For the traveler new to India, a good starting place is in the northern highlands along the border with the Himalayan kingdoms and China. Once the watering places of the British Raj escaping the intense heat of the plains, the hill stations are a cool and pleasant area from which to begin a tour of this fascinating land.




Two excellent reasons not to go to India in July are: Heat and the monsoon. But when fate or your travel schedule say, "Either go in July or don't go at all"; go anyway.

There's a solution: Hill stations. The British recognized their value as a respite from life-threatening heat and humidity when they developed Shimla into a summer home for the government in the late 1800s. Shimla is a good start for first-timers in India. You will recognize much of what you find there if you saw "Jewel in the Crown", the outstanding BBC series about the end of the British Raj in India. Based on the "Raj Quartet" novels by Paul Scott, the internationally acclaimed television series was filmed in those highlands.





Hill stations are relatively easy to get to, tourist friendly; and the 7,000-foot mid-hills of the Himalayas are blessed with a temperate climate. Local sights are accessible on foot, albeit uphill all the way. Beggars are infrequent and/or far less tenacious than in southern cities. Fewer holy cows wander about, but monkeys abound.

The down side is landslides. Monsoons cause roads to become a sometimes/sometimes-not kind of thing. A valley-side landslide may take away a good part of an asphalt surface, dumping tons of soil and rock on an unsuspecting area below. From the uphill side, a landslide can block roads until at least one lane of traffic can pass. Drivers weave around these and lake-size potholes, honking around hairpin curves to warn on-comers. Although driving conditions are horrendous, you rarely see accidents. In India, it's "no problem."




SHIMLA:

This year's monsoon (2007) was late, so the first two weeks of July in Shimla were rain-free, although neither cloud- nor fog-free. Clouds are part of the landscape. As July progressed, the monsoon took on considerable significance. Due to changing climactic conditions, the monsoon struck hard in northern India. A Bank of India slogan, "Yours as long as there is snow on the Himalayas", may require some rewording.

Describing anywhere as "relatively easy to get to" depends from where you start. From Delhi, Shimla is an overnight train ride to Kalka where the train changes to narrow gauge. On this train, doors stay open. People hang out open windows. If the train stops where there is no station, a likely explanation is that the engine uncoupled from the cars and went on its merry way. Luckily, there are brakes on the passenger cars to keep the cars from rolling steeply downhill from whence they came. The engine eventually comes back and fetches the cars. During the four-hours from Kalka to Shimla, riders relish the increasing greenness of the ascent, jumping on and off getting food from vendors at station stops.

In certain areas of the north there are no trains. That's where shared taxis come in. Individual drivers are for hire, but not necessary. A three-hour shared taxi ride costs about $3; if it turns into twice as long because of detours, it's the same price. A good tip is to book two seats in front with the driver ($6) so you aren't sardined.

Accommodations range from the YMCA in Shimla at $2 a night to a cushy hotel like the Nordkill in Gangtok at $70. It's possible to spend more, but you have to try. Except in major cities; in Delhi, the cheapest was $110, recommended by locals.

The hotel booked online was because it was close to the train station in Shimla, a 10-minute walk accompanied by a persistent, wannabee porter, who also tried to get me to change hotels and go on a trek. One gets used to it.



An introductory walk includes the mall, Scandal Point (the big open space for gathering), and nearby Christ Church, another familiar site for devotees of "Jewel in the Crown". An unfortunate comparison of the layout of the city has been to a landslide--buildings sliding down a hill. Fear not. It's been there since discovered by the Brits in 1819 and 50 years later becoming the summer capital. Alleyways and bazaars are fun to explore.



