve read stories about travelers to Bhutan who unwittingly commit social blunders.
During the King’s visit, we drove to Drugyal Dzong, a ruined fortress – 16 km away from Paro. Although in ruins, this Fortress of great historical importance. It was here that the Bhutanese finally defeated the invading Tibetans and drove them back. We then hiked to “Tigers Nest” Taktsang Monastery, perched on a rocky ledge with a sheer drop of nearly 800 ft. Our hike began at about 7000ft alt and we gained about 1000 ft in altitude. Although not a death march, both Tony and Phil were getting over a cold, and truly struggled for the last 200 feet. Our guide was also ill, but was obviously more used to the altitude – and in much better shape!
Back to Calcutta
Before we booked the trip, we checked the web to see when the festival of Holi took place. For some reason, this information was hard to come by, but we were told it was on March 10. Since we would have all of March 9 as a free day to shop in Calcutta, and would leave on the tenth, this worked out perfectly.
But nothing in India “works out perfectly”. Holi fell on March 9, during our one free day, so we were unable to do too much. But we did have an opportunity to do some sightseeing, go to the extensive Indian Museum, and still have time to shop.
It’s said that Bombay is India’s Hollywood/Los Angeles; New Delhi is their New York. Calcutta is supposed to be India’s center of poetry, culture, and intellectual pursuits. While we are aware of Calcutta’s middle class, all we saw looked and felt like a post-apocalyptic urban jungle. The number of truly destitute people is oppressive (and having nothing in India really means nothing- people sleep on the streets at night), the traffic and pollution is horrendous. We were frequently pursued by beggars, of which there was no shortage. Seeing this deeply disturbed us; but unfortunately the aggressiveness of some beggars created a level of defensive hostility. At one point, a young girl – not more than 9 or 10 – tried to reach into Susan shoulder bag. We’re experienced enough to watch and act when we see this, but the experience was jarring. The girl must have known that I was watching; I was less than 2 yards from her. But she was so desperate that she attempted it anyway.
Calcutta is also known for having a huge amount of open space. Created by the British, these huge grassy parks bisect the city, giving a break from the urban density. In a corner of one park is a soccer/football stadium that holds 120,000 people! Calcutta also has a planetarium, subway, and trolleys.
Calcutta is an anglicized version of Kalicat, named after Kali the Hindu goddess of dissolution and destruction. Kali destroys ignorance, and she helps those who strive for knowledge. An aspect of Shiva’s consort, Pavarti, she is fearsome in appearance. She has wild eyes, a protruding tongue, and she wields a bloody sword. She also holds the severed head of a demon, and she wears a belt of severed heads. She is sometimes pictured as ripping out – and devouring — the heart of a man (no, she is not the patron saint of Indian feminists).
We visited the Kali Temple, which was surprisingly very calm. We later learned that there are many goat sacrifices there each morning. But as non-Hindus, we were not permitted into the inner sanctuary.
We also visited Sitambara, the Jain temple. This was perhaps the most exquisitely decorated building we’ve ever seen. Every inch of the floors, walls, and ceiling were lavishly decorated with semi-precious stones, mirrors, ceramics, tiles, gold, and silver. Jainism is a non-theistic religion, similar in some ways to Theravada Buddhism. There are 24 Jain prophets – this temple was dedicated to Sheetalnathji, the tenth prophet.
For some reason, we were upgraded to business class for the Calcutta-London segment. Of the 3 times we’ve been to India, we’ve been upgraded every time for one leg of the trip. Perhaps our long journey evokes some sympathy from the airline staff. We’ll never know. Tony and Erika were unfortunately not upgraded, but we smuggled them back chocolates and snacks!
Our trip was once again put together by Swagatam Tours, a New Delhi-based firm. (email: email@example.com, web www.swagatam.com and www.swagatamtours.com) Unlike the last time we traveled with Swagatam, this one was entirely subcontracted to various local guide firms. While the mechanical attributes of the trip were impressively flawless, our guide in Darjeeling, Sikkim, and Jaldhapara (Mr. Binay Sharma) was not a great guide. He seemed bored – and did mention repeatedly that he was attempting to set up his own company. When experiencing trouble getting the elephants in Jaldhapara, he immediately announced defeat. While he later apologized for giving up so easily, his overall attitude was not what I would have hoped for. I therefore recommend that anyone who travels to this region avoid having Mr. Sharma as a guide. Our other guides were excellent, both in knowledge and enthusiasm. We wholeheartedly recommend Swagatam for any trip to India. They are superb!
Pharmaceuticals: Phil has arthritis and finds that he is always taking something – usually Voltaren, sometimes Celebrex. In the US, Celebrex costs $2.18 each. In India, it costs 17 cents, and no prescription is required. Phil bought a years’ supply of just about everything he could possibly think of. If you do go to India, be sure to get the GENERIC name of the pharmaceuticals and the dosage. We were able to buy Claritin, Ambien, and Voltaren for less that 10% of what they would cost in the US. Also bring your eyeglass prescription!