Bhutan No Go: from heating up on the border to cooling down in a mountain cloud (India)

Three days hanging around at the border, and the Bhutan trip never materialised. It’s easy to feel a little let down by stuff like that, but Jaigon – for all it’s rough and ready feel and lack of sites – left me with the opposite feeling. The biggest reason was probably Pawan. The owner of Hotel Diwas, where I stayed throughout my time in Jaigon, was probably the first tourist trade Indian I’ve met who seems to have a genuine grasp of what his visitors want, and doesn’t play games. He suggested ways to fill three days in a relatively dead town, worked tirelessly on different visa avenues and – when it didn’t come off – expected nothing in return except the room fee (with no dodgy additions) and a pat on the back. It came as such a refreshing change compared to all the money grabbing rubbish Indians usually aim at tourists.

As for the border crossing, in the end I was relying on a dodgy ploy to convince the Bhutanese government that a random guy was a long-standing friend, so they would let me in as his guest on a minimal fee. It was always a long shot, one that would probably have come off if I’d been prepared to hang around a week or so in a one horse town and push my case. I’ve met the same locals who I’d find the other side of the border, tasted their food and even snuck close enough to the border to watch the blue, red and yellow striped flags flutter on their tea shops just the other side of an unmarked line in the road. I’d contemplated –albeit very briefly, before some semblance of sanity set in – following in the footsteps of a previous American visitor and simply jumping the fence. A probably prison sentence somehow didn’t seem worth seeing a different country’s area of very similar countryside. I decided, before the line in the sand drove me too insane, to move on.

Next up is Darjeeling, which you’ll have to have been living in cloud cuckoo land or really hate tea not to have heard of. The drive up from Jaigon was incredible. 2000 vertical metres of U turns and sheer drops, inching along on a half-made road between mossy forests and regular Buddhist temples draped in prayer flags. Each first gear corner threatened to catapult the stuttering daily jeep over the edge into an almost bottomless oblivion, but after about six hours we’d made it. And suddenly it was cold.

Darjeeling sits in a cloud on a steep ridge side, surrounded by those infamous tea plantations and forests full of colourful orchids. The year round visitors spend their days staring at the horizon, waiting for the clouds to clear and the third tallest mountain in the world to reveal itself on the horizon. I spent my first afternoon wandering the winding streets, in amongst the steep steps and roads that endless double back on each other. I sampled the best local tea in a restaurant and watched the setting sun show me the slightest outline of the huge mountains overlooking the town for the first time, and chatted to some locals about the strange ways of western backpackers whilst staring down at the plantations and slowly being engulfed in the clouds.

Tonight I had my first warm shower in over a month, and I’ll be sleeping under a duvet to keep warm. Fantastic! Now, if I could just get rid of those clouds…

J x

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