Summer sojourn in London

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December 1999, London

My first visit to the Queen’s country was in December 1999 and the only images that stayed with me were of the dull grey skies and chilly-wet weather. It was also a rushed trip as I had succumbed to the temptation of a spouse-travels-free offer from SAS.

This summer, after 17 years, we decided to visit England to catch up with some family and friends. It was also a holiday all three of us were taking after a very long time.

My aunt (Boroma) who lives in Oxford was about to turn 86 and her son had never met his niece, my 15 year old. Boroma very sweetly decided to celebrate her birthday a week in advance so that we could all attend it together.

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The beautiful conservatory at Thai Orchid: the perfect place for a private celebration

We  assembled at her favourite restaurant, Thai Orchid, where my cousin had managed to organise a gluten-free birthday cake for her. Boroma was quite overwhelmed by this huge celebration and became a bit sentimental at the end.

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Celebrating Boroma’s 86th birthday in Oxford
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From L to R: Novo, Tete, Boroma, Kuka, me, Gopu, Mita and Esther

In between, we had planned to catch up with Tete’s nephew, also based in London, for a quick meal/drink. However, his twin sons got impatient to see the world and arrived 2 weeks earlier, sending the new and excited dad rushing to Sussex, kickstarting his paternity leave. He however remembered to Whatsapp me their adorable pictures later. We still went and explored his interesting neighbourhood, Whitechapel, close to the famous Bangladeshi area Brick Lane.

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This building had a very interesting looking facade (see below)

IMG_0969The weather was perfect when we landed in London, on a late afternoon in end July. The next day, the plan was to catch a play and explore parts of the city with my cousin. We had agreed to meet her in front of Foyle’s bookshop at Southbank around 11 am. After getting off at Waterloo station, we discovered an interesting place on our way.

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Father and daughter enjoying a roadside chat

As we walked on, we soaked in some more eye-catching  sights on the way. London in summer is such a vibrant city – my previous gloomy and wintry images were already beginning to get washed away by these more gay and brighter ones. The holiday mood had started to set in…

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One of the many buildings of King’s College
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The vibrant Southbank area

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I learnt an interesting fact about the Waterloo Bridge – it is also called the Ladies Bridge as it was built by women during WWII. The role of women has now been officially recognised due to the efforts of historian Christine Wall,  who discovered new evidence of their major contribution and brought it back to public attention.

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Even the tube stations have character
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Skating area under Waterloo station

We reached there an hour early and quickly decided to grab a bite. Coming from Africa, we automatically gravitated towards this place.

IMG_0749Soon after that, we set off to look for Temple Church off Fleet Street. It has a very interesting history but has come to public attention only after being used as a setting in Da Vinci Code.

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Fleet StreetIMG_0858

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The elaborate stained glass work

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Remember this from Da Vinci Code?

Our next stop was another offbeat place: Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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Frederick John Horniman, Victorian tea trader and philanthropist, began collecting objects, specimens and artefacts ‘illustrating natural history and the arts and handicrafts of various peoples of the world’ from around 1860. His overarching mission was to ‘bring the world to Forest Hill’ and educate and enrich the lives of the local community.

His travels took him to far flung destinations such as Egypt, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, Japan, Canada and the United States collecting objects which ‘either appealed to his own fancy or that seemed to him likely to interest and inform those who had not had the opportunity to visit distant lands’. Mr Horniman’s interest as a collector was well known and many travellers approached him with specimens and curiosities.

By the late nineteenth century, these ‘natural, industrial and artistic spoils had accumulated to such an extent that he gave up the whole house to the collections’.

His wife is reported to have said ‘either the collection goes or we do’. With that, the family moved to Surrey Mount the grounds of which adjoined those of the former residence.

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Voodoo altar
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Trying out musical instruments
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The beautiful garden around the museum

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Lovely musical instruments to experiment with

Tete wanted a relaxing holiday and had no wish to scurry around with a been-there-done-that list. So for the first time, I went on a holiday without any fixed plans. We decided to take each day as it comes and left it to my other cousin in Reading to plan our tour, which she happily did. They wanted to take us to Henley, Windsor, Bath, Stratford, and Brighton during our stay with them and had also allotted a day for a shopping spree. Unfortunately, we had time only for the first two.

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My cousin’s beautiful garden in Reading

Tete’s unforeseen work problems got in the way and we had to dash back to London after only two and a half days, to be near his head office. Luckily, we found a wonderful apartment through Airbnb – central yet quiet, green and lovely. Now I had to start planning the remaining part of our vacation in the city. More on that later.

Rain decided to play spoilsport for a day in Reading, but we spent a beautiful and relaxing afternoon at Henley. Strolling along the river banks, having a lazy coffee, looking at the boathouses and watching their dog Snoopy have a fun day out.

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Magical Henley
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Brolly time

No trip to England is complete without experiencing the rains but they do add quite a bit of magic to the  atmosphere. The beautiful outing ended with a  quintessentially English fish and chips dinner.

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Ducks everywhere
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Henley of course
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This mermaid is much prettier than her Danish cousin
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House on sale

The next day was thankfully sunny and we went to Windsor to see how lavishly the royals lived. We also visited the Doll’s House and St George’s chapel with its stunning stained glass panels. But alas, photography is not allowed inside.

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Majestic Windsor
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Royal gardens
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St George’s Chapel

On our way back, we went for a stroll in one of the many beautiful parks in Reading.

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The cousins and Snoopy
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Pond full of ducks
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British humour
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Lovely light

Our London Airbnb neighbourhood, Maida Vale, was very close to a not-so-well-known place called Little Venice. It also had a beautiful park next door, which I later discovered was the legendary Roger Bannister’s training grounds.

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Our neighbourhood park’s claim to fame

Little Venice had been on my wish list and we quickly found our way there only to be informed that we had just missed the last boat. We explored the area a bit and bought some groceries for breakfast before heading home with a short stop at Paddington Greens where we serendipitously found the exciting plaque shown above.

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Our first stop the next morning

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We decided to do the London Dungeon tour that evening but sadly, it proved to be very touristy and a tad corny though it did have its small share of thrills.

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On the way to the dungeon
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London Dungeon tour
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This is a very interesting list

Our next day started with a scenic boat ride along Regent’s canal. It stopped at Camden Lock where we watched the locks open to let boats pass. It was fun to see how the operation is still done manually. The market also had great character.

