So there I was, sat in Darjeeling, utterly overwhelmed by the immensity of the Himalayan vista in front of me, when an older Indian couple ruined everything by sitting down and being friendly. Oblivious to my spiritual rapture, they prodded me with words until I was forced to acknowledge them, and we fell into a rather one-way conversation.
The man was wearing a knitted tea cosy in the shape of an army beret and the woman smiled a lot, until we got onto the subject of Kashmir. ‘They have no morals, they are animals!’ she fumed into her tea. Ignoring his wife, knitted beret man offered up his analysis. ‘Pakistan’, he smiled, ‘used to be India. It was aaaaaall India back then. We, the Hindus of India gave the Muslims a place to live – Pakistan.’
I desperately tried to take the man with the knitted army beret tea-cosy seriously, so I narrowed my eyes and nodded vigorously like I used to do in meetings when I was drifting. Nod nod, yes yes, I listen you.
He continued: ‘But they are not gracious enough to accept this history, this heritage. Take Indonesia. They are a Muslim nation but they keep their Hindu names, their history. When Pakistan say they want Kashmir, they are simply ignoring their history.’
I nodded more vigorously, wondering if ‘Army-Casual’ could take off in the West and if he would consent to be the brand ambassador.
A brownie with chocolate sauce plopped down onto the table and they forced me to eat some, despite being full of bun. ‘You know India is the only truly tolerant country,’ he said, leaning back in his wicker seat and crossing his legs. So tolerant, in fact, that they still keep the place and street names foisted on them by their many invaders – Mongol Hordes, the Dutch, the British. We all agreed that this was a bit too tolerant.
Continuing my Indian education, the man leaned further back into his wicker.
‘Only in India do we cook 3 times a day, FRESH.’ He went on. ‘Tooootally FRESH, you see, 3 times a day.’ He conceded that it was a heavy burden for the women, who were expected to prepare all of this FRESH food, but he continued: ‘If we took that away from them, what else would they do with their time?’ I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking, but I laughed anyway because it was easier, then excused myself. I didn’t come on holiday to explain the world ground up to an old guy.
The next day, my alarm clock woke me at 0530 and I rolled out of bed with a spring in my lurch. Monks chanted in the direction of the massive God mountain (Kanchenjunga), waving fans inscribed with Tibetan / Chinese / Nepalese writing, then tapped people on the head with them as a blessing. A horde of hissing, growling monkeys bullied a stray dog, while 50 metres away the dogs got their own back by trapping a terrified monkey up a telephone pole.
I had only one duty for the day and that was to find the best pound to rupee rates for my 480 quid. I was amazed to discover that 2 of 3 places simply wouldn’t accept my filthy Scottish pounds, and the remaining one offered an offensively low rate (85, compared to the 96 offered for the ‘Great British Pound’). To soothe my wounded Scottish ego, I popped into a terrific teashop, where I was allowed to sample two Oolongs in brandy glasses, two white teas in Champagne flutes and two black Darjeeling teas in little port glasses. After they poured it for you, they held the brewing pot underneath your nose for about 30 seconds too long so your entire face dripped with fragrant tea steam.
As I left with my 3 little string-tied parcels of tea, I was given a short lecture on picking seasons. Tea isn’t just tea. It’s a totally different beast according to the time of year it’s picked. The spring (or first flush) tea is light and floral, the summer (or second flush) is more ‘muscatel’ (God knows…) and the autumn flush is richer, deeper and fruitier. I was ashamed to admit that in the UK, we generally don’t know where our teas comes from, just the brand, as if ‘Typhoo’ or Tetley’ were places. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people thought that ‘Yorkshire tea’ is grown in Yorkshire.
Anyway, it all tasted bloody great to me, and gave me this smouldering high that lasted for about 3 hours – long enough to propel me up to the charmingly dilapidated colonial gem that is the Windamere hotel.
On arrival, a boy wearing an incongruous costume of western formal wear underneath a traditional Himalayan shawl thingy ushered me into an empty living room full of deep sofas and a dying fire. On the walls were black and white photos of rich people quoffing gin in the sixties, and paintings of Himalayan scenes, including a shepherd with 3 unsettlingly over-sized goats, and a girl kneeling on a rock ledge over a cloud-filled valley. Soon the fire was roaring and I was flicking through the ‘Times of India’. Apprently, Kolkata meat market is getting a much-needed renovation because it stinks so bad that even the cleaners don’t go there, the Indian army is buying weapons from Israel, and over 100 Air India pilots were discovered not to have valid pilot’s licenses.
A framed sign advised me not to ‘Lie supine on the hearth’, which I would have committed to if I knew what it meant.
Day 3 on the bike was my worst day on a bike.
It started nicely in Darjeeling, with an impromptu dawn yoga session looking out to that massive God mountain. The air didn’t seem to sparkle, it literally was sparkling. As I was finishing, some locals came up and asked if I could teach them. Apparently their uncle, who had been sitting nearby doing all sorts of weird and wonderful yogic breathing exercises, had given the nod of approval. I said I would return to Darjeeling specifically to teach them, despite being fully aware of how ridiculous it was for a Scotsman to teach yoga to Indians in India. It’s like asking an Indian person to come and teach the British how to do sarcasm.
Breakfast was an epic feast of porridge with bananas and honey followed by a ‘full’ English breakfast – I was going to need the fuel for another 1000 or so metres of climbing. However, my well-laid plans backfired and I was soon enjoying some low quality toilet time, courtesy of Indian bacteria. I couldn’t for the life of me work out how I had got it as I’d been very diligent with my hand-washing and water purifying, avoided all milk and cheese (they don’t do pasteurising here apparently) and avoided all street food. I guess it’s just something you have to go through. Or rather, something that has to go through you.
