Sunday, May 26 8pm, Pemayangtse (Peling), Sikkim
Leaving our very modest hotel – which was similar in comfort to the trekker huts, the innkeepers were very kind. Fresh greens for the cook, good luck flowers for us, incense burning and we’re off to the next stop in the company 4 wheel drive. Two hours of difficult driving later we reached the point where we started the trek. We were amazed that the loose rubble we had to scramble up was not a beautiful paved path! Later we hit a piece of metal and damaged a tire, so we had to switch to a spare. We continued all the way back to Darjeeling where we dropped off the last of our trekking crew, had a lunch and a beer, exchanged money and got a sweater for Tao. In Darjeeling we saw several huge Buddhist parades with Lamas in yellow caps, long horns, drums of many descriptions, images of Buddha inside a shrine carried by men holding long poles on either side, hundreds of people, each with a slab of sacred scripture wrapped in cloth with a wood panel on top and bottom and a cord holding it all together. School children in uniform chanting Buddhist prayers. There was also a Muslim parade later in the day with lots of chanting. Muslims believe Mohammad was born on this day. Buddhists believe Buddha was born on this day. In the us we call it Wesak, but they have a different name for it here. It is always the first full moon in May. As we drive through the mountains we saw other parades as well. Heading now to Sikkim, we went down a long winding road all the way to a river which was the border of Sikkim. Along the way we saw many bamboo groves. Some had trunks 6-8 inches wide. So far on this trip our vehicle has stopped for camels, cows, sheep, water buffalo, goats, dogs, horses and now small pigs. We crossed the border bridge. Dawa took our passports and some papers he had and got our passage in Sikkim approved. We had a bit to eat at a small hotel while Gopal refueled the 4-wheel. An invasion of 30 tourists from Bombay turned the quiet, deserted place into a loud, hopping had house. On we go. We drive up a riverside on the best road we’ve seen for over a week. There are even a few crews working on it on this special Sunday holiday. Lots of young boys get involved with the road building here. Do you know how they make crushed rock here? I’ve mostly seen women doing it. You find a big, relatively flat boulder, place the rock to be crushed on top of it, then if you have such a tool, you place this tool that has a handle and a strip of 2 inch high metal running in a circle about the size of a plate, then beat the small rock with a small sledge hammer until the right size is made. We talked with Dawa about the Maoists in Nepal. He said the royal family there has long neglected the people and their basic needs (transportation, water, schools, health care) and that they have stayed in power through a network of corrupt regional and local officials. The Maoists have the support of the people and are fighting for helping the poor people of Nepal. As we start going back up a mountain it begins to get dark. By the time we get to the road leading to the monastery we were to visit, we decide to hold off and do it tomorrow morning. We reach the hotel in Peling and settle in. We have gotten very stiff and sore. Charlotte can barely go up or down steps. She gave away the boots that caused her so much trouble on the trek. We also gave away some white Burkenstocks that weren’t working for Luke. The hotel has hot water! We take our first shower in 5 or 6 days. They also have a newspaper. The news seems like nothing we need to worry about for now. We had a good night sleep and wake to the sound of gentle rain about 4:30am.
Monday, May 27 10:30am, Peling, Sikkim
We rode out a long way to a sacred wishing lake after breakfast. We found that some of the Peling monks do their 3 year, 3 month and 3 day retreat in the caves near the lake. We each throw a coin into the lake with our wish. "May all friends live together in harmony." "May Charlotte and Luke take the second and third initiations during this incarnation". The lake is treated like a monastery in that shoes are removed before walking onto the dock out over the water. The prayer flags here were beautiful. It has begun raining so we headed back to where the 4-wheel was. Along the drive to the lake, like everywhere we go, we see small groups of school children walking to or from school. We just learned that some of these children have to trek up or down these roads two hours or more each way every day to reach school. Many children, specially the young ones are too tired to concentrate on their studies after such a hike. So this is a very big regional problem. We see no school busses anywhere. After returning to Peling to pick up a box lunch for the long drive later in the day, we go to the Pemayangtse monastery. We arrive just as the monks are saying their chanting their morning prayers before lunch. As elsewhere in this part of the world, the monks just take 1 meal of donated food and eat nothing after mid-day. We also take some back stairs through a barely noticeable ordinary door, go up 2 floors to a very large square room. It has beautiful tantric art painted on all the walls and in the center is a huge carving made from a single tree that took more than 5 years to make. The different levels of the carving represent the different Buddhist realms from the Hell realms at the bottom to the heavenly realms at the top. This monastery also is believed to be along the path Padmasambava took in the 6th century as he traveled from India to bring Buddhism to Tibet. Leaving the monastery we take a very long ride most of the day deeper into Sikkim to the capital of Gangtok. Here we will be only about 40 miles from Tibet. We will be spending the night at Martham Village Resort and have a small cabin to stay in. Charlotte is still very stiff and needs help with steps more so going down that up. There are about 80 rock steps between our cabin and dinner. The place is full – it seems like a conference of Sikkim tourism officials. We watched a promotional CD they made. Dawa talked us into trying a bamboo beer, or ‘chung" as they call it here. It is served in a large bamboo like cask with a tall bamboo straw. On top of the cask you see it filled with roasted millet and some raw rice. Hot water is poured into the cask and 5 minutes later it is ready to drink. When you finish you just reload it with more hot water. We did that 4 times and determined we were "chunged". The food here was very good. The power went out, but within 60 seconds they had a generator running and most everything back to normal. We had run out of working batteries for our camera just before arriving here and had trouble getting our voltage converter working so we could charge more batteries, but here we were able to get it working and charged two sets of batteries. Forgot to mention something about the trek. We were talking to a European girl afterwards and she had a large sore on her neck where a leach had been. Dawa later told us he had gotten two leaches on his legs that last day. The leaches drop off branches and attach themselves but are subtle to feel. They suck blood but that too is subtle. It is only when they drop off that they leave a burning sensation and you know you’ve been leached. Charlotte also wanted me to mention that she came upon the worst outhouse yet today after touring the lake. Shit everywhere. She couldn’t use it.
