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.
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.