Borderlands And Snow – Escaping To Sikkim

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For people who live in the sun-baked plains of India, away from the Himalayan Mountains, the snow-clad peaks seem like a distant and unreachable dream. But, with the arrival of winters, many enthusiastic dreamers depart for the nearest Himalayan town. In search of snow, they also end up being overwhelmed by the ‘so’ many cultures that occupy the unimaginable mountain landscape.

Last week was similar. After having faced the dirtiness of the Indian railways for a day, I and some fellow guests of Greener Pastures had arrived at Siliguri. It seemed like any other common Indian town that is following the road to commercialization. But hidden behind the main roads, a huge maze of narrow paths filled with shops that sell everything imaginable, a wonderland of good bargains and shopping opportunity, makes one forget the concrete for once and gives this part of town a reputation of being one of the grandest bazaars of India.

The state of Indian Railways

But I was impatient to leave, to reach the hills that I love so much and to feel that fresh mountain air. So, after a brief stroll, I bid adieu to Siliguri, and embarked on a 4 hour road drive that was going to take me to Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim. The road was very hectic, dotted everywhere with traces of civilization, and it was nothing like a wild Himalayan adventure that I was hoping for. But the mountain air did reassure my faith, and being in this Himalayan land made me feel closer to that source of our existence. It was dark when I arrived. The whole mountain landscape of Gangtok is filled with lights during the night – like stars having invaded the valley. For the first time, I saw such a bustling mountain city. It made me think about how mankind’s ingenuity and determination has enabled it to settle so profoundly in this hardest of terrains. Tired after being on road for the past thirty-six hours, I headed for the resort where a room had been pre-booked. Located a few miles away from the hectic town area, the resort is like a perfect luxurious Himalayan escape. The rooms are warm and cozy, with beautiful polished wooden interiors and a balcony with a million dollar view. I noticed that it was not as cold as it should be during the peak of winters. In-fact, the climate has been changing dramatically everywhere I have been to in recent times. And for people with an observing eye, it is not very hard to figure out where the world is headed if something is not done to curb global warming. I overlooked the issue at hand and pretended to enjoy the moment. After a hefty dinner and some much-needed glasses of warm liquor, I went off to sleep.

A balcony with a million dollar view.
Our warm woody rooms.

Next morning, I woke up to a majestic view of the Himalayas. And I thought – I can stare at this view all my life. The cool morning air in the Himalayas is as fresh as that scent of a lemon. I made myself a cup of coffee and sat down in the balcony. The sun had come out, blessing the freezing and fragile children of the valley with that warmth of a mother. I sat there for as long as it took for my body to suck enough warmth and then, heated up – I was ready and excited for a day of exploring. And after some breakfast and a little itinerary planning with the guests, I rode off. The first stop was Hanuman-tok. Located at the top of a hill, a temple exists, devoted to Lord Hanuman. The place is very simple and not at all extravagant from the outside, but inside the confines of the temple, Hindu Gods and Goddesses are depicted very elaborately. The sun had disappeared by the time, and the temperature had suddenly dropped – bringing along with it, a wave of chilliness. Next was Ganesh-tok, another temple located at the top of a hill, dedicated to the Hindu God Ganesha. Not much interested to climb the stairs that lead to the temple, I decided to hang around and explore, while my guests went up to the temple. At the base of the temple, some mini-stalls are present which sell pretty looking crafts at reasonable rates. There are also a few shops that rent you traditional cloths to wear for a memorable photograph. Many tourists were busy having their photo taken, and the elegant costumes somehow seemed to suit them perfectly. By now, the clouds had taken over even the faintest bit of the blue sky, and it seemed that there was no hope for the sun to return. Enjoying the coldness, I headed off to Banjhakri Falls, located little further away from the town. The visit turned out to be a rather pleasant surprise – as the government has developed the land around the waterfall and has turned it to a shamanism based theme park. The paths leading to the waterfall are like a page out of a Japanese novel; with beautiful structures and Buddhist dragons welcoming you at regular intervals. Sculptures of indigenous shamanistic tribes are scattered around the park, and a very vivid variety of floral species bloom in the gardens upon which monks come to relax and meditate. The waterfall does not fall from much of a height, but is picturesque. But it is the near the entrance of the park, where lies a true hidden jewel – a fast-food shop that sells the best of vegetarian momos you will ever find anywhere in the world. And for a die-hard meat-eater like me, all I could do was think about how much I loved the food, while it melted away in my mouth. After a hefty meal that can be considered to be at par with gluttony, I shamelessly left the park and drove towards the town to indulge in a cable car ride. Crossing the mountains while in air, the view of the town and its surrounding valleys look spectacular. The ride lasted for about half an hour, and by then, it was late afternoon. Exhausted by the drive on these mountain roads, I decided to hit the upscale market area, called M G Marg. Cars are not allowed in the market, and the whole street has been developed into a tourist friendly zone – with ambient music being played in speakers, a ban on smoking and cute green colored benches where people come to sit and socialize. The streets are filled with – branded showrooms, restaurants that make you feel hungry all over again, good and cheap liquor, bazaars, clubs playing the latest of music and what not. Fashionable good-looking men and women walk the footpaths; some wearing western clothing and some with beautiful traditional attires. After a brief shopping spree and waiting for the sun to set, I went back to the resort. The night was spent relaxing, and after a few drinks, sleep came quite easily.

