It was Darjeeling that I was heading for but a chat with tourists from Kolkata on train to Siliguri changed the destination. According to them Darjeeling just had scenic beauty but Gangtok was a beautiful city as well. Gangtok sounded exotic rather than romantic as with Darjeeling. One doesn’t need a passport to go there because Sikkim (whose capital Gangtok is) had joined the Indian Union in 1975.
While the train was nearing Siliguri the paddy fields on either side were giving way to shrub like plantations. The train had been chugging up for hours and was now a few hundred meters above sea level where the climate was suitable for tea to grow. On the horizon was a silhouette of gray mountains and I was told that the twinkling lights visible above a ridge was Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. I had a colleague Ghosh in Airforce who hailed from Shillong. He once brought a bottle of red chilly pickles which he said was very famous in his region. The chilies were tiny but when tasted shot through the tongue like an atomic explosion. Passengers with me smilingly nodded in agreement with my description of the unforgettable Shillong chilly. Should you need further confirmation check out “world’s hottest chilies” on http://www.gatewaytoindia.in/india-by-city/shillong/
The train reached Siliguri on time, the West Bengal town that is the main gateway to Sikkim. It was not even 8 pm but all shops on the way to Market Road where good lodgings were said to be available were already closed. Hiring and perching on a rickshaw that was moving leisurely I saw many people on the streets with the characteristic physical features of the hilly North Eastern states of India – short stature with smaller eyes and fair skin. The manager of the lodge I booked in advised it was better to start for Gangtok as early as possible in the morning.
There is no railway or airway to Gangtok and SUV’s are the main transportation. The journey takes 4 hours and the fare Rs. 150/- per person.
The ride was fast and smooth till it reached the foothills of the mountains after Sevok, a small town. Then the road ceases to have any resemblance to a national highway and becomes narrow and bumpy. There were quite a few stoppages due to landslips and “sinking” roads.
- SUV’s veering around a landslip
On the West Bengal – Sikkim border a wiry and pale faced cop who looked more South East Asian than Indian sent a momentary chill into the SUV by barking, “ID cards out!”. But it was to be just a routine shout. Before everyone whipped his ID Card out the SUV moved on and the cop was peering into the next vehicle behind. Early on the journey, there was a dam coming up on the River Teesta. The river originates in the Himalayas in northern Sikkim and runs across almost the entire length of the state. It is fed by melting snows and rains and reaches the plain in the West Bengal state of India and then crosses into Bangladesh to merge with the great Brahmaputra. Sharing of the waters of Teesta has been a contentious issue between India and Bangladesh. The Chief minister of West Bengal has recently refused to sign an agreement with the Prime minister of Bangladesh on the sharing of the river waters.
It was sloping terrain all around and one could hardly see a plateau anywhere. There was a student of Manipal Sikkim University in the vehicle and when we halted at a roadside eatery he was particular that I tasted Momo. I was not too keen to eat some spice-less food out of polite consideration but when I chewed the steam cooked Momos served with traditional red hot tomato pickle I liked it instantly and always looked forward to it as a snack or meal.
On approaching Gangtok the traffic started to crawl and the roadside views were no more scenic but of muti-storied buildings, old and new, like in most north Indian towns. The SUV finally ended the journey mid a sloping road that led to a basement parking lot filled with SUV’s. If I was missing any plateau on my way up here I was at a loss for even a flat foot-hold. Every road was sloping up or down or curving and every building stood precariously clinging on the hill slopes. It was pretty to look but shuddering to think. I wondered if they could ever build an airport here since the longest flat stretch I saw was the city centre road just about 50 mt wide and 200 meters long. If there is an earthquake it seemed parts of Gangtok, if not the whole of it, would topple down the slopes. (A few weeks later a 6.9 Richter scale earthquake hit Sikkim. According to news agency reports there were about 70 deaths, damages to 100,000 buildings and over 25 landslips on the road from Siliguri to Gangtok.)
The main market road of Gangtok
Two breathtaking sights to see during Gangtok visit are the snow covered Nathula-Pass and Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world. Special permits are to be taken for visiting Nathula as it is a border post between India and China but the lodges/hotels arrange them as well as transportation for the boarders. Foreigners have a more stringent procedure for permit. There is a charge of Rs. 100/- per visitor (Indian). It was interesting to see a billboard from the Indian Army near the main Sikkim tourist center clarifying that it is not the Indian Army but the Sikkim govt. that collects charges. The announcement aimed at improving Army’s public relations goes on to invite every visitor to Nathula for a free cup of tea at its camp! Journey to Nathula takes hours on SUV on narrower and more precarious roads and as the weather became foggy I didn’t mind giving it a miss. Kangchenjunga can be seen early in the morning from many a hotel room itself if the weather is good even for a few moments. Posted below is a captivating picture of the peak from the net.
Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world
There are taxis doing 7 or 10 point tours on share basis it costs just about Rs. 200 per head. The tour includes going to the highest point in Gangtok called Ganeshtok for a bird’s eye view of Gangtok.
And see waterfalls and parks and also take a pay ride on a cable car. From the cable car vehicles and houses on the hills below looked like toys but the crew was so anxious about balancing cabin passenger load that practically all had to stand with their feet planted firmly in one place.
It was a good physical workout walking up and down hilly roads and short cutting through stairways linking roads. We also visited a monastery atop a hill with a lot of Sikkimese monks, lamps and prayer wheels.
The first historic record of Sikkim is about Guru Rinpoche’s visit and blessing of the land in the 9th century. The original inhabitants of Sikkim are Lepcha tribals believed to have come from the far east. They write and speak a language which is a mix of Tibetan and Burmese. They converted first to Buddhism and finally after the arrival of the British a substantial numbers converted to Christianity. Settlers who came from Tibet in the 14th century are called Bhutias. The other settlers who constitute nearly 70% of the population are Nepalis who came in the 19th century. A lot of people from outside Sikkim particularly from Kolkata consider Gangtok as a good place to have holiday homes and invest in real estate. That seem to be leading to over-exploitation and overcrowding in Gangtok.
There was a cafeteria serving dosas with sambar and chatni down the road next to the main market. The counterman spoke some Tamil words proudly and said he had been to Kerala but exclaimed it was too far. I shared his sense of the distance as I, traveling from the far south, also felt the same way about Sikkim.
After a couple of days, it was again a four-hour journey on a shared SUV to return to the plain. It was a memorable trip; made the body fitter and mind free from usual thoughts. I also realised why some people want the whole of their life to be a long holiday.