KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We were reluctant to leave Cloud 9 (our hotel in Kalimpong) but we knew that more great places were waiting to be discovered so we headed back down from the clouds to join the main highway to Sikkim at Teesta Bazaar. We turned northwards once again and before long we found ourselves at the border town of Rangpo.
I should tell you a little about Sikkim, India's state since 1976. The first people to come to Sikkim were the Lepchas who journeyed here from Myanmar (Burma) in the 13th century. Others followed; the Bhutias from Tibet driven out by fighting between rival factions of Buddhists and more lately, the Nepali and Tibetan refugees. In 1835 the British East India Company was granted the land around Darjeeling and they went on to develop the world-famous hill station in order for the government to escape the summer heat of Calcutta.
Foreigners require a permit (free) to enter Sikkim due to the fact that it borders on Chinese territory. China has reluctantly recognized India's claim to Sikkim and India is eager to keep tensions to a minimum. Permits may be obtained in advance or along with a visa to India, but we just applied for ours at the border in Rangpo and had it in hand in a short time. The government official was efficient and very friendly, something that surprised us immensely. This was our first experience with the warmth of the Sikkimese people and we went on to enjoy all our interactions during our entire stay.
We continued to climb further into the mountains and enjoyed the changing vegetation and the cool climate. At last we reached the outskirts of Gangtok (Sikkimese for "hilltop") and could see the city spilling over the western face of long ridge facing the Ranipal River. We had read that the famous Himalayan peak, Khangchendzonga, could be seen from most places in Gangtok, but with the low-lying cloud all views were obscured. We asked our driver to take us to the Golden Pagoda Hotel on Mahatma Gandhi Road, the main shopping thoroughfare. This hotel was highly rated by the Lonely Planet despite the fact that it is considered a mid-range hotel. We were sorry that it was not as secluded or as charming as the Cloud 9 Hotel, but its location turned out to be advantageous because the town closes the MG Road (each evening between 5:00 and 9:00 pm) to all vehicular traffic and the street fills with pedestrians and creates a holiday-like atmosphere. We were given rooms one above the other so that both couples could enjoy the view out to the Himalayas and be away from the street noise. We spent the remainder of the day exploring the neighbouring area on foot and made plans for a major round of Gangtok's sights the following day.
We rose the next morning hoping for clear skies and even clearer views of Khangchendzonga, but again the clouds hovered around the buildings of the city and we were disappointed. The locals assured us that this was very unusual weather for April, but then we have found that the weather all across northern India has been unusual ever since we arrived in November. So far it had worked to our advantage, with temperatures lower than normal when we wanted to avoid being too hot, but now we had to accept that we can't always have things just as we want them. We thought about the fact that the Indian plains now have temperatures touching 40 degrees and we decided not to complain too much. We did manage to find a quiet guesthouse called the Mintokling that reminded us of the Cloud 9 in Kalimpong. It was a much larger place boasting twelve rooms and a lovely garden tucked just under the upper ridge not far from the botanical garden. Unfortunately, it was booked solid for weeks into the future and they could not provide us with two rooms or even a family room for the four of us. We vowed to return to Gangtok one day and book the Mintokling well in advance.
Our first excursion outside of the city took us to the monastery at Rumtek. We travelled back down the main highway into a deep valley and then crossed the river and started climbing the hill facing Gangtok. The road was little more than a rocky path but the amazing monastery was something not to be missed. It was built in the 1960s by the 16th Karmapa to replace the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet which was demolished during the Cultural Revolution. The grounds of the monastery also contain the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies. The monastery contains a giant throne that awaits the arrival of the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who fled from Tibet to India in 2000. The Indian government has refused to let him take us his throne in Rumtek for fear of alienating the Chinese, so he bides his time in Dharamsala, near the seat of the Dalai Lama.
I was blown away by the beauty of the monastery and was thankful that a room that is normally closed to the public was opened in order to accommodate a small Indian group of tourists. We piggy-backed our way in and were surprised to learn that we were free to take photographs inside. This is the only monastery that we have come across that has allowed photography of the interiors and I am delighted to be able to share the pictures with you. We have seen some amazing interiors; I will have to encourage you to make your own journey to this region to see what I cannot show you.
When we were finally able to drag ourselves away from the monastery, we returned to the jeep stand to find our vehicle but not our driver. We searched high and low for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. I finally noticed a pair of legs sticking out of the rear door of one of the jeeps with a driver at the wheel. I was sure I had found him at last, but was wrong. Luckily, the man was happy to leave his comfortable perch and assist us in finding our driver. I asked him to look for the man who brought three Indians and one foreigner to Rumtek and he laughed because this was an unusual combination of tourists for sure. It didn't take him long to find our driver, deep under the small tea shops that line the taxi stand. He had been busy playing carrom, a game much like crokinole; there was probably money being waged and he was really caught up in the game.
