Permission must be granted before foreigners can enter Sikkim in NE India. A fascinating area- now part of India after being its own kingdom since the 17th Century. We walked over to the Sikkim tourist office in Silliguri to get a permit. The walk had been described by the hotel manager as “pleasant”. We walked the 2km across the high street (full of cow poo, jostling rickshaws trying to roll over your foot, scooters riding along the pedestrian area and mounds of rubbish) to the bridge crossing the river (choked with sludge as it oozed through the town and emitting a strong odour of sewage as it burped its way) to finally, the main drag out of the city offering views into the shanty towns with buffalo living in the sludge of the riverbank and kids moulding cow pats for drying in the sun.
A massive billboard was being constructed nearby out of bamboo and it seemed its only purpose was to mask the make shift houses below. Eventually we came across a small sign pointing towards the tourism office, masked by a tuktuk who’d chosen the corner, in front of the sign as a good place to park.
Permit done, we had a short ride to Gangtok- the capital of Sikkim in the Eastern region. We exited Silliguri, as usual stressed from the irresponsible and aggressive drivers who were still playing the overtaking-chicken game (where one can only overtake if there’s a fast moving 100T truck coming straight for you in the other direction). Once we left the city, the highway became tree-lined and straight so we relaxed a bit and ate a breakfast of alu paratha and dahl before tackling the sinuous mountain roads. They curled around the river that runs through the mountain range and it was a pleasure to ride along as suddenly there were no cars or trucks and the few we did come across were suddenly so much nicer and responsible.
We passed families of Macaques who’d line up along the side of the road and watch as vehicles passed by. The bravest ones would catch your eye and snarl but most would flinch when the bikes revved next to them.
Eventually the road twisted more and rose sharply up towards Gangtok. The town was curious after India- it was almost Alpine in architecture. Tall houses painted colourfully had geraniums in the window sills and housed cafes, restaurants and shops in their ground floors. The streets were clean, devoid of rickshaws (it’s a little steep for pedal power) and the drivers respected the rule of the road. From the road, the houses were about 5 or 6 storeys high with narrow fronts and as we turned a corner with a gap in the buildings, we could see the houses extended below ground level by a few floors, offering uninterrupted views of the Himalayas from all floors.
Rumtek monastery is in the region, which is a Karma Kagyu school of Buddhism – usually the main seat of the Karmapa but currently in the centre of the Karmapa Controversy. The monastery was restored by the 16th Karmapa and on his passing, as is customary, the 17th was recognised and claimed as the reincarnation (Thaye Dorje) but the Chinese government appointed their own “reincarnation” who was born much after the 17th Karmapa had been recognised by Shamarpa Rinpoche (the traditionally accepted authority for recognising the Karmapa and vice versa). The whole disagreement has lead to both claimants begin banned from Rumtek, which now serves mainly as a school of Buddhism and as a vacant seat for the disputed Karmapa. To read more on the scandal: Buddha’s Not Smiling and Rogues in Robes.
We visited Rumtek during a puja and so luckily we experienced the sights, sounds and smells of the ceremony. Juniper burned in the courtyard as an offering and the monks chanted, trumpets and drums were played to give a haunting whole. Ordinary people walked up to the pyre to give offerings to burn, in a solemn procession through the courtyard.
No vehicles are allowed anywhere near the monastery (apart from the monk’s buses and cars) so Simon was forced to leave Brunni at the gates and to walk the kilometre to the monastery in his biker boots!
The monastery was full, as is customary, of happy dogs who’ve found a safe place to sleep where they’re given food. Some were missing limbs or fur so it was nice to see that their lives had taken a turn for the better in Rumtek.
We set off back to Gangtok, the leaping mountain roads bordered by prayer flags of all sizes, some huge like sails in the wind, others small, colourful and fluttery. With a view over the valley, we could see prayer flags all the way down winking between the trees. It was such a peaceful place to stay that we ended spending two nights before reluctantly heading back to the madness of Silliguri but the next adventure called and we had to move on. Nepal and the high Himalayas were waiting for us!