'Our best book is equal to hundred good friends...' : Stevie's 2nd favourite T-shirt slogan of his journey to date.
The microscopically tiny town of Yuksom snuggles into the hills at a scenic 1,700 metres above sea level and almost inconceivably, given its size, was once Sikkim's first capital. Yuksom and by extension the state of Sikkim was made a kingship in 1641 AD when Phuntsog Namgyal, one of the founding Three Lamas of Yuksom was crowned to become the kingdom's first Chogyal or ruler. The humble stone platform 'Coronation Throne' sits at the base of gigantic pine or Cryptomeria Japonica tree. Ephemeral glories. Things that rise and pass. A philosophy only too well appreciated by the Buddhists of the region.
Today the main drag of Yuksom comprises no more than a few small hotels and restaurants, kiosk shops, farm holdings and a clinic (though a large school and other amenities sit further at its periphery).
The sacred lake in Sikkim's first capital Yuksom
I assume that what looks like 'Jeep Wreck' printed on the Lonely Planet
map of the town is some weird typo error, but no, a burnt out chasse of a jeep, it's wheels long rotted away, does indeed lie upon a bed of long grass by the roadside, mysteriously deemed a worthy enough sight to be placed upon the list and map of notable points in town. Incredible these reminders of how small the world of men and the seats of power used to be, and how much further they sometimes shrink over time.
The drive there is beautiful. The long graceful necks of bamboo groves arcing high up into the forest canopies. Sun light breaking between these and moss-draped branches to fall upon carpets of ferns, the broad green leaves of banana trees and the slender wavy jade green blades of the cardamom plants whose seed pods are one of Sikkim's most important cash crops.
Bold bright prayer banners a-flutter in Yuksom
Sikkim's appearance is of a tapestry woven in emerald and jade. Again, all available denuded hillsides have been artfully sculpted into sweeps of step terraced rice and wheat paddies. Further glimpses of the Himalayan mountains en route. Clear views. Brilliant white snow caps set against unseasonably perfect blue skies once again (this will remain true of all of my time in Sikkim). Great feathered blankets of vapour stream away from the distant peaks in the morning heat. Or is it snow blown by high invisible winds? It gives the impression the mountain is burning. Fire and ice.
As with Tashiding what sights there are to be seen in Yuksom are easily tourable on foot in a days stay and to be as treasured for their scenic serenity as much as for their visual charm or historical significance.
A steep forty minute walk up a lovely cobbled forest path brings you to the perfectly kept gardens of the Dubdi Monastery, reputedly Sikkim's oldest Buddhist monastery. A group of local men and women crouch with sickles in the tree shades scraping moss and mud from between the cobbles on the way. High up here, I take in the panorama while the wind cools my sweaty t-shirt and I sit and inhale perfect calm and contentment. Nobody whatsoever here but me the birds, bees, breeze 'n' trees.
Yuksom also hosts the small, picturesque Lake Kathog Bla-Tsho or 'Soul Lake' within whose waters a gorgeous nimbus of prayer banners that encircle the lake stand reflected. A sliver of snowy peak reaches high into the inverted watery sky too. A curious red algal bloom also streaks the waters periphery giving the appearance of my old 'marbling' art sessions at primary school.
The Khangzeng... Kangdshen... sh*t I can't remember how to spell it this time - bloomin' lovely mountains and prayer flags seen from Yuksom :D
Beauty with oils and food dyes. This red blight possibly none too healthy for life in the Soul Lake but thousands upon thousands of tadpoles bobbling around its circumference and a profusion of gold fish suggest otherwise.
In my early doors jeep from Yuksom to Pelling the next morning again I am amazed at the amount of business and human life that can be squeezed into one vehicle. 14 people (2 sharing the driver's seat) and a baby that I don't even realise is part of the crush until I spot him later in a snap I took of the scene. It's no wonder that road fatality numbers in India are so abysmal. It may not be that statistically more accidents occur, there are just fifty times more people involved when they do!
As you wreathe your way around the ill-surfaced roads of central and West Sikkim evidence of further development, particularly of the road infrastructure is visible everywhere.
The totally serene Dubdin Monastery high above Yuksom - believed to be Sikkim's oldest.
