From Kalimpong to Gangtok

My impressions of Kalimpong are mixed. The monasteries are special, and the location is great, but the main town is pretty dirty. In the main market there’s a lot of honking, diesel fumes, trash and sewage. The vegetable market had a lot going for it, and some of the greens and carrots looked just as nice and clean as anything we have in California on a Sunday morning. Kalimpong is known for its quality produce, and I can see why. It’s fertile land – there are plants thriving in every patch of soil, even on sheer hillsides. However, I don’t think I should tell you about the butcher stalls; the meat markets of Marrakech were models of hygiene by comparison.

After an hour of looking, I was able to find (clean) handmade paper in a beautiful yellow color, and a man walked three blocks with me to show me the shop. Wow. The people in Kalimpong were very nice. That has been true all over India so far – the people have been warm, friendly, talkative and they ask if you are lost, need help, or where you’re from and what you think of the place.

After the early morning market, I would have loved to have had a nap, but that was out. Sadly, the bug spraying the day before didn’t do a thing about the fleas; even the spider in residence in the bathroom looked healthy. I ended up sleeping the night before with my clothes on, an old shirt over my head and rubber bands to seal off wrist & ankle entry from the fleas. The thing that bothered me the most was that the management just didn’t seem at all concerned about it.

It seemed like a good time to leave for Gangtok, Sikkim. My driver this time was a more cautious soul, and also very nice. He saw me taking pictures and took it on his own initiative to stop at pretty overlooks. You can see from my photos that I have taken a bunch of shots from the window, just to sort of show you how things look on the road. Please forgive their snapshot-y nature. All the goods carrying trucks are heavily decorated here, and it’s fun to see them go past. On the road, there are signs on posts and on the retaining walls holding up the mountains, usually rhyming, telling drivers to go carefully. I wrote some down – they are at the end of this post. There are signs telling you that if you plant a tree, you will help keep the road on the mountain, since erosion and landslide is a regular problem here, and signs warning you of a “shooting stones” region up ahead. Doesn’t that sound cooler than “falling rock”?

Eventually we got to the border of Sikkim and I applied for an Inner Line Permit to enter. Sikkim is a special region within India and was its own kingdom for a long time, became an Indian protectorate in 1950 and finally a state of India in 1975. This is the subject of some controversy and grumbling in Sikkim and most of the local people I have talked to have made a point to dissociate themselves with India. In part due to its politically sensitive location, Sikkim still has a special status. Two offices and forms later, I had a new stamp in my passport, a permit, and was across the border.

The river in the picture, well at least one of the rivers, is the Teesta. On the way out of Kalimpong, the Teesta meets another river (the Rangit, I think) and there is a pretty dramatic color change. My driver told me that one river is called the husband, and the other, the wife, and where they meet is the marriage, according to local tradition. A nice way to think about the land, no? There is a very ambitious hydro project going on all along the river right now, with tunnels going way back into the mountains. The project goes for miles. I understand they are going to harness the steep mountain streams for electricity. Work is proceeding apace, much of it on the backs of human laborers rather than via heavy machinery. The women in their saris work alongside the men, and they all pick up rocks by hand, or shovel dirt, and put that wheelbarrows or more often into baskets on another person’s waiting back. Sometimes two people operate a shovel together, one using the handle and another person using a rope tied to the end of the handle, just above the spade. When the basket is full, it is then hauled away on foot and another person with a basket replaces the first. The beasts of burden here are human. When I got to Gangtok, I saw a man carrying a six-foot-tall armoire using his back and his head. Yeah, really. He had a big rag strap around the armoire, he’d hoisted it onto his back, covered in furniture blankets, and the strap went around his forehead. He used his hands to push against the strap as well. And he was walking up a 20 degree incline like this in the rain. I stood there watching with my mouth open. Incredible India…

Signs from the road:

    “The mountains only give pleasure when enjoyed at leisure” (pronounce “leisure” as the Brits do)
    “Either Drink or Drive”
    “Loved Ones Weep when you Sleep”
    “Better Late than Never”
    “Speed Thrills but Kills”
    “Even this Narrow Highway is the Road to Prosperity in Sikkim”
    “Fast Drive could be Last Drive”
    “Any time is Safety time”
    “Beep Beep, don’t Sleep”
    “Slow drive, long Life”
    “Swastik, your companion in Sikkim”
    “Eager to Last then why Fast?”
    “On the Bend, go Slow Friend”
    “Life is Short, don’t make it Shorter”
    “It’s your Life Safe”
    “Somebody is Waiting, Drive Carefully”
    “Do not dare, drive with care”
    “On our road, No Overload”
    “Overspeed is a Misdeed”
    “Caution & Care make Accident Rare”
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