31 Mar 2008

Sikkim, second time

If you have read my blog Sikkim first time, then you must have reached Gangtok safely and checked-in in the hotel of your choice.That blog covers Gangtok & the surrounding areas, Namchi, Ravongla, Pelling etc. Gangtok was used as the centre of tours both in the 1st & 2nd visit to Sikkim.

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After checking in the hotel of your choice in Gangtok,  take a quick bath, shove a light woolen, camera, batteries etc. into a handbag and venture out. The place to go first is the M G Marg (previously The Mall). After it was renovated, turned into a pleasant pedestrians’ plaza and inaugurated by the famous economist Montek Singh Ahluwala on 15.3.08, it is the place to linger around. You already know where to eat or may be try out some newly opened restaurant.

It is difficult to stop visiting Sikkim. If your doctor has detected surplus ripples in your heartbeat, if the plumbing of your blood is clogged like Calcutta drains, if your blood pressure could shame a pumping station, you make haste to ensure, that you visit Lake Gurudongmar (or Gurudogmar, 27°58'N, 88°42'E / 17,100ft or 5,148M) and come back to tell about it. Since it is near the Chinese border, you need all sorts of permits & passes, which can be obtained only through licensed travel agents. A day’s time, a photo id card like the voter’s card or passport and proof of residences. You do a market survey to find out the best option. You walk up & down M G Marg to talk to all agents big & small. Season has not really started and nobody knows if the roads are clear of ice. Helpful people point you to Blue Sky Tours & Travels, one of the oldest agencies & presently one of the best. A visit to their posh office results in nothing. They have no confirmation, if the roads are clear. You can come back after a few days. Even once the roads clear, you would need deep pockets to avail of their service. When everything seems hopeless, suddenly, you chance upon a small signboard “Galaxy”. Someone in your group recognizes the name from the monthly travel magazine “Bhraman” (ভ্রমন = travel), the holidaying Bengalis’ Bible. A steep, damp staircase leads down to a small office with locked glass door. An enquiry with a smart multilingual Bengali young man in the neighbouring DTP office fetches the information that the Galaxy office staff has gone to the M G Road (previously called The Mall) to witness the inauguration of the pedestrians’ plaza. He offers you a seat and makes a phone call in Nepalese and Bhutia. Presently, arrives Tenzing Lama of Galaxy Tours & Travels phone 98320 44536, 94750 12777 (you never know which of his cellphones is currently working), (0359) 2320632 (residence). He smiles apologetically, unlocks the door and offers seats in a very congested but neat office. After a few minutes of talk with this earnest, short young man, you guess you are in good hands. Yes, of course he can arrange a visit. Just yesterday one driver, Keasang Karma has returned with a reporter from New Delhi TV. We can speak to him, if we wanted. Mr Reporter turns out to be another travel mad Bengali. A few minutes phone conversation with him gives us the confirmation that we are indeed in right hands. What’s more, we get a ridiculously low off-season rate of Rs2,600 per head for 6 adults (and 1 child free) for 2 nights & 3 days for visits to Chungtang → Lachen (night halt) → Thangu → Lake Gurudongmar → Chopta Valley → Lachung (night halt) → Yumthang (the valley of flowers) and back to Gangtok, door to door travel, boarding, lodging and guide-cum-porter-cum-waiter-cum-helper service by a cheerful young Rabin Rai 94745 29464 (left in photo). Keasang Karma (right in photo) will be our driver.

Can we go further to Yumesamdong Hot spring? Unlikely, but roads permitting, we have to settle the extra cost of travel up & down with the driver. Tenzing recites the standard warning that no money can be refunded, if the trip fails due to inclement weather or landslide. Getting trapped in snow is unlikely at this time. Whatever snow falls in the upper reaches will be in areas of the Indian Army cantonment and they will take care. What remains unsaid is what might happen if you get caught between 2 landslides due to heavy hill rain. It is all in the game, you have to think philosophically and increase your stock of dry food, water and cash money. That night all cellphones and rechargeable torchlights remained plugged in.

