Day 1: Arriving at Sikkim
When you need a real break, then you must uproot yourself completely from everything and everybody you know or are accustomed to and challenge yourself by going to the unknown. The unknown teaches…in more ways than you think.
As the car swerved down the winding road, a 1000 meters above sea-level, all I could see was the black night sky, an outline of the mountains that served as a natural border between India and China, and pitch black all around. The roads were narrow; single-lane roads for two-way traffic. It required serious maneuvering to avoid going crashing into the valley. The valley was down below. Other than the sound of the river Teesta, there was nothing else that could be heard or seen. From the sounds of it, the river flowed with a purpose. You could tell, even in that darkness. A big board and a few lights over and around it showed that the river was part of a hydroelectric project. Down below, one could see the over-bearing walls of a dam that controlled a once-fierce river. Tall mountain trees loomed overhead on one side and on the other, it was a straight fall into the river. At many places there were no trees that you could get stuck on, if you fell. I tried not to think. It was best not to. The holidays had just begun. And God knows how much each one of us deserved it. The last 18 months had passed by in a whirl, sweeping us off our feet in not a nice way and landing us more than once with a thud. Now here we were far away from home in a new land. Unleashed!
The car moved at snail’s speed, allowing us to take in as much as we could of the place, which was not much considering there were no street lights. On the mountains, the village lights had turned on. At certain places concentrated and at others dispersed. They twinkled like stars. Human settlements looked like constellations, bedecked the ominous mountains. The beauty of those shimmering lights momentarily helped me forget my fear of heights. Where they were sparse, the lights looked like eyes; like the mountain was alive and was watching over us.
It was only 5.30 p.m. and it was darker than 9 p.m. in the city.
The only airport in Sikkim was inaugurated on September 23rd this year but currently operates only flights from Calcutta and Mumbai. However, we had booked our tickets prior to the opening of the airport from Mumbai to Bagdogra in W.Bengal (which is another state in India) and so had to travel 124 km uphill to reach Sikkim. Bagdogra is majorly an army dominated town. There was nothing much there. Tea estates flanked the roads closer to Sikkim. The scene changes almost abruptly from dirty roads, dilapidated settlements to roads flanked with tea estates on either side as we neared the Sikkim border. We had another 3 hours to go before arriving at our destination, Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim.
I hadn’t done any research on the place before proceeding on holiday. All I had wanted was to get away and it had to be somewhere cold, somewhere I could experience winter in the pure sense, after Mumbai. Somewhere new, somewhere exotic but within the country. And Sikkim met the criteria. Far away, unknown( for the 4 of us), temperatures around 14 deg Centigrade during the day and slipping to 9 after sunset; it provided the perfect escape to wear our winter jackets, those that had been stowed away since arriving in Mumbai. That the entire state was on various inter-linked mountains, was not something I had given much thought to. That the holiday would involve going on mountain roads with the valley 5000 or more feet below hadn’t crossed my mind. Anybody and everybody I had spoken to of the holidays had only told me that we must take ample warm clothes and ” Enjoy, It’s breathtakingly beautiful.” Nobody had spoken of the roads. Well, I guess, its good in a way because I might have changed my mind. For those of you reading it, the idea of this post is not to scare you off from travelling to Sikkim but to make you aware because while ignorance is bliss, knowledge is power!
Sikkim, in the north-east of India has a population of around one hundred thousand people. Nepal, Tibet and China are on its borders and therefore the city has a lot of military presence. One in every 10 cars is an army vehicle. It is the army who has made the higher areas accessible by building roads. A trip here is essential not only to appreciate the beauty of nature but to appreciate what our soldiers put up with to allow us to have a peaceful night’s sleep. Immense respect is what we felt for them.
We get so carried away listening to bad news day in and day out that we forget to see and appreciate the volume of good around us.
While Sikkim is in India, its largely influenced by Nepal. Most people speak Nepali and the language is also taught in schools other than English and Hindi. People here have Mongoloid features. Buddhism is mostly practiced other than Hinduism and Christianity. People here live a simple life but are very well-dressed. That probably has to do with the cold. People look more fashionable in cold places, wrapped in jackets, mufflers, beanies, gloves and boots. I guess its easier to look better when very little of you is actually visible and most of you is hidden under layers.
‘Thupka’ ( soupy noodles) and ‘Momos’ are their main dish. ‘ Sial Roti,’ a kind of thick bread made of rice powder and coconut milk is also commonly eaten here. The people here are mostly vegetarians who eat egg. While non-veg is available in some restaurants, I preferred the vegetarian food to the non-vegetarian food served.
At around 6.30 p.m. we stopped near a roadside eatery for tea. That was the first time we got out of the car after leaving the airport. God, it was cold! A boiled egg served with steaming hot milk tea was refreshingly warm and filled us with some courage to complete the rest of the journey up the mountains.
Gangtok stands at 1650 m above sea-level. The town was brightly lit for Christmas. In many ways it reminded us of Sorrento in Italy.
I goofed up…and we paid more: Old lesson re-learnt
The hotel we had booked was at the end of town. ” Udaan Wood berry Rose” looked insignificantly small and rather unimpressive on the outside, considering the price we had paid. But in that cold, pushing away the thought, all we wanted was an end to a whole day’s journey. So without further ado, we stepped in. The indoor came as a pleasant surprise. Prettily decked with a Christmas tree and snow-flakes on the ceiling, the decor was warm and welcoming. We were welcomed by a white shawl draped around our neck and a cup of hot green tea and were then shown the way to our rooms ; on the 5th floor. I could have bet there had been just 2 floors looking at it from the outside. The outside was totally misleading. The rooms inside were very prettily done: wooden floor, wooden ceilings, blue decor, French paintings on the walls. However there was no heater in the room. We just had to wait until the room became warm and it eventually did. Thankfully the hotel had extra blankets for the night. The other hotels like Mayfair which is supposedly the best, may have had heaters. Though we had ended up paying the same price as Mayfair, we were staying at the second-best, thanks to me dilly-dallying at the time of planning our holiday. I will have to live with this guilt for the rest of my life as my husband very kindly reminded me at least 10 times on our first night here. The good thing is I have learnt my lesson and have sworn to plan well ahead in future. Any money saved will mean more travels :).
We spent 7 days in total in Sikkim and Darjeeling and I’ve come back feeling ready to take 2019 by its’ horns. This is only day 1. Stay with me until the end of our journey and I’m sure you’ll want to visit too. I can only tell you now it’ll be worth it.
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