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Brad’s Travel Diary

Friday, 25 Nov 2005

Location: Darjeeling, India

MapI've spent most of the last two days sipping steaming cups of Darjeeling tea in between wandering around meandering paths through misty tea plantations. As wonderful as this sounds, the only pain is that the mist, atmospheric as it is, obscures the view of Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest mountain which can normally be seen clearly from Darjeeling, and which I havn't seen a glimpse of yet! Darjeling itself is a lovely place to spnd a few days, and it somehow reminds me very much of Katoomba, with loads of heritage buildings and guesthouses from the days it was a British hillstation.

Continuing on from where I left off, after Kajaraho I caught the night train to Varanasi, one of the oldest cities in India and one of the most sacred places for Hindus. Unfotunatly there was a misunderstanding with my train ticket which resulted in me having to sit up on the top bunk in the sleeper carriage all night. Vry uncomfortable...they train got to Varanasi at four in the morning, so by the time I found a hotel I saw the spectacular sunrise over the Ganges river. I was, however, pretty tired, and after taking a short walk along the river I had breakfast at one of the street stalls by the riverside. Not a good idea in Varanasi. A few hours later I was feeling a little unwell, and by that night I started feeling pretty darn sick. The combination of the late night and the dodgy food ended up making me very sick, and for the next four days Iay in bd with severe gastro. I ended up seeing a doctor (my temperature was 39 degrees!) who gave me loads of medicine and I got better pretty quickly afterwards. The bright side of this story is that because I was delayed I ended up bing in Varanasi for their biggest festival of the year on the 15th (a puja for the river goddess, Ganga), which I knew nothing about previously and would have missed otherwise. It was a bit like Diwali, but in addition to the masses of fireworks going off the whole riverside was lit up with candles and lights. There were people everywhere, religious ceremonies preseting offereings to the river, and even a live band on a floating stage! I shared a boat with some Indian students and we spent an hour cruising up and down the river soaking up the amazingly joyful, festive atmosphere.

By the nxt day I had recovered enough to go to Sarnath, the place where the Buddha preached his first semon on the four noble truths. It was nice, a park with some ruins and a huge stupa (tower thing) built by Emporor Ashoka around the tenth century. There also happened to be some sort of anniversary ceremony going on (which was just lots of speeches in Hindi) where I got to see the Indian Prime Minister. Quite the thrill...

I left Varanasi on the 17th for Bodhgaya, th place of the Buddha's enlightenment, and the most sacred pilgramage place for Buddhists. At the train station I an into a pair of Aussies who did the Buddhist courst in McLeod Ganj with me, so we hung out for the next two days which was nice. Bodhgaya is in Bihar, India's poorest state, and it shows in the town, which is quite small but packed with beggars. Every buddhist country has a temple and monastry here, so it was quite fun going around to them all and comparing the differences - there were Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, Bangladeshi, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Sri Lankan and even Bhutanese temples! The main temple was much older than all of these, and rose in a stone column high above any other buildings in the town. The focus of attention was not the temple however, but a descendant of the original tree Buddha was meditating under when he achieved enlightenment. It was very interesting to see all the monks from all these different countries in the town and worshipping at the temple, but besides this it was a pretty aweful place, with people constantly hasseling you for money.

Again, due to difficulties booking a train ticket I eneded up staying here a day or two longer than I intended, and caught the train to Kolkatta on the 22nd. Picturing Kolkatta as a big city with not a lot to offer, I had also booked my train ticket to Darjeeling for the following night, giving me only 24 hours there. I was surprised to find that Kolkatta is actually a modern city, that is definatly big, but with lots of interesting things to do and much cleaner than any other Indian city (the first place I've been in India with gutters!). I spent the morning getting a hand pulled rickshaw (Kolkatta is the only place in the world where this is still a legitimate form of transport, not just a tourist gimick) to Mother Theresa's orphanage and final resting place. It was a mixed sort of experience, seeing the hundreds of mentally and physically disabled children (as well as the healthy ones), but wonderful in that they were off the streets and being cared for. In the afternoon I went to one of the world's largest plantariums for a show, then to the Victoria Monument, a huge building and park built in the time of the Raj to commemorate Queen Victoria's death. On the way to the train station I even managed to drop into a gallery with some contempory Indian art!

My plan is to spend one more day in Darjeeling, then head north to Sikkim, a tiny kingdom stuck between Nepal and Bhutan. Hopfully the weather will clear a little and I'll do some trekking, then head back to Kolkatta on my way to Chennai in the far south, where I'll be meeting Jess on the 10th! Exciting!