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Published: October 13th 2008
Flags at Pelling - the 5 Elements: Earth, Forest, Fire, Cloud and Sky
Last time we told you we were going to Sikkim. Well now we have returned after a great trip. We hope you enjoy this account of our travels. We have reverted to our previous format of daily extracts from our journal so it is a bit longer again. Our apologies for this. We would also like to thank the people who have sent messages to us. It is great to hear from you all. Hopefully, everybody on our original list of 60 people should be able to access the blog after some tweaking by us. So here goes:
Day 73 - Monday 7 September
We get up early to pack for our trip to Sikkim. Neelam arrives as we are having breakfast and then has something to eat himself. He and the driver have come from Darjeeling and we will shortly set off. At the start of the day the arrangements are all still a bit vague but he is clearly experienced and we need not worry. First we go to Rangpo to get a permit to enter the state and then have to circle round to enter by Melli gate. Neelam takes care of everything for us. When
Neelam chats with Mrs Rai at her cardamom farm
underway we are presented with a handwritten itinerary detailing the journey. We also discover the terms of the arrangement. He will pay for everything and we will pay him in cash at the end of the trip. No plastic here then. Let’s hope we can find enough cash machines along the way to collect enough cash before our return. The day’s journey takes 7.5 hours over some very rough roads and at one place we have to take a detour on a new piece of road where the old one has been washed away in the monsoon. We have lunch in a dodgy little Chinese place in Jorethang consisting of chicken chow mien; recooked chicken and rather poor noodles. The usual hotel is closed because all the staff have taken off for the Puja holiday! After lunch we are given a tour of the market area and then we board the vehicle again on route for Yuksom where we are staying overnight. We drive through some of the most breathtaking scenery, waterfalls aplenty, especially Phelsang Falls a spectacular cascade, but it is very tiring and we are thankful that we have a decent vehicle and a very good driver. We
Novice monks have an off-duty kickabout on the main road
arrive in Yuksom and are surprised at the quality of the road and the look of the village. This is billed as the first capital of Sikkim and frankly it retains a look of medieval times, but it is obviously the starting point for trekking in the National Park of Kanchenjunga and we see lots of people dressed in outdoor clothing as it is very cold. We didn’t expect this and feel that we have brought the wrong kind of clothing. However we will manage even if we have to wear the same clothes several days in a row. The Hotel Tashi Gang is the best in the area and thankfully we are not booked into the worst. It is big and a little sparse but above all it is very cold, not helped by the heavy rain which has just started and an odd habit of leaving all the doors and windows wide open. For dinner we have Chinese food which is very good and includes homemade chicken noodle soup. We must get Mendhup up here for a lesson in soup making. We enjoy Neelam’s company at dinner and he produces a detailed hand drawn map of our route
Eleanor kisses a chubby little chap
for the whole tour, but we do not enjoy the company of a large group of Russians which have followed us from Kalimpong. They are so noisy, rude and greedy. Philip recognises the woman in the pineapple incident on Sunday. We also decide to stay an extra night on the way back in order to visit Rumtek Monastery which is very famous. We will be staying in the middle of a rice paddy! Does this mean that we will get really wet? Overnight we experience the proverbial barking dogs. What’s the matter with them all?
Day 74 - Wednesday 8 October
After a night of heavy rain and barking dogs we waken to a new day and a decidedly below par breakfast of damp ceiling tiles and tea followed by a banana. Neelam takes us on a short walk to the coronation stone of the first king of Sikkim. The sight is a peaceful place just next to the village and we see young monks cleaning the stupa and children playing among the buildings and trees. In the next field some young guys are in the process of catching a very big pig in order to kill it
Philip, Sundar, Eleanor and Neelam at Martam
for a Puja feast. When we leave they are still in the process of trying to catch it. On the way back we stop at a shop and buy some slippers and mittens knotted by local women. As we are about to leave the pig comes past tied to a pole and already dead.
