Monthly Archives: May 2013

They Sikkim Here, They Sikkim There

Sikkim pokes out of the North Eastern corner of India like a tumor. Wedged between Nepal, China and Bhutan in the Eastern Himalayas, the tiny mountainous state is only 100km long and 80km wide. The Kingdom of Sikkim was an independent nation until 1975 when it became the 22nd state of India. In its short history prior to this, the tiny slice of Himalayan pie was in the hands of the Lepchas tribe, followed by a monarchy of Tibetan decent.


Pelling, not to be confused with Felling in Gateshead, was our first stop in Sikkim. The centre piece and main attraction in Felling is the job centre, Pelling boasts one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries, the Pemayangtse Gompa. Here there were children as young as 6 or 7 living in the gompa preparing themselves for a life of divine dedication. When I was that age, I played with turtle figures and collected football stickers…

Tibetan Script

Prayer flags


Lake Khecheodpalri, is surrounded by local myths and legends. It is said the land was once just a field until a conch shell fell from the sky and entered the ground, afterward the earth shook and erupted with water turning the crater into a huge lake. Buddhist religious scriptures recognise the lake as the abode of the chief protective Nymph of Dharma on earth. In other news, the Terminator has landed on Earth in his capsule, and is looking for Sarah Connor…



Prayer wheels line the lake’s boardwalk

Whilst at the lake, we crashed at a home stay with an 85 year old lama named Pala. This guy gets up at 3am every day to practice yoga, tai chi and meditation. One thing he didn’t practice was how to tell the time, as our meals kept arriving 45 – 90 minutes earlier than he said they would, unless the mountain air had broken his watch. While at Pala’s place I was able to try a new type of food, yak meat. What does yak meat taste like? Think very, very chewy kebab.


A 9km cross country trek through the ravine took me to the next town, Yuksom, and was obviously no problem for action man, the compadre got the bus. Yuksom literally means ‘meeting of the three great lamas’ and it was here that the trio of Tibetan monks met Phutsog Namgyal to crown him the first Chogyal of Sikkim, thus heralding the beginning of the Namgyal dynasty. The original throne can be seen at Norbugang park and the supposed foot print of one of the crowning lamas is embedded in the ground just in front, I would love to have been a fly on the wall in that situation as the clumsy monk stood in a pool of wet concrete during the coronation ceremony…

The coronation throne

Yuksom is a good place to organise treks to Mount Khangchendzonga, the world’s third tallest peak, or just a nice one yak town and relax if you’ve had enough of walking, like me. As I was passing the time mastering suduko, I received a phone call from Vodaphone on my Indian number, it was a call centre in England trying to sell me new products. Those bloody British call centres!

Khangchendzonga at dawn

The remains of Tashi Tenka

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The Curse Of The Hill Station

For all I enjoyed Calcutta, I needed get out before I melted away and the sound of horns drove me beeping mad. We made the overnight train journey to New Jaipalguri, where we caught a jeep up to Darjeeling, the queen of the hill stations.

Darjeeling train station

The history of Darjeeling was a bastardisation of Sikkimese, Nepali and Bengali cultures, until the British Raj rocked up and bribed the Chogyal of Silkkim to hand it over. The town’s cool climate led to its metamorphosis into a hill station, the development of the famous Himalayan Railway, and of course, the production of tea. At 2000 metres above sea level Darjeeling sits perfectly in the clouds, I felt like I had entered the sky level on SuperMario as on a misty day, you can’t see very far ahead. The people here look totally different to your typical Indian and are a little smaller, unless I had just captured a giant red and white mushroom and doubled in size…

Token tea plantation shot

Misty morning

Darjeeling Zoo is considered to be one of India’s best, which is true if you enjoy watching a few thoroughly depressed big cats walk around in circles, or consider a few dirty tanks of goldfish an aquarium. Thankfully the Himalyan Black Bear made an appearance at the end making it worthwhile…

Himalayan Black Bear

The ‘aquarium’

On our way here we met a friendly local named Lama, whom we bumped into again loitering around the main Chowrasta Mall. It seems that the people here love to eat, and love even more to see others eat. Lama invited us for an eating challenge – if we try local food and eat constantly for one hour he would pay. I’d been starving myself for the last 36 hours for the sake of my budget, so the offer couldn’t come soon enough…


Darjeeling Market

Woman making Tibetan food during the eating challenge

Most Westerners contract traveller’s diarrhoea within a fortnight of landing in India. Almost at the three week mark without any sign and things were looking good. Then it struck without a minutes notice and was shortly followed by the other nasty symptoms, clouding some of my time in Darjeeling. I realised that I’d now made it a hat-trick of illnesses in Indian hill stations, after my ear infection of Rishikesh 2009 and the projectile vomiting in Simla 2011…

The Hindu God Shiva, is often referred to as ‘the Destroyer’. It seemed fitting that the incense bought to put in the toilet was named after him…

At least every cloud has a silver lining and the illness didn’t last long, so I was able to enjoy the rest of my time in Darjeeling knowing that NUFC had secured Premier League safely for another year, and possibly lifting my curse of the hill stations.


