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Sikkim and Gorkhaland

Traveling mysterious countries

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We’re only two months into our trip and I’m starting to fall into old patterns regarding the travel blog: We’ve already left India more than three weeks ago and I still owe you some words on the last couple of weeks we spent there. Sitting in Lombok, India is already so far away, it gets more difficult to remember our trip to this very different country and find the words to describe the accompanying emotions . But let me try…

The second part of our India trip took us to the far north east of the Subcontinent. It was a kind of a coincidence that brought us to the forgotten kingdom of Sikkim in the Himalayas. After our visit to Animesh and Deepika in Bihar we wanted to spend some more time in India. As June is a scorcher here and we already were close(ish), the more moderate climate of Sikkim drew us there.

But before we entered Sikkim, we spent a few deays in Darjeeling, in the Western Bengal hills, close to Sikkim's border. You may know it for it's famous tea. The hills around are covered in tea gardens...

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Sikkim

Sikkim is an old Himalayan kingdom, not unlike its more secluded neighbor Bhutan. It became part of India in the 70’s as its mighty neighbours (China/Tibet lies on its northern border) struggled for influence in the region. There were CIA agents, an American born Sikkimeese princess (sometimes compared to Grace Kelly) and lots of other international players. The story reads like a James Bond novel… (for a good read try “Sikkim: Requiem for a Himalayan Kingdom” by Andrew Duff)

The people here are mostly of Nepali heritage, with Hinduism being less prevalent than in the rest of India (lots of Buddhists here).

Sikkim felt much larger than it is, although it measures only about 70x40km, thanks to its rugged landscape and horrible roads travel can take ages. We spent a few days in the small towns of Namchi and Pelling before heading on to it’s capital Gangtok, with a few days stop over in Rumtek.

The best thing about Namchi, Pelling and Rumtek… were the dogs! Definitely, if you ask Nerea! In all three places we didn’t do too much except visiting one or tow local temples and laze around the rest of the time.

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In Namchi, this was a major (and rather new) Hindu complex, mainly built to lure in as many of the Bengali tourists as possible. It was a slightly weird mix of styles and replicas of famous temples from all over India…

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We were staying in a nice little guest house, where the little restaurant turned into a karaoke bar at night. Sipping Shhiskey (Sikkimese Whiskey) and laughing with the locals at our futile attempts at singing…

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We moved on to Pelling after a couple of days. Again, the trip, that looked like something you do in half an hour took more than half a day, among others due to a road blocked by fallen rocks. I can’t repeat often enough how lucky we are that Nerea is such a patient traveler!
The main drawing point of Pelling is it’s proximity to Kanchenjunga, of which we got our first glimpse here. Apart from that one of Sikkim oldest monasteries can be visited by foot. At a cute little baker half the way up to the monastery, we picked up a couple of teenage girls, that walked and laughed with Nerea for the rest of the way.

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In monasteries, Nerea loved sitting on the side benches in the prayer halls watching the forty or so monks in their red robes sitting in the middle and listening to their mysterious and highly hypnotic chants… Photography is not allowed inside the monasteries, I would have loved to try and catch some of this atmosphere…

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In the picture below you can see Nerea turning a prayer wheel, a very clever invention! A prayer is written on the wheel, so turning it once is equivalent to saying the prayer once. In some places I've seen this taken to the next level, where the wheel was built next to a small creek, which would turn the wheel indefinitely, basically murmuring prayers on behalf of the owner without end...

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As there were no baby dogs in Pelling, we left it after spending only tow nights there.

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30km (another six hour drive…) east from Pelling - and already very close to Gangtok - was our next stop, Rumtek. We had booked two nights in Waterfall Homestay. Upon seeing the place we immediately extended it to four; we would have stayed longer, but we had an appointment (and already booked an apartment) in Gangtok.

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It was hard to convince Nerea to leave even for a couple of hours to go for a walk to a local village …

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…or visit the famous Rumtek monastery. But luckily the mother dog accompanied us most of the way, which made it a bit easier to leave the puppies behind for a short while.

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Behind one of the monasteries there was a funny sight: Buddhist monks engaging in a game of Baseball (or something…)

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After spending four very relaxed days in Rumtek we took a taxi to Gangtok, Sikkim’s capital. It hugs a long hill, and most parts of town are rather steep. Our apartment was situated half way down from the center, being on the top floor we still had great views.

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Gangtok has a great atmosphere, amazingly it even sports a nice pedestrian area, which was very crowded by all the tourists. Hordes of Bengali from Kolkata and surroundings flock to the hills in the weeks before monsoon, fleeing from the scorching temperatures in the low lands. The center was only a few hundred meters from our apartment, but it was a steep 15 minutes climb. Luckily I was able to convince Nerea to walk at least half the way herself most of the times.

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In Gangtok we once again didn’t do too much, except hanging around and soaking up the atmosphere. The best thing about Gangtok, was… Irene!

