2018 India – Sikkim

And so it began, another full day of traveling ahead. According to Rupak the journey would take about eight hours, and with some roads in very bad condition. Oh well, I was used to that. Shortly before nine we left Darjeeling and started our journey over the meandering roads. We were now surrounded by teak wood forests as we made our way forward. After an hour and a half of climbing we started to descend again into the valley of Teesta. I could see a river in the valley, the border between Darjeeling and Sikkim.

Of course there were the usual checks of my passport but all was found in order so I was handed out my inner line permit and we could proceed. We crossed the bridge and immediately started climbing. From a viewpoint I could see how two rivers merged into one.

And then the road became bad, but still nowhere as bad as in Anurchal Pradesh. Also here we were stopped twice but the holdup did not take longer than fifteen minutes or so. And then, as if a miracle had happened the road suddenly was in perfect condition. A good excuse for me to doze away. Rupak woke me up when we arrived in Pelling. He told me there was not a lot to be done. The small village originally housed about 1500 people but the majority of buildings are now hotels. After checkin I strolled a bit through the town but it was an uninspiring place indeed. By now it was only 3:30 and I had to wait till 19:30 till the restaurant opened.

With nothing much to do it was the first time I felt bored and alone. To make things worst I had lost my Bose noise reduction headset so listening to music was not an option. Good thing was that the day after there was a full program of sightseeing planned, but my first experience in Sikkim was not a very nice one.

Next morning started much better, after a good shower I felt completely refreshed, breakfast was great and Rupak and Urgen were already waiting for me. Our first destination for the day was Khechipairi lake, about 31 kilometre away. The road was in good shape so I could admire the landscape in comfort. The Rambo falls, which are supposed to look very impressive during and after the monsoon were not that impressive right now, something that I had expected.

The steep hills were no excuse not to be used as everywhere I could see small villages and terraces prepared for agriculture. As beautiful as it looked I would not like to live their as each village required at least an hour long hike steep uphill.

The holy lake itself was in a beautiful surrounding. It had the shape of a foot and of course a couple of myths explaining it’s creation. There were both Buddhist and Hindhu versions of the myths so everyone could relate to it. A small bridge with prayer wheels lead to an area close to the lake and an abundance of prayer flags. Over here pilgrims could pray and present offerings to the plenty of fish who were eagerly waiting for their treat.

There was a small prayer hall where a monk lit butter lights and helped the pilgrims with their prayers.

Close to the lake a new monastery was being built. The work was not completed yet but the prayer hall with a fantastic statue dominating it was already in use. I could see a group of nuns busy with their recitals. I completely loved the noise of their prayers which sounded like the humming of bees, extremely peaceful and serene.

We drove back to Pelling for a traditional Sikkimese lunch after we continued our trip to the Rabtense ruins. A few partially rebuilt wall-stubs are all that remains of the palace complex, which was Sikkim’s royal capital from 1670 until it was sacked by Nepali forces in the 18th century.

Higher up in the hills I could see the Pemayangtse monastery and from where I was standing I could hear the monks blowing their trumpets. For me the sign to abort the visit to the ruins and proceed to the monastery.

A wise decision as it turned out. By the time we arrived lamas were saying their recitals, accompanied by trumpets, bells and drums. Once again shivers ran down my spines and I had goosebumps all over. It was a ceremony specially performed for an Indian family sitting at the side. It did not take to long and as soon it was over the monks returned to their quarters. One of them offered me a selection of fresh fruit that I enjoyed later that day. What an experience!

I admired the prayer hall, as well as the first and second floor where a museum was located. Stunning fresco’s covered the walls and beautiful statues, as well as an overwhelming piece of art created for Guru Rinpoche. Unfortunately photography was not allowed inside, something I respected.

By four I was back at my hotel, time to update my journal and relax. It had been a beautiful day and I was in a much better mood than the day before.

A new dawn and new experiences were waiting for me in the misty mountains. Like the day before Rupak was already waiting for me so we started our journey. I had named Sikkim the cloud kingdom and that was especially true this day as thick layers of fog obscured the views.

Our first stop were the Kachenjuga falls which had a much bigger amount of water coming down than the falls we visited the day before. These ones definitely were falls, and not a stream of water coming down.

There was quite some activity of local people going on, most of them busy making selfies, and I did take some time to watch the workers improving the road and painting the bridge in a bright green color.

