Friday, December 15, 2017

Destination Sikkim - Till we meet again

On the third day, we went to the Sikkim Himalayan Zoo. It was day of little rain and much mist. The walk into the zoo was surreal because of the clouds that accompanied us. We could spot very few animals actually, but the walk around the little zoo was great. The red panda was undoubtedly the show stealer. However the whole place looked rather unkempt and uncared for. In any case it was a far cry from the conditions in our Vandalur zoo. The animals at least looked well fed and well rested.



After a quick lunch of some white rice and vegetables, we headed off to the Ranka Monastery, also known as the Lingdum Monastery. Even if it’s rather recent and there’s no historical significance to the place, the scale of its construction and architectural beauty floored us completely. It’s a treat to the eyes through and through. The entrance is flanked on either side with beautiful prayer wheels. The courtyard is huge and leads to the inner sanctum, where a large-sized Buddha sits right on top. The entire temple is covered with beautiful, traditional Thanka paintings of Sikkim. The monastery is surrounded by forests and that makes it most picturesque. No wonder it’s caught the fancy of Indian moviemakers. Pictures of actors who visited the monastery decorate the canteen walls in the monastery. Our Vikram and Samantha were there too; apparently they were shooting the movie 10 Endrathukulla.




The next day we left Sikkim early with lots of memories of this abode of the gods and left a bit of us in Sikkim. We’ll perhaps go there another time and visit the many places we couldn’t because of the monsoons. Until then, we shall meditate on the quintessential feature of Sikkim, Om Mani Padme Hum, which now adorns the entrance to our home. The trip had indeed brought us rain, rest, love, thrill, and deeper meaning.

Destination Sikkim - When breath ran out on us, literally

The next day morning, all of us were up and ready by 8. At 8:30 the most awaited phone call came, declaring the happy news of the permit. The Innova was to transform into a Formula 1 racing car in under 10 minutes. We would be climbing to about 14000 ft and so he began telling us about the various things we might encounter on our ascent. Well, landslides had by then become a household term, and so he talked about clouds blocking our vision completely or torrential rain that could bring with it huge boulders or simply lack of oxygen that can cause instant coma. What did he just say? Lack of oxygen? We just laughed it off, but got ourselves some chocolates and popcorns, touted to be an antidote to oxygen deprivation. We were getting ready for the most adventurous part of the trip.

Soon we left the hustle bustle of Gangtok and were going up, up, and up. Slowly and steadily, we could experience the slow descent in temperature. At one point, our hands were turning numb and we were blowing warm air into our balled fists and rubbing them together to stay sane. The ride was scenic with beautiful views of the Himalayas with their cloud cover, lush greenery, and waterfalls bringing pristine, clear water from the glaciers high up in the mountains. Chandru stopped the car near a little waterfall for us to fill our bottles and play in it for sometime. After drinking our fill, we resumed our journey. We must have been at least 10,000 ft above the mean sea level. We entered the clouds. It was all white, cold, and eerie. It was just us in the Innova, surrounded by majestic mountains, clouds, and lakes. If you listened carefully, you would be able to hear silence. Deafening silence. No wonder, they named the pass, Na-thulla, which means the pass of the listening ears.




We were driving through mist and cloud and in zero visibility. “I can drive on the road with my eyes closed,” declared Chandru, trying to reassure us. With some effort, we could see some army camps and very fit looking defense personnel busy patrolling. Oh yes, we were heading towards the country’s border. No wonder, the roads were peppered with check points and military uniforms. A few kilometers on, tiny shacks selling Chinese jackets for throwaway prices came into view.  We picked one each and off we went. As we drew closer, the air started to get palpably thinner. We’ve never been in such conditions ever before. A closest experience could have been a Doddabetta or a Nainital bus ride through a cloud cover. But, this was proving to be something else. Even as we were wondering about how people almost centuries ago were negotiating these tricky terrains without vehicles powered by petrol or diesel, simply out of nowhere emerged these hordes of yak with their shepherds covered from head to toe in their traditional Sikkimese clothes. We decided to do a yak ride for Kavin on our way back, since Nathulla was still some distance away.



As Nathulla drew closer, whatever little civilization there was thinned out. In fact, there was not a single soul as the trudge up the Nathulla began. You would spot an occasional army man doing his patrol amidst the thick clouds. But that was all. The cars had to be stopped at least 1 kilometer or 2 away. Chandru told us to be careful to not let Kavin walk on his own, and wishing us luck he drove away.

