(Long post ahead – proof that I’m the biggest chatterbox you ever had the misfortune to read)
The 4 hour drive from Darjeeling to Gangtok was awesome beyond words. Like I’ve mentioned somewhere before, the color of an unpolluted stream of water surrounded by green valleys is, indeed, aquamarine. The Teesta starts its journey from some glacier up in the Himalayas (or so I think, my laziness reached new heights of late so it prevents me from even googling or Wiki-ing this piece of information – beg your pardons!) and keeps us company all the way up to Gangtok.
Gangtok is the capital of Sikkim. Remember how we used to falter when we had to mug up the state capitals of the North-eastern states? Tripura-Agartala, Nagaland-Kohima? I forgot Manipur, sorry. Anyway, Sikkim shares its borders with 3 other countries – China, Bhutan and Nepal (Tibet is part of China, you see), so the Indian Army is omnipresent. It has 4 districts – North, South, East and West – and the reason I know this is thanks to our taxi-driver-cum-tourist-guide, Lama. I was so appalled with myself when I didn’t even know what language they speak in Gangtok that I asked even the most silliest of questions (like what do you guys eat?) to know more about their culture and life. Oh, most people speak Nepali by the way and the staple food is rice and noodle-like things. And no, there is no language called Sikkimese.
We stayed at the Royal Plaza in Gangtok – and we got a room with a view! True star-hotel standards including the expensive food and no seperate non-smokers dining area (which I feel is a horrible horrible thing ‘coz I cannot stand cigarette smoke).
Room at Royal Plaza, Gangtok
The view from our room was absolutely amazing. We could see the tiny brook (Teesta, again) flowing between two valleys and also the cable car between two hills.
We took the 20 minute cable car ride, mostly over part of the valley and a busy city street. Not as scenic as the rides would be in Darjeeling (which they have now discontinued), but for a first-timer like me, it was still neat. I told you it was a trip with lots of first-times!
There are two main tourist spots that are must-see when we come to Gangtok – Changu Lake and Nathula Pass. Changu Lake is at a height of around 13000ft above sea level. It’s a beautiful lake surrounded by snow-clad mountains and during peak winter, the entire lake freezes over. 2kms upward from Changu is a place called Baba Mandir. Now, don’t mistake it for a religious place – it’s nothing like that, it’s also totally bizarre and in a way, spooky. The temple is dedicated to an army officer who died sometime around the Indo-China war in the 70s and who’s spirit (yep, spirit – ghost – atma – whatever you wanna call it!) still guards the regions surrounding the Indo-China border. He still gets his pay from the Indian Army, he goes on vacation for 3 months in a year, there’s an Army jeep that picks him up at his home everyday and drops him at his post and brings him back in the evening. And no, he is not alive!!!! Well, when our driver told us this story for a minute my husband and I looked at each other not knowing if this person was indeed dead or alive!
The biggest, most awesome part of this entire vacation was…SNOW!! Ok, for all you folks who live in places where snowfall is as common as sunshine, well, not so for me. I live in South India where even rainfall is a big deal. So, ladies and gentlemen, I have now officially touched snow. Yeah, took me this long, I know. There was snow around Changu lake and Baba Mandir was entirely covered in snow, rather ice ‘coz the snow had melted and frozen back! That kinda made it too hard to play with, so my plans to build a snowman a-la Calvin unfortunately did not materialize! 😦 Well, there’s always a next time.
Snow clad mountains – the lake on the right side is Changu
Apart from the usual parks (and a greenhouse!) and view points (Tashi view point – for a view of the Kanchenjunga), the other highlight of Gangtok is the Buddhist monastaries. There are two main monasteries – Rhumtek and Lingdum. The former is the biggest in terms of number of monks and the latter was gifted by Jackie Chan! Nice, no? Now, our taxi driver also told us a lot about Buddhism and how the monasteries work. Did you know that every Buddhist family has to – has to – send one male child to the monastery to be a monk? Yeah, it’s not like how it is in Christianity – its not voluntary. The children are as young as 3 or 4 yrs old when they are sent. Also, when an elderly person dies in the family, the family then has to go to a monastery and bring back a child monk and pay for his upkeep and studies. I guess it brings about a whole of community-dwelling kind of feeling in this religion.
Lingdum Monastery was bigger in size than Rhumtek and the surroundings were more newer. The monasteries get their funds from the Govt. for their day-to-day affairs and also as donations from patrons. They contain the prayer halls, classrooms, living quarters and cafeterias for the monks. It was a very englightening experience to see a different culture and religion that we only hear about!
We spent 4 days in Gangtok and that was more than enough – we even had a day off where we didn’t do much of sight seeing. The weather was very very pleasant (as in not bone-chilling-cold) and the city was really nice. Hey, did I mention we watched Dhoom – 2 there?! Yay, we did! There are 2 movie theatres (only) in Gangtok, and one belongs to Danny Denzongpa! Our taxi driver was really sad that Sikkim’s only claim to fame were Danny Denzongpa and Bhaichung Bhutia (who unforunately was ‘bought’ over by Bengal!).
So 4 days in Gangtok, and we were back down to Bhagdogra and then to Calcutta. I wanted to keep this for last – Calcutta is the most polluted city I’ve ever been to! No offence to any Calcuttans, I’ll never go back to the city if I could help it. It was so dirty, so polluted, the buildings haven’t seen a coat of fresh paint in decades and everything was covered in dust!! To make it up to ourselves, we indulged by going to Saurav Ganguly’s restaurant, Saurav’s, in Park Street. Dada was busy with his Ranji Trophy, so we didn’t see him 😦 The restaurant was nice – spread across 4 floors, each for Indian, Chinese, Conti and a Pub-Dance-floor. Only highlight of Calcutta – apart from a visit to Victoria Palace ofcourse.
Phew, long post, wasn’t it? Don’t be sad, it’s over finally! 🙂
So that sums up our week long trip to Darjeeling and Gangtok. We went during the off-season, so it was a bit colder than pleasant. The peak season is around April-June and then Sep-Oct. But if you need snow, you better be here in winter!
Amazing places, totally worth the time and money spent! It’s only when you go on trips like this that you realize that our country has soooooo many different cultures and climates all packed into one compact country called India!