The flight from Paro Bhutan to Bagdogra India, took only 25 minutes, but when we landed in Bagdogra, it felt like we arrived in a whole different world…
Our flight continued on to Thailand, and we were among the only people who got off the plane.
A man met us by the runway and took us through security, immigration and customs, as if we were celebrities.
All the worries that our tour organizer in Bhutan had over our multiple entry Indian visas, were not an issue…. The immigration officer stamped my passport without even verifying that the information I put on the form was correct.
Our new guide to the Sikkim part of our journey is a tall and very friendly man named Sudesh.
Our driver has a braided goatee which looks uncharacteristically cool.
He looks more like an ancient Chinese poet than a taxi driver from Darjeeling, who is used to the narrow, smoky busy roads and heavy traffic.
The heat and traffic was not something that I was prepared for.
We had left Paro wearing our winter jackets, and within minutes upon our arrival in Bagdogra, we stripped to our t-shirts.
The traffic was the regular crazy Indian mayhem, with trucks spewing diesel fumes and a two lane road that has been expanded into a five lane road to hell by impatient drivers.
Everyone, even the drivers of motorized rickshas or anyone with some form of a motor between their legs, were leaning on their horns as if their lives depended on it.
Our destination in Siliguri was the tourism office, in which we were required to finalize our permits to Sikkim.
I guess I expected a long waiting line, like I saw everywhere else in India….
There are long lines to fill gas tanks, long lines to buy sweets, and in some places, I saw a line to withdraw cash from an ATM, that looked as long as a line to a free rock concert in New York.
But because the permit requirements only apply to foreigners, there was no line and after we filled out the forms, we got them approved in a jiffy.
Sudesh bought some bananas and mineral water for us to have, because he wanted to leave Bagdogra behind and head to the mountains.
We were headed towards Kurseong, a hill town in the middle of tea country, a few dozen kilometers from Darjeeling.
We drove on a narrow windy road up into the mountains, where all the hills as far as the eyes can see, were planted with camellia tea plants.
Our hotel has a faded British glory.
In fact, this whole region has the feeling that the “Britishers” (as our guide refers to the British People) have just recently left, and their tea plantations are still thriving under the new Indian management, while their glorious homes and estates, are withering away…
Our suite at the Cochrane Place, was huge and spread on two levels with a sitting area and a veranda planted with passion fruit.
We had great views of the valley and the tallest mountain range in the area, which includes the third tallest mountain in the world.
The locals call it Kanchenjunga, meaning the “Abode Of The Gods.”
No mountain climbing or trekking to the summit of Kanchenjunga is allowed.
The locals hold the mountain as sacred and they do not wish to disturb the gods.
The Kanchenjunga was climbed twice during the 1900’s, before the reinforcement of the local desire that nobody should climb it.
They did not need to worry…. Those who attempted to climb it did not succeed, and up until today, the Abode Of The Gods has not been summited.
It was easy to see how this mountain got its name…
On a cloudy day, the whole mountain range just disappears into the clouds.
Sudesh, told me that he had guided tourists to this region who stayed in the area for ten days and not even ONCE, did they get to see the mountain….
Early in the morning, before the smog of traffic settles on the hills, you can see a clear and beautiful view of Kanchenjunga, sitting high above the clouds.
This view of the snowy peaks that do not seem to extend upwards from the hills below it, but somehow appear to sprout out of the clouds, gives it the mysticism of a mountain that may or may not exist…. Maybe only the pure of heart can even see it….
Cochrane Place Hotel was very quirky, but the best thing about it was of course….. The Darjeeling tea.
Their tea menu was extensive, but the Darjeeling tea took the crown.
This Darjeeling black tea has a golden orange color, and it tastes like the nectar of the gods….
I cannot even compare it to any black tea we tasted before or that we usually drink, and believe me… We are serious tea drinkers.
This Darjeeling second flush tea is never drunk with milk and sugar.
It has a light orange color and a very aromatic flavor that resembles a high quality green tea, and not a black tea.
That evening we walked to explore the local bazaar, and we bought some saffron and tasted the local sweets.
The streets were packed with people of many ethnic groups and decorated Hindu shrines stood next to Buddhist prayer flags.
Besides the large crowd, the one main road, on which the train also runs, was filled with cars, monkeys and goats…. It felt so different from Bhutan, with its tiny population of 700,000.
I noticed that many of the signs above the stores and businesses in town had the name of the State of “West Bengal,” erased, and instead the new state was written on them, saying simply “Gorkhaland.”
This is part of the local Nepali desire to gain independence from India and to be called Gorkhaland instead of West Bengal.
In the past few years there have been several uprisings in the region over this issue, and the local government has requested the people to behave as if the state were already an independent one, by changing the name on all of the signs.
The next leg of our journey to Sikkim and Darjeeling has began.
There is so much that I have seen in the past few weeks, and so much for me to process and to take in… And so little time left at the end of each day, to sit down and make my notes…
At least I will be able to enjoy a big pot of golden tea, as I gather my thoughts and try to remember the many sights and experiences….