Monday, December 29, 2008

Sikkim - 3 (Nathula)

I continue from here...Sikkim-2 (Pelling)

Next morning, after a quick breakfast, we left Gangtok. Our driver for the day was O.Bhutia, a very talkative and interesting character. He would scold almost everyone. “kuch teek nahi yaan saab” (Nothing is okay here, sir) he would say and scold the Government officials, police, army and people. He would ask– Kya hoga yis desh ka? (What will happen to this country?) His most favorite target was BRO, Border Road Organizations. “Ek number ka chor hai” (Thief number one, they are) he would say before mentioning anything about BRO. He told how they have been constructing the worst roads that get damaged in no time. He told that the organization is a big fraud. The road construction to Nathula, he said has been going on for years. His description of the issue was rather humorous. He would say that Chinese people, with their binoculars, look at our roads and laugh, while their roads are extremely well maintained. He is not totally wrong either; the roads are in pathetic condition near the border. To make all this more funny, BRO has boards showing their commitments at almost every bend in the mountains. Banners like “East or West BRO is the best”….”BRO never Looks backs”…”BRO serves nation” now gave a much ironic and sarcastic thoughts.

Several jeeps followed one another as the road swiveled around the mountains. We passed through Black cat division army camps and bought some tax free domestic goods. At Shertong, is Indo-China trading center. Chinese traders are allowed to travel till here. Similarly Indian traders are allowed to drive about 6-8kms from the border, into China. This route is also the old Silk route that once was the main silk trading route from China to India.

On our way, a jeep ahead of us stopped working and we had to give the passengers a drive till the border. Four men from Vishakaptnam joined us. They had trekked and traveled for 18 days in Nagaland, Mizoram, Assam, Shilong and now Sikkim. They had had a good travel around northeast and told me that Shilong is a must see kind of place. They had worked out a good deal with the travel agent in Sikkim.

Chinese Side And a Mountain of Bhutan in backdrop

We saw some snow at Nathula pass, which is at 14400ft above sea level, almost the same height as of Pikes Peak, Colorado, which I have hiked.

At the border, many Indians were eager to shake hands with the Chinese soldier and click a picture with him. We too got one clicked as though it was a ritual to be followed. :-) The Chinese concrete roads looked fabulous as compared to our roads. On both sides, new conference rooms are being built. Surprisingly, the other side of the border had only three construction workers and few soldiers at the check post. For the Chinese, this was no tourist point. Why it was for us? I thought. Perhaps we take pride in being in other countries or near it, reason for which may be many.

Spoke to few of our soldiers there. They get along well with the Chinese but language becomes a barrier and limits more conversations.

Our next stop was a Baba Mandir. Baba Harbajan singh was a soldier who after death appeared in a friends dream and requested for a temple being built in his name. Wishes made here are believed to be fulfilled. Our driver suggested that we should see the original Baba temple and a place from where the KCD would look great. He convinced us to see this place by saying – Delhi Jake Tajmahal nahi deka tho kya faida? (Going to Delhi and not visiting Taj is no good)
On our way we passed through a small village called Thukla. Here we had delicious hot Maggie at a small hotel. Indeed the view of KCD from here was spectacular.

At Baba Mandir, the army had arranged free lunch to all devotees on the occasion of Guru Nanak Jayanthi. It was good to see the soldiers, cook, serve and clean the plates. They greeted us; spoke to us, offered food and water. They did not even let us clean the plates. It was a nice atmosphere. We visited the bunker of Baba.

On the way back, we stopped at Tsongo Lake. Here you can find many yaks for ride or just a picture. The drive back was very beautiful with clouds flowing into valley as the sun displayed its usual strokes.

To Be Continued....

Monday, December 22, 2008

Sikkim- 2 (Pelling)

I continue from here...Sikkim-1 (Getting There)

Next morning, at 6:00 Am it was a view, I had never witnessed before. From my balcony as I stood enjoying the chilled weather, I could see the sunlight act like a spot light on the Kanch-Chen Dzonga. And the mountain turned yellow, orange and then bright white. My dream to sit in a locale overlooking the mountains, sipping on a cup of tea finally came true. I could not take my eyes off the beautiful sight.

I got on to a chat with Tshering. He named for us, the different peaks of Kanch-Chen-Dzonga range; explained to us about the communities in Sikkim – Lepcha(The original inhabitants), Bhutia’s (Migrated from Tibet) and Sikkimee Nepalis (Migrated from Nepal and are now 70% of Sikkim Population). Several years ago, Bhutia’s and Lepcha’s signed a peace treaty keeping the mountain Kanch-Chen-Dzonga (KCD) as the witness. For Sikkimese, KCD is not simply a mountain; it’s a local guardian deity. I realized how important it is to know the local sentiments before traveling to a place, without which it is meaningless to be in a place. Every year sometime in July or August a festival is celebrated to worship the KCD.