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Gliding through Little Venice

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The site of the manual operation of the locks

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The interesting market

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IMG_1552On the way to the tube station, we saw wall after wall filled with graffiti. This was Amy Winehouse country after all!

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Vivid graffiti

IMG_1579After that we were off to Greenwich. Tete went to inspect the Cutty Sark while we went to the Fan Museum. Unfortunately, we could not visit the Maritime Museum or the Observatory due to time constraint.

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Entrance to the Fan Museum
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The idyllic orangery was just about to close – so we missed our cuppa
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The orangery
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Fans on display
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Mother of pearl fan
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Another market with a character
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The iconic Cutty Sark

The only thing we had planned on this trip was a “pilgrimage” tour of The Making of Harry Potter at the Warner Brothers studio. Thank god we bought the tickets online a month before as the tickets get sold out weeks in advance.

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It felt quite unreal seeing this
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Harry Potter fans do not need a caption for this
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The Great Hall minus the enchanted ceiling
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Potion Master’s room

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Just before disappearing
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Muggle attack
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Diagon Alley

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I had reconnected with an old childhood friend before our London trip and he insisted that we must stay with them for a few days. Luckily, he also happened to stay very close to the WB studio. Tete was a bit iffy as he had not met him for 30 years (we are all from the same locality or para) but I assured him that it will be okay. My aunt and cousins also know him and his family very well. We did not know his wife but she turned out to be a beautiful person one gets to like more and more with every passing day.

They drove us to Oxford to visit Boroma (they were part of her birthday celebration too) but first we stopped at a pretty wildlife park in Cotswold since we also had to keep the kids’ entertainment in mind. We drove through the picturesque town of Cotswold and the pretty university town of Oxford, admiring all the colleges. We were more than half in love with this wonderful family by the time it was time to leave for Reading.

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Charming Cotswold

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Cotswold wildlife park and gardens
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Canadian Timber Wolf
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Capybara
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Patagonian Mara
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Great Grey Owl
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Snowy Owl

Next morning, Tete took the kids to Madame Tussauds while I went to Westminister Abbey with my friend’s wife. The stunning architecture and stained glass blew me away but here again, photography was not allowed.

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Two new additions to the royal family @Madame Tussaude’s
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The stunning and historic Westminster Abbey

Those 4 days spent with our friends were such an enjoyable part of our trip. Complete relaxation coupled with catching up on our “wonder years” of growing up together in Calcutta filled with fun and mischief, secret crushes and dalliances, and all things nostalgic. We laughed and ate and drank and chatted (adda as we Bengalis call it) till late in the night – going off to sleep in a very happy frame of mind. Thankfully, they had a daughter and the kids had a super rollicking time too. The outcome was 2 sets of completely guilt-free parents.

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The 900 year old pub in Buckinghamshire

His older sister and husband (also old friends) drove down from Wimbledon one day and that day was an even greater riot! And when 4 doctors (the siblings are both doctors married to doctors) get together, the conversation can never get dull. We had lunch at The Royal Standard, presumably the oldest pub in England.

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Tete thanked me later for persuading him to stay with them. He was even more delighted to discover that their home in Ickenham had a secret leafy passage behind it, which led to 3 huge fields (amazingly maintained by the local county), where one could jog or walk. Summers also saw youngsters play club level cricket there. On one of his jogs, he also discovered a hidden bicycle trail that glided into the woods from the other side. Their adjacent house was on sale and I could almost sense his wishful thinking. A perfect setting for his retirement home!

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Our man jogging around the county field
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The field looked like this later on in the day

The last few days, we shamelessly immersed ourselves in doing the touristy things, including the “mandatory” Hop on Hop off bus tours. We visited many museums, took the Thames river cruise, walked along Southbank and visited Oxford Street. We did not do too many palaces (only Windsor) as we are not particularly enamoured with royalty.

Here are some pictures that capture our holiday spirit. All these sights have been much written about and so I will not add more clutter to cyberspace.

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You are not a tourist if you don’t hop on to one of these
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The tower that houses Big Ben

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A city teeming with tourists
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The London Eye – we decided to give this ride a pass
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Happy tourists
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A bunch of skaters
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Trafalgar Square
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Near National Gallery
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Identify your flag and drop a coin please
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The mosaic-ed floor of the National Gallery
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A Van Gogh painting I had never seen before
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I liked this painting a lot

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The gift from Egypt

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Keeping the Egyptian theme in mind
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In front of Buckingham Palace
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St Paul’s Cathedral
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Corinthian columns
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After a while, the brain gets saturated with these beauties

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Next stop was Tate Modern.

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Babel 2001

I also loved the poignant memorial  in Whitehall (below), dedicated to commemorate the efforts of over 7 million women “who served our country and the cause of freedom in uniform and on the home front” during World War II. The 22ft-high bronze sculpture depicts the uniforms and working clothes worn by women during the war. Military helicopters flown by all-female crews flew past the memorial to mark the occasion in July 2005.

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Ripley’s museum at Piccadilly Circus was slotted towards the evening as it is open till midnight. It was an interesting museum with various “kitschy oddities on display.” Watch this video to have a better idea.

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Look Ma, no legs!
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Funtime at the mirror maze at Ripley’s

We briefly stepped into Chinatown as it was right next door.

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We also decided to do a night tour of London (included in the ticket) as it was our last evening in the city. It was a beautiful ride but we were ready to drop off dead at the end of a very long day.

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Evening sets in

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The clock tells us it is almost 10
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Night scenes

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Foodlover’s delight
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The Tower Bridge acquires a dreamy look at night

We did not have time for V & A Museum on our last day but we did not miss the Museum of Natural History. It was still a rushed tour as we had a flight to catch later that afternoon.

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The magnificent entrance to the V & A Museum

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Satisfied visitors at their last stop of the tour

We were happy to come home but unlike last time, we wanted to come back soon to explore more of this beautiful city. I must also add that we were a bit apprehensive about the mood of the country towards us post Brexit. We were warned that we would have a bitter taste of racism this time but were very pleasantly surprised by the warmth, friendliness and helpful nature of each and every stranger we encountered on this trip. Most went out of their way to help us. I suppose they too must have been touched  by the magic of summer to feel any animosity towards foreigners. And I don’t want to return in winter to test the veracity of this little theory.

