DEATH OF A DRIVER

THE PEAK OF MOUNT KANCHENJUNGA was covered with snow and clearly visible from our bedroom window in Gangtok at 630 am on the 29th November 2019. By 900 am, it was hidden by clouds.
Our taxi driver collected us and we set off for Darjeeling. Although he was born in Sikkim, his parents are from another part of India. Almost 90% of the inhabitants of Sikkim are not Sikkimese and do not enjoy the special privileges afforded to ‘Sikkim Subjects’, people whose ancestors originated in Sikkim. These privileges include owning land and not paying income tax.

The majority of people who now live in Sikkim arrived there after it was absorbed by India in the mid 1970s.

From Gangtok the route is mainly downhill to Rangpo, the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. The winding road follows the River Rani downstream from Ranipool. As we drove along through the wooded valley, our driver told us about ‘D’, one of the two drivers he employs.

‘D’ was the fifth husband of a lady who owns a restaurant and bar. One night, well after midnight when D’s wife had closed her eatery, D decided to give her a driving lesson.

She sat at the wheel, and just before her lesson was to begin, D dashed into the restaurant building to relieve himself. While he was away, she rashly decided to show her husband that she knew how to drive and did not actually need to be taught by him. When he came out, he saw that the car was moving steadily towards the edge of the road and was about to topple over the edge and drop down onto a very steep slope. He ran to save the car and his wife but he and the runaway vehicle toppled off the road and fell down into the darkness below.

D was killed but his wife, who was sitting in the driver’s seat survived unscathed.

Driving without a licence is an imprisonable offence in India. To avoid risking this, her family, D’s in-laws, arrived and placed her dead spouse in the driving seat so as to make the police believe that he, who carried a driver’s licence, was driving the car when the accident occurred.

We were horrified to hear about this event which had occurred less than a fortnight before we set off from Gangtok. It was clear that D’s employer, our driver, was still stunned by what had happened.

Our driver’s careful driving gave us no cause for concern. However, as we neared Darjeeling and had rung our host to give directions for finding his homestay, our journey struck problems.

First of all, our driver told us he had never before driven to Darjeeling and had no idea about its geography. Secondly, we discovered that taxis with Sikkim registration plates, such as ours, were restricted as to where they can drive in Darjeeling. The result was that our driver had to stop at Jorebunglow, quite a few miles outside Darjeeling. We had to wait there until a local taxi driver took us into town. Despite this, the scenic journey between Gangtok and Darjeeling is a joy to experience.

DESTINATION SIKKIM

When I was in my teens, I found an old military survey map, paper glued on a canvas backing. It covered Darjeeling and neighbouring Sikkim. It intrigued me with its interesting contour lines and the nature of the landscape it encoded. Five decades have passed since my curiosity about Sikkim began. Today, what I had wondered about so long became reality.

Our host in Darjeeling drove us to the shared taxi stand near Chowk Bazaar. We paid for two seats to Gangtok and were led to a parking area filled with Tata and other makes of jeep. We were told that our Tata jeep would only depart when another 8 passengers were found. Soon a young Bangladeshi couple joined us. We waited and no more people turned up. Eventually, the Nepalese driver, Deepen, appeared. He told us that if we were happy to pay a modest supplement, the four of us could have the jeep to ourselves and, more importantly, depart immediately. We and the Bangladeshi couple agreed and we set off.

At first we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the Toy Train tracks to beyond Ghoom, where we turned on to the road to Sikkim.

Most of the four hour journey is downhill along an often steep winding road with many hairpin bends, as Gangtok is at a far lower altitude than Darjeeling. We saw many beautiful flowers and ferns with huge leaves growing by the road as well as small forests of trees with very tall trunks. Occasional sloping tea gardens punctuated the luxuriantly verdant landscape. Many stretches of the road through the part of West Bengal through which we were driving are surfaced with tarmac from which numerous small hard stones project to make them safer when wet. I did not notice this type of road surface after we entered Sikkim.

For quite a distance, from Melli to well beyond the Sikkimese border town of Rangpo, we drove through the beautiful valley of the River Teesta that flows down from India into Bangladesh. The clear turquoise waters flow between wide white sandy beaches. From Melli to Rangpo we drove on the West Bengal bank of the river, looking across at Sikkim on the opposite bank.

After passing under a decorative arch with the words “Welcome to Sikkim”, we entered Rangpo and parked near to the visitors’ registration office. There, we showed our permit that we had obtained at Sikkim House in Calcutta and our passports. All three documents were stamped and their details entered by hand in a large book.

We continued our journey through a part of Sikkim in which the scenery was less spectacular than between Darjeeling and Rangpo. Also, the architecture of most buildings we saw lacked in aesthetic merit. Many of them are several storeys high.