After Parota’s & sabji for breakfast, we left for sightseeing around Pelling. Our tour plan was such that we had new vehicle and new driver each day. We drove to Rock Garden; Rimbi & Kanch-Chen-Dzonga falls. Kecheopalri Lake is a very sacred lake and a wish made here is considered fulfilled. Another specialty of this lake is that, even though it is surrounded by trees, not a single dry leaf is found on it. It is believed that bird’s pick the leafs away.

Boys Selling Oranges At Rock Garden.
Kecheopalri Lake

We went to Pemayangtse monastery; with its big beautiful prayer bell; painted walls; several flags with written scriptures, tied all over the place fluttered with the wind; young monks practiced some form of martial arts in the front yard, which was interesting to observe. Peaceful Buddha idols added so much beauty to the already serene atmosphere inside the monastery.

As I was interested in knowing more about how people lived there, we dropped rest of the plan from the itinerary and instead asked the driver to take us to some village. Kumar, a small boy joined us for the rest of the drive and he took us to a small village near Pelling by name “Char Gharey”.

We walked into some houses, interacted with villagers. All were very kind to show us around. The houses have a very different construction from ours. Each room is like an independent house; one shelter just for kitchen; another independent shelter as bedroom and so on.

We met a school teacher by name – Premkumar Suba. He travels about 2 hours to school every day. He teaches English and Social science to primary classes. He introduced to us, his 2 year old daughter and told that he had always wanted a daughter and because she was born fulfilling their strong faith to have a daughter, she is named Ni…., which means faith. Happy and surprised, I asked why he had wanted only a girl child. He told that in Sikkim a girl and boy child are equally treated. The main difference he thought was due to dowry system, which was not present in Sikkim and most often it is love marriage. Of course there are few restrictions such as religion etc but even that is minimal, he says. He told us that prayer flags contain mantras which are believed to reach God as it flutters in the wind. He is a Hindu Sikkimee Nepali. When I asked him about Ganapathi painting that I saw in monasteries he told that most of Buddhist epics are close to Hindu epics. (It is now after reading S L Bhyrappa’s novel Sartha, I realize the reason behind similarities)

Next morning (Nov-12th), After Breakfast and thanking Tshering, we left Pelling; kissed good bye to kCD which was today covered with cloud and more snow.

Gangtok is 5 hour drive from Pelling. On the way we stopped at Leping to view a Shiva temple; which is situated at a beautiful locale by Theestha River and overlooking the hills around. We reached Orange Village resort at Ranipool, Gangtok at around 2:00 PM. Took a walk down to a river.

Our tour agent called us to inform that we had to be ready at 7:00 AM next day and briefed us our plan for the day. I was excited to go to Nathula Pass, the coming morning.

To Be Continued….

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sikkim -1 (Getting There)

It is very difficult for a traveler to go on a honeymoonJ; to follow a path that some tour agent has planned for you; to stop the temptation of exploring the place and to keep the hands off the camera; and expect all this in Sikkim? In spite of all those, the traveler in me took over to experience the beauty of North eastern tip of India.

I had planned the entire trip few months ago, through a tour agent in Silliguri by name “Nature Beyond”. My married friends had advised me that, when you go on a trip such as this, everything should be arranged because it’s a time to enjoy each other’s company and not break your head on which hotel to book? Which places to see? And what mode of transportation and they were right. Though not my type of travels, I enjoyed the once in a while luxury of relaxing throughout the trip.

When P gave me the freedom to choose the destination, I was obviously happy to use this opportunity to explore a new place. Sikkim was always in my mind and I reconfirmed it after talking to couple of people who has been there before. One of my friends had been there too after his wedding and I got the details of the tour plans. Lakshmi, Celina & Mridula helped me with information about places I could see while I am there. Finally I presented a customized tour plan based on these tips, to the agents and asked them for a quote.

After that not so nice experience at Kolkata, we reached Bagdogra airport at around 4:30 PM. Mahesh, one of the planner from “Nature beyond” received us at the airport. We quickly drew out of airport, towards Sikkim. Bagdogra is at the northern tip of West Bengal and is the nearest airport to Sikkim (4 hours drive from Gangtok). On our way, Mahesh briefed us about the tour plan. I was a little curious to know more about the place and Mahesh was the best person to furnish us those details.

Siliguri is a nice city. There are few good universities and colleges. The weather is very pleasant.

Mahesh got off before we crossed the city borders and we drove ahead to Pelling, which is 5 hours drive from Siliguri. Our driver was nice enough to guide us through the journey and showed us the army training area, new dams being constructed etc. It was one of the most beautiful drives I have been in. The sky turned grey and then dark almost as soon as we drew out of Silliguri and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness outside, it could not stop admiring the beautiful outline of the mountains, voices from the Theestha River flowing adjacent the road and an almost full size moon showing us the way ahead.