Some Nice To Know-s

  • If you want a VAT refund, please make sure you go to the desk before checking in your luggage as you have to show all that you bought along with the receipts and price tags. So keep all your purchases together. I learnt it the hard way.
  • Buses are much much cheaper than tubes, and a better way to experience the city. You can travel as much as you want to, on the same fare, although I hear that is to change soon. However, they are much slower.
  • Buy your Oyster cards if you want to use the public transport system.  There is a Zip Oyster card for younger children. You can buy them at stations and any shops that display the Oyster sign outside. But tubes are quite expensive, despite this card. A lot of stations are not manned nowadays. So either buy the cards online and ask them to deliver at a local London address or buy them from the dispensing machine. They cost 5 pounds.
  • The Hop-on Hop-off buses are a good way to see the city as you can see the city completely by mixing their red, blue and yellow tours. However, they are expensive (£23 – you can use the London Pass to avail a cheaper price but you have to wisely use the pass to reap its benefits). There are some public bus routes which can be used to tour the city cheaply. Check these useful links for more information on public transport.

http://www.visitlondon.com/traveller-information/getting-around-london/london-bus#w4VfIvtmUf8CzyAj.97

http://www.visitlondon.com/traveller-information/getting-around-london/london-tube?ref=more-ideas#51ZOsCFSQdqoROuk.97

  • Buy the entries of ALL attractions online. That will save you valuable time and money.
  • The London Pass is a very good option if you want to see 3 or more attractions in a day. If you carefully plan your day according to specific areas, you will save a lot of time and money. Their website has information about the nearby attractions. However, do keep in mind that the pass is valid for CONSECUTIVE days only. If you buy a 3-day pass, you have to use it on 3 consecutive days. So planning is very essential.
  • If you want to watch a play or visit the Harry Potter studio, buy your tickets online, months in advance. Better to give a London address where it can be mailed to.
  • Evan & Evans and Golden Tours offer good day trips to Bath, Stratford etc.
  • The Original Tours, Big Bus Company and Golden Tours are the more popular hop-on-hop-off bus companies. The last one has free wifi on board and is the cheapest and probably the best value-for-money option. On weekends, you sometimes get deals for 2 days tour for a 1 day payment. The red and blue line tours end at 5.30 pm but there is a night tour offered as well within the ticket price.
  • There is free wifi almost at all attractions, restaurants and cafes.
  • Ripley’s Believe It or Not is the only museum that is open till 12 midnight. All other museums and churches close between 5 and 6 pm depending on the season. So plan your day wisely.
  • All functional churches like St Paul’s and Westminster Abbey are closed for services on Sundays. Photography is also not allowed.
  • Most museums are free although some exhibits have a charge.
  • MAKE SURE YOU LIVE CLOSE TO A TUBE STATION – preferably one with many interchanges. It helps if you are near the Bakerloo/Central/Circle line. If money is a constraint, CHOOSE AN ACCOMODATION NEAR A well connected BUS STOP.
  • Check out these 2 links for comprehensive tourist information on London.
  1. http://content.tfl.gov.uk/london-visitor-guide.pdf
  2. http://www.myenglandtravel.com

Some offbeat attractions

I have mentioned Little Venice, Fan Museum, Horniman Museum and Brick Lane in my blog. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for the Maritime Museum and Observatory in Greenwich, both of which are a must-see. Here is a list of some other things not on the usual tourist map.

  1. London Walks is a fabulous way to explore London. Check out their calendar to see what suits you. Please note that this is totally different from the “free walks” included in the London Pass.
  2. Hampton Court (use London Walks for this, if possible, to get the real taste)
  3. Camden Market (can be clubbed with Little Venice cruise)
  4. Columbia Flower Market (only on Sundays)
  5. Portobello Road Market
  6. Museum of Brands (can be done with 5)
  7. Transport Museum (near Trafalgar Square)
  8. The London Film Museum (behind Transport Museum)
  9. Cartoon Museum
  10. Pollock’s Toy Museum (near London Zoo and so can be done with Little Venice cruise)
  11. Sir John Soane’s Museum
  12. The Old Operating Theatre
  13. Fullham Palace
  14. The Tintin Shop
  15. Kyoto Garden in Holland Park
  16. Kenwood House
  17. Chelsea Physic Garden
  18. Leake Street Graffiti Tunnel
  19. London Wetland Centre

Here is a link for the best museums for children. There is so much to do in this city, depending on your interests that no list can be truly exhaustive. I have left the pub and nightclub scene out altogether as that information is quite easily available. And also because I will not be the best judge in that area.

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Countering Mr Murphy … our (mis)adventures in north Sikkim

Murphy’s Law is typically stated as: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

Our trip to north Sikkim was fraught with obstacles and misadventures and it is a wonder we all returned home safe and sound.  However, this trip made us look inwards and possibly, taught us a thing or two about life and ourselves. The quote below expresses our trip  quite aptly.

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The birth of an idea

Three of us, friends from college days, had this strangely compelling feeling that we had to visit North Sikkim this year. Why we felt this way, cannot be logically explained. We had been mesmerised by the photos of Gurudongmar Lake and numerous recounts by independent sources – who all felt it was something akin to heaven.

Situated at an altitude of 17,375 ft, it is one of the highest lakes in the world and equally sacred to Buddhists and Sikhs as it is supposed to have been blessed by both Guru Padmasambava/ Rinpoche and Guru Nanak. There are many stories around why even during peak winter, one spot of this sacred lake does not freeze. Only Indian citizens are permitted to visit the lake as it is just a stone’s throw away from the Indo-Tibetan border. The closest village is Thangu (15,000 ft approx) where there is an army check-post. Foreigners are allowed only up to this point unless they get a special permit from MEA.

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The picture of the lake which stirred our fantasies (PC: Siddhartha Roy, 2007)

Apart from this much-talked-about paradise on earth, we also planned to visit Yumthang Valley (where people go to feast their eyes on the Valley of Flowers in March-April) and Zero Point or Yumesamdong.

Another place of interest was Katao  – known as the Switzerland of Sikkim. It is blocked now due to heavy troop movement by ITBP (Indo Tibetan Border Police) and is officially not open for tourists. However, drivers in Lachen (the remote hilly town from where all northern Sikkim tours start) frequently bribe the guards to enter this place if senior officers are not present. We refused to take this route although travel agents openly encourage you to do it this way. Thankfully, our agent (Alpine Nature Beyond Ltd) did not fall into this rule-bending category.

