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Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

Old Dec 9th, 2010, 06:07 AM
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Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kolkata: an Unusual First Trip to India

I remember reading about Sikkim as a child. There was a time back in the early 1960s when the majority of American school children knew where Sikkim was. An American woman, Hope Cook, married the Choygal of Sikkim, and press loved the story. Of course, I’d read James Hilton’s book, Lost Horizons, and Sikkim sounded like Shangri-La to me. This tiny country fascinated me and I put it on the list of places I wanted to go someday.
As I began to consider where to go this year, Sikkim came up as a possibility. As I looked into a visit to Sikkim, Darjeeling came up as a logical extension, and since we’d have to fly through Kolkata, that was added to our itinerary. I couldn’t imagine going to India without visiting a major city.

We usually use Bangkok as our point of entry to Asia, and did so on this trip. My trip report will cover our trip Bangkok to Bangkok.

While there are several carriers that fly between Bangkok and Kolkata, only two also had flights between Kolkata and Bagdogra (the nearest airport to Sikkim and Darjeeling). Of those two, Kingfisher and Jet, only Jet had a good connection in Kolkata.

Jet airways from Bangkok to Kolkata – Premier class: Boy was I glad we were in biz – this was one of the most chaotic flights I’ve ever taken. While there were clear and seemingly rigid rules on the Jet Air site about luggage, especially carry-ons, it turns out none of that was enforced. Most people boarding in coach were carrying 3-5 carry-ons, all of non-standard sizes and shapes. While things were “stowed” that often meant the passenger’s lap as well as the entire space between the passenger’s legs and the seat in front was filled with carry-ons, and all overhead space and under seat space was packed. Fortunately, only a few of the biz class passengers were carrying excessive carry-ons.

Every request by the flight attendants appeared to be roundly ignored by the passengers, so some continued to talk on their cell phones as we took off and flew, others had their entertainment systems up during take-off and landing and few heeded the warning to turn off electronics. When we landed, the flight attendants had to repeatedly exhort people to sit down before we got to the gate. Their requests were heeded only briefly before again people would get up and start dragging their carry-ons into the aisle.

Pushing and shoving as people tried to get off the plane was remarkable. There was no thought of allowing someone in front of you to get out of their row. Even the elderly and disabled were ignored. Cheryl stopped to allow two elderly women out and the people behind continued to push impatiently. We noticed this impatience and disregard of other people anytime there was a line in the Kolkata airport. Rather than standing in line to put their things through the security x-ray, some Indian men would rush to the head of the line and push themselves in front of you and even pull back your luggage from the x-ray machine to put theirs in first.

Once we had de-planed and gotten to immigration, there was an immigration officer who directed us to a fast track line for diplomatic and first class passengers. Arrival formalities went quickly.

When I had booked these tickets on Jet Airways for Bangkok to Kolkata and Kolkata to Bagdogra, I assumed that as in other places, our luggage would be transferred and there would be no need for us to check in a second time for our flight to Bagdogra. But when we checked in at Bangkok and received our boarding passes, the agent explained that we would need to pick up our baggage and clear customs and take our baggage and ourselves to the domestic terminal to check in at the counter there.

Cheryl got through immigration first and was approached by an airport employee to help with getting our baggage to the domestic terminal, which she gladly accepted. The airport was packed with people and there was little signage. Even though in theory the time between the two flights was 1 hour 50 minutes, this was just enough time to make our next flight. While I’m sure we could have managed alone by stopping and asking people, it sure was nice to have someone lead us through the teaming hordes, outside and to the domestic terminal, about a 10-minute walk away. There were no signs anywhere indicating the walk to the domestic terminal, nor did we see any other passengers along the way.

Checking in at the domestic terminal was equally chaotic. Our checked luggage had to go through security x-rays and we had to check in at the ticket counter. Our guide left us at security line for our hand baggage and ourselves before proceeding to the gates. While everyone lines up together, as you approach to the head of the line, the security officer pulled out the women passengers to go to a separate line for women’s security. There were two lines for men and one for women. The women’s line was short and moved rapidly. People are individually escorted into curtained booths individually and wanded.

