On March 1st 1973, or thereabouts, I was in Darjeeling, in the Himalayan foothills of northern India.
We slept in the Land-Rover outside a hotel in the upper part of the town. This was just below a ridge which had churches and villas from the period of the Raj. All the hotels seemed to have Bhutanese men in national dress waiting outside. You could look down on the bazaar below or walk out to the Red Panda Sanctuary and rhododendron woods. But the peaks of Kanchenjunga stayed hidden by clouds. The journey up had been pretty too, the road as steep as any I had driven, criss-crossing the tracks of the well-known little blue train. Much of the scenery was open green grassland with little villages and people wearing increasingly colourful clothes, and the little train going much slower than us.
After Darjeeling we went back up to Ghoom, the highest point on the road and railway at 8000 feet. The monastery there was the first active Buddhist one I had seen; I remember the lamas wearing yellow costumes. From here we drove the back road, gently down moorland with prayer flags flying off the few houses and little aqueducts made of bamboo to carry water along the roadside. The road here was much quieter than the main road up from the south. The final descent to the tropical heat of the Teesta valley was precipitous, with the road hurtling down through thickly wooded forests so steep that the road crossed itself on occasions; they even had road signs to warn you of these extra sharp bends. Up the other side Kalimpong was again in open grassland spread along a ridge, with a guesthouse which seemed almost English from the outside. From there we crossed into Sikkim and stayed in Gangtok. Sikkim was still a protectorate and you needed a permit from New Delhi to enter and then only for a few days; it only became a state later in the year.
From Gangtok we drove north to see how far we could get. As we approached the bottom of a steep hill which looked like it had a pass, there was a checkpoint. The officers told us that this was as far as we could go. They tried to point out the Chinese checkpoint high up on the Nathu La Pass, and politely I thought I could see it but I'm not so sure. This border between India and China was one of the most sensitive in the world at this time. One of the officers asked us to come back to his base which was up another steep mountain road, and led the way in his jeep. Unfortunately the road was built for the Indian jeep which has a smaller turning circle than a Land-Rover and I was having to make three point turns at every corner. Eventually we gave up and went back to Gangtok.
|Monastery at Ghoom, 2007: Picture by Soumyasch, CC|
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