Sikkim in the Mist


Sikkim is a tiny state lying to the south of Tibet, sandwiched between Nepal to the west, Bhutan to the east and China in the north, which gives it the name of “chicken neck”. An isolated independent Buddhist kingdom for centuries, it was annexed by India in 1975 after India realized the country was an important buffer against China.

Although Sikkim is now an Indian state, we still needed entry permits from the tourist center, but considering the bureaucracy in India it was amazingly simple and straightforward. Our journey from Darjeeling involved a two-hour shared taxi ride to Jorthang, an hour’s wait and then another jeep to Pelling. Supposed to seat a maximum of ten people, eleven managed to squeeze in – with another riding on the roof for part of the journey. Three passengers almost squeezed out the driver, who steered with his left hand, while his right dangled out the window holding his mobile. It was even more interesting when he had to shift! Of all the mountain rides we’ve ever taken this had to be the worst road we’ve ever been on.

British/Israeli family we kept meeting, traveling for a year with to children

British/Israeli family we kept meeting, traveling for a year with to children

In Pelling, a small town built on the side of the hill, we continued to wait four more days being teased by the veil across the mountains. Meanwhile, we met some fellow travelers to share a jeep for a day’s tour of the surrounding countryside. Again the roads were terrible but traffic was sparse and our driver careful. It was an interesting tour group – a father and his grown daughter from Israel, and an Australian émigré from Sheffield who left his homeland the same year I did. The disappointing vistas were offset by the conversation in the jeep – Gerard quizzed the Israelis and provoked a heightened political discussion between the conservative father and his more radical daughter.


Along the way, massive waterfalls cascaded out of the mountain side; the sacred KhechopalriLake sat among a dark forest of what looked to be tall cypress and eucalyptus trees; a peaceful tree-lined park, the Norbugang Chorten, contained the Coronation throne of the first chogyal (monarch )of Sikkim. Our jeep clambered up a steep stony path to the large temple complex of the Tashiding gompa. Behind the main temple sat an impressive array of stupas and chortens storing the relics of Sikkimese ghoyals and lamas.


Then on the third night, the mist turned black, a thunderstorm rolled in across the mountains and it poured for hours. Around midnight I looked out and for the first time could see a sky full of stars – the storm had cleared the air. I lay awake…waiting…and at 5 am across the valley the snow-capped mountain range appeared in startling clarity. All this was right outside our window and we’d never seen it before! For the next hour we watched the sun slowly hit the mountain tops, and inch its way down. Everything seemed brighter that morning.


After breakfast we piled into our shared jeep and started out for Gangtok. During the journey, the young Indian couple from Bombay behind us, asked “And where are you from in the US?” Gerard replied, “Boston.” “Boston? We lived in Boston for three years!” A small world! They were curious as to where we’d been in India and then admitted that they hadn’t traveled much in India yet, and asked us for recommendations on where to go!

Unfortunately the one morning of clarity in Pelling was yet another tease. The veil dropped down again, and the hope of it lifting diminishes as the weather deteriorates. We abandon plans to travel north further and are faced with a week to fill before our train leaves for Delhi. Gerard is disappointed but his equilibrium is not disturbed. He purchases a book to read and settles down in the hotel – a little more meditation, a little TV (while there’s power). How many times can you watch the “Bourne Supremacy or Ocean 11?”

But reining in my restless nature is more problematic. No matter how compatible you are with your partner, there will be times when you’re not in synch. Obviously spending months traveling together often with little diversion than each other, can test any couple’s compatibility. And there are times when our communication breaks down, especially when I’ve drunk too much chai! While I’m expostulating on everything around us, Gerard is five steps behind, wondering what the hell I’m talking about!

Or there are situations like this – when we have few options it takes me longer to wind down and go with the flow. I definitely have a more restless nature than Gerard. Even back home he’s content to spend hours and days down in his basement studio painting, while I get on my bike or go to yoga. So it’s harder for me to settle in and just read a book while the rain and hail is pounding at the window.


