Over the hills

Over the hills

Around 20 years ago, Pelling was a nondescript cluster of huts scattered like sesame seeds in between terraced rice fields somewhere in the hills of west Sikkim. Then, some adventurer discovered that this is the point from where Mt Kanchendzongha — that eternal beacon for the Bengali summer traveller — looks bigger and closer, almost within touching distance. And the inevitable happened.

Garden of Indra:(from top) The desolate Dubdi Monastery with a chorten (memorial) in the foreground; dancers waiting to go up on stage in Pelling; Buddhist monks solemnizing a wedding.

But if you are willing to overlook the shrill, non-stop chatter of the Bengali tourist, Pelling is a compelling halt in the exploration of West Sikkim. History, spirituality, anthropology, orchid-watching, trekking, mountain biking…take your pick, and Pelling delivers.

Driving in the hills, the journey is often more exciting than the destination. Past each bend, a new vista opens up — a fresh set of snow-covered peaks, plumes of feathery white cloud suspended around the top-most one like a halo. The mighty Kanchendzongha and its 15-odd sibling peaks rise and fall like rhythmscapes on a digital display board. In the foreground, the lesser ranges are adorned with strips of green and red earth. From a distance, terrace farms in the hills look like heads covered in tight corn-rows.

Prasad, nominally a Sikkim government education department employee and vocationally a tourist driver, is a talkaholic. He promptly assumes the double roles of pilot and tour guide and launches into a nature study lecture as he drives, completely oblivious of the fact that the road is under repair. In less than 5 minutes, he would have us believe that these hills are an invaluable repository of medicinal herbs, the panacea for all human conditions, including childlessness. “Those plants there with reddish leaves growing on the incline are cardamom…the small red round things are chillies…they call it fireballs here…they’re quite deadly…infallible cure if you suffer from gastric…you recognize the oranges, of course…want to try some? Go ahead and help yourselves…what’s one orange more or less? In peak season, they cover the ground like a carpet."

“Sure, Prasadji, but could you please keep your hands on the wheel while you are driving?"

“Oh, I have been doing these roads every day for 18 years now…See, I’ll take both my hands off the wheel…ha, ha." He stretches his arms wide, out of the window, as the car veers dangerously towards the edge. “This car is driven by the man up there, much like our lives are; it’s not in our hands," he chuckles, delighted at having told us a fact of life we always knew but were never so acutely conscious of.

Finally, realizing that both his jokes and his zest for herbal therapy are lost on us, humourless plains folk, Prasad takes out his mobile and begins chatting with a giggly female. The car wobbles over unmetalled stretches, its wheels get stuck and whir in the mud, and ride up slabs of stone piled up precariously by the roadside, but Prasad and his mobile seem conjoined from birth.

At Yuksom, suddenly a lot of green seems to ensnare us from all directions. At Coronation Throne, the site where the first Chogyal of Sikkim was crowned in 1641, golden light borne by the breeze rains on us through the leaves of a giant peepal tree. The memorial monument, a smaller version of the very familiar dome-and-spire structure of the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal, still towers over the seats of the three lamas who consecrated the coronation. A depression on the stone podium is supposedly the head lama’s footprint. But the site of Sikkim’s original capital seems totally bereft of human footprints of more recent origin. The palace lake — Karthoke, supposedly Sikkim’s oldest — is under severe threat from weeds and there isn’t an official in sight.

The 2km uphill trek to Dubdi Monastery — one of the oldest in Sikkim — is a real struggle. The road to the top seems to rise from the ground, almost at a right angle. As I huff and puff my way up, nimble-footed children and women out to fetch firewood overtake me, laughing at my lack of agility. Four yaks pass by with huge bundles of twigs on their backs, ringing the bells around their necks to keep the rhythm, and defecating on the way. The thought of what would happen if one of them stepped on their own poop and slipped drives me crazy. “Umm…it’s going to be a while before I am through," Prasad tells his friend on the phone. “The lady’s a bit slow going uphill."

Up in Dubdi, cloud cover engulfs us. The place — marked by the usual row of prayer flags, small residential cottages on stilts and gates with ornate curlicues on the top half of the pillars—is desolate. The monastery is locked. Dubdi, or “the retreat", was built at the time of the Chogyal’s coronation so that the spiritual gurus could live and meditate in peace. The bonus is supposed to be the fabulous view of the Yuksom valley on a clear day, but all we could see was a flashy red-and-gold building, owned by a kin of Bollywood actor Danny Denzongpa.

The way to the awesome Tashiding Monastery, which is supposed to cleanse the visitor of his sins, is being blasted when we reach there. A new road is being laid. Reconciled to the idea of living with our sins for some more time, we turn to go back. A confirmed votary of man’s ability to tame nature, Prasad is keen to take us to see Rangit hydel power project. But, on our way to the gorgeous machine which gulps down the green waters of the river by the millions of cusecs, we get waylaid by a wedding.

We walk under the blue, red and white silk sashes draped around the makeshift arch, gatecrashing shamelessly through the colourful marquees, past the rows of chhang (an alcoholic drink made from millet) in bamboo mugs, and crunchy finger food. In the ceremony room, a visibly cheerful bride and her slightly sombre groom sit with their closest friends as Buddhist monks seated in order of seniority chant verses and sound the gong.

When the head priest begins to hand out pieces of chocolate to members of the gathering, we get up to leave. It is sweet but a bit of a let-down, particularly after having seen miles and miles of chhang lined up in bamboo containers.


How to go:

By air: Jet Airways offers economy return tickets for Delhi from Rs2,950, plus taxes, and Rs1,400, plus taxes, from Kolkata. From Siliguri, 18km from the airport, hire a taxi (Rs175 per person on a share basis; Rs1,500-1,700 if you want to have it to yourselves) to drive to Pelling in six hours on a good day.

By rail: Several overnight trains run between Kolkata and Siliguri every day. A berth in AC tier III costs around Rs600.

Where to stay:

There are some 100 hotels in Pelling, from the relatively high-end Norbu Ghang Resort (03593 258272) to budget places such as Sikkim Tourist Centre (03593 250855), where a double-bed room would cost around Rs500 per night. For more peace and quiet, try the trekkers’ huts at Yuksom or next to the Khecheopalri Lake, the lone tourist lodge in Pemayangtse or Mt Pandim (03593 250756), located on a hilltop across the monastery.

Where to eat:

For local food — piping hot, delicious steamed momos with chicken, pork or vegetable stuffing, washed down with a heart-warming glass of ‘chhang’ — try the roadside eateries in Pelling and in the Yuksom bazaar area. ‘Thukpa’ — a filling broth with noodles, vegetables and meat — makes for a good supper. The government-run tourist information centre in Upper Pelling has a restaurant serving authentic local food. The Sikkim Tourist Centre’s rooftop eatery is a safe option, serving up regular fare like dal-chawal.

What to do:

Depends on what attracts you most — heritage, local culture or adventure. If it is the last, you could go on a 32km trek from Yuksom to Dzongri, or go white-water rafting. History-seekers and the spiritually inclined could visit the Pemayangtse Monastery. The other must-sees include the Rabdentse palace ruins, Tashiding Monastery, Dubdi Monastery, Kanchendzongha waterfall, Khecheopalri Lake, etc.

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