Gangtok served only as a night halt for our journey to/fro north Sikkim as we were more keen to explore the virgin beauty of the north. One of our friends who had visited west Sikkim a few years back (and fell in love with this part of the country), told us that the northern part was supposed to be even more stunning. We locked the dates and finalised our itinerary by May. All we had to do now was count the days to 7th October.

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Day 1: The journey starts with a major hiccup…

We reached Calcutta airport well ahead of our reporting time but our smiles froze soon after, when I nervously announced that I had left my leather bag containing my purse, passport, credit cards, money and all essential medicines, at home! How on earth was I going to enter the airport without a photo ID? Just as I was about to dejectedly accept that my carefully planned holiday was about to crash even before taking off, I remembered I had kept my Adhar card in my backpack for some odd reason. First hurdle cleared. Whew!

Our travel agent had clearly told us that only a passport/voter’s ID/driving license was considered as a valid ID for getting a permit to certain border areas in Sikkim. So there was no reason whatsoever why I brought along this card –  which eventually bailed me out. A frantic call to Siliguri followed, with our agent assuring me that she will try to fix this problem. This is the beauty of India, where rules are not cast in iron – sometimes it comes to the aid of forgetful travellers like me.

On reaching Bagdogra airport (in Siliguri), we were escorted to our car by a sidekick of the original meet & greet guy Amit (as he was stuck in a jam somewhere) and introduced to Dipen, our driver for the trip. First we stopped for lunch at Marina’s and by the time we finished, Amit had arrived and handed over the necessary papers for the trip. We also bought some pastries and cream rolls from Glenary’s for the road.

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Stuck in the serpentine jam, all I could do was to admire the river in the dark

A little later, as I was buying my medicines, I overheard Dipen asking the chemist for fever medication as he had been sick for the past 3 days! Scary to think that we were to be driven on treacherous hilly roads by a febrile driver. Thankfully, the medicines worked wonders and made him very cheerful in a couple of hours. We were also relieved to observe that he was a very good and safe driver. The 4-hr drive to Gangtok took 7 hours as we got stuck in a terrible jam. The diesel fumes from other vehicles did not make things any easier.

It was drizzling by the time we reached our destination in Gangtok: Mintokling Guest House. A nice, cosy and homely place with friendly staff but a bit lacking in the food department. One of my friends was feeling very sick by then and was seriously worrying if she would be fit enough next morning to accompany us on the 7-hr journey to Lachen – our night halt at 9175 ft, for a bit of acclimatisation before the arduous drive up to the famous lake. One of the staff members, Montu, very kindly made a special meal of rice, mashed potatoes and dal (lentil soup) for her. The situation seemed to be slowly getting under control again. Later, we figured out that the culprit was the almost-gone-bad cream on one of the pastries that caused the scary indigestion problem and not her chronic acidity.

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Mintokling Guest House (Gangtok)

Day 2: Gangtok to Lachen

I woke up early to explore the grounds and met a lady from Chennai who was there with 2 of her friends. They had come back from Gurudongmar a few days back – s0 I was keen to learn about their experience. The Lachen road had been closed due to a landslide just after their visit but it had again reopened. Landslides are very common in this part of the world and you have to be mentally ready to alter your trip at the last moment. They didn’t seem particularly impressed by the lake (as they had been to Ladakh) and said that she would rather use the term no roads instead of bad roads to describe the way from Lachen to the lake. But I was too excited to hear a warning bell.

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Early morning birdwatching at the guest house

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Drongo/Phingey

We started for Lachen 2 hours behind schedule and were a bit worried as we had been advised to reach there while there is still light. We had also been told that it is a remote town in a very high altitude with very basic facilities. Food would be sufficient but simple. Being a newer destination, tourism infrastructure was still in its elementary stages. We would find out exactly how basic it was, after 10 long and adventurous hours.

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Welcome to North Sikkim, says the sign

The road to Lachen was expectedly picturesque and interspersed with waterfalls. The lush green foliage was particularly appealing. The first waterfalls we saw was the Seven Sisters Falls. We decided to stop at Chungthang Confluence later on our way to Lachung (from Lachen) as we were very short on time.

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Engrossed in my favourite hobby

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We stopped for a quick lunch somewhere near Singhik and were soon back on the road. The toilet stops were very basic but more or less clean, up to this lunch stop. There are many other scenic points where you may stop on the way, like Tashi View Point (a typically crowded touristy place), Phodong, Mangan etc but do remember that every additional stop will delay you further and prevent you from reaching Lachen safely while there is still light. However, do try to make a stop at Singhik.

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Road to Lachen

We had been forewarned about possible altitude sickness as well as various dos and don’ts and were well armed with homeopathic Coca 30 globules and Diamox tablets (later we learnt about its scary but possible side effects). Drinking lots of water was also recommended but with paucity of public toilets, it wasn’t a viable option for women. Even after carefully monitoring our water intake, circumstances forced us to take a very daring chance out in the open under a mild drizzle. Thankfully, the light was fading rapidly…. but we were still quite some distance from Lachen. Soon it was pitch dark and all we could see were the red tail lights of the few cars ahead of us. The rain was beating down more heavily now and the roads were not smooth or comfortable. The mercury was also dipping rapidly.

At 7.30pm, about 25 mins from Lachen, all the cars came to a halt – a car had got stuck badly in the slushy ‘road’ and could not get itself out. The road was not wide enough for other cars to go past it either. In the meantime, a call came from the hotel, wondering if we were coming at all. For one and a half hours, all the drivers ignored the cold and rain and managed to extricate the car and finally, we were on our way. Our driver Dipen came back drenched and took over the wheels of our Xylo happily. The danger was not over yet as no one knew if the same fate was awaiting another car.

“Dipen, what car was it that got stuck in the mud?”

“Xylo, madam!”

Stunned silence followed.

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Our Xylo

When we reached our hotel, it was close to 9.30pm. We were greeted by a young and keen Pramod who asked us what we would like for dinner! Obviously our request to keep dinner ready did not register or maybe they thought we would not be able to make it that night. We were also informed that our chosen hotel Snow Retreat was under renovation and so we were being put up in their ‘better’ property – Hill Retreat.