From there, finding our gate was easy and we boarded about 10 minutes after arriving at the gate.

The Jet Airways booking site stated that there was no premier class on Jet Connect flights and gave us no option for booking a premier seat. But it turned out the 737 we were on had 8 premier seats. It looked like only 2 of them were taken. I asked the flight attendant if it was possible to purchase an upgrade, but it would have required going back through security to the ticketing desk and there was no time for that.

Remarkably, this flight was much less chaotic than the Bangkok to Kolkata flight. People adhered to the carry-on baggage limits and generally heeded the requests of the flight attendants. When we de-planed after the 1 hour flight, there was not the same pushing and shoving there had been on the previous flight.

We had an aisle and middle seat and hoped the window seat would not get filled. However at the very last minute before the doors were closed a gentleman came and said he had that seat. We got up and let him in. He struck up a conversation with Cheryl, asking if we were coming to visit Sikkim. When we said yes, he said it was his home. He chatted with us about Sikkim and then asked how were getting to Gangtok. We told him we had a car and driver meeting us at the airport. He indicated he needed a ride and we invited him to join us.

He told us he was a government employee, a vice principal in a school in his village and hour and a half from Gangtok. He was coming from a meeting in Kolkata and was attending another meeting in Gangktok the next day. In his early 50’s, he had just completed his Ph.D. last year.

The tiny Bagdogra airport was again crowded and had little signage. We found the conveyor belt for our luggage. Cheryl’s bag was the first off and mine soon followed. Our traveling companion, however, had to wait until nearly the last bag came off before getting his.

I went out to find the driver sent by our hotel. I couldn’t find a sign with my name on it in the crowd. I did see another sign for someone going to Nor Khill, said that is what I was looking for. The others holding signs helped and eventually we found a boy holding a sign that said Mr. Kathie Nor Khill. Once Cheryl and our new friend arrived, the boy put our luggage on a cart and wheeled it to the very end of the parking lot, where there was a hotel vehicle waiting for us.

We set out on our long drive. The books say the drive is 4 hours, it took us 5 and a half, with a half an hour stop to get our Sikkim permits in Rangpo. It took the first half hour just to get out of Bagdogra, the traffic was so bad. Roads were terrible, and many of the traffic jams were caused by vehicles needing to proceed one at time over broken pavement.

Once we began to ascend slightly, traffic thinned out, but the roads continued to be unpredictable. There might be a mile of lovely pavement, followed by several miles of pavement so broken and rutted that the vehicle had to slow to a crawl. Add to that the increasing number of hairpin turns, and the going was very, very slow. Many places the road had been washed out by monsoon rains, or swept away by rock or mud slides. There is perpetual road re-construction and repair going on.

This is not a trip for someone prone to motion sickness. The roads are very rough, and the route in the mountains consists of one hairpin turn after another.

As we moved higher into the mountains, I was surprised at how densely populated Sikkim is. I had pictured it as more sparsely populated. It was especially apparent once it was dark, as we could see the lights scattered across the mountainsides.

It was deep dusk at 5:00 and totally dark by 6:00 when we stopped to get our Sikkim permit at Rangpo.

We arrived Nor Khill at 7:30, to the sound of a rock concert at the stadium next to the hotel. The music is what is often referred to as “head banger” rock. Thankfully it ended before we went to bed.

We were shown to our room, unpacked a bit and went down for dinner at 8:00 – exhausted and hungry. We were glad to get to bed that night. The beds were rather hard, but we slept ok.

Comments on Nor Khill: Nor Khill was originally built in the 1920s as a royal guest house. Official visitors of the Chogyal were accommodated here. It has a notable roster of past occupants, including the Dalai Lama. Oozing with atmosphere, there are many touches of traditional architecture, including the stunning Dragon Bar with its elaborately carved and painted columns. There is a lovely lobby, a beautiful dining room and pretty gardens. The rooms are upstairs, and each room is different. The first room we had is supposed to have a beautiful view, though it was too dark the first night and too misty in the morning to tell. We requested to move to a larger room with a writing table or desk so I could start my trip report and Cheryl start her photo editing. We were moved across the hall to a beautiful room twice the size of the first, but with no view of the mountains. This room has a sitting area as well as a desk area.

