Tag Archives: beer

India Part 3: Pelling, Sikkim and Darjeeling

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

View from our hotel in Pelling, Sikkim

When we visited Darjeeling six years ago, people constantly told us, “Oh you love it here? You have to visit Sikkim.”

Pelling, Sikkim

Pelling, Sikkim

Sikkim is a part of that weird region of India between Bangladesh, Nepal, and Tibet that looks like it shouldn’t be India. Resting in the shadows of the world’s highest mountains, this region of the Himalayas is culturally more Nepali than Indian (which it joined only 40 years ago). The Lonely Planet listed Sikkim as the #1 region to visit in 2014, and with good reason. It offers a tranquil respite to a the rest of India which tends to be hot, hectic and (sadly) polluted.

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you'd see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

And if those clouds were to get out of the way, you’d see Kanchenjunga, the 3rd highest peak in the world

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it's the Himalayas... what'd you expect?

Breathtaking views everywhere. But it’s the Himalayas… what’d you expect?

Corny as it sounds, there's an almost magical feeling in the air here

Corny as it sounds, there’s an almost magical feeling in the air here

Getting to Sikkim proved to be an adventure in itself. We flew into Bagdogra Airport. From there we caught a taxi to Siliguri bus station for 350 rupees. Unfortunately, the bus to Pelling (our destination in Sikkim) only leaves once a day at 10:30. The tourist office recommended we hire a jeep. A kind older man at the jeep lot helped us figure out that we were at the wrong jeep lot and put us in bike rickshaws to the right jeep lot.

If an old Indian man tells you to get on the bike and go to god know’s where, you do it without question.

The bus station to Sikkim

The bus station to Sikkim

The shady man who ran the next jeep lot (and clearly trafficked drugs on the side) told us that the next jeep to Pelling left at 2:30, so we hunkered down for a few games of Rummy. We instantly became the primary entertainment for everyone else waiting for a jeep. 2:30 came and went. Around 3:30 they began loading up our jeep … with bushels of fish that were leaking blood everywhere. Let me tell you, nothing improves a 5-hour drive along dangerously narrow Himalayan roads like the overwhelming reek of dead fish. We finally rolled out around 4:30. The driver was kind enough to stop half-way in Jorethang, offering Sara and I some much-needed relief for our Delhi-belly. By then it was dark out, limiting our ability to see much of our surroundings–and considering the way the driver was ripping around the hairpin turns, I’m not sure that was much of a bad thing. Nevertheless, we made it to Pelling safe and relatively sound.

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

Playing cards and entertaining the locals

The next morning we awoke to a view of Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. After breakfast we went out looking for something to do. We noticed a Sikkimese man sitting outside of one of the tour booths. We approached him and asked him to take us to the Changey Waterfall. After some hesitation (which confused us) he offered to drive us there for 300 rupees. We negotiated him down to 200, to which he reluctantly agreed. We hopped in the jeep and sped off.

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Changey Waterfall

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

Sara enjoying the refreshingly cool, clean water

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What’s the only thing that can improve an impressive waterfall? Duh. Beer.

When we got to the waterfall, he went into a nearby shack and emerged a few minutes later with two bottles of HIT, a surprisingly-delicious Sikkimese beer. He handed the bottles to us and shooed us off towards the waterfall. We spent some time playing around in the water, taking pictures, and sipping the beer he gave us. We eventually figured out that today was Sunday, meaning that it was probably our driver’s only day off. Feeling guilty, we decided to find him and head back. When we entered the shack we found him at a table with four of his friends and three more bottles of HIT. They invited us to sit down, poured us cups of beer, and started talking to us. When we were about finished, a woman appeared from the back with four more beers.

It would have been rude to refuse.

Our newfound friends

Our newfound friends

A dozen-ish beers later our guide stood up and announced that we were going to the river. We piled back into the jeep and zipped off down the road again. For the most part everyone was enjoying themselves. However one of our guide’s friends was clearly displeased that these three random foreigners were crashing their party on his day off. He was polite enough but clearly disinterested in us. When we got to the river, we timidly waded in. Standing knee deep in the river, I plunged my hands in and splashed the clean, icy water on my face. A minute later, Mr. Not-Jazzed-About-The-Foreigners splashed a handful of water on my face as well. I returned the favor. The ensuing water fight broke the ice between us and him. We spent the next several hours laughing, swimming and soaking in the sun. It was the first time I had felt clean, cold and refreshed since arriving in India.