The entrance to Nathulla is framed with an arch, whose style is unmistakably a happy coming together of both Sikkimese and Chinese motifs, which for someone as untrained as me seemed rather similar with dragons in green and yellow. Few meters on, start the steps that will take one to the actual summit of the Nathulla pass. It didn’t quite look as threatening as it was made out to be. We got off the car and in another few minutes, it happened. For one dizzying moment, air literally drained out of our lungs. In no time, we were holding on to each other for air, literally. We looked at each other and smiled at this rather daring adventure we had undertaken. Kavin on the other hand seemed unfazed and began climbing the steps. We, on the other hand, were huffing and puffing to climb even 5 steps in one go. Mercifully, there was a café en route. Never in the past did the sight of a shack gladden my heart as much. After a short break, R offered to stay with Kavin, told me to go on, and stuffed some chocolates in my hands and asked me to be safe. I would be completely incommunicado, and we really didn’t know what awaited us up the hill. The experience was rather unsettling. We were on terra firma but not quite, actually. Anytime, we could be plunged into nothingness. I took climbed the steps slowly, but steadily. I could sense my lungs working overtime, and also came to the terrible realization of how unfit I was. But this was no time for regret; I had to survive this. I continued climbing when suddenly I was losing my sense of sound. I could no more hear, everything was beginning to turn white. With some effort, I pulled out the bar chocolate and bit a chunk of it. In no time, things began to get normal. Whoever thought chocolate was a lifesaver. Not me, certainly. Some more chocolate and I was at the summit, and there was just clouds and more clouds covering the buildings. A rope was tied to indicate the boundary between the countries. That’s it? No fanfare like the Wagah boundary? Slowly, the structure on the other side emerged through the clouds. I could make out a bright red star and some men working atop. I waved to them, and they waved back. And that was the high point of our entire trip. They army personnel also pointed the gate through which goods get exchanged between Indian and Chinese traders. They also told us how during the Manasarover Yatra the gates are opened for thoroughfare. I returned with the resolve to get fit and do that yatra; the whole place seemed to lead right into heaven.

On our way back to Gangtok, we stopped at the Tsomgo lake (pronounced Changu) and played with the yaks. Kavin rode on one of them and had some fun. The lake is supposed to be a very ancient one and quite holy to the local people and the Buddhists and the Hindus, alike.  So holy that people don’t even fish in these waters. The water comes from the melting of snow in the surrounding mountains.


Then came the Baba Mandir, which is actually a shrine built in the memory of a army man who was killed during a war or crossfires. But his body was not found until he appeared in a colleague’s dream and told him where to look for his body. They find and cremate his body. And since then legend has it that Baba appears in the dreams of his colleagues and to this day warns them of any issues and averts wars or crossfires. So a couple of shrines have been built in his memory and prayers are recited every day. We visited only the new shrine built at a lower altitude and took the sugar candies given as the prashad. Around here, Chandru found some little plants and hungrily collected a bunch of them. He offered a small twig for us to taste. It was sharp and pungent, but the aftertaste lingered for a while. He said it was a local herb, very good for health, and rather rare in lower altitudes.

The ride back was more or less uneventful, except for the yummiest momos we got to taste en route. The shopkeeper sold only veg momos and she made them with just fresh cabbage, carrots, and some onions. We sat there in that little shack on wooden benches, savoured the momos, and looked out from a little window. The beautiful mountain waters were flowing downhill, as the rain hammered on the tin sheets that covered the shack. After what seemed like eternity, we began our journey back to Gangtok.


Destination Sikkim - Teesta and Tibetan Buddhism

We entered Sikkim at about half past five and decided to make a pitstop for tea and biscuits like regular Chennaites. Chandru reminded us that we were in momo land, and so we quickly got ourselves a plate of veg momos, since the shop didn’t serve any meat. Soon, we had ordered one more and we would have done more had we had more time; it was so lip-smackingly good, and all that the little dumplings contained were the humble cabbage and some meek carrots, all grated, mixed, and steamed together with some seasoning! About 6-8 momos are arranged along the circumference of a plate with a circle of red, hot sauce in the center.