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Our colour un-coordinated basic room in Lachen

There were 3 fancy motor bikes parked outside and as we were being escorted to our room, we heard boisterous male voices from the adjacent room – obvious signs of drunken revelry. We also found that only 2 rooms were occupied – ours and theirs. We had recently watched the movie Pink and got quite scared. We immediately decided to talk in whispers and told Pramod and his assistant that they have to sleep in the opposite rooms. Pramod assured us that the boys were harmless and showed us a bell that could be used to call him, any time. We were freezing by then and asked for a room heater which got fixed after some juggling with the plug. Dinner was served in our room and as we got ready to go off to sleep, the power went off! So much for the calling bell. We got some candles and retired for the night feeling strangely safe, guarded by 3 male strangers from 3 (or more) supposed predators.

Day 3: Trip to Gurudongmar Lake

When we woke up, there was still no power and we had to get ready in candle light. One friend slept through her 2 am alarm and was woken up by the 2.30 am alarm person. My alarm was set at 2.45 am but I woke up earlier in this confusion. Anyway, we got ready by 3.30 am to embark on our 7-hr journey. Minutes after starting off, I realised I had left my phone behind. I was okay about it as we were unlikely to get mobile signals at that altitude. My friends felt otherwise. In his rush to reverse at the bend, our car fell into a ditch and got badly stuck! Dipen tried to get it out and after a while, told us glumly that it was an impossible situation. He still tried one more time to rev the car out of trouble, but the tyre started to burn and then had a puncture! It was 3.40 am. We got out of the car and called Pramod. He came out running and immediately went down to get 6 guys from the village at that hour in the morning! These simple hill people amaze me. They live in such diverse conditions and yet are always so helpful and smiling. We met so many of them during this trip and all of them were such wonderfully uncomplicated and generous people.

Thanks to these amazingly efficient guys, the car was rescued, the tyre changed and at 4 am, we resumed our journey to the sacred lake. We also discovered the reason for Dipen’s hurry. This was his first trip too and he wanted to be with the convoy of cars. Ten minutes into the journey, I realised that I had forgotten my camera in the hotel but I kept this embarrassing fact to myself. The journey was very scenic but not comfortable at all. And the sky being overcast, we missed out on what might have been a stunning sunrise. How I missed my camera!

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Road to Gurudongmar
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Rocky terrain
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Sudden bursts of colour
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Rivers galore

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As you gain altitude, you will find the green forests of lower altitude gives way to smaller trees and bushes. Beyond Thangu is the second phase of your travel. The road towards the lake from Thangu passes through the high alpine pastures carpeted with occasional rhododendron bushes. One can get a prized view of rare Sikkim rhubarb peeping through the bushes in inaccessible terrain or of a herd of mountain sheep grazing in the distant valley. In this area you will find little vegetation or people. Apart from Indian Army, there is no human habitation here. The gravel road through the valley gives you a unique view of a barren land.     (Nature Beyond website)

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My first sighting of yaks
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Mountain Horses
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Closer to the lake, snow caps started getting visible

The road was patchy and bumpy and filled with rocks and potholes. Evidence of a recent landslide was visible everywhere. There was no tarmac and in some places there was continuous water flow over the road. I was very surprised that the government allows vehicles to ply on such a risky road. Who do we call for help if we skid off the road or if there is a breakdown? How can you simply expect the army to bail you out in the direst of situations? Is that fair?

Altitude sickness was also an issue. I saw some people taking their sick companions up to the army tent marked with a red cross. There is an army check-post at Thangu, but contrary to what we had read on TA – that army personnel come and scan every passenger for signs of sickness before allowing them to proceed – we were neither stopped nor checked by anyone. In fact, a friend had suggested that we carry some sweets for these jawans posted in such godforsaken places. She said that they feel very happy and grateful to get such gifts from the plains, especially around Dussera time. My packet of kaju barfi returned with me as I met no one. Maybe they were busy patrolling the Indo-Tibetan border after the intrusions by Pakistan on the western side.

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The breathstopping Chopta Valley

whatsapp-image-2016-10-24-at-20-14-58-3All of a sudden, the cloudy sky magically transformed into a sunny blue one and we realised we were in the very barren Chopta Valley! And equally mysteriously, a stretch of silk smooth road appeared out of nowhere. Maybe this was the road to heaven? The topography changed to that of the Tibetan plateau with no vegetation. The landscape was stark but stunning. The road then turned right towards Gurudongmar Lake. We were hoping to see paradise….but were very sorely disappointed.

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The very disappointing Gurudongmar Lake under a cloudy sky

We were greeted by the ugly sight of about 50-60 tourist jeeps parked around the rim, polluting the place with a powerful smell of diesel fumes. We parked in the second row. As we walked towards the rim, we saw the famous lake beneath us. The sun had disappeared and the sky was overcast, ruling out any possibility of a reflection of the mountains across it. Nor was there much snow on the peaks. There was no vision of aquamarine water or of the silvery peaks as the various photoshopped pictures on the internet had led us to believe. There was a long flight of steps leading to the lake (which was lined with Buddhist prayer flags) but we were too disappointed to even think of attempting that climb. It was just a peaceful little lake at a very high altitude. Under a clear blue sky, with the reflection of the mountains on the waters, it would surely look beautiful, but we still felt that the lake did not have the dimension or ambience to enthral us. Maybe our expectations of paradise were different.

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How my phone camera captured a hint of blue is beyond my understanding

We returned to Lachen exhausted, and extremely disappointed. After such an arduous journey, we were expecting to see something much more spectacular. Strangely, I was feeling the effects of altitude sickness on my way back – a mild headache with a strange kind of numbness around my cheeks. We were contemplating if we should stay back in Lachen instead of driving down to Lachung, where we were to spend 3 nights. However, another day in Lachen seemed very unappealing and we decided to travel to Lachung (8075 ft) as per our original itinerary. My friends went down for lunch while I lay down in bed nursing my headache and steeling myself for another arduous road trip.

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En route to Lachung

img_2141The 2.5 hr drive to Lachung however was much better and the roads were quite good. As usual, there were waterfalls galore and lush green mountains. We reached our hotel in Lachung – Norling Zymkhang – on time. It was a small property and we liked our room a lot. Biggish with very clean beds. The windows also opened out to a great view, although there was some ugly extension work going on below.

