Friday, June 21, 2019

Sikkim, the land of pristine and magical beauty

Like we believe, once a year go some place you have never been before.

Won't I love to move here after retirement!!! The lovely weather, the lush greens, clean and plastic free (well almost) spaces, simplicity and warmth of the people are so appealing. The attempt at organic farming and self sufficiency of fruits and vegetables (thereby making the locally available producers profitable but variety, limited) is so encouraging in these days and times. Welcome to Sikkim, the state that chose to collude with India closer to 1975.

Thankfully our plans to visit Sikkim were in place much earlier.  What remained to be done were the cab bookings.  A few calls by P to the cab agency and we were all set for our summer holidays to this beautiful land. It would be a much desired getaway from the sweltering,  humid Mumbai. 

The Burpeepal cottage, Ranipool, Sikkim

Day 1- a flight from Mumbai to Bagdogra via Guwahati was very comfortable and got us there by 12:15 pm. We had stepped out of home at 4:30am. The lunch pitstop was Siliguri food court which also served non veg. We had a modest meal as the place catered to a tourists taste (although the traveler in us was yearning for something more indigenous to Sikkim).  Bagdogra,  like any other hub town had packed roads. Our driver was Ameet a nepalese n practising buddhist.  On our way to our first halt Burpeepal cottage, we stopped by to engage in some fun activity - yes! river rafting on the Teesta. It was fantastic as the setting sun, cool breeze and refreshing waters were very welcoming. After a near 6 hr drive  which  included multiple halts due to our motion sick young passenger,  we arrived at Burpeepal cottage an hour away from GangtoK at nearly 7pm. 

For those who have not heard about it, it was featured in the movie Qarib Qarib Singlle starring Irfan Khan and recommended by a Lepcha friend. Burpeepal is located at Ranipool not very far from Gangtok but has a small town feel. The hosts Neeraj n his physician wife were gracious hosts.  The staff was extremely courteous and helpful.  The food was fresh,  homemade and delicious.  I am still smacking my lips reminiscing yummy bitter gourd fritters coated with crunchy sesame seeds. 
Needless to say the property is simply beautiful.  The well manicured lawns, abundantly growing hydrangea,  salvia and other vibrant colored flowers, the pleasant sounds of chirping n the gush of the nearby stream that adorns the property all add to the charm.

The stream by the cottage, Burpeepal

The dining area of the cottage, Burpeepal

Day 2 -  a brief conversation with our driver and we learnt that 70% of state residents are Nepalese and the rest Sikkimese. It is no surprise then that the state has had a Nepalese CM for the last 25 yrs. Sikkim was an independent country until 1975, but due to disgust with monarchy and increasing threat from China,  they decided to join hands with India and become a part of this sovereign nation. 

This day was set aside for local sight seeing and we went on to visit the  Rumtek monastery,  Ranka monastery, the plant conservatory and the zoological park.  Rumtek  displayed pictures of the Dalai lama n Karmapa while the Ranka monastery  had a huge idol of the Buddha.
The zoological park was quite different from most zoos in India. It was an immersion habitat. This meant that the property felt like one was walking through a wide spread botanical garden (ala Singapore)  with tall trees,  well labelled plants,  interspersed with huge well separated enclosures closest to  the natural habitat of these animals.  The highlights were the leopard,  red panda (the national state animal),  porcupine n civet. We ended the day with a delicious dinner served by the staff of Burpeepal.  

Rumtek monastery, Gangtok

Ranka monastery, Gangtok

Zoological park, Gangtok

Day 3

We explored the property we stayed at. We visited the closeby stream with 3 canines for company. Bhalloo the German Shepherd,  Dora n Jolly,  the mountain dogs.  The stream and its environs were breathtaking.  It was a pleasure to walk on the the cobbled pebbles  in hues of colors,  the waters were ice cold and the landscape could not be greener. 
When we got back, breakfast was waiting. The diced home grown watermelon  simply melted in our mouths and the parathas were scrumptious.  It was time to say goodbye to our hosts as it was 10:45am and time to move on to Lachen. We were sorry to say goodbye to Bhalloo who followed us until we were out of sight. The bonds between humans and dogs are quick to form but hard to break.

