Monday, 20 January 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 3

Continued from Part 2.

 Day 4: Gangtok to Ravangla

“When the wind calls, you know, that somewhere in the mountains,
it has found the answers that you were looking for.
The pull of the horizon overcomes the inertia of reason…And you just have to go.”
(Vikram Oberoi)

We started for Ravangla at 10 Am next day after having a good breakfast. The two Nepali boys who served us during our stay in Green Park never displayed any facial expression to anything good or bad said to them. They were so quick with the food service that we hoped that it was not a couple of ghosts we were dealing with…you know like the ones we used to read as kids. While accepting the tip also it was the same expressionless face just a slight nod of the head. We had got used to it so we bade them goodbye and began our journey.

Sikkim is a place where you simply can’t come and say that you have seen it all. A few steps ahead, maybe just by the corner of the hairpin bend or by the side of the Dhupi tree an unassuming mountain waterfall might just surprise you.

For Ravangla we had to go from one mountain to another. It is 65 Kms from Gangtok. Ravangla is better known as Rabong locally. First we came down the mountain from Gangtok and then rose to almost 6000 feet with more dense forest and beautiful scenery along the way as we rose higher and higher. The temperature difference was remarkable as we came closer to Ravangla. On the way we stopped at a roadside food shack to freshen up and have some food. It was a pure Sikkimese thatched hut with 4 long tables, many chairs, a small counter and a TV playing Tom & Jerry. Most of the tables were occupied by local people enjoying a plate of momo or parathas while watching the cartoon. We shared a table with an old lady having her food. It was almost 12 PM and lunch time for them. We ordered Chicken Momo. Our driver also had his meal while we waited for our momo. It is a general observation all through our stay that local drivers would always take you to Sikkimese joints rather than the ones run by people from Bengal or elsewhere maybe because they only ate cuisine known to them and not rice and fish curry like most Bengalis do. This driver also told us stories that many people died or became possessed when they ate food at any random joints other than the ones which are “safe”. Well that didn’t scare us for sure.

Anyway when our momos arrived we noticed that it was not the one that others were having. When I asked this to the lady serving the food she said those were beef momos. The food was okayish nothing to compare with what we had at Chetris hotel.

The driver pointed to a hill top and informed us that it was the famous Temi Tea garden. Temi was not on our planned itinerary. We had decided that if we feel and time permits we will push that into our itinerary while travelling to Asangthang- the last destination of our trip. We had two sightseeing planned for the day in Ravangla.
Bridge for passing water pipe

We reached Ravangla at about 1 PM. Perched on a narrow ridge between the Meanam and Tendong hills at a height of 6800 ft, it’s a quaint idyllic town situated on either side of an L shaped road. Our Hotel Reegyal was at the town’s main traffic junction but we were going to check into the hotel once we completed the local sightseeing. We passed the hotel and main market area and drove towards the end of the city. From far we could see a huge golden Buddha statue against the landscape, it was the Buddha Park our driver informed.  It was pretty overcast that day and cold winds accompanied us everywhere. We crossed the Buddha park which looked very majestic against the clouds seeping down the hills and kept going upward. The driver cautioned us that the roads leading to Ralong Monastery were going to be bad. How bad – we discovered soon enough. 13kms from Ravangla, the serpentine roads leading to the monastery is dangerously scenic. Scenic because you go through a dense beautiful forest of coniferous trees, couple of waterfalls, an interesting hanging bridge to support the water pipe, hide seek of light and dark and chilly mountain air. And dangerous because the monsoon had left the mountain road all broken and pebbled. There are a couple of hairpin bends where loose pebbles are all you have in the name of road with one side of the road opening into the valley several thousand feet below. Our Maruti Omni gallantly made through all the obstacles shaking like an rolling empty tin. Though my mom was pretty scared I decided to enjoy the nature instead, after all we were never going to do this twice. It felt like we were driving for ages through the clouds and mist. Whenever we asked the driver how long it is going to be, he would say just three more bends. That three turned into thirteen and soon into thirty but we still kept driving. Finally we gave up asking him. There was not a single soul apart form us on that road which was adding to the scare factor, but we lived through it. Finally what appeared like a light year to us, the driver pointed out to a yellow roof on the diagonally opposite mountain and proclaimed that it was the Ralong Monastery. It was good news for us, because finally we knew we were on the right path and that he was not kidnapping us. The sight of the monastery also made our driver energetic and he drove twice faster. After like 10 more minutes of drive we reached the premises of Ralong Monastery.

