Sikkim/Imsikk

This whole post won’t be about mucus and tremblings and edgy bellies, don’t worry.  I just like the anagramatic irony of being sick in Sikkim.  I had a dreadful head cold in Darjeeling, which I of course passed onto my partner Rachael.  It hit her in Gangtok (Sikkim’s capital, and it’s most popular entry point), so we laid low there for a few days, saw as many of its sights as health and energy would allow.  Both fine now, just the occassional flare-up of spiritual ennui.

Gangtok is, like many of West Bengal’s hill towns, a jumble of multi-coloured concrete block buildings crammed onto the line of a breathtaking ridge, steep drops of mountain on all sides.  What stood out immediately was the relative wealth – Sikkim joined India only in the 1970s, and since then has been courted by the Centre with tax concessions and infrastructure.  Consequently, there is much less visible poverty, actual footpaths next to some roads, lots more cars and industry, and (due perhaps to one of its biggest industries, liquor) high rates of alcoholism.  We didn’t see drunkenness, but on the day when all the shops were shut (Tuesday!), the only places open were drugstores/chemists and liquor stores.  By the way, for my beer afficionado friends, pretty much everything in the north east is 8% lagers – strong, dense, sometimes honey-sweet, but fairly unmemorable.  Kingfisher is still the king.

Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Gangtok, Sikkim
Mahatma Gandhi Marg, Gangtok, Sikkim

And, in our brief few days, the best food in Gangtok is at Taste of Tibet, on the south edge of Mahatma Gandhi Marg.  Fantastic thukpa (Tibetan noodle soup) and spinach momos (dumplings), and very popular with the local monks and families.

Gangtok, view from the cable car
Gangtok, view from the cable car

Enough about my epicurean belly.  The real highlight of Gangtok for me was our first day – we took the cable car ride from the hilltop over the centre of town, to the Institute of Tibetology.  An amazing, vertiginous, giddy view.  Sprawling buildings, gracious dramatic hills, huge strands of bamboo and patches of rice fields built into the hills.  Gorgeous.

The Institute holds a rather large collection of Buddhist artefacts – devotional paintings, coins (from a country that doesn’t quite exist, tragically), yellowed and weathered manuscripts on paper and palm-leaf from around the 12th century.  And, strikingly, bowls made from human skulls, and trumpets made from thigh bones.  To remind the user of the transience of life.  Nothing like that would happen in the West, I feel.  The closest we would get to such a visceral treatment of the body is either symbolic (like the “body and blood of Christ”) or in transgressive art.  The building is certainly worth spending a few hours in.

On that note, Rachael and I are both reading a book called “The Monk and the Philosopher”, a conversation between Matthieu Ricard, a French scientist turned monk, and his philosopher father.  Fascinating on an interpersonal level (dad always seems to want to remind his son of what he was like when he was young!), but mainly it’s been interesting to ponder Buddhism as we experience it close-up.  I can’t say I understand it more.  Probably less, in fact.  In it’s indigenous context (well, more indigenous than in Australia), there is so much accumulated ritual, symbolism, extravagant visual imagery, which is very hard to access without fully immersing yourself in study.  One of the owners of Holumba Haven (an almost unnervingly calm collection of cottages in an orchid nursery in Kalimpong, where we stayed one night, on our way back to Kolkata from Gangtok), a beautiful, talkative, eccentric, intelligent man, said monasteries aren’t churches, they’re more like boarding schools.  Useful metaphor, I think.

On the note of accommodation, if you can afford 1000 rupees a night, plus 250 per meal, Holumba is worth it – it’s very calm, yet gently sociable.  Talk to the pea-hens, too – they’re a bit crotchety, but really lovely ladies.  And, in Gangtok, we stayed at Mintokling Guest House – very helpful and professional managers, fantastic view of the Himalayas from the room when the sky clears, average food, and since the last Lonely Planet was published, the price has gone way up to pay for renovations (which I sense has taken some of the character from the place – not as intimate or homely as we’d hoped).  Still, again, a good place to recover, rest, put shallow roots down, explore.  You certainly need that in India, we’ve found.  It’s exhausting, overwhelming – you need to take small steps sometimes, make little journeys.