We proceeded to Lachen,  nearly 7 hrs away on curvaceous roads with multiple hairpin bends,  clouds hanging so low that we were sometimes lost amidst them,   greenery the kind we had never seen before,  yet an extremely landslide prone geography.  Sikkim,  we were  told,  receives rainfall all through the year.  No wonder then that it is so lush but extremely unsuitable for growing crops and vegetables as the layer of soil is not too deep and has rocky layers at the base which hamper agriculture. However the state does grow cardamom (badi elaichi), oranges, maize for trade. 
It was 7:30pm, dark and we reached our homestay at Lachen. We were welcomed by the Lachenpas. There was a chill in the air as the mercury had dropped to nearly 6deg celcius.  Brrr it was.  We were led to our room by our host, Dhadup. The room was a cozy n warm space done up in cedar colored wood. We slipped into the warm blankets and dozed off after we had a simple homemade dinner. 
Below is a pic of the kitchen which is so neatly stacked and that's Dhadup's  mom busy cleaning some vessels in running stream water which is constantly flowing out of the faucets. Kitchen is the heart of this home, where the bukhari is the big attraction. It is constantly warming some brew and keeping everyone sitting around it warm.
For those who haven't heard of one - the bukhari is a metal contraption which uses wood as fuel. The exhaust mechanism ensures that the smoke escapes right outside the home without causing monoxide poisoning :)

Inside the kitchen so meticulously maintained, Lachenpa's, Lachen, Sikkim

The Lachenpa siblings, our hosts

At Gurudongmar lake

Day 4- Sikkim, being in the East, witnesses the morning sun quite early. At 5:30 am I walked upto the terrace for a bird's eye view of Lachen Town. Lined with brightly colored tin roofs,  dotted with prayer flags waving in the chilly morning breeze.
It was a gorgeous sight to behold

As planned P proceeded to Gurudongmar at 5:30am. We stayed on at Lachen as we liked it better here - the cosy space with the hospitable hosts n a tiny playful kitten to keep us company.  We made ourselves comfortable by the bukhari which kept us warm n comfortable emitting an endearing warmth.  While at it,  we noticed some food that had been suspended from the kitchen roof. I was curious about it and was informed that it was cheese (from yak milk) which is hard,  sinewy  and chewed and sucked like betel nut.  The host offered it to us but we refused as we do not adapt to new tastes that well (lol)

P's drive to  Gurudongmar which began at 5:30am n got us back at 3:30pm was uneventful (no landslides, roadblocks etc) but had mesmerizing views. Diamox250mg bid taken 48hrs before the ascent to near  18000ft above sea level, may have helped.  The 30mins spent at Gurudongmar were physically tough but delighted the eyes.  Back to Lachen at 3:30pm,  we checked up the election results.  SKM had gathered majority seats, we were informed. This meant SDF which was in power for near 25 yrs was shown the boot. The reason behind the downfall of SDF  seemed to be  the youth who decided to vote for opposition SKM.  Unemployment,  substance abuse among youth,  irrational abuse of the free flowing Teesta by building dams for hydel power generation,  most of which is distributed to neighboring states,  albeit for revenue and corrupt governments have been key factors behind anti-incumbency in Sikkim. 

A quick goodbye to Dhadup and we were on our way to Lachung.  Albeit at lower altitude than Lachen,  it felt colder.  Our homestay hosts were hospitable at the Bayul homestay. We admired the diligent hostess who worked hard in her garden and home.  The place was cosy. She served us a saag,  rice, daal, cabbage from her garden which she fried with besan to make fritters, ideal for the cold climate, egg curry and to top it all the omniscent aloo. Potato is widely available in Sikkim and also very popular. In winters which begin closer to Xmas, due to snowfall and extreme temperatures, there are few vegetables/ fruits which residents have access to, and one of them is the popular potato.
The hostess indulged us with her home made wine made from wild blue berries which she had painstakingly  collected during winter months Smell,  swirl,  sip... Tasteful indeed.  The color was a beautiful reddish purple. 

We snuggled up in our warm beds and blankets after arranging for a heater for a marginal extra cost. That ensured we had some sound sleep despite the intense cold.