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Nothing breaks the ice like a splash of icy-cold water to the face

Playing in the river

Playing in the river

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River romp

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Dentam River

This spontaneous experience was the highlight of the trip for me. I usually feel obligated to partake in the significant historical and cultural experiences that a destination has to offer (Taj Mahal, Eiffel Tower, Times Square). However, my favorite experiences are always the ones where we make real connections with the local culture and have little to do with anything marketed to tourists.

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Sara, getting some much needed solitude on a rickety, wooden bridge

We were a little disappointed when we woke up the next day to clouds and scattered showers blocking our view of the mountains. The town of Pelling offers amazing views and incredible hiking, but on a rainy day there’s not much to do. After putzing around for a few hours, we decided to head to Darjeeling a day earlier.

This was the right decision.

Saying goodbye to Pelling

Saying goodbye to Pelling

We found out later that the clouds and scattered showers were actually the precursor for the first monsoon of the season–a whole month earlier than anyone anticipated. (Monsoon season usually starts mid-June). The drive from Pelling to Darjeeling was already tricky enough. There were several times when our jeep required two or three attempts to make it up a hill, as the red dirt had turned to slick mud from the rain. One time we actually started sliding backwards down the hill, a startling prospect considering the 150-foot drop to our left. However, had we waited until the next morning to leave Pelling like we had originally planned, the rains would have certainly made the trip impossible. We would have been stranded and missed our flight home.

Leaving Sikkim

Leaving Sikkim

"Wait, we're going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

“Wait, we’re going to drive across that? I can feel the bridge moving under us. Are you sure this is safe?

We made it to Darjeeling only to meet another challenge. With the scorching temperatures across the rest of India (108°F in Kolkata, 114°F in Jaipur), May is high-tourist season in the comfortably mild Darjeeling. Our driver Roman ended up driving us all over the city looking for a hotel with a vacant room. We went down one street, then another, then another, looking anywhere for a spare room. As we turned on the last street, high above the city center, he turned to me and said, “Last chance. I have wife and son. If no hotel, you stay with me.” Thankfully, the second-to-last hotel on the last street had a room. We checked in, relieved to have a place to sleep.

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn't find a hotel

Roman, our awesome driver who offered to let us stay at his house if we didn’t find a hotel

The next couple days were lazy and restful. We did some shopping and tried (unsuccessfully) to stay out of the rain. At one point we got stranded in a cafe that was a 20 minute walk from our hotel. After hours of waiting for the rain to stop, we gave up and asked an employee for three trash bags. The entire shop watched with astonishment and amusement at us as we made our grand exit.

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Thukpa hits the spot on a rainy day

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

Eating momos and avoiding the rain

One final memory from Darjeeling. We went back to our favorite momo restaurant, located just off the city center where the jeeps leave in the morning for Tiger Hill. It’s hands down the best food in the city. After much anticipation and a little trepidation, I finally mustered up the courage to try the regional specialty: butter tea (or Tibetan tea). Made from salted, fermented yak butter, this beverage is essentially like sipping on a thick, rich cup of gorgonzola cheese. I realized that salted beverages are rare in western cuisine. In that sense, this drink takes a bit of mental preparation. However, I actually found it to be pretty tasty. Unlike other weird foods I’ve had (century eggs, baluts), I would voluntarily have this one again. It’s milder than your average blue cheese, so if you like strong cheese, be brave and try this drink.

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

Getting more momos and thukpa at our favorite restaurant. Notice the butter tea which I am about to partake in

After Darjeeling we headed back to the Bagdogra Airport and began our harrowing 36-hour journey back to Chicago. (We accidentally got stuck in one room in the Delhi airport for 8 hours. They wouldn’t let us leave. Sigh… you win again, Delhi. Every. Time.) It was unfortunate that we happened to be in Darjeeling and Sikkim for the unexpected monsoon. However the day we spent drinking and swimming in the Dentam River made the entire experience worthwhile. It’s certainly one that Sara and I will be telling stories about for years to come.

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On the side of the road in Pelling

Visiting Sikkim:

Sikkim is considered a protected region. In order to visit there, you need to obtain a Restricted Area and Inner Line Permit. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport and a passport-sized photo when filling out the form. You can complete the paperwork at any Indian embassy, in several major cities in India, and in Siliguri, Bagdogra and Darjeeling. Visit the Sikkim Tourism website for more information.

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Philippines: Our Adventures and Misadventures

At the end of January, Sara and I got our winter break from school. What do we do with two weeks off from school? Why, go travel, of course! We decided to split our time between the Philippines and Thailand. Growing up, (for some reason… I dunno why) I always had a bunch of friends from the Philippines. It has has been one of my top destinations in the world for years, so I was super excited to go. (I’ve been to Thailand before, and it’s one of Sara’s top places, so she’ll be writing the blog for there).

