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Sunday, 14 September 2014
5:00 AM, Darjeeling. I open the room window. It looks a bit foggy outside so I go off to bed again. At 7:30 AM, I finally pull myself out of bed to get ready for the day.
At 10:00 AM, I go downstairs to Lunar restaurant. Breakfast is light…milk and toast with butter. From my window table, I take in the nice view of the Sunday morning activities on the Nehru Road below. I can see people having breakfast on the open terrace of the famous two-storey Keventer’s, a bakery-cum-restaurant popular for its English breakfast. Even though it is off-season, there is plenty of activity around. I can only imagine how overcrowded it would be in the peak season! Like many of the beautiful British-era hill towns in India, Darjeeling too lacks proper development and infrastructure. Random and thoughtless constructions stand out as an eye-sore in this beautiful place.
After breakfast, I leave for the taxi stand to enquire about shared taxis for Jorethang, a major town in the district of South Sikkim. Shared taxis, which are 10-seater diesel jeeps, handle almost all the public transport needs of Sikkim. Earlier I had been told that there are no direct shared taxis from Darjeeling to Pelling which is in West Sikkim. A small private taxi for the four and a half hour journey to Pelling will cost around 3000 rupees, whereas a shared taxi to Jorethang, and from there, another one to Pelling, will cost me less than two hundred and fifty rupees. I definitely prefer the second option.
The taxi stand is in Chowk Bazaar. I walk around aimlessly, ask for directions, follow a labyrinth of steps, lose my way, and then again ask for directions. The local woman is on her way to the station area which is somewhere nearby to that place so she tells me to come along with her. The pedestrian path connecting the top level Nehru Road with the bottom level Chowk Bazaar is narrow and crowded. I ask the woman if there is any other road leading to the taxi stand, and she says no. Huh? How am I supposed to carry my bag downhill along this rough road? It’s a half hour walk!
At the taxi stand I learn that there are taxis leaving for Jorethang at regular intervals. I ask the man if there is anybody who can carry my bag from my hotel at Nehru Road. He says I can get a porter. Luckily, there is one hanging around the place. He offers his services for 30 rupees. I didn’t know that porters are a common sight in Darjeeling! Intra-city transport is mostly by hired taxis or two-wheelers. However, walking along the winding, narrow lanes is the most widely used method for going around in this hilly town.
On the way back to the hotel, I’m able to take in the surroundings at leisure. The uphill walk is tiring but I manage to keep pace with the 50 or 60 year old porter. The road is lined with shops. I love marketplaces and I’m glad I have not missed out on this town’s marketplace. It is a colourful place, humming with locals, including pretty young women. Fresh flowers, fruits and vegetables…the greens look like they have been freshly painted! I get this strong impulse to buy a bunch. They are giving me such lovely “pick-me-up” looks! Sigh…if only I could get to eat a home-cooked meal with such fresh greens!
Back at the hotel, I hand my bag to the porter. As I follow him down the road to the taxi stand, I feel uncomfortable seeing my seven to eight kilo bag on his back…till I see a frail old woman walking uphill, carrying goods thrice the weight of my bag! I guess they are used to carrying 30-35kgs or even more.
At the stand, I buy my ticket of 120 rupees for Jorethang. The taxi is waiting for passengers…two in the front, four in the middle and four in the back. Thankfully, I manage to get a seat in the front. I see to it that my bag is properly placed amidst the luggage on the rooftop carrier. It’s 11:00 AM, the time when the bazaar area is brimming with Sunday shopping crowd. The weather has warmed up a bit.
