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“What’s the thing you remember the most about this trip?” we asked our 5-year old. “Mickey and Rosie!” she squealed happily. Mickey and Rosie were the 2 Samoyed dogs that belonged to the Pandim Hotel. They resembled polar bears both in color and size. They were so adorable and cuddly, that our daughter wanted to smuggle them back home. We took her to see the biggest mountain in the world and all she remembers are 2 shaggy dogs.
The last leg of our journey was Kalimpong in West Bengal. On the way from Pelling to Kalimpong, we stopped at the roadside “Sisne Mandir”. According to “Lonely Planet” it is a Shiva temple. But the priest insisted it was Devi Ka Mandir. He looked sullen when we pointed to 2 eroded Shiva Lingams in the temple complex and asked him what they were doing in a Durga temple.
Whenever a temple has some room to spare, locals add idols of their favorite deities. Over a period of time, the temple loses its original identity. All this would be fine if the temple’s history was recorded – either orally or written down for posterity. But this is India. We are an ancient land whose people have no sense or respect for history. It is but natural that we couldn’t find anything else about the Mandir. Which is rather bad – “Sisne” means “Nettle” in Nepali and Sukumar had a hunch that it could be another name for Shiva.
Whether you are in Darjeeling or Kalimpong, signboards boldly proclaim the address as Gorkha Land, not West Bengal. Our guide, a native of Darjeeling defended this. ” Successive governments in West Bengal have done nothing to improve the region. We believe that local leaders will do a better job.” We pointed out that we have local leaders ruling the state of Tamil Nadu, but they don’t seem to be working for our progress. Our guide shrugged and said, “it is worth trying. After all, we are seeking a separate state, not a separate country”.
Our initial foray into Kalimpong confirmed the guide’s opinion that the region is indeed backward. The city wears a squalid look with creaking infrastructure. A major tourist site like Kalimpong deserves better. To offer a comparison point, Kodaikanal and Ooty look a lot better developed.
I don’t know if I’m a gourmet, but I’m certainly a gourmand. I love trying out new recipes from across the world. So my shopping list always includes rare spices, herbs and condiments. “Where can I get Jimbu?” – this question drew blank stares from the Sikkimese. Jimbu is a high altitude Allium that grows exclusively in the Himalayas. It looks a lot like dried Chives. It is an important ingredient in Nepali cuisine. 80% of Sikkim’s population is Nepali yet no one in Sikkim seemed to know whether Jimbu was a solid, liquid, gas or plasma.
I was very lucky to find Jimbu in the Haat Bazaar in Kalimpong. I wasn’t that lucky with Radhuni, a spice used exclusively in Bengali cuisine. “There’s nothing called Rajumi”, said a wizened old spice merchant. “Radhuni, not Rajumi”, I corrected him. “That’s what I keep saying, there’s no spice named Rajumi, but you won’t listen to me”.
I tried my luck in another shop. “It looks like Ajwain”, I explained. “Then you must buy Ajwain, why do you want this Rajumi?” asked the lady. “I’ve been cooking for 30 years and I’ve never heard of this spice”, she said contemptuously. I gave up.
As it happens, Sukumar had spent 2 years of his early childhood in Sikkim. He fondly remembered Peda lollipops, a delicacy from Kalimpong. If you want to believe him, they were the size of an adult’s palm and tasted divine. “You can get them in Lark’s”, the hotel manager told us.
We expected a specialty sweet shop thronging with sweet-toothed Indians. But, Lark’s turned out to be a puny grocery store cum candy shop. “Oh, yes. We have the lollipops”, said the store manager. Time had shrunk them to the size of an adult’s thumb. Sukumar looked crestfallen. “This is not how I remember them”, he wailed. He took a delicate lick. “And they are cloyingly sweet”.
Unfortunately, the Peda lollipop industry is in decline. Only 3 dairies in Kalimpong make it these days. Neither the communists nor TMC have done anything to support this unique delicacy. We felt that a cultural marker was fading before our very eyes.