(For more photos from the adventure, check out my album on Facebook).

Philippines

Filipino sunset

I’ll be honest our first 12 hours there were rough. We arrived at the airport at midnight only to discover that our debit card had expired in September. No worries, I thought, I can get a cash advance from my credit card. Even though I set up a travel notification, the ATM initially rejected it. Thinking I entered the PIN incorrectly, I tried a different PIN. Since I entered the wrong PIN, the credit card locked down. We were stuck at the airport without a single penny.

Intramuros, Manila

Intramuros, Manila

I’m willing to go on record and say that Filipinos are the most friendly people I’ve ever met. After spending 2 hours helping us troubleshoot our financial conundrum to no avail, a shuttle driver took us to our hotel for free. Another shuttle passenger who had witnessed our troubles handed us 1,000 pesos ($25). The receptionist spent an hour helping us get in touch with the credit card company. By 3 a.m. we finally got things sorted out and hunkered into bed. At 1:03 p.m. the next day, we were finally able to take out cash. Game on, Manila!

Quiapo Market

Quiapo Market

The rest of our time in the Philippines went much smoother. We spent the rest of the day exploring Manila. We checked out Quiapo market and Intramuros; we rode a few jeepneys. Everyone was so friendly. We’d ask for directions, and they’d go way out of our way to make sure we got where we wanted to go. I really enjoy exploring new cities, figuring out how to get around, navigating, and learning public transit. It can be challenging, but it’s fun for me.

Jeepney

Jeepney

In a jeepney

In a jeepney

The next day we met a guy at our hotel who lived in the town that we were headed to. We hired a driver together and headed down to Batangas via Taal and Tagaytay. Taal is a lake inside of a giant volcano crater. In the middle of the lake is an island with several other volcano craters. In one of those craters is another lake (this one literally simmering from geological activity). That lake also has an island in it. So, it’s an island in a lake in a crater in a lake in a crater on an island. How fractal! We headed up to Tagaytay, a town that overlooks the lakes and craters. We enjoyed some tasty Filipino food from a restaurant that all but hung over the edge of a cliff overlooking Taal.

Taal Volcano with a Bangka water taxi

Taal Volcano with a Bangka water taxi

Taal Volcano, the view from our restaurant in Tagaytay

Taal Volcano, the view from our restaurant in Tagaytay

After lunch we headed town to Batangas and caught a ferry to Puerto Galera, a port city on Mindoro Oriental (south of Luzon). The town is a major dive destination with a multitude of shipwrecks and coral reefs to explore. On our first full day there, we hired a bangka (boat taxi) to take us snorkeling. It was incredible. The fish were on par with what we saw in Roatan, Costa Rica two years ago. However, the variety of coral is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It ranged from neon green to iridescent blue to bright pink to nearly ultraviolet purple. We spotted a banded sea snake, which was pretty awesome (though a little unnerving).

Ferry to Sabang, Puerta Galera

Ferry to Sabang, Puerta Galera

Sadly, that excursion our first day was destined to be our last snorkel session. Despite wearing a thick layer of sunscreen, our Korean winter skin was not prepared for the tropical Filipino sun. Sara and I both got the worst sunburns we’ve had in about a decade. We opted for less solar-intensive activities for the rest of the week, including some hiking and exploring.

Sabang bay at dusk

Sabang bay at dusk

Puerto Galera was a strange little town. Apart from diving, the other major industry there is sex tourism. I’ve never seen so many creepy old men in one place in my entire life. As far as the expats there, men outnumbered women at least 5:1. It was also difficult to find any travelers our age. At night the streets were teeming with 60-year-old men walking around with 20ish Filipina women. It was weird.

Sabang sunset

Sabang sunset

We did find one interesting group of people (who Sara dubbed “the UN”). We hung out with them a couple evenings. There was a mid-30s Russian couple, a 40-something French guy, his 20-year-old Chinese girlfriend, and 40ish Saudi guy. The French guy was fluent in six languages, and spoke better Czech than me (even though he’d been there less than a year). The Saudi guy was hilarious. He had traveled to the Philippines alone so that he could to drink and smoke shisha (hookah) without any interruption from his wife and kids. Although he spoke very little English, he managed to forcefully and repeatedly invite us to join him for shisha. If he wasn’t actively smoking, he would inform us when he was going to pack another bowl, and demand we come back and join him for it.

Little pepper. Big heat.

Little pepper. Big heat.

