Saturday, April 23, 2011

On the Shoulders of Giants - Sikkim

Kangchenjunga, the third tallest mountain in the world at 28,169ft, seen from Sikkim's capital, Gantok.
Photographer - Kundan Singh Pangtey.

 "It was love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. Where immortality is touched through danger and life meets death on equal plane, where man is more than man and existence is both supreme and valueless in the same instant.” - Charles A Lindbergh

Strange Constellations by bestokednow

When I originally thought of India, I envisioned its infinite diversity of culture, preserved in the handmade craft work of carvings, paintings, sewings and such. But I didn't originally come to the country to see these things, for how overwhelmingly beautiful they may have been. I had come to see mountains.

The majestic Himalaya mountain range, though holding its highest peak in Nepal, explodes over 5 miles high in 5 provinces of India: Himachal Pradesh, Jammu, Kashmir, Sikkim, and Uttarakhand. Himachal Pradesh spouts the source of the sacred river ganges from its glaciers at Gangotri, and with enough determination and persistence, one could summit several peaks here for a view into Tibet's side of the mountain range. In Jammu the most fatal of faces in the world, K2, beckons the master of mountaineering, while neighboring Kashmir hosts its own two "eight thousanders" (8000m/24,000ft+). And Uttarakhand's "Valley of Flowers," at an elevation of 6,000m, is a  36,000 sq km mountain valley bowl sprouting 300 species of flowers after each monsoon season.
As much as I sought to visit these places, Jackie and I were on a different route that would take us as far east as possible on the Himalaya. After finishing up Holi in Varanasi, we hopped from Uttar Pradesh to West Bengal, the only way into the last of the mountainous provinces of Inda: Sikkim.

Sikkim is an inpenetrable fortress. No train or plane has the slightest chance of routing its landscape. Mountains cover every inch of the province and are no less than 2,000 meteres high. Jackie and I were forced to take a private taxi on a 5 hour drive from the nearest train station in West Bengal, and as we neared the capital of Gangtok, I immediately understood Sikkim's improbable geographical aspects for any other mode of transport. Our arrival brought even more of a shock as we stepped out of the car and into the main street of the capital.


Silence. Jackie and I could not believe our eyes and ears. Had we really found a place where no person walked in the middle of the night, where no dogs barked at the shadow of the recent newcomer? And moreover, where was the traditional Hindu architecture I knew so well, and the overdeveloped households of any other village street in India?

We had found a jewel of a mountain town with not a single person to greet us. It was an incredible feeling, especially after living in a country where you can't imagine being apart from the other billion-plus people. I sat with Jackie and saturated myself in the silence. What a relief... After a while my curiosity perked. We wandered up and town the main drag, liberating ourselves temporarily from our backpacks, and gazed into the dark alleyways, hotels, restaurants, and souvenir shops closed for the evening. Then we saw it.

"Jackie... is that guy on that sign wearing... a sombrero?" Holy, shit. We ran full speed towards the sign, not believing what our eyes had seen. Sure enough, there was Pedro, smiling with his big sombrero. The rest of the sign affirmed it.

They serve nirvana too???
We whispered screams, silently dancing to celebrate the fact that every single day in Gangtok, we could get Mexican food. It is, by far, the one food I missed the most while living in India. All my favorite dishes drifted through in my mind; quesadillas, tostadas, tacos, fajitas, enchiladas... burritos... carnitas. Extreme salivation commenced at the thought of that delicious shredded pork. It was only a matter of hours that we would return. Then a very important question came to mind: how were we going to find a place to stay with absolutely no one to ask?

We sat down and consulted Lonely Planet. No luck. We walked to each nearby hotel only to find every gate locked tight. As we were considering sleeping on the square grounds for the evening, we heard a soft sound of boots thumping ever closer. We looked down the drag to see a police officer approaching us, apparently perplexed at our presence at such an hour. It was to our great relief that he had a hotel for us to check. Strangely, upon arrival, the owner would not let us stay more than a few hours until the other hotels opened up. This particular hotel was for Indian tourists only. Segregation against all foreigners in India? Huh... that's a first.

We woke up only 5 hours later to the faint beep of car horns and the murmur of people emanating from the streets below. Gangtok was alive again. It was the perfect little mountain town, with people lounging together on benches chatting to each other, creating a buzz all along the row of little restaurants and souvenir shops. Our walk through town this time was full of beautiful Buddhist energy from all the laughing and conversing around us. But only one word was truly in mind: burrito.