Our road left the Teesta valley and began winding upwards through unattractive small towns in the environs of Gangtok city. As we approached the latter, the traffic became heavier. Most of the buildings we passed after entering Gangtok have at least 5 storeys and do not look particularly old. If Gangtok were on flat ground, the place would look nondescript. However, because the city clings to steeply rising hillsides, the vistas resulting from the piling of rows of buildings one above another are picturesque and impressive.

Some of the places we drove through were designated “ODF Village”. At first, I was puzzled by this. Then at one place, I saw the words “Open Defecation Free”. This means that emptying bowels in places other than toilets is forbidden.

The shared taxi stand in the centre of Gangtok looks like an ill-maintained multi storey carpark. We drove into an upper storey which was crammed full of jeeps. Some of them, including ours, shuffled back and forth like pieces in a badly made rubik’s cube in order to access a parking space. A lot of shouting accompanied these difficult manoeuvres.

Our drive unloaded our bag. He had driven magnificently with great skill and care, sometimes with his mobile phone in one hand. When we boarded, I had tried to put on a seat belt. He and the local taxi drivers we used on our first day in Gangtok told me that there was no need to use safely belts. It seemed to me that using a seat belt suggests to the drivers that I am not confident that they are going to drive well.

A local taxi delivered us to our hotel. Soon after this, we took another one to Lal Bazaars in central Gangtok. There, we ate lunch in the first floor Potala Restaurant. Some of the tables on one side of this unpretentious eater, were in compartments with curtains that could be closed to provide a degree of privacy. The steamed pork momos I ate were delicious. They are like Chinese dumplings but larger and with thicker doughy coverings, more like polish piroschki. Beneath the restaurant and under a metal roof, there is a long line of shoe polishers and shoe repairers, all sitting on the floor and very busy.

After eating, we climbed a long staircase with many landings. This is lined with all kinds of shops except for food sellers. The staircase leads to MG Marg, a wide almost level pedestrianised shopping street lined with many upmarket shops and a variety of cafés and restaurants. Many people were milling about, looking at shops or just enjoying themselves. Although not nearly as picturesque as the Stradun in Dubrovnik or the Pedonalja in Albania’s Berat and Shkodër, it serves the same purpose: a place to promenade.

After sunset, we returned to our hotel to await dinner. I am pleased that I am fulfilling my long held wish to visit Sikkim, but my first impression of Gangtok is that it is not nearly as attractive as Darjeeling. Despite that, it is beginning to grow on me.

DRIVING AROUND DARJEELING

OUR WONDERFUL DRIVER picked us up at 9 am and took us and our new friends from Lincolnshire sightseeing in the area around Darjeeling for over seven hours.

We began at the Japanese Temple and close by Peace Pagoda (a stupa), both Buddhist places of worship set in a well tended garden.

Next, we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the track used by the Toy Train. This road links Siliguri with Kathmandu in Nepal. The Nepalese border is about an hour and a half’s drive from Darjeeling and Kathmandu is about twelve hours away.

We stopped to wander through a park that is laid out around the Batasia Loop which is where the Toy Train loops the loop. The centre of the park contains a monument to Ghurka soldiers who have sacrificed their lives for India since 1947. There were many Indian tourists, who were enjoying dressing up in colourful Nepalese and other local costumes that were available for hire.

Although many people disapprove of zoos, I do not. Some animals, especially the big cats and wild dogs – wolves, jackals, and so on, give the impression of discontent. Other creatures show their unhappiness, if any, more subtly. The highlight of this beautifully laid out zoo was for me seeing the rare red pandas, whose long striped bushy tails and appealing faces make them very attractive. A black panther looked like a very large pussy cat. The clouded leopard has fur colouring that resembles magnified snakeskin markings. We saw many other eye catching creatures.

A visit to a Tibetan Refugee Centre established in the 1960s was moving and fascinating. A large collection of photographs depicted the sad history of Tibet during the twentieth century. We could not see any pictures or even mentions of Heinrich Harrer, who lived in Tibet after escaping from a British POW camp in 1944, and then tutored one of the Dalai Lamas. His book “Seven Years in Tibet” is a good read.

The Refugee Centre contains a children’s home, a souvenir shop, a general store, and a Buddhist monastery. We climbed up to this, passing lines of prayer wheels, and reached a shrine containing a Buddha and religious figurative wall paintings. The shrine abuts a room containing two huge metal prayer wheels, taller than most people. We met an old man, deaf and over 90 years old, who showed us how to rotate the heavy wheels. As they rotate, bells ring.

We stopped to look at a tea garden. The bushes were flowering with small whitish blooms. At a small stall nearby, built with corrugated iron sheets as are so many other structures in the district, we drank delicately flavoured Darjeeling tea.

The large house where Sister Nivedita, an Irish born disciple of Swami Vivekananda, “breathed her last” is called the Roy Villa. It contains the room where Nivedita died and a poorly lit museum.

