Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Sikkim - A State of Mind: Day1

Until 1975, when Sikkim became an Indian state after a referendum, it was a small country surrounded by India in the South, Tibet in the North, Bhutan in the East and Nepal in the West.

The original inhabitants were Lepchas and Bhutias and in the 13th century, at Kabi-Lungchok, these two tribes signed a blood oath invoking all the powerful spirits of the valley, swearing to remain blood brothers until the River Rangit ceased to flow and Mount Khan-Chen-Dzo-Nga remained.


A shrine marks the place where the treaty was signed and it still retains the peace and the presence of the powerful spirits who were invoked over seven centuries ago. The river Rangit still flows here and the Mount Khan-Chen-Dzo-Nga, more familiarly known as the Kanchenjunga still stands. Khan-Chen-Dzo-Nga, the second highest peak in the Himalayas and the third highest in the world is the guardian deity of Sikkim and in deference to the religious significance of the mountain, mountaineers do not ascend to the peak, but stop fifty feet below.


However, Sikkim is not an easy place to reach. We leave Bangalore at 7:30 AM for a 10:30 AM flight, stop at Kolkata for a brief 30 minutes halt before landing at Bagdogra Airport in Northern West Bengal at 4:30 PM. There are repeated warnings by the airline crew that this is a defence airport and photography is strictly prohibited. The airport is under a huge security cordon as it doubles up as an Indian Air Force base. Soldiers are coming and leaving from the high altitude army camps towards the China border at altitudes of over 10,000 feet.

We are picked up by our tour guides, Geetanjali Dhar who runs the Indian Terrain Nature Club and Alister Adhikari of Nature Himalayas for the four-hour drive from Bagdogra to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. We stop for tea at one of the many roadside stalls the line most of the highways in India, some roasted corn and then continue.

It's election day in West Bengal and most of the shops have declared their loyalty to the governing TMC party by hoisting their flag on the roof.  While the red branding of Airtel is all over the state, there are no signs of the red party that used to govern the state for many decades.

Since Sikkim is a border state in India, the roads are maintained by the Border Roads Organization, staffed by engineers from the Indian Army's Corps of Engineers. We constantly cross army convoys crisscrossing this mountainous border state. The roads are narrow and vehicle crossings are a delicate operation of manoeuvering within a few inches of each other. The BRO has signs painted throughout the route.

Some of them are thought-provoking, but then there are some more which state, "Whisky is Risky" and "Don't nag him. Let him drive"

The route which follows the path of the Teesta River is a delight and one of the more scenic drives in India. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation is on a spree to dam the river to generate electricity - with atleast 3 dams on the Teesta between Siliguri and Gangtok.

It's pitch dark by 6 PM on the hillsides as we ascend from the plains of West Bengal to Gangtok. This is normally the time of the pre-monsoon showers and now it starts to drizzle. The scent of petrichor - the pleasant smell that accompanies the first rain after a dry spell - is welcome after the dry heat of Bangalore.

We reach our hotel, Hidden Forest Retreat in time for dinner. It's a different world in here - covered with orchids, rhododendrons and greenery. We can see the lights of Gangtok on the hillside before we go to bed.

The windows of our room have been left open and we see huge moths flapping drawn irresistibly to the light bulbs in the room, flapping their dusty wings in a desperate attempt to get closer to the light.

Day 2 

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