There is no central heating, though small space heaters are supplied. With the upper windows always cracked open for ventilation, the rooms are always cool and a bit damp.

The room rate includes all meals. Breakfast offers your choice of juice, fresh fruit, cereal, eggs cooked to order, and breakfast breads. I chuckled to see that the eggs are always served with a grilled tomato half (the British influence) and potatoes – in the form of potato chips. Lunches are huge, starting with soup, then a variety of Indian dishes followed by dessert. Dinners are similar to lunches, starting with soup and going on to numerous Indian dishes. Whenever possible food is sourced locally.

The staff is very helpful and accommodating. We highly recommend Nor Khill.
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 07:00 AM
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I've been looking forward to this. Sounds like you were initiated rather quickly to some of the quirks of the Indian people.

More please...
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 07:08 AM
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Great start and wonderful detail!
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 07:35 AM
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Heya from somewhere between Dubai and Mumbai. I've flown that biz Jet flight from BKK to Kolkata four times. I've never seen it as you describe it - but that doesn't mean that the great Indian Gods of Chaos and Confusion weren't in full flow - just for you. Let's hope it's a portent of things to come. Great stuff. more more more...
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 10:06 AM
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Sounds interesting...can't wait for more. Are the grounds at Nor Khill interesting?
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 11:56 AM
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Oh Kathie, you are terrific!! Home a couple days and already starting detailed trip report. Off now to read up on Nor-khil.
We must be of the same generation. I too was fascinated by the Hope Cooke (who is now a travel writer in NYC?) story. It seemed so romantic and exotic--a more mysterious, other-worldy spin on Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier!

Dear Dog, " somewhere between Dubai and Mumbai." Isnt that place called Dumb?
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 12:55 PM
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This is wonderfully vivid writing, Kathie. Looking forward to following along on the rest of the trip. Would you mind explaining the "permit" process for those of us who haven't been to India yet?
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 01:27 PM
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WELCOME TO INDIA... nothing works right, no rules are obeyed, food is abundant and somehow it all works out in the end...

anxious to read more
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 03:27 PM
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I've been reading your trip reports for years, Kathie. I sure do look forward to them each year around this time. You're off to a great start with this one... I'm really enjoying & looking forward to your future installments!
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 03:32 PM
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Ditto the above and Cheryl's pictures....
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 03:55 PM
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Great start. All the hallmarks of what we've come to anticipate, appreciate, admire and expect from a Kathie Trip Report . Anythng that approaches this benchmark might henceforth be known as " in the style of a KTR"
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 05:21 PM
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I totally agree with everyone. Kathie your reports and Cheryl's photos are always inspiring. I'm greatly looking forward to the rest.
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 05:49 PM
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Thanks for all the encouragement.

First, answers to your questions/comments.

Dogster, I'm glad to hear that Jet Airways flight isn't always that chaotic!

Karen, the grounds are small but lovely. Camellias were in bloom.

Cali, you might want to read Hope Cook's memoir, Time Changes.

marya, the permit process is really pro forma. You stop at Rangpo and the man collects a passport photo from you and fills out forms, gives you a form which is your permit and stamps your passport. The permit is free. Apparently you can get a permit in Kolkata or Darjeeling. It may be possible to get a permit at some Indian Embassies.

We awoke to fog – no view today.

We asked the hotel to arrange a car and driver for the day, planning on sightseeing in Gangtok. We opted for the standard small taxi for our in-town excursion, for a price of 1800 Rs for the day.

We started the morning by going to an ATM since neither one of us had any rupees yet. It took a couple of tries to find and ATM that would give us money. There are plenty of ATMs along an attractive walking street, the MG Marg. Closed to traffic, there are planters and benches running along the middle of the pedestrian mall. Signs say no spitting or littering or smoking. It was one of the few relatively flat areas we saw in the city. Most of the streets rise or fall at a 20 – 30 degree slope.

