We flew to Bagdogra, the nearest airport to Darjeeling. After a crazy taxi ride with a fourteen-year-old driver, who was yelling into his phone for most of the journey and a night in a fleapit hotel, we took the high road to Darjeeling.
Due to the mountainous roads, jeeps are the way to travel in these parts. We managed to get front seats and set off towards the mountains, passing tea plantations and small villages. Soon, the mist appeared and the views disappeared. Four hours later, we arrived in Darjeeling in pouring rain.
Darjeeling wasn’t quite what I imagined. Rammed with jeeps, you couldn’t walk along the road without being honked at twenty times in twenty minutes. It wasn’t exactly peaceful, although there were a few pedestrianised areas, which provided relief from the traffic. The highlights included fabulous mountain views, a colourful temple, a great bookshop in a cool colonial building and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute.
Whilst in Darjeeling, we had to get permits for Sikkim, which was easier said than done. It involved going to the registration office (locating it was a feat in itself!) and then to the magistrate’s office, where they authorised the form given to us at the registration office!
Although our Rough Guide was brand new, all the information was already out of date, including addresses. It made for an interesting morning. We met an Israeli guy, who was in the same situation as us, and we all went to the magistrate’s office together. Well, we went with him because he had Google maps on his phone, and we didn't want to get lost!
The two days following our departure from Darjeeling weren’t particularly smooth. We had been told by a taxi 'official' that we could get a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Pelling. When we arrived they told us that the only way to get there would be by private jeep, which would cost about $90.00!
We had already booked five night’s accommodation in Pelling and thought that we would lose what we had paid, so decided that we didn’t really have an option. The journey took about six hours. We passed through the Sikkim border and headed even higher into the mountains. The views were spectacular, but the roads were rough and mostly unpaved. A combination of potholes, mud and sheer drops made for a hair-raising journey.
When we finally arrived at our hotel in Pelling, they didn’t have our booking or any rooms available! We managed to find somewhere else to stay for a night, but due to inclement weather coming in (we had been planning to do some trekking) and not really getting good vibes about Pelling, we decided to hightail it out of town first thing in the morning.
We left early, but discovered that all the jeeps were booked up to Gangtok, our next destination. Our only option was to take a taxi down to a small town called Gyalshing, where we would be able to get a shared jeep. We arrived at 7.45 am and the next available jeep wasn’t leaving until 12.30 pm. We had some toast in a small family-run hotel restaurant. When we left the restaurant , it was pouring with rain, so we spent the next few hours in a small pagoda, sheltering from the downpour.
At 12.00 pm, we headed the car park where the jeeps left from. There were about a hundred jeeps going to destinations all over Sikkim, and we had to find ours. It was still pouring and there was nowhere to shelter. We finally managed to ascertain that our jeep was late arriving. It was definitely one of those low travel moments, as we stood soaking wet, anticipating a five- hour journey in a cramped jeep!
Finally, we found our jeep and were on our way. If we thought the roads were rough before, they were now awash with mud, and the drops looked scarier than ever. We saw the aftermath of a particularly horrendous accident, where a jeep had come off a higher road, through the wooded slope and crashed onto a lower road. A body had been taken out of the vehicle and a crowd stood around staring at it.
Thankfully, we made it to Gangtok, and even managed to find our hotel, Hungry Jack’s, straight away. We had a Japanese style suite, with a balcony and views across the mountains – a real treat. That night I was sick again. I ordered a masala papad and it must have had the local dalley red-hot chilli pickle on it. I had never tasted anything so fiery, and within seconds I was rushing to the bathroom.
Gangtok has an interesting combination of cultures – Indian, Tibetan, Nepalese, Bhutanese and Chinese. There wasn’t tons to do, but we managed to find a few good places to eat. We spent just over a week there, half of it at Hungry Jack’s and the other half at Bookman’s B&B.
Bookman’s was a particularly interesting place. The B & B had just three rooms. Downstairs there was a fabulous bookshop, with an eclectic and fascinating range of reading material. On the ground floor was a coffee shop, where I enjoyed my favourite Green Apple Iced Tea, while listening to cool jazz. The owner, Raman, is a jazz aficionado and there are frequent live music nights, though alas, not when we were there.
It continued to rain a lot in Gangtok. One day, we managed a hike through the villages and up into the mountains (about fifteen miles). We made it back just before it started to rain again.
We found a couple of good places to eat, including the lovely Baker's Café, where we had delicious garlic cheese toast and fresh lime soda for breakfast. Every day we bought a box of baked goodies to take away with us.
Sikkim didn't really live up to expectations. The rain and mist meant that trekking wasn't an option. Instead of getting out into the mountains, we it felt as if we just sped past the spectacular scenery in a jeep. Sometimes things don't work out the way you expect them to, but then there are other times when expectations are exceeded, and that's what makes the unpredictable nature of travel worthwhile.
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