Sleepless in Sikkim

Mamta Dalal

© Copyright 2010 by Mamta Dalal

Photo of Kanchenjunga at daybreak.

Excitement was in the air. After all, Nimish and I were planning for the big trip. Our first vacation, coinciding with our first marriage anniversary. One couldn’t have asked for a better way to celebrate the occasion. The two of us alone, away from the humdrum of the city life, work pressures, tight deadlines, and family responsibilities. What fun it would be! To make it all the more exciting, we decided we would go in for a distant yet affordable destination. After days of research, debating, and more research, we finally zeroed in on Sikkim.

Situated in one of the remote corners of India, the state of Sikkim is home to the third highest peak in the whole world - the mighty Kanchenjunga (also called Khangchendzonga). It is also home to warm and hospitable people, who still retained a childlike innocence, untouched by the cynicism that colors city life. Sikkim is also renowned for some of the most exotic species of orchids in the world.

We were going there in May, at the height of summer, but our research told us to expect heavy showers, thunderstorms, and a chill climate. Considering that we were literally sweating it out in Mumbai with temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius, this promise of a “chill climate” raised the excitement quotient several degrees higher.

Soon, all was set for the trip. We applied for eight days’ leave at our respective jobs. Flight fares being astronomically high, we settled for train journeys from Mumbai to Sikkim. A train would take us from Mumbai to Howrah (Kolkata) where, after a brief halt and a quick breakfast, we would board another train that would take us to New Jalpaiguri. From NJP, as it was popularly called, it was just a matter of a four-hour taxi ride to Siliguri which was the entry point to Sikkim.

Train journeys in India are an eclectic mix of many things. You will observe never ending streams of vendors hawking wares such as cheap plastic toys, key chains, hot tea, spicy savories, and the like from coach to coach. Besides, the panoramic vistas that can be seen through train windows are a delight for eyes that have been staring at monitor screens day in and day out.

Nimish and I settled in our train seats, to experience our first train journey as a couple. 40 hours after we’d left Mumbai, we reached Siliguri. Sikkim was just four hours away now! But it was late night already and our long journey had left us exhausted. We looked forward to a bath and a bed. When you travel in a train for more than 20 hours, sitting and sleeping on barely comfortable train berths, even a simple, no-frills bed can bring heavenly bliss.

The next morning, we went down to a nearby restaurant for breakfast. Our time in Siliguri was dreadfully short but we attempted to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of the place as best as we could. The first thing we noticed - the commonly used means of transport were cycle rickshaws, driven by wiry young men.  It seemed like these young men had superhuman strength, carrying not just men and women but lot of cargo on their vehicles relying only on pedal power.

Though we felt like insensitive jerks by sitting on one, we had no choice because there were hardly any other means of transport to be seen. So, cringing inwardly and praying for the Lord to give the young man more strength, we hopped on. We intended to start our Sikkim sojourn with Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. So our immediate destination now was the bus terminal where we would find about buses to Gangtok.  We booked advance tickets at the terminal for a mid morning departure.

Since Siliguri is very close to Gangtok, the food habits of people in both the cities were quite similar. A spicy vegetable and noodle soup called Thukpa and steamed stuffed dumplings called momos are quite popular in these regions.

Unlike the stereotypes seen in books and movies, the people here didn’t wear traditional costumes on a daily basis, but dressed like regular people everywhere else. The only features that distinguished them were their small eyes, thickset faces, and ruddy complexions. The latter could be attributed to the cold climate here.

Back at the hotel, we checked out and paid our bills. We hoped to be back in this same hotel in five day’s time after our Sikkim tour, because we were pleased with its ambience and service. But destiny, the master gamer that she is, had other plans for us.

We were on our way to the bus terminal again, precariously perched on a rickety cycle-rickshaw, our heavy bags piled on our laps when it happened. The vehicles ahead braked to an abrupt halt, causing our rickshaw to brake too. The sudden braking caught me unawares and before I knew it, I was soaring up in air and the next moment landed on hard ground in sharp pain.

As I tried to rise, I felt a sharp shooting pain in the left arm from the wrist to the elbow. In seconds, the whole forearm was swelling up. By then, Nimish and the rickshaw driver had reached me and lifted me up. Nimish rushed me off to the nearest hospital on the other side of the road. However it turned out to be only an X-ray center. So, we got the X rays done and were directed to another hospital. Somehow, we managed to find another means of transport and reached there. The doctor pronounced the injury to be a wrist fracture and insisted on a surgery at the earliest.

