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In the Clouds – Sikkim and Darjeeling

This post is the first in a series of long overdue updates documenting my travels between early December and now. At the end of my first semester in Delhi I crisscrossed the subcontinent, spent Christmas in Minnesota, and traveled with my dad for two weeks. Since January I had a visit from some colleagues/friends from MN which included three days spent in Nepal, went back to Ahmedabad and visited Udaipur, and most recently spent about a week in Istanbul, Turkey. This is an account of my first trip in the bunch.

After my first semester exams I traveled to Sikkim and Darjeeling with fellow Ambassadorial Scholar Emrys McMahon. Emrys met a Rotarian from Sikkim at a conference in Delhi and she invited us to visit and speak at their club, Rotary Club of Gangtok South. So we scheduled that and another visit to the Rotary Club of Darjeeling along with some sightseeing into a week long trip.

Sikkim is a state in the northeastern part of India. It did not become part of India until 1975, before which it was a sovereign kingdom. Wikipedia tells me it is India’s least populous state and the second-smallest next to Goa. It is bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. It’s culture is distinctly influenced by its neighbors and one notes the Nepalese and Tibetan flavor especially in the food, architecture, and style of dress. Things move a lot slower and the people are known for their hospitality. At times in the capitol city of Gangtok I felt like I had meandered into a Christmas village.

From Delhi we flew into a  small town called Bagdogra and from there took a local bus to Kalimpong, a town in West Bengal just south of the border into Sikkim. The next morning I woke up feeling like I was in a cloud. The valley below and hillsides on either side of my hotel were shrouded in a thick mist. I sat out on the balcony for an hour or so writing in my journal and talking on the phone with my brother Jon.

Kalimpong is in the foothills and feels like a small town so I was shocked when I consulted Lonely Planet and found out the city’s population is more than 40,000. I kept thinking, where do they put everyone? Before heading into Sikkim we visited a Buddhist monastery. I snapped a picture of these monks outside the monastery. When I saw them I wondered what they were talking about: their studies? history? a recent argument between two monks? a surprise birthday party? the weather?

We hired a taxi from Kalimpong and crossed the border into Sikkim that afternoon. Because of unique political circumstances, Sikkim and the seven states in India’s northeast have specific visit restrictions. Visitors to Sikkim must acquire a 15 day permit to enter the state. This transaction can be done easily at the border with a copy of your passport, Indian visa, and a couple passport photos.

We spent the next few days in the charming city of Gangtok. The Rotary Club of Gangtok South is quite a young club with a large age range. The Rotarians were incredibly warm and welcoming. Some of the younger club members took us out for dinner and drinks afterwards and we had fun sharing stories and even singing a few karaoke songs.

We rented a car one day to see the sights around the city. At a hilltop temple we caught a view of Kachenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. We stopped by the Gangtok Zoo and got a special tour from the zookeeper thanks to a Rotary connection. We arrived just in time to see the adorable red pandas (unique to the region) get their lunch. Emrys was incredibly excited to see the zoo’s snow leopard and tried unsuccessfully to convince the guard to let him into the enclosure so he could get a better picture.

After that we ventured to another Tibetan Buddhist monastery. It was a beautiful and peaceful place with prayer wheels everywhere. Buddhists use prayer wheels (below) and prayer flags (pictured above) to send up constant prayers for peace and an end to suffering in the world. Anyone is invited to spin the prayer wheels – in a clockwise direction – and offer up a prayer as they pass. It is believed that the colorful prayer flags, which were hung all over Sikkim, send prayers to the Universe as they blow in the breeze.

From Gangtok we made our way to Darjeeling by jeep. It was a lovely early morning drive down the foothills made even better by the Frank Sinatra album playing on my iPod. In Darjeeling we met another Rotary Club and exchanged flags, a tradition between Rotary Clubs around the world. We spent a lot of time drinking Darjeeling tea – it truly is “the champagne of teas” – at Glenary’s, a well known English style bakery on Darjeeling’s main street.

We saw more red pandas at the Darjeeling Zoo and made a second failed attempt to snap a closeup with Emrys and a snow leopard. We visited a fascinating mountaineering museum which documents the history of climbers on Mount Everest and the other highest peaks. It was remarkable to see old climbing equipment and read the inspiring and harrowing stories of the men and women from around the world who have risked or lost their lives to stand on top of the world.

It was a whirlwind trip, a brief but nonetheless eye opening visit to a part of India, Sikkim, that few tourists visit. I would recommend the area as a must-see for anyone visiting India for an extended period of time. On the flight back to Delhi I sat next to an Austrian guy who has done a lot of hiking in the area. We were on the right side of the plane, the right side to catch this stunning view of the Himalayas from the air.