Groups of men, women and sometimes children (child labour being illegal of course) sit by the roadside or atop large piles of rock and rubble hammering and hammering the materials of their homeland into ever smaller pieces for road surfacing and other works. Stones to build walls to prevent the earth from which they were claimed from land-slipping down to destroy the roads whose construction led to the deforestation that so often causes the landslides to worsen. And so it goes. This mass extraction of rocks from river beds and dynamited from mountain flanks our own peculiar application of destruction to effect this Progress-born construction is a process I've observed on a massive scale in both India and China, the world's two quickest expanding economies.
Man has developed an insatiable appetite these days for eating mountains it seems. Nothing is safe, nor sacred of course. Top of the food chain for sure. We dine on Mother Nature's largest creations these days.
Pelling is a town whose far-too-many concrete foundations rest upon it's grand views of the Khangchendzonga mountain range. As mentioned, my time in Sikkim is blessed with perfect weather and at any time of day it is an awesome sight. But you will need to move around out of town to extract the closer to hand charms of the area. In fact the very day of my arrival, come early afternoon I’m on another 2 hour jeep bump-a-long to spend one night besides the holy lake of Khecheopalri, 'The Wishing Lake'.
The sun is already sinking low by the time I get there and flicks blinding gold gems across the surface of the apparently wish-fulfilling waters.
A pier of wooden poles stretches out to and over the lakes rim flanked on either side by long rows of bright paint-flaked tin Buddhist prayer wheels. A large brass Shiva trident swathed in scarves protrudes from the mud by the shore and a group of five Buddhist novices wearing burgundy robes and skater hoodies turn up, MP3 players in ears, to bend and bring the lakes waters to their heads and make an offering of an orange to the depths.
Within the walking distance surrounds of Pelling a stroll along the forested main road will bring you first to the 17th Century Pemayangtse ( 'Perfect Sublime Lotus' ) Monastery whose monks are revered as the 'purest' of lineage in the land and then about 2 kilometres of winding road later you'll arrive at the site of Rabdentse.
View from up towards the old palace ruins in Yuksom
Rabdentse was Sikkim's second capital. The remove from Yuksom the wish of Sikkim's second Chogyal and son of its first, Tonsung Namgyal. What remains of the town fort and royal palace are approached via a long winding path which, to stop your excitement from waning, bears signs from the Archaeological Survey of India such as 'Keep up the spirit, the day is yours (450m to go)'
. Carpe diem. Best keep walking then.
It's amazing how peaceful a place can become after human History has moved on. Walls once built to withstand all that time and enemy and Nature could hurl against them now humbled and happy to settle down to a silent cup of afternoon tea with the latter and maybe whisper about Old Times together in their own private language.
Funky philosophy : part of the decoration upon the walls of Yuksom's main school.
A language composed of the noises that breathe from erosion and empty spaces and winds and dry leaves. What remains of the Chogyal's former fortified palace rests in carefully manicured grounds on its hilltop vantage point in a state of total serenity. The thick fort walls, harsh geometric forms softened by their lawn surrounds, have been noticeably restored by the Archaeological Survey and cemented over on top, slightly robbing them of that beguiling broken-toothed aesthetic of authentic decay that ancient walls should possess. Little steps ascend to wall tops and nowhere and back down again. Like a simplified, pocket-sized sculpture by MC Escher made for a child to roll and clatter a marble around. It's charming though most of its historical grandeur has long since evaporated.
Jeep taxi from Yuksom to Pelling : about 15 souls all told including the little baby in the centre of this pic whom I didn't even notice was squeezed in until reviewing this photo later :)
But Rabdentse is to be remembered as one of those 'Perfect Moments' of my journey that I wax too lyrical about from time to time. Unexpected moments and destinations ( I am only here by way of a momentary recommendation of Krishna's at the Garuda Guesthouse) where all of a sudden, as if out of thin air, the elements of a seemingly innocuous scene coalesce to tell my soul it should be, and 'by the way, in case I hadn't noticed' is in a state of complete bliss.