After twenty minutes, the taxi is ready to leave. The landscape on the way is a feast for the eyes. Vast expanses of tea estates line up the stretches of the curved road…
Tea pickers at work, some on their way to the tea factory…
And then the landscape gets lovelier… so much that I keep aside my camera and admire the view instead! Just across, I see the huge mountains of Sikkim. After an amazing drive through the narrow and sometimes bumpy road, we reach this bridge across which lies Sikkim. It is the gateway to West Sikkim…
On reaching the Ramam border check post, the taxi driver asks me for my passport. Passport? For a second, I’m nonplussed. Then, a sudden realization hits me. “I’m an Indian,” I tell him. The women seated in the middle row chorus it to the driver in their language. He looks at me, very flustered. He gets down and passes the small detail to the border police who have come to check the vehicle and the baggage. The police are curious about some of the goods on the carrier apparently belonging to the women who spend some time trying to convince them that the contents are merely personal items. Finally, we get to pass through. It is 1:10 PM. The weather is pretty hot. And to think I had expected it to be cold in Sikkim! I remove my stole and feel like removing the sweater too. Unfortunately, I have worn a t-shirt vest so I just unzip my sweater.
When we reach the Jorethang taxi stand, the sweltering heat becomes unbearable. And I’m wearing a sweater! I don’t think it’s a good idea to walk around a new place skimpily dressed. I mean, Sikkim is a very safe place, but it would hurt the sentiments of the locals. Worse, the taxi has stopped on the upper floor while the taxi to Pelling is on the ground floor. I pull my bag all the way down to the ticket counter only to have the man behind the ticket window tell me that the last taxi of the day for Pelling has already left. I’m aghast! He tells me I could go to Geyzing (or Ghyalshing) and take another taxi from there to Pelling. The taxi for Geyzing is waiting to leave in another half an hour. Half an hour! Fifteen minutes later, I feel dizzy with discomfort. I instantly remove the sweater and feel a grand sense of relief as my upper body gets the sought-after airing. Seated in the front, I hear murmurs from behind. Like I care! They can admire my biceps! As we drive out from the stand, I see a man wearing a vest walking ahead, water bottle in hand. See that guy… see how he’s dressed in a vest! Now what’s wrong if I do the same? I’m no less a man than he is…in fact, I maybe much stronger than him! And then the next thing I see is him pulling a t-shirt over the vest! Well, I don’t care! I don’t want to die of heatstroke!
It gets cooler as we climb into the serene, green hills of West Sikkim, and I reach out for my sweater. I hear murmurs of approval. Further ahead, the weather becomes colder till I find warmth in my woollen stole. The road is very rough at places but the views are amazing. The journey runs along the picturesque valley of Rangit river, which is a tributary of Teesta, the largest river in Sikkim. I’m so enamoured by the mountainous terrain of Sikkim that I can hardly wait to explore this stunningly beautiful and least populated state of India.
Sitting in the lap of the eastern Himalaya, Sikkim is landlocked, having international borders with Nepal on the west, Bhutan on the east, and Tibet on the north. It has four districts: East Sikkim, West Sikkim, North Sikkim and South Sikkim. Its capital, Gangtok, is in East Sikkim while Geyzing (or Ghyalshing), Mangan and Namchi are the respective headquarters of the other three districts.
I’m eagerly awaiting my trip to North Sikkim which is five days away but right now I’m looking forward to get the breathtaking unobstructed view of the mighty Kangchenjunga (at 28,169 feet, the third highest peak in the world) which is located in West Sikkim on the Indo-Nepal border. I missed the long-distance view from Darjeeling but I can get a close view of this massive mass of snow from Pelling, my last opportunity to view it closely before I move further away to Gangtok in East Sikkim.
Kangchenjunga (or Kanchenjunga or Kanchendzonga) is considered a holy deity in Sikkim, which is why mountaineers are not permitted to climb it from here. They can do so from Nepal. In the local Limbu language, Kangchenjunga is the “Mountain That We Offer Greetings To”. Its name also means “Five treasures of snow” because it has five snow peaks, four of which are more than 27,700 feet (8,450 meters) tall. Its five peaks represent the sacred places where God stores his treasures: gold, silver, gems, grain and holy books.
The journey to Geyzing is delightful. Besides the scenic beauty, I’m enjoying the Sikkimese pop songs being played in the taxi. Besides the upbeat music, the voice quality of the young singers is great too. I don’t understand head or tail of the language but the songs are very impressive.
