By train through Hungary and a slice of watermelon

I USED TO VISIT HUNGARY regularly in the 1980s before the end of Communist rule in that country. Sometimes I drove, other trips I travelled by rail.

BLOG KAP 1 KAPOSVAR 85 Hotel Kapos

In 1985, I boarded a train at London’s Victoria Station. As I was settling  down in my seat, a couple accompanying an older man asked me if I could look after on the journey to Hungary. He was their relative and only spoke Hungarian. My knowledge of that language was limited to a vocabulary of less than 100 words including ‘fogkrem’ meaning toothpaste and ‘meleg szendvics’ meaning heated (toasted) sandwich, and ‘menetrend’ meaning timetable and ‘kurva’, which you can look up yourself! I agreed to do my best to look after the gentleman.

After taking the ferry across the English Channel,  we boarded an express train bound for Budapest. The gentleman and I were in the same couchette compartment along with some young people.

We stopped in Brussels early in the evening. A late middle-aged Belgian couple entered our compartment, and we set off eastwards. After nightfall, the Belgian couple left us. Several minutes later, they returned. They had changed their clothes. They had dressed in pyjamas and silk dressing gowns. Clearly, they were either unfamiliar with travel in 2nd class couchettes or had formery been used to travel in 1st class Wagon Lits sleeping cars.

We arrived at Hegyeshalom, a Hungarian border town close to Austria. As I was planning to visit southern Hungary, I disembarked there. So did the man who I was ‘looking after’. He was met by some of his family. Although they spoke no English,  they expressed their gratitude for me, and kindly offered to drive me to Győr, where I wanted to catch another train.

At Győr, they helped me find my train. I boarded a basic looking local train bound for Keszthely on Lake Balaton. After a while, the train stopped in the middle of the countryside and everyone except me disembarked.  I looked out of the train. We were not at a station. Someone saw me and signalked that I should also leave the train. We all boarded buses that had been laid on to substitute for the train that could not proceed further because of track repairs. 

After a ride through flat agricultural terrain, we reached a small station,  where we boarded another train, which carried us to Kesthely, arriving at about 4 to 5 pm.

 

I looked around the station at Kesthely and for some unaccountable reason I decided that I did not want to stay in the lakeside resort. I looked at a timetable and discovered that a train would be leaving soon, bound for Kaposvár, which was on the way to the southern city of Pécs.

A Hungarian couple with one child ‘got wind’ of my plan to join the train to Kaposvár, and took me into their care. I boarded the train with them and travelled in their company as the train followed the southern shore of Lake Balaton.

My ‘minders’ left the train at the lakeside station at  or near Balatonlelle. Before they disembarked,  they asked a man, a stranger to them, in our compartment to look after me. He spoke only Hungarian.

As the train wound its way inland through hills south if Lake Balaton, the sun set and it became too dark to see the countryside through which we were moving slowly.  Although there were light fittings with light bulbs in our compartment, they were never turned on. The two of us travelled in total darkness. We tried conversing, but with little meaningful success.

We both left the train at Kaposvár station. Darkness reigned. I had no idea where or even whether there was a hotel (szálloda) in the town. However, my latest ‘minder’ led me to a large state run hotel, the Kapos.

The young receptionist spoke good English. She asked me if I had any books in English. I did. I gave her one that I had already finished. She was very happy.

After a heavy meal in the hotel’s large restaurant (etterem), I  retired to my room. The hotel had poor sound insulation. There was a party somewhere in the building and my room seemed to be throbbing with the loud music.

After a while, there was a knock on my door. I opened it and found a waitress holding a plate with an enormous slice of watermelon. She muttered something about  ‘recepció’. I realised that the watermelon was a thank you gift from the receptionist.

I took the watermelon into my room and stared at it. Then and still now, I cannot stand eating watermelon.  I could not throw it away because it was bound to be discovered and that would have seemed very ungrateful on my part. So, after a bit of thought, I carried the slice of fruit downstairs to the receptionist to whom I had given the book. I thanked her, and then explained, telling a ‘white lie’, that I was allergic to watermelon.  She seemed to believe me.

That night, I found it difficult to sleep partly because of trying to digest my heavy dinner and the noise from the party.

On the following day, I took another train to Pécs having stayed in a city I had never heard of before.

