Our next stop was Varanasi, one of the holiest Hindu cities on earth, and also one of the oldest living cities in the world. It sits on the Ganges River, and according to the Hindu religion, anyone who dies here will attain instant moksha, or enlightmentment, so the city is said to be teeming with the old and infirm hoping for the fast-track to spiritual fulfillment.
We were a bit apprehensive about this destination, as it would be our first big city since our anxiety-ridden stay in Kolkata, but we were pleased to find the crumbling old metropolis warm and welcoming. We stayed near the city's old part, beneath an incongruous Korean cafe restaurant offering Korean comfort food, helpful advice, and excellent music. Our neighborhood was set on the river and pleasantly away from the honking horns and gridlock that was so stressful in Kolkata, instead featuring a maze of crisscrossing pedestrian alleyways that reminded us fondly of our time in Stone Town.
The city's focal point is the river, which is at its most lively around dawn and dusk, when you can't walk on the bank without hearing dozens of men offer, "boat, sir?". The river's entire bank is covered in ghats, stone staircases leading directly down into the water, where the city's faithful pray, practice yoga, and even cremate their dead; and where everyone washes themselves, their clothes, and their chai cups, questionably--but inevitably--just downstream from where a few dozens of the city's bovine residents are relieving themselves...
To leave ourselves in a pleasant mood for our sleeper class overnight train, on our last evening we dropped in on a classical music concert and enjoyed a trio consisting of a lightning-fast tabla player accompanying a sitar player whose expressive face changed to reflect every nuance in the complicated ragas, and a stoic sarangi player who matched him note for note.
In the end, we found Varanasi to be as dirty as any other Indian city, but perhaps endearingly so. A city with a walking pace and a passionate and devoted community, it made us more comfortable with the country's big cities, and excited to keep moving west to visit more of them!
Still on a Buddhist kick, we made our way from Sikkim to Bodhgaya, a trip that took about 30 hours in total between Jeeps, trains, and rickshaws. Bodhgaya is the most important Buddhist pilgrimage destination and is the place where the Buddha himself apparently attained enlightenment under a pipal tree now known as the Bodhi (meaning "enlightenment") tree, in the sixth century BC. Going from the calm, peaceful, humble Tibetan Buddhist villages of Sikkim to the crowded, overwhelming, and artificial spiritual metropolis of Bodhgaya left us feeling a bit of culture shock.
The temple on the city's main site is in fact a Hindu temple, so perhaps it's due to the management of the sacred site by a Hindu group, who have a bit more flair for ostentation and lavish displays; perhaps it's the unavoidable encroachment of capitalism; or perhaps it's just impossible to maintain a peaceful, introspective, and respectful environment at a site which receives many millions of pilgrims a year, but for whatever reason, this town seemed to us more like Disneyland than a solemn religious site.
Our visit happened to overlap with the tail end of a cultural festival called Bodh Mahotsava, meaning that the city was bustling with monks, pilgrims, and other spiritual seekers. As we walked around the main temple complex, there were prayer mats laid all about in preparation for the "Inter-Religious Prayer for World Peace", as well as flower arrangements and miniature devotional statues, and our visit was benefitted by the soundtrack of dozens of red-robed monks chanting seemingly endlessly.
That night, we dropped in on a cultural presentation of traditional dances from all over India. Most went on a little too long, but we felt an affinity for the presentation from Sikkim, and especially enjoyed one that featured men twirling rings of fire in front of them and above their heads. Leaving the suitably commercialized end to a bit of a curveball of a holy site, we looked ahead to Varanasi, another of India's holiest cities.
One of my favorite things about Darjeeling and Sikkim was -- surprise, surprise-- the food. We found the variety of Tibetan noodle soups to be delicious, healthy, and so comforting in the cold evenings. There are three main types of noodle soups: thenthuk (flat noodles), gyathuk (thin noodles), and bakthuk (gnocchi-type pasta) . A large bowl of one of these only sets you back about $1!
Then there are momos, the ubiquitous but tasty dumplings that are either steamed or friend and filled with veggies, cheese, and/or meat. One of our favorite discoveries was a fried Tibetan bread called nomtse bhalay, served warm and dipped in a variety of sauces or with honey and preserves.
