India 🇮🇳: Last stop Mumbai – Slums, Colonial History, Bollywood & Friends

I’d be lying if I’d deny that I was pretty happy to board the plane and leave Bagdogra for Mumbai. Returning the motorbike was all fine – the agent was just a bit disappointed that I didn’t return the evening before so we can grab a drink together.

Arriving in Mumbai – feels different!

The city immediately looks much cleaner and feels more organised. You see not only Tata and Suzuki cars, but other foreign ones such as Mercedes. Definitely more money here in the economic capital of India. Roads are better, there is a modern skyline and the location by the sea makes for a nice experience too. At least in the old town there are no motor rickshas significantly reducing pollution and noise levels. Nice, although it has to be said that me staying in the old town helps perception significantly. Many of Mumbai’s inhabitants live in slums… where things are different, naturally.

Mumbai’s economic muscle

Mumbai is still considered India’s economic capital though recent GDP numbers put Delhi ahead. Estimates suggest around $300bn (with a wide range) implying around 8- 10% of India’s total GDP. Mumbai is a large recipient of foreign investment, dominant in foreign trade (70% of maritime trade), is India’s main banking and insurance hub and home to Bollywood’s movie industry to name a few sectors. The city’s economic importance historically was always linked to its deep sea port  though initially maybe in a way that will surprise you.

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Mumbai’s docks in the 19th century

Going back to the 19th century, it all kicked off with the opium trade under British colonial rule. Parsi’s were mainly in charge on the Indian side (same Persian/Indian origin as the family of Freddie Mercury of The Queen). The Brits used India as a production hub for the opium they sold on to China and with that ‘enslaved’ a whole country leading to Anglo-China wars and the ‘lost century’ for China (a part of history that defines Chinese education to date). See Golden Triangle: How opium shaped world history for all the details of this amazing part of history. So I guess any Chinese with a little mind for history will not be the keenest fan of India.

Catching up with Yash

Although we had met not long ago in London, the most important item on my to do list in Mumbai was to catch up with Yash – my former team mate in Morgan Stanley Research who became a very good friend over the years. It was fun to delve into some old stories and hear about his successful life as entrepreneur and father (baby no 2 just arrived before I came to visit). Thanks for the amazing hotel and see you soon big man! This time we managed to take a picture together … not sure we will make it into GQ magazine, but at least we have a record to look at next time.

Checking out the old town

I took a two hour walking tour through the old town in an area called Walkeshwar (again just me and the guide – same as for slums & in Varanasi). The tour was very average and included place like the India gate (a gate literally built to welcome the British Royals), several locations of the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008 killing 168 people, the stock exchange and lots of stories around individual buildings be it Iranian cafe or jewish sponsored libraries.

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There are some lovely old fashioned buildings in the old town indeed, something unique and not common judging by my own India experience. You will find a strange mix of architectural influences – British, Portuguese, oriental etc.

Bombay or Mumbai? The longstanding name of Bombay given by the British was a poor (or anglicised) translation from Portuguese “Bom Bahia” mining good bay. The name was only changed to Mumbai in 1995 by Hindu nationalists though in local language (Marathi & Gujarati) it has always been Mumbai – a name in reference to Mumbā or Mahā-Amb, the patron goddess Mumbadevi of the native Koli community.

Bollywood

Bollywood is the nickname for the Hindi language film industry and by many measures the largest film industry in the world (number of movies produced, no of tickets sold etc). It aims mainly at domestic audience and almost always includes dance and song elements. Revenues in 2016 were estimated at more than USD2.3bn.

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An afternoon in the largest slum in Asia, A Positive Surprise

Slums can be found all over the globe yet few have reached the level of fame as the ones in Mumbai. The movie Slumdog Millionaire with its eight academy awards in 2008/9 probably helped a bit. Still, in my mind slums were some rotten areas of poverty so when I witnessed the significant commercial side of the slums I was positively impressed.

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Slums are a big part of India across the country though naturally more pronounced in cities. 9m people or 41% of Mumbai’s inhabitants life in slums. Nationwide, the number is 104m & 9% (data from population review, other estimates put people living in informal housing at more than 240m). Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia (Pakistan leading the way). About 1m people live here implying 870,000 per square mile! The slums are not one area, but you have different slums across the city (see map).

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Map of Mumbai’s slums

I want to note here that while living conditions are poor, such as a lack of in-house toilets (instead 150-200 people share one toilet), very narrow streets without light or air and a rotten river that smells really bad to name but a few, the slums at times just look like poor neighbourhoods that you find all across India e.g. I expected worse just because of the name ‘slum’. It also felt reasonably secure (going with a guide helps I guess).