 

Picture of Hotel Kapos in Kaposvar in 1985

A town in California

 

Just after Christmas in 1994, we flew to San Francisco in California (USA) for a four-week holiday. My wife was in the sixth month of pregnancy. Before booking our trip, we consulted her obstetrician at St Marys Hospital in Paddington, London. We wanted to know whether it was safe for her to travel at this stage in her pregnancy. The obstetrician did not mince her words:

Yes, go ahead, but make sure that you have good travel health insurance because having a premature birth in the United States might well bankrupt you.”

After spending a few days with friends who live across the Golden Gate Bridge in Marin County, we rented a car, an upmarket Toyota, one of the nicest cars I have ever driven. We drove all over California south of San Francisco. Also, we visited the Grand Canyon and saw it under snow. This was a very beautiful sight because the snow had fallen in such a way that the many stepped strata that line the walls of this spectacular gorge were accentuated. We admired this while trudging through very deep snow. In order to enjoy this, we had had to purchase snow chains and to learn how to apply them to the wheels.

One day, we drove south from the snow-covered Grand Canyon to Sedona, a town famed for its vortices of energy. It was a distance of 106 miles. Yet in that short distance the weather had changed from Arctic to summer. And, the following, day we drove further south past Phoenix and Yuma and then through a southern Californian Desert to San Diego. Even though it was freezing up at the Grand Canyon, from Phoenix to San Diego it was so hot that we had to switch on the car’s air-conditioning.

From San Diego, we spent a few days driving along roads close to the Pacific Coast. We visited most of the historic mission stations between San Diego and San Francisco. We also stopped at Nepenthe in Big Sur, where the writer Henry Miller once lived. The building in which the writer lived was open to the public. While we were visiting it, my pregnant wife needed to use a toilet urgently. Without making any fuss, the guardian unlocked the toilet that Miller used to use and allowed my wife to relieve herself.

Being fans of the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, we visited some of the few buildings that the great architect had designed along the route we were taking. One of these, at San Luis Obisco (between Los Angeles and San Francisco), was a particularly lovely medical centre, the Kundert Medical Clinic that was built in 1956.

On the final day of our road trip, I looked at the guidebook and spotted something that I did not want to miss. To reach it, meant adding 60 miles to our already long (300-mile journey) journey. The place that caught my eye was about 90 miles to the east of our destination Marin County on the left bank of the River Sacramento. The small settlement is called Locke.

Locke is in the wetlands of the Sacramento River Delta. In the 1860s, work was undertaken to drain the malarial wetlands. Many poor Chinese labourers were hired to do this work at disgracefully low wages. In about 1912, the settlement of Lockeport, now called ‘Locke’ was established by three local Chinese merchants. Three years later in 1915, the Chinatown in nearby walnut Grove was destroyed by fire. The Chinese community then moved to Locke and a town grew. Because the Californian Alien Land Law of 1913 forbade Asians buying farmland, the Chinese in the area leased the land from a George Locke.

The town’s population reached 1000 to 1500 in its heyday. It acquired a reputation for its gambling halls, opium dens, and brothels. At one point, according to an article in Wikipedia, it became known as ‘California’s Monte Carlo’. In the 1940s and ‘50s, the towns population dwindled because many people migrated from Locke to major American cities. Currently, there are only about ten people living there.

By 1995 when we drove into Locke it was already a ghost town, a lesser-known tourist attraction. However, it did not disappoint us. Most of the main street’s buildings were picturesquely decaying. They were all made of wood, and no doubt highly inflammable. The place looked like a rundown set for a cowboy film, except that it was for real. One of the buildings that had housed a gambling salon, or maybe a brothel or opium den, was open to the public. Its original dingy décor had been preserved. All that was missing was a haze of opium smoke and the poor Chinese workers squandering their hard-earned money.

From Locke we drove west into the setting sun towards Marin County, pleased that we had made the detour to see the fascinating remnant of a far-off era. Our daughter was born three months later, having travelled several thousand miles around the American west in utero.

