India: Fucking Delhi Pickpockets

Delhi police

The good news first – Daniel Georges has safely arrived in India to accompany us for the last two weeks of our trip. The bad news – he spent most of his first morning in the police station. But it wasn’t his fault.

I had my cellphone pick pocketed after breakfast this morning. I was crossing the street when a group of young men bumped into me pretty hard. I didn’t think much of the incident until a minute later I noticed my phone was gone. Luckily my wallet was in a zippered pocket. The guys were long gone by the time I noticed, and I’m not sure I’d recognize them anyway. I was busy talking to Emily and Dan and trying not to get hit by cars when they bumped into me. We rushed back to the hotel to try and locate the phone and disable it, but by then battery had been removed. These guys were likely pros.

I should have been more careful. We’ve been in India for 3 months without any problems, but last night Emily had her sunglasses stolen from her bag. Delhi, it appears, is teeming with thieves. It’s a shame, because I was starting to like the city.

Filing a police report was an interesting experience. Like most encounters with Indian bureaucracy, it involved a lot of paperwork and waiting. But I was surprised when a police officer said “first we examine crime scene and then we take action. Come”. And we hopped into the back of a police truck for a drive by the intersection. I’m not sure what they learned from that, but it was more than I expected.

I’ve come to rely on my phone a lot, especially the data connection. It sucks to lose it after recently going through a lot of effort to get a new sim card. With only two weeks left, it’s not worth replacing it. We’ll just have to travel the old fashioned way, relying on planning, a notebook, and wifi hotspots (for Emily’s iPad). There is a decent chance the police might recover the phone now that I’ve reported it stolen and given them the IME Number, if this article is to be believed, but I’m not going to get my hopes up.

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India: Crazy Transportation Day

India - Train from Varanasi to Siliguri
So many of our memorable moments in India have occured while traveling between cities. We often travel cheap, so that means a lot of time in shared jeeps, buses, and trains, and a lot of interesting interactions with locals. Our day traveling from the Makaibari Tea Estate to Kolkata was one of the wilder days.

To start, we didn’t have a confirmed train tickets to Kolkata. A week ago we decided to prepone our visit to Kolkata by 2 days when our trek was cut short, but the trains were all sold out. Most trains have a few seats reserved for foreigners like us who plan their trip last minute, but you can only buy them in person at big train stations and Darjeeling doesn’t qualify. Without white privilege on our side, we had to take our chances on the wait list with everyone else. We weren’t sure what our chances were of getting seats. We started out in position 18 and 19 and had moved up to 11 and 12 on the day of the train. We had hoped we would find out the night before if we got tickets, giving us time to execute a backup plan if we were unlucky, but we didn’t find out until 3 pm, a few hours before the train departed. When we got the email and text message notifying us we had seats, we were standing in line at the station trying desperately to book an alternative. We were extremely lucky to get tickets. Our seats were in carriage BEX, a special carriage added to the train for the Eastern Railway Trekking Club but with a few extra seats given to wait list passengers.

Getting to the train station was a bigger adventure than getting the train tickets. After lunch at the tea estate, we flagged down a passing shared jeep heading to Siliguri. There was only one seat left in the back benches, but the money collector jumped out and rode outside, one foot on the bumper and one on the spare tire, with his hands clutched to the roof rack for the rest of the twisting, bumping ride down the mountain. I was worried about him whenever we hit a bump or swerved to avoid another vehicle, but he seemed to be enjoying himself. Shortly after we took the last two seats (facing sideways in the back benches), we picked up two more men who found a way to squeeze in the back next to Emily and I, and firmly sardine us in. It was the most uncomfortable 90 minute ride of my life. We picked up a few more passengers, but luckily they sat on the roof and hung from the back instead of climbing onto our laps. At one point I counted 18 people in/on our jeep, which is normally full and cozy with 10.