In another hour or so we reached the quiet homestay we had booked ourselves in. We trudged up at least two flights of steep stairs balancing our suitcases, bags, and little Kavin. The first sight that caught us even in the dark was the orchid that was hanging right in the entrance. Now to have orchid growing out of your porch is akin to luxury for a Chennaite! The homestay was on the second floor; it had about five compact double rooms with clean sheets and quilts. The toilet was spotless, and that’s always one of the most important aspects of any staying experience for us. After a quick dinner of some random dal fry and rice, all of us flopped on to the bed and were out like light bulbs.

The dawn was cold, wet, and cloudy. On the glass windows were condensed little droplets of rain. The monsoons were beautiful in the hills. This would be our first monsoon trip in the Himalaya. After a leisurely breakfast of hot aloo paratas, fresh curd, and nice, hot coffee we were off for the day. Chandru had arrived on time and was waiting to take us to the very famous Rumtek monastery. We were about 25 km from the monastery, which was actually at a height of almost 4900 ft from the mean sea level. Again, after some driving through the hills and some hide and seek with the river Teesta, we reached the Rumtek monastery. Cars had to be part at least a kilometer or two from the monastery. Perhaps the trudging up the hill is a sort of penance to have a glimpse of the historic monastery. The road up to the monastery is flanked by little shops selling art curios and souvenirs of Sikkim. Soon came the Kalachakras or the wheels of time, a characteristic feature of monasteries that practice Tibetan Buddhism. Time cycles basically represent the cyclic nature of nature itself; be it time, your breath, the planetary movement, seasons, and so and so forth. It forms a very significant and an important teaching in the Tibetan religion.

Bright, red dahlias, roses the size of sunflowers, and blue and beautiful hydrangeas ushered us into the monastery. It’s the largest monastery in Sikkim and it’s also known as Dharmachakra center. If I could attribute a human quality to the whole place, it would be modesty. Nothing in the exterior walls or interiors, which were filled with beautiful paintings, belied the Karmapa controversy being fought out in the Indian courts or the presence of the golden stupa or the monastery being the seat of the Karmapa Lama, the third highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism.



Little Buddhist monks dressed it cute maroon colored robes roamed and ran around the whole place, giving a playful, happy feel to the place, which would otherwise look somber, austere, and religious. A black hat was placed atop the Buddha inside the temple; apparently it was spun out of a few thousand strands of hair that were given to the first Karmapa by some magical fairies when he meditated. One of the little monks gave Kavin a nice, fat muffin and smiled. We took a little stroll around the monastery and learned of the traditional Lama dance performed on the last day of one of the two festivals observed in the Rumtek monastery. We decided to visit Rumtek next when the Lama dance would happen and found our way back to the car, but only after leaving a little bit of ourselves in Rumtek. Such was its unassuming magnetism.

The rest of the day was spent it in shopping and strolling through the rain-soaked streets of MG Marg. Lunch was mostly momos of various hues. Steamed momos, fried momos, chicken momas, pork momos, and the like. We weren’t too keen about the ropeway, but we had to humor our toddler and so, we went up and down the ropeway, which is probably a hangout for young lovers and newly weds looking for some amusement other than each other. Giggly, we got off the rope away and decided to have a nice cup of the much-famed Tibetan tea. A hot, soothing concoction made by churning loads of butter, tea, and salt. It was love at first sip, for me. The little shop was womanned by a nice Tibetan lady, who was only more than happy to explain to me how to make a nice cup of Tibetan tea or Po Cha, as she called it. The boys were only too happy with their regular tea and a cool drink.



Teesta flowed all around Sikkim in waterfalls and streams. Most of homes have some plant or the other, many of them had rose, some had dahlias, and some had the most beautiful petunias I had ever seen. However, one wild creeper, which looked more or less like our bottle gourd plant, was ubiquitous. I made a mental note to find the actual name of the plant and we walked back to our homestay.

Peggy, our host, called to inform us that our dinner was ready and served. There was hot rice, a bowl of light dal, some fish curry, and a bowl of green vegetable that looked suspiciously similar to the wild creeper that had caught my eye earlier. On enquiry, Peggy confirmed that it was indeed the leaves of the wild creeper, but it was hardly wild because it was actually the bottle gourd plant. Whoa! The things hills do to even these tame little vegetables. To say the creeper was the show stealer that night would be an understatement. It was a clear winner. Chandru told us to have an early night because the next day was Nathulla pass. Of course, that was subject to getting a permit.