A walk in Greece

LEAR TEMPE BLOG

The River Pineios, which drains into the Aegean Sea near Stomio, runs along a ten kilometre, often very narrow, at times almost a thin cleft, the Vale of Tempe in Central Greece. Ancient legend has it that the valley was cut through the rocks by Poseidon’s trident. The Vale was believed to be the haunt of Apollo and The Muses. Other mythical characters are said to have visited in this valley. Whatever the truth of all these, the mythological associations and beauty of the Vale attracted the attention of the writer/artist Edward Lear (1812-1888), who was touring what is now Greece in May 1849. He was very keen to visit it.

In 1851, Lear published an illustrated account of his travels in the Western Balkans, “Journals of a Landscape Painter in Albania”. Although most know Lear best as a composer of verse, much of it humorous, he regarded himself as a painter primarily. He was without doubt a good painter and sketcher, but this is not what gave him lasting fame. The title of his book included the word ‘Albania’. This is appropriate because much of his travelling in the Balkans was done in what is now Albania and parts of central Greece that used to be important centres of Albanian people during the existence of the Ottoman Empire. Lear’s book on Albania is one of the loveliest books ever written about the country.

After seeing the spectacularly located monasteries at Meteora (close to the River Pineios), Lear wrote on 16th May 1849:

I had been more than half inclined to turn back after having seen the Meteora convents, but improvements in the weather, the inducement of beholding Olympus and Tempe … prevailed to lead me forward.”

On the 18th of May Lear recorded:

“…I set off with Andrea, two horses and a knapsack, and a steeple-hatted Dervish, at whose convent in Baba, at the entrance to the Pass of Tempe, my night’s abode is to be.”

Baba is described in the Seventh Edition of “Handbook for Travellers in Greece” (published by John Murray in 1901) as:

A pretty Turkish village. On the opposite side of the river stands the ruined fort of Gonnos, which commanded the entrance to the defile.”

The village of Gonnoi close to the southern end of the Vale is, I imagine, named after this fort. The long out-of-date guidebook pointed out that in Greek ‘tempe’ means ‘cutting’ or ‘chasm’.

On the next day, Lear noted:

The early morning at Baba is more delightful than can be told. All around is a deep shadow, and the murmuring of doves, the whistling of bee-eaters and the hum of the bees fills this tranquil place.”

After visiting the village of Ampelakia near the southern entrance to Tempe, Lear moved towards his goal, the Vale. He wrote:

“…I went onward into Tempe, and soon entered the celebrated ‘vale’ – of all places in Greece that which I had most desired to see. But it is not a ‘vale’, it is a narrow pass – and although extremely beautiful, on account of the precipitous rocks on each side, the Peneus flowing deep in the midst, between the richest overhanging plane woods, still its character is distinctly that of a ravine or gorge.”

After much wonderful descriptive writing, Lear concluded:

Well might the ancients extol this grand defile, where landscape is so completely different from that of any part of Thessaly, and awakes the most vivid feelings of awe and delight, from its associations with the legendary history and religious rites of Greece.”

Lear continued:

As it was my intention to pursue the route towards Platamona…”

‘Platamona’, or Platamon, to which Lear referred is a small seaside town on the coast of the Aegean Sea. It is overlooked by Mount Olympus and within sight of the mountains Pella and Ossa. It is some miles south of Katerini.  It played an important role in my life.

Every summer, my PhD supervisor Robert Harkness (died 2006) and his wife Margaret (died 2003) drove their caravan across Europe to Platamon, where they camped for about eight weeks on rough ground near the sea. I travelled out from England to Platamon with them on one occasion and did the return journey on another. Travelling via France, Germany, Austria, and the former Yugoslavia, the journey took almost ten days. During one of my visits to Platamon, in 1977, I mentioned that I was keen to follow in Edward Lear’s footsteps by visiting the Vale of Tempe. Robert and Margaret were keen that I should do this.

The modern road along which we drove, the Athens-Thessaloniki National Highway, ran high above the gorge along one of its edges. From this road, there was little if anything that could be seen of the Vale. Looking at today’s maps, it is evident that that road still exists, but a newer highway travels in a straighter route in a long tunnel, marked on the map as “Platamon Tunnel”. The latter only opened in 2017. It shortens the journey from Thessaloniki to Athens by several hours.

Robert and Margaret drove me to a spot near the southern end of the Vale and left me there, planning to meet me again when I reached the northern end of the gorge. I had no idea where exactly the Vale began and if there was a footpath in it that I could walk along. I began walking up through a sloping field to two men who were sitting there looking after their goats.

