Sweet Dishes, Not So Sweet People We boarded the flight to Kolkata. On reaching Kolkata, we thought it prudent to hire a cab for the day to help us move around the city with ease and help us keep our rucksacks somewhere safe. We went to Kali Mandir, Victoria Memorial, Park Street & Howrah Bridge. To be very honest, we found this trip around the city average. None of the places blew us away, but then that’s probably because our expectations were pretty high. The thought of getting on one of the trams faded away when we saw that it was slower than people walking on the road. My intent is not to criticize the city just that we didn’t enjoy it as much as we thought we would. The other very striking feature of Kolkata that we noticed was that its people were not as sweet & welcoming as the sweets they make. Obviously, our interaction with 12 people is no reason for us to generalize & form an opinion about the folks who live there. Although, out of the 12 we spoke to for various reasons, 11 turned out to be not-so-helpful. Worst of these 12 guys was our very own driver, who got pissed off every time we asked him to stop the cab. Anyhow, Kolkata was a different experience from what I’ve had in other big cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Chennai. I would definitely want to stay there for a little longer to know the people and culture even more.
Bengal’s Balcony to a beautiful view of Kanchenjunga We reached New Jalpaiguri station the following morning from where we took a cab to Darjeeling. On our way to Darjeeling, the numerous football & cricket fields pleasantly baffled us. After completing our registration formalities with YHAI at the hotel, we freshened up and went out to roam about the place. The locals were, as you’d expect, absolutely fit. It was rare to find anyone overweight or ‘not in shape’. Of course, their commute primarily involved mainly walking up and down the steep slopes & their diet further aided their fitness levels. Not only were they in shape, but also had fashion sense that would put people from metros to shame. This was a feature that we came across in Sikkim as well. It was a visual treat to watch these fit, good-looking people dressed up so well. It almost made us feel as if we had come to a foreign land. When you look at Kolkata & then Darjeeling, there will be no doubt in your mind that the Gorkhas deserve a separate state. Even though I don’t generally support the idea of having newer states in an already diverse country, you can’t help but feel that Gorkhas have nothing in common with Bengalis. They both have different cultures, appearances, lifestyle, history & interests. In no way will Gorkhas represent anything about West Bengal – and thus the demand to have a separate state that represents their identity & culture seems justifiable.
Day 3 started with warm up exercise and a good short jog around the place. We saw the snow-capped Himalayas with its 2nd tallest peak – Kanchenjunga standing majestically right in the centre. After some local sightseeing, we were briefed about the trek and the route post which everyone introduced themselves. And thus, we spent our last night in the pleasant weather of Darjeeling before beginning our trek on the following day. Day 4 began pretty interestingly for me, of which I may write in April of 2014. The entire batch got ready and assembled for the flag off to begin our journey. On reaching the starting point by a jeep, we were introduced to our 2 trek guides. Both of them lean, fit & unbelievably young! One of them was 23 years old and he was responsible for leading the group. Looking at their normal backpacks, we felt a little foolish to have carried such huge rucksacks. By the end of the trek, we realized it was indeed stupid to have carried more than 2 pair of clothes as that’s the maximum required for such a cold journey.
The highest point of West Bengal The trek was fairly normal in terms of the route. All along we had to walk on roads formed of rocks. Challenge on this trek was twofold – to walk at a consistent pace & reach each camp on scheduled time & be able to bear the bone chilling cold as we went up to the highest point of West Bengal, Sandakphu. We did well on both accounts and it was a major relief to come back in one piece. The trek route went through Nepal, which technically made it an ‘international trek’. We lived in pucca accommodation at all our camps. Local hosts at each camp were as hospitable & warm as one could be. They carried bright smiles on their faces whenever serving food or helping us out. It makes you think when people living in such difficult weather conditions were always smiling and going about their work so enthusiastically. Throughout the journey, we had mountains around us & the weather got colder as we went up. It was my first encounter with snow and a bone chilling one too. Due to very short days and lack of sunlight, the cold got worse (highest temperature being -5o and lowest being -14o). It was very interesting to find the snowflakes falling were mostly star-shaped or flower-shaped. Admittedly, the best part of our trek was its descent. As we came down from Sandakphu, the weather got pleasant and the surroundings got greener. We even met with a river on the way down to our last camp – where we had the best time on the entire trip. Getting away from the noise and pollution of a metro, you can’t find a better place than a river to relax. The sound of the water flowing can calm your mind like nothing else. After an arduous 5 days of the trek, we collected our certificates & moved on to our next destination.
We spent most of our time in Gangtok on this trip, did local sightseeing and went to Tsomgo Lake. Gangtok is now one of my favourite cities after this visit. The people here are not only beautiful & fit, but also absolutely well dressed (as I mentioned above). We couldn’t find one person living on the streets and begging to earn their livelihood. The economy seemed simple; most of the people worked for the Government or had their own simple businesses (retail shops & tourism related). Gangtok shut down by 9 PM and it was absolutely surprising to find people follow rules on the roads. Every single person used the footpath to walk around and drivers followed traffic rules to the hilt. I believe that’s the only way you can bring efficiency in administration of a city. If citizens follow rules & do what they’re supposed as ‘good citizens’, most of the problems get solved. We also watched a movie in a single screen theatre after a long time, as there are no multiplexes in Gangtok.
Our journey to Tsomgo was one of the best I’ve ever been on. The beauty on our way up to the lake was astounding. It was unfortunate that we went on days when Nathula Pass was closed; else we had planned to make a trip to the Indo-Chinese border. We also skipped a 2 day trip to North Sikkim due to paucity of time.