Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Travel tips Darjeeling

Afternoon tea, Windamere, Darjeeling ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Elevation: Darjeeling: 2123 m. Kalimpong: 1243 m.

We stayed at the Sonar Bangla, near the Jeep Station, nice and clean and affordable. Many people recommend the Bellevue on Chowrasta. I’d probably try that next time around.

Oxford Book & Stationary Company, Chowrastra Mall, loads of good books on the region, Buddhism, Tibet and India.

Look out point and naughty monkeys:
Ridgewalk beneath the Windamere.

Afternoon tea:
Windamere Hotel, Jawahar Rd West
Elgin Hotel, HD Lama Rd

Nathmull’s Tea Rooms, Laden La Rd

Photo shop:
Das Studio, Nehru Rd

Glenary’s, Nehru Rd

Recommended reading:
The inheritance of loss, (sv. Bittert arv), Kiran Desai. Story about people and life in a small village near Darjeeling (actually in Kalimpong east of Darjeeling and on the border of Sikkim). Winner of Man Booker Prize 2006.


För inte så länge sedan fick jag en kopia av  läroboken Laiba! i handen som jag agerade bildredaktör och (delvis) fotograf för. Den blev riktigt fin och för alla som vill lära sig grundläggande kinesiska kan den varmt rekommenderas. Författarna heter Håkan Friberg och Henrik Bengtsson, Gleerups förlag. ISBN: 9140663833. Försäljningstext från webben:

Lai ba! betyder ungefär Kom med! Lai ba är en nybörjarbok i kinesiska för gymnasieskolan och vuxenutbildningen. Texterna och dialogerna bygger på vanliga vardagssituationer som kan uppkomma när man är i Kina: att introducera sig och sin familj, siffror och telefonnummer, intressen, yrken, mat, shopping, resande etc. Den vanligaste grammatiken tas upp och tränas i många övningar. Boken lär ut ungefär 200 tecken (förenklade tecken). Texterna och övningarna finns inspelade.

Travel tips India

Filling up drinking water bottles from a street pump in Calcutta
Photo ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Taxis from airports: use the prepaid taxi offices in the airport for a set fee and don't negotiate with the driver yourself.

Money: change a quantity of money into a stack of 5, 10 and 20 rupee bills. Your hotel will do this for you for a small fee. Small bills are essential for tipping whoever helps you with a million small things. Spread these around and be generous.

Read: as much as possible before you go or visit any one of the many excellent bookshops and stock up on good quality English language books on India. Penguin India and Oxford University Press all have cheaper editions of their numerous Indian titles published and for sale in India. A big savings on what the same book costs in Europe or US.

Toilet paper and wetwipes: sounds ridiculous but these things are essential and very useful. Can be hard to find when you need them.

New Delhi Jelly Belly: such a boring subject but such a pain when it strikes! Most likely unavoidable to a greater or lesser degree but be careful with what you eat, no ice, nothing with water added unless you are absolutely sure it is purified water, no unpeeled fruits and vegetables and keep your hands clean. You should even keep your mouth closed in the shower. Ugh. As the above picture illustrates be extra careful when buying bottles of water. Always check the seal and make sure that it is an original seal and not a refilled water bottle.


Red panda/Mt Kanchenjunga Photo ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

A short hop, skip and a jump (actually a short flight with Kingfisher Air from Calcutta to Bagdogra near Siliguri in West Bengal) will take you to the foothills of the Himalayas, the tea plantations of Darjeeling and the precipitous roads that lead up to the mountain state of Sikkim. Sikkim has the smallest population of any state in India and is only slightly larger than Goa in size. From north to south it's maybe only 100 km long but because you drive for hours and hours along winding roads with switchback turns the feeling is of a much larger place. Arriving in Darjeeling from the flat Bengal plain the contrast is enormous. Hot, dry flatlands rapidly turn into tea fields and then the up, up, up begins. Along the way you will probably bump into the World Heritage steam "toy train" and make room for it to arduously pass by. You will rapidly overtake it again as it is very slow!

We took a minibus in the rain from Bagdogra Airport and after 4 hours we arrived in Darjeeling, no more the quiet hill station of Raj days but now a bustling market town and center of the local tea industry. Here and there amongst the new concrete buildings old Darjeeling can be glimpsed, sad and droopy but still charming none the less. Old evergreens like the Windamere Hotel and the Elgin still keep up appearances and an Afternoon Tea at one or the other of these is a must. Darjeeling tea is a wondrous brew, all fragrant and light and delicious, not at all as dark and robust and powerful like Assam tea. Tea is sold all over the town, but the best is probably found at Nathmull's.

