Sikkim: Thing of Beauty, Joy Forever

My Sikkim trip was everything I had wanted to do on a holiday but never really had the courage to admit; it felt so unachievable. When multiple such unacknowledged wishes came true within a fortnight, life acquired a radiance which defies precise description. I did not want to write about Sikkim because it was so perfectly beautiful. But then, I remembered Oliver Sacks: “The most we can do is to write-intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively- about what it is like living in the world at this time.” So here we go…

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Long ago, on a road trip to Ladakh, the Army transit camps that dotted the landscape made me wonder what it would be like inside. Four years later I was inside one. A few months ago, after days of liberating-the-soul wanderings in Andaman, I was wondering what it would be like to go on a trip with absolutely no plans, no bookings, no itinerary, no acquaintances, just go where the road takes you, surrounded by Nature and locals. Three months later I did just that. Some weeks ago a friend shared a video of fireflies lighting up a field at night, barely a week later I was in a village in Sikkim aglow with fireflies. I wanted to meet a dear friend before embarking on the next chapter of my life and we managed to meet, albeit for two days. In short, when I look back on the fortnight I spent in Sikkim, it feels like I lived multiple dreams one after another. The place pristine (except for our usual culprits of Coca Cola and Pepsi Co packaging littering the most fragile of ecosystems), the locals really friendly and warm fellow wanderers.

The facts are this: In January there was a notice in the University asking for people interested in a visit to Indian Army’s forward area posts in Sikkim. Excellent pretext to get permission from home for an extended holiday to Sikkim. I had to shift out of Delhi May end, be in Bombay June beginning, followed by being present in Gangtok. Some careful planning on the Delhi-Bombay-Bagdogra-Gangtok logistics and deft convincing at home later, I told myself with generous helpings of apprehension: Girl if you pull this off, you are indeed back! (Context: health issues)

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Phase 1: The University Visit -Nathu La, Bunker Battalion, Gurudongmar

I arrived at Gangtok a day before the rest of the team. Burrowed inside Tagalong Backpackers, I played ostrich with the idea of exploring Gangtok. Next day I did confront life, read lets see MG Marg, till the team reached Gangtok and I moved to the Gangtok Army camp of 17 Mountain Division. The high point of my stay there: sitting on a bench by the helipad, with clouds rolling over the mountain ridge in front, while I worked on my post: The Journey of a Decade.

Now starts the Dream(s): A nice long drive to Nathu La on the India-China border in Eastern Sikkim. The drive past the pristine lakes and waterfalls dotting the route had me comfortably set in an inertia of motion wherein I just did not want the journey to end, but well! A direct implication of our rainy day outing amidst the clouds was the deserted Tsomgo lake with its decked up yaks sitting unemployed.When we did reach Nathu La, quite a few folks got all excited about their mobile network information written in the Chinese script. The excitement had its #conditionsApply, they were subsequently billed for international roaming!

Day 4: Off we go to North Sikkim. First stop- transit camp at Lachen (altitude of 9000 ft). Purpose- high altitude acclimatization. After the first round of medical check-up, we were basically chilling; personally, I was awed with the flora. Such amazing flowers! Then came the big day: our visit to Bunker Battalion (altitude: 16400 ft), the highest battalion headquarter in the world, overlooking the Tibetan Plateau. Though our itinerary did not include Gurudongmar Lake, among us we were adamant on visiting the Lake, and visit we did.

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The surreal shades of blue all around me was a scene I had never witnessed in all my traveling so far. The reason we happened to be the only ones around was owing to our presence at the lake around 2:30 p.m., well beyond tourist’s allotted time. A breathtakingly beautiful lake all to yourself in a country of 1.3 billion people, stuff my Dreams are made of. And those packed away wishes, like seeing pitcher plants by the roadside; absolute joy! All those years of Biology questions and diagrams, there it was, the insectivorous pitcher plant.

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Phase 2: Friends 1.0 and Where Next?

I was back to Tagalong, chilling with its amazing staff, sharing experiences. My friends were supposed to join me, while I was trying to work on a feasible itinerary for us. From a trek to Sandakphu to heading to Bhutan, everything was on the cards. My friends arrived, we decided they must definitely do North Sikkim, because FOMO is a thing, I was being coaxed for Yumthang but I put my foot down, and Tagalong’s uber cool owner, Manisha, suggested that I head to this particular homestay in Yanyang on the way to Ravangla in West Sikkim. What I was looking for was to be alive…

Ah to be alive
on a mid-September morn
fording a stream
barefoot, pants rolled up,
holding boots, pack on,
sunshine, ice in the shallows,
northern rockies.