Being forewarned by Shakespeare (ref Julius Caesar), we avoided the Ides of March to set off the next day in a new Tata Sumo with Keasang Karma phone 94740 57363 at the wheel. In a couple of hours drive, we clear the city of Gangtok and the crowded outskirts. My cellphone has only 3 voice memos, “Journey from east to north Sikkim, Râté Cho bridge, 16.3.08 / 10:35 a.m.”, “Cottage at Kabi, 11:00 a.m.”, “Bagcha Cho bridge, 11:05 a.m., looks like The Bridge on the River Kwai”. After that I lost myself in this dreamland of natural beauty and became too busy drinking in the scenery.

By and by we passed Kabi Lungtsok. This historical place is 17kM. from Gangtok on the North Sikkim highway. This is where the historic treaty of blood brotherhood between the Lepcha Chief Te-Kung-Tek and the Bhutia Chief Khey-Bum-Sar was signed ritually. The spot where the ceremony took place is marked by a memorial stone pillar amidst the cover of dense forest. Rabin is an ideal guide. He had convincing answers to our innumerable curiosities, did not show off his knowledge or unnecessarily intrude into our own conversations. At stretches not so breathtaking, we entertain ourselves by teasing Rabin Rai. Is he related to the currently famously beautiful film star Aiswarya Rai? Certainly not, he insists. Reminds one of stories 100 years old, when public entertainers had low social status and did not make Himalaya sized heaps of money. The vehemence of denial and his expression makes us reel with laughter. Rabin turns pink. For such a handsome lad, he is unusually shy of girls, although attracting copious admiring glances from young girls in all towns we stopped at or slowed down. In known refreshment halts, the girls neglect him, obviously tired of his overly shyness. Is he scared of girls? A weak “No”. Will he ever marry? Of course he will, once his parents fix it up. It will be difficult, we point out, seeing that he is ½ Nepalese & ½ Bhutia. Even Rabin looks a little doubtful. On the other hand, somewhat older Keasang is a silent Casanova. At every halt we find him flirting with giggling girls. He would even stop at roadsides to exchange sweat pleasantries with young girls collecting water from a tap or running an errand. Yet, our respect for his competence and skill as a driver rises, especially during the death defying return journey – but that comes later.

As we move towards, the land becomes less populated, but more elegant. The Sikkimese love gardening. This modest abode is made of recycled wooden planks & cardboard insulation collected from scrapped packaging materials brought in by the road building teams. The roof is made of straightened tins from retired asphalt barrels. In spite of the ice-cold water, often you will find someone washing clothes or utensils in the nearby jhora (= minor waterfalls). Even the most modest Sikkimese home boasts a row of flower pots. Those here will bloom in a few more days. Fensong, North Sikkim.

We make a short halt at Phensang to see the 7-stepped Seven Sisters waterfall. A little green bridge takes you closer to the waterfall. But then you must come back, as only 2 or 3 of the sisters are visible from ground level. The other sisters appear one by one, as you climb the hill face opposite. I hope all of you are wearing totally closed shoes. The delicate pretty leaf growing on the ground you have just stepped by is bichuti / বিচুটি, the vicious Indian equivalent of the poison ivy, only several times worse. If it touches the skin, it will itch for the whole day.

A New temple being built, Mansila, N Sikkim.
Crossing by Photong, we made lunch halt at Mansila. The modest restaurant is run by an extended family, living in a large wooden house alongside. A 5-colour religious flag flutters in the foreground. It depicts from top : blue for sky, while for clouds, red for fire, green for flora, yellow for earth. A small tree with flowers like cherry blossom stands by the road. About 100M away, a grand new temple is being built. The owner treats you like a family member, visiting after a long time. The food is modest but tasty and copious. The best attraction is the youngest member of our host’s family, who arrived in her young mother’s lap. This grave little ‘Princess of Mansila’ never smiled, but the gaggle of her giggling teenage aunts had a great time favourably comparing her curly hair with mine.