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On The Pull In Calcutta

Indian trains can be enjoyable, in small portions. 33 hours non ac from Mumbai to Calcutta was anything but. As the chariot passed through the middle of the country, temperatures were souring into the high 40s and at times could be unbearable. You find yourself lying in a pool of sweat, half asleep and half hallucinating because of the sweltering heat whilst trying to ignore the constant barrage of chai men, beggers and hermaphrodites that come along the carriage. It’s times like these that I need reminding that I’m actually doing this for fun! Calcutta is not that much cooler, and it’s understandable how almost 150 Commonwealth soldiers died overnight in the Black Hole incident. Kolkata, as it’s now known, is boiling.

This is what I felt like on the train

The city is famous for being the old capital of the British Indian empire, it is also well known for having some of the worst traffic in the world. They say if you can drive in Calcutta, you can drive anywhere, a fair point as the traffic here is quite frankly, ridiculous. This is not helped by the fact that at 1pm all the one way streets change direction (bright idea) so commuting at this time can be even more of a headache, if not dangerous. I recommend wearing some kind of ear protection when walking the streets, as the constant sound of horns will almost certainly make your head spin…

Calcutta ambassador cabs

Eden Gardens is one of the largest cricket stadiums in the world and seats 90 thousand fans. Eden Gardens is to Calcutta, what the Coliseum is to Rome…


The Victoria memorial hall was built for the most miserable Empress of India. I couldn’t decide whether or not to waste 100 rupees to look inside the museum, until I had a half decent conversation in Hindi with a woman sitting on the steps. This made my mind up and saved me the money, some of the best experiences come for free!


My new mate

Mother House, is where Mother Teresa lived and spread her message amongst the dying and destitute of Calcutta. Inside can be found her tomb and the story of Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu’s life.



We done a lot of walking in Calcutta, as it was a lot quicker than getting the bus, and in this clammy weather it brings a whole new meaning to the word chafing, ouch! We stumbled across Collage street, where you will find dozens of tiny stalls packed to the rafters with nothing but books…

Park street cemetery


It’s hard work selling books all day


Calcutta is one of the last places on earth where you will still find a traditional hand pulled rickshaw. I couldn’t come here without giving it a go, and I don’t mean being a passenger…


Most tourists who come here don’t like to ride on this ancient mode of transport as they feel it is inhumane, so why not give pulling a go to see what all the fuss is about? This particular puller spoke no English, but I managed to explain to him that all he had to do was sit in the rickshaw while I pulled HIM down the street. Obviously he’d never been asked this before and he couldn’t understand why I would want to, but nevertheless he agreed…


He sat aboard and I proceeded to pull him down the street, to the amazement of some of the locals who couldn’t believe their eyes. After ten minutes I put him down without breaking a sweat and let him return to work. I can’t help but think that as long as this puller lives he will never make an easier 30 rupees…


My conclusion, is rickshaw pulling inhumane? Is it back breaking labour? From my short spell on the pull, I would say I could easily do this for a living, but then again, I am absolutely brick, nut!

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Laughing All The Way To Bombay

I’ve visited Mumbai on many occasions and it never, ever fails to woo me. Hundreds of houses of worship for those with god in mind, the best Indian and International cuisine in the country for the foodie, Bollywood for the film buffs and everything else down the road of music, art, history, shopping, crazy traffic, all night drinking, the hermaphrodite mafia and Ghandi’s house. One thing I’ve always found amazing about Mumbai, is how you can go from some of the richest, most affluent areas in India to seeing people living on the brink of sheer desperation in the blink of an eye. To put things into perspective, one second you’ll be driving past the enormous mansion of superstar Sachin Tendulkar, then minutes later, the Dharavi slum which is home to over one million people…

Typical scene in the early hours

Mumbai was known as Bombay during the British rule, until 1995 when the city was renamed after Mumbadevi, the patron goddess of the land in an attempt to strengthen the region’s Marathi identity. In 1668 the English East India Company rented all of Bombay from Charles the II for a measly 10 pounds, that proved to be the best tenner ever spent as now, without the British takeover it is questionable whether Mumbai would be the booming, iconic monster that it is today.

CST Station

When the British conquered not only did they bring the fine architecture, they also brought cricket. The Mumbai oval is a large recreational ground where many famous players such as the ‘Little Master’ himself learned their trade. We may have invented this sport, but nobody in the world loves cricket like the Indians do…







Colaba in South Mumbai is an area I always like to visit, and I’ve noticed that it seems to be the main part of the city where you’re likely to meet some crazy characters. On a previous visit I was stopped by a Polish heroin hippy whose story was simple – he’d been locked up in the notorious Arthur Road Jail on numerous occasions for drug smuggling, but was now sorting his act out and dealing with the Mumbai mafia in the market of producing fake passports, but only until he had enough money to make it up to Haridwar so he could smoke opium and charas with a bunch of holy men…obviously he’d been reading Shantaram. This time I was approached by a rent boy who claimed to have fornicated me twice and was asked by another babbling idiot if I wanted to buy a cow. So if you can get past this and the gauntlet of shop touts, money changers and fake holy men, Colaba is a pretty interesting place!