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged – we’ve been doing so much travel these last few days, and internet access and time has been a bit scarce.  There’s much more to say, but I’ll leave it at that for now.  Next time – transport (jeeps, autorickshaws, trains, cycle-rickshaws), religion (temples and money), dense fog in the humble hill-town of Lava, and yes the beach in Puri!!!… If I can fit it all in… 😉

undeniable cliches

First, sorry for those pedants out there (myself included) – I couldn’t work out how to insert an accent over the “e” in cliche.

Now, for Darjeeling.  I have probably seen more non-Indians here than everywhere else I’ve been combined.  It’s tourist central – and not just people from overseas, but many Indian middle-class people make the trek up here.  And who could blame them?  A cliche is a cliche because it’s so compelling.  The town is a cluster of homes, shacks, shops and hotels around a steep ridge, around 2000 metres above sea level.  Many centuries ago, it was home to the Buddhist kings, then to the Gurkhas, and in the 19th century a few pasty white people decided they really liked tea (and the strategic and scenic location), so Darjeeling became firmly entrenched as the archetypal hill station of the British Raj.

I stayed at Andy’s.  Of course I did.  It’s actually run by Andy’s very fatherly dad Genesis.  Andy moved from India to marry an Australian woman, in Melbourne, would you believe!  So, I was meant to stay here (who knows, maybe I’ll move to India with Rachael ;)….)!  From the rooftop viewing platform at Andy’s, on a clear day (and they all were, while I was there), you can see the Himalayas, including the breathtaking sight of Khangchendonga, the 3rd highest mountain in the world.  I got up at 5.30am to watch the sun slowly illuminate the peaks, pink-orange sunrise wash to the right, soft wisps of mist rolling across the foothills.  Cameras can’t capture it, but of course we all try.

Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre
Himalayas from Darjeeling, the path to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre

I met some interesting people here, too, the happy compensation for Darjeeling being such a tourist mecca.  I could feel the bunched up words itching to get out of me – finally some conversation!  So, just in case you’re reading this, “Hi!” to Phil the Brit who drinks the local water, Andres (best of luck extending your stay here – your thesis will be much richer and so will you!!), and Kasja!

One of my highlights of Darjeeling was definitely the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre, a few k’s from the centre of town.  It was founded in 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet for India, by a handful of refugees.  It’s expanded hugely now, and includes a school, medical clinic, and a variety of workshops, which feed the shop, selling carpets, shawls, jewellery, etc.  A beautiful place.  For the first time since I’ve been here, I decided to turn the line of prayer wheels, walk around them…  I can’t describe it really (yes, I’m a writer, I should be able to, but…).  While I’m still an outsider to so much of the acrued traditions and rites of Buddhism, there’s a kind of resonance in this place – deeply human and open.  And politically aware (unavoidable really)  – the centre includes a moving photographic exhibition and a printing press which was used in the early days for a Tibetan newspaper.

The other highlight was Observatory Hill.  Another well-trodden path, but for a reason.  A monk named Dorje originally lived here (hence, Darjeeling…), and the site is sacred to both Buddhists and Hindus.  I’m not sure of the whole story (it’s a blog, dammit, I can be slack with my research, I’ll read up later…), but somehow they’ve managed to have a joint temple – you enter the front gate and to your left is a monk, to your right a Hindu priest, sitting side by side.  The hill is covered in prayer flags, swimming in incense, and has many small shrines, including one inside a cave which is both a little eerie and deeply moving.  Since one of the Hindu gods worshipped here is Hanuman, the monkey god (to grosslyl simplify…), the hill is also home to a large number of marauding monkeys (who are very happy to eat offerings presented at shrines!).  I was a little nervous, but they’re more focussed on fighting each other than hassling humans, though I’m told they’re keen on stealing….!

Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags
Observatory Hill, Darjeeling - many, many Prayer Flags

I’ll leave it at that for now.  Darjeeling’s pretty amazing, and I’m wondering why I left after only four days.  I guess I just have perennially itchy feet at the moment.  My current challenge is to try to direct my meagre rupees to businesses other than those listed in the Lonely Planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some fantastic meals in restaurants that the guidebook-bible lists, it’s just that I know that such listings almost guarantees success – there are other amazing places, and to try to find them is part of the adventure.  Oh, but now I’m starting to talk about Kurseong….  which is my next post (plus a rave about the Toy Train!).

Miss you all (apart from those reading this who I don’t know, but maybe I’d miss you too if I knew you…).