This Sikkimese baby has the natural colour of her cheeks that could send the best chemist in any rouge / blusher manufacturing unit to commit suicide in frustration. She is yet too young to walk the ramp, so travels in her mother’s arms. She is very serious, rarely looks up and never smiles. But she had the grace to wave us goodbye and threw us a flying kiss with her chubby hand. The gaggle of her giggling teenage aunts had a great time favourably comparing her curly hair with mine.

The sky is overcast. It dims our photographic spirit a bit. Rabin insists we get down at Rang Rang Bridge and have a closer look at yet another waterfall. There is a plaque by the side that boasts of engineering marvel at creating this culvert on the face of a temperamental and dangerous waterfall. It spans the run-off of the waterfall and has a novel design. When the water flow is low, all the water rushes below the culvert over stone steps, making it look as if Rapunzel of Grimm’s Fairy Tales has let down a stream of white hair. When the water flow is high, large holes in the sidewalls of the culvert allows the spill water to rush over the road, making a car ride that much adventurous. The area could rouse a geologist’s interest. The hills were reddish brown like the Martian surface, but the pieces of stone broken and thrown down by the waterfall are black and twinkling with mica. Rabin assures us, that we can have a good shot at the waterfall during our return journey. It is true. The waterfall really showed off its splendour, while we could see it from a distant mountain bend. But the sun moving across the horizon cast a speeding shadow of the hills, moving too fast for us. When we reached a good spot, the direct sunlight was gone.

We drive through Mangan, Singiek, Theng (or Toong) and by afternoon arrive at Chunthang (chung = nice, thang = place) on the confluence of Lachen and Lachung Chu (Chu = river) and the starting point of River Teesta, a pretty hilly small square of shops, surrounded by a few modest houses, 95kM from Gangtok. The lilies and orchids carelessly spread about are spectacular. A serene looking elderly woman sat quietly on the steps of a shop, knitting something.
 Arum lily. Chumthang, N Sikkim
  More orchids. This in front of an IMFL (Indian Made Foreign Liquor) shop
Two things led me to ask her  permission to photograph : (1) the expression on her face of being completely at peace with the world, just like the Tibetan sentence to her right, (2) the way she wore the wool like a bangle on her left arm. I guess, if one keeps the wool in a ball as usual, if it accidentally falls from lap, it will immediately roll down this very sloppy country to reach the next village before it unwinds & stops. An extremely pretty looking granddaughter hovered over her, but you have to visit the place to see this Chunthang beauty. After a short tea halt, the drive ends at chilly Lachen, 2,750M (9,022ft).

Wall décor, originally uploaded by lokenrc.
Wall décor : Deeper into Sikkim, boarding & lodging get progressively more modest, but also more personal & homely. Bayul Inn at Lachen is a typical example. In general, the food is quite good and in keeping with the normal taste of Bengalis, the overwhelming bulk of tourists. I am sure, they alter the menu in keeping with the type of tourists they get – be it North, South or West Indians or foreigners like Europeans, Americans or Australians. Africans don’t seem to like Sikkim. All dishes at lunch and dinner were liberally sprinkled with coriander leaves. It was not their fault that I am an imperfect Bengali in the matter of coriander. After my first dinner, my simple solution was to replace the balance 5 lunches & dinners with cups of tea with 3 or 4 biscuits. I shall tell you the result later.All dishes at lunch and dinner were liberally sprinkled with coriander leaves. It was not their fault that I am an imperfect Bengali in the matter of coriander leaves. After my first dinner, my simple solution was to replace the balance 5 lunches & dinners with cups of tea with 3 or 4 biscuits. I shall tell you the result later. The owners, a devoutly religious family like most Sikkimese, have a chapel like room in their house, just behind the hotel. Buddha was kept in suitable reverence and worships took place periodically, daily with the accompaniment of softly playing drums, cymbals and with lamps and burning of a special type of juniper. At night, as you come out of the dark front door of the inn, you instinctively put your hand on the sidewalls, lest you tumble down unseen steps. Your hand touches something strange, bringing back a feeling, which gurgles out of the depth of your childhood memory. Rabin rushed off for a short break to visit his relatives. In these distant cold, steep hills he is in his home element. His springy steps say so, as he almost flies down the road. 

