Monday morning I find myself dragging my suitcase back down Gandhi Road in Darjeeling, to the pickup point for my ride to Gangtok in the neighbouring state of Sikkim. A Permit is required for foreigners travelling to Sikkim, as it is a restricted area, and I got mine sorted yesterday. They cost nothing, but you do need a photocopy of your visa/passport and a passport sized photo.
I had bought myself two seats in the share jeep for 200 rupees each ($3.75), one for me and one for my backpack, to assure myself of some elbow room. There are usually four people squashed in across a seat where we, in Australia, would legally sit only three. But who cares for legalities here? If four people fit, four people it is! And just for the record, there are no seatbelts.
So, by me buying an extra seat, and putting my backpack on the floor, myself and the Indian couple heading off on their belated honeymoon, have a more comfortable ride than everyone else. I'm a little disappointed I don't have more space for my two tickets, but on the other hand, pleased I don't have someone sitting in my lap.
Luggage is secured on the roof, under tarps as it looks like rain, and we're on our way.
The trip was around four and a half hours, and the scenery was spectacular. Gangtok is around 110 klms from Darjeeling, but the road wound its way around the mountains, criss crossed the fast flowing Ranikhola River, and passed through small towns. There was always something to look at - a waterfall at the side of the road, women picking tea, prayer flags fluttering in the trees and the never ending mountains. The trip passed quickly for me. I had to show my Permit, and have my passport stamped at the state border whilst my fellow travellers, all Indians, waited in the car. We pulled into the Gangktok 'station' around 1.00pm.
Sikkim is a landlocked Indian state located in the Himalayan mountains. The state borders Nepal to the west, China's Tibet Autonomous Region to the north and east, and Bhutan to the east. The Indian state of West Bengal, where Darjeeling is, lies to the south. It is the least populous state in India and the second-smallest state after Goa in total area. Kangchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak, is located
on Sikkim's border with Nepal. So, now you know where I was!
I secured a taxi, and told him to take me to Cafe Live & Loud, as my guesthouse accomodation was opposite there. I found the Zimkhang Guesthouse without any problems, and pulled my suitcase up 30 steps to their reception, to find it locked. I sat down on the steps to wait, but nobody turned up. They knew I was coming and around what time, so there's no excuse for their absence.
Not planning to sit there all day, I decided to take matters into my own hands and find other accomodation. I looked at a few, higher and lower priced, but ended up at Hotel Serenade Manor, which was a little lower priced, at 1000 rupees per night ($18.70), and just down the road. It wasn't a great room, and had 60 steps up to it. I did ask to see it before I agreed to take it, but I should have listened to that little voice in my head!
After two interruptions from male staff members within ten minutes of being there, I locked my suitcase, unease setting in, and went out. On
The Old Rumtek Monastery
A peaceful place set in the mountains.
my way past the reception desk I asked for a bath towel and loo paper as none were supplied. I said to leave it at the desk and I will grab it when I come back. Later, on my return, I asked for it and the man pointed upstairs, so I gathered they had been placed in my room. No such luck!
So, I went back downstairs, all 60 of them, to reception. When I said there was still no towel/paper in my room, the two men behind the desk looked at me blankly. I started to feel uneasy about staying there so I returned to another hotel I had looked at earlier. The room there was lovely, but twice my budget, so I had knocked it back. It was still available, so I told them to hold it for me, I'd be back soon.
I return to Hotel Serenade Manor, walked past the two men now watching television in the dining area, and up to my room. I grabbed my suitcase and pulled it down every one of those 60 steps to the reception desk, where I returned my key. Only when I said 'goodbye' did they
The Old Rumtek Monastery
Another painted window and prayer wheels which ran right around the building.
move. They expected me to pay for a night's accomodation but I said a very firm 'no' and kept on going. There's no point trying to state my case with someone who speaks little or no English, so I thumped my case down another 20 steps to the street and was gone.
I sighed with relief when I shut the door on my new room at The Little Inn. It was usually 3000 rupees a night ($56), but I'm paying 2000 ($37). It has been freshly renovated, has white sheets and towels, tea making facilities, plenty of hot water and mountain views. Sometimes you've just got to do it, and bugger the cost! There's a lesson or two in there for me....