At the Geyzing taxi stand, the taxi for Pelling is waiting for a few more passengers. It is going to be an uphill journey so I need a front seat to avoid travel sickness. Both the front seats are occupied. In the two earlier shared taxis, I had got a middle row seat but both times someone in the front was willing to exchange seats with me. This time, the man in the front seat refuses even when the driver tells him that I have a travel sickness problem. Even he has the same problem, he says. So I let the taxi pass and take another one which is going to leave after twenty minutes or more. Five minutes later, the driver decides to start off instead of waiting for two or three more passengers. It has already started to drizzle. I’m awestruck by the beauty of the surroundings as we drive through the clouds and forests. I have the front two seats to myself. Two of the passengers seated behind are North Indians. Even at the stand, I have seen a few of them. It’s a bit surprising to know that they have left their homes to settle in this small but beautiful town, also the district headquarters of West Sikkim.
Half an hour later, we are in the lush green, beautiful hamlet of Pelling. Situated at an altitude of 6,800 feet, Pelling is a must-see place for the magnificent view of the snow-capped mountains of Kangchenjunga, the absolutely stunning natural surroundings, and the history and culture of the state.
I ask the driver for any good hotels in the range of 1000-1500 rupees. It is off-season after all! He says there are plenty of hotels in Middle Pelling. Based on good online reviews and price, I had decided to stay at Himalayan Retreat & Resort but unfortunately the hotel address wasn’t mentioned anywhere. Being a very small place, I expected the locals to know about it. I assume that it is in Upper Pelling. There are a few passengers to be dropped off in Lower Pelling and Middle Pelling. The same road goes to all three places. I hadn’t expected Pelling to be such a quiet place! In Middle Pelling, most of the hotels appear to be closed due to off-season. The Melting Point restaurant, about which I had read on the internet, is closed too. The entire village looks desolate, maybe because it’s raining heavily.
We climb into Upper Pelling. This place looks even more sparsely populated. Being on an upper level, the surrounding view is lovely. But I don’t see any hotels around, just lush greenery. Alongside a football ground, I see some buildings. Probably residential homes, I think. We drive past Norbu Ghang Resort & Spa. If I don’t find that damned hotel, I’ll have to stay here. In my hotel list, the room tariff is written as starting from 5000 rupees. It’s a luxury hotel so they might accept credit card payments. At the two hotels in Darjeeling, they didn’t accept credit cards. I was told that most of the hotels don’t, because of bad connectivity. For me it came as a shock because I don’t like making hotel payments in cash. It gives me the jitters to part with large sums of cash each day…and that too, right at the start of the trip! It was good that the room tariff at both places was more or less around 1000 rupees per night because I have ten more days to travel.
It’s raining very heavily and we still have no luck with finding the hotel. Perhaps it is in Middle Pelling. We climb down the road and the driver makes enquiries at a few shops and hotels. But nobody is aware of the hotel. So we drive to Upper Pelling again, this time with a passenger he picks on the way. We pass by Norbu Ghang Resort & Spa again. Maybe someone there might know the exact whereabouts of that hotel. The driver gets out in the rain, opens the gate and makes a quick run for the hotel entrance. He returns in a while with a negative response. That’s it! I’m staying at this hotel. The driver feels relieved by the news. He tells me I should stay in this hotel for the night. It is becoming dark, and on top of it, it is raining cats and dogs. He reverses the car and we drive into the hotel grounds. Strange, I don’t see any cars around. I remove my bag from the car. There are three men standing at the door but none of them moves ahead to help me. I pay the driver and pull my bag, walking inside. One of them stops the driver from leaving. The second one hurries in before me to take his position behind the desk. I ask for a room for the night. He says the tariff for a single room is… 10000 rupees! Whaaat!!! They don’t even accept credit cards! He quickly tells me that I’ll find plenty of hotels within my budget of 1000-1500 rupees in Middle Pelling. Thanks for the warm welcome! I move towards my bag before he comes over to help me with it. The driver is surprised when I tell him the room tariff is 10000 rupees. “Where to now? Middle Pelling?” He asks. “No, we are going to find a good place for me to stay…here, in Upper Pelling!” It’s not that Middle Pelling is a bad place. In fact, as I learn later, it has plenty of budget hotels and is very popular with the holiday crowd, especially international backpackers whose favourite place is Hotel Garuda. But I prefer the sparsely populated upper level with its serene atmosphere and good views.