A bit further we enjoyed a cup of tea in a local village when it started to rain. We waited for a while but as the did not stop we decided to go on. We left the well paved road for a bumpy ride uphill, and then we had to walk another 400 meter steep uphill over a slippery and rocky path.

Not much later, and without having fallen down, we arrived at the Dubdi Gompa. Established in 1647 in honor of Lhatsun Chenpo, Dubdi it is said to be Sikkim’s oldest still-functioning monastery. Located high on the ridge above Yuksam, this compact, peaceful gompa is beautifully set in tended gardens, and if the fog wasn’t obscuring the view I would have enjoyed dawn views of white peaks between high green folds of forested foothills. But no complaints about that.

We returned back at the car in one piece and returned in the direction of Yuksam. Yuksam means ‘meeting place of the three lamas’, referring to the trio of Tibetan holy men who crowned the first chogyal (King) of Sikkim at a historic site in 1641.

And that was exactly where we were going. The site was filled with prayer flags, a charming woodland garden with a small temple, a huge prayer wheel, a chorten containing earth from each corner of Sikkim and the supposedly original four-seat Coronation Throne. It was a lovely and tranquil place and after having paid the 25 euro cent entrance fee the key keeper opened the small temple especially for us.

Not far from the site a new temple was built with a large statue of one of the lama’s dominating the upper floor. I looked down over another garden filled with prayer flags, a rather usual sign in this region.

Back at the little village of Yuksam we were supposed to go to lunch but I was distracted by another building with a large selection of immense prayer wheels. I was lucky that my visit coincided with the visit of a group of East Bhutanese who enthusiastically rotated the massive wheels, in clockwise direction. I spent a while watching this enchanting scene after which I moved to a small local restaurant for a fabulous lunch.

Just before four we returned to my hotel. As I was rather tired by now I enjoyed a long afternoon nap before I started working on my journal. At seven thirty I went to the restaurant for dinner and I guess that by now you already know the routine after that. Another beautiful day had come to an end.

The next day was a travelling day. We left Pelling and continued our journey to Namchi in South Sikkim. Approximately three hours were planned for the 75 km drive but not unexpected it did take longer. Like the last days it was still pretty hazy but that did not stop me enjoying the stunning environment. Steep hills, covered in shades of green, deep valleys to look down at and every now and then a peaceful village.

My first treat of the day was a visit to the Tathagata Tsal Buddha Park. A giant Buddha dominated the tasteful park. Whilst walking toward it I could hear music from chanting monks. Magic filled the air and it seemed I was coming down by every step I made towards the statue. In the building under the statue a stunning exhibition about the life of Buddha was presented whilst slowly circling around the building uphill. Another slope led to a sudden and unexpected stop, at a wall decorated with the traditional white shawls. It was a peaceful and tranquil experience that I greatly enjoyed.

We continued our way to Namchi and when we almost arrived there we took a detour uphill to Samdruptse, where another giant statue was built, this time to honour Guru Rinpoche. Under the statue was a simple temple created, a nice place but nothing compared to the first one.

It was only a couple of kilometers to my hotel and after checking I enjoyed a well deserved lunch. Then it was time to hit the road again, now to the Chardham Temples.

As soon as we arrived I could not keep the grimse of my face. The temples, replicas from Hindhu temples from all over India were created in such a kitsch and tacky way I in no way could take it serious. It felt like a Disney park for Hindhu’s.  The park was dominated by an immense statue of Lord Shiva, looking over the temples.

Apparently I was the only one who did not take the thing serious as loads of worshippers took their task more than seriously and went from temple to temple to say their devote prayers.

At one place a small child got scared of the statues, which had eyes that could not be overlooked, and I could not stop laughing, discretely of course…

Even Rupak was very serious and devoted but when he asked how I liked this “beautiful” place I could not help but tell the truth. He did understand and thought it was funny.

Last visit for the day was the Sri Shidri Sai Baba Mandir centre. Although still colorful and full of deities this place was definitely far more tastefully done than the Hindhu theme park. The prayer hall at the second floor was impressive in it’s simplicity with a ceiling painted like a story sky. Amazing!

By now the afternoon was coming to an end, time to return to the hotel, work on my journal and relax. It had been a fabulous day full of extremes. It will bring a smile on my face for a long time.

Next morning the sun was shining and the fog was much less than the days before. It gave me the opportunity to see the mighty white peaks of the Himalayas for a very first time. Needless to say I was extremely excited.

