3rd May – Darjeeling to New Jalpaiguri Junction, to Mughal Sarai

Ayup.
We got up dead early again to have one last crack at seeing the mountains. The mist was as dense as previous days, if not worse. Instead we walked up the hill to the Dorje Ling monastery site, where we sat for a while in the peace and quiet. Even at this time people were praying, spinning mani wheels and ringing various bells.

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We went back to the hostel and collected our stuff, before going to the taxi depot, where we got in a jeep. Our friend from the previous day tried to charge us again, before laughing and apologising several times. I got the impression that if I invited him, he would gladly have come back to England with us and lived in my house. He introduced us to our driver, a Gorkha chap with a passion for cricket and large, cauliflower-like ears. As we set off back down the hill we got stuck in multiple traffic jams on the narrow lanes running through the mountain towns. Darjeeling has been beautiful and fascinating, but not the relaxed place I thought that it might have been. The drivers of this area will always apply the horn before the footbreak, and if the traffic is at a standstill they seem convinced that continually papping on their hooter will cause the traffic to clear. I wouldn’t like to be here in the grip of winter – if anything is going to cause an avalanche, it is surely this incessant use of the horn.

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After clearing the towns we descended down the tight hairpins without further event. We drove through the tea estates that got flatter and flatter in terrain, until we arrived at the massive military area. All sorts of trucks, tanks and soldiers are on display around here and it seems that like Thailand, India likes to keep it’s military might on full display. After passing through the zone we began to enter a more built-up area. The usual array of random sights ensued, culminating in the swerving of all of the traffic on our side of the road to avoid a cow, which had sat itself down in the middle of the road, nonchalantly chewing and flicking it’s tail to keep the flies away with no idea of the mayhem it was causing. If you didn’t know already, the cow is sacred to Hindus and people go to great lengths to ensure that no harm will come to them. As a result they wander around precisely where they please, causing all kinds of obstruction and destruction in their wake. As we approached the station the traffic got ridiculous, even by Indian standards. Our ears rang from the din of car, rickshaw and moped horns, and all kinds of madness played out before us. Impossible gaps between vehicles were pursued, a fight nearly broke out at the side of the road, and sweat-saturated faces snarled at each other from behind steering wheels. As we trickled along at a snail’s pace a bus – crammed to the rafters as always, attempted to occupy the space that our jeep was in. With nowhere else to go our driver had little option other than to shout as the bus scratched all the way down the side of the jeep, before coming to a halt. After what seemed like several minutes of uninterpretable insults, the bus reversed off the jeep, making a sickening sound on our paintwork. Our driver pulled over to check the damage and miraculously, there was none. This is the one redeeming feature about Indian roads – they’re complete chaos, but usually you’re not going fast enough to end up in a serious accident.

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We thanked our driver and entered the station. Porters carrying stacks of passenger’s luggage on their heads, beggars reclining on the hot ground, and cows on the railway line were some of the sights to behold. We went to a cafe and Luke again displayed his culinary prowess by ordering us two dhosas. A dhosa is a giant pancake-like bread which contains a small amount of curry, along with a pot of thin, spicy curry sauce. You dip each end in the sauce and then when you get down to the filled middle bit you just devour it in any way you see fit. They are an impressive sight to behold and set us back about 70p each – Luke recalled seeing them in London for about eight quid a pop. As we sat eating a lady waited outside who had lost both her legs. She was sporting a pair of flip-flops on her hands to avoid touching the dirty ground as she hoisted herself around. A bloke from the cafe fixed her up a plate of curry and chapati and handed it to her free of charge.