But if we have to while away our time somewhere, Gangtok is not a bad place do that.It’s surprisingly relaxed perhaps because of all the hills which force traffic and pedestrians to move slowly… But Sikkimis very different from India. Other tourists complain Indians can be intense in terms of shopping and bargaining and comment how they enjoy the absence of that facet with the Sikkimese people. In our experience we’ve never really been bothered by the hassle and bustle of India, but other than just being Buddhist the people do seem mellow. I feel comfortable wandering around by myself in a way that I don’t in other parts of India (except perhaps Goa). Gangtok is also a clean city. Sikkim is environmentally aware and while they haven’t eliminated garbage yet by any stretch of the imagination, there are dustbins everywhere and bill boards with encouraging slogans like: “Good people don’t litter!”


Gangtok may be wrapped in mist, but we have a cozy guesthouse, the Pomra, up the hill above the town. Instead of mountain views there are a variety of birds in the trees immediately outside our window – gold-beaked, white and black-winged; a fat red robin look-alike with an equally pretty song. Tasty Tibetan food is cooked to order and an engaging little man with a mouthful of rotten teeth and a huge grin serves us as if he were our personal butler – he can’t speak English but uses a lot of imaginative gesturing to compensate for lack of words!

The few sights Gangtok has to offer: a flower shower with a profusion of orchids of many varieties, a Buddhist monastery up on the hill, damaged like many others by the 2011 earthquake but being repaired. The Café Fiction is an espresso bar with a large comfortable bookstore above – the books are a little scarce, but the intellectual atmosphere compensates. It is a drawing point for local writers and poets. The well-informed owner offered me suggestions and then insisted “You must read at least one novel by the Bengali author, Amitav Ghosh”, and he hands me the epic Glass Palace that covers three generations across Burma and India.


With black clouds threatening, we make the daily steep descent to the Mall for lunch, and then ruin our digestions clambering back up dodging the giant rain drops. With all the rain we have a new problem – the hotel’s water line broke far up the hill, and we have no running water for 24 hours. And then the next morning the mist finally clears – Kanchenjunga is almost visible if not for a band of puffy white clouds. But the excitement of the clearing landscape is overshadowed by the news of the Boston bombing. 10,000 miles away, we feel the pain and insult as if we were on Boylston Street.

Wonderful Tea…and Disappointing Vistas


I had a preconception of Darjeeling – a leafy green colonial hill station, pollution free vistas of tea plantation valleys below and snow capped mountains above, aromatic Darjeeling tea served in delicate china tea sets. But we knew better, having seen contemporary pictures of the town, but still the nostalgic image of 100 years ago held fast in my brain. The harsher reality set in as our shared taxi climbed higher up the mountainside, the haze engulfing the valleys. When we finally got dropped off at one of the many taxi stands in town, the sky threatening rain, we had no idea where to find the fairy tale guest house I desired. Then the rain began in earnest and Gerard grumbled, “You know how I feel about walking in the rain.” So we checked into the nearest hotel that was remotely acceptable, never mind the fact it overlooked the noisy taxi stand and the room had that gloomy brown paint look of a British railway station. It didn’t help when during the night, a mouse nibbled away at my last chocolate protein bar that I was saving for a rainy day. Darjeeling had not put on its best face for our arrival!


But as many times before, a gradual process of letting go has to happen before I can move beyond an initial negative reaction and start to enjoy my surroundings for what they are. The next morning we set off in search of another hotel. As we climbed further up the hill and away from the bazaar bustling with Indian tourists, the sun broke through the clouds revealing the valley below in patches of emerald green, and my mood lightened. We stopped for breakfast at a restaurant and struck up a conversation with a very friendly Australian couple who’ve taken a year off from their careers to travel. When we asked where they were staying, they said, “the Aliment,” and I’m exclaimed, “That was my original choice!” They let us use their phone to call to check for vacancy, and we were in luck!  So we hustled back to our mousetrap, picked up our bags and started the long winding ascent up to the Aliment.


The quaint apple green and blue painted guesthouse is managed by a 70 year old man who claims he has retired from 30 years in the British army. But the British disbanded their army in India over 60 years ago?? He runs the Aliment with the discipline of an army barracks – no clothes washing in the rooms, front door closed at 10 pm. A jolly little man, he sits in his restaurant, recording orders in a large ledger and freely dispensing advice across the counter. One long wall of the dining room is filled with a multi-language library of books, a frieze above the shelves declaring in bold print: “Sorry! Books Not for Sale or Trade”. Instead you can borrow one for a 500Rs deposit which is carefully recorded in the ledger. There are too many books to have been purely discarded by travelers – who knows where he’s found them all – hardback, paperback, in varying conditions and age. While waiting for dinner each night I read from Geoffrey Moorhouse’s Calcutta: the City Revealed, an illuminating account of the history of the city.