It was a feast of champions in a restaurant far different than any Mexican joint I knew. We couldn't just settle for one dish each. We got three and shared them all. This became a standard size meal, and would happen for every breakfast, lunch, and dinner in Gangtok. Life is good, life is great...

After satisfying our starving stomachs, we began to shop prices at travel agencies around town. The barging that Jackie and I wanted to do would require special drivers, guides, and permits. Since we were so close to the China border, the Indian government required that all foreign visitors to Sikkim be escorted with such. No exceptions. It was through this search that we would meet Sonam.

He was a Tibetan at haggling, heart, and hospitality. He was elated to have our interests, and immediately gave us a price that was thousands of rupees below what others offered around Gangtok. We knew right away that this would be our man for the journey. Within one afternoon and evening, we were all set and ready to visit the Yumthang Valley. We took a stroll around town that day while everything was prepared by Sonam.

Photographer - Jackie Shay

Yumthang Valley

Just like the "Valley of Flowers" in Uttarakhand, Sikkim has its own jewel of a valley full of beauty nestled at twice the altitude. At 12,000 ft, the Yumthang Valley sits a short 50 km from the Tibet/India border and is littered in 400 species of mountain flowers. And it only gets better. The route from the closest town, Lachung, is an hour long drive through a rhododendron sanctuary, where over 30 species of different colored rhododendron flowers bloom in every color imaginable. This was our destination, and my final goal throughout my travels with Jackie. It was only a matter of time that I would stand myself in this beautiful mountain landscape.

It turned out that the drive to Lachung was far more treacherous than I could have conceived, making me even more thankful for the skill of our driver. He was a retired army man who had been a transporter on this same road for over 30 years, and his wisdom of the mountain showed with perfect precision as we zoomed up and down the switchbacks of the Sikkimese Himalaya. It took us 7 hours and several maneuvers around recently fallen boulders, over bridges eroded by mountain stream, and through torrential rainstorm. At the end of the day, even after being seated for its entirety, Jackie and I were exhausted. It was the altitude. We had doubled it since Gangtok, finishing at 10,000 ft at the only open hotel. Sonam had planned and prepared for everything, having a cozy room and hot dinner ready for us upon arrival. After yet another memorable feast, Jackie and I returned to the room and got to bed early. It was my birthday the next day, and we only hoped that the rain would pass when morning came. We knew that massive mountain peaks eluded our view, enveloped in the colossal cobweb of the storm cloud.

I couldn't have asked for a better birthday present than this:

The rain and clouds had raced away that evening to surprise me with the most incredible moment. I walked outside to, as you just saw, observe these mountains towering over our little hotel.

Mountains, mountains, and more mountains. I was peaking on my trip through India with a place that few will ever see due to such long, toiling hours in taxi, train, and jeep. I was already so glad I persevered, and the day had only begun!

One thing that kept us entertained were countless signs like this all the way from Gangtok, to Lachung, to Yumthang. All referred to the mysterious "BRO" which we later found out was an acronym: Border Roads Organization. I liked it better as the American slang term, and still keep to that meaning.
Yak skeleton found on the shores of the Yumthang valley river.
Beauty and the East by BombayDubOrchestra

I reached 12,000 ft in the late morning with Jackie, the driver, and our tour guide. My eyes defeated my previous expectation. Massive mountains completely caked in snow surrounded us, running all the way to a dormant valley floor. I could only imagine how the meadow would be in a few weeks, covered in every colored flower, split by a glacial river that could be seen running all the way to the tallest of the surrounding mountains. I couldn't believe how well Jackie's trip to visit me was turning out. From Holi to Sikkim, every moment was filled with perfect weather and unforgettable sights. We took far longer than any of the other few cars of Indian tourists, who simply came to touch, throw and play with snow. We had come for these mountains right in front of us, to gaze upon them for hours on end in a loss of thought and awe at what nature's beauty could behold.

And what better beauty to add to this setting than hot springs! Out on the edge of the valley a little wooden shack housed a small 10 square foot tub. A spout at the end gurgled out a sulfurous smell that verified the natural source of heated water. Awesome. Jackie and I had come prepared, yet we weren't ready for what other tourists might accept or do in our presence.