As far as drinks, we gave Tibetan butter tea a shot, but did not particularly enjoy this thick, salty, and buttery concoction. However, in Sikkim, we tried tomba, a traditional drink made of fermented millet, with a few grains of rice for flavor, served in a large mug and sipped through a straw. Warm water is added to the mug occasionally, and once the millet and water sit for a few minutes, the liquid becomes milky in color and tastes a bit like sake. Not a bad way to stay warm on a cold night in the Himalayan foothills!
Sikkim is a tiny state just north of West Bengal. It is sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, and very much feels like its own country, which it used to be up until 1975. In fact, tourists need official permits to visit Sikkim, and some parts near the borders with other countries are completely off limits to travelers. The small towns in the area are connected by narrow mountain roads that find their way in and out of valleys via hairpin bends, and the only way to get around the area is via shared Jeeps. Travel can be quite time consuming (they can't go much faster than ~10-20 km/hour), so we decided to visit a few towns by hiking between them instead of spending all our time in Jeeps.
We spent our first day hiking to two monasteries near Pelling, which were small but quite interesting. The first, Sanga Choling, one of the region's oldest, was not necessarily impressive itself, but its location perched atop a ridge with 360-degree views of the Himalayas above and valleys below made it worth the climb. The second, Pemayangtse, is one of the most important in Sikkim. The gompa (Tibetan monastery) housed a gorgeous, intricate wooden sculpture on the top floor depicting birds, dragons, Buddhas, demons, and lots of other creatures, and measuring about 3-4 meters high. Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside the gompas, but we relaly enjoyed taking photos of the colorful exteriors.
We took off the next morning, after being treated to a beautiful panorama of the Himalayas at sunrise from our hotel's window (Pelling wasn't having the same disappointing fog we had in Darjeeling). Armed with a hand-drawn map of our route, we negotiated the terraced terrain down the steep valley, walking through families' properties and using the same small paths that they use to get around the area. It is still low season, so we did not encounter any other hikers, and in fact, at one point an overly protective dog tried to attack us! Luckily, the only damage he caused was to leave a few bite marks in my day pack (yes, I turned my back to an aggressive dog running in my direction, and I have no regrets!). After crossing a river, we climbed back up the other side of the valley, got lost in the woods for a bit trying to find a shortcut, and arrived at Khecheopalri Lake in the early afternoon.
The lake is said to be the footprint of a goddess, and legend has it that if a leaf falls on this sacred lake's surface, a bird will swoop down and pick it up, keeping the lake clean and pure; indeed, there were no leaves on the surface. While there is not much of a town there, save for a few stalls selling chai and momos, the lake is quite peaceful, and you can hear the chanting of Buddhist monks from nearby monasteries. We needed a place to stay for the night, so we climbed a little further up to Sonam's Homestay, recommended to us by someone in Pelling. Sonam's extended family lives up on this ridge, right next to a monastery and with views of the mountains, and they welcome travelers into their simple but cosy home to spend the night. We were given our own room and loved watching Sonam's wife cook us a huge meal over a wood fire in their rustic but extremely organized kitchen. We went to bed full and happy, and awoke before sunrise the next morning to make our way to the town of Yoksum.
Our hike to Yoksum, which again took us down and up valleys, was comparatively uneventful: no dog attacks or wrong turns into the woods. At one point we stopped at a chai stall, and found ourselves chatting with a family while drinking Tibetan butter tea and eating the Nepalese cookies they had baked for a child's birthday party that was about to begin. They wouldn't let us pay and insisted we eat more. This is just one example of how warm and friendly we found the Sikkimese to be. Not a single stranger passed by with whom we did not exchange a "Namaste" greeting. We arrived in Yoksum, visited a few very colorful monasteries, and then took a Jeep to Tashiding monastery, which is considered the holiest in Sikkim.