Cash Machines in Gangtok have a low limit. One bank’s ATM said the limit was 15,000 Rs, but we were never able to get that ATM to work. We were only able to take out 10,000 rupees each, about $222.

The first place we went was to Enchey Gompa, situated high on the ridge above Gangtok. It was the royal monastery and used for ceremonial purposes such as coronations and royal weddings. The setting is lovely, amid a conifer forest. Generally, vehicles cannot enter monastery grounds, but must stop at the gate. There were plenty of local visitors here, walking with us up the road to the gompa. The sign at the entrance said it was built in 1840 by Lama Drubthob Karpo who was renowned for his ability to fly. Other sources say that the site was blessed by the lama, but the monastery was of later construction. The Tibetan style buildings with their colorful and ornate posts and beams and carvings around the windows and doors, were beautifully kept up. All of the monasteries we visited had dormitories for novice monks. It’s always fun to see the novices playing together in their saffron robes. The entire monastery is accented with rows and rows of prayer wheels and colorful prayer flags everywhere.

Next we went to Hanuman Mandir (Tok). Here it was even foggier than it was at Enchey. This is a Hindu shrine, so offered contrast to the Buddhist monasteries we are visiting. Not a prayer flag in sight, but lots of deep yellow marigolds lining the well swept walks. The gardens were clearly an important part of the shrine. It had rained pretty hard the night before, but the concrete walkways were dry and clean. This was good because we needed to take our shoes off to walk onto the actual shrine grounds. It felt too cold to be waking barefoot. Cheryl commented that her white socks were amazingly still white when we came back to put our shoes on.

On the way down the steps as we were leaving an Indian family insisted that we be in a picture with them.

We decided to skip the two other viewpoints, because of the fog and went to the zoo instead. Ordinarily we don’t go to zoos because it’s hard to see animals living in close quarters in captivity. However, this zoo purportedly offered more space than most zoos. We wanted to see the snow leopard and, especially, the red pandas.

We were not disappointed. The zoo is located in a lovely forest. The first few exhibits, you drive from one to another, they are that far apart. You leave the car and walk a trail to each exhibit, so the animals are not subjected to the sights and sounds of vehicles. First we saw a Himalayan black bear. It wasn’t clear if the bear was alone or if there were more bears in the large space allotted to it. There was a keeper there who coaxed the bear to stand up on his hind legs for us and really display his white necklace.

The next area we visited was a large bird cage, with local pheasants. The sign at the top of the walkway down to it said it was closed for maintenance, but our driver opened the bamboo gate and we followed him in. We looked at the exotic pheasants, then our driver led us farther. To our surprise and delight, there were baby red pandas here. These animals are irresistibly cute. The keeper went in and offered them honey from his finger. We watched the babies play together and play with the mother, then reluctantly went on to another exhibit. It was great to be able to see them this close up because when we got to the actual red panda exhibit, they were pretty far away as they had a large expanse to live in.

Next was the common leopard. I have a hard time thinking of any leopard as common, but I guess as compared with the snow leopard it is. The big cat gave out a throaty purr-growl as it paced along the fence. Seeing a leopard this close up is a powerful experience, but I had a real sense of it being “caged” that I didn’t have with the other animals we’d seen.

From here we started walking between exhibits. Up from here (and I mean UP) was the red panda exhibit and then the large Indian civet and Himalayan Palm civets. Then on to the gorgeous snow leopard who was pacing back and forth on a small patch, looking like he was trying to figure out if he could jump the 20 foot fence. He, too, looked unhappy with being caged. He had a very long tail, nearly the length of this body and moved with a powerful grace.

I was glad to have seen the leopards, but it was hard to see them captive. It was clear that no matter how large the area allotted to them, any cage seemed too small to them. By now we were both pretty done with walking up such steep rocky inclines and so headed back down to the car. I’m not sure though which is worse, though, uphill or downhill, at those slopes.

