Thanks to the lousy day we had yesterday, we have been trying to escape mentally to the mountains. If you know us, we feel ourselves at home in the mountains. 2021 has been difficult for all of us but we have managed to cope on most of the days. However, occasionally, like yesterday, it gets tough.
As we process our thoughts, we seek solace in travelling back through memories. Why we dreamt of the mountains when inundated with sad emotions is something that made us curious. We narrowed down to 10 reasons why we love the mountains so much.
The mountains were a part of our childhoods, from road trips on the winding roads of Nepal to scaling gravity defying inclines in Darjeeling to trying yak cheese in Gangtok. As young adults, we remember freezing in the chilly winds of Chail & viewing surreal sights in the Scottish Highlands.
Our honeymoon was in Italy, but the standout memory is of viewing the Alps as we flew from Paris to Venice. We are lucky to have visited some amazing places & will continue to make more such memories.
We are not keen on adventure sports, but walking & hiking are a part of us. When a hike takes us to a vantage spot, the adrenaline rush is exceptional. We get drunk by that sense of achievement. Physically we may say ‘no more’ but in our hearts, we know we will do it again.
Oh dear! This is triggering a major nostalgia. Mountain food is dainty! We always opt for the local cuisine & have seldom been disappointed. The steaming thukpa of the Tibetan – influence regions to the rajma – chawal (Indian style kidney beans with rice) of the lower Himalayas, we have always had a plethora of options when we visit the mountains.
& how can we not mention the freshly baked goods of hill stations which were home to British colonists!
When we have stood on the top of a mountain, freedom has been our dominant emotion. For those of us who live in the Indian plains, the warm Sun on our cheeks is welcome for a change. As we inhale the fresh air, with every breath, we exhale the word ‘freedom’.
There can be much to do in the mountains but there is always an option to relax. We love the fact that there is no pressure to dress up & complete a checklist of sights to see. There have been mountain trips when we have just lazed in the gardens of our accommodations, looked at the sky change colours, & listened to the birds chirp.
The pace of life for the locals is easy-going too & that can be infectious!
For those of us who live in Delhi NCR, the Himalayas are our chance of awesome panoramas. There is no better way to escape reality in our opinion. When we are in the mountains for a break, we are in awe of life every single day.
If dramatic scenes do not make us believe in the beauty of life, we doubt anything else can.
OMG! We could write pages on this. We have met such beautiful people in the mountains. Their life outlook is different from ours & something to take inspiration from. They know the value of life & they do not take anything for granted.
We cannot forget the ladies we met in Kinnaur district in Himachal Pradesh – the friendliest people we have ever come across.
Be it any season, the mountains remain extraordinary. The breeze of spring, the rivers of summer, the yellowing leaves of autumn, the bone chilling cold of winter – each season has a distinctive vibe & must be experienced.
Our appetite for the mountains has taken us to impressive places – high altitude deserts of Ladakh, lush green hills of Satpura, rainfed forests of Western Ghats, umpteen hamlets of Himachal, warm hospitality of Bhutan, birds of Uttarakhand, Rift Valley of Kenya, safety of Sikkim, rice fields & volcanos of Bali, spooky Scottish Highlands, Great Wall in China, mountainous island of Kauai, undulating streets of Hong Kong, breath-taking valleys of Kashmir, cable car rides of Langkawi, vineyards of Chianti, Blue Mountains of Australia…
To each of these places, we have said, ‘we will be back’ & we do dream of returning but we also realise life is too short to keep seeing the same places. So, we continue to revisit these places in our hearts!
Every day we dream of the mountains. Every day we envisage our forever home in the mountains. This becomes more pronounced in the summer when we feel ourselves melting under the Sun. & also in winter because the very thought of snow surrounding us is delicious (even if inconvenient).
We do not know if & when our forever mountain home will materialise but that does not stop us from daydreaming.
It may take a while, but we will be back in the mountains at the first safe opportunity. Breathe in that fresh air & make those memories again. Till then, we are staying home, staying safe, & hope you are too!
We have had a chance to visit China twice. Well, Hong Kong & Macau don’t really consider themselves China but the fact remains that they are the special administrative regions of China.
As an Indian (this may be true across nationalities too), China has been a fascinating, mysterious place. The most common thoughts that used to occur to us when we thought of China (& this holds for many more like us):
China has too many people.
The Chinese eat anything that walks.
An Indian will have a problem in finding edible food.
The language barrier is significant.
The major cities are heavily polluted.
The Chinese are rude & unfriendly.
The Chinese are xenophobic.
A few of these turned out to be canards while the rest got validated. Our observations are based on the three cities we visited – Macau, Hong Kong & Beijing. Thus, our sample size is small but hopefully not way off the mark.
So here goes what we detected and felt about China.
