Tin Tin introduced Sikkim to many in the west, who had no idea of the place until the intrepid cartoon character went there to introduce us to the mysteries of prayer flags and chanting monks. Sikkim was an independent principality until 1975 when it became part of India and as mentioned earlier is in a strategic geopolitical location. Perhaps for this reason there seems to be more money available for social infrastructure than we had seen previously in India, Sikkim seemed to have a strong future, and know what that future was. I suspect it benefits from an Indian version of Royalties for Regions funding?
Counter intuitively Gangtok has a lower altitude than Kurseong, or neighboring Darjeeling, whilst it was the furthest north we would go, it was not the highest altitude, Ghoom took that spot at 2,225 Metres. Each day we hoped for a break in the clouds to get a glimpse of the majestic Mount Kanchenjunga, each day we were disappointed.
We arrived at the small car-park of the ‘Hidden forest retreat’ and began to unpack our bags. As we did this and paid our driver a bus stopped at the gate. That must be my brother’s mob I thought, knowing the Hidden Forest Retreat was not large enough for two large groups. I started waving and some strangers on the bus waved back. Ian was one of the first to alight the bus and said, oh, it’s you they are all waving at. Um! he seems to be going through his Billy Connolly phase. Still standing with our luggage in the car-park we had our reunion, a quick hug and glib comments like “ where were you, we’ve been here 10 minutes!”
Rooms were located, bags unpacked and the best location for wifi and mobile phones established. Then beer was opened and the serious business of catching up on family matters began. We also rang the nursing home our ailing mother is in to send our wishes from India. Ian’s UK phone did not work, neither did Cathy’s with Indian sim card but I got a very bad line on my international roaming card, which was all rather complicated to use. The Hidden Forest was a great place for the reunion; in fact it was by far the best place we stayed in India. The accommodation consisted of discrete chalet style rooms, each with a balcony, with panoramic views of mist, situated in well-kept grounds that the owners were justifiably proud of. Not only did they pride themselves in their Rhododendrons and Orchids, but also much of the food they served also came from their garden. The staff were a little bemused, that we seemed to be part of the group of 18 from England, after all we had the same accents and arrived at the same time, and clearly knew some of them; but we seemed to insist we were from Australia and had nothing to do with the bus! We ate every night with the group at the Hotel as it was far enough out of town to make eating elsewhere a logistic nightmare, but it worked for us, the food and beer were good.
We did get to ride in the bus with Nepalese driver for a short trip to Rumtek Monastery, one of the largest in the area welcoming visitors. Built in 1959 as a copy of Tsurphu Monastery, which the Kagyu monks had abandoned as Chinese forces occupied Tibet. In the 11th century the first Karmapa meditated in a cave for many years, one day he was visited by 10,000 spirits, each of who gave him a strand of their hair. These were woven into a black hat, which has been passed down through the centuries from Karmapa to Karmapa, giving the sect the alternative name of the Black Hat Sect.
In some ways Gangtok is the most western place we visited since departing Australia, we hung out at the shops in the pedestrian mall and had lunch in a western influenced café, all a bit surreal after the craziness of Delhi. There were of course reminders you are in India, such as the almost mandatory bronze statue of Gandhi at the start of MG Marg and the very insistent taxi drivers.
I quickly learned that conventional maps were all but useless here, because the town evolved around its topography which is very steep, so one has to consider vertical, as well as the horizontal plane. Roads that seem to touch on a map can be hundreds of metres apart vertically. With the noonday sun in the south, the vertical topography and maps made for show rather than use, my usual navigational instincts were totally lost. It was like real life game of snakes & ladders, a secret set of stairs may transport you to the next level, or could take you to someone’s back door, requiring you to retrace your steps.
Over the next four days Ian and I talked and drank and reconnected before he headed off to Bagdogra to fly home to the UK, and we headed back down, well actually up, to Darjeeling to continue our Indian trip.
There were two thing I was keen to do in Sikkim, one was to hire a Royal Enfield motorbike for a ride in the mountains and the other was to get that Tin Tin T shirt in my size. I failed both quests!