We pass the football ground. The driver points out the buildings to me. “You can try some of the hotels there.” Sure, why not? I choose the first nice-looking place. The taxi drives through the pathway and I see the name “The Pemaling Residency” It turns out to be a family-owned hotel. When I step into the reception, the hotel attendant comes out to collect my bag from the taxi. Tamang, the hotel owner, is at the desk. He is ready to give me a discounted room tariff of 1800 rupees with breakfast included. I wonder if he’ll reduce it to 1500 rupees for my satisfaction. He does, when he learns from the hotel attendant that I’m travelling alone. When I complete the check in, he greets me with a traditional khada (a white silk scarf with Buddhist inscriptions conveying goodwill) around my neck. “Welcome to Pemaling Residency!” It is a Sikkimese custom of welcoming guests. I’m so delighted! The warm welcome erases the bad memory of Norbu Ghang Resort & Spa. I ask Tamang if there is telephone around to call up my home, he immediately offers his smartphone to me. He tells me to talk for as long as I want. How sweet! But I end my call within two minutes.
I like the hotel which is more like a homestay. Tamang’s lovely wife helps him in running the place giving it a homely touch while managing their two small children. I tell the young couple about the distasteful steamed chicken momos (dumplings) I had eaten in Darjeeling and my desire to eat local food. Tamang’s wife immediately puts in that she will tell the cook to prepare Sikkimese food including momos for the next day’s dinner. I’m thrilled! Things are working out great today!
I return to my room. The first thing I do is take a photo of myself in the welcome scarf. Here it is…
It is the best room in the hotel. A room with a view…
Both the balcony and the bedside window offer a good view of Kangchenjunga which would be visible at sunrise between 5:00 to 6:00 AM, if the sky is clear. I’m so eager to view the snow-capped mountains from my bed!
The fresh clean mountain air is totally refreshing. Sipping on a cup of black tea adds to my pleasure as I take in the picturesque view of the misty hills. I see two tourist cars parked along the road, which weren’t there when I arrived. Most probably, they are staying at the next door hotel.
Watch my video : The surrounding view from my hotel room balcony
Pelling is the right place to go if you want to do absolutely nothing but admire the scenic nature and bask in its tranquillity. You can spend some time wandering up and down the road from Upper Pelling, through Middle Pelling and on to Lower Pelling to enjoy peace and nature. West Sikkim offers just that, nature and adventure tourism. Many of the brand names in Sikkim tourism are located here including Yuksam, the first capital of Sikkim established in 1642 by the first religious King of Sikkim. Today there may not be much to see but a few four hundred year old remnants but still, Yuksam is of historical and cultural relevance to the state. Not only that, it is also the trekking base of Sikkim (for Kangchenjunga base camp and other amazing peaks in West Sikkim) so it attracts a large number of mountaineers from all parts of the world. The trek from Yuksom to Dzongri peak is the most famous trek in Sikkim. Another great attraction from Yuksam is the Kangchenjunga National Park abounding with rich flora and fauna.
At 6:00 PM, it starts getting colder so I close the window. Half an hour later, I head downstairs to check with Tamang about a tour of the surrounding areas for the next day. He says he can organize it and in a few minutes he has a list of places to visit. The full day tour will cost me 2500 rupees. The tour is going to cover most of the sights around Pelling but not Yuksam which is just 35 kms away. It seems the road is rough and can get worse when it rains so going there would take a lot of time, probably 4-5 hours. Including it in the tour would mean dropping out 3-4 sights so I go by Tamang’s plan. The tourist car will be ready to leave at 8:00 AM to return by 5:00 PM. The tour will start with Rimbi Water Falls, and then Darap village, Kangchenjunga Water Falls and Khecheopalri Lake before stopping for lunch. After that, Pemayangtse Monastery, Rabdentse Ruins, Changey Water Falls, Dentam Cheese Factory and finally Singshore Bridge, the second highest suspension bridge in Asia.