Both Nimish and I were numbed by the sudden turn of events. Needless to say, the mid-morning bus to Gangtok left without us, while we waited tensely at the hospital. The surgery would take place at 6 pm so the doctor had me admitted there. He wanted me to stay at the hospital for at least two to three days but I politely refused. I said I would take good care but wouldn’t stay overnight and preferred to be discharged sometime after the surgery.

Nimish and I had a hard time convincing the doctors to let me leave the same night. But, eventually we succeeded, and three hours after the surgery, we were out of the hospital. While I’d been in the hospital, Nimish had checked us back in to the same hotel so that we had some place to go to. He demonstrated amazing courage and thoughtfulness that day, despite being devastated by my accident. He was not only cool and level-headed, thus helping me to be strong, he also took care of various little things that I wouldn’t have been able to do, had I been in his place.

The effect of anesthesia was wearing off, but I still felt numb in the hand which was now wrapped in a thick cast. While in bed that night, I pondered over the day’s events. Nimish suggested we return back home next morning so that my hand could get some good rest and care. But I couldn’t agree to that. Instead, I made a strong decision. I was not going to let my accident spoil our vacation any further. Yes, we’d lost a day, but we still had few more days to go.  Yes, my hand was in a cast and by tomorrow, it would pain terribly, but I was willing to endure that. I knew how eagerly Nimish’d been looking forward to visiting Sikkim and to think that we travelled all this distance for nothing was unimaginable to me. Seeing my determination, Nimish had no choice but to give in to my new plans.

In the morning right after breakfast, we pre-booked a hotel in Gangtok through a travel agent in Siliguri. Then two hours later, we boarded a shared jeep (all the buses had left by then) that would take us to Gangtok. There was already a light shower by then so the roads were wet and the trees looked greener than ever.

As we left Siliguri behind, the landscape grew to be serene and beautiful. A mist covered mountain could be seen in the distance. Then, as the road began winding its way up the hillside, we caught a glimpse of a river down below. Soon, we could see it clearly. All through our ride, the river stayed with us, sometimes as strong rapids, and sometimes as a placid stream. Much later, we would learn that this river was the Teesta, one of the biggest rivers in the state of Sikkim. The total length of the river is estimated to be 315 kilometers (kms). It branches out into several tributaries within the state.

Sometime after we left Siliguri, we passed by an old but brilliantly built bridge. This bridge, we learnt, is the Coronation Bridge, also known as the Sevoke Bridge.  Built in the 1930’s, its name commemorates the coronation of King George V.

At one point, the river had very strong rapids, which is perhaps why a few enterprising young men had set up shop there advertising white water rafting. Occasionally, our jeep passed through some steep gorges with dense jungles on either side of them.

It was past dusk when we reached Gangtok and by then my injured hand was clamoring for attention. But it wasn’t about to get that just yet. There were more nasty surprises in store. Our pre-booked hotel turned out to be a disaster with shabby rooms, so we had to now hunt for another hotel. Luckily, it didn’t take too long, though it did take quite some effort for the hunt.

By the time we were finally ensconced in a room, I was exhausted to the core and nearing collapse point. I didn’t regret my decision to come to Gangtok but I hadn’t anticipated the fatigue that would result because of the arduous ride.

A hot sumptuous meal did a lot to restore my spirits. We noticed that none of the hotels in Sikkim had ceiling fans and now that we were settled in our room after the meal, the reason for the lack of fans finally dawned upon us. The weather was cold all the year through, thus eliminating the need for fans. In fact, that night it was so chilly that instead of May, it felt like December.

In the morning, after a hearty breakfast, we hired a cab that would take us on a short whirlwind sightseeing spree. We began with Hanuman Tok.  Located at a distance of little more than five kms, Hanuman Tok stands at a height of some hundreds feet above the Gangtok city. It is a temple devoted to Lord Hanuman, a revered deity among Hindus. It is said to offer spectacular views of the majestic Kanchenjunga.

En route to the temple, we saw colorful little cloth flags tied up on poles. These cloth banner-flags are prayer flags used to promote peace, compassion, strength, and wisdom. They typically come in sets of five, one in each of five colors. The five colors represent the elements - sound, air, fire, earth, and water. From there on, we moved onto Ganesh Tok, barely ten minutes away. It is a small temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh. The view from the temple site was beautiful. I was hoping fervently to catch a glimpse of the magnificent Kanchenjunga but it was not to be. All we could see was misty blurry mountains around us due to the cloudy weather.