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The train was only a couple of minutes late. A list of passenger’s names was pasted on the side of the carriage, and we found our coach with minimum hassle.┬áThe Indian trains have a confusing list of options when it comes to booking your seat/bed. We were in 3AC – which means three beds stacked on top of each other, and air-conditioned carriages. Luke and I had both been allocated top bunks and getting up and down from them employed all of our acrobatic skills. Once the train was on it’s way Luke went for a doze and I was collared by a middle-aged gent who was travelling back from a wedding with his wife and son. He was an eccentric but intelligent bloke who worked as an English Teacher by trade. He told me that he had “Three Western-style toilets” in his house, not because he liked western toilets better, but because he could comfortably sit and read on them, whereas it was too difficult to squat and read in the traditional Indian way. We talked about Gandhi and India since the partition, about his teaching and his hometown, which I couldn’t pronounce. I ended up asking him why many Indians seemed to enjoy taking our photograph so much. He confirmed that many Indians have rarely, if ever, seen a white person. It is considered a badge of honour, almost a prestigous thing to have your photo taken with a whitey. I’m really surprised that this is still the case – surely in this global village in which we live people aren’t still blown away at the sight of somebody with different skin colour? But apparently they are. My new mate said that even his son had pointed Luke and I out, and during our whole conversation a pair of young eyes stared down at me from the bunk above.
After about an hour of chatting to this bloke, I made my excuses. Nice as he was he had talked my head off for ages and I was a bit too tired to meet his level of intellectual questioning. I sat and played cards with Luke whilst looking out at the Indian countryside dashing past us. Indian train doors aren’t locked and are quite often wide open for the duration of the journey. Every time the train stops at a signal or a station hundreds of people get out and stand on the tracks, smoking and stretching their legs. As the train slowly jolts off again they all stroll back and hop on it while it’s moving – I wish I was chilled out enough to take such risks.

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Throughout the whole journey various sellers walk up and down the train corridor, flogging anything from bombay mix to iphone chargers. The only ones that we entertained were the chai wallers, who carry urns of hot chai which they dispense into little cups for ten rupees a shot. Before we boarded the train a bloke with a “meals on wheels” logo on his shirt chased us down the platform and asked us if we wanted to buy any food. Dismissing him as one of the many touts that you come across on a daily basis, we initially politely told him where to go. When it dawned on us that this bloke was part of the official catering department we both ordered a meal before we were even aboard. Almost as soon as we’d found our beds our meals were presented to us – superb service. Before going to sleep Luke and I walked the length of the train in either direction. As far as we could tell we were the only non-Indian people on the train, and as we walked along we drew quizzical glances from all directions.

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We went to sleep at nineish and but for a couple of interruptions, I slept solidly. Luke had more of a struggle due to being directly above a bloke who snored loudly. Our carriage was clean and comfortable, and I’ve never slept so well on a night train. On our walk through the other carriages we saw how the other half live – cramped, dirty and sweaty carriages with no air-conditioning, and I was thankful that we’d paid the extra few quid for a comfortable night’s sleep.
That’s all for today.
Have a nice day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

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2nd May – Darjeeling

Our final full day in Darjeeling. As Ringo had been booked out for tonight, we had to move our stuff to a neighbouring hostel, reccommended to us by the friendly and gentle Vikash, who runs Revolver. We lugged our stuff across a garden to a tall concrete building, where we paid 1000 rupees for a night. The place was scruffy but cosy, and we later realised that it was some kind of Christian Hostel. There was a bizarre poster of Mary and Joseph standing over Jesus in the manger, but somehow Jesus had grown hair and apparently had make-up applied, despite being only a few hours old. Although a bit grotty in comparison to Ringo’s comfortable interior, this place actually had a functioning shower, which was more than could be said for our previous quarters.

