Thursday, November 09, 2006

A SLICE OF HEAVEN


In our day to day life, we get so busy that we hardly have time for ourselves, leave alone others. We become prisoners of our work and our schedules. We have no time for anything or anyone. This demanding life can sap the juice out of us. And then, sometimes we get to visit places that purge you clean of all worries, responsibilities and sorrows for some brief moments. Why am I saying all this? Because this trip to Sikkim has made an indelible impression in my mind. This is my account of the journey…

The trip didn’t start on that auspicious a note. I was just back from Calcutta at 10 pm and had to leave again for New Jalpaiguri by 12:50 am. I was busy playin Harry Potter & that delayed us a bit, which turned out to be good since the train was delayed by over 2 hours. We reached New Jalpaiguri by 2pm next day & were on our way to Kalingpong immediately, where our night stay was to be. The next morning we left for Gangtok, Sikkim. All along, I realized that cold water makes brushing, washing & bathing a painful yet fun experience.

Immediately after checking into the hotel at Gangtok (meaning Hill-top), we were off for some Local sight seeing. This brought us to the Institute of Tibetology, Botanical Garden, Buddhist stupa, Handicraft emporium, and The Rumtek Monastery. The Rumtek Monastery is an extremely serene place and exudes calmness & peace. It has a huge courtyard which is used for prayers as well as for the annual ritual of monk dances with indigenously made Dragon masks. There are 4 main sects in Tibetan religion, and this monastery is the international headquarters of the Khajupa sect. The Spiritual Head of this monastery is 21 year Karmapa, who unfortunately, was not present there as there is a controversy regarding his presence. The Chinese Govt has asked the Indian Govt to hand him over whenever he comes here. As we all know, there is a major controversy & quarrel between China & Tibet. (I’ve heard though, that he was able to come to another part of India recently). However, the monastery was very beautiful and worth the long drive.

The next morning was to take us to YumThang valley & to Zero point (snow point). After some misunderstandings & mismanagement on the travel agents’ part, we were off. The road to Yumthang was terrible. Any similar adjectives would be a grave understatement & do no justice to the pathetic state of the roads. How shall I put it? It felt like being put into a washing machine, turning upside down, topsy turvy, again & again & again. And to top it all, the machine did not have a stop button!!! Jalebis would have been straighter than these roads, which were barely wide enough to hold 2 vehicles side by side. What made the journey even more miserable was that the Mahindra Maxx meant for 8 people was stuffed with 10 people according to the Govt. of Sikkim rules (huh???), so there was no space to breath leave alone move. By the end of the journey, hamari saari haddi pasliya idhar udhar ho gayi thi (all our bones & muscles had gotten re-arranged), as my Granny put it. And the other 8 occupants of the vehicle were Bongs, who can be sweet people but are mostly too talkative and too loud, and were very irritating in the closed confines of the vehicle. They kept getting excited at the sight of water in any form…. Waterfall, stream, river, taps!!!! For Goodness sake, I can understand the excitement for the first 10 times but they kept getting jumpy on every sight of water. By the time we reached Lachung, we must have crossed a 100 water bodies. I would know! They kept shouting “Jol! Jol!” (Bong for water) every single time we crossed water. Aaaaaargh!!!! Plus the retards actually smoked inside a closed vehicle. But once we started talking, it was amusing to realize their fascination about where we are from, are we Chinese or what etc. I guess that fascination will never die out & shall always remain a constant source of amusement to me.

We reached Lachung at 4:30pm. There were a few misgivings about the place where we were going to stay. It was a cozy little lodge by name Silver Oak, but the problem was that it was meant only for 8 people, and just like the Maxx, this place too, was overbooked. So we had 10 people trying to fit in a place meant for 8. No problem for me but there was a family with us, plus my Granny made a royal fuss too. Once all that was settled, we took off for a short walk. Lachung is completely cut out from civilization as there are no phone lines, no street lights and just a few general stores with very few things stacked up. Houses were scarce & people even lesser. Within minutes it was dark, and 5pm seemed like 10 in the night. The atmosphere was brilliant. Imagine complete darkness, and walking all alone with only the moonlight and a stick as companions, set against the backdrop of towering mountains, stars, and peaceful silence. Heaven!

We left at 6AM the next morning to Yumthang & Zero point. Again, the Bongs irritated me to n end. This time, it was twenty billion utterances of borf (ice). I kept my cool somehow, and in a few hours we were at Zero point. Though not as snow-laden as Snow point, Manali, but it was as cold or colder. We were wrapped in layers & layers of clothes, gloves, stockings, mufflers, shawls et al. At 14,000 feet, the oxygen level was pretty scant, and hence a little effort was driving the breath out of me and rendering me tired. Yumthang valley was a disappointment. It was surrounded by beautiful mountains, and far from civilization, it was very peaceful, but definitely not worth a rugged 6 hour journey, unless you have plans of trekking here.