Darjeeling, like Gangtok, is all ups and downs. After a while your feet start longing for something flat to walk on! A good town walk is up to the Padmaja Naidu Himalyan Zoological Park (to see the red pandas, Indian tigers, Himalayan newts and cloud leopards), then on to the Himalayan Mountain Institute to pay your respects to Tenzing Norgay and look at the museum that honors Mt Everest and mountain climbers. (Paddy visited Darjeeling in the 1950s and remembers sitting as a small boy in Tenzing Norgay’s lap. He and his brothers were then presented with ice axes by Tenzing and Paddy can still remember his warm smile and laugh.) After the museum you can continue up to the walk around the top and hope to get clear views of Kanchenjunga (above). The Big "K" is the world's third highest mountain at 8586 m and is a stunning sight visible from Darjeeling on clear days. (Everest can only be seen from Tiger Hill). Continue through the monkeys grooming themselves in the late day sun and you’ll wind up just about right for Afternoon Tea at the Windamere!

Oh Calcutta!

Howrah Hotel Photo ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

My first visit to India left many impressions, some physical, most mental. I wouldn't dare judge all of India from this one short visit to Calcutta but I must admit it shocked me a bit (sorry I am too old to make Kolkata stick in my mind). Such colors, smells and chaos, abysmal poverty, absolutely noxious exhaust fumes, uplifting beauty, wobbly heads, sweet smiles and nasty stomach problems - even Fellini couldn’t have dreamt you up. Calcutta was like a city long forgotten, an architectural Miss Havisham in a state of utter decay.

We arrived in the middle of the night on a China Eastern flight from Kunming and were driven to our hotel in a canary yellow Ambassador taxi. The Ambassador is like an old Volvo Amazon, shaped like a Glyptodon and the very personification of the Swedish slang word for a taxi (bulle). It drives like a tank and the engine get’s so hot you could fry an egg on the car dashboard. How Indian driver’s survive day in and day out inside these taxis during the height of the hot season is a mystery to me. Every ride with an Ambassador turned out to be a vehicular adventure-nightmare, juggling for position in the totally erratic traffic, racing alongside rickshaws (both bicycle and human), motorcyclists, scooters, food carts, enormous loads seemingly carried only by two human legs, cows and towering, monster Tata public buses, grinding their gears, revving their motors and belching out carcinogenic, nasty black fumes, ready at any moment to eat you up and spit you out onto the filthy pavement only to find yourself crushed under the total mayhem that is everyday life in this city.

I loved these taxis, cheap and so close to street level, where riotous scenes flashed by my window in an endless horror show of urban humanity: people bathing in water from overflowing pipes and storm drains, the water brown with filth from the human waste deposited directly into those very gutters. Squatter's slums and roadside chai stands and colorful sweet shops. The chaotic advertising and wonderful English in the newspapers, ”The Hurly Burly Gift Shop”, ”Frank Ross Pharmacy, Serving Humanity for 100 years”, ”We regret to announce the demise of Mr Aravind Muckerjee who has now gone to his heavenly abode”. The back’s of public buses with their handpainted signs: Please Honk! or My India is Great! Women in beautiful saris and salwar kameezes, made out of cloth the color of every butterfly species known to man. But of course, the fumes coming through the window of an Ambassador could bring down an elephant.

We stayed on a floating hotel on the Hooghly River (”inventively” named The Floatel) and then on the return journey in a much more downmarket dive called The Howrah Hotel, promptly renamed The House of Horrors. The HH is situated on the other side of the Hooghly by the train station and has been around for over 100 years. Several Bollywood films have been made at the hotel which does have quite a dramatic air to it - albeit a musty, crumbling air. (The local West Bengali variety of Indian movies are called Tollywood as they are made in the Tollygunge area of the city. This is of course the home of film director Satyajit Ray.) A faded picture of India’s most well-known actor, Amitabh Bachchan, was pasted to the wall, photographed in the courtyard of the hotel. The hotel must once have been quite magnificent but today it is both a boarding house (never a good sign, men in dirty singlets and dhotis lounging about, staring at you or into space) and a hotel. We got the ”fanciest” room for about 100 yuan/sek for four people. That price says it all, you can imagine what the room looked like. But we did survive the night with no problems and no bedbugs (which Burton had gotten at the fancy-smanchy Floatel). Emy laughingly pointed out the ancient ”Suggestion Box” in the lobby and wondered if we had enough time to write down all that we thought of the place. The HH did have lovely floor tiles though….

I read several books I will gladly recommend during my two-week stay in India:

Indien, elefanten som började dansa, Per J Andersson
Karma Cola, Gita Mehta
The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga, (just won the Man Booker Prize 2008!)
City of Djinns, William Dalrymple (about Dehli actually, not Calcutta)