We spent the final leg of our second stint in India in the North Eastern (and India’s smallest) state of Sikkim. I’ll be honest and say that this was a state that did not initially engage me but it did grow on me over time – perhaps I didn’t take to it at first because it was relatively cold (it’s mountainous like Darjeeling), we weren’t particularly lucky with the weather (it was rainy in part and pretty cloudy and hazy all the time, obscuring some no doubt magical Himalayan views) and I was a little tired still after our recent exertions on the Singalila Ridge.
Again, sadly, the rhododendrons were not in bloom. We met one German lady who was very serious about seeing these flowering and had allowed herself a window of 7 weeks in this area, purely for this purpose. She had lined up various local people in different locations to notify her when the rhododendrons were blossoming so she could hot tail it to the precise location pronto (or should that be schnell schnell). While not taking it as seriously as that, it would have been nice to see the rhododendrons in bloom (maybe we will luck out in Bhutan). Apparently the weather is a little colder and wetter this year than is normal for this time of year.
In Sikkim, there is a distinct ethnic group, albeit they share some characteristics with people in Darjeeling although see themselves very differently (and I think superior to those in Darjeeling). While apparently there are 11 official languages, the main mother tongues we encountered were Nepali and Tibetan although English is incredibly widely spoken and in many parts, English is the medium of the schools. Almost all of the signs are English and you don’t see much of anything in any of the local scripts. Food wise, the Tibetan influence is again strong although for the first time, we also saw some Bhutanese influences. Drink wise, we sampled the local millet beer, Shyachang, which was some sort of millet served in a large (stein size) bamboo container which you then topped up with hot water and consumed through a bamboo straw: let’s just say it was an acquired taste but did have the advantage that it never seemed to run out as you just kept topping it up with hot water!
Perhaps another reason I didn’t take to Sikkim at first is that on first blush, the people seem a little stand offish and we were often greeted with curious unsmiling stares which did not always thaw when we proffered a friendly “Namaste” or smile. No calls for selfies here (our celebrity star has obviously waned).
We also had a few difficulties with transport, e.g. in Gangtok (the state capital), despite the overwhelming abundance of taxis and the fact that elsewhere in India, you can’t move for being touted by taxi or rickshaw drivers, here it was almost impossible to get a taxi driver to enter into a discussion with us about our prospective journey… and that was before we even could think about negotiating a reasonable price. Very curious behaviour. And in Yuksom, we were very unlucky that our 7.30am shared jeep on which we had booked (and paid for) 2 seats decided to depart at 7.15am without us, before we arrived at the jeep stand leaving us hanging around until 13.00 when the next jeep went (this time, with us on board). Mind you, there were worst places to be stuck: Yuksom is a small picturesque little village – relaxed and peaceful. It could probably have done with being a few degrees warmer and then it would have been picture perfect. To be fair, as an alternative we could have walked 21km to the next village but the day before we had hiked 4 hours – about 12km of multiple sharp descents quickly followed by sharper ascents and so had decided to give ourselves a bit of downtime.
The Sikkimese seem to be a proud reserved group of people – when you do get chatting, it is clear that they see themselves very distinct from other Indians referring to those others as “Indians” while they are “Sikkimese” (a bit like when British people refer to “going to Europe” (i.e. continental Europe) when in fact we are actually in Europe already (at least for the time being….)). But it’s not difficult to get into that way of thinking here – many of our own conversations started with “when we were in India…” almost as though we had ourselves forgotten that we were still in this one vast country.
The over-riding impression of Sikkim is “peaceful” – now that is not a word you normally associate with India with its 1.2 billion people and associated noise. Here, car horns are only used on the mountainous curvy roads to let someone know you are coming round the hair pin bend, rather than being used constantly by default. Sikkim has a rural agrarian economy: on the small terraces on the impossibly steep mountain hills, they grow rice, millet and cardamom in particular and pride themselves on their fully organic agriculture. It is an environmentally conscious state and a lot of emphasis is put on this – although as ever, some of the hype about cleanliness etc. and “no plastic” doesn’t 100% match the reality in practice. To be fair, however, it has to be said this is (on the whole) a very clean state and clearly a forward thinking one (the street cleaners in the capital were called “Gangtok Beautifiers”). It was certainly interesting to see another facet of this multi-faceted country.
Having done the “temple trail” in the south in Tamil Nadu, here we were strictly on a Buddhist route – following the monastery trail (by foot and jeep) from Pelling to Yuksom and then onto Tashidang before returning to Pelling. A common feature of all these monasteries is that they were all built right on the top of ridiculously steep hills: so surely a visit to each of these was good, both for the soul and also for the body, even if the buildings themselves were not always overly impressive.
Making butter lamps