The rest of the day was wasted organising on-going transport and looking for wifi. I eventually got both sorted. Cafe Live & Loud was the only place in town with free wifi that I could find, so I indulged in hot chocolate and a muffin whilst I caught up online. I can't buy my jeep ticket until tomorrow but at least I now know where to get it. All this stuff takes so long....
The Old Rumtuk Monastery
New and old prayer flags blowing in the wind.
Sunday, my only full day in Gangtok, I decided to hire a taxi to take me around the sights. The driver I choose was an ex Tibetian army man who had retired from the army and bought himself a small taxi car. He loved that tiny car. Every time we stopped at an attraction he busied himself wiping down it down and keeping it as gleaming as possible. I chuckled to myself, he was such a big, fit man and his car was so tiny...
First stop was Rumtek Monastery. Unfortunately, I couldn't pass through the gates as I needed my passport for admittance and didn't have it with me, but I was able to visit the older monastery next door. Other places I visited were Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, Ganesh Tok, Gonjang Monastery, Tashi View Point which is a lookout with great mountain views and Bakthang Waterfalls. I had an enjoyable day but none of the places I visited left a lasting impression.
Monday morning I'm up early and hauling my suitcase to the bus station for my 7.00am start to Yuksam. Once again I have bought myself two tickets for the trip and am pleased to
The Old Rumtek Monastery
Colourful window with brass gong hanging in it.
find myself in the front seat with the driver. Only two passengers can ride upfront and I have both seats which guarantees me a reasonably comfortable trip. The other passengers squeeze into the back seats, including a Canadian man and two European girls. I ended up sharing my front seat space with a small boy, whose mother was squashed in the back. I didn't mind sharing with a small person but when the Canadian tried to talk me into swapping seats, I stood my ground. He backed off when I explained to him I had purchased both seats and I had seats 1 & 2 on my ticket.
I enjoyed the trip, the scenery was spectacular and the jeep climbed steadily. The road was scary, no more than a goat track in places, hugging the side of the mountain. Thank goodness the vehicle was a four wheel drive, you'd have to be insane to attempt these roads in a regular car. Four and a half hours later we arrived in Yuksam, a small town high up in the mountains.
I had to look for accomodation as I had nothing booked. Yuksam was basically a one street town so
The Old Rumtek Monastery
Beautiful doors into the Monastery.
it was merely a matter of calling into hotels and guesthouses as I walked down the street. There was plenty available and I settled on the Hotel Yangrigang which had very basic rooms for 450 rupees ($8.40) per night, and they come with mountain views. There's not a lot to do it Yuksam and I was there for two nights. Trekking and enjoying the lush mountain views is about it.
I headed back down the main street to the tiny travel agent we had pulled up outside of when we arrived. Even though I've just got here, I needed to organise on going travel to Siliguri in a couple of days. I have a flight to Kolkata to catch on Thursday, from Bagdogra airport which is 10klm from Siliguri, and need to know how I'm going to get there.
The very competent man who owned the agency told me I needed to catch a jeep to Jorethang from where I could catch another jeep to Siliguri. He assured me they leave all the
Built on the side of a mountain.
time and I wouldn't have any problems. Sometimes you're got to put your fate in the hands of those who say they know, and hope for the best. So, with this in mind, I purchased another two seats on a jeep to Jorethang, leaving at 7.00am Wednesday morning. I couldn't purchase a fare to Siliguri until I got to Jorethang. I hated the uncertainty of not being able to secure the fare I needed, but that's how it works here. All tickets can be purchased on the day or the day before at the earliest.
So, all sorted. The travel agency man had drawn me a mud map of places I could walk to, so I headed off towards Dubdi Monastery. Established in 1701, it is professed to be the oldest monastery in Sikkim and is located on the top of a hill about 3klm away. It was a steady climb up to the monastery, I had the track to myself and the scenery was stunning. I know we have our rain forests at home but they pale in significance when compared to the scenery here. I have never seen such thick, lush undergrowth before. Every inch of ground
is covered with thriving plants, every stone is lichen covered. It could be the Garden of Eden, it is so perfect.
I arrived at the monastery to find in under renovation, hidden by bamboo scaffolding and blue tarps. I wandered around the grounds, enjoying the peace, and then headed back to town. At least the walk down was a lot easier then the walk up...
