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An Alien in Spain - Visits India (Kalimpong -Sikkim - Darjeeling)

Waking, after a good nights sleep to the view from your window of Mount Kanchenjunga rising majestically to its full height of 28,146 feet with the sunlight reflecting off its snow capped peak put the previous day's train rides right out of our mind. The cold of the night before was replaced by a slight chill in the air but not sitting in the sunlight in the covered patio in the garden where we partook of a breakfast of omelette, fried potatoes, toast, Jam, pancakes and honey from the garden all washed down by a cup of Darjeeling tea.

This was a totally different india to where we had been previously, West Bengal is bordered by Nepal, Bhutan and China and there was a heavy military presence evident during the car ride the night before, however, up in the mountains there was nothing but peace and quiet and no sign of unrest.

After breakfast, prepared by a waiter wearing a Chelsea Football club shirt,

we set off on a hike up the very steep hills surrounding us to take in the scenery on our way to the top of Deylo Hill a local beauty spot where Paraglider's could be seen soaring above on the thermals.

We passed a school complete with a church that had been built in the 1900's by a missionary ( Dr J A Graham and his wife Catherine) for orphans and children from the tea plantation which looked like an English public school and it was still in use today.

I can honestly say the climb exhausted me and I was never more thankful to see the top with its small cluster of sheds we call cafes over here and a welcoming bottle of beer was shared by us and we were even brave enough to share a portion of "Mo Mo" similar to Dim Sum that comes with a hot chilli sauce.

The return journey was a lot easier and we returned without mishap to our hotel mid afternoon and while I sat in the garden with a nice cup of afternoon tea and brought my blog up to date, Denise played on the swing with the hotels cat and dog.

Our evening meal of Biryani, Alou Gobi and chapatti was taken in my room with the lights of the villages on the mountains in the distance outside the panorama window ( did I mention I got the best room ha ha).

Next day and an early start, the car and driver (same who picked us up in NJP) were on time at 8 am and after a quick ATM stop we were off to the region of peace and Tranquility "Sikkim". Situated in the Eastern Himalayas, Sikkim is one of the most beautiful states of the Indian Union and boasts that the third highest mountain in the world, Kanchenjunga, ( the one I can see from my hotel window) is situated there. We had hired the car for the day at a cost of 3,200 Rupee (40€) and the driver had instructions of where to go however we encountered a minor problem at Melli, the the border crossing from West Bengal into Sikkim, as although we had remembered to take our passports with us we had not been told we would need copies of the passport and visa page!!

Very helpful guard at border control allowed our driver to drive into the town and photocopy the relevant pages and return and we were on the road again after a 15 minute delay. Now I use the description lightly as all the roads we travelled on during the day were at best dirt tracks and at worst bulldozer cleared landslides and I kid you not. The scenery was fantastic as long as you don't mind heights with sheer drops over the edge.

We concentrated our day trip in South Sikkim and our mission was to visit three tourist hotspots, temples situated on three mountain tops which would test the driving skills of the driver, the nerve of the passengers and the bravery of all three.

First stop, furthest away from our crossing point was Buddha Park, Rabong and this was reached by midday and to our disappointment the Buddha statue that dominates the centre was covered in scaffolding. No reduction on the 200 Rupee entry fee but we went in anyway and inside the temple is the story of Buddha done in pictures on a spiralling walkway which was enjoyable and informative and worth the entry fee.

We left the temple and decided to forgo lunch until we made it to the second destination, the highest statue of the patron saint Guru Padmasambhava at Samdruptse, Namchi which stands 135 ft tall of which the foundation stone was laid by none other than his holiness the Dalai Lama in October 1997.

Although we were pressed for time as you all know Denise must eat, and eat she did from a small tourist cafe by the temple we explored the art of Sikkim cuisine in the form of noodle soup and veggie Mo Mo washed down with a shared sprite.

