Mountains of West Sikkim

Trip Start Dec 26, 2010
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27
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Trip End Sep 10, 2011


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Where I stayed
Phramrong? - Amazing room r600

Flag of India  , Sikkim,
Friday, March 4, 2011

By JB (and bits from JP)

Fighting the Indian bureaucracy brings the rage out. Post offices and state borders especially. On this occasion it was the post office in Gangtok and their insistence that any packages sent must be first covered in cloth, stitched and finally sealed with wax along all seams. Doesn't seem didactic in the least... Pushy Indian men in the queue had to be firmly and repeatedly told to wait their turn.There is no such thing as an Indian queue.

Perhaps it is India’s way of preventing us from becoming soft and easing up, as we have had a very easy time of it in Sikkim. Local transport is simple and convenient (if slow). Everyone speaks English and is friendly and accommodating. Because it is not yet tourist season the hotels rates are highly negotiable, and so we have been staying in clean and stylish rooms (still have to use our own sheets though).  There haven’t been many tourists though slightly more whities than in the North Eastern states. We have been used to having India to ourselves and are slightly miffed to discover that we have to share with half a dozen other trekker type whities in town.

We set out from Gangtok on a sumo (shared jeep) heading west to Pelling. It was a normal journey, in that it started late and took longer than it should have.

Sikkim is a mystical place of plummeting valleys and soaring peaks.  A high holy place. Most of the towns in the west are between 1800-2200 metres and provide a perfect lookout point for the mountains in the distance (Pelling is 2150).

The roads connecting the towns weave along massive ridges in a series of stomach churning Z’s that continue up and down as far as the eye can see. Once the sumo finally got to the top of a ridge we would see a village on the neighbouring spur just 2-3 kms by the crow, but it would be 10km down the ridge and then another 10km to get up the other side. I reckon the climb/drop would be about 800 metres in elevation. The roads are single laned, sometimes unsealed and farm track rough in places. This is why even though it is only 80kms wide and 100kms long seems much greater. It takes half a day to get across the valley.

We arrived in the hotel settlement of Pelling just on dusk.  The setting sun was breathtaking framed in mist-shrouded mountains. The young lad that worked for the sumo that we took the last 10 km of the trip beamed with pride as Jo and I sat quietly in the back, looking spellbound out the window. I’m an atheist, but it is moments like this that sometimes make me wonder if I could have it all wrong.

The entire (tiny) village of Pelling has been built running down a ridge that provides spectacular views of a range of mountains straddling Sikkim and Nepal, including Mt Khangchendzonga (third largest mountain in the world at 8500m). It comes as no surprise that Pelling depends totally upon tourism and its 80 hotels make the town seem larger than reality.

On our first day we went for a walk to the picturesque Pemayangtse Gompa (Monastery). This gompa was established at the turn of the 18th century and is apparently one of the most significant in Sikkim. Pemayangtse is set on a ridge top with amazing views into valleys on either side. As in all the monasteries there are glassed off giant Buddha statues at the front, long padded benches for the monks to sit, and elaborate and intricate tapestries and paintings on the walls.

We also saw the ruined palace of the chogyals. From the Lonely Planet:

'Lephas, the ‘original’ Sikkimese people, migrated from Assam and Burma in the 13th century, followed by Bhutans who fled from religious strife in Tibet during the 15th century. The Nyingmapu form of Mahayana Buddhism arrived with three refugee Tibetan lamas who encountered each other at the site of modern day Yuksom. Here in 1641 they crowned the first chogyal (king) of Sikkiam. At their most powerful the chogyals’ rule encompassed eastern Nepal, upper Bengal and Darjeeling. However, much territory was later lost during wars with Bhutan and Nepal and throughout the 19th century large numbers of Hindu Nepali migrants arrived, eventually coming to form a majority of Sikkim’s population. In 1835 the British bribed Sikkim’s chogyal to cede Darjeeling to the East India Company. Tibet, which regarded Sikkim as a vassal state, raised strong objections. In 1849.. the British annexed the entire area... In 1903-04, Britain’s real-life James bond character Francis Younghusband twice trekked up to the Sikkim-Tibet border. There, with a small contingent of soldiers, he deliberately set about inciting a fracas that would ‘justify’ an invasion of Tibet. Sikkim’s last chogyal ruled from 1963 to 1975, when the Indian government deposed him after a revolt by Sikkim’ s Nepali population. China never recognised India’s claim to Sikkim until 2005, so prior to this, to bolster pro-Delhi sentiment, the Indian government made Sikkim a tax-free zone... As a result Sikkim is surprisingly affluent by Himalayan standards.’

Beer is cheap in Sikkim, with big bots only 42 rupee each, which is less than 50p. People stock up before crossing the border into Darjeeling. (Except us, as we didn’t click in time.)

We returned to Pemayangtse Gompa another day (along with most of Pelling town & the local primary school) as there was the annual festival conducted by the resident monks. The costumes were wonderfully elaborate, as were the dances.

There were a number of characters represented in the dances, most obvious being the twelve animals that make up the Chinese calendar. The dances went on for 15-30 minutes each and considering the festivities lasted from about 10.30 to nearly 2pm I assume there are some very tired monks up on the hill that evening.

I chatted with a local man at the festival and his last words to me seem to sum up the day. He said "You are a very lucky man to be here for this festival."

Later:

The next day we headed up the road to the Sangachoeling Gompa (monastery) which is perched atop the ridge with amazing views in all directions (if only the mist would clear). All the monasteries are hill top. We hear of one monastery that had to be moved to a lower point as the monks were being picked off by a yeti. It certainly seems suitable yeti territory around here. In the cold quiet nights we huddle under the heaped bedding listening to the flap of the prayer flag outside our window, howl of the dogs and strange yelps echo across the valley.

Sangachoeling was founded in 1642 and is the second oldest gompa in Sikkim. It has 57 monks and 27 padawan learners (novices). It is the most peaceful and picturesque gompa that we’ve seen, a place for quiet contemplation.




Now for something completely different

The dogs here are a throwback to the ancient days of dog kind. At night they bark and howl as they jostle to maintain their territory. During the day they lie about in the streets asleep in the sun. Some accompany us on our walks as unlike the locals, we are nice to them.

Indians are the slowest people on earth to answer their phones. It seems to be standard practice to pull the ringing phone out of the pocket, gaze at the screen as if deciding to answer or not for five to ten seconds, then answer. I have a sneaking suspicion that people are just big fans of their ring tones in this part of the world and wish everyone to share their excitement. I don’t.

Our hotel room has a number of channels which enables me to watch loads of the World Cup. At the minute I’m watching NZ rip into the Zimbabwe middle order.  Watched the Irish take down the English on Wednesday and the draw between India and England as weekend. Loving it!

Styris just took the 6th wicket – nice one Scotty.
Slideshow Report as Spam

Comments

Michael on

Sweet blogs today there J&J, looking good. Go back to the bushman beard though James, it suits you

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