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Our humble sanctuary in Lachung
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The view from the window
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View from the bed when the mist cleared

Almost everyone spends 2 nights in this pretty town but we agreed to add an extra day to relax and enjoy the surroundings. And what a good decision that was. We checked in and immediately crashed out for 2-3 hours to recharge our batteries.

For the first time on the trip, we had a tasty meal during dinner. Over the next 3 days, the cook Kusal turned out simple but delicious meals which we gobbled to our heart’s content. One must also mention Madan, the quiet, young and helpful staff member who served us very sweetly.

Day 4: Free and easy in Lachung

The next day was meant to be free and easy but one of my friends went down with hill diarrhoea. After a frantic call to her GP in Calcutta, 2 courses of antibiotics were prescribed. Thankfully, she was carrying those tablets with her and got started on them immediately. The medicines proved quite effective but she decided to stick to a no-risk diet of rice, dal, boiled potatoes and eggs. Post lunch, we went out to explore the town.

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Wild berries
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Beautiful Lachung
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Remnants of Fall colours maybe
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Fauna
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Ferns
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The moody mist was too magical
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Random composition
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Alpine vegetation
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Moss, glorious moss
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Quite a pose

While finalising our Lachung hotel, we all loved Season House (awesome TA reviews) but it did not provide room heaters. And being true blue, cold-fearing Bengalis (ore baba, thanda lege jabey), we had thumbed it down. Better warm than sorry is what we believe in. That afternoon, we wanted to check it out for future reference. It truly was a mind blowing property with jaw-dropping views. It also had the cutest possible dining hall. The rooms were smaller but who cares about that when the setting is so spectacular? The manager also assured us that very soon, they will be able to provide room heaters. If we come here in April some day, we will definitely stay here, room heater or not. Food served here is vegetarian, although non-veg momos are available at the junction below. The climb is quite steep though.

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Season House
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The view – the powerful presence of nature

We retired early as we had to leave at 5.30am next morning for Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. My friend decided to give it a skip as she needed more rest and wanted to play it safe with her under-control diarrhoea. We were to soon discover how mindblowing that trip was going to be. The rhododendron flowers bloom in summer but even without them, this journey was one of the most picturesque ones we had ever taken. We had to pass through an army camp to reach the valley and nature started to reveal its gorgeousness right from the very start of our journey.

Day 5: Trip to Yumthang Valley and Zero Point

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First sight of the snow caps at dawn

img_2228Feast your eyes now on some of the breath-catching views we were exposed to, en route to Yumthang Valley. I do not possess a wide angle lens and my camera could not do justice to what our eyes saw. A totally unforgettable experience. The acute disappointment over the sacred lake faded away very quickly.

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The first rays of the sun hit the peaks
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Yaks graze in the beautiful Alpine valley

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Wish I could capture a quarter of its true beauty
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King of the valley

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A picture in contrast

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It had obviously snowed more in this region

We decided to go to Yumesamdong (15,750 ft) first as it tends to get more crowded later in the day. It is popularly known as Zero Point because there is no road after that point. We were lucky that for the past 2 nights, there had been heavy and unexpected snowfall. This place too is open only to Indians because of its proximity to the border. We saw a huge military presence in this area. Finally I found my soldiers! I called out to one of them, wished him for Dussera and gave him my box of kaju barfi.

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Approaching Zero Point

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Land of snow
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Life exists though

We could not go up to the post which says ZERO POINT as the road was too sleety and slippery, thus missing out on a great photo op. We also discovered that our car (or any car for that matter) did not have a 4 wheel drive. We were so grateful for our blissful ignorance about this fact on our roller coaster journey to Gurudongmar Lake. But what we greedily recorded in our visual memory here, will last us for our lifetime.

I forgot to mention one small detail. We had stopped once in the snowy terrain before trying to reach that post announcing Zero Point. Our jeep stopped just before a culvert to give us our first experience of walking in the land of snow. I realised immediately that the snow had turned into treacherous sleet by then, as I lost my grip a few times. I warned my friend about the dangers and carefully trotted along. We also asked a fellow adventurer to click us. Then Dipen rushed us, urging us to get in the car so that we could reach ZP ahead of the rush traffic. I got in and waited for my friend. A few minutes passed. Maybe she is making snowballs, I thought. Five minutes later, she got in a bit dishevelled and disturbed. She told me that she had slipped and fallen flat on the snow. Trying to break the fall with her hands, she broke her fingernails, but was kindly assisted up by a fellow Bengali with a sympathetic chot laageni toh beshi apnar (hope you didn’t hurt yourself too much)? And didn’t even hear a thud. Documented below is her last vertical picture (with me) at Yumesamdong. Jokes aside, we were worried if the fall would aggravate her recently acquired lower back problems. As we found out later, it didn’t.

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The picture after which my pal took a tumble in the snow and broke her nails
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Little fellow, what do you get to eat here?
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Some food resides in this freezing water obviously
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One of these is inhabited by P P Ghosh
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When you witness these hostile environment, you cannot but salute the Army men
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Frozen

We saw many tourists lose themselves in uncontrollable delight on seeing so much snow. Living in the hot and humid Gangetic plains below, this was enough to drive them crazy, literally. There were people engaged in various activities – having mock snowball fights, clicking themselves in Titanic poses, rolling in the snow, balancing with 2 huge snow footballs in their hands and of course, taking selfies galore. I even saw a guy lying on the snow bare-bodied and getting photographed for posterity! Utter lunacy.

However, what surprised me most was to see so many terribly under-dressed in this extreme climate. Quite a few were wearing open slippers without any socks while some were in shawls or very light jackets but all of them were frolicking in the snow! Snow boots and warm jackets are easily available on hire on the valley roads. One local driver openly expressed alarm at seeing such under-dressed people, saying baad mein bhari parega (it will cost them dearly later).

I wasn’t sure if it was ignorance or sheer bravado. We also encountered one very distressed young dad seeking water for his daughter who had fainted due to altitude sickness. We were more than happy to oblige. It  may be worthwhile for the govt/media to keep a track of the health of people returning from north Sikkim. Judging by the brave display of naivete, I would not be surprised if there were quite a few serious casualties.