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The plan was to spend a fairly relaxed day around Darjeeling as we’d done the majority of our sightseeing in the previous two days. We went into town and breakfasted at Hasty Tasty before sampling some more varieties of tea and buying some trinkets from the various craft shops scattered around the town. Each of these shops sells a lot of the same stuff, but they’re intriguing all the same. All sorts of statues of Hindu Gods, Gorkha knives and prayer bowls are on offer for reasonable and haggle-able prices. It seems that most of these shops are lacking in electricity, so each shopkeeper stands outside with the pull chord to a generator in his hand. If you go in the shop he cranks up the generator to switch on the lights, and you can look upon his treasures, albeit with a slight sense of guilt that you’ve put him to so much trouble without buying anything.
We went down to a Government taxi garage to book the next day’s travel down the hill. Our plan was to get a taxi to New Jalpaiguri Station, before taking the night train from NJP to a station called Mughal Sarai. Here we would get off and catch a taxi the 20km or so to Varanasi – India’s holiest city. Booking trains in India is more or less impossible for foreigners on tourist visas, so we had to book this through a travel agent who stuck a few hundred rupees on top of the ticket price – still cheap by our standards though. The elderly gent who ran things at the garage spoke impeccable English and seemed fascinated by us. We booked a taxi to NJP for 2000 rupees, then he quizzed us about British life, how we were adapting to India, and how we would vote in the upcoming “Brexit election”. We couldn’t get rid of him, and as we tried to walk back up the hill he insisted on taking us to his favourite bakery, just to show us where it was. There was an awkward moment when we walked in to the shop and we both had to say “We’re not hungry, we’ve just had breakfast”, but the taxi man just laughed and said that he was trying to drum up business for them. We promised to go back in for a crossaint at some point – this was a lie.
We ate at a Tibetan place for lunch, and it was absolutely superb. Momos are dumplings containing chicken or vegetables. They can be steamed or fried, with both options offering a superb flavour. I’d say they’re a bit like gnocchi in texture but with more overall flavour. Luke had a biryani with chapatis and I had a noodle soup with tibetan bread. A little old lady in the corner saw me eating this dry and said “It’s better with butter”, so I smeared a dollop on, and she was right. Tibetan bread is really thick and stodgy, a bit like a cross between a breakfast muffin and a flatbread. Along with the soup and momos we were absolutely stuffed, but I can see how the sherpas would need every last bit of energy in their bellies in order to carry the loads that they do up the steep hills of Darjeeling.

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On the way back to the hostel we called in at the Museum of Tibetan Culture – a really interesting museum funded by the sizeable Tibetan community who live here, presumably having migrated when China took control of the area. Maybe it’s because it’s such a remote and inhospitable place, but there’s a real air of mystery about Tibet and its people. I’d have to put it at the top of my list of places I’d like to go to in the future, if I’m ever lucky enough.
We bought a couple of Kingfishers to drink back at the hostel. Idly flicking through the TV channels, more in hope than expectation, we discovered coverage of THE RAMS game on Indian telly! A 1-1 draw was the least we deserved, but it was amazing to think that we would probably never watch our local side play from a more remote place. After the game was done we went to bed, in preparation for the arduous 24 hours of travelling that would begin at 8am the next morning.

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1st May – Darjeeling

Song of the day: It Ain’t Easy by David Bowie: “When you climb to the top of the mountain…”
Luke’s alarm went off at 3am and we staggered into the town like two zombies from Dawn of the Dead. Darjeeling is a bustling town and rarely quiet, but at this time it seemed that the obligatory stray dogs were the only signs of life. When we get to the town centre however there was a long line of jeeps lined up with their proud Gorkha owners stood alongside them, waiting to ferry the tourists to Tiger Hill. For 200 rupees (a hundred rupees in a pound or thereabouts, remember), we were ferried up the hill with a couple from Chennai, who were holidaying up in the mountains. They were lovely people and explained that we had come to Darjeeling in the middle of the Indian summer holidays – how ironic that where us Brits seek warmer climes, many south Indians come up north to escape the heat for a few precious days.
The climb up to Tiger Hill was an interesting one. We passed the railway station at Ghum – the highest stop on the railway at some 7500 feet, before winding our way up a snaking, almost alpine road. We were in a convoy of perhaps 100 jeeps, all full of tourists. Once nearly at the top of the hill we got out and walked, to find a crowd already assembled. Women with huge pewter teapots called out “Chai chai chai!” and “Coffee coffee coffee!” and a couple of cups woke us up and warmed the cockles, as it was a bit chilly at this altitude without the heat of the sun. The crowds thickened and throbbed and we found ourselves immortalised in the background of a thousand odd selfies. I thought that the selfie craze was a western phenomenon, but I have to say that having been aroud South-East Asia and India this year, Asia’s addiction runs far deeper than our own. Rolling mists continually swept over the hill as the sun made it’s slow appearance over the horizon. Though the sunrise was beautiful and well worth watching, we couldn’t see the mountains for all the bloody fog! I must confess to feeling a bit disappointed about this and if there is an Indian Board for Himalayan Weather Control (not beyond the realms of possibility from what we’ve seen), they will be recieving a strongly-worded letter when we return home. During the duration of our stay in Darjeeling the mists continued to roll over, and for now my dream of looking upon the Himalayas is back on the shelf.