What I didn’t expect at all is that the slums are a powerful business engine. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi alone (the most literate slum in India at 69% – not far off the 75% national average and on par or ahead of many rural areas in Northern India). Over USD1bn economic output for Mumbai’s slums alone. It is estimated that poor Indians contribute 7% to urban GDP implying about USD140bn (although this includes more than just slums). Just for comparison, the GDP of Qatar is USD200bn. Main industries in Dharavi include leather, all sorts of recycling (plastic, carton, tins, rubber etc) and pottery.

Women only! On the way back from the slums I took again the train – the lifeline of Mumbai though a metro is under construction. At first I jumped into the ladies only compartment being bit surprised for I wasn’t aware such things exits (although they did exist in England until 1977). The women didn’t waste a breath to educate me probably feeling completely disturbed in their female privacy. So next compartment while the train was already moving … but then boarding a moving train is no longer a problem after two month in India. Skills!

 

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India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle diaries – Ripped tyre, no petrol & the benefit of people everywhere (day 7)

Today: 348km | Total: 1,871km

I guess it had to happen at some point. After getting away with 2,000km cycling the Sultan’s trail last year and almost 3,000km through Vietnam this year … I had my first flat tyre. Not just flat, but ripped. I guess i didn’t stop quick enough to prevent that big a damage. Only stopped when it felt very shaky on the back wheel and by then it was too late.

Soon after i got to Serfanguri (ca. 40km from where i started), a bunch of mechanics took care of the bike. The rental agency surprised to hear, as the tyre was relatively new. Well, Rp2,600 (U$37) ain’t the end of the world. Within 50 mins of my arrival they had organised a new tyre and repaired the bike. Bigger issue now was that i had no cash and the closest ATM was back where i started this morning – so 40km backtrack.

In all my hurry i forgot that i was low on petrol. Well, i assumed that there was a reserve. What i failed to realise is that i run on reserve mode since i rented the bike. Right on top of a motorway bridge the bike stopped. I left it to find petrol. Now it was not without a sense of irony that i run out of fuel literally in front of a big refinery of India oil. Must have been 50 petrol trucks there… But no station. A guy in a moto shop nearby gave me a lift to a petrol station 5km away. Thank you very much. Problem solved and my ride towards Siliguri could continue.

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I stayed on the highway to make up time though probably spent an hour talking to family with Easter wishes. So it wasnt until nightfall that i reached a small city close to Siliguri and got stuck in extremely heavy traffic (stop and go on a sunday evening). Unbelievable but true… i run out of fuel a second time. 🤷‍♂️

Just one of these days. Friendly locals helped again in a heartbeat, which leaves me with an overwhelmingly positive feeling at the end of the day and shows the positive side of literally never being alone almost anywhere in India.

Now just a little more to go back to Siliguri and off to Mumbai – my last stop in India and with some familiar faces waiting.

India 🇮🇳: Motorcycle Diaries – Cruising East in West Bengal (day 1)

Today: 185km | Total: 185km

I left my hostel before 7am and walked to the taxi stand just grabbing a quick milk tea on the way. I felt mentally done with India somehow. Wanted no more now that dirt, the noise and hassle that had come back now (there is only one Sikkim!). Why now? I can’t say, but the fact that Darjeeling didn’t live up to my expectations wasn’t helpful. No more cities for me. Just get me out into the countryside, would you please?

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Arpan at Siliguri Bike Rental helped me out with a motorbike – this time a Royal Enfield Classic (350cc, 20bhp) vs. the off road touring version Himalaya i had in Gangtok (India 🇮🇳: Sikkim – a VERY different side of India). I felt immediately relieved as I got going albeit traffic in Siliguri held back my progress initially.

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Siliguri – Alipurduar: Tasting freedom

You couldn’t pick a much more generic description of a day out on a bike, but i really loved the liberating feeling today as i rode through the planes towards the eastern border of west bengal – always parallel to the Bhutan border keeping the mountains on my left side (though always in sight) and Bangladesh to the right.

Large green tea plantations, almost dry riverbeds, village people busy at work, kids playing cricket (mostly) or football (sometimes), Tata trucks filled with people, police check points (loads!) or army drills – you name it… It was all lovely to take in.

You see, on the bike you can always stop and take in the moment or scenery as you see fit. And i did just that. In short – the mere decision to leave cities behind me has revived my hunger to explore India. Thanks go to Royal Enfield motors!