Just as we were about to change into our swimming gear, a storm of 15 Indians came into the little room. All of them studied us with our pants pulled up and our legs hanging into the warm water. They looked completely confused as to what we were doing. They gave me a look that spoke questions: Why would they ever want to wade into this? Are they going to swim in it? Why would you ever do that? I was just as confused at their behavior. The entire group came to simply splash water on their face that had been significantly cooled near the freezing cold doorway they had just entered. Each woman came in, splashed her face, then splashed her kids' faces with water before quickly turning and rushing out the door. The process was no different for the men, except that 20 pictures needed to be taken with aviators on their face and in different Bollywood action poses. Great job guys, not only are you going to freeze your faces off and get pneumonia, but you're also going to have "cool" poses of yourself in a run down wooden shack where two white tourists are trying to enjoy the actual beauty of naturally heated water.

They couldn't handle this.
This same invasion of Indians continued for a half hour until Jackie and I realized that it just wasn't going to be appropriate for both of us to relax fully submerged in water in our swimsuits (more Jackie than I, of course. It's one of the only instances where the privacy of body parts in India was actually frustrating). We exited to a light snowfall sprinkling down on the open meadow. I had just experienced the last of the seasonal weather patterns of India. Snow! There would be few instances in my life where I would feel weather that ranged from over 100F to 32F in the same week. I took another look across the valley and thought: this is true adventure. This was the type of place I wanted to go over and over again. I felt an extreme absence of interest for those popular sights around India. Not to say that these places aren't fascinating, but in order to see what I wanted, I would have to sacrifice that time at a commonplace to get in a car destined for a place far more remote.

We hopped back in the jeep and headed back to Lachung for the evening, for our trip was inevitably short-lived when a foreign tourist is only allowed a 2 night's stay. At least we only payed $200, when I know that all the other Indian tourists we saw that day easily payed $400 or more, being completely ripped off by their own bayyas in Gangtok. Score.

Our tour guide ordering tea for us in Yumthang.

Gangtok - the Return

Jackie and I had only 2 more days in Sikkim until Jackie had to rush back out to West Bengal and hop on the connecting flight back to Morocco. We decided to spend a day in Gangtok and visit the zoo, which at first sounded a bit depressing to me as I generally feel as such in other animal prisons. However, I am very than glad that I put my opinion of zoos aside for a day.

Tibetan Wolves
Gangtok Zoo was home to some of the most endangered animals in the region: the red panda, the Tibetan wolf, and best of all, the snow leopard. The entire premises was thousands of acres, as most cages were massive enough to suitably represent the habitat of the particular animal. At first, I couldn't even believe that  I might see such animals, but this was India, full of surprises around every corner as long as one could stick through the most intense of moments.

Jackie and I got to witness the feeding of all the animals, as we arrived at the zoo quite late in the day. On top of that, the off-season visit to Sikkim meant that no one was there in the first place. With these two good timings combined, we got within a foot of the snow leopard, and later had our finger licked as a curious gesture by red pandas!

Being in the presence of a Snow Leopard was surreal. It's one of the most elusive cats in the wild, but here I was, looking straight at it just on the other side of the fence. I sat down cross legged next to him with only a chain link barrier to separate us. He looked into my eyes, and did not divert his stare. An eternity passed in our gaze, locked in each other's existence for only a moment of silence. Was I simply another piece of meat that he secretly salivated for in that moment, or was there something more in the observation?

The former was proven to be incorrect for me, but immeasurably true for an explosion of noise, chatter and picture clicking as a family of Indian tourists came around the corner and stuffed their arms as close as they could to the chain link fence. The leopard jumped to his feet and began to pace. He panted, puffed, and pawed endlessly back and forth along his barrier, regularly eyeing the two small children that were frantically held at a distance by their mothers. They shouted, eyes wild with amazement and innocence, wanting to get their hands on the fence... even touch the fur of the pacing beast. They shouted at him, jumped at him, waved their hands near the fence and laughed at the helplessness of him. I was rooting for the snow leopard, in complete despise of the tourists' disgraceful manner. The fathers and older brothers of the children had already pissed him off, and probably made him want to devour all of them. If he could just get his teeth around their clumsy fingers on the edge of the fence... Then, the moment I wished for happened.