An after dinner stroll took us to empty streets. After sundown the streets quickly get deserted. The streetlights are dim. The temperature is about 5ºC. After walking up & down the empty 5M wide main road for about half an hour, we eventually meet a very social local man. He travels from this depth of Sikkim all the way to Calcutta to buy enameled utensils, much valued by the Sikkimese. He says, enameled utensils are more commonly used by Muslims and so they are available at best prices in predominantly Muslim areas. Even being Calcuttans, this was news to us. We asked him, which of the several Muslim areas he is talking about. Alas, his knowledge of the geography of Calcutta is very poor.

Wake up call on the day to Gurudongmar is at 4:30 am. By 5:00, the car should start. Rising too early, everybody has an inadequate morning motion and suffers later. Our pilot & co-pilot overslept a little, so we start at 5:30. The snow line is already visible. The car passes by Zeema 1, Zeema 2, 10 Compu (military), Yathan, Kalep.

Army encampment on the way to Gurudongmar. If tourists get stuck in particularly heavy snowfall or landslide, the Army is equipped to rescue them. From here on, tourists are in the safe hands of the Indian Army. This is also the reason, why prior permits must be obtained for this trip. The permit will be arranged by the tour party

 Typical houses at Thangu

On the way to Gurudongmar, there is a compulsory halt for an hour at Thangu, 4,115M (13,500ft).  Although this made us restless at that time, only after returning we realized how essential it was to acclimatize us to 5,148M (17,100ft) at Gurudongmar. Breakfast was served. Sliced white bread, freshly cut banana and apples came in a hamper. After a first bite, we realized everything was steamed. It was clarified, that toasted bread wilts fast and fruits nearly freeze unless served like this. TV cooking classes show Western dishes made with steamed apples. Wonder how many Indians had the misfortune of trying one. We are hungry. Hunger is the best sauce. Yet, don’t try it at home.

The cold is biting

At such a place there are no all pervasive recyclers as in big cities. Even valuable empty beer bottles remain undisturbed for ages. In the plains, rag pickers would have paid money for collecting these for recycling.

Leaving Chopta Valley for our return journey the car passed by army check post Giagong Café and reached Gurudongmar. The scanty rainfall leaves the hillsides striped black & white with snow so, they look like large zebras.

Winds play with snow drifts and make this spiky mound
This morning the pulse was running 20% faster than at in the plains, at Thangu it rose to 25% and now at 5,148M Gurudongmar is was racing at 200%. Took it for granted, that the system was trying to make up for thin air, thus low oxygen. One feels nothing strange until one gets out of the car and stands on ones own feet. Everybody looks at the ladies & gents toilette. Both locked. The under-pressure at this altitude seems to drag out the bowl contents, which did not make a proper exit this early morning. Some could defer the output to a more suitable time and occasion. Some could not and rushed to the backside of the toilettes. The temperature is freezing most of the year, but rainfall is low. So, whatever was left behind at the toilettes remains undisturbed for the posterity, unless blown away. The wind is said to be so strong, that it drives off pebbles. Some of its strange wind on ice architecture can be seen alongside the roads.

The frozen Gurudongmar Lake (or Gurudogmar) has a small nice glacier at one end and rocky bare earth all around

Sarva Dharma Sthal , prayer hall by Lake Gurudongmar

On the return journey, we halt at Chopta Valley (4kM / 13,200ft). It is frozen over and deserted. In summer, it is said to be worth a visit. By nightfall we reach Lachen, (2,735M / 8,973 ft) and check into Kanchezonga Resort.
Utter chaos reigns, as there is no electric current, due to power cable breakage at some distance. Unlike Calcutta, Sikkim is not used to frequent ‘load shedding’. Fumbling around with electric torches and candles, we tiredly unpack, dine and go to sleep. The morning view out of the window of our room # 203 makes up all the night’s travails. Probably, it is the best room. A white tipped brown mountain seems to be at arm’s reach. Standing in the balcony outside also showed a pretty yellow & green house 

Theoretically, the best season for visiting the Yumthang valley starts in late February and continues up to mid June, when thousands of colourful flowers are in full bloom. But this is what was in our fate to see in March 2008.