That concludes my posts on our visit to Sikkim. Sukumar will continue the series with a Photo Blog.
Back in Gangtok, Sukumar had a chance to taste the local tipple called “Tongba” – a fermented millet drink. A fierce South Indian, I never let anything but kaapi pass through my lips. Tongba was served in a unique bamboo stein with a bamboo straw. It tasted like an eclectic mix of beers and wines. Once he finished drinking it, some hot water was added to the millet grounds. After a few minutes, the stein was “recharged” and Sukumar could have another drink.
On the way to Pelling, we stopped at the newly opened “Tathagata Tsal”. Locals call it the “Buddha Park”. Situated at Ravangla, it has a huge (128 feet) copper statue of the Buddha. We learnt that “Tathagata” was one of the many titles given to the Buddha, while “Tsal” means “awareness”. The park is clean (as of now) and has a musical fountain. Underneath the idol is a chamber that has murals from the life of the Buddha.
“Your daughter is a model child, madam”, said our driver. The afore-mentioned model child was shrieking like a drunken monkey and bounding 4 steps at a time, as I looked on helplessly. “I haven’t seen such as amiable child”, he added. “Mom! Mom! I hate this place. Can we go home?” – our kid whined. This was more amiability than I could handle. “Just get into the car before I exchange you for a gerbil!” I hissed.
“The Bon religion predates Buddhism in Tibet” – our guidebook had informed us. So, we were very eager to see the only Bon Monastery in Tibet. But, the priests at the monastery could share very little information with us. “Our religion is 18,000 years old”, they told us – a claim that seems very far-fetched. The earliest scriptures of Bon are from the 9th century AD. “There are only 4 Bon monasteries”, the priest said. “Nepal, Sikkim, Himachal Pradesh and Bhutan”.
Historians think that “Bon” is an amorphous religion, which might be a set of shamanism and fortune telling – and that its not distinct from Tibetan Buddhism. “This will help you understand Bon better”, said the priest as he handed out a document to us. We could make neither head nor tail of the document, other than this – whatever Bon had been earlier, in its present form, it resembles Buddhism a lot.
If you believe tour books, the “Pemayangtse Gompa” in Pelling is a must-see. It is one of the most powerful and sacred monasteries of the Nyingmapa sect. The Chogyal (King) of Sikkim was crowned by the monks from this monastery. The monks themselves were exclusively from the Bhutia tribe.
We had read so much about the Gompa that the reality was disappointing. It was dusty and wore a slightly neglected look. The many murals and statues in the chambers had scanty documentation. “Buddhists from Tibet and Sikkim may not need any documentation, but what about tourists?” I wondered. “The Kapaleeshwara Temple in Chennai isn’t tourist friendly either”, reminded Sukumar. Touché.
The inner sanctum has an idol of Padma Sambhava flanked by the Buddha and Avalokiteshwara. The 2nd level had statues of the 8 manifestations of Padma Sambhava. The 3rd level depicted the 7-tiered copper palace of Padma Sambhava. The walls had extensive murals from Tantric Buddhism. Some of the murals had been covered by pieces of cloth. We surreptitiously lifted these veils and peeked inside. All of them depicted “Yab Yum” or the “Creation Pose” – the union of man and woman. Modern prudery had hidden what Padma Sambhava taught was the wellspring of life.
At Pelling, we stayed at a charming heritage hotel called “Elgin Mount Pandim”. The main reason tourists visit Pelling is to drool over the Kanchenjunga, India’s tallest peak and the 3rd tallest peak in the Himalayas.
Kanchenjunga is a shy peak. It mostly covers itself in a thick veil of mist. We got up at 4 AM to see the peak. By 5 AM the veil had lifted. But wait, there were 3 peaks – which of them is the Kanchenjunga? The hotel busboy was kind enough to point it to us. By 6:30 AM the peak had gone back into hiding. Exhilarated we entered the breakfast area. “How many peaks did you see?” asked a couple from Mumbai. “3” we said proudly. “Oh, that’s nothing, we saw 8 yesterday!” they said. Pangs of Peak envy hit us and we gloomily sipped our coffee. What have we done to deserve this stepmotherly treatment from the Himalayas? – we wondered.
