Friday, April 16, 2010

Mountains, monks and merriment

Sikkim is a land of soaring mountains, gompas (bhuddist temples), prayer flags and waterfalls that seem to fall out of the sky. As we started the 1,500m ascent from Siliguri to Gangtok the temperature started to drop considerably and Raj, our driver, looked rather anxiously at my thin shalwar kameez and Sarah's flip flops and asked if we had any warmer clothes with us. An hour later we were rummaging in our rucksacks for additional clothing to keep us warm for the rest of the journey – in fact for the rest of the holiday. As well as the Himalayas rising above us and the change in the faces of the people, we were thrilled to see that, unlike other parts of India, alcohol is freely available - in fact every shop seemed to have the stuff on open display. The following day, after spending the morning in Gangtok waiting for our permits to be processed, we started our journey up to North Sikkim. The scenery was fantastic and, with deep tree-lined gorges below and huge snow-capped mountains above, we wound our way up to the ever higher and ever colder Northern territories. The first stop was Lachen a UNESCO heritage town nestled on the mountain-side which had a very frontier feel to it despite being quite a distance from the heavily guarded Sikkim/Tibet border. The area is dominated by the Bhutia who are Tibetan in origin (having migrated in the 15th Century when the Tibetan Bhuddists split into two camps) and the bridges and houses were awash with prayer flags which added to the romanticism of the area. The next day we were supposed to go to even further North to a place called Thanggu and had got up at 5am for the trip. However about a km out of Lachen the road had, quite literally, slipped down the mountain-side so instead we made a leisurely drive to Lachung marvelling not only at the scenery but also the jaunty road signs. Here, we stayed in a traditional Tibetan house with beautifully carved wooden doors and delighted in the fare on offer - salt and yak-butter tea served in really pretty cups with lids; momos – ravioli-type parcels; and tongba-beer which is made by pouring warm water over fermented millet which you then sip through a bamboo straw out of wooden tankards. From Lachung we made our way to the Yumthang Valley – a truly spectacular area dominated by the Himalayas. There was talk of doing a small trek but at 4,000m I was feeling a bit breathless so Roshan, our guide, suggested that we could drive further on up to Point Zero where the road ends a few km from the Tibetan border. This required a small bribe for the police – it's a heavily restricted area not least because China nicked 2.52 km a few years back – but I love that kind of thing , we really were going to the end of the earth and I was in heaven as we nearly were – Point Zero is 4800m above sea level. The next morning we trekked up to Lachung Gompa – the monasteries all seems to be situated on the tops of hills and I often arrived thanking the gods I'd actually made it. Roshan and Sarah were much fitter than me so marched ahead whilst I slowly puffed my way up pretending the delay was due to stopping to take photographs. Raj, I noticed, always opted to stay behind to wash the car – he has a touch of OCD in this respect and Sarah and I would wince for him as the mud and the puddles splattered his recently polished car. Further south and down, we made our way to Tingvong, a Lepcha village situated a 15km drive deep into the forest. The Lepcha are the indigenous population of Sikkim and our stay with them highlighted the melding of traditional and modern culture. In the evening we sat in the family kitchen eating traditional Lepcha food and drinking more tongba whilst we watched "The Undertaker" and "Shawn Michaels" beat each other up in an American staged-wrestling fight on satellite TV. Next morning, after a trip up to the family gompa, we stood outside a small cave where Sitim, the son of our host, explained that his grandmother had emerged from it as a snake and founded the clan –he wasn't that sure of the details but was in no doubt about his origins. The rest of the trip was spent in the much warmer South and West Sikkim. Here we visited an array of spectacular gompas some of which you could, fortunately, drive up to; the castles and coronations thrones of the kings of Sikkim – the last of which was deposed in 1975 when India gained control; and we arrived at Kecheopalri Lake just in time to see and take part in the annual blessing of the holy books which included child monks playing a variety of instruments whilst ascending the inevitable mountain to the gompa. The only disappointment was that we didn't get to see the third tallest mountain in the world. Supposedly visible all over Sikkim and worshipped as a god, it was permanently covered in cloud when we were there - I suspect the god was angry that I had shortened his name to K3 rather honouring him in full as Khangchendzonga. All in all, Sikkim was a truly magical place – an assault on the senses - and definitely worth a return trip. Maybe K3 … sorry Khangchendzonga … will have calmed down a bit and will agree to reveal himself to me.  Click here to see photos. Click here to see trip movie.

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