Yuksom and Gorkhaland


Sikkim has terrain as difficult to traverse as almost anywhere in the populated world: snowy passes and wild jungle-covered slopes plunging down to fast -flowing rivers.  Imagine it in the 17th C.  Then imagine the scene played out in a remote valley when one influential Buddhist misty-mountain-hdrLama and his small retinue completely by coincidence run into another respected teacher from the same school in Tibet!   They probably went off in different directions, in different years, and here they are in Yuksom.  Then who should appear from the only place that neither of them has been in the last few months, but another bearded lama from Tibet!  This, they all agree, is a very special sign indeed.  The local chieftain is happy to host and flatter his unlikely guests as they confer and chant and beat drums into the night. Finally all is clear: there will be a Buddhist Kingdom, the chieftain will be the Chogyal, the first ruler, and it’s capital will be Yuksom.

Yuksom today probably looks as unlikely a capital for a kingdom as it did in 1642.  It’s a dzo-portrait1beautiful town, just not very imperial.  The little traffic that there is on it’s one street has to make way for the dzo (yak/cattle hyrbids).  Each of the three wise lamas established a monastery there, and over the course of several days in Yuksom we visit all of them.  There isn’t all that much to do, which is one of the pleasures of the place.  The town is the starting point for Sikkim’s best-known trek – hence the pack-dzos – but we are far less ambitious than that.  The closest we get to mountaineering is the hike up to Dubdi Gompa, one of the three monasteries. It’s a delightful climb up through orchid-draped forest, and once again, as in Pemayangtse (last blog), a friendly local dog – wild-orchidsBuddy II – volunteers as our guide.  The main hall is locked when we arrive, but a monk calls the attendant on his cell phone and he lets us in.  Afterward we chat on a bench in the sun with the monk, who points out  a hill where the original monastary was.   It moved down here, the story goes, because of harassment by Yetis.

Gompa #2 is on a hill at the top of Yuksom’s main street, and #3 is a little further out of town at the spot where the first Chogyal’s coronation took place.  As per usual a new dog – Buddy III – shows us the way there.  We pass the small lake – draped with prayer flags – where the water for the ceremony was drawn from.  The “throne” itself – a stone bench – is massive-sacred-pineoutdoors under a massive cryptomeria pine.  With forests of prayer flags, moss-covered “mani” stones, some deserted temple buildings and Buddy III giving us “walkies”, it’s a wonderful afternoon.

It has turned rainy in Yuksom, which makes it easier to leave.  The only jeep out of here departs at 6:00 a.m. and follows a tortuous route through Tashiding and Legship to Jorethang.  Jorethang is on Sikkim’s southern border at only 600m and after the highlands it feels almost sultry.  It’s a brief blast, however, as we climb into the next jeep going to Darjeeling.  The distance is only 21 km, but it’s the back-door route to India’s best-known hill station, and the journey takes 2 1/2 hours and climbs 1700m.

fog-for-flickrThe first impression of Darjeeling is disappointing: a clogged, cachophonic street where we are dropped, grotty, smelly butcher shops and a grey, soupy cloud enveloping everything.  There is no way to make sense of Darjeeling from a map, since “up” and “down” are the important directions, but with a vague lead we have  of a recommended hotel near the “T.V. Tower”, we head off “up” into the fog, and eventually stumble across the Tranquility.  For the first time this trip we need to wear everything we own, and Katheryn even puts socks on her hands.  Sometimes the cloud parts and reveals glimpses of the valley and Jorethang far below, but mostly it is like being on a set of Jack the Ripper.

Virtually every business in Darjeeling pronounces itself as part of Gorkhaland.  We are officially in W. Bengal, the capital being Calcutta, but that it as foreign to here to Ethiopia, and everybody knows it.  There is a lot of antagonism to a perceived Bengali imperiousness, and for thirty years there has been a simmering conflict to form a separate state.  Things were more spinner-for-flickrviolent in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but even now there are two protest marches that we come across, and the ransacking of a separatist’s house that could possibly ignite  strikes and stone throwing.

Over the course of a few days in Darjeeling we make the acquaintance of A.K. Lama, the head monk at Bhutia Busty Monastery, and he directs us to the Tibet Relief Center, where crafts and rugs are hand-made.  But apart from that and fading snatches of the once-glorious British Raj there isn’t much to keep us here and we head down the mountain to Kalimpong.  It is there we come across the best British anachronism yet: the Himalayan Hotel.

Kalimpong sits on the easiest access route between Tibet and India.  In 1904 the British wanted to consolidate their control over this strategic territory, loosely controlled by Tibet, so they sent Col. Francis Younghusband and a small band of soldiers to the border to instigate an “incident” which would give them the excuse to retaliate and annex it.  The problem that after flopping around in vain for some time and finding no opposition, Younghusband set off up the himalayan-for-flickrroad to Lhasa.  His firepower routed Tibetan horse troops at Xigatse, and he created an international incident by matching into Lhasa unopposed. The translator on that adventure was David McDonald, who built himself a bungalow in Kalimpong which became The Himalayan.  Over the year this fusty sitting room of stone and Himalayan oak has hosted the great mountaineering expeditions of Mallory and Irwin, Hillary and Tenzin, and an almanac of personalities and explorers.   Add to that  Kebe and Fast, who speak in studied snooty tones and drink G&Ts below the deen-dayal-for-flickrsigned photo of Alexandra David-Neel.

You know where to find more great photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/croquet

And be sure nor to miss Katheryn’s latest video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h5fM9aeQoq8