Our next destination was Gangtok, the capital of East Sikkim, and with the fog not obstructing the view I was enjoying the ride even more. Unfortunately clouds started to gather as the day went on and soon it was business as usual. Our route winded through mossy forests, bamboo groves and terraced paddy fields, a true feast for my eyes.

Rupak had proposed to visit Rumtek monastery today. Officially it was planned in two days time but as it was almost on our way it made sense to visit it today, and so we did…

Rumtek is Sikkim’s most spiritually significant monastery complex. It’s essentially a self-contained village with a colourful main prayer hall that was built (1961–66) to replace Tibet’s Tsurphu Monastery, destroyed during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. The interior’s centrepiece is a giant yellow throne awaiting the long-overdue coronation of the Kagyu spiritual leader, the (disputed) 17th Karmapa. He currently resides in Dharamsala due to the Karmapa controversy. The sensitivity over which explains all the armed soldiers and why I, like all foreigners, had to present passport and Sikkim permit before entry.

By now I had already realized I could not compare the monasteries with the ones in Ladakh but they were definitely worthwhile visiting.

There was a beautiful courtyard in front of the main building that housed the prayer hall. Some young monks were playing together during their free time.

The prayer hall was stunning, but with no lights on it was difficult to admire the frescos. Still it was possible to see some beautiful statues and hundreds of golden Buddhas. The atmosphere was amazing but as with many monasteries in Sikkim, no photography allowed inside..

Behind the monastery, stairs rise beside the distinctively painted Karma Shri Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies, leading quickly to a smallish room containing an ornate Golden Stupa, studded with turquoise and amber gemstones. That’s the reliquary of the 16th Karmapa, founder of the current complex and considered almost a saint hereabouts.

In the room in front of the Golden Stupa monks were preparing for their daily Puja so I decided to sit down and witness their prayers.

As soon as the monks started chanting I closed my eyes and started to meditate. At times I got distracted as worshippers entered the room and did their prayers, a good excuse to observe the monks and their rituals. But the longer it lasted the better I could switch of from the distractions and the deeper my mediation, guided by the chanting, became.

Rupak tried to get in touch with me, something which was not possible at the time, as my eyes were closed and I was in deep meditation. Over two hours later, when there was a short break I opened my eyes and noticed he was not there anymore. I met him outside after which we went for a late lunch.

About an hour and a half later we arrived at my hotel which was located high above Gangtok. Time for a Kingfisher, a nap, and a well deserved dinner. What a beautiful day it has been once again!

The next day a trip to North Sikkim was planned. As this was a restricted area we had to use a car with Sikkim licence plates and we needed to use a local driver. So that morning I had three men accompanying me, a surreal experience.

We left Gangtok and pretty soon the road went steeply uphill. From the other side of the valley I had a good view over Gangtok. Our first stop were the seven sisters. A waterfall cascading over seven steps, from which I could only see the last two.

Next we stopped at a point where long time ago a bloodband between two tribes was established. The place was marked with an abundance of prayer flags and I saw two stones which inscriptions had been faded by time. A bit further on a monument was erected to honor this event.

Not much later we crossed a bridge and once we did that we arrived in North Sikkim. The police post to check my passport and inner line permit was not far away…

And then the road once again turned bad so it became a rather bumpy ride. Still I felt safe as David, the local driver, drove responsibly and the roads were wide enough so we did. To need to maneuver close to the edge. We passed the Phodong monastery, which we would visit on our return.

The Labrang monastery was only a couple of miles further on uphill. Built in the 18th century it had a complete different look than what I had seen before. A monk showed us the prayer hall and the first floor where two lama’s were preparing for a prayer.

But they were not the only ones. Back in the prayer hall a Puja was just about to start in memory of someone who recently passed away. I did feel extremely lucky to be able to witness two puja’s within two days. Monks arrived and took their places and suddenly the chanting started.

One of the younger monks was on tea duty. Every monk got a nice cup of salted butter tea. Also two locals sitting next to me were treated on a cup and two my big surprise I was given one as well. This made me really feel part of the ceremony and not just a spectator. The salty butter tea was an acquired taste but in a long way not as bad as the yak butter tea I had tasted in Tibet. I even accepted a second offering.