My Modern Greek was limited to a very rudimentary vocabulary. Using sign language, pointing at my feet, and mentioning the name ‘Tempe’, I managed to convey to these gentlemen my question about how to walk through the Vale. They pointed to a railway embankment high above where we were. I understood, or at least believed I did, that one had to walk along the railway track to see the Vale.

I climbed up to the embankment and began walking on a narrow gravelly path next to the railway track. Soon, a long passenger train with carriages belonging to various different European national railways passed me quite slowly. I could see from signs attached next to the doors of the carriages that this train was an express that connected Athens with Munich.  I continued walking in the direction of the Vale. The track was on an incline and the further I walked, the higher the embankment was above the terrain below it.

Eventually, the track entered a curved cutting lined on each side with jagged rocks. Suddenly, I heard something behind me. I forced myself against the rocky wall of the cutting just in time to avoid being crushed by a diesel locomotive travelling at a high speed. The engine sped past and I continued walking, somewhat nervously.

The track emerged from the cutting and traversed a high sided embankment at the far end of which there was the entrance to a dark tunnel. Seeing that ahead, I decided that it would be dangerously foolish to proceed any further along the track, the main railway line connecting Athens with the rest of Europe.

I stood on the embankment and looked around. To my right, I could see the River Pineios far below in what looked like an attractive narrow valley. I decided that as I was not prepared to risk my life in a dark tunnel, I needed to get off the railway track. So, with some trepidation I sat down and slid down the steep embankment until I reached its base far below.

At the bottom of the embankment, far below the railway line, I found myself on a level footpath that ran along an embankment that led down to the river. It became clear to me that this path was once the foundation for an old railway that had been replaced by the one which I had just left. As I walked along, I realised that this old railway bed was what the two gentlemen had meant by walking along the railway track.  The path wound its way through the depths of the Vale following the course of the river. The scenery down in the valley did not disappoint. It could not have differed much from what it was like when Edward Lear walked along the Vale 129 years earlier.

After a while, I reached what must have once been a railway station. I had arrived at the old railway station of Aghios (Saint) Paraskevi. This was part of a group ecclesiastical buildings. A suspension bridge for pedestrians ran from near it across the river to the other shore. Away from the river, there were some picturesque pools. The whole area was luxuriant with many trees, some with branches hanging over the stream.

The religious compound was not present when Lear walked the Vale. The old railway was built in 1910 as was the present church of Aghios Paraskevi (that stands on the site of a 13th century church). The bridge that I crossed was constructed in the 1960s. Before that, pilgrims could only reach the church by boat (see: https://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2012/07/st-paraskevi-in-valley-of-tempe.html).

About two kilometres further on, the Vale reached its northern end. I found Robert and Margaret sitting in their Land Rover in a car park, enjoying hot tea from a thermos flask. I cannot remember whether I told them about my lucky escape whilst walking along the railway in the rocky cutting, but if I did not, which is likely because I would not wanted them to have been worried, now it is far too late. My two dear friends are now no more than fond memories, and the Pineios still flows through the Vale of Tempe.

Illustration is one of Lear’s pictures of the Vale of Tempe in 1848

 

A walled city and two caves

THE FAR WEST OF KUTCH (once an independent kingdom, now part of Gujarat) is very close to India’s border with Pakistan. We made an interesting day trip from Bhuj to this relatively wild and less inhabited part of Kutch.

The countryside west of Nakhatrana becomes hilly and dry with many rocky outcrops. It contains many large sites where lignite is excavated and a huge industrial plant that Gujarat Electricity use to convert it into electricity. The area is also liberally dotted with electricity generating wind turbines and pylons.

We left the main road and wound through undulating dry landscape to reach the Siyot Caves. These rock temples were carved into the cliffs to create Hindu temples sometime between the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. They were later used by Buddhists and are amongst the 80 Buddhist cave temples in the Indus Valley noted by the 7th century Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang. Today, they are the abode of bats and there walls and pillars are covered with graffiti scratched into the red stone.