Rustle and shimmer of icy creek waters
stones turn underfoot, small and hard as toes
cold nose dripping
singing inside
creek music, heart music,
smell of sun on gravel.

I pledge allegiance

I pledge allegiance to the soil
of Turtle Island,
and to the beings who thereon dwell
one ecosystem
in diversity
under the sun
With joyful interpenetration for all.

~ Gary Snyder

We had a plan, at least for the next 3 days: a day at Gangtok- hike to Enchey Monastery, figure out subsequent logistics for next two days at Yangyang (for myself) and find a place to stay in Gangtok because we had not done bookings hereon. The lodging was resolved in favor of Backpacker’s Den, quite a gem. In its garden I was admiring some plants; when I bent to touch the leaf, out came a snake! No more garden, only terrace was the motto subsequently, but quite a view the terrace had. Next morning 7:30 a.m. was my shared taxi to Yangyang, so off I was on my solo wandering through Sikkim.

Phase 3: Solo Tripping through Yangyang & Khechuperi

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Manisha (Tagalong owner) put me in touch with Bhawana, the owner of Dhuni Homestay. Fellow travelers in the taxi kept asking me if I was sure I wanted to go to Yangyang, this not being the direction in which tourists are usually headed: perfect. Bhawana coordinated with my shared taxi driver to have me dropped at her homestay’s entrance, conveniently located on the main road to Yangyang. Within ten minutes I was proud of my decision to head here. A short walk down the maize crops brought me to the opening where Bhawana stayed with her husband, Manjit, their dog Bhairav and Bhawana’s cousin. To meet someone who believes in a zero waste lifestyle like myself and is into gardening and plants the way my family is felt like finding a soul sister. The local Sikkimese food, especially the chilly: Dalle, was bang on. I fell in love with the food: rice, vegetables and Dalle, simple and gluten free!

What I did in Yangyang over the next two days was how I had always imagined my dream vacation to shape up. Bhawana and I walked to their neighbor’s home, bartering fruits for milk, chit chatting and having Tongba, a local Sikkimese beverage. After roaming around for sometime, we headed back for dinner and then came the spectacle I hadn’t even imagined I would one day witness: the fireflies- wherever you look, the twinkling fireflies, that ineffable sight! When I hiked up from their house to the road and sat down to see this sight, it felt I could let go of everything, close my eyes and just exhale!

Day 2 at Dhuni began with a drive followed by a hike to a waterfall where we went swimming in ice-cold water amidst lush foliage as far as the eye could see: high on life, I definitely know what it feels like. A slow life, that allows you the leisure to look around, to perceive, to reflect, liberating you from the need to feel busy all the time: a day spent walking and driving around the place, to the lake adjacent to the helipad, down to the market, buying vegetables and fruits on the way, collecting plants for their garden. We spent the evening working on their garden collectively: I planted a rhododendron (among other things); the honor of the act.

Next day I was supposed to meet my friends in Pelling. I can narrate a long story or just say that they ditched! Bhawana and Manjit, having inferred my preference for places, advised me against Pelling, asking me to nest near Khecheopalri Lake instead. To the rescue was Manisha (Tagalong fame) again. She put me in touch with a homestay owner, 24 year old Latuk Da, whose homestay she highly recommended. Seeing no reason to doubt her advice, with the route map for shared taxis in my pocket, I was off for Khechuperi (that’s the spelling on the taxis). Invoking Kafka, I felt nauseating freedom, but you could also call me plain lost.

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After changing taxis thrice while being in touch with Latuk, we met at Geysing taxi stand, from where we took the shared taxi to Khechuperi together. The drive got picturesque post Pelling (the view of the mountains from Pelling is what is printed behind the old ₹100 note; incidentally, on my last trip I was shown the light house in Andaman which features on the old ₹20 note). Once we disembarked at Khechuperi, Latuk informed that his place was a five minute hike through the forest. When we emerged at the clearing, the joy that had been following me through Sikkim shone bright in my wide smile at my cabin-in-the-woods homestay. The rooms opened to breathtaking views. To quote a superbly talented friend:

Home will be somewhere here. Somewhere where there will be peace in the overwhelming sounds of the water. Somewhere where the sun will fall on the earth through the leaves on mud paths. Somewhere where the mountains will stand still and still not be stagnant. Somewhere where my friend will be and all our lives will make sense in the chaos and we will be happy within our homes. And without. Home will be in your heart and mine.

Sums up my feelings.