A must-see is the Jakhu (monkey) Temple. A sign at the entrance of the path
up from Christ Church says fit 30-year-olds should make it in a half hour; 60-year-olds, 55 minutes. Other factors are one's stage of altitude acclimatization and ability not to get lost. Either of these can prolong the journey. Sage advice is to put your glasses/sunglasses in a bag and have something to whack at aggressive monkeys. En route up, long sticks are for rent--easily mistaken for walking sticks. Their real purpose: self-defense. Sometimes monkeys climb on shoulders and steal glasses or hats, leaving scratches in the process. One ill-fated man who did not take the guard's advice got his glasses stolen. Helpers searched eight hours in the leaves before finding them and returning them to his hotel. The victim had made a theft report to the police. What are they going to do, arrest a monkey? A few precautions ward off any unwanted onslaught. When monkeys become overly predominant, the simian population is systematically reduced by shipping off to more rural areas as many of its members as can be caught.

Government tourist office bus tours are less than $5 for a six-hour outing. Typical tours go to Kufri, the ski area, and the golf course at Naldehra, among other destinations. Granted, a golf course sounds like a yawn factor. However, the higher one goes, the more amazing it is that a golf course has been carved out on a 90-degree slope.



Options along the way are horseback riding or a zoological park. The horseback ride is a good way to meet other sightseeing Indians. They are friendly and explain Hindu temple traditions: Washing hands before entering, touching the stairs on the way up, kneeling before the shrine, and receiving sweet water, rice and a red dot on the forehead. The red dot is a third eye is to see beyond what the other two cannot. At the temple stop on tour #1 the Chinese border is 35 kilometers away.

Returning from this excursion recently, the road was blocked by a boulder. A man with a sledgehammer futilely tried to break off bits of rock so traffic could pass. After three dynamite blasts and power drilling, the bus finally got through. The outing ended up being eight hours, rather than six.






DARJEELING:

Trains end at New Jalpaiguri station, the last major line in the north. From there, a shared jeep taxi gets you to other northern destinations. What was supposed to be a three-hour trip to Darjeeling doubled because a landslide blocked the main road. The detour was a one-car-wide path in most places. Adding to the challenge to gifted drivers, it was two-way traffic. Passing other cars within three inches, they navigated five-foot potholes, hairpin turns and traffic jams, arriving in Darjeeling in an additional two hours. Stops along the way may be for a flat tire or momas, a ravioli-like noodle stuffed with cooked cabbage.

If the day is clear, beautiful forests and mountains with vegetation differing from Shimla's are in evidence. If not, the view stops at 15 feet. It's amazing how the human eye sees mysterious, ethereal, other-worldly things, and the camera sees blobs of grey.

If clothes dampened by the previous day's rain haven't dried, just roll up wet pant legs, slip into soggy shoes and visit something like the Himalayan Mountain Institute. HMI lauds early Mount Everest conquests from 1953 and shows primitive equipment the climbers used. HMI is accessible only through the zoo, this one more appealing than many with stone walls and lots of greenery within. In rainy seasons, animals take cover, but Indian wolves, jackals, deer, a yak and birds thrive outside shelters. Zoo keepers offer to show the Siberian and Indian tigers inside for the duration of the monsoon. Another point of interest is the Botanical Garden's spacious grounds (when visibility allows).



The Happy Valley tea plantation is within walking distance from downtown Darjeeling. The plantation provides an affable woman at the gatehouse to tell you about tea making and offer samples. Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Picko 1 is the best and can be purchased for $3 per 100 grams. If the tea is in a sealed package surrounded by a transparent bag, it should make the trip home.

The Ambootia Tea Plantation is 90 minutes away, outside Kurseong. This trip came about thanks to a happenstance meeting with a native. Hurried walks under umbrellas in a monsoon downpour don't preclude meeting interesting people, such as the one who arranged this trip. Jiwan is an author who does research at the local library, the oldest building in Darjeeling, a good place to take refuge from rain. The reference section is a collection of crumbling, dusty books, but current publications and newspapers help pass the time. Staff offer tea when accompanied by someone they know.