Our driver drove us through a sandy landscape with scrubby plants along dirt track with many potholes. We reached a small temple enclosure, where we stopped in order to visit another cave temple. This one, the Guneri Gufa Shiv Temple, was carved out of the living rock by a holy man, whose “spirit left his body about five years ago”, according to the present priest, a Sadhu from Hardwar. The temple, which is faintly reminiscent of the Amdavad ni Gufa (in Ahmedabad), contains a large Shiva lingam. After we had looked around, the picturesquely attired Sadhu prepared tea for us, which we drank from small metal bowls.

Lakhpat was our next stop. Surrounded by intact 18th century city walls, seven kilometres in length, this once thriving port used to be on an inlet of the Arabian Sea. Following an earthquake in 1819, the mouth of the River Indus changed its course and Lakhpat was no longer close to the sea. Rapidly, Lakhpat lost its importance and became depopulated. Today, the impressive city walls enclose a huge empty space with a few houses, a mosque, a few Hindu shrines, and a working Sikh Gurdwara. Staircases allow visitors to reach the ramparts. The view from the top of the walls is of an endless flat sandy area extending to the horizon. Before 1819, what is now the flat Rann of Kutch would have been a seascape with trading vessels.

One of the gates into Lakhpat, the Katha Nako, is still intact with one of its huge metal studded doors hanging on its hinges. The outer wall of the archway leading into the city has a sculpture of a guardian in European garb, such as can be seen at the Aina Mahal in Bhuj. The city wall and this sculpture are evidence of the influence of Ram Singh Malam, who lived for a decade in Holland in the mid 18th century.

Lakhpat is close to the Indian border with Pakistan. The road from the former port city to Narayan Sarovar runs parallel to the frontier. All along the road, there are signs to tracks leading to various Indian border patrol posts.

A causeway leads from the mainland to an island to the west of it. On one side of this is an inlet of the Arabian Sea and on the other there is a freshwater lake, the Narayan Sarovar. According to Hindu mythology this is one of the 5 Sacred Lakes and therefore an important pilgrimage sites.

We stopped near the Koteshwar Temple, which overlooks a pier that reaches out into the sea. We walked along the pier passing a small temple and an enclosure containing sculptures of various Hindu deities. Just over two thirds of the way along the pier there is a barrier beyond which members of the public are not allowed. At this barrier there is a Border Force sign and a smaller one on which is written: “Fishermen frisking point”. Beyond the barrier I saw small buildings in which soldiers were sitting. Several pairs of soldiers’ green trousers were hanging out to dry on a washing line between two small huts. A fleet of small fishing vessels were moored near the part of the pier beyond the barrier. As the tide was out, they rested on the shiny mudflats that glistened in the afternoon sun.

I saw several long legged birds, not flamingos, searching for food out on the damp mudflats. Near to the pier there were lots of amphibians, rather like fat newts, wriggling and scuttling about in the film of water covering the mud.

A short way from Koteshwar is the temple compound at Narayan Sarovar. Surrounded by high castle walls, this walled enclosure contains two large mandirs. A small gate leads to a tiny jetty projecting out over the freshwater lake on which we spotted a moorhen swimming. Some steps led from the outside of the temple compound’s enclosing wall into the lake to allow people to bathe. We left Narayan Sarovar, pleased that we had made the long journey to reach this beautiful, peaceful spot.

We made a brief stop at the popular pilgrimage place Mata no Madh, home of the Ashapura Temple that was first established in the 14th century AD, but completely rebuilt after the 1819 earthquake.

Back in Bhuj, we ate dinner at Noorani, a restaurant that serves good non-veg food. Many of the servers are young men. Out of the blue one of them asked my Indian wife, who speaks fluent Gujarati, whether she was Japanese. We were taken aback; she has no features that make her look Japanese. I had noticed that a couple of Japanese women had occupied a table in another section of the restaurant and wondered whether seeing us, a European with a woman who was clearly not a local, made the boy think that we were as ‘exotic’ as the two Japanese ladies.

BUS TO MOUNT ABU

WE SPENT MUCH OF NEW YEAR’S 7 Its driver was a friend of our driver. They were pleased to meet and wanted to chat. The other driver suggested to ours that he drove alongside ours so that he could chat with our driver. This did not happen but I liked the idea. Locating which bus we were to travel on proved a bit hair raising because everyone we asked suggested a different part of the bus station from which our bus might depart.