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When we paid our 200 rupees we thought that we were paying for a taxi to Tiger Hill and back, but it turned out we had booked ourselves onto a 3-sight tour. We got back in the jeep and dozed for half an hour as the convoy was at a complete standstill. Eventually we moved off and made a painstakingly slow descent down the mountain to Yiba Choling Gompa – a beautiful Tibetan Monastery in the town of Ghum. There is something about Tibet and it’s people that’s always provided a fascination for me, and this monastery didn’t dissapoint. The wals were covered with handpainted murals and a five-metre high golden Buddha sat cross-legged at the focal point of the altar. Unfortunately with being on a package tour, we were accompanied by about three hundred others who barged their way about the place. Brits in Benidorm moan about the German inability to queue. Though we have found almost every person we’ve met so far to be friendly and warm, I don’t think it’s a slight on the Indian national character to say that they lack basic queuing etiquette, and respect for what we in England refer to as “personal space”. In a classroom round the back of the temple we were drawn to the sound of children singing. We peeped through an open door to see about thirty or so children in maroon robes. Unsupervised by adults, they were reciting a long list of mantras and prayers whilst banging various bells and drums. They were having a right good time of it and it was quite hypnotising to watch, until a multitude of cameras attached to arms and selfie-sticks were thrust in front of our line of sight.
The last stop on our tour was the Gorkha War Memorial – a statue and ornamental garden dedicated to the fallen Gorkha soldiers of various wars, most of which were fought in the name of Britain. The Himalayan Mountain Railway runs in a loop around the gardens. Traders around here must know the train schedule off by heart – or enjoy living dangerously – because they spread their wares and pop-up stalls all over the tracks. On the way back down Luke bought some bhajis that were being freshly deep-fried on the street. They tasted, in my opinion, like a much fresher version of Bombay Mix. They were washed down as ever with a cup of Chai. After this very pleasant morning we were dropped off back in the centre of Darjeeling – it was seven o’clock. We went back to the hostel for a shower and some breakfast. I say shower, but in fact Ringo’s facilities didn’t stretch to that. Instead we each had to fill a bucket of hot water and wash the old-fashioned way – again, I reckon John, Paul or George would have stretched to a functioning shower.

Our next stop was the Happy Valley Tea Estate – a working tea plantation that welcomes guests on a free tour of the factory. Unfortunately because it was the holidays there was no tea production in progress – with this and the missing mountains we didn’t have much luck in Darjeeling! We walked down a steep, snaking road to come to a large building with a corrugated roof. A girl took us on a tour of the various stages of the tea production process, which was fascinating and made us appreciate the efforts that go in to providing us in England with a beautiful, steaming cuppa. There are three types of tea produced on these plantations – white, green and black, and all come from the same tea leaves. Black is what we are used to drinking in teabags back home. White tea is the freshest and purest form of tea, but contains subtler flavours because it hasn’t been picked off the plant for as long. There are several differences in the production process of each type of tea which make it different to the other, but a lot is down to the amount of time the tea leaves are left out in the open air to “oxygenate”. The longer the tea leaves are left, the fewer anti-oxidants and the more caffeine they contain. Thus, white tea is the healthiest for you, followed by green, followed by black. I could go on and on about the production process but I’d probably lose you without providing diagrams and asking you to take notes, so we’ll move on.

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By this point we were pretty knackered after our early wake-up, but we felt that we were on a roll. We took a taxi to Darjeeling Zoo, where we paid a pittance for access to the zoo and the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. We were both really interested in the Institute and made a beeline for it – some of the greatest mountaineers have passed through here, using it as a base for training and planning expeditions. A large group of kids in uniform did exercises in a school yard- the apprentice climbers of tomorrow. Though a lot of the Institute was out of bounds to us, there was a fascinating Everest Museum which told of famous expeditions to the world’s highest peak. All kinds of mountaneering memorabilia was here, from Tenzing Norgay’s snow goggles to a pair of specially designed mountaneering boots for a climber who had lost all of his toes through frostbite. The bit about Mallory and Irvine was particularly interesting – amazing to think that we’ll probably never know whether they reached the summit or not before perishing on the mountain. Outside was a stone to mark the spot where Tenzing Norgay – first man to reach the summit of Everest along with Edmund Hillary – was cremated. Norgay lived most of his life in Darjeeling and was instrumental in the setting up of the Mountaneering Institute.

