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Friday, July 24, 2009

And then there was one...

In an interesting turn of events, Jared, Mark and I decided to go separate paths through India earlier than expected. The other day, before leaving for New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, we wanted to make sure there was going to be a hotel available in Darjeeling. Jared was on the phone all day looking for a hotel with nothing turning up.

It was strange, many hotels didn't answer, many said they were closed - but way more than seemed normal. We finally got a chance to talk to someone in Darjeeling and asked if they knew why...

Apparently Darjeeling is on strike.

The whole city has been closed down for the past week or two because of this strike. Darjeeling, (for supposed economic reasons says my informant in Sikkim) wants to be a separate state. I suppose there is more government funding if they are a separate state and have decided to stop working. Even buses aren't running to the city.

No matter, it makes life more exciting. They spent the next 3 hours planning trips into Nepal and going on treks. I decided I was going to stick to the plan and head as far north into Sikkim as possible. So at 6:30 pm on Thursday I left for the train station Mugal Sarai, 16km away from Varanasi. A 9:00pm train (arriving 45 min late) picked me up and off I went. Albeit a little nervous as I had no plan of action, but excited for the same reason.

On the train I had a met a very interesting person. Pawa Gupta, a devot Hindu, and his nephew, were on a train back to NJP (New Jalpaiguri) from the nephew's father's (his brother's) funeral. Clad in white, Pawa spoke almost perfect English. Even his 16 year old nephew, who was still in school spoke English very well.

We spoke about many things over the course of the next 16-17 hours. Life, religion, spirituality, economics, Indian education and reform, Indian government and it's corruption, the list goes on. Thinking back on it, it was like one of those conversations you hear in novels. It was very invigorating.

When I arrived in NJP at around 1:30 pm, I had heard that you can share a jeep for Rs. 150 a seat to Gangtok. How convenient, exactly that happened. So we packed our stuff, waited for more people and in about 2 hours we were off. How fun I thought - until I realized we were cramming 10 people into a 7 person jeep. I was also quite discouraged because I had not yet seen one mountain, and I was already getting pretty far north. (NJP is on the northern end of West Bengal).

So we drove. Crammed, we drove. I listened to music, no more than 5 inches space between my knees, and we drove down bumpy roads. And large speed bumps. We hit our heads and fell asleep on each other. When we stopped, we prayed for a strong wind to blow the heat away. Thankfully at certain points, some people got off. Certain points.... in the moutains!

Yes! They arrived! We drove through the mist and the clouds and the dust, and we began going up. But let me correct myself. They weren't mountains... apparently, considering the Himalayas are just some more kilometers north, these are the hills. But compared to American hills (NE America) these are mountains. Wet, forest covered, dense mountains. With more flora than you care to trudge through. Winding roads up the sides of these cliffs, foliage on one side, gorge and river on the other.

So we climbed, following the Teesta River to Gangtok. 90+ km from NJP. 4 Hours and we finally arrive, and it's dark. I have now been traveling by land for 24 hours, and I am TIRED. And I was discouraged. I forgot I needed a permit to enter Sikkim. And that Sikkim has semi-strict nature and camping and trekking rules. So I opened my book to see what I could do. Tourists are barely allowed anywhere! And you can't really go anywhere alone - buses don't run to villages, etc. Discouraged, I closed the book and hoped that it was wrong (since it had been before).

I arrive to a hotel I found in my book with Dorm style rooms. Nice and cheap, Rs. 70. It was right for once. To top it off, its not peak tourist season, and there is only one other person in the room. Who leaves at 6am tomorrow. So for Rs. 70, I have a room to myself (we were paying Rs. 500+ before for triples). To top it off again (here's the cherry), I spoke breifly with the clerk at the hotel about what treks they offered, how much etc., and he was saying how the price all depends on how many other people go.

And then he said - "But we do offer solo treks."

Let's just hope it doesn't rain tomorrow.

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