Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Roadtrip to Sikkim.

Today's road trip destination was Gangtok, Sikkim. It was going to be a long travel day so Sanjeev got us all up and out early. Sanjeev loves to have us woken up at least two hours before departure time. Of course, I only need a few minutes to get ready, repack and bag and gulp down a bite so I set my alarm for just under an hour before departure time. Hey, I'm on vacation and every now and again I want to enjoy my sleep :-)

We headed out after breakfast, back down the road that we had driven into Darjeeling on just a few days ago.  The landscape was shrouded in fog.


By now, we had all gotten used to the narrow, winding roads so I just kicked back and got lost in my own thoughts. Besides, it was too early in the morning for any sort of chatter. 

Sanjeev had Raju pull over at a roadside vista so we could take in the view of the Teesta and Ranjith Rivers from high above. The Teesta River separates West Bengal, which is the Indian state that Darjeeling is in, from Sikkim. Aside from the view, it was a good opportunity to get out, stretch our legs, take photos and buy snacks from the vendors who have set up stands next to the vista point. It was a sunny day so we were able to see the two rivers flowing through the valley below.

Back into the car, we continued to descend towards the valley and the NH31A which is the only highway in this neck of the Indian woods. The highway also runs alongside the Teesta River as it meanders through the valley. It was a scenic drive and in this part of India, the roads are very good so it was a *bump free* ride as well.

Around mid-morning, we arrived into Rangpo which is a border town in Sikkim. There, Sanjeev had to get each of our passports stamped with the entry permit that is required for non-Indians to travel within Sikkim.

While Sanjeev did the needful, I walked back over the bridge that we have driven over and took a few photos of the Teesta River. I then headed up to a local restaurant and there, met up with Merle and Rhonda. Soon, Mike joined us. I wasn't hungry but the sight of the samosas behind the counter were just to hard to resist and at 5 rupees each, insanely cheap to buy. I started with one and it tasted good enough that I bought two more. Those and a bottle of lime soda made for the perfect mid-morning snack. Since there was on lunch planned for today, I held back two of the samosas for eating later.

Merle wanted to have a picture taken of all of us and so she handed her camera to a young boy who helps out in the restaurant. With hand gestures, she was able to tell him what to do. We lined up and he snapped away. He was having so much fun with her camera that she let him take a few more photos before taking it away from him. Bless her heart, Merle is so sweet. She handed the young boy a piece of paper and pen and asked him to write down his name and address so she could send him the photos in the mail. I found out later on that the boy could write down his name but he had no idea what his address is so that part got left out and he won't get the photos from Merle. But she was so kind for even trying.

 






Morning break over and we all got back into the cars and chugged on down the road. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a bridge to once again take a few minutes to stretch our legs. More photos of the lush green landscape and the flowing Teesta River.

All along our roadtrip, we saw wild rhesus macaque monkeys loitering by the roadside.  According to Sanjeev, the monkeys have learned to congregate by the road in hopes that curious on-lookers, as we would be soon, would stop and toss them a bite or two.   Of course, we know better than to feed them but we couldn't resist the urge to pull over and have a closer look at these creatures. There were quite a few female monkeys clutching their babies who looked so fragile but yet very cute.


 
 A short while later, we arrived into the town of Rumtek which is home to the Rumtek Monastery. At the base of the driveway that leads up to the monastery are a small row of shops. We parked by the shops and several folks, including me bought food and used the facilities. It was a short but nice break.

We walked up the driveway to the monastery. it was a bit of a dreary day....a light bit of drizzle. It was a uphill walk. After having visited more monasteries than I can remember, it's my humble opinion that monks don't want to make it easy to get to their place of worship. Either there's a steep hill involved or a bazillion steps or in the worse case.....both!
The uphill walkway was flanked on one side by stores and small row of prayer wheels.

 When we finally made it to the top, we followed Sanjeev inside the monastery complex. The chanting hall itself faces a courtyard that is surrounded on the remaining three sides by the monks' living and working quarters.

The monks were already chanting when we arrived. We all took off our shoes, entered in and found spots along the perimeter of the room to watch the chant session from. I didn't try to get an accurate headcount but I would guess that there were at least 20 monks seated on the cushion covered benches and chanting. Of course, none of us could understand the chant but after a while, listening to the collective, rhythmic, monotone chanting of the monks turned into a bit of a white noise for me! Every now and again, the monks would ring their bells or a few of them would play a few seconds of music - there were two monks to bang on the drums, two to clang cymbals together and two to toot on large metal horns. I have to say, it was not a *sweet* sound that they produced so I can only assume it had some religious significance to it, Not sure what all the sounds meant but whenever they happend, it would always startle me.....that's how zoned out I would get at times.


I don't know how long we were inside the chanting hall though it seemed like a very long time. Towards the end of our time in the hall, a monk came by with a very big metal bowl filled with cut fruit that he offered up to each of us. I took a small section of apple that I ate after I left the hall. Even though it was a small piece of fruit, I felt a bit awkward munching on it while the monks were chanting.

Soon, it was time to leave the monks and so one by one, we quietly walked out. Back outside, several of the monks were sweeping the entrance portico and others were setting up a small seat and stand of sorts. According to Sanjeev, they were preparing for a special ceremony that would be taking place after the chant session is over.