We went back to the hotel for lunch, which was a pretty elaborate spread served to us at our table as opposed to the buffet the night before. They start every meal with a bowl of soup, this one was a vegetable soup in a light broth, very good. After enjoying a 45 minute lunch, we got back in the car and headed to the Tibetology museum.

Ground was broken for the Tibetology museum in 1957. It was a project sponsored by the then Chogyl. There was a picture of a very young 14th Dalai Lama taking part in the ground breaking ceremonies. It took us about 45 minutes to look at and read about the exhibits: numerous thangkas, Buddha images, scrolls, palm-leaf books, etc. The items on display are exquisite.

Next we walked up a steep incline to the Do-Dral Chorten with its large yellow dormitories for young monks in training and brightly painted prayer wheels in the central courtyard surrounding a white Tibetan stupa. As with the other monastery we visited in the morning, this is very active with plenty of local visitors as well as a few Indian tourists.

Next I wanted to find some old Lepcha weavings, so we went to the Crafts museum, where there was also a crafts store. The store was filled with new things made by students and there was nothing there we were really interested in. The museum itself was well worth visiting, however, if for nothing else but to learn what to look for in an old Lepcha weaving. I asked the museum attendant where I could find Lepcha weavings. After a while she said there was a place on the M.G. Marg, but we didn’t really understand where she was saying it was. When we went to the Marg and inquired, they said there was no such place in the Marg and they didn’t know of any place that sold old weavings (or even new!).

The Marg was pretty lively at this time of day. We got there at about 3:30 and spend a half hour or so walking up one side and back down the other. There are lots of trinket shops, medical shops, fast food (although not a Starbucks or McDonalds in sight, thankfully – it was all Indian or vegetarian), book shops, etc. People began filling the place, as school and work let out on a now sunny Monday afternoon. People were sitting or standing and socializing, not really shopping, as it serves as a real town center rather than simply a place to buy things.

The sun goes down very early in the mountains. By the time we got back to the Nor Khill at 4:30, Cheryl got some pretty shots of the sun sinking behind the still hazy mountains beyond.
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 06:45 PM
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I didn't realise this was your first trip to India, definitely a different introduction than the norm.

Can't wait to see pictures.
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Old Dec 9th, 2010, 11:23 PM
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Just catching up with your report as am waiting for Linda to get ready for dinner
Loving all the detail and awaiting the next installment. India was never on our radar as you know but now am being tempted with your account. As you know we are no longer the backpacking type(oh oh) so really interested in your trip report and of course Cheryl's pics(Aloha Cheryl).

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Old Dec 10th, 2010, 08:05 AM
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Really lovely report so far Kathie -- enjoying every word. I hadn't thought about Sikkim, but have now added it to my list of places I hope to visit someday. Thanks for all your hard work on this report -- looking forward to more!!!
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Old Dec 10th, 2010, 08:22 AM
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Femi, I was there, and I can't wait to se the pictures! Cheryl is working on them.

HT we waved to you and Linda as we flew over Japan.

travelaw, Sikkim is unique. We loved it.

The day dawned sunny, with only a little mist softening the view from Nor Khill’s garden to the next ridge.

This was the day for Rumtek. We’d been looking forward to this visit. In our preparations for this trip, we watched the movie, “The Lion’s Roar,” about the 16th Karmapa whose home monastery is Rumtek.

The Karmapa died in the US in 1981. Several years after the Karmapa’s death, his closest associates began the search for his reincarnation. The 16th Karmapa had left very specific instructions, and after a time, the child they believed was the reincarnation of the 16th Karmapa was found in Tibet. The 17th Karmapap was installed at Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet with the permission of the Chinese government. As the Karmapa was not allowed to travel abroad to study with other masters, he was spirited out of Tibet in 2000, and is now in Darmansala. No one wanted a repeat of the situation with the Pachen Lama who was taken into “protective custody” by the Chinese (he and his family have not been seen or heard from since) and replaced by a candidate of the Chinese government’s choosing. He has not yet been installed as the 17th Karmapa at Rumtek, as the Chinese have strenuously objected, and the Indian government has not wanted to further anger the Chinese. We saw quite a number of signs around Rumtek and Gangtok asking the Indian government to allow the 17the Karmapa to come to Rumtek. I was struck once again by how entwined politics are in Tibetan Buddhism.