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Stark beauty
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Cruel terrain
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img_2326On our way back, we got stuck in a bad jam. There were hundreds of jeeps, blocking our way – some of them double parked. These latecomers were trudging their way up (not at all advisable at this altitude) as cars could not progress further. Somehow we managed to get out of this and happily headed for the multi-hued Yumthang Valley (11,925 ft).

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The brave girl did get down again to pose with me at an even higher altitude

img_2333img_2335We had passed by Yumthang Valley on our way to Zero Point but we fell in love once again with the stunning scenery – we were lucky to be witnessing nature at its grandest best.

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Traces of snowfall from the previous nights

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Rapidly changing landscapes

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The winding mountain roads

We got off the car to take a walk in the valley. This was not the flower season but even without them, its natural beauty took our breath away. We were trying to imagine how it would look in April, filled with 32 shades of rhododendrons! Although it was sunny, it was windy as well and hence very chilly. A tributary of river Teesta with crystal clear water flows through ththis beautiful valley. We just looked on…

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Stunning colours

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The tributary
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Variable scenery

img_2368img_2367img_2364img_2361img_2359Our senses satiated, we dragged ourselves away from here and into the car. We were on a temporary high. Speechless, we headed back to Lachung.  I wished our third friend could have joined us for this visual treat. But I believe what is meant to be, is meant to be.

I have to mention a funny thing here. Our sick friend had requested the cook to religiously serve her rice, boiled potatoes (aloo), boiled eggs and moong dal every day to recover asap. The moong dal became a permanent fixture in the regular dinner menu and they lovingly served her quota of boiled eggs and aloo everyday. On the day we were leaving Lachung, she had recovered well enough to try normal food but before she could even order her meal, out came Kusal armed with 3 boiled eggs and aloos! We couldn’t refuse such a gift of love and affectionately carried them all the way to Gangtok. We had a good laugh about it later and she remarked that she would have to abstain from aloo and eggs for a while. They are really such sweet and simple people!

Day 6: Lachung to Gangtok

Next morning, we left for Gangtok after a very tasty breakfast. The ride was uneventful except for maneuvering our car to go past the countless army trucks coming from the other direction. When we reached Gangtok, it was raining. We checked in to the same guest house and went out in search for lunch. Our wish for having a good Chinese meal at the highly recommended Chopsticks remained unfulfilled as there was a 1.5 hour wait. So we had to make do with grilled fish at a nice coffee shop. A quick round of shopping for teas, cardamoms and woolies followed.

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Ferns at the guesthouse

Day 7: Supposedly back to Calcutta via Bagdogra

I woke up early to try and catch a glimpse of Kanchenjunga peak from our balcony. I’m not sure if I managed to but I did get some interesting shots.

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Pigeons
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The glimpse of a snowy range but where is Kanchenjunga?

During breakfast, we found out that due to a landslide, the road from Gangtok to Siliguri was closed but work was on to restore the link. We left for the airport and luckily the road was open but the police were letting only one vehicle at a time. We heaved a sigh of relief, thinking that this would be the last of our obstacles, but little did we know.

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Landslide on the way to Siliguri

We reached the airport, had a big lunch and checked in our luggage. As we had lots of time to kill, one pal even decided to shop! Just as she was happily strolling out with her new purchase, it was announced that our Indigo flight (along with some others) had got cancelled.  The earliest available flight was 2 days later, on Sunday. As I had an international flight to catch on Sunday morning, we quickly cancelled our tickets, got the refund slip and requested our agent to help us with bus tickets. She acted quite promptly and instructed us go and collect the tickets from town. A car was also arranged but we got stuck in the infamous Siliguri evening traffic jam. The bus was supposed to leave at 6.30 pm.

Around 6.15 pm, when we realised it was a hopeless situation, we got off on the road and lugged our suitcases in the rain to the ticket counter, some 50m away. Thankfully, our tickets were waiting there. It was 6.25pm. Initially, we were told to take an auto from there to the main bus terminus but there was no time for that. Thankfully, that road was on the bus route. After a call to the driver, we were asked to wait at the counter with our luggage. The rain was falling more heavily now. Around 7pm, we saw the bus approaching and we ran across the road over the divider and on to the other side. Our suitcases were loaded quickly – we got up and filled up the last 3 seats. The seats were comfortable and we watched the movie M.S.Dhoni on board. Dinner stop was at a roadside dhaba and the less said about the public toilet there, the better. In the age of Swachh Bharat (clean India), it is unfathomable how no tourism minister is yet to do something about providing clean public toilets for road travellers. Maybe it is time we had a female tourism minister who will understand how especially difficult it is for women.

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Our bus sometimes also plies between Bengal and Bangladesh

Sleep wasn’t peaceful. The guy next to me liked to sleep diagonally, almost pushing me out of my seat. I had to nudge/shake him constantly to reclaim my paid square of space.

Day 8: Not part of the original plan, but in Calcutta at long last

Just as I was enjoying a beautiful sunrise, the bus had a puncture close to a small town called Bethuadohori. And there was no spare tyre! These unfortunately are not fine-able offences. A few passengers hired a van and dashed off to the station to catch a train to Calcutta. For 3 hours, the rest of us waited for the tyre to get fixed from the nearest town, Krishna Nagar, without any access to breakfast or toilet facilities. The men of course were shamelessly spraying the countryside.

Thankfully, the bus gave us water. We also had some left-over snacks from the trip. After some enquiries, we walked up to a library with pay-and-use toilets. Needless to say it was not clean. At times like this, however you are grateful that there is a toilet at all. The pee-fee collector asked us if we were from Delhi. And on our return, when we were standing outside to get some fresh air and stretching our legs, a curious passerby stopped his cycle and asked us if we were from Bangladesh! Obviously we were looking like aliens.

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Our breakfast with flattened rice (chire/poha)

Finally, the bus took off and the expected TOA at Esplanade was announced to be around 2-3 pm. Then we learnt that Red Road was being readied for the Durga Puja immersion carnival that very afternoon. That meant major trouble for commuters. Mr Murphy was having a field day! Unanimously we decided to get off at the airport and take the bypass to go home. My friend informed her driver about our change of plans as well as the new pick-up point. Finally, after a 19-hour journey, we got off the bus. We have never been happier to set our feet in Calcutta. Soon after, we were picked up and were on our home.

In a nutshell, I left Gangtok on 13th Oct at 8.30 am to reach my home in Calcutta on the 14th at 3pm. Definitely, my longest road journey ever.

