India’s Northeast: Scenes and Scenery, Sikkim/September Edition

I’m afraid this edition is going to be a little sparse.  It’s not that Sikkim – a pinky-nail-sized Indian state sandwiched right between Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north, and Bhutan to the east – isn’t full of all the beauty and glory and majesty that you’d expected from a Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom.  It’s just that all that goodness isn’t so easily accessible to foreigners.  Especially ones with “limited” financial resources.  Especially ones on bikes.  Especially during rainy season.

I’m not saying I wouldn’t recommend it to other cyclists; the roads are quite often decent (if your standards have been sufficiently lowered by the surrounding states), the general permit is free and easy to get, and it’s not much of a detour if you’re already planning on crossing the northeast.  I certainly don’t regret going, especially now that I’ve forgotten most of the unpleasantness faced – I daresay surmounted – along the way.  By “unpleasantness,” I’m referring to stuff like: much-anticipated 20km downhill rides through luscious tea gardens ruined by roads so rocky and dusty that I had no attention to spare for the scenery.  Would-be dazzling viewpoints totally obscured by fog.  4:30 wakeups just to catch a glimpse of the sun rising over the Himalayas…also rendered pointless by fog.  Descents so steep that my hands went numb from holding the brakes and my face went numb from the continuous grimacing.  The rain’s annoying habit of starting out as a trickle, leading you to think that you’ll be able to push on through it,  then gradually thickening until you’re already soaked anyway and now there’s no reason not to push on through it.  Waterfall road washouts that guarantee wet brakes and feet all day, every day, even on sunny days.  Climbs of 30 or 40km at a time with hardly so much as a gazebo to collect yourself in.    And, most demoralizing of all, even in one of those moments where everything is perfect, the sky is clear, the road is smooth, and you’ve earned yourself a magical panorama of the valley below, you know what’s taunting you on the other side?  The same town you thought you’d left two days before.  Fourteen man-cycle hours, eighty kilometers of gut-wrenching drops and laborious climbs, and you’re still about ten kilometers as the crow flies from where you started.

On the plus side, I did learn a thing or two about my limits.  Namely that cycling three hours uninterrupted uphill in the rain is doable, but afterwards doing anything besides eating and keeping myself wrapped up in comforters isn’t.

2014-09-20 to Gangtok 016 (res)

So, anyway, about that Sikkim!  Lonely Planet apparently called it the #1 travel destination in the world this year or last.  It was a separate kingdom until the early 1970s.  Now it’s got the longest-serving and most appreciated prime minister in the country, though by all accounts he’s still corrupt.  Maybe in a more acceptable way than his sub-continental counterparts.  Most citizens speak their own indigenous languages (Bhutia, Gurung, Suba, Lepche, and about a dozen more) at home, Nepali in public, English at school, and Hindi when they’re bored of the others.  The main religion is Buddhism, though locals also traditionally worship Mt. Kanchendzonga, the world’s 3rd highest peak, which forms part of Sikkim’s border with Nepal and which they believe is/houses their guardian spirit.  Sikkim’s also got a reputation for being the nation’s cleanest, greenest state, and is sometimes referred to as “the Switzerland of India” – a nickname repeated by some residents and scoffed at by others.

2014-09-20 to Gangtok 013 (res)

One great thing about Sikkim is that almost all the food – all of it that’s grown locally, anyway – is organic.  It’s the law of the land, even though it’s not on the books.  The owner of one restaurant I stopped at took me back to the kitchen, pointed at the fields twenty meters below, and said “that’s where your spinach came from.”  When I asked him why Sikkimese people didn’t like to use modern chemicals in their gardens, he answered “we just like things the way they are.”

2014-09-10 Pelling 014 (res)

With the exception of the capital, Gangtok, Sikkim is most definitely a world away from the crowds and chaos of the India we know.  Life there feels idyllic, a matter of of simply maintaining your homestead rather than scrambling to make a buck any way you can.

2014-09-10 Pelling 011

2014-09-10 Pelling 013 (res)

Just a few days before leaving Darjeeling, I got a text message from my friend Sanju, a Sikkimese microcredit officer and homestay manager whom I had met in Nongriat.  “Masked dance at Pemayantse on September 9th,” she informed me.  Not knowing what it was about or where it was, I decided to go.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 079 (res)

Pemayangtse monastery sits at 2100m or so, at the very tip-top of a merciless 1500m climb.  I arrived at about 2PM in , needless to say, in a less-than-presentable state, hoping there would be lots of incense everywhere so that the olfactory traces of my efforts wouldn’t bother the other spectators.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 050 (res)

Here’s the event – lamas and other locals dressed up as soldiers, re-enacting something about a “blood-oath of peace” signed between the Bhutias and Lepches under the watchful eyes of the deities of Kanchendzonga.  It’s always a thrill to see events like this, to know that you’re witnessing a tradition that date back centuries if not more, to know that it only happens a few times and places every year, and to know that in another decade or two it might not be happening at all.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 033 (res)

One of the mountain deities.  The dance mostly consisted of slow pirouettes in epicycles around  the central flagpole.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 067 (res)

2014-09-09 to Pelling 076

2014-09-09 to Pelling 013 (res)

I guess the monks in charge understand that the ceremony on its own isn’t that entertaining to us layfolk.  Jesters, on the other hand, can be appreciated by one and all.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 044

These guys had a ball running around doing their slapstick routine – slipping and sliding, chasing one another into the bleachers, playfighting, stealing stuff from the crowd and from the monks,

2014-09-09 to Pelling 016 (res)

and accosting tourists.