It’s a good hour’s drive from Nor Khill to the Rumtek monastery. The roads again were quite bad, with many places where only one car at a time can pass some obstacle. The views as we drove were beautiful. We looked across to the next mountain ridge and could see terraced fields and forests. When we drove back, we could see the buildings of Gangtok across the valley. We caught our first sight of the snow-capped Himalayas on this drive; yesterday, it had been too misty to see them. We would see the Himalayas a number of times during our long drives in Sikkim.

To enter the Rumtek monastery, each person must produce their passport and Sikkim permit. These numbers are carefully recorded by the army officer at the entrance to the road to the monastery. Armed soldiers guard the whole monastery. We had read that there had been a violent incident of protest against the as yet unseated 17th Karmapa, but when we asked about it everyone denied it. One soldier, who we spoke with at length said they were guarding the monastery because it has so much gold and so many precious stones. This was the only place we visited that had conspicuous security measures.

The buildings are of traditional Tibetan architecture with heavily carved and painted window frames, columns and lintels against the white buildings. The effect is quite striking. We went into the main prayer hall of the monastery, then on to the Golden Stupa. A monk came and opened the door to the room containing the stupa. The stupa is really stunning. Having seen it in the movie, it was wonderful to see it in person. There were photos of the 16th Karmapa, as well as of the 17th Karmapa, and one photo of the 17th Karmapa with the Dalai Lama.

Some of the teachings of the 17th Karmapa posted at the monastery emphasize caring for and preserving the earth. This monastery had recycling bins (paper, glass, plastic) and we saw recycling bins in several other places as well. Indeed, Sikkim is beginning to see itself as an eco-tourism destination. Sikkim outlawed plastic shopping bags several years ago, and we noted how little trash we saw in Sikkim in contrast to West Bengal and Darjeeling.

We walked around the monastery, enjoying the atmosphere for a time, then rejoined our driver for the trip to the Lingdum Gompa. This monastery, recently built (1998) is very different in appearance from the other Tibetan monasteries; dark wood multi-paned windows adorn the white buildings. But the main prayer hall is rich with painted and carved detail.

All of the monasteries we visited were built high on a ridge, with beautiful views of the valley and often, of the snow-capped peaks beyond.

We returned to Nor Khill for lunch.

Shopping: There were a few things we wanted to find. We wanted to find another Thangka. We have several, both old and new, and wanted one from Sikkim to add to our collection. Prices of Thangkas vary widely depending on the quality of the painting and the age of the piece. For a really good quality modern Thangka, expect to pay at least $300. We found one we liked, and bargained the price down from 16,000 Rs to 13,000 Rs.

I was also looking for native textiles, which it turned out were very difficult to find. We stumbled across a one-day exhibition of women’s crafts from all over Sikkim and purchased a hand-woven wool piece from eastern Sikkim. We also wanted to taste and buy some Sikkimese tea. A tea estate was established at Temi by the Chogyal to provide employment for Tibetan refugees, and the tea has thrived and made an international name for itself. The tea is produced in limited quantity, and comes as first flush and second flush qualities. At the Golden Tips, we sampled both and chose the first flush, which had a richer, smoother flavor, while the second flush was not as flavorful and more astringent. We restricted ourselves to the Sikkim tea, as we will soon be in Darjeeling and will purchase Darjeeling tea there.

We got back to Nor Khill about 4 pm, enough time to do some writing, photo editing and rest a bit before dinner.

A full day of a car and driver in a hotel car (Toyota Innova) was 2500 Rs. We felt it was well worth paying more for the larger vehicle for driving outside of Gangtok.

