I had the great fortune of returning home for Christmas during one of the most incredible summers New Zealand has put on in years. I rejoiced in my return with a flurry of burgers, home-cooking and drinkable tap water, reflecting that there’s nothing quite like time away to remind you how good the people, places and burgers are in your own backyard.
After arriving in Sikkim, I spent the first week of December hiking with a party of six into the Indian Himalayas. Our goal was Goecha La, a mountain pass some 5,000 metres above sea level, which leads to the base of the third highest mountain on the planet, Kanchendzonga. Even though we were aided and abetted by a hard-working crew of guides and porters the experience was incredibly strenuous.
Hiking at altitude is no joke; as the atmosphere began to thin, we found ourselves suffering for even the slightest physical exertion. Above 4,000 metres the effects became very apparent and, even with an approach of slow acclimatization, few of the party were able to avoid its impact. That there are people capable of hiking Everest (8,800 metres) without an oxygen supply to assist them is an achievement that has new meaning.
The Himalayas are a place of absolute magic, often with conditions in weather and landscape changing before your very eyes. This was a dreamland for photographers and explorers alike and I garnered an immense respect both for the enormity of the earth we live on and for those mountaineers brave enough to go out and chart it.
It’s difficult to articulate the experience of visiting Sikkim. After 3 months I guess I finally found what I was looking for. A visit inspires great calm — rare where so much of India is burgeoning chaos. Even when the sun is shining, Sikkim is blanketed in ethereal mist that whispers of deep meditation as it passes by. It’s no wonder, then, that there are so many monasteries in its jungle-clad hills. This is Himalayan country and as such the landscape rolls forever upwards until it disappears behind cloud — a testament to the tallness of the earth. I’ve strived hard not to join the crowd of pseudo-spiritual westerners touring India but I couldn’t help catch the energy of the place.
Based in the far north-eastern reaches of India, Sikkim shares borders with an impressive collection of countries: China to the north, Bhutan to the east, Bangladesh to the south and Nepal to the west. Influences from all four cultures are strong and this gives you the feeling that you’ve left India altogether. This isn’t far from the truth, as Sikkim only joined the Indian republic in 1975. By and large they have retained their autonomy (and certainly their cuisine) and one must perform a little dancing to obtain a permit for visitation.
On the road out of Darjeeling, it became very apparent why jeeps are popular in the region. The roads, if you could call them that, are veritable roller coasters of dirt and stone prone to landslide at the merest hint of precipitation. Travelling 10 kilometers can take upwards of an hour yet everyone takes this in their stride. Further to the concept of “Indian time”, the Sikkimese are never in a rush, for how could you be when there is just one jeep out of town each day? If you plan to visit, make sure you do so with plenty of time in your pocket: You will get stuck and that’s all part of the experience.
I’ve had a sweet spot for Darjeeling ever since I saw Wes Anderson’s film “The Darjeeling Limited”. It follows the adventure of three brothers as they catch a fictional train, likely based on the Rajdhani express, to visit their mother somewhere in the North-East of India. While they never made it to the colonial hill station that gave the film its name, I was intent on visiting it all the same.
Darjeeling was discovered by a delegation of the British East India Company in 1828. They were so taken by it that they followed the English tradition of “we’ll have that” and set up shop. After the construction of a sanatorium for British troops, it became a popular holiday destination for ex-pats looking to escape the heat of the plains and a number of tea plantations began to flourish. Today the region continues to produce some of the highest quality tea in the world and, though there are tentacles of industrial pollution even in this remote place, its charm remains intact. A colonial hangover is in full swing: High tea is served daily at the Windamere hotel if you’re into that kind of pomp and a Victorian influence is visible in much of the local architecture.
During my stay I had the chance to go paragliding early one morning. It wasn’t until we arrived at the jump-off point that I realised the gravity of what I’d signed up for. Shackled unceremoniously to the wing, I was told to run for my life down towards a lofty drop off. Casting sanity aside, I followed their orders and as we reached the end of the runway my pilot screamed at me to push off. We began to tip forward, the grass rushing up to meet my face; “oh god, we’ve fucked this right up” I thought moments before the wind caught the glider and sent us soaring into the clouds. Adrenaline ran so high that I didn’t even notice the cold lashing at us as we circled over the town below. My pilot, a guy no older than 19, steered us up among the eagles from one updraft to another before spiralling down at high velocity. It felt like we were on the brink of flipping at each turn but he steadied us masterfully time and time again. I have no doubt there are gliders in the air on most days here but the school children in town still went ballistic waving and cheering up at us. It gave you the sense that you were some kind of touring dignitary.
Karl Pilkington of “An Idiot Abroad” fame said that in India you’re never far from madness. He came to this conclusion as he surveyed a pile of bodies awaiting the funeral pyre in Agra. I made it as far as Varanasi before I witnessed the same thing and I must admit that, as a westerner, I had a morbid curiosity in the process.
A metropolis stretched along the river Ganges, Varanasi is the spiritual capital of India known for its many riverfront ghats. Ghats are stone steps leading down to the water, the most famous among them serving as platforms for the Hindu ritual of holy cremation. In holy cremation, bodies of the deceased are burned in the open air among stacks of wood. A belief is held that this breaks the cycle of reincarnation and thus ends the suffering of the individual. Proximity of the pyre to the river is an indication of status; Those of higher class are able to afford the spots nearest the water while the poor are left to burn further afield. In practical terms the difference is paltry, often only a matter of several metres. Nonetheless this is often a matter of great pride for the Hindu people.
Perhaps the most striking element of the cremations is how little emotion seems to be present. The whole setting is so incredibly matter-of-fact: Fires are lit and each body is burned while a small crowd looks on; Eventually, one of the staff “breaks up” the body and skull with a long stick of bamboo. The next fire is lit soon after. Onwards this process marches, two to three hundred times a day at each ghat.
As well as the pyres, Varanasi is home to a kite-flying mafia. As the sun begins to set, they make their daily pilgrimage to the rooftops to do battle, hoping to entangle and sever one-another’s lines. Ascending one of the restaurants along the river, we came across a man in his twenties engaged in a furious battle with a rival kite-flyer a few buildings away. Peering down, we spied his opponent: A boy not older than ten. It wasn’t long before our new acquaintance had succumbed to the superiority of his juvenile counterpart and lost his kite. He smiled, reeling his line in. It was then that we noticed the pile of fresh kites resting by his feet.