One child released themselves and ran for the fence. Yes, please, please eat their little hand straight off their body. I was so ready to see the power of nature thwart the stupidity and clumsiness of the human race that I took a deep breath. The father jumped, grabbed the kid still frantically moving for the fence. The snow leopard jumped, crashing upon the fence. His claws instantly unsheathed from his massive paws, but to no successful catch. Dammit... stupid kid... stupid family...

The Indian family continued to rant and rave at the leopard, almost scolding him. It exacerbated my frustration, so I decided to watch the commotion from a distance. I moved out to a different edge of the cage, and the snow leopard continued to pace. And at one point, he turned towards me and our eyes met yet again. I wanted to believe he was sending me a message: please, please give me a baby for food. That one in particular. I want it so bad its driving me crazy. All his movements and pacing showed it, and for how much I wanted to see this happen, the Indians turned on a dime in instant boredom and walked off in their typical noisy clammer.

I went back to my original spot only to find that a Sikkimese man had silently arrived with a big bucket of large chickens. I was so happy for the snow leopard that I rushed over to his feeding cage and waited patiently for his arrival. The site was jaw dropping.

He devoured two chickens in less than 10 minutes, crunching through bone like crackers and licking every inch of tendon and muscle off the ground. Occasionally he looked up at me, and I could see the relief in his eyes. He had received his feed, and even though it wasn't fresh infant meat, it was better than nothing. After a long 20 minutes of relaxing belly full at the edge of his cage just a hands reach away, Jackie and I headed off and out of the Zoo.

Only more surprises were right around the corner! On our way out we knew we had to stop and see the aviary. Much more than birds awaited there. It turns out the Red Panda's breeding site was right next to it, and no one was around to regulate where we went! We snuck into the back and were right up against the cages of 6 red pandas. All of them had been lounging when we arrived, but awoke full of curiosity for their visitors. The result was unforgettable.

We spent another half hour with the pandas and eventually made our way to the aviary for yet another surprise of astounding colors!

Our day ended in unmatched success, and with one more day to go, we reserved one last trip to a beautiful mountain lake in East Sikkim.

Tsongmo Lake

Sonam worked some ends for Jackie and I and got us an incredibly cheap trip to the border of China and India. Here, 10,000 ft up and surrounded by snow and ice was Tsongmo Lake. The timing was perfect.

Jackie and I stood together across the lake blanketed by the oncoming snow storm. There, at the edge of two worlds so drastically different, I found a new appreciation for the freedoms of India compared to the vice of communist China. Even though India had its own misfortunes for its citizens, those Tibetans like Sonam had made beautiful, successful lives for themselves within the safe haven of Sikkim, showing tourists like Jackie and I its most beautiful natural sites.

Sonam himself had come with us to Tsongmo, and we enjoyed our last moments together making a snowman, which would instantly become a makeshift attraction for every Indian in eyesight. I could have made thousands of rupees if I had been a stickler about taking photos with our art...

As we headed down the mountain away from Tsongmo and back to Gangtok, Jackie and I thanked Sonam warmly for his help in making what would be the most smooth-running trip in my travels through India. If you ever plan to go to Sikkim yourself, and you need a guide and tour coordinator, he is the man to go to, hands down.

Thank you Sonam. You will be missed, and maybe soon enough I'll see you around the bend.

The last I sought to see with my own eyes was the 3rd tallest mountain in the world, Kangchenjunga. It boasts a 28,169 ft peak, and can usually be seen from Gangtok. Yet the air was unfortunately vieled by smoke from controlled burns in West Bengal. We thought we had seen it several times, and took pictures whenever possible. "I think I might be able to edit this when I get back to Morocco." Jackie and I parted ways back in New Jalpaiguri, and it wasn't until recently that I saw her picture with the haze edited out of the photo. Kangchenjunga was there the whole time, shielded by a subtle haze on the horizon.

As I ran to catch the train to Nagaland, I thought about how many beautiful things had entered and left my life in the past few months. Every moment had beauty in some form or another. Whether it be a starving child nursed the last cookie from her mother's supply, the endless rainbow sparkle of clothing on every man, woman and child, or the helping hand of the man who saved me from missing my train as it swept away from New Jalpaiguri to Dimapur, it was all one and the same; an endless, breathtaking landscape of beauty, ever in motion with the setting or rising sun, ever persistent with the love of the Indian heart. Life, here and around the world, is beautiful. We need only to recognize that it is there, shimmering with energy and color right in front of our eyes.