Published: April 30th 2012April 16th 2012
While the jeep ride up to Darjeeling had been a real beauty, it was very much a nothing special Norma in comparison to the rather exceptional drive to Gangtok from Karmi Farm. The journey began with a descent to the valley floor on a steep zig-zagging road (all roads here are steep and zig zaggy), passing through forests we noticed the temperature rise and flora become distinctly more tropical as we descended. Upon reaching the valley floor we came to a bridge which crossed over an impossibly scenic river, this marked the border between West Bengal State and Sikkim state. We were advised to get out of our jeeps and walk across the bridge as Andrew at Karmi Farm had advised us that there were concerns locally about the strength and stability of the bridge, especially after the bridge disaster in 2011 (see Karmi Farm blog). As such we got out of our vehicles and begun to walk across the bridge while our jeeps waited for us to get across. However, our safety measures rather backfired when halfway across the large bridge and with no time to escape we noticed that 4 fully laden jeeps had decided to join us for
the bridge crossing, as they approached the bridge creaked and wobbled under it’s now heavily overburdened weight, this was it, time to die, it’s been a pleasure world, ohh and please tell my parents I love them..... As you may have guessed (if you haven’t do yourself and the world a favour by taking a long walk off a cliff) I didn’t actually die that day. Considering that we thought with just one full jeep the bridge would collapse, we did pretty well to survive the crossing with well over 4 times that weight. Divine intervention perhaps or just a case of us being over cautious, I’ll let you decide.
As previously mentioned the bridge marks the border between the states of West Bengal and Sikkim, crossing a state border is usually a non event, however the situation when entering or leaving Sikkim is rather different and required that you go through passport control! “For centuries Sikkim was an isolated, independent Buddhist Kingdom, until war with China in the early 1960’s led the Indian government to realise the area’s strategic importance as a crucial corridor between Tibet and Bangladesh” (Rough Guide, 2011), as a result India annexed the nation
in 1975. Due to its proximity to China and the tense situation between India and China, security is tight in Sikkim hence the need for special permits to enter the state and also the large military presence. After crossing the bridge we stopped for lunch while we waited for our passports to be stamped by immigration, I like to imagine that one day Cornwall will also have gun totting soldiers protecting it’s all too sadly porous borders from those dirty, outside emit bastards! Then again maybe not......
Once into Sikkim the drive became particularly beautiful as the road started to follow the valley of the river Teesta, with it’s steep jungle clad hill sides, gargantuan, sheer rock faces and turbulent rapids, the drive through the Teesta valley was most certainly one of the best, if not the, drives we had done in India. Progress on the drive was slow as the road had to follow the natural contours of the valley which meant straight lines were out of the question as was the possibility of any flat ground, still I personally wasn’t bothered as the scenery was so fantastic and our driver unusually didn’t seem like he wanted to
kill us all in a head on collision. The only slightly frustrating thing about the journey was that the road passed through another border between Sikkim/West Bengal which meant we had to go through immigration procedures twice again, it seemed all a little unnecessary and illogical given we were travelling on the same road, but then again logic is often something governments find very hard to come by. While Gangtok is a hill town or city I should say like Darjeeling it is an altogether different place. Gangtok is the state capital and more of a centre for business than tourism, it also has a very modern feel and lacks the colonial architecture that you find in Darjeeling, most likely because the British didn’t manage to colonise Sikkim! Gangtok is a surprisingly well developed place, most of the buildings in the city are very modern and in good shape, the shops, cafe’s and bars of the main shopping precinct look like they could have been lifted straight out of a modern European city and the large, clean shopping precinct they sit on is completely pedestrianised, something that is almost unheard of in India. I was surprised to see how developed
Gangtok was as I had expected that it to be a poor, ramshackle city given it’s remoteness, I later learnt however that in an effort to win over the Sikkimese people the Indian government has invested heavily in the state, particularly in Gangtok, hence why it is comparatively so wealthy and developed.
The following day we took jeeps from our hotel to the famous Rumtek Monastery, recognised in the Buddhist world as one of the top centre’s for Buddhist learning. The monastery is about 4 ½ cm’s away from Gangtok as the crow flies, unfortunately we were not travelling by crow (or fortunately given the potential weight issues) and the drive took about an hour on a road which climbed all the way to the bottom of the valley crossed a tiny river and then went all the way back up again, still it was a beautiful drive. In the mountains it becomes almost impossible to measure a duration of a trip by distance as with the winding roads and continuous ascent and descent it becomes almost irrelevant. Poor Orna had made the unfortunate error that morning of taking Doxycycline anti malarial tablets on an empty stomach, this alone
would have been enough to bring her to a state of extreme nausea (believe me I know), but alas her nausea was actually compounded further by the drive on bumpy, zigzag roads and the frightening amount of G-force Indian drivers manage to pull when turning corners. Fortunately after some crisps and liquid she started to feel better and narrowly avoided chundering everywhere. Orna did claim afterwards that her Canadian Doxycycline did not make her sick if taken on an empty stomach (I had lent her one of my British made Doxycycline tablets that morning), however this theory simply can’t be right as it just isn’t possible that a British company could make a bad product, good lord the Queen would never allow it!