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We worked our way back through the zoo, which was quite sad. An impressive collection of rare animals no doubt, but it’s a sorry sight to see such amazing creatures in a zoo, let alone in such small cages. The Bengal tiger continued to stalk the same path over and over, displaying signs of stereotypies – a kind of insanity brought on by a large beast being held captive in such an unstimulating environment. Tibetan wolves were missing large patches of fur, and a snow leopard lay resigned to it’s lonely fate in behind the bars of it’s cage. I watched a program before we came away on the debate between keeping animals alive but in captivity, or allowing them to go extinct when their wild populations are extinguished. On this showing, I’d say the second option makes a strong case for itself.
Inevitably we had a late lunch at Hasty Tasty. Luke had biryani whilst I had paneer pakoras and a bowl of curd – a strange but tasty combination. We went back to the hostel and watched Leicester City draw closer to winning the title on Indian sports TV, before going to sleep. Another long but successful day!
Have a great day, whatever you endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey

30th April – Darjeeling

Song of the day: Thomas the Tank Engine theme -Why? Well, we saw a steam train, and Thomas the Tank Engine is narrated by RINGO STARR, who’s room we are currently staying in, so it’s highly relevant.
Darjeeling in the light is quite a sight to behold. Hundreds, maybe thousands of coloured buildings yawn across the steep hillside for about a mile or so. Although Ringo did not provide the same panorama as John or George, we walked out early and looked out over the hill station. We walked up Ghandi Road and made our way up one of the main thoroughfares to Square – the focal point of Darjeeling at the top end of town. It was early in the day and all sorts of strange sights were on display. Women carried huge wicker baskets the size of paddling pools on their heads, full of live chickens bound for a sticky end. Stray dogs of a Tibetan origin recline lazily on the pavement – occasionally they will go for each other but not once during our stay did we witness them troubling people. They have handsome faces and fluffy coats and were it not for the scabs and constant scratching I’d take one home with me. By far the most intriguing sight of all is to witness the heavy loads that people of Gorkha origin carry on their backs, using a rope attached around their forehead to keep hold of it. Large gas bottles, crates of booze and wooden fold-away tables are but some of the loads we’ve seen these people carry up gradients which are exhausting even when unladen. Most of these people (men and women) are bent double in order to carry the weight, and their faces are furrowed with the exertion. Whether they can straighten up once their cargo has been jettisoned I don’t know, but I’d fancy that most of them would kill for a good chiropracter.
We walked around a very Victorian-looking path lined with cast-iron railings that clung to the hillside. To our right the mist was thick, but we were able to see the tiny dots of houses lining the bottom of the valley, perhaps 1000 feet below? Don’t quote me on that, but it looked liked a long way down. The odd monkey could be seen chilling out in the grand old trees that lined the path. We sat on a bench that on a clear day was supposed to offer a beautiful vista of Khangchengdzonga (spellings are multiple), but for Luke and I provided only a vista of cotton wool clouds. Khangchengdzonga is the third highest mountain in the world behind Everest and K2, and the highest mountain in India. As we sat relaxing in the morning sun I was approached by a tiny chappy who appeared to be without abode. It is difficult enough to interpret the utterings of a mountain man who does not speak a word of English, but it seemed that this chap was not even capable of speech. This mute became more and more animated as he told me his life story: “Unh, Unh, UUUUNH!” and I politely nodded along, whilst Luke couldn’t help but creasing up in laughter at my predicament. The mouthless mountain man made hand gestures which seemed to indicate that he lived down the hill, needed money, and would be dead soon. He indicated death by sticking his tongue out to the side and rolling his eyes, before miming digging a grave. Unsure of the best course of action I provided him with ten rupees, which he seemed highly delighted with. I took his photograph which he seemed equally as pleased about, and then we wished him good health before fleeing the scene.

