I am going to start my tour of Sikkim with its capital, Gangtok. Of Sikkim it is often said that it is small but beautiful. Most of the state is hilly and mountainous at times. In fact, the state is at the foothills of the Himalayas and view of the Kanchendzonga Range is not rare; that is, weather permitting.
I return to Darjeeling. There is a shared vehicle ready to leave for Gangtok.
‘How much is it for Gangtok?’ I ask the driver.
‘Two hundred. Quick. We are about to leave,’ says the guy in a hurry. I will not be rushed. Meanwhile, two foreigners buy their tickets for Rs. 400 a piece. They want to sit in the front and are ready to pay for it.
‘I am told it is only Rs. 150 to Gangtok,’ I argue.
‘See this,’ he points to the number plate. ‘This is WB, not SK.’
As if I care if the vehicle is registered with West Bengal rather than Sikkim. I book my ride for Rs. 150 at another counter but the vehicle will leave only at noon. I have to kill a couple of hours in Darjeeling.
I head to the Natural History Museum. As mentioned before, it is quite a climb. Visiting any place here involves a climb.
‘The museum is closed. There is a bandh,’ tells me the watchman.
‘Bandh for what?’ I ask back.
‘Bandh. Not open today. All government offices are closed.’
Clearly he does not care for reasons. A bandh is a good holiday for him. I suspect it has something to do with Gorkhas and their demands for Gorkhaland.
I head to the Chowrasta, sit on a bench and just watch the world go by. Sounds cliche but that’s exactly what I do, as if I myself don’t belong to the world. I browse at a bookshop and buy a nice little book on Sikkim. Then I have lunch and head back to the taxi stand. There is chaos everywhere but eventually I get my jeep to Gangtok.
When I say jeep, I mean Mahindra Max. The other common vehicle on these roads is Tata Spacio. Most people ride in these two types of vehicles in shared mode. Slightly upscale are the Scorpios and the Boleros that are often booked through hotels and travel agents.
I am beginning to somewhat dislike these mountain rides. Sitting shoulder to shoulder and thigh to thigh, there is hardly any space to move or stretch the legs. The turns are sharp and throw me side to side. It is humid and sweaty inside. It is an experience alright.
The ride to Gangtok is not without excitement. There is an accident on the road ahead of us. This slows down our progress considerably. En route, one of the bags tied above falls off. Luckily it doesn’t tumble down the cliff. The driver stops, runs back to get the bag and reties it more carefully this time. Everyone gets off to check if their bags are safe. About midway through the journey the vehicle is stopped. Two women are selling carrots, a bundle at Rs. 10. An old couple from Andhra buy a bundle. The driver buys some as well. The carrots are locally grown, slender, tender and fresh. I can see that no better carrots can be obtained anywhere in the world.
Meanwhile, the Bengalis in the jeep are complaining about how South Indians will not speak a word of Hindi even if they know the language. Later they realize I am from Bangalore. They hide their embarrassment amidst giggles.
It is late when I arrive in Gangtok. The place is crowded. I have trouble finding room for the night. The first place I see is for Rs. 800. It then starts to rain. I bring out my rain wear. I finally find a room for Rs. 400.
Gangtok is like any other hill station. It is difficult to like a hill station in modern India. If you are high up and have a full view of the city, you will see what I mean. The terrain does not hide anything. Everything is plainly displayed. The buildings are either old or in a grave state of repair. Often unfinished buildings will stare at you as if they are works of art. Forget distemper or paint; bare bricks are enough to run a decent hotel. Squatters are not to be left out in such a city landscape.
After all is said, I think Gangtok is cleaner than Shimla. Walking along M.G. Road is a pleasure. It is designated as a “Litter and Spit Free Zone.” If only all of India was like this!
People will tell you that you have to hire a vehicle to get to Tashi View Point. It is simply a ploy to make the most out of tourists. If you are not pressed for time, you can always find out the way locals travel around and join them. I found that for only Rs. 20 you can share a ride to Phatak. From here it is a 2-minute walk to the viewpoint. On the return, the ride will cost Rs. 15 because it is downhill and the engine is mostly switched off!
As I wait for the vehicle to Phatak to fill up, I watch men loading a truck with cans. These are cans of dalda.
‘Where are they going?’ I ask the manager who is seen checking a list and ticking items.
‘They are going to China,’ he says. ‘Big trucks will not go up the mountain. We are moving them into smaller trucks.’
‘These trucks will go all the way into China?’ I ask.
‘No. They will go up to Nathula Pass where the cans will be transferred into Chinese trucks.’
Meanwhile my vehicle has enough passengers and we leave towards Tashi View Point. It is a short ride. There is a watch tower but it is closed today because the skies are clouded.
‘What can I see?’ I ask the young man setting up a tripod. It is a wooden tripod with brass fittings.
‘I will show you three things – Lobrang Monastery, Gurudwara and Hanuman Tok. It will cost Rs. 10,’ he replies.
‘Not Kanchendzonga?’ I ask.
‘Can’t see today. It is cloudy,’ he points to the distance. There is a row of mountains nearer and the clouds are behind them. The Kanchendzonga Range is farther.
‘How far is the range?’ I ask.
‘The aerial distance is 45 kms,’ he says while sipping his tea. ‘The best views of Kanchendzonga are after Dusshera, from September to January. You will see it just as it is in the postcards.’
I put out my little book on Sikkim and point to him a photograph.
‘Yes, that’s the peak,’ he acknowledges.
I use the telescope to look at the three things. The monastery is to the north, set on high slopes in the midst of forest cover. The Gurudwara is a modern recreation, close to town. The temple dedicated to Hanuman is on a hilly perch. All I see are its distinct pointed spires. All views are through a thin haze. It is not a clear day today; and a clear view of Kanchendzonga continues to elude me.
I head back to town, stop at M.G. Road for some kachauri and then head to Chogyal Memorial Park. A sign at the entrance clearly mentions that a ticket must be purchased and carried at all times.
‘Can I have ticket?’ I ask the guard. He is lounging on a mattress listening to some song on his mobile. I can tell that he is unwilling to get up.
‘How many of you?’
‘Just me. I need one ticket.’
‘You can go in.’
‘What about the ticket?’
‘Five rupees. I suppose you don’t have change?’ he presumes. For once I have the exact change. He ponders over my response for a while before concluding, ‘There are no more tickets left. You can go in.’
I spend a few minutes in this park. A statue of a local king stands inside the shelter of a kiosk. I then head to the temple up the hill. I find the chortens or stupas so often advertised in tourist brochures. The chortens of this region are distinct from those of Sri Lanka or Thailand.
Finally I visit the Institute of Tibetology. This has a small one-room museum with a modest display of objects. But these are objects so particular to the region that it takes me to a different world. Old manuscripts, instruments, beads, amulets, thankas, miniature chortens, bowls, spoons are among the many objects displayed here. The gilded statue of Manjusri is marvellous. Bowls are human skulls, drum sticks are human thigh bones. These are used to remind the Buddhist practitioner of death and impermanence.
The Buddhism of Sikkim is influenced a lot by that of Tibet. The aspect of Buddhism that we find here is of Vajrayana with its doctrine of tantric practices and beliefs. Thus in this museum I find seated Buddhas or Boddhisatvas embracing naked female forms. There is a lot of symbolism in this school of Buddhism but a cursory visit is not enough to understand them.