Spectacular Sikkim

Sikkim, India, is a pretty special place and you’d have to work at it not to feel welcome here. Gangtok is larger and cleaner than the last town, the food’s good, and the people have a lot of civic pride. Everywhere I go, local people ask me what I think of Sikkim: “how do you enjoy?”, they say. A special tourist policeman, probably about age 18 or 20, came up to me today and introduced himself, and asked me if everything was going well so far. He told me if I had any problems at all, to come and talk to him. He was sweet and asked if we could have a picture together. His friend and fellow policeman took the picture. It’s out of focus, but the sentiment is sharp enough for me.

Towns carved into a cliff or hillside usually have public stairways in addition to sidewalks. Berkeley and Positano, for example, do this, and so does Gangtok. Last night, I descended many stairs to get to Mahatma Ghandi Marg (main street) which is turned into a pedestrian mall in the early evenings. I got some vegetable korba and naan for dinner, with a Coke and a bottle of water, for a whopping $4. There were tons of shops open, a fountain, lots of families out for an evening stroll, and best of all, my four Korean friends from the Dehli airport were there! Due to some issues in Darjeeling, they decided to come to Gangtok instead, and we chatted and took some pictures before they went off to find the billiards hall.

Today I got some more sleep and had naan and bananas for breakfast with guava juice and tea. After tussling with the hotel internet connection for a while, I got out to Bakthang falls and enjoyed the view. After that, I went to the flower show, which was mostly hydrangeas and lilies, but there were a few orchids, including lady-slippers. Next door was more interesting to me: an expo of goods from various parts of India. I went in, and in one of the great commonalities of the world, there were guys aggressively selling veggie slicers & dicers, miracle cleaning products and cheap shoes. Fairgrounds are the same everywhere! I didn’t give them the time of day, but they were shouting after me, seriously trying to get me to buy kitchen goods and floor cleaners – me, a tourist. Where am I going to put that? Who thinks of cleaning their floors on vacation? I laughed so hard afterward I cried. But then I ran into the Kashmiri woolen salesman and changed my tune. Beautiful stuff, and some of it is here in my hotel room. We bargained long enough to have cups of tea, he managed to sell me a couple extra items while showing me every piece of stock he had, the word “inshallah” was used a few times, and I got him down by a third; pretty standard Arab trading session. I could have bargained harder, maybe, but it beats my record with the Balinese, and I love what I bought.

I’m guessing you already knew my priorities ranked fine woolens over cleaning the floors any day of the week.

Tonight, I had to find transport for the trip to Yuksom. Eventually, I ended up with a travel agent down the street: Barap at sikkim-holidays.com. Nice, nice guy. We talked a long time about photography and travel, and he showed me his photos from Everest treks (wow). We talked about Sikkim, and he gave me a book. Just gave it to me. It’s a hardcover all about Sikkim and the mountain, Khangchendzonga, with many photos. I started reading it over dinner and I learned that the Lepcha people who have lived here for at least a thousand years, if not since pre-history, worship the mountain. It is rare to find a Lepcha village that does not have a direct view of the peak. Khangchendzonga is called “Eldest Brother” because he was the first creation of the Mother who created all, and from the snows of the mountain, from Eldest Brother, the first Lepcha people were made. Eldest Brother asked the Mother to make him Chief God, not just God of Tibet or Nepal or Bhutan. Apparently, at first the Lepchas wondered why Westerners were interested in their lifestyle or their ways, but later they realized that Eldest Brother’s fame had spread throughout the world and we had come to pay him homage. And well, that’s true. You see, in the animist tradition, the peak *is* Eldest Brother and is therefore sacred. Out of respect for Sikkimese beliefs, no mountain climber has ever been to the peak, though the mountain has been otherwise “conquered”. It is the only mountain top higher than 8000 meters to remain untrodden. In this way at least, people from around the world do worship Eldest Brother.

Barap and I will be sharing a ride to Yuksom tomorrow after I visit the Institute of Tibetology in the morning. It began pouring down rain while I was at his office, we had coffee, and then I went back to the hotel to get some dinner. The waiter recommended the Sikkimese food, particularly the bamboo shoots, so I had them; delicious! Sikkimese food is like Chinese food but a little more delicately spiced. The closest thing I can compare it to is Cambodian food. It’s still raining, hours later, and now we have thunder and lightning in addition. Despite the rain, Sikkim is a lovely place and well worth the long haul to get here. The people are warm and welcoming, and care about their land. I am glad I came.

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