In Siliguri, we extracted ourselves from the human compression chamber and climbed into the back of a shared rickshaw to the train station. It was surprisingly comfortable by comparison, with only 6 passengers squeezing in. Every time someone left our driver would wait and troll around for someone new to take her place. Standard practice in India, but I think one of the passengers got annoyed with the frequent delays. At least I assume that was the gist of the 30 minute angry Hindi yelling match that ensued between him and the driver. The passenger was literally frothing at the mouth and spitting red beetlenut on my pants. The driver was freaking out and spent more time looking back at us then at the road ahead. The other passengers were either amused or annoyed by the argument, but didn’t say much. Eventually the irate passenger jumped out of our moving rickshaw and our angry driver swerved over to confront him. I assumed it was going to turn into a fist fight, but they just yelled at each other for another few minutes and shockingly the irate passenger paid the 20 rupee fair and we drove off, our driver still cursing, but with no one responding.

Train to Calcutta
Good thing we had five hours to sit around in the train station and calm down after all that excitement. Just another day traveling in India.

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India: Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling is the famed British hill station and tea plantation centre. It is also a good base for trekking in the Himalayas and exploring Sikkim. As such, our time in town was split into three visits and by the last one we had finally got a feel for the city that vexed us on our first visits.

India - Darjeeling
We arrived in Darjeeling in the back of a shared jeep that winded up bumpy switchbacks and made me motion sick. We then spent an hour wandering hopelessly lost with our big packs on, trying to find the Vodafone store (to get a new simcard) and our hotel. Navigating in Darjeeling is extremely difficult. Maps fail to show the elevation or hidden staircases that connect the twisting streets. Even asking for directions, it felt like we were sent in circles, going up and down hills.

India - Darjeeling

Darjeeling is a fascinating town. It is perched on the top of a mountain, at over 2000 meters above sea level. It’s cleaner than the rest of India and many of the upper streets, like The Mall, are car-free. Local porters, with stooped backs and heavy loads strapped to their foreheads, are a common sight as they deliver packages to businesses.
India - Darjeeling

Even though the British are long gone, Darjeeling revels in Western culture more than anywhere else we’ve been in India. We heard more 80s soft rock than Bollywood tunes and the main shopping strip features a Glenary’s bakery, Frank Ross Chemist Shop, and Oxford book store, all of which look preserved from the 1950’s.

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill
Darjeeling has amazing views of the neighbouring Himalayan mountains, especially Kanchengjunga (3rd highest in the world). Our guide book recommended getting up at 4 am and taking a shared taxi to the top of Tiger Hill to get an amazing view of the sun rising over the mountain. It seemed awfully early, but we set an alarm anyway. We layered up as best as we could (we didn’t pack a lot of warm clothing) and tried to leave our hotel. The doors and gates were locked tight and we couldn’t wake anyone with knocking. We thought of going back to bed, but instead decided to break out of our hotel. From an inner courtyard, we found a spiked gate that we were able to climb over without killing ourselves and escape onto the street. An hour later, after many Eagles and Bon Jovi tunes, we arrived at Tiger Hill which was packed with tourists. However, the sunrise views were epic as promised. At the time we didn’t realize how lucky we were, but every other day we spent in Darjeeling was cloudy and the mountains were impossible to see.

India - Darjeeling

The cool temperatures and mountain views were originally what attracted the British to the area. They loved coming here in the summer when temperatures in Kolkata were over 40 C. But in March, it feels more freezing than refreshing, and after our dawn adventure we realized we lacked the proper clothing for the mountains, especially for trekking. We spent our first day shopping for wool socks, sweaters, scarves, and mitts. We probably went a little overboard and now a third of my pack is taken up by a heavy fleece sweater and thermal underwear that will be useless in Kolkata and Delhi, but I might get to use them again when we visit the mountains north of Delhi in a few weeks.

India - Darjeeling
India - Darjeeling
Darjeeling has a great little zoo and mountaineering museum. The zoo is home to many endangered local animals, like red pandas, snow leopards, and Himalayan wolves, and is famous for its breeding and conservation programs. They also have a majestic Bengal tiger. The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute museum is co-located with the zoo and has a fascinating exhibit on Everest expeditions, including a lot of info about Tenzing Norgay, the sherpa that summited Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary.
India - Darjeeling

For our 3 year wedding anniversary, we splurged a little and got a room at the Little Tibet boutique resort. It was worth it for the romantic dinner, modern washroom with little soaps and lotions, and a comfy heated bed. You know we’ve been traveling for too long and staying in budget accommodation when free shampoo gets us excited.
India - Darjeeling

