Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Darjeeling and Sikkim

Jharkhand had been the most intense and exhausting part of the trip thus far, so I felt somewhat justified in going to a couple of pretty and somewhat touristy areas directly afterward. Darjeeling was the first stop on my way back into the Himalayan mountains. Once the favorite vacation spot for the British Raj overlords, it has continued the legacy of an economy dominated by outsider-owned tea estates and tourism but politically is more concerned with domestic squabbles over a separate state for the indigenous Gorkha people (the Gorkhaland movement).

Darjeeling itself is a strange mix of newish cobbled-together concrete construction, beautiful old British buildings, dozens of souvenir shops, and a big gross new Western-style shopping mall, all built into the side of a very steep mountain. My agenda was basically to look at some big mountains and check out some small scale hydropower energy projects, but the 5 days I spent there ended up being a bit more interesting than that.

I made my first friend by asking a random rocker-looking dude for directions to the jeep stand, and he ended up introducing me to his friends in the local punk band DaPrimitive Future and taking me to the best spot to see the sunrise over the world's 3rd highest mountain, Mount Kanchenjunga (the spelling is flexible apparently). He was a Tibetan refugee, marking the second time I'd made such a friendship in the Indian mountains. Darjeeling surprised me in what I began to uncover as a fairly active underground music scene. Apparently there's a few dozen punk, metal, and experimental bands from this smallish Indian city which seemed odd since I hadn't come across this subculture anywhere else in the country so far. I seemed to be encountering much more youth that were conscious of western "hipster" fashion, as well as quite a bit of ethnic diversity that tended toward more Asian features. My new friends informed me that the entire mountainous northeastern region of India is like this, even in the "remote, tribal" territories near the border with Myanmar where everyone has a Justin Bieber haircut and speaks fluent English solely from watching American TV and movies.
I did manage to hook up with a representative of the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency for a tour of a functioning small-scale hydropower project attached to an organic tea estate. I've had an interest in small and micro-scale hydro for awhile as a potential part of the answer for a sustainable energy future in Appalachia and other regions with lots of small streams and elevation drops. Although I'd heard that the Himalayas are home to many examples of hydroenergy projects that don't require huge dams and therefore massive ecological destruction, I'd been having a tough time getting in touch with anyone to actually show me a project. I was very grateful to Mr. Chakrabooti for giving me a private jeep tour of the Ambootia organic tea estate and the state-run power plant at the base of it for no charge. While there had been some earth moving and concrete structures built to make this possible, it appeared to overall be much more environmentally benign than large scale dams or any form of fossil fuel energy. Unfortunately I wasn't allowed to take pictures due to government paranoia around the Gorkhaland conflict.

It seemed like I'd taken in the majority of what Darjeeling had to offer, so I hopped in a jeep and rode over to Gangtok, the capitol of the neighboring state of Sikkim. This place is billed as India's "mountain paradise," with official permission required to even enter the state for a two-week stay. Similar to the neighboring country of Bhutan in many ways, Sikkim was an independent country up until 1975 when it peaceably merged with India, and it's native ethnic types bear little resemblance to the vast majority of plains Indians. The entire state is mountainous, and some areas are highly restricted to foreigners, such as the controversial Nathula Pass on the Tibetan/Chinese border.

After a typical night in a typical cheap hotel, I woke up with a strange feeling of positivity. I had absolutely no idea what to get into, so walked down the very steep streets to the tourism office and started leafing through a booklet on various attractions in the state. I was immediately mystified by a place called "Banjakhri Falls and Energy Park," with a brief, vague description of a place based around ecotourism, renewable energy, and shamanistic traditions that was only about 6km away from Gangtok. I asked the lady at the counter if it was within walking distance, and after she drew me a crude map I started on my way down the mountain.

What followed was a mostly amazing 2 hour walk down very steep concrete staircases and paths that meandered almost right through people's homes, and luckily everyone I met was very friendly and eager to help the random foreigner who was actually trying to walk somewhere. At one point a horde of grinning, jumping, laughing school kids chased me down a hillside, right before I found myself surrounded by beautiful terraced hillside farms and handmade wood and mud thatch houses. Eventually I found my way to the entrance of the park and paid my 35 rupee entrance fee (equivalent of about $0.80) and proceeded to wander around this very strange place.