The guesthouse would have a spectacular view of Kachenuga the third highest mountain in the world if the air ever cleared. If a view is likely from the rooftop the proprietor knocks on your bedroom door at sunrise to let you know. But at this time of year, that doesn’t happen often. In our six-day stay, he only knocked on our door once and even then to see only the faintest outline of the highest peak through the clouds. We need to return in October after the monsoon rains have washed the air clear.


The hotel restaurant is convenient for dinner, the food is ok but the biggest appeal is the young waiter who has the prettiest face and gayest manner – and if he really is male, he’s still waiting for his voice to change! Gerard and I continue to speculate. Looking for something better for breakfast and lunch, we chance upon the perfect family eatery, the Mystic Mountain close by – no frills home-cooked food (why do they bother with a menu when the same few items are all that’s available – unless you request an hour ahead of time) and darjeeling tea served in a delicate china tea set with a Queen Anne teapot (just as I’d fantasized!).

DSC_0702The Mistyc Mountain is in the midst of a renovation and most of the time we’re the only paying customers – those eating with us are either working on the renovation or family members. I almost feel as if we’re interrupting by requesting a meal. But they’re happy to serve us and on each return visit give us a little something extra – fresh coriander salsa with our papads, cashews and raisins in our porridge… A common practice in family-run restaurants in Morocco once you became a regular customer – but we’ve not experienced this in India before. Over time we get to know the family better – the owner’s son died from a heart attack three years ago during the earthquake that was epicentered in nearby Sikim.  He was only 30 years old. “Slowly, slowly, she says, “We’re putting our life back together again.”

DSC_0662At this time of year, the sun shines most mornings, but by afternoon clouds roll in, the wind picks up and rattles the wooden window frames of our room, and then rain drops spatter the glass. Neither the weather nor our fragile bronchial condition are conducive to trekking too far. But one morning, while the sun’s still shining, we walk to the nearest town, Ghoum. The lanes with their hedgerows and spring flowers would seem like England if we weren’t 2200 meters above sea level. Along the way, we stopped at the Alubari (potato field) monastery. Another morning we make the long descent to the bottom of town and roam around the Botanical Gardens. Amidst tall pines, willows and maples, walkways zizag down to a slightly dilapidated Victorian greenhouse but it’s awash with the color of spring flowers and most prominently, two thick ropes of wisteria in full bloom. On afternoons when it’s not raining, we stroll on the Mall with its Victorian wooden cottages housing tea rooms, a well-stocked Oxford Bookstore and a family-run photographer’s shop that displays 60 year old pictures of colonialists in riding jodhpurs looking in the very same shop window.


They say familiarity breeds contempt, but in this case it’s the opposite; the more we get to know the town the more we like it – the footpaths climbing up the mountain, past little houses fillws with window boxes of spring flowers, a boys boarding sch


ool, a cricket field; the whistle of the toy steam train as it echoes through the whole hill station – nostalgic of an old black and white British movie; the friendly Nepalese immigrants their striking features a mix of Indian and Chinese, the young women with their almond-shaped eyes accentuated with kohl and flowing black hair, the round faced, pink cheeked children in their oversized school uniforms. Darjeeling is famous for tea and its vistas – we’ve had plenty of tea but almost no vistas. Inspite of this we’ve grown very fond of the town and talk about coming back after the monsoon when the mountains are clear.

As a political footnote: The Ghorkas, the indigenous people, have been agitating for an independent state from west Bengal for many years, and waged a particularly violent and unsuccessful campaign during the 1980s. (Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai). Even in more recent times, they would throw up blockades stopping traffic from entering and leaving Darjeeling. On our last day, a rally was staged down in the bazaar which resulted in almost all the shops and restaurants in the town closing. The most reasonable explanation we could get was that the shopkeepers were nervous of an outbreak of violence. But in this case, it didn’t happen.