Thursday, August 18, 2016

Darjeeling fog

After our stay in Goa, Sara and I left India so I could renew my visa.  We spent a couple weeks in Singapore and Indonesia, and then returned to India.  We flew to Kolkata in the state of West Bengal in India’s northeast.  From there we made our way north to the Himalayas.

We would spend the final week of our honeymoon in Darjeeling near the edge of India.  It’s a mountain town sandwiched between Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east, Tibet and the former Buddhist kingdom of Sikkim to the north, and Bangladesh and the rest of India to the south.

Darjeeling sits about 7,000 feet up in the Himalayas

On clear days the world’s third highest mountain, Kangchenjunga (28,169 feet), is visible about 50 miles to the north

Not surprisingly, Darjeeling is a culturally diverse area.  Most people speak Nepali but understand Hindi or Bengali.  Buddhism and Hinduism are practiced side by side.   Tibetan refugees make their home on the hillsides around town.  Restaurants serve a mix of Tibetan, Chinese and Indian food.  And there’s tea.  Locally grown, organic Darjeeling tea for cheap.

During decades of unregulated tea production, however, most of Darjeeling’s hillsides were cleared of their original vegetation.  Today, remnant forest patches persist among a denuded landscape of tea gardens, bamboo and cedar plantations, and hillside towns and farms.  The forests that remain are home to thousands of species that live nowhere else, qualifying the eastern Himalayas as one of the world’s thirty-something biodiversity hotspots.

The dark moist forests of the lower Himalayas are both diverse and highly threatened

This forest—one of the last patches of Darjeeling’s original land cover—is protected by the local zoo

Many of those species are closely related to ones found in North America.  After a month and a half of tropical Asian species, it was refreshing to see oaks, rhododendrons, magnolias, and maples, and familiar birds like thrushes, woodpeckers, and nuthatches.  At times it seemed like we could have been in the Appalachians instead of southern Asia.  But then we would see a sunbird or walk through a patch of bamboo or remember the red pandas that call the forests home, and we would be back in the Himalayas.

Because northern Asia and North America have often been connected, many of their species are closely related.  The forests in Singalila National Park, for example, contain rhododendrons similar to those in the eastern US…

…as well as oaks...

...and woodpeckers like the Greater Yellownape (Chyrsophlegma flavinucha)

Other areas, however, were covered in tall bamboo…

…and occupied by land leeches

The region is also home to distinctly Asian cultures

We were in Darjeeling during the monsoon season, and a constant dense fog obscured the mountain views.  But the mist also gave the forests an otherworldly feel, and we enjoyed being there when there were few other tourists.

To experience some higher altitudes, and get a better view of the natural vegetation, we hired a Nepali guide, Robin, to take us on a short trek along Singalila Ridge.  Our route passed through Singalila National Park, ascended to an altitude of around 10,200 feet, and occasionally crossed the border into Nepal.

Sara and I hiked through the foggy forests of Singalila Ridge with a local Nepali guide named Robin

Singalila National Park is bordered by semi-natural cow pastures and wooded groves

It was cold and rainy the entire time, but was still one of the best days of our trip.  We stopped to warm up and drink tea at mountain guest houses run by Nepali families, and ate local home cooked meals.  And every once in a while the fog parted to give us brief but breathtaking views.

Our hike along the Nepalese border was cold and wet, but we dried our clothes by a wood stove in a local guest house…

…and stopped for tea at another guest house before driving back to Darjeeling

We walked through Nepal for part of the trek, and occasionally got to see into the valleys below

We enjoyed Darjeeling more than many other parts of India.  It was cool, welcoming, and both exotic and familiar.  But after a week we had to leave.  We drove down from the mountains into the Indian plains below, caught a flight to Delhi, and made our long way back to the US.

We had been traveling for two months through four countries, and it was time to go home.  The trip was full of surprises, challenges, disappointments, and discoveries.  We couldn’t have asked for a better honeymoon.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Leaving India

Sara and I had a week left in India after leaving Bhagwan Mahaveer Wildlife Sanctuary.  I had only a temporary 30-day visa that would have to be renewed outside the country.  So we spent our last week exploring the beaches and rainforests near Palolem in far southern Goa.

Palolem Beach gets crowded at times, but most of the tourist operations are shuttered during the monsoon season.  So we could explore the area in relative peace.

Palolem Beach, nestled between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, was a perfect place to spend a week of our honeymoon

Sara and I waded across an estuary at low tide to explore some of the more remote sections of beach

Natural areas can be difficult to find in India, and unrestrained tourism development often obliterates the vegetation along scenic coastlines.  To some extent, that’s also true of Palolem.  But many nearby hills contained patches of forest, sometimes even extending to the sea.  We traveled to one of those areas, in Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary, for one last forest excursion.

Just a short drive inland from Palolem, Cotigao Wildlife Sanctuary protects another outpost of Western Ghats rainforest

Weaver ants (Oecophylla smaragdina) were common along the trail, occasionally carting large chunks of insect prey back to their nest


Termite-hunting Leptogenys processionalis were the most conspicuous animal species along the trails here and elsewhere in Goa

Sara found a large pill millipede crawling through the leaf litter after a rain

Finally, with my 30-day visa expired, we left the country and flew to Singapore so I could apply for a second entry.  We hadn’t known at the outset how we would spend our first month in India, but we’re pleased with the results.

India threw us some curve balls, but we slowly adjusted.  In our long southward journey, we traveled overland across over 1,000 miles of India.  We experienced the teeming metropolises of Delhi and Mumbai, traveled around the Thar Desert, hiked through tropical dry forests of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, and explored the beaches and rainforests of Goa and the Western Ghats.

But we still experienced only a tiny sliver of what India has to offer.  After I renew my visa, we’ll be back for round two.