Refreshed and on our way we encountered some of the worst roads so far and best scenery until we arrived at Siddhesvara Dhaam, Namchi which is basically replica city of all the famous temples that are scattered around India but at only 50 Rupee each entry fee it is fabulous value for money and we spent an hour there.

To say that the drive home was uneventful is really an insult to the driver who in the dark navigated his way along roads I would refer to as goat tracks clinging to the side of the mountain with tires that must have been dipped in glue. And the only moment of concern is when we passed through Sikkim's version of checkpoint Charlie without getting our exit visa stamp but a smile and a clap on the back of the officer who had booked us in that morning and we were on our way arriving back at the hotel at exactly the time predicted by the driver who got a good tip for safe delivery of us.

Having secured a bottle of wine and a beer for me from a booze shop in Kalimpong a happy hour with crisps and cookies took two happy bunnies to their rooms to pack in readiness of the morning ride to Darjeeling.

Bidding goodbye to our hosts in the morning it transpired our lady of the house, Vanessa, had managed to secure us flights from Bagdogra Airport on the 6th so one less problem to worry about and off we set with a new driver for the two and a half hour car ride to Darjeeling. The road meandered through hairpin bends for most of the trip up higher into the mountains but the driver handled them with ease and we even stopped to take a couple of pics of the landscape on the way up.

We arrived at the recommended Homestay and I decided it was a dump for 2,000 Rupee a night but said it was too far out of town and we persuaded the driver to drive us back into town where after running in and out of a few hotels I struck a deal with an hotel owner for a cheap room for 200 Rupee and an extra 200 for an electric heater.

Once settled in off we went to explore the town and to discover the "Toy Train" station where we booked tickets for the round trip to Ghom starting at 16.05.

After asking a local we found a cafe hidden away up some steps that served us a Chicken & Mushroom soup and a mixed fried noodles with a drink for 500 Rupee that was delicious. Refreshed we toured the town to find some Darjeeling tea to take home as presents for Denise. The high school girls were attending a leaving do and the colours and styles of saris / dresses that were a cross between Indian and Chinese were a sight to see.

At 4 pm we boarded the toy train which we were fortunate enough to have being pulled by a steam engine and amid blasts on the whistle and eruptions of steam all around us, off we set for a two hour round trip with a 30 minute stop while they took on fuel and water which gave time to look around the museum.

The track runs through the local towns much of the time criss crossing the main road but far from causing annoyance the whole of the outward journey was filled with both parents and children waving and smiling ( the return journey was in the dark) but didn't stop the non stop use of the whistle which everyone enjoyed immensely.

As we had saved such a large amount of money on our usual accommodation costs we decided to splash and visit one of the oldest hotels in Darjeeling for our dinner. The Elgin, named after Lord Elgin rather than the place in Scotland was only about 500 meters away from our hotel but might just as well have been a world away. Set in its own grounds, gated with a guard on the gate, it amazed me how they let us in, but being British and white works miracles over here and before long we were ensconced in the lounge / Bar area warmed by a roaring open fire and enjoying two delicious cocktails, such decadence.

Only residents of the hotel were allowed in the dining room, but we were able to order from the snacks menu and eat at our coffee table so we elected, as all good Brits, for fish and chips which came in due course and was delicious. There was an obvious absence of other guests in the hotel ( all of Gurkaland has been hit by the recent strikes and disturbances) so pudding was not available however the cocktail Denise ordered and ate with a spoon could have fitted that description.

Having spent more on the evening meal than we had on the hotel for the night we headed back through deserted streets, only to find at 9.45 pm the hotel in darkness and the shutters on the front door down!!!! A couple of sharp raps on the shutter and it was opened by the owner in his pajamas and smiling assured us the taxi to take us to the airport had been ordered and would be here at 9 am next morning.

At 5.45 am I found the possible reason for the low cost of the room when the mosque behind our room started the call to prayer ! -

I respectfully declined turned over and grabbed an extra 2 hours dreaming of last nights cocktails Ha Ha

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