Rumtek was the first monastery we had visited and it made a nice change to the armada of Hindu temples we had visited thus far. Instead of noise, chaos and bad smells there was calm, quiet and er, still a few bad smells, we are still in India after all. I must say I personally prefer Buddhist monasteries to Hindu temples, I find the peace and quiet you find in them to be deeply relaxing and
while spirituality is not exactly my thing I do find them be somewhat spiritual places which exude good energy, feel the vibes man! A very nice Californian man I would later meet asked me if I had ‘felt the vibes’ when travelling through India, I had to stop myself laughing out loud when I heard the question and realised he was actually being serious. Many of you (many might be an over statement of how many actually read this blog) who live internationally or who are indeed American are perhaps wondering why this is funny, well the reason is that this is not a question you could ask in the UK without being laughed at. We are simply too uptight to feel the vibes, let alone talk about feeling the vibes! After my initial desire to laugh I quickly remembered that this man was from California, tanned and much cooler than me and ergo such a question was not abnormal. I mention this rather long winded side story as apart from maybe Madurai or the temple in the jungle in Orissa I didn’t really feel any vibes in Hindu temples across India, indeed I found them to be quite stressful.
However at Rumtek I did feel the vibes, or as much as an English man can feel the vibes anyway. The monastery is not particularly beautiful, although not ugly either, but the ambience there, for me anyway, was intoxicating. My two favourite sections of the temple were the main prayer hall and a smaller prayer room with a Golden Buddha, in both rooms we were lucky enough to see monks chanting their daily prayers. The undecipherable but strangely hypnotic and calming hum of the prayer recitals are deisgned to help the monks and anyone listening get into a state of relaxed reflection/meditation. While I had no clue what they were reciting, I sat there for a long time enjoying the calm ambience. The chanting was occasionally disrupted by the sound of crashing cymbals and the dissonant sound of 3 metre long Tibetan horns which looked like a relic from the court of Genghis Khan. I actually found the horns sounded so strange that they made me feel a little uncomfortable, much as eerie music can in a horror film, I’m not sure why these are used as to me the sound produced was far from relaxing, perhaps though they sound
different to ears not used to Western harmonies?
That evening over drinks and meals of comically small proportions we bid a sad farewell to Martin. Due to VISA issues with another Dragoman driver Martin had been called away at the last minute to work on another truck. It was a real shame that he could not finish the tour with us after travelling so long with us and getting so close to the end. If you are reading this Martin, hope your well buddy and enjoying Africa and a new challenge.
The following day we rose early, jumped into jeeps and began the steep and long journey to Lake Tsongo. Based at 4,700 it was several climatic zones above Gangtok and as such we prepared ourselves by donning full arctic gear, or at least some sort of version of that anyway. The drive to Tsongo was as much of the experience as the lake itself, while the drive to Darjeeling had been on steep narrow roads and was at times a little hair raising, the road to Lake Tsongo was in a different league all together. The route to Tsongo was for the large part on a narrow,
steep and bumpy gravel trail which could only be traversed by jeeps and at times some of these struggled. The road suffers from regular landslides, indeed you do not normally have to go more than a couple of hundred metres before you find a land slide area being repaired by hardy but cold looking road construction workers. Many of the edges of the narrow roads were crumbling away and at times it was best to close your eyes and pretend you were in a safe happy place as opposed to millimetres away from a several thousand metre plummet to certain death. The workers who maintain and build these roads must have one the most difficult, dangerous and least desirable jobs in the world, especially at higher altitudes where the temperature drops to below freezing. I imagine these workers are injured or killed by stray falling rocks or landslides on a regular basis. I noticed that the workers were usually wearing far too few layers for the cold conditions they worked in, many times we passed shivering workers huddled around a tiny little fire, it looked like a truly miserable situation. I hope they get paid well, although suspect they do
not, life is unfortunately cheap in India.
While the drive was uncomfortable and at times alarming, it was also memorable, the transition through different climatic zones was particularly interesting especially at the higher altitudes which were new territory for us in India. The drive started with lush green cloud forest and then continued into alpine forest, green scrub land before entering the final high altitude zone where no vegetation can live and you are left with striking grey rock faces and snow. The lake was fully frozen when we arrived and covered in snow, seeing snow and snow capped mountains was an unusual and beautiful sight after several months on the steamy hot plains of India. Many of the Indians visiting the lake were experiencing snow (and probably cold!) for the first time and appeared to be having the time of their lives building snow men, throwing snow balls and generally frolicking in the snow, it was great to watch.
