If this isn't a contradiction, Varanasi was the shock we expected it to be - a crazy, chaotic mix of holiness and honking rickshaw horns. A half-hour stroll along the River Ganges was enough to take in the sight of bodies being burned on the water's edge as part of a Hindu funeral ritual, people washing their clothes (or their herds of buffalo), and kids playing cricket on the huge concrete steps that lead down to the water. Every evening there is an enormously impressive, hour-long ceremony by the riverbank, where we saw throngs of hundreds, if not thousands, of people sitting on the steps and in boats. Barely a spare inch of concrete or water was left around the almighty bell-clanging, fire-whirling area. Also in Varanasi, we visited a local restaurant, the Brown Bread Bakery, that runs a school for poor kids and donates a portion of its profits to the cause. We dutifully ate there and then visited the school... And then we found out it was a massive scam, that the kids and "teachers" were just sitting around in case any unsuspecting tourists came along, and that the real and significantly more fabulous do-gooding bakery was on the opposite side of the road (complete with a real school). Not exactly an isolated incident of corruption in this country but, really, who does that?
From Varanasi, we headed further north to Himalaya country. We've spent the past two weeks there, being driven from village to village up impossibly steep hills in shared jeeps with jingly, high-pitched Nepalese pop music blaring at full volume. Our first stop was Darjeeling, which has been one of my favourite places and proved such a contrast to the rest of India, with a mixed, incredibly mild-mannered Nepali, Tibetan, Bengali population and Tibetan-influenced food. The hilltop town itself is a surprisingly unpretty and ludicrously steep place but it's surrounded by tiny villages, beautiful, colourful Buddhist monasteries and (quite obviously) tea plantations. We took the miniature train, which passes inches from the shops and houses, along the hillside to a nearby village for our first of many tastes of addictive Tibetan veg-filled dumpling called momos. Back in Darjeeling, we had afternoon tea, complete with cucumber sandwiches and scones, at a colonial-era hotel that one of our fellow guests said was like falling into a 1940s time warp. Our fellow tea drinkers included a Scottish book reviewer for the Independent and the Times Literary Supplement and two Danish guys - one a banker married to a Punjabi lady, and the other a former adviser to the finance ministry in Greenland. We sat in a tastefully understated sitting room with a roaring fire, surrounded by interesting paraphernalia such as a document listing the proper order of fireworks for George V's jubilee. But our favourite Darjeeling spot was definitely Joey's Pub - a tiny, wood-panelled bar run by a very lovely Nepali guy sporting huge sideburns and a cravat. During our first trip there, the soundtrack consisted solely of 1950s Cliff Richard.
We then headed into the northern state of Sikkim, and the village of Pelling, where we got our first (and only) good view of Khangchendzonga - the world's third-highest mountain. We got up at 4am and headed to the village's helicopter-landing pad and as the sun rose we saw several snowy peaks floating surreally in mid-air above the green hills. After about 20 minutes (and 200 photos) the sky clouded over completely, and we felt we'd imagined the whole thing.