Saturday, August 09, 2008

The thirty two hour train (plus some other bits)

DELHI: Thirty two hours rattling along the rails. It seems like a long time. But it passes and you wonder how it went so quickly. From the North East of India to the capital, Delhi, we sat, slept and sipped chai. We watched the Ganges plains roll by the window. Farmers working the paddy fields, school kids wandering to and from the old villages made of mud and brick, and monkeys being a nuisance at platforms.

Bicycle home
Farmer going home as the train goes by

To while away the time on this second-longest train trip of my life (the first being in Russia), we stared out of the window, and we read. Around the World in Eighty Days was an apt choice which I picked up cheap at a bookshop. Or there was daily newspaper, sold from the hawkers on platforms or wandering the carriages.

The endless wallahs walking up and down the aisle shouted about their newspapers in Hindi, Bengali or English, but more commonly they called out "chai" (tea) as they lugged a hot urn and paper cups along. Occasionally a shoe shine boy, a masseuse, a coconut seller or most curiously a mung bean concoction maker would pass through. In a land of a billion people everyone tries to find a niche - even the beggars who sweep the floor of the carriage and then return with a hand out stretched.

The reason for this long journey was simple: we are heading to some more mountains and Delhi is on the way. I say more mountains because the majority of the last 10 days have been spent in the Himalayas. Or more precisely, in Sikkim and Darjeeling.

Sikkim is the small piece of India that is sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan and with Tibet looming over it. It is home to the highest mountain in India and the third highest in the world: Khangchendzonga. It is usually possible to see the peak from just about all angles of the small state, except during the monsoon. And we unfortunately are still in the monsoon.

So we spent 10 days staying at accommodation perched on the top of ridge lines with unobstructed views of a mountain 8598 metres tall, without seeing it in all its glory once. We did see some snowy, rocky ridgeline emerge through a gap in the clouds for a few minutes. I can only assume that this small window was displaying a small piece of the bigger glorious views of the mountain which we really only saw on a poster in a shop in Darjeeling.

It wasn't all bad though. We did get to be at a higher altitude, above the hot sticky plains and coast below. Darjeeling, being around 2100m high, was in fact quite cold, with night times getting down to the low teens - temperatures I havn't felt since winter in Melbourne last year.

Also the vistas which we did get to see were worth it. On our journey to and from Darjeeling we got to pass through the tea plantations the area is famous for. Jeeps were the usual mode of transport and it was easy to understand why as we travelled from Sikkim to Darjeeling. From the bottom of a valley we climbed steeply on a jolting, rough road with more hair pins than a hat shop. For most of its way the road was only wide enough between tea bushes to fit our jeep as we went up and around and up a lot more.

Sikkim was also a welcome relief from the almost crushing crowds of Calcutta. The Sikkimese could have passed for Tibetans and it was hard to believe we were still in India. They were some of the friendliest people we have come across. There was no pushing and shoving or the hassle in which you get in the big cities here. Just a friendly and relaxed attitude.

Sikkim had a lot of Bhuddist temples

But it was time to skate on and we have mostly by train. This included the famous Toy Train from Darjeeling. Carriages as long a large car and the engine the size of a small truck, it slowly railled us down following the exact course of a road with much swifter jeeps. Which came first the road or railway I am not sure but it was possibly the slowest train in the world. It took three hours to travel the 31km we journeyed. The rest of the way down was by jeep.

So after two days in Delhi (one rained out), we are off once more: heading north first to Chandigarh and then to another well known hill station: Shimla. We don't linger though as this time real Himalayan landscapes await as we jeep-ride some more over the highest roads in the world to the moonscape of Ladakh. The mountainous passes are only open for a few months each year, and luckily for us right now is the open season. It will probably be another rough ride there and back, but this is what travelling is about - seeing things you can't see back home.

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