Winding Roads and Dizzying Heights: Gangtok

From Darjeeling I took another very shared jeep to Gangtok with ten other passengers. Actually 11. In the row in front of me there was a cute, perhaps five year old girl who I think had recently learned the word “uncomfortable”. She said it a few times during the trip, with great relish, pronouncing every syllable. I must say it was well-applied. At least unlike her, I didn’t have to sit on anyone’s lap.

We climbed into Sikkhim on winding roads, stopping, starting, speeding up, slowing down, and breathing in diesel exhaust fumes all the while. One poor guy in the back row with me had to lean out the window to be sick. Note to readers: if you’re prone to getting carsick, this is NOT a ride you want to take without lots of Dramamine. I have to admit I was even starting to get a little claustrophobic, and was never so grateful as when I had to get out of the jeep to register as a foreigner at the border.

That being said, the ride was beautiful. A good portion of it was along a river and various bridges crossing over it. Sorry – I couldn’t get pictures. But the scenery was enjoyable.

Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim, and is a small city in the hills. The main thoroughfare is MG Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi. It’s a pedestrian-only strip lined with shops, restaurants and sweet stalls, and is quite the busy but charming place. 


In Sikkhim, foreigners need at least two members to a group and a tour guide to travel to the outer areas, which gets expensive quickly. The solo traveler’s best bet is to allow lots of time and keep checking in with various travel agencies to find groups to join. Well, the time factor played against me, but I did manage to join a couple going to Tsomgo lake.

Tsomgo (pronounced Changmu) lake is 36km northeast of Gangtok and at an elevation of 3780 meters. The lake isn’t very large, but the surrounding mountains, views, and quiet make it worth seeing. Plus if Gangtok isn’t cool enough, it’s much cooler at the lake. It was 7 degrees C when we were there (that’s 45F for the U.S. Readers). 


As an added bonus there were yaks. One can even ride a yak, but I was content to see them and to touch their wooly locks as they passed by.


Back in town I wandered up to a park aptly named “The ridge”, in which one has great views of the mountains from either side. Further along, while looking for one monastery, I ended up at another one, but no less beautiful. High on a hill, with colorful murals and prayer flags, Serajhe Dopheling Gonpa sat in serenity. I sat in the meditation hall and watched my breath to the sound of deep toned Tibetan chanting. Not a bad way to spend the afternoon.

Days in Darjeeling

I arrived in Bagdogra airport and started looking for a shared jeep to Darjeeling. No luck, but I found a friendly couple who offered to take me in their taxi to nearby Siliguri, where the shared jeep stands were.

Sure enough, I quickly found a very shared jeep (ten people plus the driver), and we soon headed through traffic into the forest, and up over hairpin curves into the hills. Temperatures dropped, and the sun slowly set on the horizon casting colorful shadows into the hills behind us. For the first time since I’d left Ladakh, I felt pleasantly cool.


This was the first time I have arrived somewhere at night without a booking, but fortune (or good kamma) was with me. The hotel I had as my first choice had rooms. It’s a budget hotel, and the rooms are a bit musty, but the room I’m in has a big bay window overlooking the mountains. For about $10 a night, it’s just fine.

OK, so you can’t really see them here, but there are beautiful mountains in view from this window. Trust me.

Darjeeling is a hill town in northern West Bengal. It was named after the local Dorje Ling monastery, which has since moved and changed names. The land was leased by the East India Company (aka, the British) in 1835, and they soon started planting tea and taking vacations there. It continues to be a popular vacation spot, and of course, the tea is known worldwide.

Just as an aside about the tea. I discovered that the Darjeeling tea served here is a lighter tea that almost looks like green tea. It is typically drank without milk, which enables one to really taste the flavor more. Going without milk was a bit of an adjustment, but I got used to it.


The first day I spent wandering about, looking around, going the wrong way and turning around again. It’s a pretty safe city to get lost in, so there was no stress. The next day I woke early to walk down to the taxi stand to get a shared jeep to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise. Even though mornings at Tiger Hill are incredibly crowded, with jeeps thick over the single road honking and spewing diesel fumes, the sunrise was spectacular, and to see the morning alpenglow on Khangchendzonga and its sibling mountains made the trip seem worthwhile to make at least once.



Fueled by a good start to the morning and breakfast, I walked to the Darjeeling Zoo. After the experience at Trivandrum, I was a bit hesitant to visit another zoo here, but was drawn by their having red pandas. I was pleasantly surprised, as this zoo had spacious enclosures for the animals with native vegetation and other enrichments for the animals. Heck, I’d stay in some of the enclosures they had if I had a tent (maybe not in the same ones with bears or Bengal tigers, though). And as for the red pandas, they pretty much topped the cuteness scale.

