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.
Going on holiday is supposed to be more rewarding than buying stuff for yourself because the happy memories last longer. Or something like that. I can believe that though which is why presents for big birthdays and all anniversaries are always trips. And this was a big birthday for me, being the 30th year and all that. And the destination was Sikkim. I wanted us to rough it out.
And rough it we did on the dusty, bumpy, hilly, twisty road from Bagdogra where our flight had left us. We were in a jeep going to Gangtok and had been awake since 2:45 am that morning. Our flight was, needless to say, quite early. I love early morning journeys – the panic of whether or not your cabbie will turn up, the thrill of directing him to your address while in the middle of your shower, him not getting it and you finally agreeing to just meet him wherever he is now, stray mongrels gnashing their teeth at you, growling menacingly, and then finally barking until 50 of them are following you in the dark to the taxi. Even cabs in Macedonia have GPS you know.
Anyway I digress. We were in this jeep which we had haggled for (unsuccessfully) at the airport at Bagdogra after we were mobbed by 4598^343 taxi drivers mobbed us. This was another example of economics turned upside down. You would have thought it was a buyer’s market given the number of drivers, but no, they all had one price. Cartelized bastards. So we were in this jeep and the driver kept lowering the window to spit out the copious amounts of tobacco he kept chewing. We were told we needed an air conditioned car because of the amount of dust on the road – landslides, rock blasting and all that. It was more because of other vehicles but anyway. We barely benefited from the air conditioning because after a point he didn’t bother with lowering the window, he just kept it rolled all the way down. At one point, I asked him to roll it up because it was all very dusty. From then on he opened his door every time he wanted to spit. Did I mention he was also a very aggressive driver and was constantly overtaking?
But it was beautiful. The dramatic mountains. The crazy trees. The river Teesta flowing, light blue, in the valley. The white rocks. It was dark by 5 pm. We kept getting tossed about in the jeep. Our flight had already been quite late and we’d spent more time than anyone should at Kolkata airport. We even managed a short trip in the city even though it was only a bus ride to college street, a short walk and then a taxi ride back to the airport. We even got gipped by the cabbie.
It was unlikely that we were going to arrive in Gangtok in time for getting permits to Nathu-la. I kept thinking to myself that a cup of tea would have been great and realised we still had about four more hours on this awful bottom-breaking road. It was very dark outside. The mountains were dark silhouettes against the bright stars. Our driver decided we should have a tea break and stopped at a little shop where others had also stopped on their way. We were given tea and hot, oily samosas which were being made fresh by a woman in a little room inside. I asked if there was a bathroom I could use (even the taxi driver got involved) and one of the ladies took me shyly to a the back of a little house. I realized I was on the edge of a little hill. She was looking at me and indicated I could pee there. The crescent shaped moon was out. I stared back at her dumbly. She explained their toilet fell away with the landslide a few days back. I pretended like that was so normal. She kept looking. And then fortunately she went away. I didn’t want to offend anyone so I pretended to pee. I even squatted. A careful observer would have thought I’d done so in my pants since I didn’t lower them.
I held back for the rest of the bumpy journey. God it was so long. And the driver kept making all these personal stops along the way. Twice to inquire about the prices of eggs (cheaper in these parts supposedly) and once to buy booze (too cold to sleep otherwise). When we entered Sikkim and passed through a quasi border control where they checked our identification, he even picked up a plain clothes policeman. They chattered on in their language about local politics. He finally got off somewhere and finally acknowledged our existence by thanking us.
By the time we got to Gangtok we felt broken. I was worried about the husband’s leg. We were shown to our basic little room in the guesthouse we were staying at. We didn’t know it at the time but this was to be one of the best rooms we would stay in over the next week or so. They didn’t serve food and so we crawled out looking for something to eat. Gangtok sleeps early. It was 9 pm and there wasn’t much going on. We found a hotel with a restaurant and a waiter who treated us like we were precious cargo. Dinner was tomato soup followed by simple dal chawal, all that we could eat after a day of airport food. We walked back down the slope to our guesthouse and went straight to bed. And so ended the first day of our trip.