Much of the first half of the bus journey involved travelling northwards through flat cultivated terrain liberally sprinkles with small factories and large villages. We had a ten minute stop at Himatnagar, a small busy city in northern Gujarat.

Beyond Idar, the road began climbing out of the plain. We had a 30 minute break in Ambaji, an important temple town on the Gujarat side of the border of Rajasthan, which we entered immediately after lraving the town.

After Ambaji, our road climbed steadily and with increasingly tight bends through a mountainous landscape with plenty of trees. I was glad we were on a bus rather than a smaller vehicle like a car or jeep because many of these were driven as if their drivers had a suicidal tendency.

After about seven hours we arrived at the ramshackle, seemingly abandoned bus station at Mount Abu. There have been settlements in this area since time immemorial. It is mentioned in ancient Hindu texts, the Puranas. In the 19th century is was the summer capital of the Rajputana State. Many of the Rajput royalty built summer palaces in Mount Abu.

Our hotel is close to the still used polo ground. A beautiful late Victorian polo pavilion built in 1894 overlooks the vast polo playing field and is now used as a library.

The temperature at Mount Abu, which is about 4000 feet above sea level, dropped dramatically as the sun set. The air became icy cold and we were forced to purchase warm jackets. These are sold at stalls at the so-called Nepali Market, which is also called the ‘Tibetan Market’. Nepali or Tibetan, whichever it is, is situated amongst trees to which are attached strings of colourful Buddhist prayer flags such as we have seen fluttering in Darjeeling and Sikkim.

We dined at a simple halal restaurant. My wife asked for a soup listed on the menu. At first, the restaurant owner did not seem so keen on serving it. After a while, he said reluctantly : “If you really want it, I suppose I will have to make it for you”

Familiarity does not always breed contempt

FAMILIARITY BREEDS … CONTENTMENT. We have just landed in Ahmedabad. It is our third visit to this city in Gujarat within less than two years. We received a warm welcome from the staff at the small hotel where we have stayed twice before.

After settling into our room, we ate a good meal of Mughlai food at the Food Inn, which is opposite the 16th century Sidi Sayeed Mosque. Then, we travelled to the Gita Mandir bus station, where a very helpful booking clerk arranged tickets for various intercity trips we are planning to make soon.

The noisy, bustling traffic in Ahmedabad is typical of the city’s general feeling of vibrancy and exciting vitality. So bad was the congestion on the roads that our autorickshaw driver suggested that we abandoned our plans to visit the Jumma Masjid near the Manek Chowk. He explained that being the 30th of December, everyone was in a holiday mood and out on the streets spending money.

We disembarked at Khwaja Bazaar, a frenetic market place between the three arched Teen Darwaza and the Badra Fort, where the early rulers of Ahmedabad had their headquarters. We strolled along a street leading away from the market, admiring occasional old looking buildings along it. I imagine that the oldest of these is about a hundred or so years old.

Eventually, we reached a post office just across the road from an ageing Parsi ‘dharamshala’. Apart from a vigilant watchman, who looked at us suspiciously, the place looked rather dead. We took tea at a pavement stall. Typical of the kindness of people in this city, the ‘chaiwallah’ specially prepared tea without sugar for us instead of the very sweet beverage that is usually served. We sat on a bench, sipping tea and watching the world go by. It felt good to be back in Ahmedabad, a city, where kite flying is a popular pursuit. A city that is becoming familiar to us and makes us feel content.

First published on http://www.gujarat-travels.com

A FEW MOMENTS IN NEPAL

THERE IS A SMALL BUDDHIST TEMPLE (a ‘Gumba’) next to our homestay in Darjeeling. It was built by the grandfather of our host. When I took a look at it this morning, our host’s aunt was walking around it clockwise, chanting and fingering a bead necklace, rather like a rosary. After she had been around the square gumba several times, she opened it up to reveal an elaborately decorated effigy of Buddha.

Moni, our driver of Nepali origin, collected us and drove along a picturesque road to Ghoom, whose railway station at just over 7400 feet is the highest in India.

