Hi folks! As I type this Vicky is catching some sleep before her flight back to the UK tomorrow. I've been charged with writing a brief summary of the last three weeks, when I joined her for the last moments of her adventure.
I now realise that the brief summary has turned out to be anything but brief, so good luck.
Momos, The Pong and a Tea-Fuelled Tiger Hunt
We ate vegetable momos, we ate chicken momos. We ate beef and we ate pork momos. Momos with red chilli sauce, momos with ketchup, momos with green chilli sauce*.
Momos are a dumpling popular amongst the Himalayan people served in every shack/hotel/cafe/bar/man with a saucepan in car park we visited in the lower ranges of the Eastern Himalayas. They are served for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus as snacks in between.
On one three-hour jeep journey, I shared two double portions of beef momos with our friend Adrian. They made me ill for two days and I no longer eat momos. The thought of momos - which once generated images of fun-filled juiciness in my mind - fill me with dread, to the core of my gut, even now I'm back in Switzerland. Vicky decided not to risk eating them in front of me for the rest of our trip either.
Like momos, the culture and people of the area of North India we visited had a distinctly...well, non-Indian feel. Not a surprise really, with the borders of Nepal, Bhutan and China/Tibet within a couple of hours drive, but I don't think we had anticipated the extent of foreign influences. In Kalimpong - one of the three cities we visited - we got used to bumping into Bhutanese families and the most common language in 'The Pong' is Nepalese.
Having started our three-week tour with a trip to hunt down tigers in the Sunderbans (more on that later), our first proper stop 'up north' was in Darjeeling which, according to the locals, is home to the world's best tea. Our most enjoyable day involved a trip to a tea plantation but started much earlier (at 3 am in fact) when we decided to go up a hill to watch the sun come up over the area's highest mountain, and the third highest in the world: the Kangchenjunga.
We stumbled sleepily out of our hotel and flagged down a jeep which we shared with another English couple and two Aussies on the 45-minute journey in the dark to our destination at Tiger Hill. The mist made it an eerie experience as we joined a long line of jeeps at the entrance of the observatory area. We bought two Deluxe tickets at 40 Rupees a pop (the Super Deluxe tickets had sold out) and took our seat in a room with big windows which heaved with twitchy Indian and foreign tourists.
Now we think that the view through those big windows was onto a beautiful range of mountains, but as the start of day came and went, the only view we were treated to was that of a particularly fluffy grey cloud. The two shreds of excitement we were treated to came in the shape of a complimentary cup of tchai and the sun's silhouette briefly emerging from the mist. Cue mayhem: people lept off from their seats and bellowed oohs and ahs, until it disappeared again, just as quickly as it had arrived.
Next stop was the merrily-named Happy Valley Tea Estate. These 81 gardens produce Darjeeling's - nay the world's - best tea, we were told. A guide led us down a steep and narrow track through a green sea of small shiny tea bushes. At the bottom, ten or so women were picking leaves and placing them at remarkable speed into baskets on their backs. It didn't look like the most fun in the world, partly because the baskets were being held up by ropes that were wrapped around their foreheads, and partly because their every move was monitored by a couple of haughty male officials. I seem to remember they were holding sticks but I may have made that up.
After a fair bit of prodding on our behalf (without sticks), our guide admitted that the women were paid just 70 Rupees a day (less than £1), and that they received nothing during the winter months when leaves are not picked. After climbing back to the top of the plantation, we were ushered into a lady's home who made us a cuppa using the estate's finest leaves. The tea was made from boiling them for just 5 seconds. Reading the comments in the visitor's book sitting proudly on the sitting room table, many tourists felt that it was the best cup of tea they had ever drunk. Hmmm, not convinced.
After splitting the next few days between visiting a zoo, walking to a refugee centre for Tibetans, and having high tea in one of Darjeeling's colonial hotels (along with crustless triangle-shaped cucumber sandwiches, no less), we hopped into another shared jeep to make the two-hour trip to Kalimpong.
Our departure was delayed by a seemingly endless - but very orderly - line of schoolteachers campaigning for the area we were in to be separated from the state of West Bangal into a new state: Ghorkaland. In our two weeks in the area, the idea seemed to have unanimous and relentless support. As well as the marches, flags were hung on houses and on trees, and slogans were painted everhwere.