The Buddha Statue
Ralong Monastery : The moment we stepped down it was pure bliss. Extreme cold winds greeted us. We wrapped our shawls and jackets tightly and made way towards the Monastery. The Monastery is surrounded by green mountains on three sides. There is a big open area in front of the main entrance, where the monks perform the Kagyed and Mahakala dance on auspicious days. Many young monks were playing football and cricket on the slopes of the surrounding mountain. Ralang Monastery portrays the true spiritual side of Sikkimese people and is regarded as the one amongst the most significant and most consecrated monasteries of Sikkim. The monastery is very well kept and clean. The big golden doors are beautiful. Unlike Rumtek there were no guards or military people guarding the entrance. Only the solitude of the monastery amidst the misty clouds and beautiful nature. The Monastery was built to commemorate the successful pilgrimage of the fourth Chogyal to Tibet.Actually there is a legend behind the establishment of this monastery. The legend says that when the fourth Chogyal returned from his pilgrimage (Tibet), Karmapa performed the 'Rabney' (traditional blessing). Following the rituals, he tossed some grains from the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet (the main seat of Karmapa). The grains fell at the site, where Ralang Monastery is standing today.

The main prayer hall
The entrance Door knob & Prayer Hall
Monastery Premises
The monks quarters are built surrounding the main building which was three stories high. Beautifully done in traditional colors of white, yellow and red, the main prayer building looked pretty against the backdrop. As in every monastery the walls here were also bedecked with intricate fresco in lively colors. We entered the huge prayer hall. We were the only ones in there. Towering Thangkas, huge cymbals, trumpets and gongs were placed along the hall. The main Golden Buddha statue was very grandiose. The face was made up of real gold and had royal blue mesmerizing eyes. This was the best Buddha statue that I had seen till date. Photography is never allowed in any monastery but the statue was so beautiful that I could not help but take some pictures of the Buddha discreetly. But one of the monks in the adjacent rooms came out mostly because he heard camera clicks and told us that we were allowed to take pictures here. i was so happy that I brought out my DSLR and began clicking pictures to my heart's content. The monk was very candid and also showed us around explaining everything. There were beautiful coloured wax sculptures of owls and other things which we saw in every monastery. The monk informed us that those were made by the monks themselves and were burnt during the festivals. He also took us inside the room where several monks were busy creating another wax sculpture. They were delighted when we praised their work of art. We spent some more time inside the prayer hall and then made our way back. The people and place both charmed us and the long and tension filled journey seemed worth every penny.
Inside the main prayer hall
Monks preparing the Wax statues
Two Monks
The weather was becoming more and more beautiful as the time passed. Night fell early in the hills so even at 3 PM it felt like evening. The clouds were closing in gradually. The backward journey seemed shorter, even the driver also agreed to it, mostly because all the while we were discussing about the beautiful monastery and didn't notice the time. It was past 3 PM when we reached the next destination of Ravangla - The Buddha Park.

The entrance of Buddha Park

Sakyamuni Buddha
Buddha Park: When the plan was being made I was pretty skeptical about visiting a man made park but on way to Ralong Monastery when we had a glimpse of the park from the road it intrigued me. The park is very big and can be entirely seen from the road outside. There is a beautiful paved sidewalk along the road where you can just stand and admire the Buddha from road itself.
Buddha Park
View around Buddha Park

We left the car outside and walked down the winding road to the entrance of the park. Everything about the park is grand including the entrance. Intricate Sikkimese designs in bright color adore the gate. Some facts that we caught up on way - The Buddha Park is also known as Tathagata Tsal. It was constructed in 2006-2013 and the main highlight is a 130 ft high statue of Sakyamuni Buddha as its centerpiece. After paying an entry fee of Rs. 50 we entered the park. At the entrance there was a memento store, classy sitting areas and washrooms. The entire 23 acres of the park is very pretty. A long flight of stairs takes you down into the main park area. The moment you step inside the park you would feel like you have entered the heaven. On both side of the path leading to the central building, there are speakers playing a beautiful and soothing chant of Om Mani Padme hum. The echoing chants immediately makes you relax and tune in with the religious environment. This particular feeling has to be actually felt to know what I am referring to. Beautifully laid out manicured lawns on different levels along the slope of the hill surrounds the central building.
Paved Walkways around Buddha Park

I recorded the entire walk from the stairs to the central building. There is a small fountain in-between where its interesting to look at the way the water is timed. And at times a mist of water if sprayed around to create a feeling of cloud. We kept on walking towards the main building. Again a flight of stairs leads up the the entrance. Its a round structure, wide pathways surround the main hall. And in front of the entry door huge beautiful concrete dishes containing water are present. It's said if you tossed a coin into the water and made a wish it would be fulfilled.We saw many coins inside the water. The statue height is 95 ft and base height is 33 ft. We entered this base area which had paintings depicting Buddha's life. But it was not any ordinary painting. Every wall had two level of painting but there was no demarcation between the two. You need to view the part of the painting at your eye level. The entire life story of Buddha unfolds as you walk up the slanting spiral way starting from his birth to death. When you reach the first floor then you see the second level of painting. Such an innovative way of utilizing space and making it interesting for the tourist who wont stop till he connects the last painting to the entire set of painting. Its like watching a movie. Just Beautiful! Hat's off to the creative mind behind the design. We repeated the entire walk again just to absorb every bit of the experience once again. After spending some more time we came outside.