I took some time to observe the rituals and make some pictures after which I closed my eyes, switched of and allowed myself to be drifted away by the enchanting voices around me. At times trumpets and horns were blown and I could feel the impact of the loud drums. The chanting was very melodic and it was rather easy for me to get in a different state of mind, a very relaxed one. I do not remember how long I sat like that but it must have been over an hour and a half. Then the mood changed, I opened my eyes and I noticed the first part of the Puja, which by now had taken over two hours was coming to and end.

Again a monk walked past the other monks to offer them a spoonful of ‘holy’ water out of a silver bowl and once done he came to us to offer the same. Also, like all monks, I was presented a dish with fresh fruit and snacks.

I felt rather emotional by now. Never before had I witnessed a Puja where I was so involved, never before had I witnessed a Puja where I was treated as part of the ceremony, not just a spectator. It took me a while to land with both feet on the ground and I nodded to Rupak I was ready to leave.

It had been an overwhelming experience. Outside, the monk who had showed us around before was waiting. He asked whether I was willing to make some pictures of him and send them later. How could I refuse…

Still not completely in the present I got into the car and we backtracked our way to the Phodong monastery. As soon as I got put of the car I could hear the chanting of the monks. Another puja was taking place.

So instead of admiring the exterior first I headed straight to the prayer hall where a Puja had just begun. This time it was requested by a family who sat in between the two rows of monks performing the Puja.

The average age of the monks was older than in Labrang so the voices were much lower. Also the horns used were in a deeper tone range and the drums were massive, so you could really feel them when they were being used.

Also the prayers were completely different giving the Puja a complete different atmosphere than the previous one. I was absorbed by the ritual and could not get enough of it. Although I hardly understood what was going on it was a delight just to sit and watch.

Like at the previous Puja I was offered a spoon of holy water and some treats by the time the ritual was coming close to an end. This time I had not gone into a meditation as I could not do that a second time on a day and I was to intrigued by everything around me.

The family who had requested the Puja had left behind a large staple of money, which was carefully divided amongst the present monks. An offering, a thank you for them performing the prayers.

The monks started to leave and I took some time to admire the interior of the prayer hall. There was so much to be seen, and even after having visited a number of monasteries I was not bored by it.

Before leaving I enjoyed my banana (I had limited myself to take only one item from the basket that was offered to me) and had a look at the exterior of the monastery. Monks were making their way, the Puja was over, time to relax, or perhaps a meditation or some more practice, I would never know.

By now lunch time was far overdue so we stopped at a stall where I enjoyed a cup of black tea, vegetable momos and a samoa. Also the others were hungry but I could not feel guilty having stayed far much longer than planned at both monasteries. It had been an overwhelming experience.

I did notice though I was getting tired earlier and earlier. The amount of impressions that almost non stop were coming to me were at times difficult to handle. Driven by excitement I did not have a nap during the drive back. Back at the hotel I really wanted a nap but forced myself to update my journal first. Dinner was served at 19:30 and the lights in my room went out not much later. Another exciting day had come to an end…

That night Heavens opened, my bed was trembling due the rolling thunders and my bedroom was instantly lit by the bright lightning. Nature was showing off and I guessed the whole Gangtok population must have been awake. Fortunately after an hour or so it mellowed out and I could go back to sleep again.

When I left the hotel I already noticed I was more tired than usual, most likely a combination of a bad night sleep and the intense last couple of days.

Our first stop was the Enchey monastery, the first one in Gangtok. A small but beautiful monastery built in the style so typical for Sikkim. Inside a beautiful collection of frescos and statues. A monk banged a gong, sign that the morning Puja was about to start. This time however I could resist so we headed on to our next point of visit.

The palace and the royal monastery. Beautiful located within the compounds of a school for monks the monastery was again a fine example of Sikkimese religious architecture. The palace itself was not so interesting as I could, only see it from a distance.

I felt rather uninterested that morning and my dizziness was coming up rather strong. I knew I had reached a point where I needed some rest so i decided I would not complete that day’s sightseeing. Our next stop was a museum and workshop for cottage industry and I did my best to at least look interested but once again it could not grab my attention.

One thing I did want to see though was the Na Ghal Institute of Tibetology. It turned out to be a small but wonderful museum of original Tibetan artefacts. Lovely to spend some time.

A couple of minutes walk further I visited the Do Drui Chorten, surrounded by buildings to house monks. A small school was located further down the hill and the noise from chanting young monks was deafening. A monk was lighting a humongous amount of butter lamps inside a building and I could feel the heat from the flames.