The setting, the hilltop that the ruins of Rabdentse sit upon is beautiful. Views of the rolling green forested hills undulating for 360 degrees in the near distance. The sky could not be clearer and possessed of a more pleasing hue of blue had I requested it of the Gods with blood sacrifice the night before.
Prayer wheel pier leading out to the shore of Kacheopalri Lake
One of those blues so perfect that the mountains in an excess of envy drink the colour down out of the air to infuse their jagged grey bones and imitate their Sister Sky in as many turns of blue as they can conjure as they recede towards all horizons.
As the eyes move around this panorama they are of course arrested by the appearance to the north once more of the grand Khangchendzonga range. The view of this range from Rabdentse is unparalleled amongst the places I have viewed it from in my time in Sikkim. Unimpinged upon in any way by the grim lines of power cables or concrete block buildings in the foreground of the towns and villages. The air and view so clear as she and her Main (8,586m), South (8,491m), Central (8,476m), Yalung Kang (8,505m) and Khamba Chen (7,903m) peaks jags up and down.
Buddhist blessing and Hindu Shiva trident at Kacheopalri 'The Wishing Lake'
Snow capped, crisp whites bleeding down over the flanks of torsos as old as the Earth herself. Waters running off them in the heat. I hope mountains retain the capacity to cry for all time.
I sit down, dangling my legs over the edge of one cemented outcrop of wall, Khangchendzonga spread before me, and break open a new book. A most fortuitous exchange at the Garuda Guesthouse; Seven Sacred Rivers (Bill Aitken) and a beaten up and broken down fake Xerox copy of The Inheritance of Loss (Kiran Desai) for a grand collection of Paul Theroux's shorter travel writings and essays entitled Fresh-Air Fiend. I am almost totally alone up here. My only companion a sweeper woman who with her traditional dry-straw broom 'sweep - sweep - swishes’ dust you didn't even know was there up into the air.
Jade Green Blades : Cardomom plants that carpet Sikkim's forest floors.
The swish of her broom bristles complementing the Zen-like appearance and feel of the place. The Zen possessed of a library. Supplant the sweeper woman from the scene with a withered, bespectacled, cardigan wearing librarian and the 'sweep -sweep- swish’ of the former's broom for the universal hush born of the latter's 'sssshh! ssshh!'
and you have my silence suffused atmosphere.
I turn to the Introduction of Fresh-Air Fiend, an essay entitled Being a Stranger and instantly I am transported. Every word of this man (though I've read so painfully little of his work) drops like a golden coin tossed into the wishing well of a soul not yet fully formed within me or yet recognisable to myself. But one I hope to continue to nurture.
Stevie and the mountain views from Rabdentse, Sikkim's second capital.
A soul that requires a world a little larger than the ones I may have inhabited both with body and mind in the past. It's time maybe in this, my fourth decade on Planet Earth to descend into that well and start gathering up those golden coins; wishes, thoughts and inspirations from whoever may have been kind enough to inadvertently toss them there over the years. It's not a coincidence of mood ( happiness and a contented heart) and literary indulgence that I am going to entirely ignore as insignificant or without some, as yet, intangible meaning for me. The last time I truly felt like this was sat in a tea garden in Chengdu in China, sipping jasmine tea, transported in an ecstasy of contentment and reading Dark Star Safari
by a certain P.
The ruins of Rabdentse.
Theroux. And these thoughts are all contributing to my new 'Perfect Moment'.
Sat by the road, awaiting Ajay Lama the jeep driver to pick me up from Tashiding two days ago I'd met a boy wearing a T-shirt bearing what is my second favourite Tee slogan of my journey so far (you'll have to go back and join me in Siem Reap, Cambodia to see my favourite). It read : 'One best book is equal to hundred Good FRIENDS; But one good Friends is equal to a LIBRARY.' It bends my mind a little, but I like it. True to say books are my only constant companions (aside from my dirty underwear) whilst travelling. My best and most faithful friends upon The Road, though good friends of the human variety are constantly made too.
Chillin' on a bench : Stevie breathing in his 'perfect moment' :)
Whilst they weigh me down with their kilos of extra strain on my back I couldn't do without them. I always tell others 'they are my travel oxygen.'
They make great conversation whenever required, whilst making no direct demands upon your time, and speak constant inspirations and rich emotions into the silent and lonelier moments.