India - Darjeeling
A trip to Darjeeling wouldn’t be complete without a stop at a tea plantation, so we spent a day and night at a homestay at the Makaibari tea estate. We took the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway toy train down to Kurseong, which is as far as the train currently runs since a landslide wiped out the tracks further down the mountain in 2010. The train is slower than taking a jeep but a much more pleasant ride. Unfortunately my camera lens jammed during the train ride, so I only have a few cellphone photos from the tea estate. It’s a beautiful place. We went on a factory tour and learned how tea is made and what the difference between black, green, oolong, and white tea is – they’re all made from the same leaves but go through different rolling and fermenting steps. But the most informative and interesting part was staying in the home of a local family. Our host, Bomaka, cooked us meals and we spent time chatting with her and her kids about our lives and theirs. I even spent an hour helping her son with his computer science homework. I loved it.
India - Makabari Tea Estate
India - Makabari Tea Estate

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India: Sikkim

India - Pelling, Sikkim
Sikkim is a small Indian province between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan with some spectacular Himalayan mountains. We spent 5 days enjoying the unique culture, eating momos, visiting Buddhist monasteries, enjoying the mountain views when it was sunny, and drinking millet beer when it was thundering and hailing outside.

India - Pelling, Sikkim
We expected it to be cold and snowy but the temperatures were warmer than Darjeeling, probably because the places we visited were at lower elevations. We did a tour of the towns in West Sikkim, spending time in Pelling, Yuksom, and Tashiding.

India - Yuksom, Sikkim

We liked Sikkim. The weather in March wasn’t great, but when it was clear there were great views of the towering Himalayan mountains like Kanchenjunga. The food and culture are very different from the rest of India, with strong Nepalese influences. The main tourist attractions are the Buddhist monasteries that seem to occupy the top of every peak and trekking. We didn’t do any overnight treks, but spent most of our time walking to monasteries and other sites. There is a hike between Yuksom and Tashiding that passes by three monasteries and takes 5 hours that is apparently worth doing. You can send your luggage by jeep so all you have to carry is a day bag. Unfortunately, we didn’t find out about it until we arrived in Tashiding. Although that might have been for the best, as it thundered and hailed while we would have been hiking.
India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Tashiding, Sikim

India - Yuksom, Sikkim
Traveling around Sikkim was an adventure in itself. There aren’t any trains and few buses. The main mode of transportation is shared jeeps that drive between the towns. Some have schedules, but most just wait until they are full (10 passengers plus the driver) before leaving. The roads are steep and bumpy and even though the distances between most towns is less than 30 km, it took hours to get anywhere. Traveling between Darjeeling and Pelling involved 3 shared jeeps.

India - Sikkim
Getting into Sikkim
Foreigners need permits to enter Sikkim, which we were able to get in Darjeeling. It is free but time consuming to get. First we had to show our passport and fill out a form at the Foreign Registry office near the clock tower. Then we had to walk 20 minutes across town to the District Magistrate Office and get our passport stamped and get an official entry permit. The office is only open Monday-Friday until 4 pm and we showed up with 2 minutes to spare on Friday afternoon. Our guidebook said we needed extra passport-sized photos, but no one asked for them. Our entry permit allowed us access to the main southern towns of Sikkim for 15 days. For more you have to get another permit in Gangtok. Upon entering Sikkim near Jorethang, we had to show our passports and entry permit at a border check.

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Transit Referendum – Vote YES

Chennai metro under construction
I might be half way around the world, but I’m still following the transit referendum in Vancouver. Being in India, I have a unique perspective of how important good public transit is. Many of the big Indian cities we’ve been to are choking with air pollution and traffic congestion.

Over the past few decades, Indian cities have seen spikes in population and car ownership without any new public transit projects. Now, they trying to play catch up and are investing heavily in rapid transit. It seems that every major city we’ve been to has a metro system under construction – Chennai, Kochi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Jaipur, Agra, and Varanasi. In fact the Indian government is funding metro construction in any city of more than 2 million people.

Sadly, our current Canadian government ignores urban issues and the BC is no fan of transit. Neither recognize the importance to the economy. The BC Liberals have no problem spending billions on highway expansions and new bridges but won’t finance new transit projects. The best they’ve agreed to is a referendum on a new 0.5% sales tax in Metro Vancouver with the money raised going to fund transit and other congestion reducing projects (including bike lanes and a new Pautullo Bridge). It’s ridiculous that public transit has to beg for money via a referendum, but it is the best chance Vancouver has to get new infrastructure in the next decade.