Looking back…

It’s quite interesting how time changes ones perspective. When I returned from the trip, I was frustrated and totally drained by the number of obstacles we had to overcome. Interestingly, we overcame each and every one although we didn’t see it that way then. It was not a fun trip for us and we didn’t want to ever go for a holiday in the hills again.

But now, when I look back, I see things in a different light. Yumthang blew me away and I won’t mind visiting again some time in April to see the flower show. I’m also “mildly” curious to see Gurudongmar on a clear sunny day. I really need to know why people rave about it so. Did I miss anything? But it will happen only after Gangtok airport gets functioning. That will reduce my road travel to a great extent.

I also know myself a bit better now. For one, I do not enjoy traveling at a frantic pace. My kind of vacation has to be relaxed. I am not a hill person either despite the breathtaking vistas it has to offer. If I have to go on a long road journey, I must have access to hygienic toilets. I discovere I have a much higher tolerance for cold weather now, although I still prefer a warmer climate any day. It is also not a good idea to see too many photos of the place you plan to visit – it raises your expectations and you will be, more often than not, disappointed.

Post Gurudongmar experience, I am convinced I do not get an extra “high” by overcoming the odds and fighting adversities to reach a difficult destination. Many people do not even get to reach the lake because of bad weather and unforeseen landslides. So, getting to the lake adds to the adventure and charm for many. Unfortunately, it did not, for me or my friends.

I enjoy a sight that is tranquil and quiet. The sight of a place teeming with hundreds of noisy tourists is a BIG deterrent. The reason why despite living in Kenya for over 2 years, I haven’t yet been to watch the great migration. I have been to endless safaris though, but only during off season. However, that is entirely my personal opinion. To each his or her own.

Getting to experience the hill people was a big gain. Their simple attitude towards life makes you realise how urbanised, self-centred and disconnected we have become. There was no impatience, annoyance or frustration despite the hardships they face daily. What warmed me most was their feeling of brotherhood as was evident in the joint effort of the drivers in Lachen to get that hapless car out. Despite rain, cold and darkness, I neither saw any signs of frayed nerves nor heard any verbal abuse. I witnessed that even more when 6 people who were woken up at 3.30 am, came up with a smile to help us get our car out of that ditch. They didn’t even linger on for tips, although we did leave some money for them. Contrast that to what we observe during traffic jams in the city. Horns, screams and rudeness. Hill travel is risky and so road courtesy is a must to survive. And how beautifully they all observe it. Our driver for the whole trip, Dipen, seemed a bit surprised when we tipped him at the end. Whereas in Siliguri, Amit’s stand-in, blatantly asked us for money simply to guide our trolleys to our Xylo.

We met this family from Calcutta whose holiday in Darjeeling got ruined  as they were hotel-bound for 3 days due to the rains. They were in the same night bus, going through similar travails. We got chatting while waiting for the puncture to be repaired and while they were also worried, the lady said with a big smile, that they love the hills and would again travel north next year. So what if this trip was a washout?

I realised that we have changed a lot since our carefree college days. For example, this aversion to crowds is a newly acquired bourgeois attitude. Ordinary people will vacation during holiday season (when they get leave) and will travel in jeeps that are filled to capacity, to save money. Holidays probably offer them an escape from their routine drudgery and they express that joy without any inhibition. ‘Civilised’ society teaches us to do everything in moderation – speak softly, eat quietly, munch silently, ….. Money and material comfort have indeed made us more impatient, intolerant, hypocritical, self centred and over-critical of the hoi polloi.

Even as a teenager, I had an aversion to the “Rocket Bus” which was the cheapest way to travel up north. I also used to wonder how people use stinky public toilets and had made many imaginary vows regarding what I will never do in life. Although, I escaped from the Rocket Bus, this Volvo bus ride taught me a few valuable lessons. Prime among them was: necessity forces you to do things, whether you like it or not. I remember reading recently how a foreigner understood why taxi drivers in India spit outside while driving. He drove a car without an AC (can’t recall why though) for a few days and realised after continuously inhaling the dust, grime and diesel fumes of our polluted capital, that it is necessary to spit it out. Else you fall sick.

Another big gain from this trip was the strength of our friendship. We shared one room throughout the trip and were never once inconvenienced. When someone fell ill or got hurt or … the other two mothered her. I was financially supported throughout the trip by the other 2 with an indulgent smile. I’m sure we had to compromise at times but that sentiment was never voiced. One of our friends discovered the magic of Eno fruit salt on this trip. Another one had a forced facial done by a total amateur simply because she thought that would give her relief from her traumatic fall. My forgetful nature was a major reason for that post-midnight roll in the ditch. But I never felt any negativity from my dear friends. And most importantly, we laughed outrageously (ottohashyo) throughout our various misadventures and not – except for that single night in Lachen, where we chose to do phish phish (whisper) out of sheer fright! We still managed to cover our mouths and roll in the bed with silent hysterical laughter. And we threw caution into the wind by giggling and guffawing anywhere and everywhere, despite being advised by my friend’s mom to laugh only inside the protected walls of our hotel rooms. Honestly, we tried to follow that dictum.

Some tour details we got from our operator

  • Bagdogra – Gangtok: 130 kms in 4 hrs (5550 ft)
  • Gangtok – Lachen: 130 kms in 7 hrs with some stops and lunch (9175 ft)
  • Lachen – Gurudongmar Lake: to and fro 120 kms in 6 hrs via Thangu Village (13,625 ft) and Chopta Valley (13,325 ft)  to the lake (17,375 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachen – Lachung: 50 kms in 2 hrs (8075 ft)
  • Lachung – Yumthang Valley: 25 kms in 1.5 hrs (11,925 ft)
  • Yumthang – Yumesamdong (Zero Pt): 30 kms in 1.5 hrs (15,750 ft) – Indians only
  • Lachung – Gangtok: 125 kms in 5 hrs

Clothing: Heavy to very heavy woolens from Oct-March and light woolens for the remaining months

Permits: Needed for Changu/Tsongo Lake, Nathu La and North Sikkim (Lachen-Lachung). Valid forms of ID are PP/Voter’s ID/Driving License and 5 copies of PP size pics needed

Altitude sickness: Can be expected especially for people with high BP, asthma, heart problems — please talk to your doctor before venturing