The wishing bowl
Next we walked all around the main building round the paved are. Hundreds of prayer flags were put up along the walkway which were fluttering silently with the passing wind. The air was heavy with the continuous melodious chime of "Om Mani Padme hum". While walking we observed the mountain diagonal to the park, it was the same mountain we had traveled through to reach Ralong Monastery. Now slowly whipped cream like thick clouds were cascading down the mountain slopes like lava erupting from a volcano and engulfing everything behind it. Sent  shiver down my spine thinking that just sometime ago we were there only. Again only one description came to my mind about the scenery unfolding before me - Dangerously Beautiful. Mother Nature  always paints the best masterpiece, each exquisite from the other whenever given a chance. Sad in a city she hardly gets that chance!

The clouds gradually were beginning to spread its arms around the park as well. Hence we started to come down. On way we saw an observatory kind of Building which was closed. By the time we reached the gate of the park the backdrop of the park had become completely white. It was a tiring walk back as you have to climb a lot of steps. But since nature is so enjoyable you don't feel bad.
The Jhal Muri Wala outside
We came out of the park and from the side walk took pictures of the park at wide angle. There were a couple of vendors selling " Jhal Muri" (spicy fluffed rice) on the sidewalk. We went to one of them and ordered for jhal muri. As he prepared the snacks he chatted about from where all he got the ingredients - something from Bihar, something from Orissa, something from Bengal but there was nothing from Sikkim! We lightly joked about it and he too joined in. A crowd had gathered by then to witness the exchange.  We took our snacks and bade a final goodbye to Buddha Park.

Ravangla is such a small little hamlet but these two beautiful places in and around have made it all the more beautiful and significant tourist spot.

It was past 4PM when we  reached our Hotel. Hotel Reegyal is located at a vantage point just at the traffic junction of Ravangla. We got a room facing the signal and overlooking the valley. It was the best view believe me. Sikkim is the only place from where you are supposed to be able to see mount Kanchenjung and its ranges wherever you look. But unfortunately for us apart from the hotel in Gangtok, we couldn't catch a glimpse of the majestic ranges anywhere.

It was getting terribly cold by 4 PM itself. The room though a superior room according to the records didn't quite measure up to the room in Gangtok. We had already informed the hotel on our way about keeping our lunch ready. By the time we freshened up the lunch was ready. Though it was no time for lunch bu we were very hungry from all the traveling. The simple fare of rice, aloo poshto, dal and fish curry tasted like heaven. Only thing was that it was so cold in the dining room that after a while our fingers felt numb while eating. We quickly made way to our rooms for some rest. We doubled up on the quilts but still it was cold. There was no provision of room heater which was a very bad thing considering the extreme weather. After taking rest for a while we decided to take a stroll in the market area below. There were many shops below the hotel. There was a liqueur shop just by the hotel which sold normal and assorted liqueurs, as well as the famous Temi Tea packets. But we decided to buy the tea from local grocer store instead as the packaging here looked old. By 6PM people were getting ready to shut down their shops. We roamed around a bit, fed the local dogs biscuit, purchased Tea for everyone back home and strolled back towards the hotel.

The next day's plan was to visit Rinchepong and Kaluk two villages known for their scenic beauty some distance away from Ravangla. Our driver had already expressed his concerns about the road to those viewpoints and had told us that we had to leave hotel at 6AM in the morning if we wished to get back to the hotel by 5 PM. We inquired about the road conditions to the local cab drivers who totally forbade us to visit those places. The weather was already turning extreme and probability of snowfall was getting  greater. The road was also broken we were informed. After hearing all this we speculated among ourselves and decided to scrap the two points. But since we had already paid for the trip, we needed to find out an alternative for next day. A few discussions with the cab owner, we decided to do two points of Pelling instead at an additional cost. We were okay with the additional money a long as it ensured a safe journey.

We were very tired and not at all hungry as we had late lunch. Thus we could not really relish the dinner menu which comprised of fried rice and chilly chicken. A cut short dinner and some hot water gargle later we were ready for calling it a day. The town had fallen asleep by the time we hit the bed.

To be Continued... Part 4

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