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.
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.
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… 😉