Words can't really do it justice, but basically it was a mishmash of lifesize displays of local shamans (the Banjakhris) casting out demons and such, a few souvenir shops and food stalls, a fairly janky tiny "renewable energy museum," tons of solar panels, random things to play on (including a zip line across some river rapids!), and finally the majestic falls themselves. After wandering through all of this I noticed a neglected building which contained both a wood-fired gasification system on the top floor and a micro hydro system in the bottom. I had to jump over the railing to check it out, but I could tell that no one there minded too much. Intrigued by the hydro system, I decided to go up the river to see what kind of diversion structure they were using. After reaching this point I noticed a picturesque cable bridge just up the way, so I climbed up the hillside to check it out. Once there I turned around to find a terraced mountainside organic farm and started checking it out to see what methods they were using.

Before long some people in a nearby house had noticed me and sent a young woman to go find out what I was up to. Deepa turned out to be the niece of the people who lived in the adjacent house, and she invited me back to meet her family. I arrived to the scene of a freshly killed goat that was being expertly hacked up and pieced out for consumption and sale, and they were nice enough to let me watch the whole thing and take about 3 million pictures. I was invited to stay for dinner which I of course agreed to (various goat parts stew!), but before this Deepa took me on a tour of the surrounding hillside village, including across the cable bridge that had initially attracted my attention. Her little cousins Samson and Susmita came along and a good time was had by all, especially me.
During dinner I found out a bit more about the family and was eventually invited to stay with them for as long as I wanted. Moni (husband) and Menuka (wife) had moved here after marriage as this was Moni's ancestral family land, and about 10 years ago the Sikkimese state government approached them about using part of their land for a state park. They agreed, and the state then set up Banjakhri Falls park with the agreement that they (Moni and Menuka) would manage and run the park, keep the proceeds from admissions and vendor space, and submit an annual payment to the state. They had a fairly small staff of mostly young folks from the area, and Deepa was working at the ticket counter and renewable energy museum as a first job out of college. The organic farm I'd noticed earlier was theirs also and was mainly worked by the quietly saint-like Gophli. If it's not obvious by now, I was very smitten at this point.

I agreed to stay for an undecided period of time, and promised to help with anything I could. I ended up working in the funny little renewable energy museum fixing broken interactive energy demonstrations, making labels and explanations for the displays, giving interactive tours to Indian tourists (strangely I never saw a single foreign tourist here, only Indians on vacation), and hanging out with Deepa and the others as they took tickets. I got to be pretty good friends with Moni and Menuka's son Narin who ran the zipline, and generally settled into a little bit of a routine for a few weeks. However, against Deepa's wishes, I ended up buying a Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle from an American in Gangtok so that I could visit the nearby area of Pelling in West Sikkim.

This was my first experience of personally owning a motorcycle, and despite a few initial technical aggravations it was actually pretty awesome. The trip to Pelling and then to Yuksom was breathtaking as it wound through about 90 miles of intensely curvy and steep mountain roads that sometimes abruptly transformed from fairly decent pavement to absolute rubble. Although I nearly got hypothermia from a sudden intense cold rainshower, I made it intact to the touristy little town of Pelling which is reputed to have the best Kanchenjunga views in India. Unfortunately the weather was not on my side the following morning as the sunrise and mountain peaks were shrouded in clouds, but it was still awful perty. Next stop was Yuksom, the historic capitol of the old republic where the first king (temporal and religious king as it was a Buddhist republic) was crowned in 1642. I visited Phuntsog Namgyal's coronation throne site as well as a natural lake completely encircled by prayer flags before getting back on the road toward my adopted family in Gangtok.
As I was biking up the steep windy roads back into Gangtok, I received a very unexpected call from an Indian photojournalist. She had gotten my number from someone who I had emailed at some point to suss out mining areas to visit in the Northeast, and lo and behold she was planning to do a story on the recent upsurge of unregulated coal mining in the nearby state of Meghalaya and was inviting me to come along. Within minutes I was in a mad scramble to find a train ticket from Siliguri (the nearest station to Gangtok) to Guwahati, the capital of neighboring state Assam and the launching point for jeeps that go into the more remote Northeast territories.

Deepa and the rest of the family were a bit upset to hear that I'd soon be running off again just after getting back from Yuksom and Pelling, but I promised to come back for the last week of my time in India. I had hoped to get a visa extension to be able to more thoroughly explore the Northeast and spend more time with my adopted family, but after the 2008 Mumbai bombings the government doesn't allow any extensions for tourist visas. Truthfully I was having a very difficult time deciding where to go after India; I had stayed too long to leave enough time for a really worthwhile trip to China, I wasn't terribly interested in the nearby Southeast Asian countries, and all I was really interested in was spending more time in the Indian Northeast. Despite several attempts at haggling with the authorities, I accepted defeat (though I halfway thought about intentionally overstaying my visa and haggling over the fee at the airport).

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