Our first night in Pelling was very cold especially for our heads. Karen had to turbanise hers with a shawl while I threw the comforter over mine. The 250 Rs mountain view room we got at Hotel Garuda wasn’t wind-tight and the rain at 2000 metres only made things colder. Under these elemental trials of life, bathing was not exactly on our minds. But an itchy head got me going eventually and I barely made the hot water limit even after some selective washing. (Just for the record, we haven’t had a stand-up shower yet. Kind of gotten used to squatting by a pail of warm water by now.) The lesser parts of my body had to be rinsed with cold water to wash off the soap. Somehow sheer human tenacity got us through those numb hours of darkness and the next day we requested for a more enclosed room (yes there’s such a thing) in the pink 4-storey building. Karen immediately rented a small heater for 60 Rs per day which had an effective range of less than a metre but did make a difference after a couple of hours. It also came in handy for drying our clothes. The Darjeeling cold that was once mine was now Karen’s so she had priority over the use of our only sleeping bag. It’s quite terrible to have a cold at 2000+ metres and not being able to shower.
Pelling could be deemed as a travel blunder. There’s nothing much to see in this tiny one street town and Karen’s flu prevented us from seeing sights that were further afoot. Well, ‘afoot’ meant 3 to 6 hours of walking in this mountainous region so we thought we take it easy by paying for a jeep tour that would cover most of the sights. It’s every backpacker’s shame to lower ourselves to this mode of travelling.
For 175 Rs per piece, some of the six in the jeep first got to see the Rimbi Falls. The driver drove past the tiny trickle on the left and said ‘Rimbi Falls’. That’s it. The jokers on sitting on the right probably only heard the falls. Site Number One done! 8 or 9 more to go. The next attraction was the Rimbi Powerplant which went by us in similar fashion. All I could see was water tumbling down a steep channel. It ended in a small building which generated the hydroelectric power. Fortunately the drive offered us views of the Sikkimese countryside which looked lush and pristine in most places and horridly and extensively terraced in others. It was odd looking at the opposite valley slopes; one green with lofty trees and the other like a 100 layer kueh lapis slice. The valleys are deep and spectacular and on that rare clear day, we could admire the scenery for a reasonable distance before losing it to the mist.
Site Number 3 was the Khangchengdzonga Falls which the LP graced as ‘spectacular’. It was not. Perhaps that’s the problem of visiting too many waterfalls. After the giant Kwang Si and the weird Tat Se near Luang Prabang, our standard have sky-rocketted. We travelled a long and bumpy way to this overrated one. Still being the optimist, we had a good laugh and took some photos of the locals here. One boy looked like kungfu legend, Bruce Lee. Some men earned rupees by helping tourists over the slippery boulder to get nearer the waterfall, which was only about 15 meters high.
We back-tracked a fair bit to the first major attraction, Khecheopalri Lake. This little lake, the colour of olives is indeed serene and small the wood and stone temple does give it an ancient aura. The highlands which encircle the lake seem to silence it as well and true to legend, because the birds remove the leaves that fall on the lake’s surface, the lake is amazingly leaf-less despite the surrounding trees! We are in legend-land after all. Wait till you hear about the hat made of angel-hair. It’s kept in a box of some temple to prevent it from flying back to heaven! The is an open corridor of prayer wheels leading to the viewing deck by the lake and surprisingly there is no sign asking us to turn them clockwise. Beside the lake, there is a open area where mess of colourful prayer flags (on poles and streamers) make it look like a pugilistic battleground where kungfu master come from afar to compete for the title of World Champion. On the opposite side of the lake, prayer flags of a dreary grey flap with the wind on countless 4 metre poles. These I’ve seen in a cemetery on the outskirts of Darjeeling, perhaps the dead are not too far away. Again, it is hard not to compare this little puddle with Myanmar’s 22 km long Inle. Khecheopalri is pronounced as ‘catch a perry’. Interestingly, when Karen visited the public toilet at the entrance to this lake, it was even more ‘power’ than the photo posted earlier. I was a little annoyed that she didn’t take a picture. I should go to the loo more often perhaps.
The sites after lunch were painfully sub-standard despite our general optimism.
Again we drove for more than a hour to visit a 198 metre long bridge which unfortunately spanned uninspiring landscape. After that, was a pretty nicely terraced valley which was more of a roadside photo-stop. Due to a delayed lunch and a minor jeep problem it was already getting dark and we had to get going. The Dentam Market was just ordinary provision shops on a one street town but we got to watch two boys driving their make-believe car. The driver, steered with a circle of wire which was connected to two little wooden wheels on the ground. His passenger was tied to him with a piece of string and off they speeded on their make believe highway. The passenger’s ‘glasses’ also made form white string had us in stiches. Imagination indeed is more interesting than knowledge. The last attraction was one more waterfall, where the other local tourists eagerly went to touch the water while we watched them from a bridge and did some static exercises to keep ourselves warm.
We had no time for the Pemayangtse Gompa which being one of the oldest was the highlight of Pelling. Feeling a little ripped off, I complained to the boss when we reached Pelling, He offered to take us there in a car the next day but after a whole day of travelling, I decided to spend more time in bed before another long and winding ride to Gangtok, the Sikkimese capital.