We got back to our lodge in Lachung at 12, and after a good lunch were off again. This time, back to Gangtok. The journey was relatively comfortable this time but the Bongs negated that by upping their volume as well as their tempo. They actually beat the combined volume of my 2 loud buddies, Dr.M and Dr. I, hands down. I also realized that people can be so jobless to talk about mobile networks & roaming tariffs for 45 minutes!!! I was glad to be back in Gangtok, and all set for the next day’s journey to Baba Mandir, Tchangu Lake and Nathu La pass. I also met my friend, Dr Daisy, who is working in the STNM Govt hospital for the Psychiatry ward, and is doing quite well for herself.

Next morning Granny decided not to com along, since the journey to Yumthang had been such a pain. She was too exhausted and asked Mum & me to carry on. We left soon, and to our dismay realized that the documents we were carrying were not credible to prove that we were Indian citizens. You see, the Nathu la pass is open only for 6 months for trade between India & China, and this pass has opened after almost 50 years, only a few months ago. So there are very strict rules which allow no foreigner to go till Nathu la. As I said, unfortunately we were not carrying credible evidence of our Indian nationality (voter card, passport, ration card etc). After all, who the hell carried proof of citizenship in their own country, at least in India? But sadly, in spite of being Indians, we could not go to Nathu la because we “look” like foreigners. The entire fiasco incensed me to no end, but it also taught me a lesson that in this country I will always “look” like an outsider and it would be wiser to carry some valid proof (Driving license is not acceptable) next time round…

I was infuriated by this unfortunate turn of events, but the breath-taking beauty of Tchanghu calmed my nerves and by the time we finished, I had all but forgotten the disappointment that had beset me at the beginning of the day. The scary 70 degree climb up Kempang by Yak, the awesome view from the top, and the lake itself. I never had the slightest inkling how time flew by. We were back in Gangtok soon, and having packed our luggage, we set out for a last peaceful stroll in this small yet beautiful town. On this last walk, I realized and surmised many things that I had noticed over the last week. I found people to be very simple and content with their lives. Most of the things popular & abundant in cities were lacking here, but the irony is that these people are far more satisfied with life as we are disgruntled in spite of all the luxuries we can afford. Almost all the people here are employed, in all kinds of work and no work is looked down upon. Women form as much of the work force as do men. Of course, a common sight is that of countless people loitering around, but overall they are simple in nature and in their living. There are strict rules & regulations regarding traffic movement, cleanliness and littering. An offense in either can promptly relieve you of some burden from your wallet. Here is an off the track observation, but I’d really like to commend the coolies in this region. Unlike coolies in the plains who crib & cry over menial labor and overcharge you, these hard working guys can carry incredible amounts of load. Probably equivalent to what 5-6 coolies of the plains would carry, and that’s not an exaggeration. These coolies deserve every buck they get & you’d never feel cheated by them. I also got to hear a lot of Nepali songs during the journey, and the momos, thukpa and the titora reminded me so much of my school days, where I had so many Nepali friends. The mountains and the profusion of school children in their grey & white uniforms, lining the winding roads of these mountains reminded me of school and transported me to another world – that of Nostalgia…

On our way back to Siliguri, we made a stopover at Kalimpung, where Granny had some work. That done, we went for some local sight-seeing. Delo Biodiversity Park, Mangal Dham temple, and also an acquaintance’s house, where I played with the livestock. All said & done, we headed back for home. On our way back, I was deeply immersed in a book I had purchased in Gangtok – My land and my people by His Holiness, The Dalai Lama. That is a review for another time. We were home soon, and I wondered how vacations can start & finish in a fleeting moment… I felt energized and fortunate to have made such a fantastic, yet such a calming trip, and look forward to visit Sikkim again sometime. For now, it’s back to studies and the grill of city life, once again…

2 comments:

  1. nice travelogue!
    lets make it to NathuLa together...smtime.

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  2. Every tourist spot in India thrives because so many Bengalis ( Bongs as your education teaches you to call them ) visit them. If you dont like Bongs, just stay at home and finsh off that Harry Potter game, or hire your private jet.

    By the way, nobody ever mistakes a Bong for a non-Indian. Maybe because they talk too much...? Only people who have something to hide keep mum.

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