Sikkim

Trip facts:

  • 7 nights
  • Mintokling guest house, Gangtok
  • Fortuna residency, Lachung
  • Chiminda International hotel, Pelling

General info:

Sikkim is a small State in North India. It is home to half the world’s 3rd highest mountain, the other half of the mountain lies in Nepal. Kanchenjunga, meaning 5 peaks, is a beautiful grouping of mountain tops visible from all over the state. This thumb shaped state is entirely mountainous and is surrounded on 3 sides by  Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It was easy for us to observe how unique this corner of the country is as are the people who live there, with a range of local ethic backgrounds being represented. There is a sense of gradual blending of the genetic features from Indian to Chinese to Nepalese, similar to what we experienced in East Asia. People are in tune with their regional pride and their genetic heritage.

While we were in Sikkim, it was quite rainy – we found that most locals use umbrellas  (sorry Seattle people – no hoodies here!). Upon entering we had to get a State permit – Sikkim is one of the strictest in terms of permitting. If you are not an Indian National, then you need a permit to enter the state, a different permit for North Sikkim, and specialized permits with extremely long lead times if you want to visit the Kanchenjunga National Park for trekking. In the very North of the state, there is a high lake called Lake Gurudongmar at 17,000′ that we wanted to visit, but these parts are reserved for Indian Nationals only. Upon entering the state, we found posters that advertised Sikkim as an eco-friendly destination, with no smoking allowed throughout the state, and we were looking forward to clean mountain air. What we found, and this is true for other parts of India, were polluting Indian-made cars, and police officers smoking in restaurants. Walking along the beautiful mountain roads, it was disappointing to know that these heavily traveled roads are fume-filled during the tourist season and police officers often do not do their jobs properly. The area is highly becoming more visited, mostly by Indian tourists looking to escape the heat of the plains, and this changes the vibe of Sikkim significantly. In any case, the natural beauty of this state is incredible – steep hills, villages with traditional Sikkimese construction (reminiscent of the Chinese style), waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and glaciers, as well as plenty of wildlife (the high pitched nighttime insect chirping is unlike anything we have heard before). We also noticed, as we drove around, that there is a lot of construction going on there in the forms of dams, retention/draining systems for roads, and roadwork. A lot of this is due to the heavy rain – when the monsoons hit, they hit hard!

Gangtok:

We spent a total of 3 nights in Gangtok, which was our launching point for the North and West of the state. The capital of Sikkim, it is good for walking and is noticeably cleaner than the littered streets of Darjeeling. Be prepared to walk up and down steep staircases to avoid the 3 main long hairpin bending roads that comprise most of the town. The central shopping road, MG Marg, is pedestrianized and is quite charming to walk up and down.

Our hotel, Mintokling Guest House, is a family-run establishment that has been around for a while. Tenzing and Pema, the brother and sister that run the place are friendly and the restaurant served up some great food.  It was a good base to explore the town. It was easy to find a rabies shot at one of the few pharmacies which I decided to have administered at the local hospital the morning we left.

One of the places we visited was the ropeway. We were really looking forward to taking the cable car down to bottom part of town and taking in some good views. We arrived at  the ropeway station and waited patiently for a cable car. When it arrived we found the car jam packed full of people – like a Tokyo subway car- we’re talking sardines! It was funny but we were not up for being that close to a lot of BO. We chose to wait for the next, hoping it would be less crowded. Well it wasn’t – so we decided to walk instead. It was funny, we remarked to each other – only in India would there be an attraction to take in the views – but they cram you in so tight – that the only view you get is of heads and maybe a bit of sky if you’re lucky.  Kinda sounds like a water park with not enough water! (That’s actually not a joke – more on that in the next post)

One of the best parts about being in Gangtok, and just Sikkim in general, is walking around town, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. When the mountains decide to expose themselves through the clouds, you will be amazed at their magnificence and size ! We visited some nice places in town including the fresh produce and spice market and a pretty park on top of the hill. The produce and particularly spices were amazing and fresh. We often encountered locals selling fragrant cardamom, cinnamon, white peppercorns, saffron, and many more spices on the streets. The park was great for a sunset stroll up on the ridge of the mountaintop over Gangtok.

Lachung:

One of the places we knew we wanted to visit was Lachung, 30km from the Tibet border, it is a small mountain village that is a perfect pit stop on the way to the beautiful Yumthang Valley. We set up an overnight tour including driver to visit this remote Alpine meadow full of wildlife and very close to the glacial source of the Yumthang river. The 7 hour drive up was very rough and rugged despite our vehicle being the highly coveted Mahindra Scorpio. Our moody driver, a lovelorn Sikkimese, pined for his desired wife and told us some familiar stories about unrequited love between young couples whose families forbid it. He also tried to make extra money off us by telling us he would drive us to Zero Point glacier if we paid for some bribes for policemen as well as an extra 3500Rs for him. We weren’t having it and decided we would get to a glacier on our own at some point during the trip (Finally made it in Iceland but you’ll have to check back for details!)