We then move on to Kechopalri Lake, a sacred Buddhist place believed to have been blessed by Guru Padma Sambhawo, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim. The Sikkimese people believe that whatever you wish for here will come to pass. We both made a wish; as it turns out it was the same wish. This is clearly a place of great tranquillity but unfortunately it suffers from the same difficulties encountered by all tourist attractions. That is that the very essence of what makes it an attraction is destroyed by the presence of large numbers of people attracted to it. Then we moved on to Pelling to stay overnight at the Norbu Ghang Resort, the best hotel in Pelling, according to Neelam. The weather has closed in which is a pity since we should be able to see the mighty Kanchenjunga from our window. We will hope that the weather will clear overnight. Pelling has the air of a Wild West town built up the mountainside; not very sophisticated even by Indian standards but the hotel is comfortable, we are received with great courtesy and Amit our waiter arranges a chicken curry for us instead of the fish on the lunchtime menu. The 100 rupee tip he was given for carrying the camera bag up to the cottage certainly appears to have paid dividends so far. Being Puja we are engulfed in Indians from the plains. They are feeling the cold and have mostly taken to wearing tea cosies on their heads. These are the same people we have seen all day at various stopping off points. Unfortunately the Russians, who have also been following the same itinerary, have been unable to secure rooms at our hotel and have to stay further down the street. So despite rushing here and rushing there, we get the best hotel without Russians! Shame, but the score is now UK 1: Russian Federation 0. We walk down the hill a bit and get some money from the bank. We have started to collect cash to pay Neelam at the end of the tour so need to make daily trips to a cash machine. Back at the hotel a new party of rather crusty looking Europeans have arrived and we hurry to our room for a bit of relaxation before going down for dinner later.
Day 76 - Thursday 9 October
A more leisurely start to the day sees us eating another very average breakfast but at least the omelette is nice and freshly made. We go straight to the Pemayangtse Monastery at the top of the town. This is the second oldest monastery in Sikkim and is a hive of religious activity. Neelam gives us a very detailed account of the wall paintings and the statues in cases in many of the rooms. In the top room of the building is a huge model of the spiritual world according to Tibetan Buddhism carved by one man from a single tree trunk. The highlight of the visit however is the sight and sounds of the monks praying complete with horns and conch shells playing, drums beating and cymbals clashing. The monastery is home to a large number of monks and only children from well off families are permitted to join. This is a photographer’s dream with fantastic activity involving daily monastic life.
We continue our journey over more awful roads to Kaluk where we are staying for the next two nights at the Rinchempong Village Resort, a pleasant little motel in the valley below. The lunch of chicken curry, rice, dhal and vegetables is fresh and delicious. The dishes are washed outside round the back on the concrete floor, so no health and hygiene training here then. Our chalet apparently has a view over Kanchenzhonga (this is our new adopted spelling) but the weather is still very cloudy so there is no sighting of the mountain today. In the afternoon we wander up to Kaluk where the weekly market is packing up and a large percentage of the population are very drunk. This is not surprising really, given the large number of booze shops in a very small town. We go for a walk with Neelam who spends a lot of time telling us about the traditions and culture of Sikkim. He is a mine of information. Before dinner the lights go out and Neelam appears to see if we are alright. We give him a whisky and he chats till dinner which consists of chicken pakora and vegetable biryani as requested by us. Then off to bed and hopefully no dogs barking.
Day 77 - Friday 10 October
We are wakened in the middle of the night by the ubiquitous dog barking at the ubiquitous jackal but we get back to sleep quickly and are wakened again at 6am in order to see the mountains across the valley. This is the closest we have come to Kanchenzhonga and the sight is truly magnificent with the snow covered peaks highlighted against a bright blue morning sky. After breakfast we set out on a walking tour of the area. This is intended to last about 2 hours but from the start it is clear that it will take a lot longer. Neelam gets lost several times and has to phone back to the hotel for instructions. As it turns out he usually takes a local guide but they are all on holiday. The path has been diverted in places and we have to make several detours. One of these leads us by chance to meet a Rai family who have a small farm growing cardamom. They are lovely, contented and very welcoming. The children are a delight and are comfortable talking to us about school in the village. These people have very little in comparison to our western way of life but their overwhelming contentment with their lot is a revelation to us. We are offered bananas and water and in return for taking pictures of the family we offer 100 rupees which is accepted with a smile. Later on we meet a Gurung woman and her mother who lives in an original Lepcha style house complete with electricity. The modern family house next door is fully equipped complete with satellite TV dish. Our walk takes us past several houses and into people’s gardens but we are met everywhere with courtesy mixed with curiosity and always a smile. We are obviously as much of a novelty to them as they are to us. Our journey takes us to the top of Risum Hill above Rinchempong and to the site of a monastery built in the 1860s. The journey is plagued by the many leeches which climb onto our shoes and try to get inside our trouser legs. They seem to be particularly attracted to Eleanor’s blue walking shoes and she picks up a lot of them on the way. Then back to the hotel for lunch only to discover that Eleanor has been bitten on her foot by a leech. Having sorted out the bleeding we then proceed to eat a lunch of chicken soup, momos and chilli chicken with fried rice. The chicken is very fresh. I saw it arriving on the hoof just after breakfast time!