Hindu depictions at Hanuman-tok
Our guests posing in traditional Sikkimese attires.
Banjhakri Falls
Toys and monks
Amazing Landscapes
At a monastery
View of Gangtok town from the cable car
M G Marg

The next day, I woke up to the same amazing view. The plan for the day was to drive till the border that India shares with China, to a place called Nathula Pass, which is at a height of 14,000 ft. It took about 2 hours of driving to reach the snow line, and the way ahead only looked higher. It felt wonderful to see snow after having spent a year in the hot plains of India. We were all very delighted. To me, snow has a lot of metaphorical meanings. It is of the white of blissful dreams, as pure as a new-born baby, and it falls from the heavens. Looking at all the snow that surrounded me took me to a state of trance – something like day dreaming, only to be woken up by the arrival of a large beautiful frozen lake. It felt magical to be around this frozen lake, in a frozen snow-covered world, somewhere in the mistiness of the Himalayas. Near to the lake, a few shops exist that sell some hot noodles and tea. Visitors can also indulge in a Yak ride and wear rodeo styled hats while doing so. After a bit of ‘literally’ chilling out by the lake, I was on my way to the border. The landscape is very rugged in these parts, and the only people who live here are men of the Indian army. After about an hour’s journey from the lake, I had finally reached the border line.

There is nothing fancy or extravagant at the border.  A heavily barbed fence separates the two most populous countries of the world from each other and on each side there is an army post which is heavily guarded by men who wear their military uniform with elegance and pride. For the first time I was standing at an international border, next to fences beyond which I am not allowed to go and truthfully, it felt as if I am not free, as if the world is not actually one but pieces of scattered and divided planets, glued together by methods of ‘dirty’ diplomacy. But I am a believer of a “one-world concept”, I hope of a world without borders, gunpowder and where men and women roam around freely, and so, the fences did not manage to impress me much. The Indian side of the border had a lot of tourists, but the Chinese side had none. The Indian tourists were all busy clicking pictures and sipping hot tea that is served at the border canteen. But I was in a mood for some socializing with these neighboring foreigners. And so, along with a friend, I tried to talk with a guard of the other side, but he did not understand a word I said, not English nor Hindi. And moreover, the Chinese guards did not seem amused by the Indians. They had a mean and angry look which I did not like. My friend on his quest to communicate with this strange foreigner had started using his hands to show recognizable signs. He managed to tell the guard that one side is China and on the other is India, to which the guard’s reply was that both the sides are Chinese and India does not exist.  It was a joke thrown straight at our faces, and we were very much angered by the crude remark. We responded by shouting mean things about China, only to calm down after realizing that the guard understood nothing of what we said. We decided to play it smart and instead, offered the guard a bar of chocolate. Surprisingly, he stretched his arm across the “fences” and took our gift. We asked for a Chinese cigarette in exchange, and he quietly took one out of his pocket to give us. We smoked the foreign cigarette in front of the guard, while he eagerly waited to hear our judgment on the cigarettes of his country. And though the smoke was quite strong and good, we let the guard know that we did not like it at all and that China produces bad cigarettes. He got quite furious by our remark and uttered some words at us which I did not understand and did not give a damn about. It was a score well settled and the Indian in me was quite proud about it. He probably appreciated the friendly game of dishonoring each other’s country, and by the end, we were taking photographs together with fences between us.  Tired by the freezing temperature, I decided to head for the canteen, and drank some life saving hot glasses of tea. It had become quite late by then and the weather had also started to get a bit dicey. It was time to leave this snowy paradise and go back to Gangtok, but before I left, I played around in the snow for the last time and threw some ice balls at friends and strangers alike.

High mountain roads
Blue house in a snowy world
The frozen lake
Army bunkers
China behind us

A moment of bliss and joy

I slept through the return journey, and later, on the comfortable bed of the hotel room, only to wake up once it was night. The plan for this last night of the Sikkim trip was to go to the casino which is located at the only five-star hotel of Gangtok. The casino is not very huge, but is well designed and has a good ambience. Pretty looking girls are at your service, and you can order unlimited alcohol and food. I played a bit of poker and roulette, but it was not a lucky night for me. By the end of the night, I had just won a few hundred dollars, and being not much of a gambler myself, I was quite contented with my winnings and looked forward to a peaceful sleep. I had to wake up early the coming morning to catch a train that was going to take me away from these mountains and back to the plains of Assam.  The trip had gone well and everybody was happy. Sikkim is indeed a small little paradise; tucked between Bhutan, Nepal, China and India, and sweetly influenced by all of them.

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