20130509-232902.jpgGaylord Restaurant


The Gateway to India

Having done most of the tourist stuff in the past in Mumbai, I decided to try something different – laughing meditation. Laughing meditation just like normal meditation, can have a calming effect on a person but will also enhance joy in everyday life. After the first half of the session I was a little dubious about the practice, as the warm up just seemed like yoga for pensioners. Once the laughing began, you find that you just can’t stop, you just continue to laugh at the other people laughing, afterwards it really made me feel a lot more optimistic about the day after a horribly early start, albeit with sore cheeks. Not everyone in Mumbai is so fond of the idea though, apparently the grumpy neighbours tried to have the club hit with an ASBO because their of early morning chuckling sessions. The Mumbai laughter club meet daily at Chowpatty beach at 7am, watch a caption of my laughter session HERE

Laughing guru kuvavala hold many world laughter records

So I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I’ll never get bored of Mumbai! Most of my time here was spent catching up with some old friends, making some new ones, all night drinking and living like a local whilst experiencing a different side to Bombay life with my good friend Joyraj Bose. Cheers!


In my last post I mentioned some of the plus sides of travelling alone, well after being reunited with my ‘compadré’ I’d like to say something about travelling as a couple – there is nothing like hanging out with someone who is almost as awsome as yourself…

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Into The Fire

It’s a funny feeling, being on your own after having a constant travel compadre for the past seven months. Not quite knowing what to do with myself, I decided I could not say so long to Ceylon, without calling into the Colombo Ex-Serviceman’s Club for a few cheeky pints. I was invited to sit and have a drink with Silva and Friend (didn’t quite catch his name as he spoke with a mouthful of paan), it just so happened that these two men were working for the president of Sri Lanka as private security guards. They promised me that when I return they will take me to meet the president for myself, although I somehow doubt that will happen, it was a nice gesture. Social Clubs in the subcontinent are very similar to the ones at home, in a sense that they both host truley appalling turns, have a gentleman selling seafood/viagra and a small minority of the clientele are made up of extreme, right wing bigots. I said goodbye to Sri Lanka and enjoyed the last of my solid bowel movements for the foreseeable future. Time to hit India…

Paan man and Silva – hard as

Madurai is one of the oldest cities in India and is the beating heart of Tamil Nadu. The reason I flew here was that flights were so cheap, but the reason that most people come here is to visit the Sri Meenakshi temple…

The temple looming over the dusty city

The temple is one of the most important Hindu pilgrimage sites in all of India, and this weekend the annual Alagar festival is taking place. As I walked down the street towards the temple, I received a swift reminder of how mental India can actually be. The streets were rammed full of worshipers and there was far too much chaos going on around me that I didn’t know where to look. The scenes made the Bigg market on a Saturday night look like a sophisticated gathering…



The gateway towers, considered to be the best in Tamil architecture, are covered in hundreds of sculptures of gods, demons and heroes. Meenakshi is the fish eyed, triple breasted goddess who ‘lives’ here. This festival is a re-enactment of her wedding to Shiva in honour of her brother, Alagar. Legend has it that Alagar missed the original wedding after he had a big night out with the lads…


Like father, like son

Fake toilet paper for sale, have you ever seen a Mackem in Milan, no but you might find one in Madurai

Inside the temple, most areas are out of bounds to non Hindus and cameras weren’t allowed. You can take my word for it though, that there was an Elephant inside, blessing each of the pilgrims and accepting money with its trunk. I calculated that in five minutes of watching this specticle, the elephant earned 50 rupees. That’s averaging 600 rupees per hour and almost 14 thousand pounds a year, based on a 40 hour working week. There’s no way this elephant is packing its trunk and saying goodbye to the temple…

Pilgrims shave their heads and cover them in sandalwood in hope that their prayers will be answered

Being back in India thus far, has almost felt like I have returned to my second home. It is a diverse burning fire of many different beliefs, ethnic groups, ideologies, traditional practices and languages that can sometimes be difficult for the Western intellects to process. This time around, I want to gather a better understanding of all these things, but mainly religion, so that next time I visit a temple the happenings going on around me can all make much more sense…

Pilgrim carrying jack fruit as an offering



First I needed to tackle a 36 hour train ride to Mumbai, this was the alternative to paying three times the price to fly directly there. I could have bought a ticket for a standard, hot and sweaty sleeper train for just over a fiver, which would have been hard work for that length of time. As tempting as it was, even I’m not that tight so I decided to push the boat out a little and go for a 3AC carriage.



Riding a train for that long on your jack jones can be enough to make you question one’s sanity. On the other hand, travelling alone can also have its positives, such as teaching you how to deal with loneliness, so I was certainly up for the challange. The question is, what on earth do you do on your tod for so long? Answer – Sleep, look over Hindi language books, find some other poor soul to talk crap to, taste delicious food from strangers, stand at the open door and imagine what it would to be like to be able to fly, stare out of the window whilst listening to Glaswegian shoe gazing music, develop a strange relationship with the sound of Mungo Jerry – in that order…It’s going to be nice to be in Bombay, even if it takes two days…


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