On the way down to the jeep stand in Darjeeling from where I was going to depart for Sikkim, a man with no teeth asked me: ‘do you want to ride a horse?’. ‘Do I look like I want to ride a horse?’ I replied, gesturing to the huge pack on my back. When one is carrying two months’ worth of gear on one’s back: long johns, short johns, lady shoes, walking boots, knitwear, underwear, lotions, potions, and a ruddy non-air i-pad to boot, one is inclined to deal with local imbeciles with disdain. The day before, I’d spent considerable time in a chemist shop trying to buy batteries. ‘Mattresses?’ blinked the female shop assistant incredulously. ‘Do I look like the sort of idiot who would come into a chemist and ask for a mattress?’, I was tempted to reply. We eventually got to the nub of the communication break-down. I should have said ‘battery’ not ‘batteries’ but not after involving the shop’s entire serving staff in trying to decipher what the funny foreigner was asking for.
Back to my jeep ride to Sikkim (a tiny state to the south of Tibet bordered by Nepal and Bhutan). Darjeeling’s jeep stand, adjacent to the town’s colourful bazaar was chaos. There were battered jeeps arriving and departing in a constant stream. Most were rammed with people; bags, food, gas bottles and other sundry items teetered precariously on the roof racks – and the whole lot veiled in a cloak of dust and exhaust fumes. I found a tiny wooden booth that seemed to be the place to buy tickets but this being India, the transaction was anything but smooth. No, I couldn’t go to Pelling direct; in fact, you’d think I’d asked to go to the moon; I would need four different jeeps, and it would take forever. It also wasn’t completely clear where I would board the first jeep; indeed whether I would fit in amongst the potatoes and family outings. However, after shouting at a few bored looking individuals huddled around another wooden kiosk, I eventually found my jeep and piled in.
As promised, the journey to Pelling did take all day but it only cost me £4.20 and I did meet a nice Nepali man who worked in Hemel Hempstead as well as a pair of Crustafarians from Muswell Hill whose only aim in life was to live in a horsebox, so the time passed relatively quickly.
Following an overnight stay in Pelling (rubbish facilities: six shower knobs, one tap and a plastic bucket but no hot water) I bought four green satsumas (surprisingly sweet) and set off for Khecheopairi Lake. Another bumpy jeep journey but by now, I was used to sitting crunched up, rammed hard against strange buttocks with my head permanently cocked underneath the low roof. Although referred to as ‘sacred’ and ‘serene’ in my guide book, Khecheopairi Lake had a distinct air of scuzziness about it. The usual docile muts greeted my arrival along with a roadside bonfire surrounded by some half naked toddlers and a Tibetan in a trilby who I can only describe as looking shady. I avoided the ramshackle huts selling the usual selection of sweets in jars, sachets of shampoo, dry-looking biscuits and toilet rolls, and headed for the romantically named Lake View Nest, 20 minutes of slog up a steep forest path to a stunning plateau overlooking the lake and surrounding hills. Run by a delightful family of Tibetan extraction, Lake View Nest was a cut above. It had scatter cushions! Scatter cushions! Having said that, I had to throw my wee out of the window as there was only one toilet and that was downstairs via an outdoor staircase with no handrail – not to be negotiated in the middle of the night in the pitch black by one as prone to falling over as I am.
The homestay had only one other guest, a young Bengali man called Somi who was into pranic healing and spent a lot of time waving crystals in a theatrical manner around the joint. I took a walk along the plateau to the next tiny cluster of two or three houses and pigpens where I met a man who was digging himself a septic tank; it was a very deep hole! At the other end of the plateau, in the monastery, the monks were beating their gongs and blowing their horns in celebration of the life of some local guy who’d pegged it. I wouldn’t mind but they did insist on taking up their funereal lamentations again at 4am, just at the same time as the sodding cockerels were starting their own morning incantations. Having said that, I have been going to bed at 8pm (it’s what villagers do, you know – nowt else to do) so come 5am, I’m wide awake and ready to rock ‘n’ roll.
After a couple of days I said goodbye to my hostess Chumden and her family and walked back down the perilous forest trail to the lake where surprise, surprise, I ran into the Crustafarians from Muswell Hill. In true hippy style, they’d been invited to some festival or other where they’d be getting loaded on the homebrew and ‘just chillin’, dreaming of their horsebox, no doubt.
Despite stories of bear attacks in the region, I then decided to walk alone the 10k or so to the next settlement, Yuksom, where there was a particularly beautiful gompa (monastery). Now normally, 10k would be nothing to these hardened thighs but when you’re carrying a heavy backpack and negotiating knee-grinding descents and leg-wobbling ascents, it’s a long old slog. As for a map – well you can forget it. There are no maps; there are no signposts; there is no bloody indication of which path is the right path. If there’s a man up a tree chopping wood with a machete who you can shout at, that’s all well and good. But when you’re all alone, deep in the forest at a trail junction, sweating like a pig and bent double with the weight of your pack, you have to rely on your wits, and your powers of detection; if the right hand fork has two recently discarded sweet wrappers on it, and the left hand fork an old plastic bottle, then the right hand fork must be the right way to go. Spurious, yes, but my reasoning worked and I found my way down though the forest, over the raging river and up the almost vertical path into the sleepy hamlet of Yuksom.
I must have looked a sight – a bright red nose from the hot sun, dirt smeared on my face, sweat soaked top and a bloody arm from a tumble I’d taken while climbing (on my hands and knees) up a bank that turned out to be not even a path and certainly not the route I should have taken. What a mess! ‘Namaste’, trilled the little school kids in their pristine uniforms with sleekly coiffed plaits as they passed by oggling the funny foreign giant with the Ken Dodd hair and wobbly legs. I bought a nice cup of tea and two sachets of Silvikrin, one for the body, one for the hair, and got checked in at the Hotel Dracula.
More to come……