A very short hike down from Latuk’s place was the sacred, wish-fulfilling, Khecheopalri lake. Latuk was my guide, taking me beyond the lake to his favourite spot: a fallen tree in the marshes. Sitting on the trunk, with the lake on the left ensconced amidst Khechoedpaldri hills, Latuk and I were having a conversation, about this, that and the movie Pahuna being shot in the forests around. Sitting on that fallen trunk, it felt that ‘this was a world wrought for its own sake, without message or point, a landscape that would make no testimony for one great leader over another.’ I returned for dinner, where I met fellow traveler occupying the adjacent room: Leonard. The sun might have set and the person might have changed, but interesting conversation continued late into the night.

Next morning Leonard went his way and I decided to trek to a cave on one of the hills overlooking the lake. Latuk explained the route to me and sent two dogs as guides! I was supposed to trek for about forty-five minutes uphill, reach a village with a monastery, walk along the ridge to another village and then trek for another hour or so to reach the cave. That was the plan. What actually happened: I emerged from the forest onto the first village, met two Israeli guys in Sonam’s homestay, decided to chill with them. Jamming sessions, mint teas, a nice view, in short a lot of fun and no regrets! When I met Latuk in the evening, he asked me about the cave and I said I never made it! I was to leave the next day, but I still didn’t know my final destination: Darjeeling or Kalimpong. Finally my friend and I settled for Kalimpong, I did the bookings, asked Latuk to get me a seat on the shared taxi to Jorethang, and off to bed I was! A night of thunderstorms. Walking to the market amidst drizzle, while waiting for the taxi, I explored the monastery around, an all women monastery.

Phase 4: Friend 2.0 @ Kalimpong

Charged with the duty of doing our stay, I came across this gem: Arcadia Bungalow in Kalimpong. The home is beautiful, as are the owners. Sanjay’s precise directions for reaching the house reminded me of a line I’d read in Insomniac City-

I thought about how few people nowadays really value getting good directions from someone, how they’d sooner believe their phone, and how few of us have really nice handwriting anymore, how this is no longer valued, because we communicate mostly by e-mail and text, and rarely write letters or postcards or in handwriting on fogged-over windows.

With deep knowledge of Kalimpong, their advice on what we should do with our time was really helpful. On the first evening we walked to the Cactus nursery, a short distance from Arcadia, guided by our host. We continued walking, past the golf course (apparently the highest in the world) to finally reach Kalimpong Cafe, which Sanjay had recommended and I really liked.

The next morning my friend left for Bagdogra while I still had some hours. Sanjay told me about Nicholas Roerich, the painter, having lived in Kalimpong. When I started reading about him I realised that coincidentally I had gifted my friend prints of Bireswar Sen that very morning, Sen having been inspired by Roerich’s paintings. I told Sanjay as much and we made an impromptu plan to walk upto Roerich’s house, now a museum. Sanjay worked out the logistics but warned that the caretaker is an eccentric woman and might not open the gate, an eventuality that came to pass. This slight glitch notwithstanding, I had a thoroughly enjoyable walk around town. Sanjay pointed out the houses to me: this one here where Kiran Desai stayed, that one where two Afghan princesses lived, one where Rabindranath Tagore lived, we spoke of the Gorkhaland related violence of the late 80s, and a lot of this and that, while walking back to Arcadia. A nice walk through meandering hilly roads, a nice companion to have insightful conversations with. Dream! In our room was kept a book from which my friend unearthed this:

I don’t think I ever belonged to anywhere or anyone. I like to think that I am made of tiny balls of fear, a burst of rain and light, of waves and flowers, of unfathomable doubts and courage, of warm lips I knew and a thousand unidentified stars…that I was never meant to be understood.

~Menty Jamir

Add to the list of ingredients which make me the warmth of strangers.

Phase 5: Homeward Bound

My next stop was Siliguri and I hadn’t figured out a place to stay. The issue being a lack of hostels and my phobia of hotels, I cannot stay alone in one. My friend who hosted me in Andaman came to my rescue, without her knowing she did. Her father-in-law introduced me to one of his friends, who happened to be posted in Siliguri. I got in touch with Colonel Uncle, and in going with the spirit of my vacation of meeting really nice and warm strangers who make you believe in the innate goodness of humanity, two more were added to the list: Uncle and his lovely wife. They took care of my stay at Siliguri, and what a stay; warmth of strangers!

On my homeward bound train, I stayed up to look out of the window at the houses dotting the landscape, a childhood pastime. Especially after sunset, when one can have a glimpse of the innards of those houses, I have found myself wondering about the lives lived inside them, a feeling echoed in a certain paragraph from A Tale of Two Cities (by Charles Dickens):

A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other. A solemn consideration, when I enter a great city by night, that every one of those darkly clustered houses encloses its own secret; that every beating heart in the hundreds of thousands of breasts there, is, in some of its imaginings, a secret to the heart nearest it!

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