So, I’m encouraging all my friends in Vancouver to vote YES. I’m happy that the mail-in ballots aren’t due until the end of May so I’ll have time to vote when I get back.
image

Details on the referendum.

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India: Singalila Trek

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

The Singalila Range forms a ridge of hikeable mountains along the India-Nepal border that offer awesome views of the Himalayan mountains including Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world (8598 m). We set out to do a 5-day trek from Maneybhanjang (near Darjeeling) to Phalut, but unfortunately didn’t make it all the way. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

The first day I was really slow going up the 11 km with over 800 metres elevation gain. That night I was so chilled and achy I couldn’t sleep until the wee hours of the morning. All night all I could think about was the 21 kms we had to cover the next day and the ascent up to 3636 metres above sea level. I was feeling better the next morning but knew I didn’t have enough energy to complete the day. We were lucky to have views of Kanchenjunga that morning before heading back down to Maneybhanjang. We were both disappointed about not making it to Sandakphu and Phalut, the two peaks with amazing views, but knew it was the right decision.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
We weren’t in the national park yet so we could do the descent without a guide, at least a human one. We had three different dogs join us for different parts of the day. They were just village dogs that seemed to want a little company and a journey. They responded better to petting than treats.
Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney
This one was our favourite, we named him Charzing.

Singalila Trek day 2 - return to Maney

Tour companies will arrange all-inclusive Singalila Trek expeditions for around 3000 rupees per person, but we’re cheap and resourceful so we planned our trek on our own. We wanted to create a comprehensive guide to the trek for others to follow, but since we never made it past Tumling (near Tonglu peak), our knowledge is incomplete. But here is what we figured out. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are two standard treks out of Maneybhanjang. A 3 day-trek to Sandakphu and down to Rimbik or the 5 day trek that goes to Phalut. Phalut has 360-degree views from the peak (3600 m) so that was the trek we chose.
India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1
We took a shared jeep from Darjeeling to Maneybhanjang in the morning. Apparently it’s not a very popular route. There were three other foreign tourists going to do the same trek and no one else. After waiting for 30 minutes we paid for the remaing five seats so we could get trekking at a reasonable time. We ended up trekking with our new friends to help share the costs.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Most of the hike is in the Singalila National Park, which requires visitors to be accompanied by a guide. If you’re not using a private tour operator, you can get guides through the Society for Highlander Guides and Porters Welfare (link), whose mission is to preserve the park and create employment opportunities for youth. The cost is 1200 rupees per day, including food and lodging for the guide, no matter how big your group is. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

There are government and private lodges along the way, as well as snack, water, and lunch huts. We only stayed in one, which was lovely. We had our own room with three beds, lots of blankets, and a washroom (cold water and squat toilet) for 800 rupees. We spent most of our time in the main house with the other guests by the fire. 

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

Lunch was either chowmein or noodle soup for 50 rupees and egg could be added for 20. Tea and water were a little more expensive than usual, 15-20 and 30 respectively. The one dinner we had was amazing (although I didn’t eat much) – dal, rice, veg curry, potatoes, fried bitter gourd, egg curry, raw veggies, and apricot dessert – for 150 rupees each. Breakfast was porridge, Tibetan bread, honey, jam, and a boiled egg for 100 rupees.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

We didn’t hire a porter and carried our own gear. We probably brought too much stuff. I would recommend packing lite – only bringing a few days of clothing, warm hat and gloves, and a headlamp. We rented down sleeping bags in Darjeeling for 80 rupees a day from Trek Mate. We didn’t need them in Tumling as there were plenty of blankets. We also foolishly brought snacks from Darjeeling that we could have bought at any of the tea stall that dotted the trail.

India - Singalila Ridge Trek Day 1

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Himalayan Anniversary

Rocky Mountain Wedding

Three years ago I married one lovely lady in the Rocky Mountains. Today we’re spending our 3 year wedding anniversary in the Himalayas.

India - Darjeeling Tiger Hill

The first three years have been great and we continue to support each other through the challenges we face. Hopefully the next three years propels us to new heights.

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