A narrow rutted lane led through the centre of Ghoom up to the Yiga Choeling Buddhist monastery, which, having been built in 1850, is the oldest in the area. The interior of the inner sanctum contained a large seated Buddha and many smaller effigies of him. The sanctum was beautifully decorated with wall paintings. Butter lamps were burning. There were glass fronted cupboards containing numerous bundles of strips of paper with scriptural texts in Tibetan script. Words are inadequate to describe the beauty of this Buddhist equivalent of a chapel.

Offerings had been placed in front of the various effigies of Buddha. These included banknotes, packets of biscuits, fruit, and a bottle of Pepsi Cola.

A part of the monastery was a meditation room dedicated to the memory of Woody Strong (1914-2000), an American lover and helper of Nepal, whose papers about Nepal are stored in the Archives of Purdue University. When diagnosed with inoperable cancer at the age of 77, he visited Nepal where a Buddhist priest told him that he would be healed. Miraculously, the tumour disappeared.

We drove from Ghoom along narrow, winding mountain roads to a recreation area called Jore Pokhri. On the way there and later on, we passed through small woods of trees with tall straight trunks topped with leaf bearing branches. These trees, a type of conifer, are known as ‘dhupi’ (in Nepali language) and are very valuable. Their value lies in an oil that can be extracted from its timber.

We stopped at Simana Viewpoint near to a small tourist market housed in corrugate iron shacks overlooking a steep drop into a deep valley. Where we were standing, at Simana, was only a few feet from the border between West Bengal and Nepal. A village with a name beginning with M lay on the opposite slope of the valley in Nepal.

We continued to drive close to the border until we reached the Indian frontier crossing post at Pashupathi Market. Moni parked the car and we went up to the immigration hut to show our British passports and our Indian residence permits (OCI) to two ladies sitting behind a desk with a large ledger.

Our documents were passed between numerous plainclothes agents and men in uniforms whilst a lot of heated discussion took place between all concerned. After a few minutes, more officials arrived and joined the conversation, the outcome of which was that we were petmitted to proceed into Nepal, which neither of us had ever visited.

We walked into Nepal past a small Nepali police or army barracks along a winding street lined with decrepit shacks an occasional colourfully decorated more substantial buildings. After about 150 yards, we turned round and walked back towards India.

About 50 yards away from the Indian frontier post, while we were still in Nepal, we heard drums. We looked back and saw a procession of people in colourful Nepali costumes approaching us. The march filled the whole width of the road and occasionally moved aside to allow cars and numerous taxi vans to pass. We learnt that the procession was something to celebrate tourism. As it was a Saturday, there were plenty of Indian tourists paying a brief visit to Nepal.

While I, the only European in sight, was taking photographs, a man in colourful garb approached me and shook my hand before inviting me to join the joyful procession. Then, he placed a garland of yellow flowers around my neck.

We left Nepal and Moni drove us back to Darjeeling, a journey of just over an hour. The road ascended and descended a series of hills. We drove through occasional clouds, that enshrouded the road in thick fog. We emerged from the clouds onto bright sunlight before encountering the next patch of cloud.

We ate a good lunch at Glenary’s restaurant, an establishment founded in about 1910 and housed in a picturesque colonial era building.

Before returning to our homestay, we heard the sound of drums and bagpipes. The Darjeeling Police Band was giving a spirited concert of Scottish tunes on an open air bandstand overlooking The Mall. The pipers swayed from side to side as they puffed away on their bagpipes. I imagine that long ago when Darjeeling was a recreational resort for the British imperialists, it was likely that a band used to play for visitors promenading on The Mall as the sun set on Saturday afternoons.
Thus ended a wonderful day during which we saw many exciting things, superb scenery, and set foot in another country, Nepal, for a few moments.

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.

Departure angst

Take off_240

 

Ever since I can remember, I have always enjoyed travelling.

Yet, as long as I can recall, I have always experienced  nervousness for a few days before my departure. When I was a child and even in my twenties, I used to feel positively nauseous during the last few hours before setting off. Nowadays, I still feel anxious a few days before leaving on a trip, but I no longer have that sensation of nausea.

The cause of my anxiety is probably a mixture of concern that all will go according to plan and excitement at the prospect of travelling and new experiences.

Whatever the reason for my pre-travel ‘neurosis’, the problem evaporates once I set off on my travels.

Am I alone in this needless worry before departure, or do others feel the same way?