Day 5- After resting a well traveled body,  we got up at an early hour (read 5:30am)  to see some brilliant views - snow capped mountains, tall pines,  chirping birds n a gushing Teesta.  The sun peeked from the mountains enveloping all us lesser mortals in all its glory. The views were breathtaking  with the mountains up close.  Our vehicle was waiting to drive us to Yumthang valley after a simple,  tasty plate of egg n bread. 

A drive that took us a little over 2hrs to get done due to some bad patches of road where  the melting snow from the glacier had eaten away the roads,  we arrived at the valley. The views at the Yumthang valley were mesmerizing. The waters of the Teesta were cold and refreshing. The glaciers running through the mountains were a sight to behold. On our way here we passed through the Rhododendron sanctuary. Although the blossoms exhibit full splendor in March, we were blessed to witness some trees with the blossoms - the whites, yellows, pink, fuschia, a lovely blend of yellow and orange, lavender, they were available in every conceivable shade. The ride back was pleasant and seemed quicker. Ameet, informed us that the massive landslides and destruction that we saw on our way back were a result of an avalanche in 2012. The rubble was still around. For miles, the area was patroled by the Defence forces (Army) as it is quite close to the China border.

Back at the homestay @Lachung, our hosts, Pemma and the Mrs had cooked up a delicious meal. The evening was cold and the warmth of the hearth felt so good. We discovered that many of the locals just have 2 meals - one mid morning and one late evening. Ah! I thought the human race can survive with 2 simple meals. Am sure Rujuta Diwekar does not sell her books here. Else people at Sikkim would be eating through the day ;)

Bayul homestay at Lachung, Sikkim

View from Bayul's, breathtaking

Day 6 :
Early  next morning we took off for Munlom Nature resort nestled in the  mountains in the lower Dzongu region. Dzongu is the native land of the Lepcha community who are the original inhabitants of the state of Sikkim.The community has close to 80,000 Lepchas. The land and businesses in this region are all owned by the Lepchas. This helps them to control and conserve their culture and protect their community. The last few kilometers to the resort required a 4 wheel drive. Munlom is run by Kim who did the honors and sent us one, as our Innova Cresta did not have enough power to wheel itself through the muck and rocks. We spent 2 nights and a day there. The food was good most days, except the last meal when the spice caught us unawares. The 4 dogs and the lepcha + nepalese youth kept us company and were housekeeping, room service,chef, entertainers et al. There were no guests while we were there. We had the entire place to ourselves. 
The same evening we trekked up to the  monastery atop the hill, and were up close a statue of Padmasambhava. While on my way up the cliff, I slipped and fell flat on my face but luckily got up unscathed (Thank God!). Cant imagine Padmasambhava seeing a bruised me for the first time (*wink* *wink*)

We got back in time for a yummy dinner and climbed upto our Swiss tent for a peaceful night's sleep. 

Day 7 :

This day was reserved for Munlom, for a picnic at the river, some trout fishing and lazing. On our way there we spent some time, rescuing our Innova Cresta from the muck it had got stuck in. This was to ensure a smooth exit the next morning.
The picnic at the river was a refreshing experience. While we were there, we saw some locals cutting vegetation to feed their pigs, while some others were busy fishing for their next meal. Since I am little picky about the fish I eat or feed my family, I only chose to admire our catch and let it go. You know live and let live. We spent our hours dart boarding, Uno playing, amusing ourselves with Jenga, munching on hot onion pakodas, patting the bow wows and simply doing nothing. That's a nice feeling too :) Kim was a fun host to interact with. He had his stories about the Lepchas and the Sikkim Govt to narrate. He knew how to keep his guests engaged. A typical cowboy, he was! Pari planned our exit well. Our Innova which had got stuck in the mush on our way up, had to be first rescued and only then could we make our trip to Bagdogra scheduled for the 8th day. 

Day 8:

We exchanged goodbyes with our hosts and proceeded to Gangtok early (7:30am) the next morning. Our stay at Nettuk place was comfortable. 