I walk into the hotel restaurant for dinner. Momos and soups are the traditional food of Sikkim, just like Tibetan cuisine. But then, Sikkimese food is a diverse mix of Himalayan cuisines like Nepali, Tibetan, Bhutanese, and that of the ethnic Lepcha and Bhutia communities, and of course, the ubiquitous North Indian cuisine. The menu card features a variety of dishes, both in vegetarian as well as non-vegetarian. I go for Gya-thuk (Tibetan noodle soup with vegetables). When the soup arrives, I hungrily dig into it. It is delicious! Alas, too late for a photo!
After dinner, I retire to my room. Climbing up the stairs to the second floor, I notice that the place is very quiet. It looks like I’m the only guest in the hotel for the day. Back in my room, there is nothing else to do but watch TV. With no English music channel, I end up watching the week’s rerun of Masterchef Australia on Star World. At 9:30 PM, I’m off to sleep.
Monday, 15 September 2014
The alarm goes off at 4:45 AM. I immediately check the outside scene. It is dark and cloudy.
I spend the next hour waiting and hoping for clear skies and a view of the Kangchenjunga. Even a tiny speck would do, but no… instead of a mass of snow, I see dark clouds!
Breakfast is served in my room at 7:30 AM. I have asked for toast with bread and butter, aloo parathas and black tea. It turns out that the hotel has its own SUV, and Tamang himself is going to drive me to all the sights.
We set off around 9:00 AM. The sightseeing tour starts with Rimbi River Water Falls, some 12 kilometres away. It is a bone-rattling drive over untarred roads, worsened by the rains. Soon, we are at Rimbi Waterfalls…
Yours truly at the base of the magnificent falls…
Watch my video: Rimbi Water Falls
Words fail to describe the beauty of the surroundings…
We proceed towards the second perennial waterfalls…the double- pronged Kangchenjunga Falls, a major tourist attraction for its magnificent beauty. It is still raining. Monsoon in Sikkim usually ends by the first week of September but this time it has still not stopped. Landslides are frequent during monsoons. One such landslide results in our turning back half way down the road to the waterfalls. The JCB which was excavating the loose soil and stones dumped on the narrow road, itself has got stuck in the mud. I climb out to check the mess and see the tourist cars waiting on the other side. They probably must have started their sightseeing tour at 8:00 AM. It is good we started late else like them we too would have got stranded on the other side…waiting for two or three hours until the road got cleared! Tamang reverses the SUV and we retrace our path. On the way, we pass some tourist cars and Tamang updates each driver with the news. We reach the road to Khecheopalri Lake. And then, a returning taxi driver tells Tamang that the road to the lake is blocked due to landslide. Damn! I didn’t think I missed much in not seeing Kangchenjunga Falls. I mean, I can imagine the cascade to be pretty but when it becomes a tourist attraction it loses its natural beauty. But I was eager to see the Khecheopalri Lake which is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists. It is believed to be a wishing lake…any wish made before it comes true. The lake is surrounded by trees but the water surface is always free of leaves. There is a myth that whenever a leaf falls in the lake, it is picked by a bird.
We pass by Darap village. There are no signs of any villager. Tamang tells me that Sikkim is famed for its cardamom. In fact, it is home to the largest cultivated area of cardamom and produces more cardamom than any other Indian state. And I always thought the South Indian states of Kerala and Karnataka were famous for cardamom production. Hmmm, so much about knowing your own country!