Yet, Lord Buddha was kind. The flora that we missed at Yumthang was partly made up at Kaluk & Rinchenpong. We owe our lives to driver Keasang Karms, but for whose skill & experience we could not have returned in 1 piece each, after the terrifying & dangerous drive back from Yumthang to Gangtok.

Amongst all the Indian hilly states, the theft of forest resources in probably the minimum in Sikkim. Fed by the rich southeastern monsoon, it grows lush. The dense net of elaborate root system of trees and shrubs hold up the soil and stones of the unstable Himalayan slopes. The turn the soil into a giant sponge, which soaks up the heavy monsoon rain and allows it to trickle out in streams, which run throughout the year.

While you are in big cities or anywhere in the so-called “cow belt” of India (except the depths of Himachal Pradesh), your nerves stick out a centimetre from your skin to act as early warning system against pick pockets, thieves, touts, taxi drivers etc. Steeped in Buddhist culture, the Sikkimese are people of peaceful, honest & friendly nature. They abide by the Indian dictum “the guest is god”. You acquire a sense of security. Deep inside Sikkim, nobody covets your camera. If you have left your bag in the car, the driver will return it to you during his return trip. Slowly your nerve ends sink back and all your self defence can be redeployed from menace of man to onslaught of nature, especially if you are traveling in 2nd autumn[i] or winter.

The road from Gangtok to Kaluk is via Jorethang. On the road, there is a 50M stretch of Darjeeling district of West Bengal sticking into Sikkim – something like the border crossing from Germany to Switzerland at Schaffhausen. The administration of Darjeeling is now in the hands of the highly corrupt Gorkha National Liberation Front, an organisation riddled by Nepalese infiltrators. Immediately on entering Darjeeling, a burly man stopped the car and had a heated discussion with the Sikkimese driver in Nepalese language. He is out for the usual bribe. Although the Gorkha police was right behind the burly man, Sikkimese police stood 50M away – so we get away without paying. Re-entering Sikkim, the Bird Flu Disinfection Team comes forward, but lets us pass on hearing we are actually from Gangtok. Coming down from the hills to Jorethang, you feel downright hot. Fortunately, we had a Tata Sumo reserved for our group, so our stop was short. The road heads towards Zoom. Distance from Jorethang to Zoom is about 6kM, as the crow flies, but a 5kM climb, almost at 45°. Sometimes you feel the big SUV will topple over backwards. The climb takes about 30 minutes. The Tata Sumo with its 3-litre turbo charged diesel engine growls & roars up the hill mostly at 1st gear, sometimes at 2nd, even with our very moderate load. Bougainvillea, bottlebrush and Mandar flowers glow on the hillsides with exceptionally deep & blood red, almost luminescent colour.