Most of the monastery complexes we had seen so far contained one or two gompas (monastery temples) and a couple chortens. However, this complex contained an area with dozens of large, bright white and gold chortens, not situated in any particular pattern. The chorten area was surrounded by a short wall which was lined on the outside with colorful inscribed mani stones (plaques inscribed with images of the Buddha or other figures, or mantras in Hindi script). The whole complex sat on top of a ridge (the Buddhists knew how to pick prime property!) and hundreds of prayer flags lined the steep hills on every side. The area was incredibly beautiful, colorful and peaceful, and we're glad we made the extra effort to see it.
After Tashiding it was back to Pelling for our final night in Sikkim, and our final Tibetan meal for a while!
Looking to escape the crazy and overwhelming cities of India, we headed north to Darjeeling, one of India's most famous hill stations and world-renowned for its tea production. Despite an incredibly stressful and frightening three-hour Jeep ride up and down curvy, potholed roads damaged by recent earthquakes and landslides, we're glad we made the effort and what we found upon arrival was the perfect respite.
I think we expected Darjeeling to be smaller and less populated due to its location, but we ended up enjoying its streets and markets that bustled during the day and fell silent almost as soon as the sun went down. We stayed in a charmingly cozy attic room which we were assured would have had breathtaking views of the valley, but for the seasonal fog obscuring everything in the area. We wandered the winding and hilly streets on the outskirts of the city for a few days, and found enough small surprises to get India back on our good side (though this region of India has more in common with neighboring Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan than the rest of the subcontinent).
We discovered a love for Tibetan food--most notably momos (dumplings) and all kinds of delicious and warming noodle soups--which was available in almost every restaurant in the city. Wanting to learn more about the famous local tea, we tried to visit the Happy Valley Tea Estate, but somehow couldn't quite find the main entrance as we wandered through the tea bushes planted into steep hills below the town. We ended up in a woman's living room learning about different grades of tea and tasting some of Happy Valley's (supposed) finest. She claimed she worked for the tea estate, but looking back, we aren't sure she did. In any case, she was a bubbly and enterprising lady, and we enjoyed our cup of tea with her.
The city's microclimate--some combination of its altitude, wind, and rainfall--causes a relatively small tea yield, but also make it some of the world's most prized (and most expensive). Some say that the region's absolute finest leaves, referred to as muscatel, are affected by the annual migration of huge clouds of green flies which eat the young leaves, causing them to turn yellow and produce some sort of chemical antibiotic that enhances the tea's delicate flavors. The pageantry surrounding tea tasting is just as complicated and pretentious as that surrounding wine, and while we can't claim to distinguish between first- and second flush, or most of the myriad other distinctions drawn by the professionals, we enjoyed tasting some of the world's best, and tucked a bit away to take home with us.
The region's location in the foothills of the Himalayas are another of its claims to fame. Most notable perhaps is that Tenzing Norgay, half the duo claiming the first ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953, called the city home. We took a stroll through the Everest museum, housed in the headquarters of the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We took the obligatory early morning Jeep ride to nearby Tiger Hill to view the sunrise over the Himalayas; if you're lucky, on a really clear day you can see Everest, sitting less than 200 km northwest. Due to the weather we could only see the tips of a few mountains (including Kanchenjunga, the third tallest mountain the world at a whopping 8586m) rising above the fog, but that was enough of a tease to make us decide to head north to Sikkim after we left Darjeeling for more mountains.
Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta, as the British named it), our first stop in India, was something of a tale of two cities for us: we had fairly different experiences, so we thought we'd split its post in two so we could each present our experience.
Kolkata was an interesting choice for our first stop in India. Everyone tells you there is no way to prepare yourself for India, and this rang true to me before we even arrived at our hotel. Kolkata is one of the three largest metropolitan areas in India, and is often described as a place that embodies all of India's most pressing problems: poverty, pollution, overcrowdedness, gridlocked traffic, etc. I would agree.