We drive towards Dentam valley. The landscape is so scenic…
Close by are the Changey Falls. Like Rimbi and Kangchenjunga, this waterfall is also located along the road…
In fact, the water falls on the road before gushing down into the valleys…
There are steps to climb to the top to get a closer view of the falls…
Watch my videos: Changey Waterfalls – 1
The cold water spray is so refreshing. I try to move a little closer but while doing so I lose my balance over a few loose rocks and… Splash! My shoes land in water. Booohoooooo…
It has been raining throughout the day and I don’t think my shoes are going to dry off even by next morning. I return to the car. It is 12:00 PM. The next stop is the Cheese Factory at Dentam. This is where Gouda Cheese is manufactured under a Swiss technical collaboration to be marketed by Amul Dairy under its brand name as Amul Gouda cheese. A small group of middle-ages tourists are already enquiring about buying the cheese. Me too, I’m interested. Till the man at the counter tells us that it can last for 3-4 days but after that it requires refrigeration. Uh-oh! We are going to be travelling at that time so we just look around the small place and leave. I wonder how many tourists are in Pelling today. The previous evening, the place had looked so desolate except for a foreign couple walking along the road between Lower and Middle Pelling. But today, I’m seeing a few tourist cars on the road.
The last stop before lunch is the Singshore Bridge…
A common view in Sikkim, a deep valley with river flowing through it…
Walking on the bridge, I feel the vibrations each time a vehicle passes by. Only one small vehicle is allowed to pass on the bridge at a time. So I’m taken aback when I see two SUVs approaching while I’m standing mid-way through the bridge. The strong vibrations make me stand rooted to the spot. It feels as if the bridge is shaking.
Check this view of the valley from one of the small holes on the bridge…
Watch my videos: Singshore Bridge – 1
By the time we return to the hotel for lunch, it is 1:30 PM. My head feels a bit heavy after sitting through the drive along curvy and uphill roads. There is a chill in the air, but nothing harsh. I haven’t yet recovered from my nagging cough so I ask for a sweet corn chicken soup. After all, chicken soup is good for health. Despite the balcony and windows being closed, I feel a bit cold. I put on a pair of thick woollen stockings, pull up the blanket and enjoy the soup in bed.
I’m loving the serene atmosphere of Pelling. I wish that I get the time to walk around the place from Lower Pelling to Upper Pelling when we return from the tour in the evening. But again, I know it will be dusk by then. If I had known Pelling was going to be so lovely, I would have planned a three night stay instead of two nights. I cannot cut down my stay in Gangtok and North Sikkim but I can skip Kalimpong from the tour. If I do that, on the last day of my trip, I will have to travel for 5-6 hours from Gangtok to the airport to take the afternoon flight back to Mumbai. Depending upon traffic and the road condition, there could be delays. I don’t like the thought of missing my flight so I decide to stick to my itinerary.
Pelling is a very small town and because of its scenic beauty and stunning views of Kanchenjunga and the surrounding ranges it is emerging as a popular tourist attraction after Gangtok. It is the perfect place for long walks.
Tourism is a major source of income for Sikkim. Numerous waterfalls, sky high mountains, beautiful deep valleys, swirling rivers, lush greenery, mesmerizing landscapes and a tranquil atmosphere…For a small state, Sikkim offers a lot to its delightful visitors, whether they are general tourists, adventurous travellers or die-hard mountaineers.
Due to a centuries-long population influx from Nepal, the majority of people in Sikkim are from the Nepali community. As a matter of fact, Sikkim is the only state in the country with a majority of Nepali population. So Nepali is the lingua franca of this state which has 11 official languages. There is a general misconception regarding the Nepali people. Nepali is the name of the community spread over Nepal, India, Bhutan, etc. In India, it denotes Nepali speaking Indian nationals and does not, in any way, represent people with Nepalese citizenship.
Sikkimese are peace-loving people. In spite of differences in culture and religion, they live in harmony. The major communities are Nepali, Lepcha and Bhutia. The early inhabitants of Sikkim are the Lepchas. The Bhutias migrated from Tibet in the 14th century. Tibetans reside mostly in the northern and eastern parts of the state. Hinduism has been the state’s major religion since the arrival of the Nepali. The second largest religion is Buddhism. Most Lepchas are Tibetan Buddhist by religion, which was brought by the Bhutias, some were converted by British missionaries in the late 19th century. The traditional religion of the Lepcha is Mun (or Bon), an animist practice which coexists with Buddhism and Christianity.