So back to the ride. It was horrendous – two agonising hours of pulling the brake levers full force as I weaved through a craterfield of potholes on slopes so steep they should quite frankly be illegal. I found myself cursing the author of the book for encouraging human beings to do this and in my mind wrote an extremely abusive email that I would send to her if I survived.
Then of course, there was the looming threat of shitting myself.
As the front wheel slammed down into another pothole, I willed my sphincter to clench as tightly as my fingers were on the brake levers. It was a tense time. Real tense. And then it ended. The free fall abated and I flowed down into a deep, wide, sticky valley where a dog half-heartedly tried to eat me and my bike. A rogue monkey also had a go, darting out from the side of the road, and I produced an incredible burst of speed to escape. They freak me out, those monkeys, and they always lie in wait where I’m most vulnerable – up-slopes or pot-holed sections. The night was spent in a dive on the town’s main/only junction, nursing litre after litre of salty blackcurrant electrolytes as yet another soundstage kept me wide awake until the early morning, when the fireworks took over.
The upside of being kept awake is that you aren’t asleep, which means as soon as the sun is up you can be gone. So by 0545 I had clicked my panniers onto the rack and pedalled grimly out of town. towards the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok. Time for another Immodium too, just to be sure – it was set to be another crucifixion of a day, with 1300ish vertical metres to contend with. The dawn freshness soothed my broken mind and tummy and the Immodium took care of the science. Soon, I was at the foot of the climb and feeling good enough to eat so I picked up some delicious, steaming hot vegetable momos from a wee roadside hotel. The owner’s son had never seen a white person before. I feel like I under delivered with my chat, which consisted mostly of mumbled, dumpling-filled nothings with question marks on the end. So to the climb.
It was hellish. Of course it was hellish. But smooth hell is much better than lumpy hell, and smooth and up is much better than lumpy and down. Sikkim roads are comparatively brilliant, which is down to the exceptionally diligent and proud road-building team ‘BRO’. Every year, the roads are swept away by monsoon storms and every year, they rebuild them. I grew to love the various upbeat roadside messages encouraging love, life and safety. Things like ‘Life has no spare – take it easy.’ However, I’m not sure the jeep drivers can read the English. The last 15km were utterly brutal, and made almost intolerable by the back-to-back traffic and accompanying fumes. I focussed on breathing out and not in.
After several months or years of this, Gangtok revealed herself to me in all her turquoise and pink and baby blue grandeur. The first thing I saw was a sign telling me that: ‘Leprosy is 100% curable.’ 45 more minutes of slogging my way to the top of town and it was over – I had arrived at Hotel Pandim and immediately agreed to a wincingly high rate for an admittedly quite plush room with loads of cable TV channels and enough room to swing a yaklet (a child yak).
I spent the next hour flicking between the skin-crawlingly awful but undeniably moreish British X-factor, and a TV lecture by a stern white woman wrapped up in the white sheets of a popular Hindu sect.
Cowell: You have what it takes. I’m really impressed. CROWD GOES WILD.
Sect woman I was God in the copper age, but I had no memory of my Godliness.
Cowell: You’re likeable. I like you. The crowd likes you. But you can’t sing. CROWD BOOS.
Sect woman: And we will be tested. Have you noticed? Every day we are challenged to be more Godly
Clicking off this vortex of no return, I noticed that I had already gained quite an imposing, severe gaze. Looking closer, I discovered that it was a masacara made of splatted flies.
My evening comprised of a Thai green curry with neon-green chicken, and monk spotting. There’s tonnes of orange-and-yellow-swaddled Buddhist monks here, of every shape and size. The most impressive one I saw was a down syndrome one and the impressive part is that he’s evidence of clear follow-through on a come-one-come-all policy up here in Buddha HQ. The least impressive ones were using mobile phones. Three of them sitting on a bench, gazes downward, tap, tap tapping like normal people. It’s just not right. You either get spiritual centredness, tranquility and moral authority OR you get our modern enslavement to the transient froth of modern social networking. Not both. I bet they had facebook accounts too, the frauds.
Gangtok, like Darjeeling, suffers from a split-personality. From a distance, she is serene and picture-perfect but up close, when you’re stuck in the steeply winding, fume-choked streets, you often wish you weren’t here. However it’s nothing that some good headphones, sunglasses and a face-mask won’t fix. Yes, it makes me seem aloof and unapproachable but needs must – I can be nice later.
After the near death experience that was ride to get here, I’ve decided I need to lose a lot of weight. Not from my body, which is gaunt and bony, but from the bags. So far I have replaced the heavy but intoxicating ‘The God of small things’ with a tiny paperback ‘Oxford Introduction to Empire’, and ditched my expensive and (I hope) extraneous waterproof jacket, sleeping bag and sleeping mat.
The book feels rather fitting, as I can’t imagine a country more bizarelly contorted by colonialism than India. To be surrounded by poverty-stricken, tobacco-skinned men speaking perfect Queen’s English every time I stop the bike is a surreal and jarring experience. It’s all roses now but the violence it took to get those poor buggers speaking like toffs is bothersome. I would get slightly more upset about it but a waiter just put down a generously filled cherry muffin and green tea with goji berries and chrysanthemums. Next stop, West Sikkim. Or maybe I’ll just stay here and keep looking at God.