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India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling

I had a lot of hope for my time in Darjeeling – the city of the champagne of teas – and all started very well. During my trekking in Sikkim i got to know a group of Romanian hikers under the leadership of a Romanian guide (Simina) who had travelled India and south-east asia intensely and even published a book. On top of having a lovely time socializing post hike in Yuksom, they also offered me a free and direct ride to Darjeeling… Hard to say no and with good views on the way (be it foggy ones as so often in these hills).

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Once in Darjeeling we were greeted by rain. So i buggered off to Glenary’s cafe for lunch and to sort accommodation. There weren’t many great options short notice and i was tired, so i booked a OYO hotel in the center. That night didn’t offer much bar a few beers at Joey’s and an early sleep.

Next day i headed back to Glenary’s for breakfast – black forest cake & brownie 😊. Apart from blogging i wasnt keen on much, but decided to get myself a ticket for the steam toy train ride. I did enjoy taking in the mountainous scenery though – all Darjeeling is built on hills just like Gangtok (but bigger).

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The train was a complete waste of time. Views are limited and only good on viewpoints that can be reached by other means faster and cheaper. The museum at India’s highest railway station (Ghum, 2,258m) offers a few insights into the engineering masterpiece the Himalayan train line was at the time, but still i felt underwhelmed.

Rain was back just in time for afternoon and eroded any last bit of drive i had that day. So back to Joey’s & the mobile. I ended up having a good conversation with two italians and later than evening with some locals. Still, i just wanted to get away from here. Sorry Darjeeling… I know there is a lot more on offer, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out.

Water crisis in Darjeeling

On the way to Darjeeling our drivers used the lunch break outside town to get their cars washed. I was told there is a water crisis in Darjeeling, which seems odd for a city with so much rain. Failure to keep reservoirs up with population growth as well as poor distribution infrastructure explain the issue.

A solution locals implemented were a host of private water supply lines (leaking big time) … This not only looks extremely confusing, but can only be a short-term fix i think. How hilarious 😂!

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India 🇮🇳: Goecha La hike – Indian snow & Mt. Kanchenjunga views

Let’s start with my grand plan – i spend my time with Laura in India sightseeing the North and Goa and then i disappear into the mountains for 2-3 weeks for hiking & camping away from all the busy cities. So much for my plan…

Sorting my hiking trip proved a little more tricky. First, to get a permit as foreigner you need to be in pairs 😐. Second, agencies want to make a business as well by sticking you in groups with guides, porters and cooks at USD60-90 per day.

The best offer to cater my self-sufficient approach was with Altitude (shop next to tourist office in Gangtok) at USD39/day for just the guide. They added my name to an exisitng group from Spain (which i never met). IMPORTANT: Hiking permits are just issued in Gangtok – one passport/visa copy and passport photo required (all available to arrange in town) – so budget a day for this (be it in person or remote with papers delivered via cab) unless you do it all in advance with an organised group.

What could i do. So next day 7am i boarded a shared cab to take us from Gangtok to Yuksom – 5 to 6 hours for 120km through the hills but including breaks.

How to go without permit

Now i know that you can easily go without permit. After the police station in Yuksom there are no more checks. You can bypass it using the below route from the village center to Kathog lake (eg don’t follow the first bit of the road when heading for the trailhead further up the village). Use viewranger app to get offline map of the trail including all camps and waypoints.

Goecha La trail: 8-10 day roundtrip

Starting from the camp ground near the trailhead (camping only used by the army aka HMI – Himalayan mountaineering institute) you are looking at a 65km roundtrip and just under 5,700m total ascent / descent. The way up and down are almosg idential bar one small section on the way down where the route varies towards Thsoka campsite.

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The official route these days is shorter as you top out at 4,700m at viewpoint one and hence before Goecha La lake. From there a snow leopard sanctuary has been established. This route is 8km shorter and saves you 250m altitude.

By the way, dont trust the distances indicated at the trail entrance. Completely wrong (and all guides rely on them 🤷‍♂️). E.g. the distance from Yuksom trailhead to Tshokha are 10km and not 16km.

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Preparations for self sufficient hike

Since my intention was not to rely on porters and cooks etc, i went shopping for supplies in Gangtok. Now the idea was an 8 day hike (even though it turned out a lot shorter) and so i needed something like 24,000 calories to allow for 3kcal per day ‘fuel’ for a hiker – ideally with a high calorie to weight ratio.

Below is what i took, a good 7kg extra load from just food. Never before in my life i went shopping reading all the kcal information. 😂Water is available throughout (be it at times in snow form).

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In hindsight less food would have done. Not only did i complete the trek much faster, but you can purchase food in almost all camps and have huts to stay in (other than final camp where you can still sleep in the kitchen hut if numbers permit).