Bear enclosure. And there’s more space around back.
Himalayan bear nap
Red panda, AKA Firefox (yes, the search engine logo is a cartoon red panda)

The zoo was also the home to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, which has courses mostly for the military, but select civilians can benefit. It was first directed by Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa who with Sir Edmund Hillary, first scaled Everest in 1953. The institute has a mountaineering museum, with interesting displays on the mountains nearby, Everest expeditions, and mountaineering equipment.

I was planning to leave a few days after I came, but I’ve kept extending my stay. I’ve enjoyed spending my time here just looking and walking around, gawping at the views, enjoying Tibetan and other various restaurants, and of course, drinking lots of tea. The road and the mountains beckon though, so tomorrow I’ll head further north by another shared jeep. See you soon!

The Cherry on Top

Pondicherry, or its pre-colonial name, Puducherry, is like an Indian New Orleans. No small wonder, as it was largely colonized by the French vs the English as many other towns were. So when walking down the streets, there’s a mix of French architecture, coconut trees and other greenery, and lively South Indian colors. Pondicherry is along the Bay of Bengal, and while there’s no big sandy beach, there is a small rocky strip of sand with rocks along the water, and a large walkway where people stroll along in morning and evening time. The adjacent street is blocked off at night as well, making it a merry and peaceful posada.

Here are some pics I took around town.

Gandhiji Memorial


This was not the guesthouse, in case you’re wondering.

I managed to get a room in the prized Park Guest House. Run by the Aurobindo ashram, it sits along the shore and all the rooms face the sea, with balconies as well. The balcony made a great place to do morning sun salutations and meditation. And if one could ever get tired of watching the waves, there’s a peaceful garden to admire and walk in as well.


Morning. At first there’s no distinction between water and sky. All is a blue-grey mist that gets lighter with time. Slowly, slowly, the faintest of pale pink appears as the sky lightens. Soon the pink is reflected on the water as the waves roll in. Then suddenly, a sliver of neon pink-orange sun appears above the clouds on the horizon, and rises, reflected on the water, a giant ball of light. And so the day begins.


While there, I spent much time just wandering the streets and admiring the atmosphere. But I did manage to make it to the ashram itself. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, who developed his own style of yoga which he called “integral yoga”, and by a French woman named Mirra Alfassa, known simply as “The Mother”. Both have passed on, but the tradition remains strong and the ashram is quite an organization with shops, offices, and guest houses all over town. The main ashram is where Sri Aurobindo and “The Mother” are interred, and visitors to the ashram are shepherded around the shrine, to the bookstore, and then to the exit. That’s pretty much it. 

As the ashram guesthouse had no wifi, I looked for cafes that had it available. Very few and far between. I went to one cafe who actually told me that they didn’t give out passwords on weekends. What? Seriously? But I didn’t even ask why. I’ve learned not to. Knowing the (usually very odd) reason doesn’t change the fact that I’m not going to get what I want. It’s much easier just to let it go. In the words of Jimmy Buffett, “breathe in, breathe out, move on”. But it was sort of fun trying new places in search of wifi, and even the place that didn’t give the passwords made a great chocolate croissant.

My last evening there was a real treat, as I was able to watch a blood moon rising above the water. As it climbed higher it changed to a bright orange, and appeared like a giant jack-o-lantern. Rising higher, it became ivory, casting a shimmering glow upon the water. And to top it off, a fireworks display right near the guesthouse. It was a great send-off, even though I’m pretty certain it wasn’t just for me.


And for laughs, two last funny pics. 

The first: what may be the ugliest dog I’ve seen in India. I saw him on the beach each day I was there. And before you feel too bad for him, I did see him with a female companion, confirming that love certainly is blind.


And last: This poster appeared all over town while I was there. Interest piqued, I looked up the website. Hmmmm.

The Venice of India: Alleppey

My original travel plan was to take a week in all the places I visited, adding or subtracting days as I saw fit. But since deciding on the yoga course I’ve had to prioritize and condense said schedule. While I believe the change in plans will be worth it, this is the third place I’ve visited in a row in which I’ve wished I had more time. However, I’m  grateful I’ve been able to visit here the last two days.

Alleppey (or it’s pre-colonial name Alappuzha) is famous for its canals and backwaters that run through the region, and the houseboats that float along the major canals. The houseboats seem interesting, yet they’re very plentiful, and also take a toll on the local environment.

