As I’m doing most of my intra-India travel by train, the tourist board recommended I get a copy of Trains At A Glance, the all-India timetable. Being used to UK timetables, I thought that this would be a compact summary leaflet. No. As most guidebooks are fond of pointing out, Indian Railways is the world’s biggest network under single management, with over 63000 km of track, 7000 stations and 1.6 million employees. It’s also the world’s biggest bureaucracy. The all-India timetable is the size of a Birmingham telephone directory.
Relying therefore solely on the creaky Indian Railways website for my train information, I took a quick overnight trip to Allahabad – a bustling city where three of the seven rivers sacred to Hindus meet (the Ganges, Yamuna and semi-mythical underground Saraswati). The same evening, I caught another overnight train to Siliguri and jumped on the next available Snow Lion bus heading north. This took me into the mountainous state of Sikkim, nestled at the foot of the Himalayas inbetween Nepal, Tibet (China) and Bhutan. Casual visitors aren’t allowed, but permits are easy (and free) to obtain and there are still plenty of travellers around.
After the crowded cities, sweltering heat and choking pollution of the more touristy areas of India, Sikkim is quite literally a breath of fresh air. It’s freezing cold, you can smell the snow in the clouds, steep forested and terraced valleys drop off in all directions, Buddhist monks are a common sight and prayer flags flutter in the breeze everywhere. I’m sorely tempted to take a side trip into Nepal, but my time in India is limited enough as it is. I’m going to explore the gompas (Buddhist monasteries) and chortens (Buddhist religious monuments, also called stupas, dagobas and pagodas) around the areas I’m allowed to visit and then head back to the plains hopefully a bit more enlightened.