Nettuk belongs to one of the ministers of the Sikkim monarchy. The heritage home is well maintained with landscaped porch and terrace, the wooden furniture is polished and exudes a certain old world charm. Gangtok like any other capital is busy, congested, crowded with traffic snarls all day. This day was for eating out and shopping. We munched at The Square and Baker's cafe. The pork ribs at The Square was yummy and so were the barbecue chicken wings. Our young person, who gorged on the margherita with chicken strips at the Baker's cafe also reviewed it a 4.5/5. We only picked knick knacks viz ceramic cups with lids, small bamboo souvenirs. The last spicy meal at Munlom had me in bed early after I had thrown out my guts!!!! But by next morning, I was sorted and happy.I was headed home with a clean gut (*wink* *wink*)

Day 9 :

We left early for Bagdogra which was a near 5 hr drive. Bagdogra has never fascinated us and nor did the drive. Our vacation had ended on Day 7 when we exited Munlom. We reached the Bagdogra airport by 3pm and waited patiently for our flight back home.

My memories of Sikkim will always entail warm people, lush mountains, mesmerizing views, healthy home grown vegetables, fruits and simple yet tasty meals and great weather. 

Our itinerary for those interested :

Day 1 - land at Bagdogra by noon and proceed to Burpeepal cottage (near Ranipool, SK)
Day 2 - local site seeing at Gangtok
Day 3 - leave early for Lachen and stay @the Lachenpas for  the night
Day 4 - leave early for Guru dongmar, for those keen Kaala pathar & Chokta valley (we skipped both) and be back by 3:30 pm, proceed to Lachung and stay at Bayul homestay
Day 5 - Yumthang valley, Rhododendron sanctuary, for those keen Zero point (we skipped this), stay overnight at Lachung at Bayul Homestay
Day 6 - Exit Lachung to reach Munlom, Dzongu and stay at Munlom Nature resort
Day 7 - At Munlom in Dzongu
Day 8 - exit Dzongu and reach Gangtok, relax, shop, eat
Day 9 - exit Gangtok for Bagdogra, fly back to base

Saturday, November 04, 2017

Meghalaya - The abode of the clouds, Scotland of the East.

Day 1 - reached Kaziranga after a 5 and a half hour drive from the Guwahati airport. It took us 2 hrs to fly to Guwahati fm Delhi. The road from Guwahati was a bypass and helped avoid city traffic and the ride was pleasurable. The roads were well maintained for most parts. We checked into Iora resort at Kaziranga and it was 7pm by the time we settled in. The resort had comfortable (luxurious rooms) and a lovely feel due to the well protected and cultivated green cover. While we walked to our room,there was distinct familiar fragrance in the air. It was Parijat in full bloom. In the dark I could barely see the tree but groped to gently pluck what looked like a flower in bloom and held it up to light up my sensorials. I felt victorious when I confirmed I had guessed right. 

