Cheng Chin Yuen

Sunday, February 19, 2006

V-Day Vibrations!

The rattling metal cupboard interrupted some exciting dreams I was having at 6.30am on Valentine’s Day. Thinking it was the result of King Kong walking across the floorboards, I returned to my V-day preparations in dreamland. There was a major discount on roses there and we got to do a valentine swap.

A few hours later, while enjoying yet another misty view from the windows of Glenary’s, our favourite cake haunt, the front page of The Statesman informed us that we had slept through the tremors of a 5.7 earthquake near Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. If I hadn’t taken an extra day in Darjeeling to recover from my flu, that’s where we would be. Looks like it is indeed a lucky year for rabbits!

5.7 isn’t catastrophic, especially since the source wasn’t in the heart of the Gangtok but more than 100 kilometres away, Darjeeling furniture was dancing. According to those who were more lucid at that time, the shaking lasted a good half a minute. I must have woken up only in the last few seconds of it. Shame on the ex-Geography teacher, some families had already evacuated and I went back to sleep. It’s tough for me at 6.30. One tourist I met thought he was dreaming. His bed that he couldn’t lift before was trembling.

Apart from some broken coffee cups, Darjeeling was spared. In Gangtok however, 20 buildings developed cracks in them and some roads were damaged. Two military personnel killed by a resultant landslide were the only unfortunate human victims. The Statesman didn’t mention anything about buried cattle or vegetables.

Lucky us, the sky and its foundations didn’t drop on the rabbit in hibernation. V-day went on as usual, thankfully with a much better nose and cumulated in a wonderful 400 Rs dinner of Chicken Kita, Garlic nan, Roast Chicken and two hot chocolates at Glenary’s.

In Mumbai (Bombay), there were some crazy people rioting against the V-Day celebrations. Couples were beaten, hotels raided, V-day cards set ablaze, gift-shops smashed…crazy buggers.

Journey to the West…of Sikkim

We got to sit next to the driver on the ride from Darjeeling to Pelling. It was not so good for me because the gear-stick kept rubbing my right thigh with every shift. This minor molestation was a small price to pay for the splendid views and thrills.

The Thrills

The top thrill was tackling the bends in the mist. With visibility down to 5 meters at certain parts, it was almost like driving blind. Other vehicles did pop into view and we saw their lights just barely before they appeared. This gave our driver enough split seconds to veer to the side of the narrow mountain road. After a few encounters of the too-close kind, our driver sheepishly pulled up by the side to remove the plastic covers for his lights. What a guy! He actually cares about getting to Pelling alive!

The second thrill seems to be a game only jeep-drivers play around the bends. It takes two to vie for the tiniest-gap-between-jeeps award on the bend. That explains the missing, closed or dangling side-mirrors. The closest I’ve estimated was about 15cm between jeeps at 40 to 50 kmh. They always bid one another farewell with a happy toot of their horns.

The third thrill was simply the endless downhill ride over tight curves and hairpin bends along narrow roads with a drop on either side. If we did drop, we would at least have best seats for our tumbling end. Thankfully, the driver was very skilled and alert save an instance where I offered to change cassettes for him along one hairy stretch when I felt that it would be better for all of us if he had both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. Downhill we went for a solid 2.5 hours till we reached the Teesta River. It would make an excellent mountain-biking route.

The Views

After we got out of civilisation’s way, the giant 20 metre (thereabouts) pines appeared. With the mist below their branches, it seemed that we were zooming past hundreds of black pillars that interrupted the view of the valley behind them.

The little village encounters became quite amusing when our driver decided to do a little shopping on the way. He rejected a cobbler’s work at one stop and bought two pots of flowers at another, a belated V-day present perhaps. At the Sikkim border, he grew impatient when an English passenger took too long at the ladies and kept honking. He was much happier and actually thanked me after I offered him a slice of Glenary’s fruitcake to ease the wait. I had to tap him on the shoulder a couple of times to get his attention though.

The powerful Teesta and Rangit Rivers squashed between heaps of unspoiled vegetation were very scenic. It reminded me of the wide and rocky river beds of New Zealand. Several bridge crossings also gave us a central view of the lush valley. It seems that nature is indeed respected in these parts. The riverbeds were probably sources of cement and crusher-run for new roads. We saw locals there doing the quarrying and breaking the rocks using only sledgehammers.

Several environmentally friendly signs can be frequently seen by the road. One said, ‘Nature has everything to meet man’s need but not his greed.’ Another cheesy one goes, ‘Life is green when trees are seen!’. My favourite sign simply went ‘Thank You’. Duh? A more poetic one went ‘I am the handle of your hoe, the wood of your cradle and the shell of your coffin’. ‘Plants and animals are the benevolence of Nature. Project them (out of the window??).’ is a funny one.

There are also a variety of speed warnings ranging from the simple ‘Honk at every bend’ to the more advanced ‘Speed has 5 letters so has Death, Slow has 4 letters, so has Life’. Very straightforwardly one read, ‘Sleep and your family will weep.’ Signs do spice up life on the roads a little.

It was night by the time we were on the climb to Pelling. We could see one brightly lit town on the other side of the valley and dozens of tungsten bulbs marking individual homes on the hillside. It was good to know that electricity has found its way to these remote areas. In Laos or Myanmar, rural homes would be dark or at most candle-lit. Our driver was nice enough to stop to get our bags down from the roof-rack. ‘Water coming’ was all he said and true enough it started to drizzle after a while.


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