Tuesday, May 28 7am, Anola Hotel, Gangtok, Sikkim
Our first stop yesterday was at Rumtek monastery. This is the first monastery we have seen from the black hat sect. This is the lineage whose head person is a Karmapa. A few years ago, the most recently reincarnated Karmapa, a 15 year old boy under house arrest by the Chinese in Tibet somehow escaped to India and now lives in Dharmasala with the Dalai Lama. Next we drove into Gangtok and went right to the Institute of Tibetology. Here they had good explanations of all the saints of Tibetan Buddhism. We also saw a large and beautiful "Wheel of Life" tulku (wall hanging). We toured a craft center of Sikkim handicrafts and saw needlework, weaving, painting and carving. We also visited an old monastery (Enchey Monastery) from 1900. At the hotel, we left our things and went out to find a cyber café. We were able to exchange some e-mail. We spent a quiet evening at the hotel. Gangtok has a busier feel to it than other places we’ve been since Calcutta. I’ve been watching people in the mountains trying to gain more insight into living a life of harmlessness. The most gentle people, speak little, usually move slowly with an economy of movement and most of their actions are in some way very practical or related to helping those around them. A very simple, uncomplicated life. As other influences gain power you see subtle changes. Instead of sitting and waiting, one might throw rocks to pass the time. Instead of walking down a path and brushing away limbs, one might break off small branches. Instead of looking at passing vehicles and passengers or smiling, one might yell something or try to get a reaction from the driver. I haven’t seen any signs here that were mean spirited and watching children I see some teasing but not much. Here in Gangtok with its cacophony of sounds, assault of signs, thickness of diesel and other smells, I see the same expressions on faces that you see in most cities world wide. Charlotte started out saying Namaste to a few people, but after getting no response, gave up. This morning we got all our dirty laundry rounded up from the trek, etc. and will get it all cleaned. We go north from here to see two more monasteries. Tried to catch a bit of game 5 of the NBA Western Conference Finals this morning but the cable has been out for all but about one minute.
Thursday, May 30, Gangtok, Sikkim
We spent a good part of yesterday traveling way north of the city to visit two monasteries. On the way we saw a lot of military people and at one point heard 100’s of rounds of practice rifle shooting. We reached a peaceful place and stopped to look at a monument. It was the place where in 1680 the Tibetans looking for the ‘valley of rice’ signed a n agreement to respect the tribal lands of the Lepcha people. Eventually the Lepcha people married into other ethnic groups and the quiet, peaceful mountain culture disappeared. The first monastery was of the black hat sect. Monks who finished their training here, went on to the main monastery at Rumtek. The 2nd monastery, further up a rocky path, is a monastery closely devoted to Padmasambava. This is one location where monks can go for the 3 year, 3 month, 3 day retreat.
We traveled across a huge rock slide area going and coming and people were actively engaged in repairing the road. Here I saw the first bulldozer so far on the trip. Along the roads there are a lot of witty sayings about driving safely. The army places these signs and does much to maintain the road system. In 1998 there was an unusually strong monsoon season that destroyed roads everywhere around here. After returning to Gangtok we spent a little time in a cyber café, exchanging email messages. Then we went to cash a travelers check. Couldn’t get it done. We did find an ATM and luckily guessed our never before used PIN# to get some cash which we will need for tipping Dawa and Gopal later today. We also saw a good use of hydro power today along the streams coming down from the mountains. They are using the water to turn huge 8 foot tall and 5 foot wide prayer wheels. We’ve spun a lot of prayer wheels – they must be turned clockwise. Gangtok is not really set up for foreign tourists.In Darjeeling there were great shops with the kind of items that would be good mementos for a trip there. Here there is nothing like that. We got to eat Tibetan bread this morning. It is like a thick, cakier japati. Wish we had a tape recorder. In the cities, the sounds are a big part of the experience. Lots of auto and horn sounds as well as people noises.
Friday, May 31 7:15am, Anand Hotel, Jaigoan, India (on border of Bhutan)
After an hour drive, we made it down the mountain to a large river. We saw a lot of monkeys on the way. We kept following a river out of Sikkim and eventually came to a huge delta area. I could see how a heavy monsoon season could flood the entire area. We ate our box lunches in the car as it was raining heavily. Charlotte gave what she couldn’t eat to a poor man that approached the car. An hour later we were at the border town to Bhutan – still in the lowlands. The power was off several times in our hotel, but we mostly slept. I had a hard time sleeping with the noisy fan. Charlotte saw huge cockroaches scurrying around so she closed up all our backpacks. In the morning we found two of the critters dying on the floor. We also found the hotel lobby had been turned into a parking lot overnight. Most places here don’t have toasters, so when you order toast you get bread that’s been grilled in a pan. We met our Bhutan guide Kinlay and Bhutan driver, Norbu and arranged to meet them at 7:30am India time. Bhutan time is 30 minutes different.