A break by the Teesta river en route from Darjeeling to Gangtok owing to protests blocking the roads.
Well, I won't say overly much about Gangtok
, capital of one of India's smallest and inch for natural inch most beautiful little states, Sikkim. I stay there for four or five days and it's pleasant enough, the weather is mostly good and blah, blah, blah. But you see time is running on. The last sand grains of 2009 are trickling through the neck of the hour glass as I arrive. Another decade about to be turned over. And right now, I'm sat one month into that new decade impatient to be talking about the 'Here'
and 'Where next?'
and 'How am I feeling TODAY?'
rather than the 'Where was I then?'
and 'What was that thought again?'.
So in some ways it's nice that my most pleasing memories of Gangtok can be focused to the kindness and hospitality of one local lad and his family. On the train to New Jalpaiguri (NJP) from Varanasi
I'd made momentary pals with young Jigmee Bhutia and his mates heading home to their families for a couple of weeks holiday from studies in Noida
near New Delhi. He'd helped me get from NJP to Siliguri and on to the correct jeep to Darjeeling
quick, cheap and easy.
We are reunited in Gangtok where Jigmee has grown up with his aunty and uncle and their family.
My hosts, the Bhutias and Rais (L-R) : Friend of Jigmee, Jigmee, Lakshmi Rai and her brother, mother and father (Jigmee's adoptive parents).
An only child, orphaned at six years of age. But, as is common in India, he has a very large extended family into which he was absorbed and some of whom I have the pleasure of being introduced to over a day or so in what became his home town. A handshake and a chai with a tiny percentage of the innumerable aunties, uncles, 'sisters' and 'brothers' and cousins, cousin-brothers and cousin-sisters, nephews and nieces and rickety grandparents that comprise the often mind bogglingly deep and far reaching root systems of India family trees.
The introductions begin with an evening visit to his home in the police headquarters accommodation compound, his uncle being a member of the force. A good solid job for life. The power is out, so with one candle in the middle of the table its a curious atmosphere for first introductions.
More like a séance than a meet 'n' greet. We all sit around the central coffee table of the small living room making introductions and responding to smiles, glittering eyes and faltering phrases that all flicker at the fringes of the candle-light aura. Tea is served in heavily patterned ceramic lidded cups of the Chinese style and several traditional Sikkimese sweets are laid out. As usual in these situations no one of the seven or so people in the room reaches for the goodies at all the whole time I'm there, but I have no choice but to keep returning my hand to the plate time and time again so as not to cause offence. Chomping and chattering into the dimness.
'It is two years ago that we have another foreigner here also'
beams Jigmee's jocular uncle proudly.
'Would you like to see some photographs?'
his bubbly 11 year old 'sister' Laxmi Rai asks, her cheeky face out-shining the candle. 'Sure thing'.
As if to usher in the photo albums in all their glory (those universally feared scourges of social evenings the world over) the power and the lights come back on and Laxmi guides me flick by page flick and pic by pic on a tour of her family and Sikkim. I nod and smile and point and ask questions and make fun of poses and people. The photos keep on coming. Albums breeding albums and the life-size wall-tacked poster image of George Michael that resides with spectacular incongruity upon the living room wall smiles down on the whole proceedings.
'And this one is at Changu Lake... and this one is at Rumtek Monastery... and such-and-such a Monastery... and this one also is at Changu Lake again...'
Jigmee tops up my monster bamboo flaggon of 'Chhang' one of Sikkim's traditional fire-waters.
Laxmi prattles on...
Tsomgo or 'Changu' Lake sits just 20 kilometres east of Gangtok on the approach to the Nathu La pass and the border with Tibet. It is Sikkim's most holy lake and sadly one of many places I will not get to visit. Sikkim, an independent kingdom until joining the Indian Union in 1975 is a tiny little state bordered by Nepal to the west, a large enveloping curve of Tibet and Bhutan to its south east. Many of its most spectacular landscapes are in the mountainous approaches to these borderlands and individual travel permits are required to get to many parts of Sikkim's extremities.
Lakshmi meets Muju :D
An Inner Line Permit is required for all foreign visitors to Sikkim in the first place and can be obtained with relative ease for free before or (at certain points) on arrival but the additional permits (trekking permits and so forth) require separate applications and you must travel in groups of at least two. This means the first time that I can recall a situation where being a solo traveller limits my travel aspirations as although I make good friends in Gangtok I am unable to find anyone planning or willing to go to the higher elevations of North Sikkim and the quaint looking towns of Lachen and Lachung or even just east for the day (you can only go there and back) to Lake Changu. Weather is a factor too. Cold and heavy snows blocking road access on some days. But I wanted a splash of Christmas white magic.