Day 2- woke up at 5am to catch the 6am elephant safari to the Kaziranga national park. Had a better look around the resort in all its splendour. There were flowers blooming all around - marigolds, China rose in multiple hues, the anthurium, mussanda, sarcus Indica, Iora, the red powder puff, karveer, ratnagandhi, frangipani and fruit trees like the citrus, papaya, plantains - all laden with fruit waiting to ripen In the days ahead. We entered the Bagori sector at around 6.45am. . The sun was up by 5am, so it was quite high by the time the safari began. The stole kept the sun out of my eyes as I had decided not to carry the cap or the sunglasses atop the elephant. We got lucky and spotted rhinos,their calves, wild buffalo sunbathing, the elephant n its little one having a shower n what we later learnt was a hog deer. The forests house 4 types of deer - hog, som, sambhar and barking. There were babblers, mynahs, Eagles, sparrows, hosts of colourful butterflies. Unlike some of the other forests we have visited, we found the mahouts non conversant and had very little information to share with us. What we learnt most definitely was that the elephants are able reach the mushy swamps left behind by the recent floods and so we were able to get a close view if the animals. The jeep ride is more peripheral as it cannot access the swarms as easily. There were moments on the elephant that we thought we would slip off n falling into the mush. But of-course, our fears were unjustified. 
After a warm shower once back in our resort we had a sumptuous breakfast. Simple dosa which I can bet was far better than the ones I have had in its native lands (south India). The coconut chutney had the right amount of tender juicy sweetness which came out of being fresh fm the farms. Even the simple egg omelette was made to perfection, as instructed by sire, with the insides still soft n oozy. After a nice hot cups to pull me out of slumber mode, we proceeded to see the orchid botanical gardens, which to our chagrin was not more than 3kms from 
Iora. It's not the orchid flowering season (Mar-Apr) yet we saw a few and learnt about the 2 key varieties, the epiphytes and terrestrials. While the former grows in other plants it has aerial roots that extract their nutritional requirements from the air, while the latter requires soil. The orchids are not fragrant and thereby should find it difficult to attract insects for pollination but the Lord has blessed them with attractive colours n patterns that attract insects, Right after that we were introduced some interesting information about the 97 tribes of Assam. The looms and the weaves of the north east were amazing to watch. The silk- muga, eri and Pathi looms were also displayed. 
While the former is used in the cold due to its warm feel, eri is used during Bihu and Pathi during weddings. There were Assamese fishing tools, equipment and cultivation n storage equipment on display too.
Following this we visited the herb gardens where the guide explained the Medicinal properties of certain plants. We watched the Bihu n bamboo dance shows which run every few hours. It was a good experience. Much to our surprise our 9 yr old also watched the cultural program without a murmur.
On our way back to our resort, we visited a small wayside restaurant where we sampled some local dishes - the Assamese thaali, pork and bamboo curry and junior opted for clear chicken soup (familiar taste in an unfamiliar land). It was interesting to read about 3 different varieties of rice - brown, red and black ; red being the most nutritive but chewy n to be served with an assortment. This was doused down with some cold coffee n ice cream back at our resort. What took us by surprise is the hot day making a turn-around to thunder struck rainy one. No one can surprise us like nature does; well we deserve it after having abused it all these decades. 

Day 3 - this was our day to head to Shillong. There was a conference for medical practitioners at our resort at Iora and we were greeted to a wide spread of breakfast items. The morning was beautiful as I had rained the previous day. Every leaf and flower seemed to be smiling at us. After a sumptuous breakfast of freshly plucked fruits, omlette(must be from the hens egg. Can't be sure though as the locals eat ducks n pigeons with equal relish),  sausage, butter garlic sautéed potatoes, idli/dosa and some nice hot coffee, we loaded our bags and proceeded to Shillong. The drive was lovely as the roads and weather were supportive. It took us 6hrs of non stop travel to get to Meghalay's capital. It reminded us of Ooty especially the main bazaar area where roads are extremely narrow and the traffic terrible between 2-5pm with everyone having to use the same narrow lanes for work or pleasure. We dropped by Cafe Dylan for some sizzling noodles and penne in pesto. The place was very interestingly done up with quotes, pics, memorabilia of rock icon Bob Dylan. The dessert was far better than the food...with the overloaded sizzling chocolate brown cementing what we had just gorged on. The place is just over a year old and patronised by Lou Majaw, an old timer Dylan fan who holds a rock event here in May. Our night halt here was a quaint cottage done up in wood. It was called the Russet cottage(Nongthymmai). Run by a lady in her early 50s with her teen son, it was an Air BnB find. It kept us warm and cozy through the night. It could accommodate just 3 of us. Junior loved their scruffy dog, puppy and cat. We had dinner out at Cafe Shillong. Not too bad. Although there was live music that night at Cloud 9, we wanted to crash early as we had to set out for Mawlynong.

Day 4 - after a quick breakfast at Russet, we set out at 8am to Nartiang monoliths, Krangshuri falls (recommended), Dawki river (had seen some pics of how clear the waters were but was disappointed by the frothy unclear waters) These places are strictly avoidable on weekends. Our lunch was at a shack close-by. Glorified Maggi! A thought that crossed my mind - there may have been famine here when Maggi was taken off the shelves. The scene at Dawki was appalling. There were so many people fishing. Not trawlers. Single men/ women fishing for dinner? The huge boulders on either side of the river made a beautiful scene. They made the visit worth it. We hit the roads again and reached Arecca cottage, Mawlynong by about 6.30 pm. The sun sets by 5pm here and rises by 5am. This place has just two cottages. Although the place is lovely, they do not have a kitchen. So limited food supplies. This was not informed earlier to us. They obliged us with dinner that night, but the next day got off to a bad start.