The ride back to Gangtok was as much of an adventure as the trip up. The driver simply switched off the engine and coasted all the way along the narrow road to the bottom of the valley - how's that for eco-friendly tourism?
Our next stop was the Flower Exhibition Centre high along the ridge above our hotel. We were fortunate that there was an orchid competition on for the month of April and we happily paid the small admission fee of 10 Rs and entered a world of exotic blooms under a large greenhouse roof. I was surprised to learn that Arun and Neena were not familiar with orchids, so I shared my limited knowledge with them. Luckily, one does not need a wealth of experience to enjoy the variety that orchids present and we wandered through the exhibition enjoying the show. There was a seat strategically placed in front of one of the exhibits so that guests could take photographs. I was able to snap a wonderful photo of Arun and Neena there. You can see by their faces that they were enjoying their holiday to the fullest.
In the evening we arranged for a tour to Tsomgo Lake for the next day. The lake is located 14 km from the border with China and foreign passport holders are required to have a permit to visit the area so arrangements have to be made in advance. It had been raining in the evenings in Gangtok and we were not sure what the weather would be like at the higher elevations, but we had to take a chance and book the trip. We crossed our fingers that we would be able to see the views and not just be driving through the clouds for two hours and arrive at a lake we couldn't see. I have made a separate entry for the trip to the lake, so I will just carry on with our experiences in Gangtok once we returned.
We were surprised to learn that it had rained in Gangtok almost the whole day we were away visiting the lake. It was cloudy at the higher elevations, but we had missed out on all the rain. We woke to sunny skies and decided to start the day by taking a taxi to one of the highest peaks in Gangtok city and working our way down from there. There is a famous monastery near the peak, Enchey Gompa, and it was one we didn't want to miss. The monastery is simple compared to others we have visited but it was an encounter with a novice monk there that made it really special. I was walking alone around the back side of the building when the young monk approached me and offered a banana. I hesitated to take it because I know they are not given a great deal to eat and I didn't want to deprive him of any of his mid-day meal. He told me it was "prasad", food that has been blessed and I know from experience that one must not refuse prasad. I asked him his name and we spoke for a while in English. He told me he has been in the monastery for several years and that he is very happy there. I asked for a photo and he was good enough to oblige. As he turned and walked away, I noticed that he had a pronounced limp. I'm not sure if one leg is shorter than the other or if he has a club foot, but at that moment I wished that our friend Dr. Marc Moreau could perform surgery on his leg as he does for many disabled children in Ecuador when he goes on charitable work each year.
We went with the young monk into a small room where four other monks were busy preparing small oil lamps for prayer. They were happy to take a break from the hot work when we arrived and one novice asked me to take a photo of him playing the flute. Just then the lunch bell rang and all the boys hurried off with their single place, spoon and steel glass for their meal. They pushed and jostled each other like any group of young boys anywhere would do and I caught Anil looking at them wistfully. I think he misses the children at his school even though he doesn't miss all the administrative headaches that go with the job.
We closed off our last day in Sikkim with a ride on the ropeway (cable car) high above the city. It was great to look down on all the small lanes and we were a little taken aback when the cable stopped mid-way between the two stations. The attendant assured us that all was well, the car just stops so that the riders can take good pictures while the car is still. We enjoyed our stay in Gangtok immensely and look forward to coming back again. In all our time in Sikkim, we weren't even able to get a momentary glimpse of the famous mountain, Khangchendzonga. It's the third highest mountain in the world and is just 50km from Gangtok. We are told that you can see it from most places in the city when the weather is clear. It was our misfortune that the skies were cloudy for our entire stay. Better luck next time!
The last photo I included in this journal entry is of five Tibetan prayer flags. I was delighted the first time I saw them, and came to love them even more as our stay in Sikkim progressed. The prayer flags are everywhere, not always all five different colours, sometimes there is just one large white one. The colours represent the five different elements important to all Tibetans: red - the Sun; blue - water; green - nature; yellow - earth and white - the sky. There are often elaborate cloth "toppers" at the top of the poles, while other times there is simply a tuft of grass or plant matter. Although we pledged not to buy souvenirs on our journey, I couldn't resist buying one long prayer flag comprised of the five colours in descending order. It will be a special reminder of Sikkim when we finally put down roots somewhere, someday.
Editor's Note: Once again Vicki omitted an important discovery at the Ropeway restaurant - Dansberg Beer, made in Sikkim. She had a taste and discovered it is migraine free. Rats! Now I have to share.