I made small talk with the priest at the temple and asked him if we could sight Kanchenjunga somehow. He shook his head saying it was too cloudy and it was unlikely we would see it during the week, let alone today. Still, the view around us was fabulous in its own way and we felt grateful for having made it this far.

At Ganesh Tok, we also found two men renting out traditional ethnic Sikkimese outfits for the purpose of getting pictures clicked in them. These garments were rich in color and design, soft to touch, looked very elegant and ethnic. They could be worn right on top of our clothes, for they were in the form of wraparound tunics and jackets. Both Nimish and I wore two of these ourselves. The picture that we got clicked in these costumes is one of our best pictures of that trip.

Our next stop was Tashi View Point, built by the late King of Sikkim, Tashi Namgyal. It is barely four kms away from Gangtok town. Again, like Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok,  one is supposed to find clear views of Kanchenjunga from this spot, but luck was not in our favor. There was a small shop selling knick knacks and souvenirs. We bought two small cloth wall hangings depicting Sikkimese painting.

By now, light showers had begun so we had to abandon plans of further sightseeing. The mountain roads were treacherous in the rains and we already had one member with a broken wrist. On our return route back to the hotel, though, we came upon a sight that took our collective breath away. It was an exquisitely made waterfall, with water cascading down elegantly like pure white draperies.

With that, our little whirlwind jaunt came to an end. After returning back to the hotel, we rested some. Then, we went out for an evening walk. The main town road of Gangtok is called M. G. Marg, short for Mahatma Gandhi Marg. A road is called marg in many Indian dialects. Most Indian cities and towns have an M.G Road in them, but this is perhaps one of the only cities to have the road named as  M.G Marg.

In the evening, this road in Gangtok is chockfull of tourists taking a leisurely stroll or looking out for some good shopping. The streets are clean and tidy, unlike in other capitals. It has numerous hotels, shops, restaurants, and the like.

That night during dinner at one of the restaurants, we heard that a three-day strike was going to begin in the hilly regions including Sikkim and Siliguri. We talked to some of the locals who advised us to return back to Siliguri at the earliest because once the strike began, there was no telling if we would get any transport to return. Abandoning all further plans of sightseeing, we planned to return to Siliguri early next morning. The bus to Siliguri, we were told, would leave as early as 5 am, which meant that we had to be up by at least 4 am. This being our last night at Sikkim, we decided not to sleep much at all.

At around 4 am, we got ready and packed up to leave. On an impulse, I threw aside the curtains of the windows to have one last glimpse of the view outside. The skies were already bright, for the unearthly hour of 4 am. To my great amazement, I saw a sight I’ll never forget my entire life. Holy cow! It was the Kanchenjunga!! That elusive mountain range which we’d been so desperate to catch a glimpse of.

The mountain wasn’t completely visible but just peeking out from behind the other hills that we’d seen the previous day. While these hills looked plain green, the Kanchenjunga was lit up like liquid gold. Its jagged surface was bathed with sunlight in a manner as to give it the appearance of a golden mountain.

If just a tiny peek of this mountain could inspire so much awe and jaw-dropping amazement, what would we feel if we saw the entire mountain up close? I voiced this thought aloud and both Nimish and I shuddered. It was too much for us to imagine at the moment.

We felt deliriously happy at having sighted the famed mountain at last, just in time before our departure. The bus ride back to Siliguri was uneventful, lost as we were in our thoughts. From Siliguri, we booked flights back to Mumbai because in my condition, a 40 hour train journey was impossible. Even after we boarded our flight, it seemed that our journey wasn’t going to be smooth, for our aircraft developed a technical snag and we had to wait for an hour or more to have it rectified. Eventually, the flight took off and finally, we were back home. Once we were back, treatment of the hand took over all our attention and time. Three months on, the hand is yet to recover fully. For three months now, pain has become a constant companion.

In retrospect, though, we feel glad to have achieved our dream of visiting Sikkim, notwithstanding all that which had happened. Anytime we feel low, all we need to do is recall to mind the breathtaking sight of the Kanchenjunga and we feel instantly cheered up.

Though upsetting, the accident and its aftermath haven’t scarred us for life.  Nimish and I have resolved to make another trip to Sikkim someday, hopefully with better experiences, and an even better view of the majestic Kanchenjunga.

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