What other adventures awaited the travelers? Click here to read on.
Wherever we went in Sikkim – one thing was a constant – the Indian Army. You could be excused for thinking the country was at war. While tourists moan and groan about the weather and high altitude, the soldiers of the Indian Army brave the harsh weather conditions to keep us safe. The Army helps people in numerous ways – they protect monuments, relieve traffic congestions on hazardous mountain roads, and provide medical aid when needed.
One couldn’t help noticing the pride with which they display their regiment names, regiment slogans and their excellent attitude. They do all this when they live away from friends and family for extended periods of time. Such dedication and selflessness can only come from someone special.
For some reason, I always thought of the Himalayas as a solid, igneous presence, replete with gneiss and basalt. But it’s a folded mountain – which means, it has plenty of sedimentary rocks. Which makes it seem – fragile. Landslides and falling rocks are common.
Travelers to Darjeeling and beyond would encounter the BRO – Border Roads Organization. Laborers of BRO are perpetually at work, repairing the roads rendered useless by landslides, clearing boulders from the roads etc. Such never-ending tasks are called “Avudayar Kovil Thiruppani” in Tamil Nadu. One does not know why the “Holy Restoration of the Avudayar Temple” is forever in progress, but legend has it that it is due to a curse from an irate God. Perhaps the self-same God cursed Sikkim too, in a fit of rage – “Thine roads shall forever be incomplete”.
At Lachung, our first step was the Shingba Rhododendron sanctuary. “Don’t touch the plants, madam”, our driver cautioned us. “Some of them are poisonous”. Some species of rhododendrons have a toxin (Grayanotoxin) that can cause paralysis and sometimes, hallucinations. “Oh, look at the colors of the flowers”, I exclaimed. “Yes Madam, there are 5 or 6 colors”, said the driver. I refrained from saying that I could spot at least 10 colors. Men are the same everywhere: their pathetic perception of colors should be pitied, not made fun of.
Yumthang Valley was our next stop. The valley is nice, but the small shacks around sort of ruin its beauty. We saw a bunch of people around a large transparent ball. “It’s a sport called Zurming” explained a man – the man in charge of the ball was our guess. “You just get inside the ball and try to move it”, he added helpfully. “Do you want to zurm, sir?” he asked. Perhaps he thought Madam was too much of a chicken to go zurming in a rubber ball. Sir was dying to zurm, but it was getting late to get to the next stop, Lachung’s star attraction – Zero Point.
“Zero Point” is so named because all roads end here. It is at a height of 15,500 feet. It is a favorite stop for Indians who want to play in the snow. Our daughter had great fun making what she called the “King’s house” and a smaller “Soldier’s house”. I wondered how a king could live in a pintsized house with his missus, sans heating and lighting in the Himalayas.
Mist was closing in on the mountains. Visibility was reducing by the minute, so we had to drag our reluctant kid back to the hotel.
There were no restaurants in Yumthang. We were forced to eat our national food – Maggi noodles – in a shack. The place was far from clean; and hygiene – forget it. We were very aggrieved - the roads were too bad, the toilets too dirty, the weather too cold…How can we exist in such inhuman conditions?
Just then, we saw a bunch of Norwegian tourists on their way for a 5-day camping trip way up in the mountains – AKA supremely inhuman conditions. We asked them “Why would you want to do that?” To study the exotic flowers came the answer. Flowers, my foot. Norwegians have a masochistic streak, trust me.
