Arriving in Darjeeling at night, the first job was to find accommodation. In theory not a hard job. Darjeeling has ample amounts of hotels and it’s the off season. However, whilst it may not be the time of year for western tourists, I had underestimated how many Indian tourists would be in town and as I traipsed from door to door, I got used to the familiar response of, ‘sorry we have no room’.
I eventually found a place and had a well deserved nights sleep wearing everything I had. You see Darjeeling is cold. At night the temperature fell towards zero, which is cold at the best of times, but especially cold when only a couple of weeks ago I was sleeping out under the stars at the hottest place on earth. Locals sat out during the day, huddling around their make shift fires. Everyone was feeling it.
Darjeeling is for the most part a fairly ugly hill station. It’s dirty and ramshackled, but with all the visiting domestic tourists there was a real life to it. Unfortunately, the renowned view of Kanchenjunga decided not to appear due to the low lying clouds, but it was a pleasure walking through the narrow streets, enjoying the much more relaxed feel. Although Darjeeling looks Indian, it doesn’t overly feel it. The people are different, this is Gurkha territory and the Nepalese and Tibetan influence is strong.
A little up from where I was staying was the zoo, which was interesting place to visit due to it containing a number of specialised animals to the area, such as the snow leopard and red panda. Of greater interest for me was the mountaineering museum. In particular seeing the equipment used by the early Everest pioneers was fascinating. It was thought provoking seeing that I owned far better gear than what they were using.
Before leaving Darjeeling, I had to get a permit for Sikkim. As far as I could work out, this was due to it bordering Tibet. Getting the permit was easy, requiring me to find a small insignificant office and then carry a fragile piece of paper across town to the court houses where I had to find the Office of the Magistrate. Permit received, I headed into Sikkim.
If Darjeeling felt different from India, then in Gangtok, Sikkim’s major town, I forgot what country I was in. A long residential street lined with trees is the focal point of a town and region, which takes great pride in its environmental outlook. Significant fines are levied on anyone who spits, goes to the toilet or throws rubbish in the streets. They were even hosting an organic orchid festival!
In what might be a shock to many a developing country, such policies lead to a much nicer environment! As well as the surroundings, the people too are very different. For example they don’t stare. In many parts of India, people staring at you is something you get used to, but in Sikkim this doesn’t exist. You just blend in; You’re not interesting in the slightest and that’s just lovely.
Gangtok was thoroughly enjoyable. The wonderfully named, Institute for Tibetology was a fantastic little museum, where amazingly I actually learnt some things. I’ve been to far to many museums on this trip where I have learnt next to nothing. I also took a trip to Rumtek with Gil from Beligum. Rumtek, which is one of Tibetan Buddhism’s most important monasteries, is a beautiful place. The interior is spectacular, although unfortunately, like all monasteries in Sikkim, you are not allowed to take photos inside. It was nice walking through the complex as monks young and old went about their daily lives.
If there was a down side to my stay in Gangtok it was that yet again the views did not really appear. Technically, I set eyes upon Kanchenjunga, but it was a faded version and lacked the striking drama of a dominating snow lined peak.
From Gangtok, I traveled by jeep to the lovely village of Yuksam. With only a thousand odd inhabitants, one restaurant and a sprinkling of hotels, it was a beautiful place to spend a couple of days. Despite being a great place to read a book and having overly friendly locals who all wanted to say hello and help you out, I’ll remember Yuksam for the rain. I haven’t seen rain for a long time and hence it was a surprise to be caught out a couple of hours along a hiking trail, which promised some glorious views. It had started well. I had ascended up to Sikkim’s oldest monastery, which was nice enough and enjoyed sharing the trail with many a mythical creature:
But then upon reaching a tiny little village perched on a ridge, it rained and didn’t stop until the evening. With no coat, I got soaked. With no fires in the village and close to zero temperatures, nothing had a hope of drying.
There was a wonderfully confusing scene on my way back from the village’s monastery. I was passed by a truck with people howling in joy and throwing fire crackers out the back. Upon hitting the main road, I caught up with them again and they had been joined by a number of monks. One of the monks then started a pretty impressive bonfire and more fire crackers were thrown about. A few minutes later most of them dispersed in different directions, seemingly unconcerned as to the danger of the forest next to them becoming on fire. It didn’t make much sense and demonstrated to me that even in Sikkim, the bizarre and unexplained heart of India remains.
I awoke the next morning to perfect blue sky. In the distance a snowy peak was visible. Finally! But there was little time to admire, as I caught another jeep this time to Pelling. Jeeps are pretty much the only transport in the mountains and involve cramming as many people into them as possible. Currently the record I’ve been a part of is thirteen adults and two children. In case you’re wondering no one could move. It was good for mountain corners though of which there are many in Sikkim. Against all odds the view pretty much held and I arrived in Pelling with Kanchenjunga about to vanish behind the clouds. Just time to get a picture and then it was gone. Pelling, despite being a tiny town, has many hotels just for that view. I didn’t get it anymore in the couple of nights I stayed there. I again visited another monastery and some ruins, whose main selling point is promising excellent views although of course there were none.
Last stop in Sikkim was Ravongala. Another tiny town, I was taken back to Sudan as I got off the jeep with no map and a hotel recommendation from the owner of the hotel in Pelling. I asked about and soon found it. The last tourist to visit dated back to early January! A major bonus was that it had a TV and a satellite subscription, which meant I could watch Bear Grylls episodes on repeat. That was until my the subscription ran out and I was left with nothing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to watch aimless TV and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy it.
Ravongala, like Sikkim, is well off the tourist trail, but was lovely for it. Like most places in Sikkim, it runs precariously down the side of a hill. Considering it has such a small population, it is hence surprising to find a 41 foot tall Buddha statue. It’s pretty striking, even if the rest of the park is still largely a building site. They’ve finished the main part though and I guess that’s the most important thing. Like everywhere in Sikkim, it’s got another nice monastery, which you reach by climbing a decent distance uphill. If you’ve got this far through the post you’ll have noticed how many times I’ve mentioned visiting a Buddhist monastery. I am by all accounts a convert. Well a convert in terms of finding their true use: a perfect place to read a book! They’re normally right at the top of a hill, promising great views, very quiet and with prayer flags and nice designs, which are pleasing on the eye when you want a break. Occasionally, as was the case in Darjeeling, you even get a small restaurant to sit and drink chai, whilst Monks hum or play some sort of traditional instrument. Perfect.