At around 2:30 PM, the attendant knocks at the door to inform me that Tamang is waiting downstairs. The bed feels so warm I don’t feel like leaving it. Besides, it is just half an hour since I have had my soup. So we leave at 3:00 PM. It has stopped raining. Our first destination is the second oldest monastery in Sikkim, the Pemayangtse Monastery.
Established in 1705, the Pemayangtse (“the perfect Sublime Lotus”) Monastery is the seat of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. It is one of the premier and most important monasteries in Sikkim. Like other important monasteries, it attracts plenty of tourists, especially in the months of February, July and December when special festivals are held with grand celebrations.
Located on a hill top, the monastery commands a panoramic view of the Kangchenjunga in the surroundings. But today the sky is not clear! It is quiet outside except for some monks and a few tourists. There is nobody inside the prayer hall. I walk around the aisles taking in the antique idols, objects of worship, the butter lamps, offerings, colourful wall paintings and sculptures, etc. And then I hear the sound of a blowing horn. I see a small staircase outside the side door of the room. Small monks are on their way up the stairs. I guess it is time for their class. When the crowd becomes a trickle, I make my way upstairs. The classroom looks similar to the prayer hall except for the many benches for the young monks. Everybody looks up when I enter. I feel very happy seeing boys of all ages smiling and waving at me, following me through curious eyes. But I think I’m distracting them from their lessons so I leave the room after a quick look around. The monastery has a beautiful painted wooden structure of Zantho Pelri – the heavenly palace of Guru Rinpoche. The details on it are very interesting. I see khadas, like the one I received at my hotel, placed as offerings. Also amazing is the monastery’s small museum. It has a wonderful collection of 17th and 18th century artefacts belonging to the monastery like hats used in the Tibetan hat dance, prayer robes, headgear, masks, manuscripts, stone plates, sculptures, vessels, offerings, butter lamps, traditional horns, etc. I’m very happy about my visit to this grand monastery.
There is just one more place left to visit, the Rabdentse Ruins. Sikkim was a monarchy until 1975, when it joined the federal union of India. Rabdentse was the second capital of Sikkim, after Yuksam. Today, the 250 years old ruins of the former capital are set deep inside a sort of miniature natural park. Tamang tells me it takes 45 minutes to reach the site. Since my cellphone is now working for me only as a timekeeper, I tell him I’ll be back in two hours.
I don’t see anybody around as I walk down the small wet path, mucky in places, surrounded by thick forest. It’s very odd. I wonder what lies ahead… beautiful ruins or some wild creature. Nevertheless I walk on, blissfully enjoying the sound of chirping birds.
Watch my videos: Forest trail leading to the Rabdentse Ruins -1
And then I reach the spot where a magnificent tall tree stands shining in contrast to the black hole I see ahead on my path…
There is something about the tree. It looks quite old and sturdy with branches spreading out high above. And then suddenly I see what I think is, a wild hen or perhaps a bird, popping its slightly reddish head out from the thick undergrowth around the base of the tree. So cute! I think it has noted my presence because in the next instant it’s gone. (Later I learn that the state bird is the Blood Pheasant, which looks pretty much like the one I have seen.)
The black hole that I see ahead puts me in a doubt for a few seconds. I have a quick conversation in my head. Should I enter…should I not? Why shouldn’t I? Even the wildest creature would melt before me. If I turn around, I will lose the opportunity to see the beauty which might lie beyond. I still don’t move. Is it fear of the unknown? The moment the question pops out, I walk straight ahead into the pit darkness. It is weird but I feel as though I have passed a very important test with flying colours.
Watch my video: Forest trail leading to the Rabdentse Ruins -3
The encouraging signboards, placed by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) at every few hundred metres, tell me that the ruins are now very close.
And finally, I’m welcomed to the site by this ancient chorten (Buddhist shrine)
Walking further, I hear the sound of animated shouts and laughter. There are around ten people out there taking photographs. When I take in the beauty of the surroundings, I’m totally awed by it. And to think I was almost in two minds whether to see it or not!
There are just a few ancient remnants to be seen but the magnificent landscape is a feast for the eyes. It is a very secluded, romantic place.