Destination Sikkim: Opening Credits


It was the fag end of May in 2016; the place, Chennai. We, along with 4 million other Chennaites, were dragging ourselves out of the unforgiving, sweltering heat of the 2016 summer. Of course, there was some sporadic rainfall, but not the kind that will rescue us from the unforgiving summer heat. That was when we decided to take a trip somewhere far away from the searing heat.  Some rain would restore sanity in our lives. And so, without even thinking much, I went ahead and booked our tickets to Sikkim, and that was really far, far away from Chennai and its heat. The trip was to coincide with our wedding anniversary. We wanted a nice, quiet getaway with adequate rain, rest, and much love. The trip added a couple more to this, and they were thrill and a deeper meaning to life.

We sensed trouble first when we started checking out the staying options. Everyone we talked to was double-checking; Sikkim? In July? Are you sure? How will you even get to Gangtok? Helicopters? The worst thing was from the lady in Sikkim House, New Delhi. I asked her, if there’s a possibility of landslides in July. “Yes, there will be landslides,” pat came the reply. That was indeed a gob smacking moment. But our flight tickets were already done, and since we had had monsoon wedding, we’d have to simply open our umbrellas and eat monsoon pie during the wedding anniversaries. 

We scoured through the internet and found a nice homestay and a tour operator. Both of them were thorough professionals who told us the facts as they were. Going to North Sikkim, the most beautiful part of the state, would be impossible. However, if we are lucky, we can get see the Nathulla pass and the several lakes around. And, so with no further ado and any more research, we boarded the Spicejet flight all the way from Chennai to Bagdogra, from where, Tenzing, our travel agent, will have us picked up in an Innova.

After being airborne for almost 3 hours, with a break of 30 minutes in between, Bagdogra came into view. Our first sight of that tiny town was one of several puddles of water. Well, even huge lakes look like mere puddles when you are several feet high up in the air.  Are we landing right in the heart of the notorious North East monsoon, famous for its landslides and, the most-dreaded word, cloudburst? We hoped not.

As we stepped out of the tiny airport, the humid air of Bagdogra had us sweating profusely in no time. Wheeling our luggage out, we scanned the junta outside the airport when Chandru, our driver, local guide, weather expert, and herbalist, all rolled into one, met us with a broad, happy smile. In another 20-30 minutes we were on our way to Sikkim, Gangtok on the National Highway 31A. We were approximately 125 km away from Gangtok, and the journey was supposed to take around 3-4 hours, if there were no landslides, roadblocks, or rain. Whoa! People seemed to talk of landslides like a calendar event! Soon, Chandru put on some music and started the drive up the hill. I kept pestering him to show us Teesta, the iconic Himalayan river that more or less defines Sikkim. Every rivulet or stream that we’d cross, I’d quip with “Is this Teesta?” Chandru will merely smirk or shrug. After another half hour of driving through a hill road covered on both sides with trees, we emerged into the bright sunshine reflected from a massive, gigantic Himalayan river flowing and in all its splendor and might. She was Teesta. And, she carried with her fertile soil and water that will nurture and nourish all life that lived downstream. Soon there was a roadblock; we walked up and down the road, clicked pictures of the Teesta, and ate some of the food sold locally; freshly sliced, juicy pineapples, mildly flavored with salted chilly powder was just what I needed to get lost in the beauty of Teesta. One rather strange hot favorite served cold were coconut slices. People loved to eat it like a snack, and not thicken their fish/meat gravies the way we Chennaites did.




In about 10-15 minutes we were on our way again and were met with this massive bridge called the Coronation Bridge, built in 1937 by John Anderson, the then governor general of West Bengal to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Innova crossed the bridge like a bullet; Chandru refused to stop, saying we had to cross a landslide prone area before sundown, or… He left the sentence unfinished, sending jitters down the spine.

After another hour or two of really fast driving on the hill road, we came upon a badly damaged section of the road. Almost 80% of the 70-ft road was covered with slush and huge boulders arranged in a manner that brought memories of scenes preceding fights in black and white Tamil movies. The moment we crossed that section, Chandru relaxed visibly and told us, “We just crossed the landslide prone region,” and waited for a split second for it to sink.  We smiled back, gratefully. For the rest of journey, Chandru kept talking about the general culture of Sikkim, how wonderful Sikkimese are, how they eat only organic food, and how it’s a state that flows not just with Teesta, but wine and beer. And, we couldn’t wait to set foot in Sikkim.



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Destination Sikkim - Till we meet again

On the third day, we went to the Sikkim Himalayan Zoo. It was day of little rain and much mist. The walk into the zoo was surreal because o...