A more eco friendly option is the canoe trip, which takes a more intimate course through the smaller canals and villages. It’s more wallet friendly as well: A houseboat runs about 6-7000 rupees a night: about $100. The canoe trip is just under $15. I tried to find a kayaking tour, but none were to be found. This was a lovely alternative, and a day well spent. We had a great guide who did the paddling (although we got to pitch in if we wished to), and provide a wealth of information about the local area. Quietly floating along at a gentle speed past houses, villagers and colorful vegetation was a most relaxing way to spend the day. As an added bonus, we were treated to a Keralan meal, traditionally served on a banana leaf.

Kerala has a beach as well, that is a much quieter affair with just a few restaurants and ice cream stands, and no blasting music.

Those are the main attractions of Alleppey. It’s a tropical town that says “Relax, slow down, and don’t take tension”. Definitely worth visiting for a week or even much longer.

Coonoor, continued

My sightseeing in Coonoor started off with the Highfield Tea Company. The HTC is on a plantation in Coonoor, and is open to the public. Tea was imported here to India by the English in the 1800’s so that they wouldn’t have to buy it from China, and could instead make the inhabitants of India grow it for them for a much cheaper price. Hmmm. 


The tea plant, Camelia sinensis, grows naturally as a tree when left to its own devices. It’s kept in shrub form (sort of like a bonsai) to make it easier to harvest the leaves. All teas, whether white, green, oolong, or black, come from the same variety of plant. The difference lies in the part of the plant that is used: the very central smallest part of the shoot for white, young lighter leaves for green, and older leaves for black. Oolong is made by oxidizing the leaves. The finer teas are sold as loose leaf, and the more inferior generally are sold for use as powder or in tea bags. Most of the masala chai in India is the latter version, processed by the CTC method: cutting, tearing, and crushing the leaves. Mixed with the right blend of spices though, it still makes some tasty tea.

Most of the tea produced in this region is bought by the big tea companies, but there is still available for local buyers, or tourists.


After the tea plantation, I visited some scenic lookouts and Sims park in the town of Coonoor. Lots of beautiful scenery, and nice quiet places to just sit and be.



Which was a good thing, because the next day I discovered what a Tatkal train reservation was. I had seen it at train stations and wondered. Now I know. A Tatkal ticket is a last-minute, day before the journey ticket for those of us who fail (or choose not to) plan. Here’s how it works:

One arrives the day before the journey at 0745 to get a numbered request for the ticket, elbowing the rest of the crowd for one’s place in line. But the ticket isn’t given then. Oh no. One has to return 2-3 hours later to actually buy the ticket, this time in an orderly queue by number. Don’t ask me why. But thankfully, the effort paid off, and I managed to get a ticket for the Nilgiri Mountain Railway on the downhill trip to Mettupulayam.

 The NMR is a famous narrow gage railway and is a UNESCO heritage site. It was featured in the Bollywood movie song “Chayya chayya“, in which the crew danced on top of the moving train. For more info on the railway, click here. Click on the title of the song for the YouTube video. For those who are curious, no, I didn’t see anyone dancing on the train. Just spectacular scenery. Enjoy.



Before I end this post, I’d like to give a hearty recommendation to the folks at Sun Valley Homestay. They’ve gone the extra mile to help me around as a solo traveler, the room has been great, and the food so incredible that it deserves its own future post. If you ever come to Coonoor, I would highly suggest staying here!

Goan nowhere?

I’ve been in Northern Goa for several days now, and am in a quandary of sorts.

Visiting various places for a few days at a time, plus extended travel schedules, has worn this body and mind out a bit.

So visiting the beaches of Goa sounds like the perfect place to relax, right? It’s a town along the coast with old Portuguese architecture, a laid back feel, and miles of beaches. The perfect place to take a break.


Not so much.

While walking along the beach has been soothing, and having nowhere specific to go has been restful, it’s certainly not what I expected. 

Goa has the reputation in India as being a place to party, and now I understand why. As a single older traveler, I am invisible to those who are here to get high, drunk, or engage in other such activities. Which is fine, since I do not. But in my two months of being a solo traveler, I have never felt as alone as I have here in the crowds of vacationers.

And the trance/club/”uncha-uncha” music that is still playing after 11 at night is not exactly restful.

So I find myself still a bit worn out, and losing momentum. I want to head further south, but can’t get excited for any particular place. Yet staying here is not as appealing as I thought it might be.

