I left the Dracula Hotel (dark, scary, blood on the walls) in the sleepy village of Yuksom for the slightly less sleepy village of Tashiding. I was in a shared jeep with three young girls from Sheffield. They’d spent the last year mllking cows in New Zealand and were now on a world tour in an effort to find out what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. ‘Girls’, I said. ‘You won’t find yourself without a decent cappuccino and a clean pair of pants. Go home.’ My motherly advice was inspired by a pint of millet beer provided by our most gracious host, Tibetan Suma and her quite possibly lesbian sister Sana (54, never had a boyfriend). Suma had a comfortable homestay overlooking some rather dramatic hills and a lush valley. She also had smoked pork, something of a coup in these parts. I’d seen her smoked pork hanging from the curtain rail in her ‘living room’ when we first arrived. It looked like it had been there for quite some time. Anyhow, I took Suma up on her offer but when dinner arrived it was just three cubes of 2″ squared pork nestled on a bed of spinach.
The next day I said ‘cheerio’ to the Sheffield girls and piled back into a shared jeep for Kalimpong, another hill town like Darjeeling but without the charm. In fact, Kalimpong was rather like the Wild West, a bit tense and a lot dusty. This was a town on the edge, physically and psychologically. As the jeep wound its way up through the busy bazaar, past the fruit sellers, the beggars and the schoolkids, towards the top of the town, I kept seeing soliders carrying guns and truncheons. They weren’t smiling. Apparently, there was going to be a big Gorkhaland demo later that day. The Gorkhas (Nepalis) make up 80% of the population and have lived in the Darjeeling/Kalimpong region since the days of the Raj. They want autonomy from West Bengal but it aint happening. There are regular strikes and crackdowns from the authorities and hundreds of Nepalis have been killed over the years. I found all this out from my new friend Deepen – but more of him later…
I arrived in Kalimpong with footwear issues, In fact, I flapped into town like Charlie Chaplin, reason being, the soles of my boots had decided to divorce from their soles rendering walking in the normal sense of the word, ie picking up your feet and putting them down again, an impossibility. I had to adopt a stoppy starty shuffle in order to remain upright, not easy when you’re carrying an enormous backpack. Thankfully, just around the corner from my hotel there was a man with glue – a man with one bloodshot eye, a filthy anorak and a shoe repair business that consisted of a trestle table and a selection of knackered looking tools. Totally unphased by the job in hand, he got to work with a tube of Superglue, looked on by a mesmerised crowd who had probably gathered to witness this magician of adhesion at work in the perverse hope that he might glue his fingers together. He didn’t and my boot components are still happily married 5 days later – and all for the princely sum of 50 rupees (50p). Shoe/glue man, I salute you.
Later that night, the demo got going. 200 or so Nepalis bearing torches wound their way through the town chanting ‘We want Gorkhaland’ or words to that effect. Flanked by snarling soliders, the march culminated under the clock tower with some pretty feeble speeches given by a motley crew of speakers who garbled their words, probably owing to the mysterious bottle that they kept passing around themselves. There were no fists in the air, no shouting, no flying spittle, just a few polite hand claps. The torches went out, the soliders put their truncheons back down their trousers and we all went to bed.
The next day I was up with the lark, as per, ready for my 7am bus to Lava, 80k away. I got down to the jeep stand and bought my ticket from the luxuriously coiffed Jeep Commissioner, an Englebert Humpadinck lookie likie who told me to get on an empty jeep that had just rolled in. No sooner had he spoken than a pushy group of seven Nepali ladies shoved me aside and wedged themselves onto the back seat. I tried to get into the next row but Englebert told me that I was too late and that the rest of the seats were reserved.
Thankfully, there was a Bengali Corporation bus going to Lava an hour later. So, I grabbed myself a cup of chai from a cafe and hung about observing the depot activity. Today seemed to be car wash day. Buckets of cold water were chucked and feather dusters flourished in a bid to bring a touch of the spic and span to the beaten up vehicles. I was tempted to shout ‘you missed a bit’ on several occasions but resisted the urge.
At 8am I was on the bus which wsa driven by another lookie likie from the British light entertainment establishment – Max Bygraves. Max was surprisingly solicitious of my needs and escorted me onto the bus, offering me the option of front second or third row seats. I plumped for second row which I’m now grateful for as I’m certain I would have ended up through the windscreen had I gone for the front row. Max was a bit a of a boy racer. We hurtled through every village at breakneck speed on our rickety 1960s charabanc, barely slowing down to let people off or on. The only time Max slowed down was to negotiate a landslide that had brought boulders and mud down onto large areas of the road. Max was undeterred and we somehow made it through to Lava two hours later in one piece.