Aurora Borealis, Blue Lagoon, dramatic landscape, Esja, geography, Geysir, Harpa, Iceland, Iceland Symphony Orchestra, Kanchenjunga, Kolabrautin, natural phenomena, Nordic, Northern Lights, Reykjanesbaer, Reykjavik, Sikkim, silica mud, skyr, Tchaikovsky, volcanic soil
I was away for the past week on meetings in Iceland and spent the weekend recovering and the two days after that catching up with work. Our Icelandair flight was surprisingly very full; it seems tourism is doing really well. In Reykjavik too, despite the cold, there were quite a few tourists and many of them Chinese. As soon as we left Keflavik airport, we headed straight towards Blue Lagoon passing through Reykjanesbaer – a more affordable option to living in the capital – for residents and tourists alike. My colleague and I splashed about happily in the mineral-rich waters, slapping on silica mud packs and taking in the sun. The water was nearly 40°C while it was about 6 degrees outside.
Driving towards Reykjavik after bravely resisting the temptation to purchase expensive silica mud to take home, I was amazed to see the landscape. The earth especially was black and looked upturned. I was told it is volcanic soil. It also seemed to support vegetation in some areas but we did drive through miles where it was just black. The capital itself looks extraordinary – there aren’t too many tall buildings, perhaps some in the financial district, and most hotels and even restaurants are situated in colourful houses.
We caught up with another colleague in the evening and had a wonderful dinner. It’s quite nice to actually eat in one of these little houses – it does give a cozy, homely and warm feeling. Food is never a problem for me in the Nordics – they do lovely things with their vegetarian food too and Iceland is no exception. Like Norway, Iceland is expensive (perhaps to a lesser degree) and this was well reflected in our bills. For those who enjoy a wider palette it should come as no surprise that giving its fishing tradition, Iceland is known for its various types of fish. It is also known for its sheep, and therefore also its succulent goat meat 😦
One of the nights we toyed with the idea of taking a tour to catch the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights. The tour would have driven us far from the city into the countryside and returned us back at 1 am. This was a real temptation but unfortunately after our first day, the weather turned cold and wet until the end of our trip and seeing the Lights with such cloud cover would be impossible. Instead we decided to catch the opening night of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra at Harpa – built during the heart of the crisis when three of the largest Icelandic banks failed (within a week). We managed to get three seats together just a few minutes before the show started. I was glad I went. It’s lovely to see musical instruments up so close in addition to the joy of hearing so many types in perfect harmony. The mood turned slightly dark when the Orchestra played Tchaikovsky – it was perfect. Needless to say, the concert hall was packed. During the break we made reservations for dinner at the restaurant at the top, Kolabrautin. The view was excellent – we looked down at the harbour and the water glittering under the lamps in the night. Lovely.
One of the other nights, we dined with two other colleagues from another practice who also happened to be visiting the city at the same time. This was yet another cozy restaurant and I really liked the ambiance here. A word on dessert – with all the meals we had there, this part of the dinner was consistently spectacular. Blueberry pudding, warm chocolate cake and other such heavenly delicacies. I personally loved skyr foam on my dessets, buying a pack at the airport before I left the country. This form of yogurt is served sweetened with desserts in foam form. It’s lovely though I have to say I wish I’d bought a flavoured form because it is a bit sour on its own.
Returning back to the airport, the landscape looked even more stunning with the dark clouds looming low on the horizon. Looking out at the turbulent ocean stirring under the rain across the dramatic surroundings, it almost seemed cataclysmic was going to happen. Perhaps another volcanic eruption?
I would love to visit this country again. One for its geographical features – the volcanoes, the soil, Geysir, Esja (a gorgeous volcanic mountain range, visible across Reykjavik, made of basalt and tuff-stone). And to check out the Northern Lights. And to see whales. And to drive around the country. Hopefully with my trusty camera this time! I have to say this trip has really reawakened my interest in geography and natural phenomena. Enough to make me change my holiday from Thailand to Sikkim in North East India – to catch the sun rising up on the Kanchenjunga and its range – it’s only the third largest peak in the world after all 😉 Mighty Himalayas – I’m coming back!