Clouds dance above the forest covered hills…
It is so lovely to find scattered benches like this one, where visitors can sit to enjoy the delightful views…
The beautiful rainbow on the left adds colour to the blue skies…
I can only imagine how glorious the scenic view from the top of the Ruin would be in the month of March when across the deep valleys, the mystic heights of the Kangchenjunga and the other snow-capped Himalayan ranges are visible throughout the day and the amazing varieties of flowers of the region like Rhododendron and Orchids are in full bloom.
It is 4:40 PM. I know I need to leave. The weather might change anytime soon. Halfway into my return, I hear approaching voices and a few seconds I see a group of half a dozen foreign tourists led by their guide walking along the path. They are surprised to see me. I can sense their thoughts. She is walking alone in the forest!
When I reach the car, Tamang is surprised to see me back so soon. I tell him it took me twenty minutes to reach the site and fifteen minutes on the way back. He tells me what I already know: I walk at a rapid pace. I thoroughly enjoyed this last stop of the tour. It has left me wanting for more.
Now that the rains have stopped, I can see that there are plenty of hotels in Pelling. We stop in Middle Pelling to book my shared taxi ticket to Gangtok for the next morning. There is only one taxi that goes to Gangtok and it leaves at 7:00 AM. The front seats are already booked so I have no other choice but to take the middle row ticket. It costs 250 rupees. Instead of returning to the hotel, I tell Tamang to drive to the nearby old helipad. It is almost sunset time.
Watch my video: Evening view from the Old Helipad
From the helipad, right below, I can see my hotel among other buildings in Upper Pelling…
It gets dark so we return to the hotel. It has been a truly enjoyable day. If only the day could have been lasted long enough for me to go on a beautiful walk! Tourists are slowly tricking into Upper Pelling. I have seen a few at the helipad and now I can hear a male voice in the corridor. Someone has checked into one of the rooms on my floor.
For now, I’m looking forward to dinner to relish the homemade local cuisine. It is cold outside so when the attendant knocks at the door a little after seven to inform that dinner is ready I tell him that I prefer to have it in my room. Minutes later, a plateful of half-moon shaped momos reaches my room. They taste absolutely delicious with mixed vegetable filling inside. Twenty minutes later, the attendant knocks at the door again. I open it to find Tamang’s brother carrying this amazing food. I don’t believe my eyes!!! It’s the sort of food I have been longing to eat! If I had known about this before, I would have dined downstairs in the restaurant itself. Both, Tamang’s brother and the attendant, are very happy to introduce me to their cuisine and I’m more than happy to try it.
Starting from the left, there is Chhurpi ko Achaar (cottage cheese pickle), Gundruk (dried mustard leaves), Iskus (Chayote), Rayo ko Saag (mustard greens) and Ninguro and Chhurpi (fiddlehead ferns with homemade cheese) served with steamed white rice. And, there is a Nepalese black lentil gravy, Kalo Dal (above) and chicken with radish (below).
And the rice pudding dessert, Kheer…
Sikkimese people are essentially rice-eaters. Most of them are non-vegetarians. Meat is important to them and includes pork and beef. Their food culture is mostly Nepali in character. Like in Nepali cuisine, fermented foods are important in Sikkimese cuisine. Vegetables are naturally fermented, sun dried and preserved to last through the long, harsh winter.
I try a little bit of the pickle and… hooooohaaaa! It is very spicy because of the local hot chillies in it. I finish off everything except the pickle and rice. The rice dessert is very filling.
At 8:30 PM, I go downstairs to settle the hotel bill as I will be checking out early the next morning. Tamang’s brother is at the desk. I’m pleased to find that Tamang has lowered the tour cost to 1800 rupees. I was going to talk with him about lowering the cost as we had not been to Kangchenjunga Falls and Khecheopalri Lake as planned. Tamang’s wife is working on her laptop in the restaurant when I thank her for the wonderful dinner. Tamang must be tired and resting. It had been a rough, bumpy ride.
I watch TV for some time before going off to sleep at around 10:00 PM…….
Coming next: My Adventures in Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong – Part 3 of 5