They enrich your passage through the world in ways unexpected and sometimes direct. I am so thankful for the act of serendipity that brought The Inheritance of Loss
into my hands in Gangtok
when I arrived in Sikkim, exchanged for Chuck Palahniuk and Grahame Green ( I also bid a fond farewell to Neil Gaiman at this time but was introduced to Hanif Kureishi and Paul Bowles) as without knowing a single thing about it beforehand suddenly here was a beautifully sculpted work of literature talking about the very mountain towns, villages, views, architectural features, weather conditions, specific buildings, even eateries I had sat in, foods, traditions, peoples, landscapes, flora and fauna that have been my world for the past two to three weeks from Darjeeling
Mountain Zen : a lady sweeps the paths at Rabdentse
The politics and histories of the peoples too. The book enriching my knowledge of the world as I am moving through it (if retrospectively) and that process of travel in turn taking the life and beauty of the book, and my ability to envision its tale to levels that would never have been possible had I bought it as a boredom-beating 'Booker Prize Winner' from Waterstones on a wet Wednesday in Birmingham.
From hostel and hotel exchange shelves to fortuitous swaps between strangers and friends. Perhaps even the occasional theft ( 'sssssh!' ) of that one tatty book that 'surely hasn't been touched for ten thousand years and not likely to be so for another unless I adopt it!'. I always repay literary travel karma with interest.
"BOO!" - who's the man behind the book? :O
Fear not for my soul or your bookshelves people. There are the shops and book kiosks of course and the humble street sellers of India's cities who carefully arrange their printed wares upon canvas sheets on the pavement every morning, bent over slap-dusting their covers as if tending to little literary gardens. Vainly trying to negotiate another 30 Rupees off the price of a book the seller knows from the fevered drug-addict gleam of your eyes, is priceless to you. 'But it's a Xerox copy, you can't charge that!' 'Is not a Xerox sir!' 'Oh yes it is! Look at all those black blotches on the edges of the page and why is the text slanted at 45 degrees?!'
Those wonderful Xeroxed books.
Drinking down the blue : the beautiful hill shades of sky tones on this perfect, perfect day.
Artistic compositions in their own right. Pages upside down or back to front or chapters rearranged as if the whole novel had been shuffled like a deck of cards. Sometimes whole sections have just disappeared into thin air. I never did find out what happened between pages 184 and 206 in Shantaram
though 207 to 227 appeared twice. One girl told me her copy suddenly segued into Harry Potter for a chapter or two before returning to the mafia in-fighting of 1980s Bombay.
I love it! The world is my library. And you are my friends. And a friend is apparently worth a library again. Which means we are creating whole worlds within one another. By reading to and from one another and the world around us.
The K-range seen from Pelling.
Constructing our own wonderful library here on line day by day too. Images and words and inspirations being crafted constantly for one another's consideration. Gold coins being flicked into each others wells. Making our understanding of this beautiful world - I hope - a richer one in small ways whilst not - I hope - diminishing its mysteries too much at the same time. ( I have certain fears on this latter point).
Yes, the world is a library. The mountains I view today one of so many great spines of the book shelve of this earth. The trees of course have leaves and the wind is an inquisitive reader, petals and pages forever being turned over by the fingers of the breeze. If we were to open with great care those great books spiral-bound in the gnarled and knotted trunks of inky-sapped trees we would read the history of climate variation between each line and ring.
Fire and ice 1 : the K-range as the sun begins to set to the west of Pelling
But instead we usually just discard these precious tomes (pulping them to print our own) for they are written in a language we no longer care to or could ever now comprehend. Forgetting how to read Nature though the dramatic narrative shifts seem quite obvious. Are we becoming environmentally illiterate?
I stroll back to Pelling from my 'Perfect Moment' in Rabdentse and clamber to the concrete roof top terrace of the guesthouse where I sit and stare at the mountains for a couple of hours, my book by my side. Watching as the sun (invisible in the theatre wings to my left) slowly directs the sunset snow capped peaks of Khangchendzonga to burn with anger once more. And then to fade out. Sister Sky drawing them up into her now grey-black star-sequined mantle.
Fire and Ice 2