SIKKIM: Under Kangchendzonga


The border crossing into India is another of those little outposts which you feel represents banishment for the official working there.  Mr. L.A. Wadhia fusses irritably with the

Katheryn crossing the border

Katheryn crossing the border

“wrong”  answers on our forms (Port of Disembarkation?; flight number?):  he has the inner numbness of someone who has spent far too long taking what he knows to be ridiculous, seriously.

The stamp is officiously given,  and we are ushered by a hovering tout from there into a jeep (actually the Indian version: the Tata Sumo) going to the town of Siligiri, and then directly into another to Gangtok, Sikkim.  The good thing about traveling by jeep is that they fill up at the departure point, and don’t (usually) stop for additional riders until the destination.  The bad thing is the passengers are squeezed in tight, and except for the front seat have a limited view of the scenery.  Wejungle are, unfortunately, right in the back, and the scenery, as we ascend the valley of the Testa River, is amazing.

Sikkim is an Indian state tucked up between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan – how  can you go wrong with that?  With China demanding expensive and restrictive conditions on travel to Tibet, and Bhutan imposing a $200/day/person fee on a visit there, Sikkim appears to be our only oppurtunity to explore the area.  A special permit is required to enter Sikkim, but we obtain that relatively hassle-free at the border at Rangpo, while our jeep waits.  From there the road slithers dramatically onward and upward.  Rays of sun dice through a lush jungle of tree ferns, giant bamboo and flowering broad-leaves, and the river is frothing white far below.  winding-road-gangtok-to-pellingGangtok should really be approached by horse-caravan slowly ascending the ancient stone-paved trade route; we are 100 years too late for that.  The constant low-gear jostling to overtake crawling diesel lorries around dusty washed-out hair-pin corners may diminish the romance, but the trip from Siligiri now only takes five hours.

One hundred years ago Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom ruled by a dynasty called the Chogyals.  The British had duplicitously lopped off territory including Darjeeling from their southern flank, but the Chogyals held their own against pressure from China, and the Raj, until Indira Gandhi’s India banished them in 1975 on the instigation of the now-majority Hindu population.  We are sitting in the garden of a hill-top monastery while a monk tells us this history. He is ethnically a Bhutia, who along with the Lepchas migrated from Tibet and brought Buddhism with them.  There still is, he says, a lot of resentment against India over the banishment of the Chogyal, who is now in Bhutan, and tension between the Bhuddist and Hindu populations occassionally flares into violence.  Like many of the “Tibetans” we talk to, he makes a face when we ask if he has travelled in the rest of India, and waves his hand as if getting rid of a bad smell.

And it really feels – especially with the permit formalities at the border – that we are in a gangtokdifferent country.  Gangtok, we concur, is the most pleasant Indian state capital that we know.  For one thing it is spread along a steep ridge at 1700 m, and from our balcony we have a clear view of the presence that dominates this entire state: Khangchendzonga, at 8,208 m the third highest mountain in the world.  Gangtok also has that most blessed and rare feature in a country over-run with vehicles and bullied by drivers with an incessant hand on the horn – a long pedestrian mall at the center of town.  But even better, the people are without exception sophisticated, kind, friendly and charming, and it doesn’t take long before we are in love.  Many Bengali tourists come up here from the plains for a cool-weather vacation, and where there are Bengali tourists there is great food.  Every masala dosa, every hot tandori roti taken with a view out across the valley – after the basic fare in Nepal – is a rapture.  It takes four days before Katheryn is able to walk the steep streets without wincing from her back injury, but we are happy to just rest up here after what seems like a lot of hard travel.

group-shot-of-the-flower-giving-kidsThe view is great from Gangtok, but the place to go for the real vista is Pelling, 110 km away, which means 6 hours by jeep.  One again it’s a mad spaghetti road through jungle and mountain, but the highlight has to be the rest-stop in Ravangla, where a group of kids run after us shouting “Auntie, Uncle, wait!”, and press bouquets of marigolds on us.

We get a room in Pelling where we don’t even have to roll out of bed for a sensational view.  The morning coffee on the balcony is perhaps the most spectacular we have ever had.  As if that wasn’t enough, a 1.5 km stroll deity-at-pemayangtseaway is Pemayangtse Gompa, one of Sikkim’s oldest monasteries, built in 1705.  The “Perfect Sublime Lotus” Gompa is probably as close as we will come to Tibet for now, so Marguerite, this one is for you.  There is no photography allowed inside the main gompa, but the walls are covered with 300-year-old paintings of deities, gurus and demons from the Nyingmapa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and energetically-depicted statues of  Buddha and the Rimpoches are behind glass at the back.   The wooden floors are worn smooth under our bare feet and the smell of butter lamps and incense permeate the timbers.  By the thin light of the deeply-recessed windows we climb a creaky staircase to the upper level, where a deep drum interspersed clashing cymbals has been playing since we entered.  The drummer is in a room behind a curtain, so we sit on a ledge in an adjoining room and feel the vibrations pulse through the walls, the floor and ourselves.

buddy-and-chorten-at-rabdentse-ruinsThe second capital of the Chogyals is now just a ruin that can be seen on the spur of a hill just below the monastery, and we make friends with a pretty dog in the grounds who seems to want to guide us there.  Much of the route is through a forest reserve, where massive climbing ferns 10 feet high cascade down to the path.  Only thick stone walls remain from the old capital, but with soaring views in all directions including, of course, Khanchangdzonga you understand why they built here.

All of India is on one time zone, and as far east as we are it gets dark early, around five o’clock.  And at 2100 m, in November, when it gets dark it gets cool.  We get dressed up for the evening in long johns and down jackets, and head out to our new-found favorite tongbaplace for a tongba.  “Tongba” is a large pile of fermented millet served in a wooden tankard.  Hot water is poured on top, and the milky, slightly sour potion is sipped through a bamboo straw.  Tongba is found where ever Tibetans are throughout the Himalaya and it warms, rehydrates and gives a mild alcoholic buzz.  We find a delightful Tonga spot in Pelling, called the “Step Down” restaurant.  A dark stairway descends off the road into a room made out of rough planks with three rickety tables.  The only window has no glass, just a curtain of aging cloth.  The kitchen fills with locals and laughter and warm light, and our matron brings us the big wooden tankards with, possibly, the best tongba we have had yet.  The power fails and candles come out and I’ll happily take the Step Down any day.

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