China Has Too Many People
Yes it does. It is next to impossible to go to a tourist attraction & expect to click a photograph with no people in the frame. At times, it is even impossible to see the attraction. A lot of travel blogs suggest reaching early which we did not manage to do. Perhaps that would have helped.
The ‘too many people’ manifests itself in the scramble for public transport too. Hailing a cab can be quite a task but using a subway is easy, cost-effective & we did not find it too crowded. We have seen worse in India 🙂
The Chinese Eat Anything That Walks
Not entirely true. The Chinese do eat a lot of meat but most of it is conventional stuff like chicken, beef, pork, seafood, fish, duck etc. At most mid-segment restaurants I visited, there was nothing that was repulsive to read or look at. Hint: dogs, insects, reptiles etc.
However, street markets and a type of restaurants called ‘hotpots’ had ‘interesting’ food available. All the horrors that were in the mind appeared in front of our eyes.
An Indian Will Have a Problem in Finding Edible Food
Partially true. There are adequate food options available, thanks to the presence of American, Italian, & even Indian restaurants. You can find vegetarian restaurants too. There are enough McDonald’s, Starbucks etc.
We had a lot of ready-to-eat food with us but gladly, we did not have to consume that. You can find Chinese dishes with conventional meats like chicken, fish & seafood. However, the Chinese dishes taste nothing like what we get in India.
India has its own brand of Chinese, fondly called tandoori Chinese, which is full of sauces and condiments. In comparison, authentic Chinese will appear bland to the Indian palate.
Also, we found a particular pungent smell in all Chinese dishes. Perhaps it was the use of fish sauce or oyster sauce. The smell was too overpowering for us to ignore. We minimized our intake of Chinese food consequently.
The Language Barrier Is Significant
Yes it is. 90% of the people we came across did not understand a single word in English. Even basic phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘excuse me’, ‘hi’, ‘hello’ were alien to them. Surprisingly, this was the case in the hospitality sector too.
A few of the servers who waited on us did not understand English at all. The only English they understood & could say was ‘no English’! We had to point to the menu to order our drinks & dinners. & if we wanted any customization, God help us!
For cab drivers, we carried the Chinese names of our destinations. Thankfully, all of them could read Mandarin. This is a major variation from India. Here, even a rickshaw puller understands Basic English words/ phrases like ‘thank you’, ‘okay’, ‘hello’ etc.
Among the remaining 10%, the grasp of English was elementary at best though we are sure the situation would be different for the crowd that works for multinational corporations.
The Major Cities Are Heavily Polluted
Not true. At least not for an Indian. Compared to Delhi NCR, the air quality in both Beijing & Hong Kong was better, though there was a little bit of haze. For travelers coming from developed countries, this may be a worry & thus, as advised by the western travel blogs, it may make sense for them to carry masks.
Apart from the air, we found all the three cities to be impeccably clean. In Beijing, we observed the roads being washed twice a day. The garbage was collected almost on an hourly basis. There was no difference in people’s behavior though.
Like Indians, they continued to spit, throw garbage etc. at their whim & fancy. But the discipline of the sanitation department was exemplary.
The Chinese Are Rude & Unfriendly
Hem – haw! Yes, the Chinese appear to be rude because (i) they do not smile on seeing you (ii) they talk in a blunt, direct manner. I believe their way of talking stems from their language. As far as I understand, Mandarin does not have grammar & syntax.
It is more of words put together to make sense. So for a Chinese talking in English – s/ he processes what s/ he wants to say in Mandarin in her/ his head –> s/ he translates that to English in her/ his head –> s/ he speaks/ replies in English.
This makes their English also blunt & devoid of the niceties that we usually put into it. About the smiling bit, I agree they should do it more.
The Chinese Are Xenophobic
Assume you are not allowed to meet anybody all your life. You are confined to your house. You can interact only with your family members. Your family members do not step out either. You have a view of the outside world only through your window.
Then, suddenly, when you turn 25 years old, you are told you can step out & can even let outsiders enter your house. Will this affect your behavior towards the outside world? Sure it will. Through that narrow window, you had formed an image.
You are now being subjected to other images, a few of which contradict the earlier image & a few which validate. Would you not take time to absorb it all & adapt to it?
Apart from dispelling/ validating the above preconceived notions, I formed a few independent opinions too. Succinctly put:
Beijing is a cleaner, richer version of New Delhi.
The Chinese love big cars – Audi, BMW & Mercedes. These are almost every second car that you see on the road. But the Chinese have no qualms buying these big names secondhand. (This explains the ‘almost every second car’ bit.)
Hong Kong is the not – so – glamorous cousin of Singapore. Both are financial hubs filled with expats. But Hong Kong has a ‘China’ flavor to it.
The Chinese love to talk. They can yap all day long. Given the harshness of their language, this can sound quite jarring to the ears.