 We would return to watch the ceremony but in the meantime, we walked over to an adjacent building that housed a small room dedicated to the founder of the monastery. Inside, I left a small donation and took a quick view of the stupa that holds the cremated remains of the founder.

A monk walked around the room, holding a small metal teapot. As he faced me, I cupped my hands and he poured a few drops into my hands. I shifted the water to my left palm and with my right hand, I wet the first two fingers on my hand and touched my lips. I then shifted the water back to my right hand and rubbed my head from forehead back, letting the water drip down and wet my hair. I remember seeing a monk go through this ritual once and so I repeated it but I really have no idea if this is the right way to annoint one's self or not :-)


By the time we finished up and returned to the monastery, monks had already seated themselves on the portico. Three others were attending to a man who was seated on a bench facing the portico. I had no idea who or what he was but I guessed from his costume.....he had a pretty fancy hat on....and the fact that three monks were attending to him that he was a pretty important person. There was a young monk standing next to me so I asked him and I was told the man was the headmaster of the school. Rumtek is a teaching monastery.



There was no doubt that a ceremony of some sort was going but I had no idea what. Then, oddly enough, the monks lit a small bonfire....have no clue why. I thought maybe they would use it to burn offerings but I never saw them place anything into the burning fire. I turned to where the young monk had been standing to ask him to explain this to me but he had left.....probably got tired of having to answer annoying questions from a pesky tourist :-)

Every now and again I would leave the group to walk around the square to try and get nice photos of all that was happening. How I wish I had a better telephoto lens on my camera cause everything that was taking place seemed to be just a wee bit beyond my focal length. It was about now that I wondered to myself why I hadn't brought along my video camera and taped the ceremony instead of trying to take photos. I must work on getting better gear - maybe for the next trip :-)


It was dreary day but that did not deter the monks from going about with their daily duties though I think the rain kept them away from the courtyard.....not a monk to be seen.

We watched the ceremony for as long as we could and then left. We strolled back down the hill to the shops where we took another break before getting back into the cars.
  









Down the road and on to Gangtok we went. We soon got back on the NH31A highway running alongside the Teesta River. If the quality of the roads are any indication, Sikkim is a far richer Indian state than West Bengal. The roads here are well paved and marked and the lanes are broad enough to easily accomodate for two cars., Apparently, there is an organization here known as the "Border Roads Organization" or BRO for short that develops and maintains the roads. They do a great job for Sikkim.


Megan, Ross, Libby & Paul
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim and translated into English, the name means "Hillside". So, it was easy to spot Gangtok when we neared it. A large collection of buildings clinging onto the sides of several large hills.

According to Sanjeev, when you go to Gangtok, all you do is go up, up, up and that's what we did. The road into town just winds uphill. We all had pretty much the same first impression of Gangtok. Compared to Darjeeling, it is much cleaner.....there is no trash in the streets. The roads are wider.....there is no building whose front entrane is just inches from the edge of the road and lastly, the roads are not crammed with cars. Apparently, the Sikkim government rules its population with a tight hand and it shows. This is a very nice hill town.


 It seemed like we were going uphill forever. I was wondering which we would reach firest - the clouds or our hotel? Such a very different city from Darjeeling. It's clearly obvious just by looking around at the buildings and the stores that this is a comparatively wealthier city than Darjeeling. It was a sunny day when we arrived into Gangtok and I was hoping it would stay that way for at least one more day so we could fully enjoy this hillside city.

The buildings here do indeed cling to the hillsides. I'm guessing that flat ground must come at a premium price here so the base footprint of most of the buildings is relatively small and they build upwards....not skyscrapers but at least two stories.

Sanjeev had warned us that parking outside the hotel was going to be a challenge. Usually, the passengers get dropped off first and the drivers head down to the taxi station where they hire taxis to bring the luggage back to the hotel. How crazy is that? Well, it must have been our lucky day because there were exactly three parking spots outside the hotel. Even so, we very quickly got down and grabbed our bags.

Sanjeev got us checked in and we had a short while to relax a bit before meeting in the hotel lobby at 6pm for dinner which would be at a local Indian vegetarian restaurant. We followed Sanjeev out of the hotel and carefully walked along the streets. Still no real concept of sidewalks in Gangtok either....it's the streets or nothing else.

Down the street, across the street via a flyover and then to a street, Mahatma Ghandi Marg, that used to be open to traffic but is now closed to cars. We could finally go for a leisurely stroll without fear of hit by a car! While Sanjeev went to the restaurant to book a table, we did our strolling and a bit of window shopping. Lo and behold, on our walk we came across a bakery. Rhonda and I decided to check it out. Pieces of cake for just 12 rupees.....less than 30 US cents!! Too cheap to turn down so I decided to buy enough for everyone to have a piece of cake for dessert. Rhonda and I picked up two pieces each of five different types of cakes. According to Rhonda, we attracted a bit of attention - I guess some curious passersby stopped to see what these two crazy women were up to. By the time we finished our purchases, it was time to head back to the restaurant.

After dinner, we headed back to the hotel and I called it a night. Shower, a bit of blogging and bed. Tomorrow would be an activity filled day and I wanted to be fully rested for it.

So excited to finally be in Sikkim!!