Then I told Rupak I was tired, asked him to bring me back to the hotel and released him and Urgen for their duties of the day. I had a nap, followed by a wonderful thukpa (noodle soup) for lunch. The afternoon I took time to relax and decided to book a wonderful hot stone massage.

That was the plan but after waiting for over thirty minutes at the reception for someone to finally show up I was informed the spa was closed today (and most likely already many days before). Internet was not working due to electricity problems (sorry sir) so there was nothing to do but to return to my room and listening to some music. That resulted in my second nap for the day.

Dinner was excellent, as always, and as I had enjoyed two naps earlier the day I stayed up a bit longer than usual. Another day had come to an end, a day where I decided to listen to my body and have a well needed break, it had done me well, by the end of the day my dizziness was back to it’s usual and more acceptable levels.

The next morning started with a three hour drive during which we left Sikkim. Our next, and final destination of the trip was Kalimpong, part of the Darjeeling district in West Bengal. By the time we arrived at the border of Sikkim and West Bengal I officially had to check out at the police station. A lot of paperwork and an additional stamp in my passport later I got back into the car and we were on our way again.

Instead of taking the highway we took the scenic route high up in the hills. First we drove through thick teak forest, a beautiful sight. The area is best known for it’s quinine production and not much later the hills were covered with that. In Piet of the haze I did enjoy the views. We passed small villages, all spotlessly clean, and I could not stop thinking people must have a much better lifestyle over here than I the cities, in spite of the harsh conditions.

Our first stop before reaching Kalimpong was the Tharpa Choling monastery. Both the architecture and the painting reminded me of monasteries I had seen in Tibet. Built in 1922, this Gelugpa-school Tibetan monastery of 50 monks contains statues of the past, present and future Buddhas.

Rupak knew the monk who opened the prayer hall for us and after I had admired the place I was given permission to make pictures, as long as I was quick…

Next to the monastery was a small but extremely interesting museum. Lots of pictures of the last days of an independent Tibet were on display as well as a lot of historical items. I was also shown the modest room where the founding lama of the monastery had lived. To be honest I liked this museum so much more than the Tibetology Institute we visited yesterday. The atmosphere was just right.

It was not a long drive to the Thongsa Gompa, another interesting monastery. The prayer hall was quite large but rather modest with it’s decorations. Rupak told me it was a relatively new monastery which could explain why.

Then we drove on to our hotel, A former summer home of the maharajas of Dinajpur is perched on a mountain shelf overlooking the Relli Valley, and packs in oodles of Raj-era charm. Wicker chairs and scarlet blossoms line the verandah and there’s a charming lounge bar. It was the perfect place to finish of my tour to Darjeeling and Sikkim.

I invited Rupak and Urgen for lunch, something they reluctantly accepted, after which we went for our last sightseeing of the tour.

Our first stop was a cactus nursery but although it housed the nice collection it didn’t not tickle my fancy so within minutes we continued our journey to Durpin Gompa, Kalimpong’s largest monastery, formally known as Zangtok Pelri Phodang, and consecrated by the Dalai Lama in 1976. It was located in the middle of a military camp (that was build much later) and it was a strange experience driving through the camp, slowly uphill until we arrived at the monastery, a surreal location.

When we arrived a monk was banging a gong, announcing it was time for for the monks to gather for their daily afternoon Puja. It did only seem right to finish of my wonderful time in Darjeeling and Sikkim with attending a Puja. Once again the atmosphere was completely different than the previous ones I had witnessed, and it also was the shortest, just under an hour.

We returned to the hotel where I went to the living room to update my journal whilst enjoying a Kingfisher. Another beautiful day had come to an end.

And that was not the only thing to come to an end… Also the first part of my Big India Immersion 2018 was almost over.

“A magical journey to the cloud kingdom…”

A month in India has brought me countless experiences and overwhelming impressions. It have been four extremely intense weeks but I knew that before I booked this trip. It is almost impossible to comprehend all the things I saw and all the events I was part of. Most of it I loved but there have been times I was not that happy, to say the least.

That is India for you. A cacophony of sights, sounds, smell, touch and taste. Not all of which are easy to deal with, however once you are ready to deal with the inevitable frustrations and unavoidable difficulties it is more than worth it, the rewards are priceless!

The next day I travelled to Bagdogra from where I flew to Delhi where the second part of my adventure began.

“New discoveries in the North West”

Continue to The Delhi Experience