That night was one of the hardest as both of us were hit by severe altitude sickness. Luckily, our daughter slept like a baby. In our headache induced stupor we wondered if we should go right back to Chennai. At 6 AM, bleary eyed from lack of sleep, we looked out the window – only to catch a glimpse of the sublime, grim, aloof and magnificent Himalayas, flaunting its bodacity. And we asked ourselves – “How can we think of leaving this place?”
Click here to read Part 7.
The Hotel Manager at Lachen turned out to be a very articulate young man. He was a social sciences teacher at the local school and he was simply helping his cousin run the hotel. “My cousin’s busy campaigning for the upcoming Assembly elections” he said. Eh, what?
“So does your cousin belong to SDF (Sikkim’s CM Pawan Chamling’s party)?” we asked. “Of course not!” he said. “Chamling has been in power for 4 terms now. We need Paribartan (Change)”. He went on to explain that the Chamling government has run up a huge debt that can only be cleared by raising taxes on the Sikkimese.
Apparently, mismanagement is not Chamling’s only fault. Chamling has 2 known wives and 5 children. The Assembly frames policies to favor the first family. For example, chicken from Siliguri is banned in Sikkim – incidentally, one of Chamling’s wives runs a poultry farm. Another wife has huge swaths of land dedicated to organic farming – Chamling’s government is busy promoting Organic Farming. Likewise, one of Chamling’s sons has a stranglehold on the restaurant business in Gangtok.
It all sounded uncannily familiar to us. “Yes” said the manager. “Chamling is Sikkim’s own Karunanidhi”. “So, will the people vote his party out?” we asked. “Ah, that will be difficult because the elections are rigged. How else could SDF win all the seats in the last elections?” asked the manager.
We proceeded to the Tsopta valley. Gurudongmar Lake is off limits for foreign nationals. The starkly beautiful lake is one of the main sources that feed the Teesta River. But since it is at an altitude of 17,000 feet, we decided not to expose our daughter to the harsh terrain.
We stopped at a roadside tea stall. A bio-break was out of the question. The public toilets were disgusting, like everywhere else in India. “A Marathi family came to Sikkim last year”, our guide said. “They brought a cook along, they couldn’t live without Marathi food”. I would instead recommend bringing a toilet along – a port-a-potty. We’re such finicky eaters, but we don’t mind vomit-worthy toilets. We burst with pride when we dream of our country becoming a super-power. But, we can’t even keep the place we pee clean. I wonder what that says about our nation’s standards in personal hygiene.
Just then, we saw a bunch of cars on their way back to Lachen. One of the men said “Don’t go any further, just turn back to Lachen. My wife fainted”. According to our research the Valley is safe for children but the Lake isn’t. Wanting to know more, we asked him if he went to the valley or the lake. The man shrugged – he didn’t believe in such petty details. He said, “There’s less than 3% oxygen. The Indian army revived my wife with glucose. It is that bad out there”.
When we decided to proceed, we heard the man telling his wife “They have a small child and they are going ahead”. The family, aghast, glared at us as if wishing to give us the “Worst Parents of the Year” award.
“I don’t know why you have to go. There’s nothing there but a lake!” said the man sulkily. I don’t know what he was expecting from a place named Gurudongmar “Lake”.
After all those dire predictions, we reached Tsopta Valley without anyone passing out. It is hard to describe the valley – it was a grim terrain, almost alien in appearance. The unique other-worldly landscape of Cappadoccia came to our mind.
We moved onto Lachung, our next stop. “You couldn’t have come here last year madam. There was a major earthquake”, said the driver. “This is the village of Bitchu”, he said and swept his arm. “Where’s the village?” we asked him. “There’s nothing but rocks and pebbles here”. “The village was completely destroyed by the earthquake, wasn’t it?” asked the driver and added “Oh, we are very close to your hotel now!”
We weren’t exactly comforted by this news. Visions of me looking for my family in the rubble haunted me. I slept fitfully that night. I woke up screaming “Tremors! Tremors! Call the military!” It turned out to be Sukumar snoring his way to glory.
Want to know what we did in Lachung, other than snore and scream? Click here.