We woke up early and cold, having crashed the previous night without even getting the large duvet out of the cupboard. Staggering to the window, we could see a Himalayan mountain range outside in the distance, massive and permanent, snowy peaks brilliant white in the morning sun. We were unsure of what we could expect by way of breakfast, given that it was only a teeny guesthouse and not a hotel. The absent-minded chap who’d turned up to our room the previous night with towels or something wasn’t around. Going down the stairs we passed first a ladies’ dorm and then one another for men. There was some staff hanging about in the little canteen and we were given absolutely delicious hot and spicy aloo parathas and sweet, milky tea. The joy.
Now we stepped out to view Gangtok for the first time in daylight, trudging either uphill or downhill on its sloping roads. This was a “layered” town so that buildings on successively higher twists of the road seemed like they were standing on their toes, looking down and in turn being looked down on by the tippy-toed buildings behind them. The taller structures had at least two entrances, the front on a lower road and the back on a higher one (or vice versa). We walked to MG road. Nearly every city, town and village in India has at least one MG Road in honour of the Mahatma. The smaller the town, the more likely that MG road is an arterial road or the buzzing strip in the centre where all the action is (as much action as there is to be had in such places that is). This one too was the main road, and was also fortunately a pedestrian-only business. We passed a large crowd cheering on a singing child on a giant TV screen – Gangtok’s young representative in a reality TV show. Establishments along the road ranged from those selling tourist kitsch to little restaurants and cafes. The sun was bright now and it was fairly pleasant.
We made inquiries with taxi drivers to take us to different “points” which were essentially places of interest, haggling with them on the rate. We were really just interested in three of these so-called points, a couple of monasteries and then a drop to where we could take the cable-car. None of the cabbies really wanted to customize and as one pointed out, since we were there we might as well see all that there was to see. Knowing this was a quasi-tourist trap we took the bait nevertheless having no other way to get to Rumtek and back.
We were soon on our way. I love this about being on vacation. Because you are so pumped and excited and awake all early, you’ve taken your time to get dressed and have your breakfast, you’ve walked about the place, you’ve ooh-ed and aah-ed at the mountains, you’ve taken pictures, you’ve haggled about, and yet it is oh-so-early in the day still! The initial bits were fun – curving roads with the dappled sunlight streaming in through trees. We were soon at our first monastery. Tibetan prayer flags lined the approach. I love the notion of these colourful prayers sent on a breeze. We got our of our little car and walked up a slope with more flags to our left. Inside the complex were prayer wheels, hundreds of lit diyas (earthern oil lamps), monks and an explosion of bright colours. We took a full turn around the complex, turning prayer wheels together. We could hear hyms and gentle chanting behind us. It was very peaceful.
Next we were dispatched to a quiet little museum with artefacts from Tibetan and Buddhist culture on display. Our next stop was Rumtek monastery, much further to the west along winding roads through the hilly forests, which gave way to rice terraces. At Rumtek, the monks calmly went about their tasks despite being heavily guarded by the army and under attack by tourists. There was one terrible family, so loud and noisy and large, and only keen on photographing themselves in front of the complex. The monastery is high up, and faces other hills, blue in the distance. We saw the Golden Pagoda inside, and I was lost as I usually am in places of worship not really knowing what to do with myself.
Outside Rumtek, we had a plate of momos it being lunchtime. I love momos. I love bite sized, hot savory nibbles. And momos are steamed. Healthy! On the long trip back through the twisting roads, which were by now a physical strain, we fell asleep while the car’s stereo belted out Kishore Kumar songs. My head kept banging and bobbing about but I slept on. We woke up to our driver telling us we’d arrived at our next point, a flower exhibition. Now this was the tedious tourist bit. We staggered out sleepily and realized we kept seeing the same people over and over again – doubtlessly they too were in this whole points business as we were. This flower exhibition was in a little covered place, with a little pond and bridge. We stared about dumbly and bumbled out of there as soon as we could. Our driver had instructed us to next climb the stairs onto a ridge and enjoy the view from there. We stared out at Mount Kanchenjunga. In a moment of rebellion, while walking to his car we found a spot overlooked by tourists and clearly not on the points agenda and sat on the parapet, looking at the steps going down to the lower road spiraling down behind the trees. We were tired.
One last monastery – this one was my favourite, the Enchey Gompa. Low profile, and hardly any tourists. Shy monks who went ran out of the camera’s way. The driver dropped us off at the ropeway where we took a cable car ride. Each car had about fifteen or twenty people, all standing. The views as the car journey over the mountains was lovely. We rode back to where we started and walked to the market area (MG and others) through “Nam nam” street where we snacked on hot momos and rolls from a place called Roll House.
Our dinner later in the night was at a funny little restaurant where we were seated close enough to the cash counter, manned by the boss of the place, a cranky old man who regarded his guests as pests. He barked irritable commands at his waiters, mostly in the nature of getting rid of diners, or not accomodating their several requests – could tables be joined together for a large group – of course not! Could someone have a doggy bag – No absolutely not. Why are those people on table 5 still there? Get rid of them quick. And so on. At one point he saw a large family enter with broad smiles on their faces and he sighed wearily, “Heyy Bhagwaan!” (Oh God). Fun times.