My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 6

Continuing from Chapter 5, the last stop of the day beckoned – the Rumtek Monastery. This is an important shrine for Buddhists as it’s the seat-in-exile of the Kagyu Karmapa. However, as there’s controversy around the 17th Karmapa, the monastery’s currently under the Indo- Tibetan Border Police to prevent any sectarian violence. Don’t forget to carry your identity card as you’ll not be allowed in without it.

Now a funny bit happened – the monastery underwhelmed me. I’d expected more grandeur from one so famous. Back at the hotel, I looked up the monastery on Google. I found something different to what I saw. I became glum, thinking I’d not seen the actual monastery, perhaps seen the outer wing & now I can’t even go back. But then I looked at the pictures closely. I realized that the open-air courtyard that I saw in the photos was currently covered with tarpaulin for the two-month long Kangyur Oral Transmission. & that’s why it looked different. Attention to detail madam!

But what is worth gaping at here are the lifelike frescoes. Walls after walls are lined with beautiful, vivid paintings from Buddhist mythology. I wondered at the preservation effort that would have gone into this. And for someone as inartistic as I’m, the frescoes were an epitome of creativity and finesse.

Frescoes amaze me
Frescoes amaze me

A word of caution about Rumtek Monastery though – it’s a long climb to get there. Vehicles are prohibited. Therefore, ensure you really have the willingness to visit the monastery; else you may feel cheated.

I loved the monks & nuns there. They were the embodiment of happiness & contentment. Easy with their smiles & eager to pose – they were any photographer’s delight. But do ask before clicking!

By the end of this, I was exhausted & desperately wanted my bed. I’d an early start the next day too, to catch my flight from Bagdogra. I wanted to attempt the Kanchenjunga again & hoped the clouds would give way. My wishes were to come true.

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Kanchenjunga clearly visible on a gorgeous sunny day

When we started the next morning, the clouds parted just enough for me to capture the peak. I thanked the Almighty. Subconsciously, I’ve begun to be grateful for my blessings. I strive to see the positive in everything.

I dreaded returning to Delhi NCR because of the pollution there but I knew I’d to go back to be able to step out again. I love the Himalayas; Sikkim, with its cleanliness, discipline, simplicity & friendliness, appealed a lot to me. I can’t wait to return there for a longer trip. & I’m pleased as punch that the new airport is opening soon in Pakyong which will make Sikkim more accessible. So long Sikkim! You were good to this solo woman traveler.

To end the blog, for the women hesitating to take that solo trip, my top tips:

  1. If it’s your first trip or if you’re anxious, go with a travel agency who’ll take care of all your needs. Even among those, opt for the bigger names; credibility will be a nonissue then.
  2. Choose an easy destination to begin with. Don’t make it Ladakh or Spiti at the first instance. These are difficult terrains & going in company (or at least if you’re a seasoned traveler) will be better. Ensure mobile connectivity isn’t a concern; the last thing you would want’s you being stranded & your folks worried to death.
  3. Don’t hesitate to demand changes to the itinerary, flights, hotels, cabs, transfers etc. if you’re spending money on it, it better be according to your taste.
  4. Enjoy your alone time. Don’t feel awkward in sightseeing alone, eating alone etc. the world’s becoming more receptive to solo travelers.
  5. Ensure you stay alert at all times even when you’re having fun. Trust your instinct! At the same time, don’t hesitate to talk to locals.
  6. Prepare yourself for surprised remarks. My cabbie, KN, remarked “Madam ji, you’re a brave girl. You’ve done something that only boys do!”

My Gangtok Chronicle – Chapter 2

Continuing from Chapter 1, landing in Bagdogra was a visual delight. As we descended, I spotted neat squares and rectangles that served as farms. Almost every shade of green was discernible. Then onward, I was in for a wonderful time.

I had booked an Innova for myself; I can trust the reliability of this vehicle blindly. My driver, KN, was a Sikkimese and pointed out that we would have to go slow on the hills in the dark. I knew then that I was in safe hands. My relief was not shared by my parents who were worrying themselves sick. They got their peace of mind when I reached Gangtok.

Along the way, crossing Bagdogra/ Siliguri was a headache with the annoying auto and rickshaw traffic. Perhaps I had had a bad day which made me more irritable. NH10 was patchy. Traffic was dense till the turn for Darjeeling. There on, it became a breeze. The roads drastically improved once we entered Sikkim at Rangpo.

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Stunning vistas- Sikkim can easily be called the Land of Lakes

It was 9 PM by the time we reached the hotel. The day had been wasted. My plans of roaming on the streets of Gangtok went down the drain. I was exhausted. I wanted a hot meal and a warm bed. Thankfully, my hotel provided both.

New Orchid Hotel was not fancy but its basics were in place. I was welcomed with the traditional ‘khada’, the white silk scarf. They upgraded me from an Executive Room to a Suite. Yay! Not a bad end to a lousy day.