The Yumthang Valley was incredible – crisp cold air at 12,000ft, glacial river close to its source, lots of animals including horses, yak, cows, and many insects. The weather was somewhat cloudy when we went but as the morning progressed (We got there at 7am), the sun appeared and burned up the fog. This was lovely and revealed the peaks that give the place its name, the Switzerland of India. The famous flowering rhododendrons were reaching the end of their season but added a small pop of various colors. There was a sense of natural enchantment in a very remote and high up place.

Pelling:

Pelling, in West Sikkim, was our next stop. We had to stop overnight in Gangtok on our way there, which served as a good place to pick up my 3rd rabies vaccination which would be unavailable there. Pelling is a hot stop on the tourist trail and that is because of the views. Its prime location in West Sikkim puts you in good proximity to the mighty peaks of Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it we never saw the massive mountains unobstructed on a clear day, but fought the clouds for every stolen glance, each of which took our breath away.

Being there for 3 nights in a gigantic windowless room was disappointing at first but we soon experienced the perk of windowless India travel – no street noise – we took the opportunity to enjoy the cool weather and rest up.We had a love hate relationship with our hotel. They sadly didn’t stock bottled water, which led me on a sneaky mission through their kitchens late at night. I was surprised to find as I was attempting to raid their fridge, that my rabies shot was not there as requested. Oh Joy – it was in the freezer, where the dead rabies spores experienced their last living moments. Well the hotel people tried to shirk their responsibilities, but Tushar, who puts people in their place all over the world now, made sure they replaced it by sending an employee to the next town 2 hours away to fix their mistake and get me the shot I needed to stay alive! Tushar ended up administering that one, and all I have to say is OUCH!!  It didn’t quite make its way into my muscle but slowly seeped in from a big lump in the fatty layer of my upper arm. Yikes it hurt – and I made a note to myself to make it a priority to find a nurse for the next one.

 

 

One of the funnest things we did in Pelling was host a party in our gigantic 2 bedroom family windowless suite. We made friends with Roope, Shruti, and Renee at a local establishment while chilling on the deck and enjoying the sunset. Countries represented: Finland, France, USA, and India! We chatted with many people from all over the world on our travels and this helped enhance the experience of our travels by chatting to people who were also traveling, but in their own unique ways. The sense of crossing paths with world people on their own crazy adventures helped us with our cultural awareness.

Sikkim Pictures

Darjeeling Pictures

Darjeeling

Trip Facts:

Hotel:

For our 5 nights in Darjeeling we stayed at the Revolver Lodge. The lodge is located in a very good spot and very close to almost everything you need.  This gem is managed by a wonderful family, Asenla and Vikash, husband and wife, and brother Sailesh. Their team tended to our every need, treated us like family, and even greeted us with hot Darjeeling tea upon our arrival (yum!). Revolver is themed after the Beatles’ seventh studio album and their memorabilia has been expertly selected and placed all over the facility. We splashed out and stayed in their very best room, named the John Lennon room, but we found Revolver to be an amazing deal at 900Rs/night (~$20USD)

People and Culture:

Most of the people of Darjeeling are very friendly in nature, and some of the nicest we’ve encountered in our travels through India; very mild-mannered and incredibly respectful. The culture is very strong here.

Looking at the locals it is easy to see the different backgrounds which make up the community of Darjeeling. The local population is comprised of Nepalese and Tibetan migrants, as well as Sikkimese and Indian people. Walking down the street we began noticing that the different individuals seemed to be with mates from similar backgrounds, in other words we did not see any mixing of races. Even amongst the high-school age youth, the males and females holding hands seemed to be of the same race.

While preparing our itinerary we learned the possible risks of traveling to Darjeeling include a Gorkha rally or protest, in which case all businesses are closed and some minor violence can ensue. Such protests occur for the sake of demonstration and not violence. However,just before our time in Darjeeling a newly elected official was supposedly shot and later died, which sparked the Gorkha protests closing all businesses for 1.5 days during our trip. We weren’t really impacted that much other than being forced to eat meals at our lodge, since restaurants were closed.

There is a local revolution taking place by the Gorkha people who claim the hills of Darjeeling is their land (its been going on since before the British East India Company arrived) and want to separate from India and turn it into Gorkhaland. Traveling in and around these parts, reading pro-Gorkha signs and proposed maps of the new territories, you will quickly learn that there is a large organized Gorkha effort to reclaim “their” land.