2014-09-09 to Pelling 019 (res)

As the ceremony wound down, the monks ascended into the monastery to perform a standard prayer service complete with big drums, trumpets as long as didgeridoos, throaty trance-like chants, and a fair bit more ruckus than the “Chaam” dance itself.

2014-09-08 to Legship 008 (res)

We interrupt all this Buddhism to bring you a bit of natural beauty.  Here are some tea gardens on the way out of Darjeeling.  Of the 20km referred to earlier, only this small segment was paved.

2014-09-08 to Legship 010 (res)

Moving from one major town to another in Sikkim generally requires losing 1500m of altitude, crossing a river, and then gaining it all back.  It gets a bit monotonous, but on the other hand not you get to take photos off of rickety bridges every day.

2014-09-16 to Yuksum 005 (res)

2014-09-27 to Kakarvitta 007 (res)

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 015 (res)

If there’s no bridge crossing the river, the river has no choice but to cross the road.

2014-09-26 to Reang 011 (res)

The waterfalls make for nice showers (if it were ten degrees warmer) and carwashes.

2014-09-16 to Yuksum 006 (res)

But also wear persistently away at the already less-than-spectacular roads.

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 024 (res)

2014-09-19 to Tarku 010 (res)

A river runs through it.  And by “it,” I mean “the ‘national highway.’”

2014-09-19 to Tarku 011 (res)

I dubbed this one the “Sikkimese Neapolitan:” a stripe of mud on the left, a stripe of stones of various sizes in the middle, and a stripe of submerged pebbles on the right.  “Where to ride?” is an irrelevant question, since if the gradient is steep enough it’s impossible to maintain control over the bike anyway.

2014-09-26 to Reang 018 (res)

There were mile-long traffic jams on either side of this bad boy.  I weaved in and out and got myself out of the whole mess in a matter of minutes, but I’ve got a feeling everyone else was stuck for a few hours at the least.  Cars are for suckers!

2014-09-04 Darjeeling 022 (res)

Ok, back to Buddhism for a few minutes.

I wanted to camp here oh so badly.

2014-09-04 Darjeeling 026 (res)

2014-09-18 Tashiding 003 (res)

The approach to Tashiding Monastery.

2014-09-18 Tashiding 014 (res)

2014-09-18 Tashiding 017 (res)

2014-09-18 Tashiding 026 (res)

2014-09-18 Tashiding 030 (res)

“The sounds of this bell represent the teachings of the Buddha rippling through the universe to awaken all beings…may this melody of enlightenment fill all the six realms with peace and joy…may the sacred Dharma be revitalized in this holy land and endure as long as the sun and moon illuminate this earth.”

(from the less-picturesque English inscription on the other side)

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 006 (res)

Of course, Buddhism isn’t the only religion around.  Here’s a jeep decked out for a Hindu festival – September 17th in their calendar used to be the day that honored iron workers and blacksmiths, but now it’s been extended to taxi (which are all jeeps out here) drivers, too.  If you’re a tourist without your own wheels, you’re not going anywhere.

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 007

Then again, there are worse things than being stuck for a day near a Hindu festival.  Free music, free picnic, free painted rice squished onto your forehead….

2014-09-10 Pelling 001 (res)

Typical day: 4:30 wakeup, thirty minute walk to the helipad/optimal sunrise viewpoint, one hour wait, note that the sky is bright thought the sun still hasn’t come out, give up on majesty, twenty minute walk down, back under the covers, wake up late, decide to stay another day and try again tomorrow.  Gotta love dorm rooms for $1.50.

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 001 (res)

2014-09-10 Pelling 018 (res)

2014-09-10 Pelling 020 (res)

2014-09-10 Pelling 023 (res)

2014-09-17 to Tashiding 018 (res)

This is not another picture of the sky.  It’s a picture of Pelling, left behind two days and what felt like a lifetime of cycling before but still only a dozen km away as the crow flies.

2014-09-04 Darjeeling 008 (res)

A few more bonus shots that don’t quite fit in even to my half-hearted attempt at coherent narrative.

2014-09-20 to Gangtok 001 (res)

Between the wet, the lack of space, and the affordability of decent dormitories, I didn’t camp too much in Sikkim.  This one’s from an impromptu homestay with a Bihari family.

2014-09-04 Darjeeling 016 (res)

No, I didn’t put that there.

2014-09-27 to Kakarvitta 015 (res)

I’m not sure if this is disrespectful or fitting, but here’s the last photo I took in India: the (absence of a) toilet at the immigration office just before the crossing into Nepal.  I had to snoop around (from a distance) for a few seconds before I understood what this was.  I used to think that toilets came in the form of a throne, a squatty, a urinal, or a trough.  Here’s a new one for the list: that this is just a porcelain plate to stand on while you do your “short toilet” (i.e. #1) towards the hole in the wall.  “Long toilet” not welcome here.

2014-09-16 to Yuksum 028 (res)

That’s it for this province.  See you in Nepal.

This entry was posted in India, The Road and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.