As we prepare to leave Nor Khill, I want to comment on how much we’ve enjoyed our stay here. Our enjoyment was enhanced by the reading we’d done on Sikkim and its history. We felt connected to the history here in the royal guesthouse. There are historic photos everywhere in the hotel, which also enhances the sense of history here. The Elgin hotels in Sikkim are not luxe, but they are very nice historic hotels. I think they are the best Sikkim has to offer from my research. The service is earnest, even when not polished.
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Old Dec 10th, 2010, 01:49 PM
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Great start, Kathie. I look forward to the ret of the trip!
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Old Dec 10th, 2010, 02:11 PM
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Thanks, Eks. Here's more:

Gangtok to Pelling

We chose to leave early, about 8:00, with the plan to arrive at The Elgiin Mt. Pandim in Pelling by lunch time. Our driver estimated the drive time as 4 hours; actual drive time was 4 hours, 45 minutes. The route we took through Singtam and Ravangla was very scenic. The decreased population density along this route was more of what I expected of Sikkim.
We are spending lots of time in cars driving over rough and steep mountain roads, hairpin turns and switchbacks. Drivers honk before going around a turn to warn each other they’re coming since there are barely two lanes. They also help each other pass, by the front car turning on the turn signal to indicate that it is safe to pass on that side. Despite the sharp turns, rough road and precipitous drops, Cheryl says it’s not as scary as she thought it would be.

Let me try to convey some of what the road conditions are like. The roads were generally meant to be two narrow lanes. The terrain is very steep, so the roads are a series of long switchbacks with hairpin turns. The monsoon rains and the natural streams and springs undermine sections of the road, sometimes causing whole sections of the road to fall by a foot or two, or the outside several feet of the roadway to fall away. In addition, the steepness means that there are frequent landslides and rockfalls. Thus, the roads are in a constant state of deterioration and repair. Much of the road consists of a rough mixture of hard-packed mud and rock, which may alternate with brief patches of pavement. Sometimes you can see the edge of the old road, one to two feet above the level of the current road. At one point we had to stop because the road was blocked by a large truck full of crushed rock, we got out and looked, and there was a drop off of two or three feet for a distance of maybe 50 yards, and they were filling the roadbed in with crushed rock. At that point I wondered if we would need to turn around and find another route, but the driver said they’d let us through soon. After maybe 15 minutes, they had made a sort of ramp of crushed rock down to the level of the new roadbed they were constructing and back up to the original level so we were able to drive through the area. We often saw streams flowing across the road. At one point we came across a half a dozen cars parked at odd angles, and saw that the drivers were dipping buckets of water out of the stream and washing their vehicles.

When I mention road repair, I want to make it clear that the repairs taking place are all done by hand. A pile of rock is sitting at the road side, and several people are breaking up the larger rocks with a hammer to fill in holes. Sometimes there will be a person dumping mud in a hole to mix with the rock. Only twice have we seen any asphalt being used, and in both cases it was being made beside the road. Tar is cooked up over a wood fire, some is mixed with crushed rock, and some is spread (via a gallon can with holes across one side near the bottom, then the mixed asphalt is applied to the hole. When asphalt is used, there has been a large roller used to press it into the hole.

Cheryl has some great photos of the road repair techniques of Sikkim.

We saw just two short sections of guardrail. When there is an edge of the road demarcated it is with tiny concrete nubs or (more reassuringly) with large poured concrete blocks. Often, there is just a drop-off at the edge of the road.

Driving in Sikkim is not for those who are afraid of heights, or afraid of boulders dropping off the mountainside. It is not for those prone to motions sickness, as the winding road and the exceptionally rough surface can make even those with a cast iron stomach queasy.
All that said, the scenery is beautiful and the drive offers a glimpse into the lives of the people of Sikkim.

We made one stop during this drive, at the Bon monastery outside of Ravangla, the only Bon monastery in Sikkim. It was an interesting short stop on this long trip.