Buses Ply from Silliguri to Gangtok and the fair is Rs140.

On the way we stopped at Unthees mile to have tea. A Bihari lady at the shop asked me to try Veg momo’s; made of steamed Miada, stuffed with vegetables. It tasted good.

We reached resort Pachu resort at Pelling at about 10:30PM. While nearing the resort, we had the first view of Kanch-Chen-Dzonga; with its snow headed crown, still bright enough to be seen in the middle of the night. We were mesmerized by the view.

At the resort we were welcomed by the proprietor Mr.Tshering Bhutia by honoring us with a white silk shawl which is called Khatag; Tibetan way of showing respect and wishing good. A cup of brandy was offered as welcome drink, which we politely declined.

The cook had prepared good food for us and he proudly told us that all the vegetables used is grown at the resort.

To Be Continued….

Monday, December 01, 2008

A Brief Encounter With Kolkata!

On our way to Sikkim, we had stopped at Kolkata. This post gives a brief but horrible experience we had in the city.

On November 10th, at 4:00 AM, P & I left to Bangalore International Airport. Impressed by the infrastructure and facility at the airport, we boarded our Air India flight at 6:15 AM to Kolkata. Our Kingfisher flight to Bagdogra got re-scheduled to 3:15 PM from 11:40 AM. While wondering what to do, P suggested that we take a tour around the city of Kolkata. We set off on a taxi, first to a Kali temple.

The temple is situated in a very congested area; several shops and countless people; and yes, agents who offer Darshans and poojas to us. As we got down the car, a bunch of agents came running to us asking for a package for the Darshan; if we denied their help or commission, they did not allow us to park the vehicle. Disgusted, we finally agreed to one agent for Rs51. He took us into the temple premises; here we saw goats being sacrificed. At main shrine, there were more agents, who appeared to be me as though hanging from walls and pillars of the temple. Few even blocked the view of God and only let some to climb up a step for better view. I was lucky to be pulled up in that crowd and get a glimpse of majestic idol of goddess Kali with her intense eyes.

The agent asked me to offer a dakshina of Rs101 to God. I refused and offered only Rs10. He warned me that the price had to be as he had mentioned; I replied that God would not fix prices for Dakshina. Tired from the crowd we wanted to escape, but our agent took us to some pandit even after we refused. On the way, few people asked us to wear a red thread around our neck, when refused; they forcibly put it around our neck and told that they did not expect any money. Everything was happening so fast in that crowd that we failed to rebel. The pandit started chanting some mantra; well they were not Vedic chants, but just words in Hindi asking God to bless us. He said to us that he needed no Dakshina from us and handed over a packet of Prasad and after a while asked us for Rs101 as dakshina to God. When I refused to give, he asked back the Prasad. By now we were extremely angry by the behavior of people at the temple and headed back. While returning back, the people who had offered the red-thread, started asking us for some money or to return the thread back; we returned that too.

My angry and irritated mind failed to understand if God even existed in such Chaos, created by these people. When I could not feel Bakthi in the shrine, I realized that to me God did not exist here. God’s presence according to me is felt through Bakthi; to my south Indian/ Mangalorean mentality bakthi originates in peaceful temple shrines as I watch, from a distance, the beautiful glowing idol of God which is illuminated by the light from a lamp; where Brahmins who perform pooja, strictly maintain Maddi (Purity) and respect the Vedic chants.

As we drove out of the horrible place, the fat boss of our agent shouted – "Agli Baar Panch hazar karch karvavonga." (Next time I will make you spend Rs5000) To which I replied – "Agli baar Avunga hi nahi." (I will never return again here)

We scolded the taxi driver for bringing us here and out of anger, even mentioned that this is the worst city we have been to. The driver then explained to us that the people at the temple were Bihari’s and not Bengali’s; the agents were all Bihari people who had migrated here.

This disgusting experience had spoiled our mood to see anything more in the city. We drove to the Second Bridge; a suspension bridge, from where we could see the famous Howrah bridge and drove around the majestic Victoria memorial. I asked our driver to take us to a KC Das outlet and then directly to the airport. We went to a KC Das outlet near airport. Rasagulla and Rasmalai tasted like heaven.

P & I discussed the horrible experience we had at the temple. It was clear that this temple was a source of income for so many people, who wanted to make easy money out of nothing. Population & unemployment, we thought were the major cause to such behaviors from people. In spite of all that reasons and answers, I was extremely hurt by the way; these people were representing our Dharma and bringing ill fame to it.

Perhaps, this experience became a reason for us to fall in love with the beauty of Sikkim and its wonderful people, even more than what we would have felt otherwise. It was literally as though running out of city life; out of chaos, to some place more serene and quite.