Chinese women/ girls love their bling. They can give the Rajouri aunties a run for their money any day.
Macau is not just a gambler’s paradise. It has a lot to keep culture & history lovers occupied too.
Since Hong Kong used to be a British colony, we were under the impression that the place would be full of English eateries. But, sadly, we did not find any place that served the quintessential British food. In fact, our food struggle was greater in Hong Kong than in Beijing.
The Chinese are enterprising. Every second home on the outskirts of Beijing housed a small-scale industry of sorts. From these small factories, they supply goods all across the world. Despite the language barrier, they have managed to trade with the entire world.
Not talking in financial terms, but India is still light years away from being a China. If we imbibe their discipline, we can think of competing with them.
Despite their population struggle, their infrastructure is top class. Better put, their infrastructure is managing to keep up with the population pressure. Perhaps they plan first, execute later.
China, as a whole, has a rich history but it is still a virgin territory for outsiders. Within themselves, they love their historical places, & they accord the respect that such places deserve.
The Chinese love their nightlife. The world may think otherwise due to their apparent serious nature but all the cities we visited had quite ‘happening’ entertainment options.
To summarize our sentiments, there is lots to be explored about China, in China. The expanse of the country ensures that a lifetime will be inadequate to do so. Each small region holds a story. We will be lucky if we get to discover at least a couple more…
Continuing from Chapter 2, a few kilometers before Nathu La, I switched to the other car. I was in for making new friends. A group of Rajasthani couples was on holiday to Guwahati, Shillong and Gangtok.
When I say Rajasthani, I mean ‘proper’ Rajasthani. The men wore dhoti – kurta with pagdis; the women were in ghoonghat. All middle-aged folks, they first assumed I did not know Hindi. I hastened to correct them, and we got chatting.
One of the gentlemen was an ex-farmer, now a linesman with the electricity board. He had educated his children who were now doctors and engineers. The pride was evident in his voice. And then, of course, my interview followed.
Indians are such a curious bunch. They wanted to know if I worked, if I was married, if I had children, why I had moved to their car etc. but, surprisingly, they did not seem astonished that I was traveling alone. I loved interacting with them. N calls me antisocial, but I am pretty social when not overshadowed by his incessant chatter!
The tourists from Rajasthan were also proud of the fact that they had traveled to Guwahati in a ‘plane’. It made me realize how badly we take for granted the things that are still luxuries for millions.
They asked me about the pollution in Delhi; I bared my heart to them – my wish of not returning to Delhi but of settling down in Gangtok itself. Maybe, take up organic farming. I wish it was as easy as talking about it…
Chatting and laughing, we were at Nathu La. From the drop-off point, the climb was not too much but the lack of oxygen made every step difficult. I am unsure where I found my courage from. I marched ahead of others and was soon at the top. And I was stunned!
A rope marks the international boundary. It is easy to crossover to China, except that the Chinese would dislike it. The building on the left belongs to India, the one on the right to China. Even neighbors in the posh colonies of Delhi have higher fences & boundaries.
A Chinese soldier walked out to click a photograph. He looked like a teenager in front of our tall and strong Dogra regiment jawaans. But, underestimating them would be suicidal.
Having contented my heart soaking in this piece of my personal history, and having saluted the Indian tricolor, I started my descent.
Let me not make you think the climb was easy. Everyone struggled. A few senior citizens abandoned their plan of going all the way to the top. Walk slowly, take deep breaths, and travel light. In any case, camera, mobile phones and handbags are prohibited. Sip frequently on water. If you feel faint, do not proceed.
A 15-minute visit causes such tribulation to us; imagine how our soldiers man their posts 365 days of the year, in any weather. They are definitely made of superhuman elements.
On my way down, I picked up a warrior certificate; one that says I was brave enough to visit Nathu La. Yay!
Once back down, I realized my co-passengers were still making their way down. I had some time to click photographs. While doing so, the cab driver paid me a rare compliment – that I was the first Dilliwala he had liked. He wanted me to stay back in Gangtok and was ready to lease his land to me for organic farming. I smile every time I think of this.
It is uncommon for the people of the plains to extend innocent friendships; anything remotely friendly seems creepy to us. This cabbie was not the last person to become friendly; I was to encounter this again and again in Gangtok. I realized that it was just openness towards a guest but the cynic in me questioned their motive, even if my demeanor remained friendly. It is sad that the people of the metropolitan cities have completely lost their goodness. For us, everything seems to have an underlying agenda.
Coming back, a last note on Nathu La – carry an identification card (any government – issued one except a PAN card).
We made our way to the Baba Mandir where my own cab awaited. I bid a hearty goodbye to the Rajasthani tourists but I was to bump into them again.
Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.
I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.
Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.
It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.
New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.
On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.
Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.
I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.
I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.
Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.
We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.
I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.
The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.
But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.