Filipino food is reasonably tasty. They have particular skill with barbecue. Every night at the pier, there would be a dozen women under awnings barbecuing away. They would cook the meat on a grate inches above a bed of charcoal chunks, constantly fanning the coals with a grass fan. Sara and I could get all the barbecue we could eat and a beer for $6 total. Oh… and speaking of beer, I’ve decided that the Philippines has the best cheap beer in the world. Now, Sam Miguel is no Dark Lord or Rochefort, but I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes as good as SMB. (In fact, I’ve never had dollar beer that tastes at all!)

SMB, the world's tastiest $1 beer. (A little sunburned, too!)

SMB, the world’s tastiest $1 beer. (A little sunburned, too!)

Our food extravaganza didn’t stop at the BBQ tho. On our last night we made friends with a few of the locals and some travelers our age at a bar floating out in the bay. After several beers one of them shouted to the shore, “BRING THE BALUTS!” Sara and I looked at each other with dismay, steeling ourselves for what was about to occur. We were going to have baluts. (Balut is a three-day fertilized duck or chicken egg. To eat, you crack the top of the shell, suck out the juice, peel the rest of the shell away, and eat the embryo. Apparently, it’s like Filipino drunk food. Back in the States we have pretzels or peanuts. They have baluts. Ok.) It was… pretty gross. I’ll be honest, it’s not my cup of tea. But it’s a cultural experience. We had to do it.  So, baluts aren’t my favorite, but the rest of Filipino food is pretty good. We indulged on various meatsilogs (chicksilog, porksilog, mysterysilog), green and yellow mangos (the green ones… so tangy!), lumpia, chicken adobo, bangus (milkfish), etc.

Sara eating a balut

Sara eating a balut

Remains of a balut

Remains of a balut. (Can’t decide if it looks or tastes worse.)

On our last day, we hopped on a ferry and bus back to Manila. Our flight to Bangkok wasn’t until almost 10 p.m., so we killed some time in the Mall of Asia, the largest in the world. I know what you’re thinking. Davo and Sara went to the Philippines and spent time at THE MALL!?!?!! However, (according to some of my friends from the Philippines) it’s an essential cultural experience. People to hang out in the air-conned malls to escape the heat. If you’re at the Mall of Asia, you can even go ice skating on the Olympic-sized rink in the middle of the mall. We debated doing it, didn’t wanna risk breaking a wrist or elbow 3 hours before hopping on a flight to Thailand.

Mall of Asia

Mall of Asia

All in all, I’d mark the trip down as a success. The first 12 hours were rocky, but we rebounded. We got pretty sunburned, but saw some incredible coral. We at a ton of street food and didn’t get sick. We ate baluts. Final score: Philippines – 2, Hyndses – 6. Winning.

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

Manila sunset

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Helsinki and Stockholm

I don’t have much time, but I thought I’d mention Helsinki and Stockholm briefly. We hit these cities right after Iceland, spending two days in each. We had a good time, but the most notable experience by far was the beer.

We happened to be in Helsinki during the annual “Great Beers. Small Breweries” festival. We tried a number of Finnish, Swedish and Estonian beers at our Finish friends recommendations. Notable among our sampling was the “sahti,” an ancient style of beer dating back to the year 500. It’s fermented from wild yeast and tends to be sweeter with tasting notes of cloves and banana.

Here is a list of the beers (and the breweries) we tried at the festival:

  • Severin Extra IPA – Panimoravintola Plevna
  • Arde’s Legbuster (Barley Wine) – Saimaan Juomatehdas
  • Lammin Sahti – Lammin Sahti
  • Pihtla olut (Sahti) – Taako Viron Saarenmaalta
  • Mufloni CCCCC IPA – Panimoravintola Beer Hunters
  • Mufloni Cornes a Pois (Belgian) – Panimoravintola Beer Hunters
  • Prykmestar SavuKataja – Vakka-Suomen Panimo
  • Prykmestar LuomuPils – Vakka-Suomen Panimo
  • Prykmestar Double IPA – Vakka-Suomen Panimo
  • HunajaBock (Honeybock) – Vakka-Suomen Panimo

In Stockholm we visited Akkurat at the recommendation of cicerone Tom Gustafson. Akkurat is the top Lambic bar in the world, with a massive cellar and an unbeatable selection. It took us a few rounds to befriend the bartender, but after that, he introduced us to some incredible beers.

Here is what we drank at Akkurat:

  • De Ranke Saison
  • Westemalle Dubbel
  • Veckans Cantillonn
  • Dragets Kanal Double IPA
  • GrandCru Rodenbach
  • Oppigards Single Hop Pale Ale
  • Oppigards India Tribute IPA
  • Erdinger Wheat
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