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This wonderful person traveled half way across the continent (well, she came from the middle of Nepal, it only took her about 48h… by bus, train and shared taxi, passing through three Indian states on the way…). Nerea fell in love with her and her ukulele!
So we lazed away the days (apart from one, on which I did a short 70km (4000m climb) ride on a rented mountain bike (If ever you come to visit Gangtok, book a bike or a tour from the wonderful and knowledgeable team at Hub Outdoor ). Being my first ride after six week or so off the bike that was one tough day out. But well worth it for wonderful scenery and meetings with the locals (“no thanks, guys, I’ll pass on that joint, otherwise I mightn’t make it home today…”).

Women breaking stones for road works

Women breaking stones for road works


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As you may realise from the last pic, I had a close encounter with a Gangtok barber, too.
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Very nice were two evenings we spent with our new found friend and local guide to Sikkim bars, Vivek. We had met him and his family in Pelling and we enjoyed two nice evenings in his favourite haunts. Working as (federal) auditor in the Sikkimese administration, he was a very interesting person to talk to. On the other hand he seemed quite intrigued by our traveling lifestyle. So we planted the seed, the idea, on how easy it can be to take a gap year, in yet another ear…

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After nearly three weeks in Sikkim, on our last day we finally saw Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak! We left Sikkim, to spend another week or so in Gorkhaland, the northern, hilly part of Western Bengal, expecting some more peaceful days. How wrong we where…

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Gorkhaland

The northern hilly part of Western Bengal is very different from the rest of that state. Where the lowlands are Hindu, the hills are Buddhist, the people in the lowlands are mainly Bengali, in the hills most people are of Nepali (or “Gorkha”) descend, speaking a different language and generally having a very different culture. This has lead, for the last thirty years, to the demand of a separate Gorkhaland, a new state within India. This movement had it ups and downs, we hadn’t been aware that it was about to enter a hot phase again…

On the afternoon of our first day in Kalimpong I talked to the owner of nice little Café Refuel. Discussing the option of going for a mountain bike ride together one of these days we exchanged numbers. In the days to come he would keep me updated on what had turned from some demonstrations in a state close to civil war in “Gorkhaland”…

It started with a message that the café, as everything else in Kalimpong would be closed for the evening and the next day, as the Gorkha activists had called for a strike (he also explained to me that this would be very much forced on the owners of small businesses). The host in our homestay confirmed this. When I talked to her she was busy on the phone, trying t find out what was going on and how to organise enough food for all her stranded guests. In the meantime my new friend started sending through pictures of what was going on in Darjeeling…

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The following days the strike was kind of on and off, we kept following the news. People all around us were helpful and friendly, repeatedly assuring us that this is very much an inner Indian conflict and nobody was interested in harming tourists or tourism in any way… When we were told the conflict was over we waved goodbye to Irene, who moved on Kolkata.
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In Kalimpong we also had one of our more sobering encounters. Nerea had been spending a lot of time with a girl that was living at our homestay. On the last day the owner thanked us, mentioning Nerea's wonderful influence on the girl and explained that the kid was the daughter of one of her employees. Both parents are drug addicts and the girl would have been sold quite a while ago, hadn't the owner of the homestay intervened.
These encounters with real life are rare, even though we are traveling in a way that gets us closer to the people in the host country (or so we tell ourselves...) most of the time what we see is only the surface. The view behind the scenes, the reality of the cow herder or the life stories of the many beggars, are the exception.

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Nerea, Myriam and I took car to our last stop in the hills, Kurseong, where we stayed in a cute boutique hotel in an old colonial building.
One funny thing was, that due to a new legislation out-ruling the sale of alcohol close to high ways, our hotel wasn't allowed to serve us beer. They cheekily offered "special juice" served in tea cups instead!

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When we arrived and were nearly the only guests, we realised why we had gotten that good last minute deal: Thanks to the unrest nearly all Bengali guests by now had left the area. Fights between Gorkha and police flared up again on the second day of our stay and we were happy to leave one day later, to spend our last night in Siliguri, from where we took a flight with the Royal Bhutan Airways to Bangkok.

Nerea's new best friend

Nerea's new best friend

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Sikkim and Gorkhaland were definitely worth the long trips on windy roads. The people and landscape of this remote part of India are something very special and we are thankful that coincidence had led us here! The people we met, especially our hosts in the hotels and homestays greeted us with open arms and the way everyone treats Nerea is just heartwarming. Countless chance encounters, smiling, tenderly touching her cheek and giving her sweets (the latter especially when I wasn’t watching…), short chats on the streets with strangers (that often only knew a few words in English) and the help freely offered left an impression of friendliness and openness that we are often missing in Europe…

On the other hand we were quite happy to leave India after four weeks. Traveling the subcontinent is always interesting, but also tiring (at least to me), especially with a small child that’s picky with her food!

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Posted by MyriandKodi 04:10 Archived in India

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