Tenzing Rock was our final stopping place. This rock and others close to it are used by the Himalayan Mountain Institute to train mountaineers. Enthusiastic visitors can pay to climb the Tenzing Rock which, I guess, is no more than 30 feet high.

I have described the main sights of our excursion, but not the endless series of spectacular vistas and glimpses of aspects of the lives of locals. But, rest assured that even without seeing any of what I have related, the district around Darjeeling is fascinating and photogenic.

All along our route our driver, who speaks his native Nepali as well as Hindi, Bangla, and English, greeted people we passed. He is a very popular person in and around Darjeeling.

FIRST DAY DAWDLING IN DARJEELING

ISTANBUL AND GJIROKASTER (in Albania) share something in common with Darjeeling. The three places have no shortage of extremely steep inclines. However, Darjeeling beats the other two in steepness. Its footways and streets often seem almost vertical. The thoroughfares are so narrow in many places – wide enough for only one car, and as few of them are one way streets, Darjeeling’s drivers have to be skilled in reversing long distances along them. Driving difficulties are compounded by the oft appalling road surfaces, the steep drops along edges of some streets, and deep gutters.

The Mall and Chowrasta (a square where four roads meet) are vehicle free pedestrian precincts. Some of the buildings in this area are over 100 years old and recall the ‘heyday’ of Darjeeling, when it was a high altitude resort for British colonialists. One of these old structures houses the well stocked Oxford bookshop. It specialises in books about the Himalayas, tea, and natural history.

Two long straggling bazaars start at Chowrasta: the Mall Market that is under a fabric roof supported by bamboo poles, and the Mahakal Market. The latter runs along a path which overlooks a lower part of the town. The Mahakal Temple and a Bhuddist temple perch atop Observatory Hill. These can be reached by walking up a very steep winding path, which was lined by mendicants soliciting alms, often pitifully.

We ate lunch in the very popular Kunga restaurant, which serves Chinese style food. One visit there is enough for me. The restaurant is near a large Victorian gothic edifice with a tall clock tower. Built in 1850, this used to be Darjeeling town hall.

Our quest for a Samsung service centre led us down a long, perilously steep pathway to the busy Chauk Bazaar area. This typical bustling bazaar divided into areas that specialise in one line of business, be it, for example, vegetables or tailoring or sweetmeats or shoes, is laid out higgledy piggledy on an area of level ground that is large by Darjeeling standards.

A taxi conveyed us at great speed up steep winding streets to the huge Sinclairs Hotel where our new friends from Lincolnshire kindly offered us sundowners – well, the sun had actually set long before we reached them.

Returning to our lovely homestay, our young driver forced his poorly powered tiny Suzuki Maruti car along some absolutely appalling roads, which reminded me of some of the worst byways I have experienced in rural Albania and off the beaten track in South Africa.

Toy Train to Darjeeling

My mother’s father, who died young in the early 1930s was Mayor of Barkly East, a small town in the Eastern Cape (South Africa). He was the driving force in bringing the railway over the mountains from Lady Grey to Barkly East. This was the most expensive (in terms of cost per mile) stretch of railway ever built in South Africa. It included a series of switchback stretches to allow the trains to ascend or descend the steep mountain slopes.

Today we travelled on a narrow gauge mountain railway with at least 5 switchbacks. It is the so called ‘Toy Train’ that runs incredibly slowly between New Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling which is in the foothills of the Himalayas, more than 2000 metres above sea level.

We took almost two hours to travel the first about three miles. This was mainly because of a seemingly interminable wait for a signal man to arrive to allow our train to cross a river near Siliguri. Soon after we began moving, we passed tea gardens and began our several hour slow ascent towards Kurseong, Ghum, and Darjeeling.

The train follows the route of NH55, crossing over it frequently at unguarded level crossings. The serpentine course of the railway is designed to lengthen its route in order to reduce the gradients that need to be tackled.

The wheels squeal and shriek as the carriages wind around the tight curves of the tracks. The engine’s horn blasts very frequently to clear the path for the train.

The views from the train are spectacular. The carriages pass extremely close to buildings, plants along the side of the track, and steep drops. Passing through towns on the route, sometimes we were so close to shops beside the track that it would have been easy to snatch goods from them. Leafy branches sprung through the open carriage windows, shedding leaves and flowers.

The flora along the route was very varied. We passed a multitude of colourful flowers including magnificently exuberant poinsettias.

Because of our slow start we travelled the last three and a half hours in darkness as the sun set long before we arrived at our destination.

Our enjoyment of this superb railway journey was enhanced by having conversations with a businessman from Bangalore and a couple from Lincolnshire in the UK.

Even though it is very slow, a trip on the Toy Train is thoroughly recommendable.