The next morning Kanchenjunga beckoned, but before leaving we spent the morning in Barranumber’s school with some of the tiniest children we had met so far, trying to explain to them how and why we lived on a boat. None of them had ever seen the sea. They were astonished by our tale and laughed at my poor drawing of our boat with the cat on board. Oh well, it’s good to keep people amused.
Jiwan drove us over the border to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital.
In 1975, pinned between Nepal, Tibet, India and Bhutan, the little Kingdom of Sikkim sloughed off three centuries of Chogyal rule and welcomed the protection of its neighbour, India. It is the only state in India with an ethnic Nepalese majority. Now the second smallest state in India (Goa wins the top prize) sits high and alone at the eastern end of the Himalaya.
Deep river valleys slice through its vertiginous mountains, each fold in the earth’s crust looming higher as it marches towards Asia. The Indian central government ploughed money into Sikkim’s infrastructure to woo the people’s good will, and it was a joy to find smooth well maintained roads in such a remote part of the world.
Declaring itself one of India’s “green states”, a plastic-bag-free-zone and banning smoking almost everywhere, you are required to apply for a visa in order to gain entrance to this Shangri-la. Stays for foreigners have recently been extended to 30 days, with the possibility of a further 30 day extension once inside Sikkim.
Gangtok was a strange city. Seemingly modern and made up of concrete boxes thrown at the side of the mountain, it lacked visual appeal, but the people were engaging and friendly and it had a fantastic view of the Kanchenjunga massif. We didn’t have long there, only two nights, but we enjoyed walking in and around the town.
People stopped to chat to us and passed the time of day everywhere we went. Like Darjeeling and Kalimpong, it was much quieter than the India to the south of the mountains. No chuckling, loud-talking or raucous trading goes on in this part of India. It felt like another country.
One word of advice: don’t be fooled by the Tripadvisor rating, or comments, for the highly rated Hotel Saikripa. I booked the hotel in a hurry as we left Darjeeling, being delighted to find that this top rated hotel, with 40 or more reviews, had a room available — I presumed it was a cancellation. It was rubbish. In so many ways that I don’t want to be reminded. We booked for two nights and stayed for one, then moved to the more expensive but professionally run (and not cheap) Sonan Delek. It was worth the extra bucks.
A little flickr slide show for your viewing pleasure. Click on it to begin.
Running out of time on this ad hoc trip, we decided to move higher up to Pelling for a closer look at Kanchenjunga.
Really just another row of characterless concrete hotels perched along a ridge, Pelling is full of smartly but inappropriately dressed domestic tourists (high heels, elaborate hair, mountains of gold jewellery, and that’s just the men). Much to the relief of mountain tribal people, the occasional confused backpacker would drift in and out. Jamie and I were welcomed with open arms by the locals who told us that domestic Indian tourists were too noisy and didn’t really have a clue what living in the mountains was all about.
We sympathised, but never ones to agree with generalisations had to point out we knew a few very nice non-mountain native Indians. It was all done in jest, mostly, but proves that wherever you are in the world, it’s usually that country’s closest neighbour (or in this case part of the same country) which is disliked the most.
Pelling, for all its faults, is close to some exciting treks and places of interest. The Rabdentse ruins, Pemayangtse Gompa, Kanchenganga National Park, Kechopari Lake and many more are all a day away.
Sitting with a beer later that first evening, we watched the sun go down behind the five peaks. The massif dominates the view from every balcony and no words are necessary as you watch the sky turn from blue to black as the birds race to find a home for the night.
Early next morning, just before dawn, we heaved ourselves out of bed to catch the sun’s first rays as they caressed India’s highest mountain. One kilometre below us, the valley was tucked under eiderdown clouds. This was the only time in Pelling when the town was still. And quiet.
To see monasteries, mountains and other things beginning with ‘m’, check out the slide show below by clicking on it to begin.