I generally enjoy the hustle and bustle of large cities, but I will readily admit I was not prepared for the insanity of large Indian cities (or at least the one that we have been to so far!). There is just entirely too much going on at once: men peeing on the sidewalk, chai-wallahs yelling at you to buy their tea, humongous piles of trash topped with scavenging pigs and birds having an all-u-can-eat feast, tiny naked children begging for something to eat, six-lane-wide avenues chock full of constantly honking buses and taxis, groups of men bathing in gushing water from hand-pumped spouts on the side of a busy street... if you have a mental picture yet, multiply it by 100 and that is Kolkata. At one point I told Nick I felt like I was walking through people's houses as we walked down the streets: there are hundreds of poor families who live on the sidewalks, where they have created makeshift beds and kitchens; at any time of the day they may be cooking, eating, or sleeping on whatever surface they have made for themselves. It is incredibly sad and difficult to see this indescribable poverty in your face at all times. And these are probably the better-off families: they actually have a little food to cook.
Leaving the hotel and walking down the street for me was, therefore, an act of courage and strength. The honking horns, thick smog that left its mark in my eyes, nose, ears and mouth at the end of each day, and hundreds of people around me at all times gave me headaches and a sudden, gripping fear of public spaces that I have never felt before. Simply put, it was extremely tiring and saddening. It makes walking through Times Square, which I always found to be annoying, look like a stroll on a pristine, deserted beach.
It wasn't all bad though: I loved my first taste of (real) Indian food and the ubiquitous milky and cardamom-spiced chai. I also mostly enjoyed our trip to the colorful flower market, held every day under the famous Howrah Bridge and filled with hundreds of men and women selling beautiful strings of bright yellow and orange marigolds, along with piles and piles of other flowers and green leaves. I say "mostly" because the market was where the groping was at its worst: apparently some Indian men find themselves a bit too tempted by the opportunity to grope passing women in large crowds. I had read that staring and groping can be an issue in India, but of course nothing can prepare you for actually being grabbed (in the front and back) by random men. It's angering and just made me even less excited about walking around. And before you start wondering whether I was wearing anything "revealing" and therefore "brought it upon myself": I wasn't and I didn't.
Groping aside, I think Nick had a pretty different experience in Kolkata...
Well when you put it that way, I'd be a monster to disagree. I think that we each--as does everyone on earth--have different limits when it comes to the standards of cleanliness we expect or tolerate, and when it comes to how far out of our comfort zone and away from our concepts of cultural norms that we're willing to go. Also I think Claudia has a stronger sense of smell than I do.
It's true that Kolkata is a noisy, dirty, crowded, and polluted place, but I think I was better able to look beyond the bad parts of such a city, which enabled me to see it as a huge, bustling metropolis, a city with a very energetic and excited population, and as a welcome introduction to a country as big, complicated, and messy as India.
I think Claudia got it right when she said that walking the city's streets is like walking through everyone's home (never more apparent than when we saw a man walk through the jam-packed Howrah flower market shirtless and brushing his teeth!). But whereas that experience turned Claudia off, it excited me (at least after the initial shock wore off). The city is everyone's home, and while Indians attend publicly to much of the daily maintenance we confine to private spaces, once you accept that fact, things start to look a little different: the streetside bathing, cooking, cleaning, and sleeping stop being disgusting displays and start to be the simple daily rituals that we all take part in. These people are not embarassed to be doing these things in public, just as the wealthier passers-by are not embarassed to be witnessing them.
We happened to be visiting on a national holiday, so we saw the city's central park, the Maidan, at its busiest and most alive. While Claudia wasn't able to see beyond the litter, naked children, and defecating animals (all of which were widespread), I think for whatever reason it was easier for me to do so, and I spent a rather pleasant hour walking among the picnicking families, the many, many cricket games, the children and grown men flying kites on impossibly long strings, and even a little girl doing impressive tricks on a homemade tightrope.
One thing I'll never truly be able to experience is what it's like to be a woman in a city like this. I only had to find a way to deal with the filth, the poverty, the overcrowding, the noise, and the pollution, but Claudia had to put up with all of these things, while constantly being stared at, objectified, judged, and all too often touched inappropriately. It's something that makes me embarassed to be a man, angry at a society where this is permissable, and sad for the many women of the world that have to put up with it (and worse) every day. I hope for Claudia's sake that she has a better experience in the rest of the cities we'll be visiting in India.