On the first real day of my travel, the initial plan was to undertake local sightseeing in Gangtok. But as I feasted on my breakfast, my cab agent informed that my permit for Nathu La had come. I thus needed to leave for the daylong excursion to Nathu La, Baba Mandir & Tsomgo Lake.

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I wish I could have reached out & touched the clear water…

Excitement would be an understatement to describe my state of mind. Nathu La, of course, is the stuff legends are made of. At 14,200 feet, it is an international boundary between India and China where civilians are allowed. However, the rarefied air and the extreme temperatures deter most tourists. Also, the number of cars (and consequently the number of tourists) to Nathu La has a daily capping. This meant that I had to club with someone in one car for the last 3-4 kilometers. I did not mind this.

I have been to Dochu La, Khardung La, Chang La, Rohtang La and Kunzum La. I knew what to expect from a pass in terms of oxygen and temperature. I was, however, a little anxious about the amount of walking involved. Well, I will cross the bridge when we come to it.

I am a lover of long drives. The terrain reminded me, happily, of Ladakh and Spiti. The sky was blue; the Kangchenjunga beamed at me. I sighed with contentment but I postponed clicking its photos to the next day. I soaked in the sights as we ascended.

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I loved how the mountains seem to fade away…

Once the army-controlled area began, mobile connectivity dropped. Tiny lakes started appearing which looked like infinity pools. Furry dogs sunbathed; I wish I could take one home.

We stopped at Kyangnosla for a bio break. Surprisingly, in the family-run shop/ café, the toilets were clean, though without a light bulb. It struck me that Sikkim had taken the Swachh Bharat Mission seriously. Every few meters in Gangtok, I found posters extolling the virtues of cleanliness. Dustbins were a common feature. There was hardly any litter to be found on the streets.

I knew Sikkim was one of the most developed states in India but now I was getting to see it first-hand. Center-state cooperative federalism is something that Sikkim can teach to the other Indian states.

The blue sky made my day even better!
The blue sky made my day even better!

The ethnicity, the cleanliness, the discipline, the safety – all made me feel I was not in an Indian city. Only the presence of Mr. Narendra Modi’s posters every few hundred meters (put up by the non- BJP state government) and the presence of the Indian army brought me back to reality.

But I digress; let me continue with my Nathu La story.

How Chandratal Cleared My Muddled Head – Part I

I see people around me exclaim before traveling, “Oh let’s get there! Then we’ll have so much fun.” The focus is commonly on the destination. Then, do I sound crazy if I say that I enjoy my time getting to the destination more than the destination itself? Maybe it sounds cliched but, for me, it is about the journey. Over the years, each of my journeys has given me a food for thought, a reason to smile, and innumerable memories to carry back home. One such journey for me was to the hallowed Chandratal (Moon Lake).

So, August the last year, after I had been amply scared by all and sundry that monsoon was hardly the time to visit Himachal Pradesh, I set off, with three other travel companions. I knew I was in for stunning vistas and cool climes, but I had not expected that I will get a few life lessons along my way. While there are many ways Chandratal affected my life, I choose three that really drove home a few truths. Moments of realization – ta ding!

Part 1

1
Oh, poor truck!

When I left the charm of Manali behind & started ascending the forbidding roads to Chandratal, probably everything my well-wishers had said started coming true. At the same time, it filled me with a strength I never felt before. The mountains humbled me & seemed to be questioning me – Who are you? What have you achieved that you hold your life so dear? When death comes to you, would you not rather it did in the lap of the Himalayas, rather than in a cooped-up room in a city?

As these thoughts churned in my head, my vehicle came to a halt. There was a ‘nala’ in which a mini-truck had got stuck. Now, a ‘nala’ in this part of the country can mean road blockades for days, sleeping in the car, running out of food etc. It is not the calmly flowing trickle of Yamuna; it is a surge of water tumbling down the mountain, washing away parts of it as it goes. The poor truck driver tried his level best to rev up the vehicle; alas, like all else man made, this failed too in front of nature.

When it seemed that we would be stuck here too till a JCB arrived, a group of bikers entered the scene. They got down from their bikes, strode into the water, put up rocks to anchor the truck & pushed with all their might. A couple of tries later, the truck lunged forward – it was free! Fist pumps in the air & in my little heart!

2
Must – Visit – Spiti

My lesson no. 1 from Chandratal – Do not be afraid to take help. It does not matter if the person who is trying to help you is, according to you, incapable to do so; you never know what may click. And if it was not working in the first place any which way, would seeking help make things worse?

 

Now for the practical part – how to reach Chandratal?

  1. Take an early morning flight to Kullu – Take a taxi to Chandratal (~170 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Three

(Disclaimer One – Flights to Kullu are weather-dependent. Disclaimer Two – Keep a spare day because in Spiti, you never know!)

  1. Take an early morning flight to Chandigarh – Taxi to Manali (night halt) – Taxi to Chandratal (~130 kms)

Minimum no. of days you will need – Five

(Disclaimer Two applies here too.)

 

Back with Part II soon…

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