Kaluk is a sleepy place with a road leading to Rinchenpong. Downhill of the road are the Tourist Resorts with pretty cottages and manicured postage stamp sized gardens. If you are the loitering around type like us, it is a bother to climb up the steep hillside, every time you want to take a walk to somewhere. They are also more expensive. We opted for the Kanchan Valley hotel right on the road level. It is newly built. The scanty staff obviously did not expect such an influx of tourists at this time of the year. Service was available only at the point of bullying the staff. The rooms are good. But for a tangle of electric wires and TV cables, the view to Kanchanjungha is breathtaking, both from the room as well as from the roof-top restaurant. After a late lunch we went out for a walk. A continuous whirring noise in the background raises your curiosity. It turns out to be a small wind turbine just behind & uphill of the hotel. There is a Panchayet[ii] office next to it. Several large signboards boast about the performance of the Panchayet. Yet, even in a working day mid-afternoon, the entire office was locked. There is a cable leading out from the generator linked to the wind turbine. Looking up & down closely, I could not find the destination of the other end of the cable. After dinner, which was quite late, I ventured out of the rooftop restaurant into the jungle path to find out why the wind turbine has fallen silent. It stood still. Coming back to our rooms, I declared the prospect of some drastic but unknown change in the climate. Next mid-morning started the rains. Its fierceness and continuity made us anxious about possible landslides. But it was really enjoyable to look at it while it lasted a few hours. Buckets of water poured down every gable, gutter & slopped roof. Speedy, muddy mountain streams formed and gushed over everything in their paths. The distant Kunchanjungha disappeared behind an opaque sheet of rain. Many mountain roads of Sikkim are similar to the road taken by the cyclists of Tour de France, but the Kaluk Rinchenpong road looks exactly like the downhill stretch after the cyclists have cleared the highest climb.

In the afternoon we went out and started to socialize with the locals. A little chat with the 3 policemen & policewomen at the road junction, a long chat with the owner of the bar cum restaurant (sits 6 people) cum taxi drivers’ centre. Many people joined in. Booze is cheap in Sikkim. A 750mL bottle of Sikkim Millennium Rum is only Rs110 at remote Kaluk. Better buy it elsewhere, advised the bar owner himself. It is Rs90 in Ravongla market. During after dinner stroll, around 11:00 pm, you find the local fishmonger busy with his tins & pots. The day’s fish supply will arrive any moment. As Calcuttans we were shocked, that he will keep the fish out in the open, without ice till buyers come next morning. Wouldn’t the fish turn bad? He laughed and assured us, that nothing happens at the night temperature at Kaluk. The fish will remain fresh as a daisy. The hotel staff confirmed it too. The pans & tins of fishes lay on the ground of a small open shack in front of his house. In Sikkim, nobody would steal it.

Rinchenpong, is popularly known as Silent Valley. Rabindranath Tagore had spent a couple of days in this getaway in the 1920s. Rabindranath Smriti Bhawan, the house where the poet stayed and enjoyed the scenic view of the Himalayas, is just 2 km from Rinchenpong bazaar. It is a major tourist draw and has been maintained well. The varied flora made us forget our disappointment at frozen Yumthang.

About 3kM from Rinchenpong bazaar is the Resum monastery. Located at the junction of 3 hills, this place of worship was built about 2 centuries ago by a local Lepcha and is still under private supervision. The place is said to offer an excellent view of the sunrise from behind the Kanchenjunga.

A ½ hour walk through the jungle brings you to The Heritage House. The stone and wood construction, which came up in 1860, was used to host the British governor, a regular visitor. In the semi-darkness, the interiors reveal mufti-cultural influences, including wall paintings and wood carvings of the traditional Tibetan school. More eye catching was a huge heap of ginger stacked against a wall. In the harvesting season, this seems to be the main store for wholesalers to come and buy.

One of the oldest monasteries of Sikkim, the Gey-Sanga-Yangtze Gumpha houses a statue of Ati Buddha with a woman sitting on his lap and embracing him. It is an icon of the Nyingma sect of tantrik Buddhism symbolises the power of lust.

From Kaluk the group splits. The bulk returns to Calcutta. Only 2 of us plan to revisit Ravongla at the repeated request of Owner-cum-Manager, who lives in Calcutta during the off-season. The SUV drops us at Jorethang, from where we are to catch a shared car to Ravongla.Visiting Sikkim after a mere 2 years gap showed many changes to modernization. Jorethang has become quite a large town. Huge signs spanning the roads, like those in the Autobahn, pointed to the right direction – earlier it was the guidance of the passers-by. There was even a big road sign to Tinkitam, a small village atop a hillock, visible from nearby higher hills. But this could have been sponsored by the famous footballer Baichung Bhutia, who hails from this village. Earlier, we felt like uninvited guests within the grand garden of Nature. Now Nature is much tamed. I am not sure, which is better. 