I met Ross, the Canadian from the jeep on the drive up, outside the travel agency when I got back to town. I asked him if he would be interested in doing a day trip with me the next day, suggesting we could hire a taxi and visit Tashiding Monastery and Khecheopalri Lake. They are in opposite directions, so it would be a full day out. He was keen, so we organised a car, with a 9.30am pickup. Total cost was 2800 rupees ($52) which we split.
We met outside the travel agency the next day, to find our 'taxi' waiting. It was a small, light van with wheels the size of dinner plates. How was this vehicle going to handle the roads? None of the tyres had a lot of tread
which didn't do a lot for my confidence in it either. But, this is it - the only taxi in town. The driver had no concerns about the roads, so we jumped in and headed away.
Founded in 1717, Tashiding Monastery is one of the oldest and holiest monasteries in Sikkim. According to ancient beliefs, devotees are cleansed of a lifetime of sins if they visit Tashiding Monastery at least once. One unique feature here is holy Buddhist mantras carved on stone plates, which are scattered all over the monastery compound. Countless prayer flags fluttered in the sky and scores of monuments dedicated to distinguished Buddhist monks gave Tashiding monastery a distinctive air. I enjoyed an hour there. The monastery looked like a supermarket, piled high with donated boxes of groceries. They were being packaged up and, I guess, will be given to devotees.
Next stop was Khecheopalri Lake, which is a sacred lake for both Buddhists and Hindus. Located near the Khecheopalri village, this lake is an integral part of the valley of Demazong. It is also part of the Buddhist religious pilgrimage circuit, which includes Yuksom, Dubdi Monastery and Tashiding Monastery, amongst others.
These were in a wall right around a building at the Institute of Tibetology.
a little disappointed in the lake. I was expecting something on a grander scale but it was relatively small and had an ugly, tin roofed walkway out to the water which did nothing to enhance the view. But, dozens of local tourists walked out, removing their shoes beforehand. It held no appeal to me, I'm afraid. All I wanted to do now was head back to Yuksam. It was around 5.00pm, and I didn't want to be out on the roads after dark, if I could help it.
We did make it back safely, but it wasn't a comfortable trip. The vehicle had lousy suspension and we were jolted over every bump and hole in the road. All part of the experience I guess but if we'd had a better vehicle the day wouldn't have been so long or tiring.
The next morning (Wednesday) I was standing outside the travel agency at 6.30am, with my suitcase, waiting for the share jeep to Jorethang. I was lucky enough to get the front seat again, so had an enjoyable three hour trip. Once in Jorethang, I was able to purchase two tickets in another share jeep to Siliguri, leaving in
The Police Guard Room
At the Institute of Tibetology. I liked the patterns on the walls.
half an hour. Thankfully, I was able to purchase them in the terminal the first jeep pulled into and didn't have to tramp all over town looking for another departure point or ticket office.
The trip to Siliguri took over two hours. Once again, I had to present my passport and permit at the state border, so the authorities would know I haven't over stayed my welcome. There was a lot of roadworks along the way and the jeep filled with fine white dust as one of the windows wouldn't wind up, adding to everyone's discomfort. The driver was concerned for the front driver's side tyre, which was going down, so we did a stop to have it checked. I was horrified to see that the tyre in question was completely bald and starting to shred, as was another, when I cared to inspect them all. But, it was repaired and put back on. Obviously not a lot of consideration goes into passenger safety. Thankfully, there was only 50klms to go and I wouldn't have to risk my hide riding in one of these jeeps again.
Once in Siliguri, I secured a tuk tuk ride to Hotel Apollo
where I had done an online booking. It was a fairly nice hotel, thank goodness. I got them to drive me to Bagdogra Airport on Thursday morning for my flight back to Kolkata. My luggage was sent through directly to Bangkok from Bagdogra, as my Kolkata to Bangkok flight was with the same airline. Then I realised I didn't have any toiletries or change of clothes with me, so booking into a hotel in Kolkata for 8 hours for a sleep and a shower was now a waste of money.
So I spent the time wandering up and down Kolkata airport, waiting for my 1.30am flight to Bangkok. I then had another five hour wait for my Hanoi flight. Hence my facebook update - 30 hours, 3 countries, 4 airports, 3 flights and no sleep! I'm looking forward to the luxury hotel my travel agent, Devin, has booked for me in Hanoi, Vietnam.....my next destination!
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