In the afternoon we chill out, read and generally relax. For the first time since arriving in India we have access to a proper satellite TV system with Tata Sky and what a day to tune into BBC World with the financial world in complete collapse. The depressing news given the usual BBC hyperventilation makes us think that things are not so bad here after all. Reflecting on this morning’s family living peacefully beside their cardamom fields with a fairly certain annual income from this year’s harvest of about £250 they may well have a better deal than all those investors in the West running for cover as their money evaporates before their eyes. As darkness falls I take the bold step of going up to the village to buy beer and cherry brandy. Kaluk looks even more like the Wild West as the sun goes down. Most of the shops are now closed but village life continues apace in the six (yes six) bars selling cheap Sikkim booze. Dinner is another light meal and so to bed.
Day 78 - Saturday 11 October
We awake at 5.10am as we had an early night to the sun rising over the mountains. This gives us yet a different perspective on this beautiful place. We catch another hour in bed before getting up and I pack the case while Philip is showering as today we are off to Martam Village Resort. Breakfast is a bit of a mish mash with fried potatoes, which are hard, fried onions and tomatoes. However the cheese omelette saved the day. We were presented with kadas on leaving the resort and were given a list of their tariff. The road to Martam was again very poor and in parts very dodgy. On our way we stop at a town called Reshi which has a market through the main road, and we buy some tea to take back to Ahava. We are certainly very much in the minority and people keep staring and smiling at us.
We stop at the first monastery of the day north of Ravongla which is run by a minority Buddhist sect - what a peaceful place. Our journey to Martam Village Resort takes five hours in total and we arrive somewhat tired and are glad to get out of the van. The resort is in a beautiful setting and all around you can see fields of rice and farm land. Lunch consists of homemade chicken and vegetable soup, momos and stir fried vegetable noodles - really delicious. After a quick turnaround we are off to one of the most famous monasteries at Rumtek which is new in relative terms and, as we are foreigners, we have to present our passports at the entrance to the Indian Army. We were not very impressed with the place as there are many young monks who seem to have a real attitude problem but one of the old monks insists that we take a picture of him. What a great face! On our return to Martam we also stop off at the old Rumtek monastery where there is a game of cricket in full swing being played by the novice monks. They are obviously having a great time and are very friendly and we certainly prefer the old monastery. Then back to Martam resort to discover that there is still no electricity so Philip complains to Neelam and he arranges for the generator to be switched on. Let there we light. Dinner turns out to be a splendid affair with tomato soup (from a packet unfortunately), fish in a creamy sauce with rice, mixed vegetables and squash and a nice chapatti each. We spend the rest of the evening with Neelam and Sundar in conversation until Sundar gives up on the discussion and goes to bed. We finish the 100 Pipers as it is clearly not worth taking the bottle back. And then we have the best night’s sleep since we arrived in August. No dogs barking, only cicadas chirping the night away. We do not remember waking until the big red rooster started to strut his stuff at 5am!
Day 79 - Sunday 12 October
We start the day with a good breakfast and then head off back to Kalimpong to visit the paper factory. We have already seen some of the products from the factory as our Australian friends bought loads of books and paper from there before leaving. On the way down from Martam we spot two children playing at the side of the road and we stop to take some photos. The children run across the road and into the yard of their home. This turns out to represent a great photo opportunity as the whole family, including granny are available to be photographed. Once again we experience gracious people who have next to nothing but who welcome us and who are happy to be photographed for a very modest fee. We give a lift to one of the young guys from the hotel as far as Singtam. He is on his way home to the north and needs to catch a Savari from the town. And what a town Singtam turns out to be. Sunday is market day in Singtam and the place is jumping. Vehicles are loading up with people and luggage as the Puja holiday comes to an end. Unfortunately we have no time to stay and instead head for the border at Rangpo. While Neelam sorts out our exit papers, we catch an ATM for some cash and then buy sweets to take back to Ahava and an ice cream for Eleanor. People are curious about us; we are asked where we come from and have we enjoyed our visit to Sikkim all accompanied by smiles. Then we stop for a final visit to the booze shop. Sikkim has very cheap alcoholic drinks, many of which are brewed and distilled just across the Teesta River from Doctor Graham’s. Some of the very cheap drinks are also apparently very nasty so we stick to what we know; gin and cherry brandy, not forgetting another bottle of 100 Pipers for ourselves and one for Neelam and a case of beer for ourselves and one for Sundar.
We enjoy our visit to the paper factory and buy lots of things. No doubt we will be back for more in due course. Then back to Ahava which is bathed in blazing sunshine as we take our leave of Neelam and Sundar after a great trip. Hopefully we will have the opportunity of meeting them again before we leave India. Neelam is already talking about organising a trip to Gangtok for us this year. And of course we will need to come back next year for the rhododendron tour of north Sikkim! The rest of the afternoon is spent in domestic routines including doing the washing followed by sitting in the garden with a gin and tonic. It is nice to be back and we look forward to Chandrika’s chicken curry for dinner later.
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