The bus & taxi stand at Jorethang is a depressed area surrounded by high grounds. The entry & exit points are narrow. Yet, there is no commotion, no quarrel. Entry & exit are orderly. We are to kill 4½ hours for our share taxi. There is no place to sit. We pile our luggage and lean against the shutters of a closed shop. After days at cooler heights, Jorethang feels hot. Presently, a typically short & dainty Sikkimese woman arrives, a small boy in tag. She seems to give him a warning against naughtiness, a couple of sharp knocks on the head to show possible forthcoming punishment & departs, leaving the boy standing alone near us. In safe Sikkim, one leaves a small child standing alone in a strange area - unthinkable elsewhere in India. A car roars & backs. The scared child tries to hide behind our luggage. I kneel down & try to soothe him. There is no common language, but the child seems to 

come to ease. About an hour later, the woman comes back. She is a friend of the boy’s mother as well as his class teacher, she explains in fluent English. She was coming shopping to town from her village. The boy insisted on tagging along. Only in Sikkim can anybody dare to leave such a small boy waiting alone in a taxi stand. Notwithstanding his undeserved punishment, the boy smiles and starts talking animatedly pointing at me. The teacher laughs. “He wants to know, how he can get curly hair like you”. I am surprised – it is the third time I hear such wish in Sikkim. The way we admire their neat, straight hair, they seem to crave ours.

The clock moves at snail’s pace. We while away the time tasting savouries from the surrounding shops. Nothing to write back home about. The hour produces the said taxi, piled with empty milk cans and a full gunny sack on the roof. The ever smiling driver is more anxious to pick us up, than we are to board this last car of the day. Apparently, our Ravongla hotel manager has pulled strings. On the return journey, the driver renders free social service by making small detours to deliver the milk cans, the sack, wads of letters & money to villagers. In an area, where landslides & other natural calamities are common, people look after each other in this manner.

A large landslide looms up. The driver says not to worry, as the earth is reasonably flat & compact. We zigzag a bit and reach Ravongla. The driver delivers up to Hotel Ravangla Star, Kwezing Road, Ravangla, (03595) 260 733, Managers 94341 37176 & 97330 50036. We occupy the de-luxe (best) room # 105 @ Rs600, boarding only. Manger Mr Roy, at whose repeated request we make this second visit receives us with ceremony and introduces us to his wife and his daughter. At night, he invites us to a drink & dinner party, hosted by him. The usual আড্ডা / adda starts. There are 2 room heaters in full blast. As the night deepens, the embracing cold seems to strangle us. Yet, we the tourists fresh from the warm plain land suffer less than the young girl fresh from her college in cold UK. The bad news is that Mr Roy wants to sell this hotel, if he succeeds in a negotiation to buy a more lucrative one in Bhubaeshwar.

Ravongla has also undergone a very pleasant change in the last 2 years. At

Returning from a holiday is sad. Sadder still is returning from Sikkim. In a pensive mood you enter the large Mahanada Wildlife Reserve, but where is the wildlife? There they are – several domestic cows & dogs loitering around near cottages in large paddy fields. There are sporadic & loose stands of trees with substantial undergrowth. In dry seasons, there is controlled burning of the undergrowth to prevent large forest fires.. You find locals coming out of the woods carrying large logs on their shoulders. The excellent furniture business of Siliguri thrives on stolen wood. There is a huge military cantonment and then you slam into the noise heat and dust of the plains at Siliguri.

Some notes :

In Bhutia

Cho = lake, e.g. Gurudongmar Cho

Chu = river, e.g. Rangpo Chu

Chung = nice

La = mountain pass, e.g. Nathu La

Phukki = cave

Tashi Delek / তাশি দেলেক =  all encompassing greeting : welcome, how are you, best wishes, greetings etc.