The development of Darjeeling dates back to the mid-19th century, when the British set up a sanatorium and a military depot. It was a member of the British army who planted the first Chinese tea seeds in Darjeeling. Tea plantations have taken over the region since the land became famous for yielding the what some say is the world’s best tea.

Views and Weather:

One of the things we all do when we take in an incredible view is to take in a deep breath in awe. For us, the smell of the tea gardens while taking in the views was extra nice because the smell added another dimension to the experience.

The views of Darjeeling, when the clouds eased up, were amazing. 6,700 feet up in the sky, colorful buildings built into very steep mountains with rows of bright green tea gardens twisting around and hugging the mountainsides. Some of the best views can be seen from the Hot Stimulating Café. The sun would peek through the clouds and light up and magnify the town so we could see each colorful building. The vibrant light to dark floral greens reminded us of the tea gardens everywhere.

The views from Darjeeling give a glimpse of much higher mountains like the 3rd highest in the world, Mt. Kanchenjunga, which we caught a small peek of. It feels magical and weird at the same time knowing that what you are staring at is at an altitude of over 28,000 feet. Since you are in the Himalayas, you basically see layers of rows of some of the tallest snow-capped mountain ranges in the world. Our visit to Darjeeling marked the beginning of seeing the Kanchenjunga range that we would progressively get closer to over the upcoming couple of weeks as we headed North.

Food:

A popular food in Darjeeling is the Tibetan momo, a steamed or fried dumpling filled with vegetables or meat and served with clear soup and/or achar. Various Tibetan noodle dishes are also very common, thukpa being a popular one. Other common dishes include potato-based sabjis, like alu-dum,  greens picked locally and cooked with light spices, and lightly spiced daal, served with roti. Little to no oil is used in the cooking process but ghee is served with the meal instead (mmm… ghee!).

Tea is the locals’ beverage of choice. They are not too picky about brand or which tea estate the tea comes from but they do like it to be from a local source. Tea connoisseurs consider adding milk or sugar to delicate Darjeeling tea to be a crime, and believe that good tea requires neither. We’re both guilty as charged.

Tea Estate:

We visited the Happy Valley Tea Estate to answer the question, “where does tea come from”? The hike took about an hour, although it felt like two hours on that particularly hot day. The roads to get there were very windy and situated among steep hills. To take the factory tour we were given an option to go with an English or Hindi speaking guide. We opted for the English speaking guide, although it was very difficult to understand him (I later filled in the gaps with some research). We took a 20 minute “free” tour around the facility which allowed us to see where the magic happens. Since our research told us we would be asked for a tip, we were happy to give our tour guide the customary 20Rs ($.50). The Happy Valley Tea Estate exclusively exports their teas to Harrods of London, Germany, and Japan.

HOW TEA IS MADE: In Darjeeling, women pick the tea leaves, and men work in the factory.  Once the leaves are picked they are brought to the factory where the leaves are laid out on 100’ long drying belts where air is directed to help aid in the drying process. The moisture content needs to be reduced by 30% to make the tea leaf supple which takes up to 24 hours. Then the tea leaves get rolled, forcing the skin of the leaf to burst, allowing cell juice to mix with the oxygen.  Germination begins and depending on the type of tea, germination time can vary, longer germination=stronger tea, but Darjeeling tea is known for its delicate flavor, not its strength.  Next, the tea leaves get dried some more to complete the germination process. Then the leaves get sorted into different classes or categories such as whole leaf, broken, fannings and dust. The final step is to pack the tea so it can be shipped all over the world.

Zoo:

The Himalayan Zoological Park/Zoo appealed to us for the sole purpose that T got to see his favorite animal, the snow leopard, in person. Success! Other animals at the zoo include a variety of pheasants, parrots, peacocks, musk deer, tiger, bear, and the endangered red panda. The zoo is very easy to walk and didn’t take us more than 1.5 hours since we were moving fast.

Hot Stimulating Café:

The “Hot Stimulating Café” is our favorite place in Darjeeling to have tea and momos while catching views of the Himalayas, as well as Darjeeling town. Rambubhai (AKA Rambo) and his wife Lily own and run the café. She is a sweet soft-spoken woman who can be seen making momos and tea for the patrons while Rambo is out on treks or at the Buddhist monastery. Rambo is a hippy at heart with a warm helping nature. He has even dedicated a wall to Bob Marley, where you will find pasted newspaper and magazine cutouts. One can easily see Rambo and Lily’s love for peace loving philosophy upon entering their café.

We became friends with Rambo and we asked him to take us to where the locals hang out. We ended up going to an underground speakeasy to have some drinks with the locals. We spent a couple hours there and met some really easygoing folks who shared some great stories with us about their lives and work. The owner of the speakeasy also made fresh sausages, although we didn’t try any. We ended up visiting an off the beaten path restaurant with our new friends.  We had some great conversations about globalization and politics.

