Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The Gangtok Gospel


India is truly a country of extremes. If on one side, camels glide through the dry, hot,desert, on the other, tigers prowl through the wetlands of the Sunderbans. While prayer wheels are spun in monasteries in Ladakh, hymns are heard from temples in Tamil Nadu. Every part of the country has a lot to teach to its visitors. One of the best teachers for me, however, was Gangtok.

It was the month of May. The Deccan peninsula scorched, Bagdogra sizzled, but Gangtok remained, quite literally as cool as a cucumber, or even cooler. The 4-hour drive on the hilly road from Bagdogra isnt easy, but the view & the fresh mountain air compensates for drive on the railing-less bumpy road. 

While we ascended the mossy green hill, the Teesta river slithered in the valley. Having been accustomed to the grayish-brown waters of the Yamuna and the froth-spewing lakes of Bangalore, the jade green Teesta proved to be a visual delight. The mountain air acted as elixir for our lungs, and the tissues brought in wholesale packs to wipe out mud,sweat, snot and grime lay unused.
As darkness descended, with only the moonlight to guide us and Gangtok just a few kilometres away, the driver steered the car, going around bends he was clearly accustomed to, as we had no idea where, which bend would pop-up from.  The hills of West Bengal glittered with lights to our left, while we proceeded on the long, winding one nearing Sikkim. Landon Carter’s words “ You're in two places at once” kept echoing in my ears.

The view of Teesta river enroute Darjeeling - couldn't get a picture on the way to Gangtok

It was amazing how the ‘ Welcome to Sikkim’  gate had appeared out of (what seemed to be) nowhere. A police guard presented himself there and asked us, quite suspiciously for our Ids, where we had come from and which hotel we were planning to stay at. It was quite like a Visa interview (we even had our passports!) except that we were going to another state in the same country.
We woke up to the view of imposing hills, a row of colourful prayer flags and a kind of music that seemed to come naturally with the presence of trees and a constant, soft wind. The coolness of the mountains and the clean air does a much better job of clearing up one’s head and skin than any of the world’s best medicines and face creams.

But my lessons in Gangtok were yet to begin - this was just day one. After a day at Rumtek Monsastery, where we achieved no peace, thanks to a group of people who raucously moved about the monastery, and a museum which, surprisingly didn’t enthuse us much, we proceeded to the Gangtok zoo.

Our friendly driver took us right into the zoo, till a point where vehicles were permitted, and from then began our quest. I say quest, because it was a quest to find the animal enclosures. No boards and no directions, except the occasional arrows painted on the roads and a teeny map on the postcard-size entry pass. We passed through a rough path in a dense green forest, steps and all, till the path opened into a wide balcony, under which lay not only the entire city of Gangtok, but also the home of the Himalayan black bear, who, despite repeated calls, refused to present itself. If the zoo trip began with an uninterested black bear, it ended with a rather camera friendly snow leopard, whose enclosure was at one of the highest points of the zoo, next to a mysterious tower. The state animal, a red panda, scowled at us, nothing like the Shi Fu in Kung Fu Panda (much to my disappointment), while the barking deer symbolized the ‘ deer caught in headlights’ phrase whenever it saw the lens of the camera.  The entire time spent in the zoo was like being on a nature’s trail, with the unexpected steps and animal sightings. The lack of vehicles and people made for a peaceful retreat into nature. Lesson number one: A plan is not always needed.

The path leading upto the snow leopard

Amidst the green!

The deer caught in the headlights
The scowling Red Panda

Day 2 saw us getting into the car at 7 am to visit Nathu-La pass. It gets all the more difficult to get up early in the morning in the mountains., but the effort is well worth it. As we exited the town,residential buildings were replaced with army camps, and vehicles with army trucks. In an area which seemed almost too cold, or too deserted to live, it was almost incredulous how the Indian Army was living there! Wherever the eye could see, there was snow.  If the colour scheme of the previous day was green and light yellow, the colour scheme today was white and dark brown, akin to a black forest pastry. But I guess that’s the Army, and they totally deserve all the praise and applause that the nation bestows on them.

Absolutely true!
The black forest mountains!

We were a part of a cavalcade of the many cars filled with eager tourists, lined up in an orderly fashion behind one another, overlooking a river of mountains. For once, there was no constant honking, or competition between cars to overtake each other, and for another, there was amazing camaraderie between the drivers. Maybe this was all because of the mountain air. Maybe everybody was overwhelmed by the scenic beauty outside their window.Or maybe just because it was one lane and almost impossible for one car to overtake another! 

The 'river' of mountains

As we ploughed ahead, we realized that we hadn’t packed woollen gloves and caps, and more importantly, that nature ‘calls’ much frequently in the cold. Our very intuitive driver realised this, and tactfully stopped at a row of shops selling gloves, scarfs, mufflers, boots – you name it – at very reasonable prices. The reason for this, according to the cashier, was the influx of clothes from across the border (read: China). At the backend of all these shops were public toilets. And not only these shops – any shop spotted enroute Nathula was equipped with a toilet, meant not only for the owners, but also the patrons and even passerbys. And unlike public restrooms in Delhi or Mumbai, the restrooms here were clean. Lesson number 2: Dont be presumptuous- not all public restrooms are dirty.


The majestic Tsongo Lake materialised before our very eyes,much like an oasis in the desert. The reflected light from the mountains shone on the lake, making it look like the surface of one giant gray pearl, while the colourful prayer flags fluttered above it. Decorated yaks and equally decorated people were up for display, as everybody took in their chance to become Sikkimese by donning traditional robes rented right on the banks of the lake. According to the locals, this lake, formed by the melting of the snow on the mountains, is considered sacred by Buddhists and hence the water isn’t tampered with in any way. Indeed, upon peering into the lake, we could see the bed of the lake. Lesson number 3: We could seriously take a leaf out of the Buddhist way of worship, and let our water bodies be clean and clear.
The splendid Tsongo/Changu lake
One of many decorated yaks, literally 'chilling'


But our destination lay further ahead, at almost 14,000 feet, nearly half the height of Mount Everest. The caravan of cars continued on the ice-laced roads of Nathula, amidst the fog and the snow covered mountains. At about a half a kilometre distance from the actual pass, the passengers were made to disembark from their respective vehicles and walk upto the pass. A long, unfenced path leads one directly to the Chinese border checkpost, where one can meet and greet Chinese soldiers, and maybe exclaim to the rest of the family upon their return that they’d ‘seen’ China. Unfortunately for us, there was a huge gust of wind, and fog, and it was unadvisable to go all the way upto the checkpost, much to our disappointment. Lesson number 4: It is not always the destination that is important, sometimes it is just the journey. Take the disappointments in your stride.

The walk to Nathula. Photography is strictly prohibited near the actual pass, according to the board & the army officer there!

The view of Tsongo lake while descending from Nathula

Journey – a word I had grossly undermined, underrated and often misused, was now beginning to show what it really meant. In two days in Gangtok, I had learnt how to be spontaneous, how not to be judgemental, how there is so much good to learn from other religions, if only we put our mind to it, and the last, it is the journey and the person you are with, that matters the most. And if one part of snow-covered, monastery-laden Sikkim could impart wisdom to someone like me, then imagine what the entire state could do to the rest of us!


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