My acquaintance knew the owner of the Ambootia plantation and arranged for the headmaster at the plantation school to meet us. The school was built last year with funds from Flo, a company in Germany, one of the European countries where tea from this plantation is exported. It is also interesting to see the nursery (for tea plants, not children) as well as how a unique organic fertilizer is made. Hollow cow horns are filled with cow dung and buried in the soil six months, producing potent plant food. This is liquified and sprayed on the plants. Exported tea is organic; chemicals are used on the tea for local consumption. Taller trees are interspersed with the tea plants, since too much sun is not good. Another non tea-tree plant sends roots eight feet into the ground, helpful in countering landslides. Women pick tea flowers and leaves and send the the contents of their baskets off to a drying plant. Tea workers here earn 52 rupees a day ($1.30) if they accept medical and school benefits; 65 rupees a day if they opt out of these benefits.




GANGTOK:

Since Gangtok borders China and is ripe for geopolitical picking, the Indian government has invested a lot into it to make it industrially productive and tourist friendly. The strategy should be positive, but the end result--at least entering from the south--is rampant trash (not uncommon in India), wires obstructing views and crowdedness. North Gangtok is nice, but entering the city is less so. Western Sikkim is reputedly prettier.

Being north of Darjeeling, Gangtok should be higher, no? Another surprise. Darjeeling is at 2123 meters; Gangtok, at 1759. The drive along the Teesta River bloated by monsoon rain suggests a supreme rafting experience. Not now, is the advice; the water conceals rocks which could easily do in rafters.


A day's hired car condenses sightseeing:

Rumtek - a 45-minute drive across the valley from Gangtok. This monastery was established by Tibetans of the Kagyu (Black Hat) sect who fled when China took over. India's acceptance of the 17th Karmapa is still in limbo. Indian authorities don't want to offend China by letting the teen-age lama in. A giant throne awaits him. Chanting services may be in progress, with hand-held rotated drums. The youngest monks, eight and ten years old, squirm in the back just like any kids would.

* Namgyal Institute of Tibetology - valuable for the story of Buddha and explanation of deities

* Damovar ropeway - a cable car to the top of the hill; views are often compromised by clouds

* Enchey Gompa - 2 kms steeply uphill if by foot, for Sikkim monks

* Do-Drul Chorten (Stupa) - an institute of higher learning for monks from Bhutan, who apparently get better-than-average financial support. To wit: Young monks snacking at a nearby, trendy cafe.




Accommodations:

Opting for a top-end hotel has its plusses and minuses. A multi-course dinner is one of the plusses: A Tongba-Sikkimese traditional drink of fermented millet served in a wooden vessel with hot water poured over (some alcoholic content). Then soup. Main course: chicken momo with chutney, pork and spinach, noodles with green peas, bambooshoot with curd, fiddlehead fern with fermented cheese, black dal (lentils) on rice. Rice pudding for dessert. Too much, but the variety is interesting. At local restaurants meals cost very little (taking care not to eat uncooked vegetables and drink only bottled water; anyone with half a brain brings diarrhea pills, of the anti-bacterial kind).

On the minus side, a high-end hotel is hardly the place to meet other interesting travelers. Groups of guests tend to stay to themselves. The tradeoff is aesthetics, comfort and service versus a roof, bed and more importantly, fellow adventurers who offer information and experiences. At least one is comfy in this self-imposed insularity!



Getting There:

Visas are needed for entry to India. India's border with Chinese-occupied Tibet makes a special permit necessary for foreign visitors going to Sikkim, obtainable preferably at the same time the India visa is obtained before departure. It can be obtained onsite, but requires paperwork so be prepared.

By air:

Main airport for Gangtok and Darjeeling is Bagdogra, 120 kms from Gangtok (a four-hour drive), 90 from Darjeeling. For Shimla a small airport for private aircraft is at Jubbarhatti, 23 kms south. Air India flies to Shimla.

By rail:

Nearest railhead for Gangtok and Darjeeling is New Jalpaiguri at Siliguri. For Shimla, overnight train from Delhi to Kalka, and switch to narrow gauge for four hours

By road:

National highway 31A connects major cities. Private and share jeep taxis are easy to hire. Bus service is available.




PHOTO CREDITS: All photos by Linda Quinet
– as published in Romar Traveler online magazine
2007 ROMAR TRAVEL GUIDES