Room with a View
Of the three days in Pelling, we were granted one rare clear morning where we got a really good view of the Khangchengdzonga Range, only 14 kilometres away. It was quite a pleasant surprise after having been in Pelling the day before and seeing nothing but mist and suddenly this long stretch of snow-capped peaks were there just outside our room! In the clearer months, I could imagine myself watching the mountains all day from the roof-top terrace over a good book and a cup of tea. With the mist outside we have to make do with the panoramic pictures in the guesthouse and restaurants. Tibetan families have an elaborate prayer room in their houses where they pay their homage to Buddha early every morning. The good folks at Hotel Garuda also burn offerings on their roof in a cement contraption much alike those in our Chinese temples.
Hotel Garuda is right and rightfully at the top of the LP’s recommendations. The service is excellent, the food is comparatively good and there are no bed-bugs. Naturally, it is packed with backpackers and our first dinner took 45 minutes to arrive. After some logical thinking, we decided to have lunch the next day somewhere less populated, so we wandered into Sister Restaurant, where there were no customers. My chicken soup came after 30 minutes and the main courses 1 and a half hours later! Things are a little slow in Pelling but the food was really good. In Himali, Karen’s ‘Chicken Meal’ was a huge pile of rice with two itsy bitsy bits of chicken. This atmospheric restaurant was a wooden frame with zinc sheets nailed to it. It had a small counter with 3 plastic tables. A ladder led down to the even smaller single stove kitchen. I was glad in went down for a peek after the food had gone down my stomach as it would definitely get a sub-D rating on our hawker grading with the vegetables all over the dirty floor. Fortunately the meat was kept in their house next door. However the young brothers who ran the restaurant were extremely polite and welcoming.
Big Pieces and Small Pieces
There are a lot of roadworks going on around Pelling. Roads have to be widened, retaining walls constructed, resurfacing, pot-hole filling, improvements to the drainage works, construction of bridges etc. All these require humongous amounts of rocks which would be brought in by dump-trucks. That’s where the mechanisation ends. Off-loading the big pieces of rocks had to be done manually. The men will then break the rocks (at least 20 kg a piece) using sledge hammers. These pieces would be used as rough bricks for the retaining walls. For the crusher-run for the surfacing, several women (and sometimes young kids and old folks) sit by the roadside all day, using a regular hammer to break the mid-sized pieces (30 cm by 30 cm) into even smaller pieces (about 3cm by 3cm or less). They must have been at it for weeks as they were sitting on a pile of small rocks half a metre high. They are probably farmers working during the farming lull but they looked like POWs being exploited at a concentration camp.
HELLO! FRIEND! … Your Country! This is the general Indian greeting from a street hawker. The ‘hello’ and ‘friend’ part usually leaves you a little intimidated. The ‘your country?’ bit sounds like a border-crossing interrogation.
Green. In Darjeeling, there are noticeably several green houses around. There is some significance, a Tibetan monk tried to explain it to me but my Tibetan was as good as his English.
Long or Short? I asked a waiter once where the toilet was and he asked me ‘Long or Short?’ He wasn’t a gay sex pervert. After he added that they only had ‘short toilet’, it finally made sense. ‘Long’ meant a toilet where you could take a dump. ‘Short’ was usually just a little gully leading somewhere on the streets outside so only peeing allowed. In Kolkata, there are pee-stations along the streets. These are open-concept cubicles with short walls to block the view of your privates. You pee into a small drain which connects to the gutter along the road beside it. As a result, certain portions of the street smell like a Singapore coffeeshop toilet.
Aloo Gobi means potatoes with cauliflower. Aloo Motor is not an engine that runs on potatoes but a potato-green pea curry. Paneer is Indian cheese which tastes and has the texture of toufu. The average cost of a chapatti is 3 to 5 rupees. If you are vegetarian, you could stuff yourself for 40 rupees at the regular sit-down places. Throw in a masala tea for 5 to 7 rupees. I do miss stir-fired veges a lot. Veges here are all curried.
Indian town bobbies usually come with a long stick which they carry in their hand as if all ready to hamtam someone. There seem to be enough of them around to make you feel safe.
We haven’t seen a street performer yet. There also seem to be very few guitarists around unlike Myanmar where there is one on almost every street and definitely one in every village.
It is true that Indians shake their heads when they mean ‘yes’. At a vegetarian restaurant just now…
‘Can I have one Masala Dosa?’
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
‘One Masala nan’
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
‘One Cholla (chick peas) Paneer’
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
‘One Masala Tea’
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
‘One Tea Black’
‘Yes’ + head wriggle
Thank goodness for the barely audible ‘yes’. Quite funny to experience it, a good example in perceptual conflict. Wished I could video it.
In a government college in Sikkim, it takes the same time (3 years) to graduate with a normal degree or with honours. You just have to study more and take more exams if you are doing the honours course. They also major in 3 subjects. A very attractive English primary teacher told me this in Gangtok. She actually asked us if we were local. Many people here have some Nepali, Tibetan or like her exotic Mongolian blood.
The Indian version of the chaptek comes in a thick bangle of rubber bands. Besides the make-believe steering wheel, another favourite toy among boys is running a rubber ring down the street using a stick with a wire loop attachment that goes through the rubber ring. Big boys play cricket. I don’t know what big girls play yet.
India has about 17 million child labourers, so the papers say. The law only states that children below the age of 14 cannot be employed in hazardous tasks. Hmmm…