This latest push for independence only started last year when a native of Darjeeling won Indian Idol… We actually saw him perform briefly during our stay. From what we saw, it seemed to make sense for such a remote and unique part of India to have its own state, but the fact that the movement is recruiting young men 'with the right temperament' as volunteers for the fight ahead sounds like trouble.
The multi-use sports ground in the centre of Kalimpong isn't accustomed to many female spectators, by all accounts. Stares and smirks came our way (well, Vicky's way) as we tried to watch a cricket game, which was being played between a team in blue and a team in red on a dirt football pitch with a carpet for the wicket and the goal posts as the boundary.
It was nice to rest after experiencing the town's weekly market spanning across the city's steep and windy roads. Vicky bought a colourful shoulder bag and I watched some old men play a game I didn't understand. It seemed like a cross between pool and draughts, played with speed and extreme insouciance, and little communication between opponents.
Kalimpong is situated on top of a hill in between two other higher hills. We walked up one of the higher hills - getting lost near the top of one of them and nearly getting done for trespassing - and got a car up the other. The trek was pretty tough and the fantastic views that the guide book raved about were left to our imagination. In fact, throughout our two cloud-infected weeks we did not see further than the nearby hills and suspect that the 'world-famous' Kanchenjunga is a con. A myth mustered up by locals, perhaps, to lure innocent Westerners.
What do exist in Kalimpong, without any doubt, are Dr Graham's Schools - a famous British-style co-ed boarding school which sits above the city. I was particularly interested as its history is interwined with that of the Robins family, which my godmother Joanie is part of. Joanie's uncle Stanley devoted his life to the school and we were lucky enough to be shown around by his grandson Adrian, who helped us throughout our holiday. He had lots of fond memories of the school, including winning singing competitions, stealing chicken and baking fluffy warm bread.
Our next port of call was the semi-autonomous state of Sikkim, and more precisely Gangtok, its capital. It was clean, easy and peaceful (apart from the beef momo incident).
The Indian government has invested heavily Sikkim due, for reasons we're not 100 per cent clear on, to its proximity with China. We actually got to within 10km of the border on our visit to a monastery, which was guarded my armed military officials who insisted on seeing our passports before letting us in. As we'd left them at the hotel, some fun and games ensued until we were finally allowed in and saw a group of munks deep in chant, holding scriptures. The eldest of them looked in a passionate trance-like state of bliss, while the youngest few seemed distracted and a touch bored.
In a fairly unique set of features for India, Gantok's healthy appearance boasted proper pavements - separated from the road by freshly-painted green railings - as well as white lines to mark the middle of the road, and a brick-paved pedestrian area in the centre of town. Oh, and a cable car.
On our trip back to Kolkata, we stopped near Kalimpong for a spot of white-water rafting, India-style. Wet suits? No. Security briefing in office beforehand? That's a nicht nicht. Someone who could speak English on the raft with us? Not a chance. It would've been exhilarating enough without the security precaution oversights, but I guess it added to the experience. And it was fun. Even when they took the paddled off us, possible because we were struggling a bit with the instructions.
And the next day we were suddenly back in Kolkata again, back where it all started. Our trip had begun with a couple of nights at a modest hotel in the centre of town - to allow me to 'soak up' a bit of India and for Vicky to forget the comforts of Bangkok - before we headed to the Sunderbans where we were hoping to spot some man-eating tigers.
As it turns out, we spent many hours on a boat up and down the rivers of an amazing part of the world, with rising tides in its dense mangrove creating the perfect habitat for exotic and varied wildlife. That's what we guessed anyway as our guide was very economical with words, but he did show us a scar on his hand which is proof of a non-fatal encounter with a tiger.
We stopped every couple of hours to get onto land and climb up a watch tower. Alas, no man-eating mammals, but we did see lots of bright red crabs that looked tasty. Lots of big birds also drew our attention, and some monkeys.
So there we go! We endulged in the luxury of Kolkata's Tollygunge Club on Friday before I flew back to Switzerland and Vicky hopped on a train to Delhi, from where she catches her plane home. Thank God for that.
*Vicky has not suddenly started eating meat, she wisely stuck to the veg option.