So for those who haven’t been here, I’ll share some of the more beautiful aspects of the town through pictures. There have been some beautiful places, and I don’t mean to whinge about a lovely vacation spot. But perhaps my followers in India or those that have been here may understand.

I’ll welcome suggestions of somewhere to go to rejuvenate energy for the trip.

Preferably without trance music.

Arambol beach
Returning the boat
It takes a village: pulling in the catch of the day

Caves and Castles: Aurangabad

My plan for visiting Aurangabad was the Ajanta and Ellora caves, and I happened upon a few extras while there.

The Ajanta Caves were built around the 2nd century BC to the 6th century AD, and are a mix of monastic viharas and meditation halls. The 28 caves are set in a horseshoe shaped cliff with a peaceful meandering river below. I spent several hours here, admiring the work and the energy of monastics from a long time ago.

The caves from a distance
Pillar and fresco. It’s all a bit dark, unfortunately. No flash allowed.
Cave facade, and a girl that I’m pretty sure is giving me the stinkface!-)

Daulatabad Fort was part of a packaged bus deal. It was a great addition, as the place was peaceful and beautiful. It could have taken a day on its own. Built in the 12th century, it must have appeared as an impressive fortress that would last forever. Now, its walls are crumbling, and nature is taking it back, only adding to its beauty.


Next up were the Ellora caves. These were built later on, in 600 to 1000AD. There are 34 caves in all, including Buddhist, Hindu and Jain. Sadly, as the bus tour was a bit rushed, I only saw about half of them. I saw the Buddhist monasteries, and a few Hindu, including the impressive Kailash temple. But as advice to other travelers, Ellora is close to Aurangabad: hire a rickshaw and stay for as long as you want.

Waterfall at the Buddhist caves
Three-storied Buddhist monastery
Kailash Temple

We also stopped at the Bibi ka Maqbara, also known as the “Mini Taj Mahal”. It was built by the son of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Azam Khan, as a mausoleum for his mother. Azam’s plan was to make it completely out of marble and have it look like the Taj in Agra. Aurangzeb put the kabosh on that though. Guess he wasn’t quite as enamoured with his wife as Shah Jahan was to his. The building does resemble the Taj Mahal, but on a much smaller scale.


My trip to and from Aurangabad was equally as interesting as the tourist attractions were. The train to and from Mumbai does not do tourist seats, so because I didn’t buy a ticket ahead of time, I ended up in a second class car. It was everything I imagined riding in the non-AC section of India’s trains would be, except it wasn’t so crowded that anyone had to ride on top of the train. There was one guy that went up on the luggage rack though.

The ride back was even more crowded. As the train pulled into the station, what seemed like five hundred people all tried to get into a single train doorway, pushing and shoving their way in. By the time I got to my seat, a family had camped on it, and I ended up across the aisle. Better than the floor, which is where about a dozen people sat. Every few minutes a vendor with various, food, chai, water, or trinkets would step through all the people in the aisles, yelling out what he was selling, to make his way through the car. It was crowded and hectic, yet everyone seemed to take it all in stride. Eventually, I could feel myself doing the same and just enjoying the ride.

Lakeside loveliness 

I took a “sleeper” bus from Jaisalmer to Udaipur, as there was no direct train. I won’t go into sniveling details, but let’s just say that the term sleeper for a bus is even more optimistic than the train.

Despite lack of sleep, I arrived in Udaipur with some energy to explore the city. Udaipur is spread around Lake Picchola, which is about 12 sq. km.. The main tourist spot is the city palace complex, which is Rajasthan’s largest palace. Like many of these grand structures, it was started by one ruler and built upon by subsequent ones. This palace was initiated by Maharana Udai Singh II in 1599.


The museum inside displayed some of the interior architecture, along with articles used by the maharanas. My favorite parts were the stained glass windows, but it was all impressive.


Outside of the city palace, there are peaceful sites by the lake to relax, and I explored these in the afternoon.


Another popular building on the lakeshore is the Bagore ki Haveli, which has a museum with the largest turban, among other things, and at night hosts a Rajasthan culture show. I would highly recommend both for a sampling of local culture.


My last tourist visit was to Sajjan Garh, or the monsoon palace. It’s not very old, as it was built in the late 19th century by Maharana Sajjan Singh. Apart from some scaffolding in various parts, it looks like it’s been largely neglected since then. But it’s main draw is the surrounding scenery vs the architecture. It’s a few miles from town on the top of a hill, and offers endless gorgeous views from the surrounding area. It’s also a favorite place to watch the sun set, with good reason.


