Sky high in Sikkim

Trip Start Jan 12, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, April 3, 2005

Rob and Anjali must now drive four and a half hours northeast to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim

Geography Lesson
On the maps it all looks so easy. Everything in Sikkim appears to be within a 100-150 km radius. Unfortunately, geography gets in the way. It takes roughly one hour to drive 20 km anywhere in the area because you're usually going up or down, taking hairpin turns every 15 seconds. This is why our simple 85 km trip to Gangtok ended up being a full day's drive.

Sikkim is a semi-independent state within India, sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. Most people here speak Nepali. Unlike most states in India, Sikkim has its own full government and parliament, which has quieted a steady independence movement still active in other northeastern states. Only recently has China recognized Sikkim as part of India. A special permit is needed for a 15-day visit and we had to stop at the border to get our passports stamped when going in. Since Nepal has had so much unrest in the past year, Sikkim is starting to open up as an alternative trekking destination.

Gangtok, the capital, is a smaller and slightly grungier version of Darjeeling. While home to only about 30,000 people, it has several neighbouring towns that continue to sprawl along the road all the way down into the lower valley.

Nasty Weather
Our guesthouse in Gangtok was a cute place near the very top of the city on a little plateau surrounded by bamboo forest. No heaters or hot water bottles here though, and the cold and dampness quickly found its way into our bones. While exploring the town we noticed some menacing dark clouds and very narrowly made it back to escape a nasty hail storm that raged for two hours while the power continued to go off and on the entire time. It wasn't a great introduction to the place.

Caught in Mid-Air
On day two, we lined up a little tour of the surrounding sights. After missing out on Darjeeling's ropeway, Rob was overjoyed to learn that Gangtok's new cable car had recently been completed, connecting the upper ridge to a suburb below. Even Anjali, who doesn't like heights or gondolas decided to give it a go.

Wheeee, down the ridge we went, though Anjali was concentrating more on calming her nerves than admiring the view when all of the sudden it stopped. We were right in the middle of the ropeway, dangling far above the city below. "Supply" shrugged a local man, the only other person with us in the gondola. Hmm, we hadn't really thought about the sporadic power supply before getting on the ride. But wait, then it started again. Then stopped a second later. Then started. Then stopped. Just enough to create a perfect rocking motion back and forth while the cables bounced up and down. Did we mention Anjali doesn't like heights? At this point she decided to sit down on the floor of the swaying gondola so she couldn't see how high we were and was close to hyperventilating. Rob pretended he wasn't scared all the while praying there was some kind of back-up generator. Five minutes later (which felt like 15) the power returned taking us safely to the lower tower. It was time for a bathroom break.

Monastic Moments
Afterwards, we felt that visiting a few local Buddhist monasteries might be more soothing, so we crossed the valley to see the famous Rumtek monastery. It's here that the young Karmapa Lama who escaped to India from Tibet in 1999 is supposed to take up his seat. But the Indian government has forbid him from doing so, probably in order to keep good relations with the Chinese. The monasteries are all brightly coloured buildings lined with murals on the inside. The monks inside the prayer halls don't seem to mind if you walk around during meditations and ceremonies.

Still Scared of Heights
Perhaps the highlight of our stay in Gangtok was a day trip we took to Tsomgo (pronounced "Chaunga") Lake. This lake sits at 3800 m (12,400 ft) near the Tibet border and was originally believed by the locals to have been placed way up in the mountains supernaturally. Certainly, we felt it was no easy task to get there. We had booked our trip through a local agency and were disappointed to have our driver and "guide" pick us up in a minivan taxi. We knew that roads everywhere were hair-raising and we wanted a jeep. But we had no idea that the road to Tsomgo would be our most terrifying. The road miraculously clung to straight cliffs with sheer drops of thousands of feet down. As usual, guardrails were virtually non-existent. What disturbed us more was that the driver appeared to be teaching our guide how to drive on the most torturous stretch. Later at a roadside pit stop we told our real driver we preferred to have him at the wheel the whole way.

It's a marshmallow world...
But when we finally got to Tsomgo Lake the view was totally worth....less. Non-existent. The cloud was so thick we could only see about 10 feet of ice and water past the shoreline. Snow was the main attraction here, especially for the many Indian tourists from Calcutta who never get to see it. Shacks by the roadside even tried to rent us rubber boots so we could run around in the snow. We had to explain this was no great novelty to us.

The Yak Track
The yaks, on the other hand, were really cool. For a few bucks you could ride them around the lake so we jumped at the chance. It was quite fun and much more comfortable than the camels we rode in Rajasthan. The yaks would slip and slide a bit on the ice-covered rocks near the lake, but they're pretty stable. Anjali's could even trot down the road at a good pace. It fulfilled a lifelong obsession Anjali has had with yaks - ever since she fed the big hairy one at Toronto's High Park as a child. She can still remember their snuffling breath on her hands as she fed them bread. And Anjali still thinks they are pretty cute after riding one. At least it provided a bit of a release after the treacherous journey.

And speaking of treacherous journies, our next destination was no picnic in the park either...

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