We drove (uneventfully) through the clouds, ever upward to the urban sprawl, clinging 2000m above sea level to the mountainside. After some disorientation we located a pleasant (and blooming cheap - 24 hours of hot water!) hotel in the centre of the action, dumped our bags and went for an explore. Gangtok is not India. It is clean and organised, there are whole pedestrian areas, litter bins that are used, foot bridges over busy roads and tons of benches for people to just sit down. Trivial as these things may seem from a western perspective, in India it is a lung full of peaceful fresh air.
The next couple of days were spent lost in the bustling bazaars and tidy streets, munching marvelous momos and rummaging through the shops for warm woolly things in preparation for the week ahead. We experienced Gangtok's technological wonder, the rope-way and its cultural heart, the Institute of Tibetology. Mainly though, we were happy chomping delicious cuisine (including Dachi - yak cheese stew! wahhh!) and gazing at the plethora of prayer flags fluttering in the gentle winter breeze. We also had the incredibly amusing activity of sterilising Amiee's Mooncup in the communal hotel kitchen! The puzzled males faces will never leave us! one even asking "is it a nipple?".
With tickets in hand we hopped aboard a shared jeep to Pelling, the centre of West Sikkim. Our company on the road included a lovely couple (Juan-Chilean and Fanny-French) whom we had bumped into previously. Upon reaching our destination (no mountains in view yet! blooming clouds!) the four of us teamed up and piled into the nearest hotel. Ditching our baggage we strolled away the afternoon by visiting the peaceful Pemayangtse monastery and the highly uninspiring 'archaeological ruins' (though the woodland walk was pleasant enough). As darkness descended, we crowded round the open-fire, chatted and gobbled fried cheese momos (a crackin' discovery!) to our hearts' content. Cheesed up, we hit the town in search of the legendary Chang. We bounced around, until we stumbled into a sweet little guesthouse and led to the lower-levelled kitchen. Here, a spunky Sikkimese lady set four large metal tumblers full of the magical fermented millet-grain upon the low table. She filled our cups with hot water and jabbed straws into the concoctions. We supped the night away, until we felt sufficiently chang-ged.
Map in hand, the four of us headed north to the holy Buddhist, Kechopari Lake/ Pond (which is apparently shaped like His Holliness' foot). It was mildly interesting, but the show was stolen by the incredible mountainous surroundings and the gorgeous wooden guest house we discovered- the tall white prayer flags merely added to the majesty and tranquility of the place. Settled for the next few days, we explored the deep river valleys and learnt Chillean cards. Trekking on up (4hrs), we moved base to Yuksom. This frontier town is the final stopping point for budding mountaineers before heading into the wilds and the true heights of the Himalayas. We spent one night here, eager to carry on walking, though sadly due to the harshes of winter, walking north up to the trekking trails wasn't an option. Our splendid company parted ways, and the following morning we explored Dubdi monastery and later set off for Tsong, in the new company of Rob (a lone travelling Englishman).
He joined us to the village, but set off back to Yuksom, leaving us for our first night in Tara's Homestay. The said Tara, is a warm, spirited Nepali with a fiery inner strength. We shared her home, food and family for a total of four days. She taught us the art of momo manufacture and the joys of rural life, perched upon the side of a mountain. During the time here, the clouds lifted to unveil the glorious fresh winter sun and snow covered mountain peaks of the Kanchenjunga Range some forty kilometers to the north (Kachenjunga itself measures up at 8,586m- the worlds third highest). Keen to stay, but aware of more sights to see, we wandered onwards to Tashiding, the last stop on our West Sikkim jolly. The walk was wonderful, but knackering. We stopped halfway at Hongri Monastery (the most dilapidated, but most beautiful yet) to catch our breath, reaching Tashiding at lunchtime. A peaceful small town, with astonishing panoramic views.
We are now back in Gangtok, enjoying the newly revealed mountain views and glorious blue skies. Our time is being spent exploring the surrounding area, including Rumtek Monastery to the west. Our journey down the winding steep road from the monastery was wonderfully joyous. We shared a taxi with 3 monks, a family of three and an elderly lady. Marc squashed somewhere below me and a monk on top. We laughed as Shaggy's greatest hits boomed out of the sound system of the tiny Suzuki Maruti. For anyone familiar with Shaggys lyrics, you may imagine how amusing they are when one is in the compact company of group of Buddhist monks. Visiting Enchy Monastery offered a more peaceful experience and at a walkable distance, laying to the north of the city.
Our last night in Gangtok offered us another cup of Chang hidden in the back alleys of Lal Bazaar with Buddha our hotel manager and Mike, a unforgettable character from Oregon, Us.
Now we prepare for our epic 3 day descent back into Southern India.
Our next Journey to come - http://g.co/maps/7wepk
http://g.co/maps/rz9y4 - Our journey in Sikkim