Horse bite:

As we walked from the speakeasy to the restaurant, we walked past the indoor/outdoor stable where the ponies (used for local pony-rides around Darjeeling) live. Jyoti eyeballed a pony and decided she was going to pet it. As she approached the white pony with her hand, the pony lunged its head forward and bit her on the arm, leaving her in pain. Jyoti complained for a bit but shook it off as we continued our way to the restaurant.

The next morning we both woke up to signs of a pretty bad bruise on Jyoti’s arm with teeth marks, but no skin was penetrated or blood drawn. While eating breakfast in the lodge’s restaurant, a person by the name of Samuel Thomas overheard our conversation of how Jyoti was bitten by a horse and recommended a doctor, because after being bitten by an animal, Jyoti was at risk for rabies. I started researching rabies and got freaked out because there is no cure for rabies. If you are bitten, you need to get a series of 5 rabies vaccinations over 30 days to make you immune, or if you don’t and the animal had rabies – you will become fatally ill and die. We decided Jyoti was going to have to get the shot since there was no way to confirm if the horse was rabid (it takes 7 days before the horse would have died from it and we would have been gone by then).

After seeing the doctor, we went to the pharmacy to buy the shot and then back to the hospital to have a sister (nurse) administer it to Jyoti. Locating, purchasing, and finding someone to administer the next four shots would later become four little adventures. Stay-tuned for Gangtok, Pelling, Gujarat, and Istanbul.

Kolkata

Trip Facts:

Kolkata was the capital of British India prior to Independence, home of the East India Company, and also where Mother Theresa did a lot of good work and established herself in the helping  of people that most people in society shunned. What’s there today is the second largest city in India – and a very culturally rich and vibrant city, home to the Bengali language, famous cuisine, and many remnants of British occupation, the most valuable being a venerable educational presence.
Hotel:

We stayed at the Bodhi Tree arthouse/guesthouse. Self labeled “peaceful retreat” in the city, we found the room to be beautifully decorated and the garden a nice place to have breakfast. The constant ringing of the doorbell and noisy staff quickly stole away our peace though. The guesthouse was located in the “posh” part of South Kolkata, the standards of posh being still very different to the West.

Culture:

Sadly, we only allowed for a couple of days here before heading up to Darjeeling, so could not get a deep understanding of what the city was like. Being Gujarati, we had difficulty communicating in this Bengali city which was a quick reminder of how vastly India differs depending on where you go. We definitely saw the remnants of British occupation in the architecture of old buildings, the many surviving Ambassador taxis, the gardens of the city, and of course, the Victoria Memorial.

We enjoyed a side trip to a shopping mall, where Jyoti was happy to pick up an indian outfit for 400 Rs (~$8USD) and had it tailored while we waited for 1oRs ($.20usd!).

Victoria Memorial:

If it weren’t for this building being a reminder of those invasive British people (tsk tsk), then this building would receive much more attention as one of India’s finest. Unfortunately though, it is a monument to Queen Victoria, and therefore does not receive an adequate level of maintenance (particularly the wild gardens). We found the monument to be home to a great small museum dedicated to to the history of British occupation in India. Personally, we had held only negative perceptions of their presence in India prior to this visit, but were surprised to learn of the ways that India benefited from the British. The influence of the educational system is one, but others include the merging of the two cultures. There were, believe it or not, many British people who had a deep respect for the Indian way of life, including peaceful spirituality, respect for living beings, infamous hospitality, historically rooted philosophy and scriptures, and a highly intelligent people. When British intellect met with that of India, what resulted was good literature, media, and artistic output – there were many great people, both British and Indian, who helped bridge the chasm between the cultures and reflect on the best of each. This was particularly true towards the end of British occupation when the uprising of Indian people in asserting their own independence reached phenomenal heights in terms of patriotic Indian rhetoric and an unprecedented solidarity, particularly among Hindus and Muslims. It is one way of looking at how India came out stronger after years of being controlled and looted by the British.
Food:

Kolkata is famous for seafood, rice dishes, and Indian sweets. It is also home to the Kati roll (made popular by drunk, hungry, Indian college students at late night New Jersey food trucks). We survived on standard Indian vegetarian fare (available throughout India) – veg curries, daal, and roti (yum!) and Masala Dosas (super yum!).  From a vegetarian perspective, Bengali food was not very accomodating, so we stuck with the popular dishes.

Final thoughts:

While we enjoyed the city, we did not find the Bengali people as welcoming as Gujaratis, and struggled a little to connect with them in the short time we had. We had an extremely difficult time at the Post Office, and were quickly reminded that despite India’s many charms, the lacking infrastructure and corruption is annoying. We were glad to escape North to the beautiful West Bengal hill station of Darjeeling – stay tuned!