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As I have adhered to previously, the hills of Darjeeling ensure a certain degree of fitness must be maintained in order to conquer them. Luke is a recent veteran of multiple marathons, whereas I am a recent veteran of multiple meals. I was left trailing in his wake as we ascended what appears to be the highest hill in Darjeeling to the site of the ancient Dorje Ling Monastery, from which the present Darjeeling name was derived. Though the orginal monastery no longer stands, there is a beautiful temple dedicated to Mahakala – a deity sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus. I have to say, of all the many temples I have visited this year, this one has to be the one that has impressed me so far. Rather than beeing a feat of architecture covered in gold and trinkets, the temple on the site of Dorje Ling is more of an ethereal, atmospheric place. There are no roofs here – the temple is an open air complex stretching over quite a wide area. Multi-coloured prayer flags hung from every possible location flutter in the breeze. Various bells with a soft, soothing chime are rung by entrants to the temple, and mani wheels are in abundance. Mani wheels are bell-like objects mounted on a pole, with various incantations written upon them. The idea is that when people spin them, the prayers that are written upon the mani wheel will ascend into the heavens. We spent a good deal of time here, enjoying the purity and peace of the place. I don’t consider myself to belong to any religion, but in my opinion places like this are about as close as you can come to feeling that spiritual nourishment without having to commit to anything in particular! Far from the madding crowds of Kolkata, and further from the oppresive dinginess of most roofed places of worship, the Dorje Ling sight was a real find of a place.

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We came down from the heights and went downhill, checking the treasures at various antique shops along the way. In true British fashion we wandered into a tea shop – Nathmull’s, and ordered a plethora of mind-expanding brews. The varieties of tea on offer is a complicated business – like wine-making, the region, season and production process impacts heavily upon the flavour. I will explain the subtleties of this process in the fullness of time, but for now you should know that we drank an abudance of tea whilst reading the Indian Times and planning our itinerary for the next couple of days.
Feeling suitably refreshed we moved further downhill and came upon the Darjeeling Himalaya Mountain Railway. This line was built in 1881 under the British Empire to transport tea down to the lower ground – presumably eventually ending up in the homes of British toffs. It was interesting looking round the station as a steam train puffed in. According to the Lonely Planet guide the scenery along the route is breathtaking, so we decided to take a ride. When we got to the counter however, the ticket vendor informed us that the computer which sells tickets was broken. You would think that this issue was easily resolved by selling the tickets by hand, but this is India, and things are never as they seem. The decision was taken to cancel all trains that were running that day rather than continue without the assistance of the primitive computer system. You have to chuckle. As we came away we could hear the loud splash of liquid hitting a hard floor – was it raining? We looked aroud to see a man sat on a bench in a woollen hat, who was quite publicly pissing himself. A deluge of green liquid seeped from his trousers and onto the floor, whilst he sat with the faraway, contented smile of a man who had achieved alcoholic oblivion. Feeling like we had entered the twilight zone, we checked out a tiny Hindu temple which afforded spectacular views over the sprawling backyards of Darjeeling before returning again to the hostel to regroup.

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We decided that the following morning we would get up at 3am in order to take a trip up to Tiger Hill – a local viewpoint for where you can watch the sun rise and hopefully catch a glimpse of the Himalayas, including Khangchengdzonga and the mightiest of them all, Everest. Because of this we needed to eat early then turn in. We stumbled upon a place called “Hasty Tasty”, which was very much the latter but not so much the former. We later read that this place was reccommended in our Lonely Planet Guide. This place is quite typical of Indian cafes – extremely scruffy, even dirty by English standards, but with a good heart and always, always packed to the rafters. Upon our first of three visits I very politely asked a lady if we could sit at the end of her table as they didn’t need al the space. She said something along the lines of “We haven’t finished yet”. Spotting this the waiter came over and pulled out a vacant chair at the table. “This is India man, just sit down!” So we did. Luke has so far displayed an impressive knowledge and exquisite taste in Indian cuisine, so I trusted his recommendation that we buy two Thalis, one North Indian and one South. A Thali is the closest Indian dining comes to tapas. We were presented with two trays full of small samples of a variety of curries, complete with chapatis, pickles and curd (a soothing yoghurt-like mixture). We also ordered two Idlis – a kind of soft rice cake which you eat by dipping in a small stock-like curry. We were able to see subtle differences in the flavours and ingredients used in North and South Indian cooking, but there were that many different dishes on offer that I couldn’t tell you now what these differences were. By eightish we were in bed, ready for the earliest of early starts on the morrow.
Have a great day, whatever your endeavour.
Tommy and Lukey