                                    Something like the Indian namaskar / ননস্কার

Thang = place (বাংলায় ঠাকুরের থান যেমন?), e.g. Chunthang (chung = nice, thang = place)
Wadhah = water fall

In Nepalese
Jhora = minor water fall

Same place, different spellings,
Keozing / Sosing / Kewzing
Rabong / Rabangla / Ravongla / Ravangla

This blog is based on our trips in October 2006 and March 2008. Rates, hotels, telephone nos. etc. need recheck, if indeed they are valid. To give an idea, here is the analysis of the costs for 2 adults that we incurred during our visit in 2006.


New Orchid, Gangtok 5-8 Oct

NaamSaaling Res, 11-14 Oct
Ravongla Star, 9-10 Oct
Train : Sealdah to NJP 2nd A/c
Simvo Tour & Travels
Train : NJP to Sealdah 3rd A/c
Tea, cheese
Cook's Inn
Print films
Pelling to Siliguri 3 seats
Print films
Sikkim Nationalised Transport
Gangtok Zoo
Ravongla to Pelling
Taste of Tibet
Tibetan chanting CD
Orthodox, 2nd flr
Bread, cheese, passion flower juice
Local trips at Siliguri
Taxi to Sealdah
Damodar Ropeways
Taxi to residence
Passion flower juice
Rickshaw NJP to Siliguri
Rock Garden, near Namchi
Flower Exihibition Cetre, Whitehall

[i] India has 6 seasons, each about 2 months long : grishshwa = summer (starts mid April), borsha = monsoon (mid June), sharat = 1st autumn (mid Aug), hemanta = 2nd autumn (mid Oct), sheet = winter (mid Dec) & basanta = spring (mid Feb). The intensity and duration varies from place to place and year to year.
[ii] Unit of local self government.


[i] All rates are those we paid in October 2006 and March 2008.
[ii] SNT bus @ Rs110 / head Siliguri to Gangtok. Try to get seats in front like nos. 1, 2 etc.
[iii] Siliguri to Ravongla by share taxi run by Ravangla Motor Transport Driver’s Union @ Rs110 / head. Information at Ravangla end by Jeetu, the bubbly lad, who sometimes mans the ticket counter. He is at phone 97330 21887 until he gets a better cellphone service provider. While at Ravongla, if you find the ticket booking counter empty, spread words amongst the passers-by and nearby shopkeepers, that you are waiting for him. Shouted calls will be relayed to him. Meanwhile try Ugen driver, phone 98325 11830, who usually runs a share taxi in this route these days. Advance booking possible both ways. Sitting : 2 with driver, 4 in middle row, 4 in back row. If you think it is too cramped, 3 of you can reserve the middle seat by paying for 4 and so on.
[iv] This travelogue is a mixture of 2 visits, 4–16 Oct 2006 & 14–26 Mar 2008. Climate varied widely with different seasons. Both were slightly off peak tourist season. As veteran tourists, we hate crowds. The bird flu was raging in 2008.
[v] Erythrina variegata or E. indica Lam., E. variegata var. orientalis, Tiger's Claw, Indian Coral Tree, Sunshine Tree. "We saw and heard old people saying that continuous crying of dogs and turning of leaves of Mandar tree upside down bring flood." - Indegeneuos Early Warning
[vi] After roaming around in city centre or after getting down from a long distant bus / taxi, if you are too tired to walk to New Orchid Hotel, you can take a taxi. All taxi rides within city limits in Gangtok, irrespective of distance costs Rs50. Similar rate applies for other towns, Rs40 or 30 depending on the size of the town. Unlike unmetered taxis in “cow belt” Indian towns, Sikkim taxi drivers normally do not overcharge tourists.
[vii] To keep the place from degenerating like Goa or becoming a filthy slum like Darjeeling, Sikkim Govt. does not allow lifts, to discourage too tall builds.
[viii] India has 6 seasons, each about 2 months long : grishshwa = summer (starts mid April), borsha = monsoon (mid June), sharat = 1st autumn (mid Aug), hemanta = 2nd autumn (mid Oct), sheet = winter (mid Dec) & basanta = spring (mid Feb). The intensity and duration varies from place to place and year to year.
[ix] Unit of local self government.

(to be continued, when I have time)

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