At the lake most of us decided to take the obligatory Yak Ride for the obligatory inflated price. It wasn’t the most scintillating experience, the Yak’s moved very slowly and would not be persuaded to do otherwise. The
journey was pretty short journey considering the cost, maybe around 10 mins, although on reflection I’m not sure I would have wanted to spend much more time on a yak anyway. While it wasn’t the most exciting experience, I did get some enjoyment from it and I’m glad I did it as I can now tell people I’ve ridden a Yak is pretty cool.
We were supposed to be at the lake for a few hours but had to leave after just 30-45 mins as a snow storm started to come in and our drivers were keen to get down the mountain before we got stuck in the storm. We were disappointed to leave after such a short time but also more than happy to descend to warmer climates to avoid the possibility of freezing to death and/or having one of our jeeps slide in the snow and plummet thousands of metres into a mess a crumpled metal and mangled human flesh.
Something I didn’t mention previously is the sheer number of army bases you find on the way to and from the Lake. Being so close to Tibet the area is highly sensitive and army camps are
built on pretty much every hair pin turn of the road, each one gradually looking bleaker as the altitude increases. I imagine that if people have been misbehaved in the army that they get sent to one of these high bases as I really can’t imagine anyone volunteering themselves to be posted in such a miserable and cold location, especially as most of the army buildings were made of nothing more than sheet metal and probably had no heating whatsoever.
The following day we took a jeep to Siliguri with possibly (definitely) India’s most impatient and most dangerous driver. The man was insane even by Indian standards, which is saying something. I asked him to slow down at one point and told him he was scarring me and the other passengers by driving too fast, of course he took NO notice of this whatsoever and continued to overtake on blind corners and use the lane with oncoming traffic 99% of the time. I hadn’t actually noticed how bad his driving was for the first hour of the journey as I had been busy writing away on my laptop, it was only when the Mexicanas pointed out his lunacy that
I began to pay attention to his driving and was as such from that point forward completely shit scared and holding on for dear life all the way to Siliguri, ignorance in this case had indeed been bliss. We did somehow get to Siliguri alive and also about 20-30 mins ahead of the rest of the group despite us not splitting up long before. Arriving into Siliguri it felt like we were arriving back in the India we had come to know, back was the intense heat, honking horns, cows in the road and rubbish everywhere.
As Siliguri the usual Dragoman accommodation in Siliguri was not available Jenny had to find an alternative, which proved to be surprisingly difficult. Eventually she did however manage to find a very, very cheap hotel, which in all honesty we were all a bit concerned about staying in, just why was it so cheap? Just how many rats would we see? The hotel given the cost was surprisingly nice and as such we were all pleasantly surprised. Siliguri the town was not so very nice, it wasn’t a really bad place it just had nothing going on, nothing of interest to see. I
guess it would be like an Indian visiting St Austell in Cornwall, nothing really for a tourist to see. In the evening our quiet hotel turned into an altogether different place. The hotel had two ‘singing bars’ which after around 19.00 suddenly started pumping out outrageously loud and crappy live music and our hotel car park suddenly became full of seedy looking men. Not really thinking too much about it I went to meet up with some of the group in the hotel restaurant which was also as I discovered one of their ‘singing bars’, on the stage were 3 or 4 scantily clad (by Indian standards), dolled up young Indian ladies. I say 3 or 4 as I think one of them was a lady boy although I’m not 100% sure. Surrounding the stage were several seedy looking Indian men and a few gangster types who looked like they had walked straight of a bad guy scene in a Bollywood film. It was at this point that we realised why the hotel was cheap, yes our hotel was not just a hotel but a centre for the local sex trade. I noticed a man who was either a high
ranking police or military official check into a hotel room and then leave a few hours later, I’m pretty sure he didn’t just come to use the shower. It was a strange turn of events and also an interesting insight into the seedy side of Indian culture, something I guess most tourists don’t get to see. It was also interesting sitting in the hotel restaurant/dance bar with the girls, who were of course the only girls in the room, other than those on stage. This was the domain of men and I could see many of the men were uncomfortable with the girl’s presence, amusingly though there was little they could about it.
I hear that some of the gents in our group were interested in learning more about the services the girls offered, but unfortunately for them they were told they were not available.
All of a sudden Siliguri had turned from a rather dull place into somewhere rather interesting and amusing, still I was looking forward to moving on tomorrow, especially as we would be arriving into a completely new country, Nepal.
There are more photos below