Day 1 – Yuksom to Tshokha camp

We left 9am and a car took us past the police station (for permit check) and to the trailhead near the (army) campground. My guide was a young man from Darjeeling that has walked the trek 50 times (yet never past viewpoint one 🤷‍♂️ and hence has never actually seen Goecha La lake).

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The backpack was reasonably heavy since i was carrying all gear myself – something noone on the mountain does other than the army guys from HMI on the annual trip to kanchenjunga base camp. My guide hasn’t seen a self sufficient hiker in all his 3 years on the trail though he knows what if means having started as a porter hauling 25-30kg loads up the hill.

We covered the first 6km to Sachen campsite by lunchtime and had soup, tea and snacks. Then the real uphill began and rain kicked in.

1,200m altitude meter higher than where we started in Yuksom this morning, we reached Tshokha camp site at about 2,900m in heavy rain by 5pm. I prepared pasta with parmesan (very much to the excitement of a 22 strong Thai hiking group) and we stayed in huts at the request of my guide (cost Rp100 / night).

There is a spot with the last mobile signal on the trek in the upper part of the camp and some patchy reception when you head uphill out of the camp.

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Day 2 – Tshokha to Dzongri camp

The morning greeted us with sunshine and opened up some amazing mountain views. We left it late to depart and rather dried some of our still wet clothing in the morning sun.

Today we would hike some 6km to Dzongri camp (with another camp called Phedand half way) and climb to about 4,000m in a pretty relentless way up. The initially good weather didn’t last all day and the intermediate camp was covered white when we arrived for lunch. The remainder of the route remained pretty slippery, but led through an amazing forest.

At Dzongri, i got my own room in the hut (later on shared with my guide), talked to other trekkers (a lovely group on friends from Sikkim and 4 Australian ladies in their 50s) and sampled some tasty homemade vegetable momo’s.

Day 3 – Sunrise hike to Dzongri Top & onwards to Lamuney high camp

Today the planned agenda was very light. Get up early and hike up 200m to Dzongri top (4,171m, about 30mins without gear) for some views, sunrise, back down, rest. Views were amazing be it that conditions were fluid.

By 6am we were back in camp and after a little more rest i asked to continue. I mean, what to do here all day?

From Dzongri you stay on elevated levels around 4,000m for a while before you descent into a valley with the Kokchrung hut. Amazing landscape. Then the big climb begins as you head for Thansing camp (also 4,000m like Dzongri).

We stopped for lunch while it was snowing heavily. A group of Romanian hikers returned from viewpoint one. Doubt they saw much. Many were also disappointed that the trek didnt go further.

Technically the hike to the high camp Lamuney was only tomorrow. But why waste time. Its only a good hour to get there. We slept in the kitchen hut. Not the most comfortable to be frank.

Day 4 – Goecha La, restricted area and back to Tshokha

I got up 2.30am while the guide was still sleeping. I wanted to see Goecha La lake, but didn’t want him to risk his job. So i left alone. I reached viewpoint one before sunrise and by 7am found a spot near Goecha La lake with good views of Kanchenjunga.

Admittedly i didn’t take a straight line after viewpoint one and meandered off course here and there. But i was free and that i cherished. Views of the Kanchenjunga, the worlds 3rd largest mountain (8,586m) and just a few meters taller than Lhotse, were decent. A little bit of cloud was always obstructing the perfect view though.

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On the way down i tried to follow the riverbed, but when it took a steep step down i had to climb back up to the original route. That did feel a little risky, but went well. The rock was technically a bit lose, but still frozen at that time in the day (8am wish). So decent enough to hold on to.

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From there it was down, down, down. All the way back to Tshokha camp. A long day in the end with some 1,200m climbed, 2,000 descended. A pretty good apart from the section ahead of Phedang camp with the alternative route… Hours of walking in deep snow. Very tiring! We reached Tshokha by 6.30pm … so a good 16 hour shift.

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Day 5 – Tshokha back to Yuksom

The last day was easy. Again more than 1,000m descent, but good weather and hence by lunchtime we made it back to Yuksom. 4,5 day roundtrip. Good effort.

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Daytrip to Pelling

Instead of resting a day before joining there Romanian group I met o their way to Darjeeling (India 🇮🇳: Losing steam in Darjeeling),  I headed to the mountain town of Pelling to admire the large Buddha statue and nice valley views. Even witnessed a school demonstration against plastic. good on you Sikkim, good on you. Transport was as usual in a jeep, the return leg so packed that one passenger travelled on the outside.

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