If Kalimpong was like the Wild West, Lava was a Spaghetti Western. A thick fog hung over the small frontier town and somewhere, somebody was whistling. The shops and cafes around the bus stop were either deserted or closed. I was gagging for a cup of tea so I approached the first place that looked habitable and sat down on a plastic chair on the shabby verandah. No one came so I went inside where three old men in beanie hats stopped chatting and stared – hard. I stared back then smiled. ‘Could I have a cup of tea please?’ I asked as clearly as I could. ‘Tea’. ‘Tea’. ‘Tea’. It’s got to be the easiest beverage to pronounce in the known world but no, I wasn’t getting through. I even mimed it and finally, one man cocked his head to indict the affirmative (well that’s what I thought). I went outside and waited for 10 minutes. Nothing. I went back inside and repeated my request. ‘No’, came the response. This bloody mindedness turned out to be the lingua franca here. ‘No’ fromm hoteliers. ‘No’ from restauranteurs. I was beginning to get a complex. On the way down the winding, rubbish strewn main road I passed a man clipping his toenails next to a group of men in hats and scarves who were sat on their haunches playing cards. They stopped playing and stared. ‘Hello boys’, said I refusing to be cowered by their rudeness.
I never did get to the bottom of why I met with such animosity in Lava but I know the town is somewhat off the beaten track for Westerners. Or maybe they just didn’t like the cut of my gib. Anyway, I finally found a hotel that would take me and set off for a forest walk to the next village. En route, I met a dog that I shall call David Boswie dog owing to his eyes being different colours. What is it about dogs in India? Does no-one ever take them for walks? Everywhere I’ve been I’ve been follosed by dogs: single dogs, pairs of dogs, packs of dogs. In Kechapari Lake I had five dogs follow me up a forest trail for over an hour. The pack consisted of one overheated bitch and four dogs, all of them very keen to copulate. One young dog kept trying to mount her head on. ‘You’ve got the wrong end’, I kept shouting but he never did get it in. Anyway, back to David Bowie Dog. He was lying passed out up an alley when I came cross him. I think he was first attracted to my bag of Masala flavoured crisps but then he stuck like glue. When I headed off the road into the woods at the sign for ‘Piles and Fistulas’, DBD took the same track. It was only when he was confronted by a vicious mongrel on the outskirts of the next village that he slunked off. ‘Goodbye Ziggy Stardust’ I trilled.
Next day, I arranged to go on a trek in the nearby Neora Valley National Park with Rohan, my guide, and Suman, my driver. At the entrance to the park, we were greeted by the park warden and a white horse called Dandy. Dandy, according to Rohan was dangerous and shouldn’t be touched. Personally, I think he was just a bit depressed (Dandy not Rohan). Apparently, his companion, Jennifer (also a horse) had sadly departed this life leaving Dandy and the warden alone in their wooden shack. We had a great 21km trek alongside a gurgling river and up through the virgin forest of pine trees and rhododendrums. Rohan’s English was limited but every now and then he would stop and point at some scuffed up earth and say ‘wild boar activity’. There were a lot of wild boars in the vicinity which we didn’t see but boy did we see a lot of their ‘activity’. However, we did see a lot of shit – bear shit, barking deer shit, and a lot of Dandy shit on the path back to the warden’s office. Dandy, it appeared, could shit for India, probably a symnptom of his depression, I thought.
The next day I hooked up with Deepen and the Muntjac adventure crew. We were going camping for one night only (foreigners are not allowed to overnight in Neora Valley – there’s an ugly rumour that a foreigner stole a black orchid and we’ve been banned ever since). Our destination was the delightfuly named Tiffin Dara, an epic summit that had 360 degree views of the surrounding hills, as well as of the snow-capped Kanchenchunga. Deepen was a fan of Che Guevara and an agitator for Gorkhaland. His crew consisted of Dawa, the chef, a cool dude in a leather jacket and bandana, Anup, a keen photographer, and Ondi, a man in an oversized puffa jacket who’d never learnt how to talk properly since he’d spent his formative years in the company of cows. He was, however, a wiz at making a fire.
After pitching our tents, we did a bit of bird watching from our vantage point, where the British used to take tea (hence the name ‘tiffin’), then sat around the camp fire as the sun went down. The team treated me like a queen giving me first nibs of the rusk like biscuits and even a burnt jacket potato, which tasted vile. We sat around discussing the Gorkhas and I told them about Joanna Lumley and her campaign for Gorkha pension rights in the UK. I tried to explain Ab Fab but didn’t get far. At 8.30pm Deepen asked me if I was ‘ready to nest’ at which point I had visions of gang rape but then he stuck a lantern in my tent and bid me goodnight. I fell asleep, not to the soft murmorings of the night forest but to Guns ‘n’ Roses singing ‘Sweet Child of Mine’. Those Nepalis. Crazy guys!