Apart from these main attractions, I’ve been wandering by shops, puzzling vendors by being the rare tourist that isn’t interested in buying things, and finding quiet places by the lake not mentioned in Lonely Planet. Overall, it’s been a peaceful visit.

Camel-lot

I started out the morning with a trip to Jaisalmer Palace Fort; another outstanding example of Rajput architecture. 


“Hanging out” in the Palace. Yes, they are what you think they are. I walked quickly through this section, as there was no alternative.

I started out early in the morning to beat the heat and the shop vendors, but caught them on the return. As I said “Not shopping today” to one vendor, the next one says “Shopping is very good for your health, madam”. I had to drop the no-nonsense facade and just laugh, replying that I preferred yoga. That got a smile, and a reprieve.

At three in the afternoon, I joined a dozen people from Belgium, and a last minute add on from Portugal. After loading on sunscreen, we piled into jeeps and drove into the Thar (pronounced “tar”, but with a flat-tongued emphasis on the t) Desert. We first visited a deserted village. 250 years ago, the inhabitants were of a high priestly caste who offered things to the gods for the common people. One day the Maharaja came to the village, saw a young woman and asked for permission to marry her. The group refused because they were higher caste. The maharaja gave them an ultimatum: either allow me to marry this woman, or I will kill your village. He allowed them a three day decision operiod, during which they dispersed to other towns, leaving the village empty. No one moved into them due to fear of being haunted.

Next we met our camels and drivers and began riding. These were one-humped Dromedary camels specific to Rajasthan. Cushions were thankfully present, although after a while it still felt like we were sitting on bags of rocks. Camels are tall, with long gangly legs. When they get up from lying down, your body is lurched forward. If you’re not leaning back and hanging on, you will be pitched forward onto the ground (no, I wasn’t, and neither did anyone else).

If you’re not the leader of the pack, the view is pretty much the same
Picas, one of our camel drivers

We rode out to the dunes in about ninety minutes, where the drivers set up camp and and cooked dinner. The dunes themselves are not Sahara sized, but are still impressive, and fun to play around in. After we ate a dinner of lentils, vegetables, rice and chapati, one of the drivers shared his life story after being asked, and then we were audience to a Marwari concert, as we fell asleep under the stars. While it was delightfully cool when we went to bed, by early morning I was quite thankful for the blanket that had been provided. I woke early to see the sunrise, and we all rode back to the jeep after breakfast. It was a great experience, and the staff were wonderful.


Next stop is Udaipur, which will probably be my last stop in Rajasthan. I can’t see everything, but feel like I’ve already seen a good sampling of the state during this trip. 

Gloriously Golden

I arrived in Jaisalmer about noontime, and settled into my room at the hotel after they picked me up from the train station. I happily splurged a few hundred rupees more for AC, as temps appeared to be in the low 90’s. I took some time in the afternoon to walk around looking at the buildings. Many of the houses, called havelis, have central courtyards with the rooms facing inwards to allow for light and airflow. As the wind goes through the courtyard, it cools in the summer yet stays warm in the winter. Hava is the Hindi word for wind, hence haveli.

From inside the haveli
Such intricate design

I was impressed with the cleanliness of the streets that I hadn’t seen in a while. Apart from the odd cow patty, not a whole lot of garbage laying about. Such a beautiful city, it’s pleasing to miss the general rubbish display of other towns.

The haveli of “The men who stare at goats”, or perhaps “The goats who stare at men”

The next morning I planned to check out the fort…until I got out of bed and sped to the bathroom. My gut revised the day’s plans to alternatively staying flat on my bed and calling my attention to the interior of the bathroom (which is, btw, lovely with painted tiles). 

I’ve spent more time in much worse bathrooms!

The fever, chills, body aches, and an overwhelming urge to be horizontal came afterwards. I honestly felt like death was watching. After the fever rose to the point which I could feel my brains simmering, I resigned myself to the need for some pharmaceutical intervention, and sent the hotel guy with a list of medication to get. He returned shortly with medication that would have been at least $30 in the states. Here? About $1 (OK, I’ll skip the rant on how big pharma overcharges for their medications in the US). Eight hours later, the fever went down, and I managed to eat a few biscuits and take some water. By this morning, I felt like a new woman, and managed a late breakfast, lunch, and a wander in the afternoon spent looking at various havelis. And was rewarded by a golden view of the city.


I still took it easy because tomorrow is the big day: an overnight camel safari in the desert. And that will be my next post. Stay tuned and be well!