The reason people go to Pelling is for the view of the Himalayas. We live with snow-capped mountains to both the east and west of us, so we know how capricious mountain views can be. We opted for two nights here, but were surprised at how many people came for a single night. Not only is coming for a single night a recipe for disappointment, but it means you spend two consecutive days in a car for 4 hours or more. We found the long, rough drives exhausting, and looked forward to staying in one place with no sightseeing excursions for a whole day.

The Elgin Hotel in Pelling, the Mt Pandim, is near the top of the ridge, next to the Pemayangtse Monastery , the oldest and many would say the most important gompa in Sikkim. While Pelling is often described as a two kilometer long line of hotels and guesthouses, there is no sign of that at the Mt. Pandim. The hotel stands alone, on 10 acres of land. It feels remote, removed. The hotel, another former royal guesthouse, has been extensively renovated over the last four years since it has been turned over to the Elgin Hotels. The manager told us the place was a mess when they took it over, and that there is still much to be done. But the public areas are now lovely and the rooms we saw are looking good. There are coal-burning fireplaces in the lobby, which is furnished with comfortable furniture and looks out over the mountains. The hotel feels quiet and comfortable.
We relaxed in the lobby in front of the fire and they brought us tea. There is (very slow) wi-fi in the lobby. We turned on the VPN on the laptop and each checked our bank accounts and that took most of an hour.

There are no heaters in the rooms here, but they do bring hot water bottles for the bed. Those hot water bottles were much appreciated.
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Old Dec 10th, 2010, 06:20 PM
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We awoke early, hoping to see the mountains. Instead, we were in the clouds. Over the next several hours, the clouds thinned and we could see several ridges of mountains, but the snow capped peaks were still hidden.

We went down to breakfast. There were options of eggs and cereal or Indian breakfast. The food at both Elgin hotels has been good, but somewhat repetitive. However, the lunch today was superb, with a flavorful spinach soup, an excellent eggplant dish and a hot custard-based dessert all worth a mention.

We had read of a shop in Pelling selling local goods – weavings, rugs, cardamom, tea – which we wanted to visit. The managers debated about whether the shop still existed. We got a taxi into Pelling to look for it. We did find a small workshop where a few women were weaving or engaged in rug-making, but there was no shop to buy the goods and when we asked, the women seemed bewildered that we wanted to buy their handiwork. We stopped at the Tourist Bureau, and the man there confirmed that there is no place in Pelling to buy locally produced goods. “Pelling is just for tourists, madam. You’d have to go to a town to buy things.” We were struck by how hard it is to find locally produced goods; local crafts seem to be under-valued by the locals. Sikkim is beginning to perceive itself as an eco-tourism option, but it has not noticed other strengths it has. I mentioned to the managers that I thought it would be smart to have a small shop selling local goods. The woman manager kindly ordered some black cardamom for me from her grocer.

Pelling is not much of a town. It’s a long row of cheap hotels and guesthouses, with nothing to recommend it other than the stunning views when the clouds lift. We were glad we were not staying in town. As best I can tell, the Elgin Mt. Pandim is the only nice hotel in/near Pelling.

One of the pleasures of staying at Mt. Pandim is that it is right next to the Pemayangtse Monastery. It’s a short walk from the hotel to visit the monastery. The exterior of the main prayer hall, unlike those at all the other gompas we’ve seen here is painted a vivid sky blue rather than the usual white. The prayer hall is beautiful, with several large Buddha images. There is a second floor space with wall paintings of the eight incarnations of Padmasambhava. The third floor has a huge ornate seven-tiered model of the heavenly abode of Padmasambhava. This was constructed by a single monk in five years. It’s quite an impressive work of art.

From the grounds of the monastery the ruins of Rabdentse, a former capital, can be seen below.

Altitude: Gangtok is at about 4500 feet; Elgin Mt. Pandim is at about 6300 feet. The altitude makes a difference in the temperature. It’s been cooler here at Mt. Pandim than it was in Gangtok, especially at night. We each brought long pants and a light-weight jacket, and that has generally been enough. A couple of times I’ve wished I had a light wrap at Pelling.
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