The spectacular looking, spectacularly flavourless traditional 'zero' food (detail)
Denied by political red tape and my solo status.
Jigmee kindly gives me a half day tour of Gangtok. A traditional craft centre, the squat architectural pout of White Memorial Hall, the Ridge Park and small botanical garden. We pay a visit to an aunt’s and I am ushered into a tiny living room in a building - one of several in a row - constructed principally from wood planks, corrugated metal and plastic sheeting and smoothed wattle and daub walls. I plomp into a large chair and stare at the family deity shrine high up on the wall. Laxmi is here too with her brother and bounces and laughs about. ( No more photos please!) Chai in best-for-guest Chinese cups again followed immediately by the arrival of a large metal-banded bamboo receptacle from which I'm now also expected to drink.
BOOZE!!! Sikkim is one of India's rare booze-heavy states. Alcohol tends to proliferate in the higher altitude parts of the nation...and consequently so do p*ssheads! :)
Made by Jigmee’s aunty, this is chaang, one of several traditional Sikkimese alcoholic drinks. The large bamboo cup is filled with fermented millet over which warm water is repeatedly poured for me by Jigmee or Laxmi as I am obliged to keep sucking up the warm sake style distilment through a bamboo straw. It’s only 11 o’clock in the morning and chaang is not a good chaser to chai! But politeness forces me through.
Back out in the open it’s a misty day and the view leaches to white in all directions. A visit to a monastery. A glimpse of the former King of Sikkim’s former palace. A ride down and back up on Gangtok’s ropeway cable car and then a stroll through the streets. Two years ago Gangtok’s social and commercial artery MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Marg was pedestrianised.
Ceiling decor of Rumtek monastery : home of the Karmapa 'Black Hat' sect of Buddhism.
Part of a vision for more Europeanised town-planning by the long-standing , recently re-elected Chief Minister of the ruling Sikkim Democratic Front party who’s brightly coloured umbrella logos can often be seen painted on house walls throughout the state. With its many benches, brick-paved promenade, well-presented shops and faux wrought iron street lamps MG Marg, especially after dark with the lights on, could be any street in a cosmopolitan European town. It is at odds with the general aesthetic of Gangtok which is that of the usual crowds of thuggish looking multi-storey concrete hill-side barnacles. And also apparently at some odds with local preference. Access along the road now denied to vehicles, bikes, rickshaws etc one person observed that this had led to a drop in business for those shops within the pedestrianised zone as people are unable or unwilling to haul heavy duty goods or the large bags required to do grocery shopping for extended Indian families to and from the shops.
View of Gangtok.
In the afternoon Jigmee and I have been press-ganged into meeting another of his aunt’s keen to play hostess to The Foreigner and so in a shared taxi I am whisked away to the village of Penlong (beyond Tashi Viewpoint where on a good day great views of Khangchendzonga can be had) and then to the tiny hamlet of Nabe (pronounced Nah-bay). Here there home perches on a gentle hill slope. Sturdy thick mud-brick walls. Two storeys. An outhouse. A kitchen with a wood burning oven and a large living room where I am again installed for ritual feeding. Chai. This time buttery and salty. Mmmm. ‘Chaang?’ ‘No thanks!’
More Sikkimese sweets that once more only I will be consuming.
Kangchendzonga and morning moon.
The fantastic looking intricate, circular spider-web forms of the item they call zero. Made - I think - by tracing hot rice-water through cold water so it sets into amazingly delicate patterning. But I’m not sure. The name zero, also a mystery. It could equally refer to a probable zero calorie content or the fact that for all its visual charm it tastes of absolutely nothing, nada, zero. I crunch and chew away though and its swiftly followed by a delicious egg noodle soup so my taste buds are soon appeased.
Outside I watch the family chickens flap about. Tethered by one foot to ropes to halt hillside wanderings. A muddy slide down to a tin and wood shed to meet the families two cows. Back at the house I am taken into a room with a large family shrine. A big wood cabinet covered in photographs of leading Buddhist figureheads and also portraits of several young boys, the aunt’s sons, two of whom have been inducted into Buddhist monasteries as novices in Sikkim and Bhutan.
Cheery Red Mountain : sunset blush upon the far flank of Kangchengdzonga, India's highest mountain.
In theory they will reside life long in these institutions leading lives of learning, praying and celibacy. Some ceremonial Buddhist instruments of several generations provenance are proudly displayed for me.
It’s been a pleasant day or too as guest to the Bhutias and Rais and my time in Gangtok has undoubtedly been enriched by friendly contact with the local population. The places that a few well placed smiles and jokes on a laborious train ride can end up taking you. A solid travel lesson it never pays to forget.