Cheng Chin Yuen

Sunday, February 19, 2006

One Night in Pelling (15 - 18 Feb 2006)

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.

Packaged Problem

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.

AOFB (F=Funny)

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
‘Two chapatti’
‘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…



keep a fire going

Mama from the Mama shop

Gloomily Cute

Full Frontal

Mr Men Hybrid

For my mum

All day long...

All for 1 big bloom

Holy Dog?

See you later...

The Words in the wind

The Battle Begins

Mother of the Prayer Wheels!


Nearer the source than you...

Aint no mountain high enough

Family Prayer Room

The Sight

Precious clear moments

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.