Day 5- Now, Mawlynong is clean and beautiful alright but since we landed there on a weekend so none of the restaurants (ha-la)(including Arecca) were serving breakfast. For me, this was a tipping point. I can survive all day if and only if I get my healthy breakfast in time. A fruit, some oats or cereal or egg are just fine. But 'nothing' except chai biscuit  is a strict no no. Like Pari suggested we visited the Mawlynong village early on at 7.30am. There were no tourists around that early. After 9am on a weekend you will find scores of tourists from West Bengal and Assam throng the place. It loses its charm after the early morning hours. There are over 10-12 home stay options in this tiny village. The tiny by lanes are concretised for easy maintenance and are lined by beautiful flowering plants. There is a small church too. We proceeded to the Living root bridge at Mawlynong (empty stomach, much to my disgust). It takes nmt 45 mins for going down and coming back up. By 11am, some ha-las and tea n lunch places opened up. We opted for some Maggi. (Yes again!) We then checked out from Mmawlynong and headed to Mawphlang. It took over 3 hrs to get there. The journey was beautiful with the clouds floating in and out of our car. It was chilly. It had been raining for the past 2 days. Our next destination was  the farm stay run by Jim Allen and his family. Cozy cottages but since he is self sufficient in terms of power (has his own 2 wind mills n solar energy generators), hot water was difficult to come by. Day 5 was clearly not my day! The farm animals were some hens and a well trained yr old German shepherd. Junior had a good time with him, Caesar.

Day 6- tnx to Valerie, Allen's wife we had some yummy French toast with cinnamon n some pancakes. The coffee too was fresh and strong. We proceeded to Mawlyngbna from here. Out by 8.15am and after some winding roads, not so smooth roads, terrible harsh sun, reached a place which seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. By now every muscle in my body screamed for help and so me & junior hung on at Traveller's hut while the bold and adventurous proceeded for some water sports. He said it was enjoyable. I only knew one thing, if I did not reach civilisation quickly I would break down. I was running a temperature too, feeling nauseous and needed a hot shower for my aching muscles. We opted to change our itinerary a bit and checked into Ry Kinjhai a day earlier. It took us 3 1/2 hrs to get to this place from Mawlynbna.

Day 7 & 8 - decadent life with Khasi massage, beautiful views of the sunrise around the Umiam lake at Ri Kynjhai - land of serene environs. This was in Shillong around 15 km away from the city and the shor sharaba. The place is beautifully done up and kept. It belongs to a gentleman who is a khasi + bengali and married to a Mizo. The rooster which is a symbol of the Khasis who did not convert to Christianity but chose to practise penganism, is oft seen in the premise. The stay was to say the least luxurious and comfortable. The aching muscles after 6 days of continuous travel got some well deserved rest :)

Now in the lap of luxury in the serene environs, I thank God for all that we have. Life in the hills is tough. There is poor connectivity. Maruti alto 800 are popular private taxis, akin to the kaali peeli in Mumbai. Just one little difference. They can 'shove' over 10+adults into one and then ply over 2+ hrs on winding roads. 
The common folk around the state are simple, content people. They manage with their cows,hens and backyard squash, pumpkin, bottle gourd, pork, for a meal. Potatoes, radish, cabbage, bamboo, papaya, plantains, oranges, lemon, a citrus fruit a little smaller than the football, pears grow in plenty. When passing from one town to the other, we noticed many butcherie with freshly cut pigs. Even the kiranawala between towns only stock bare essentials. 

Do visit Meghalay before the hills are completely quarried and non existent, before the traffic stops moving completely and the adulterated fuel reaches unbearable proportions.

Places to stay - Iora resort (Assam)Russet home stay, Areca cottage, Maple Pine Farmstay at Mawphlang, Ri Kinjhai (Meghalaya)
Places to visit - Kaziranga national park, The Orchid Biodiversity Park at Durgapur, (both in Assam) Living root bridges at Mawlynong, The Sacred forest ie Nartiang, the cleanest village at Mawlynong, Water adventure activities at Mawlyngbna (Meghalaya)....this one is middle of nowhere. The roads to this place are too windy and rough patches.

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