Thursday, 23 January 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 4

“Come Fairies, take me out of this dull world, for I would ride with you upon the wind and dance upon the mountains like a flame!”

William Butler Yeats

Day 4 – Pelling Sightseeing

Way to Khecheopalri Lake
One has to visit Sikkim in winter to feel how cold it gets. In every part of the travelogue so far I have emphasized on the temperature because it’s something worth mentioning. One should never visit Sikkim as ill prepared with winter wear as we were. It was a no bath day for us since we were expected to leave the Hotel by 7AM, and bathing at this time of the day would be suicidal. Still half asleep we got ready quickly. Tea was served in the room by 6:45 AM. We looked outside the window enjoying our morning tea. The town was already very much awake and a busy Sunday had started for them. It was the “Hat”bar or Market day for them I believe as we saw many young Sikkimese women sitting along the traffic junction on the road side with fresh vegetables, sael roti and other products. The women are so beautiful here, can’t imagine a vegetable seller looking so pretty back home.  There was a hotel on the other side of the road facing our hotel with an interesting name 10-Zing. Soon we were informed that our car had come. We informed the hotel that we won’t be back for lunch. An elderly assistant at the hotel had taken a particular liking towards us and he proposed that he can whip up a small snack meal once we come back from the sightseeing. We were good with that.
The Market Day at Ravangla

The chilly morning air felt refreshing. We started our sojourn along the breathtaking terrain. Though Ravangla was awake by 7 Am, we found the other little hamlets on the way were still half asleep. There was barely a soul on the way for quite some time. As we left the frontiers of Ravangla we could see the Sakyamuni Buddha statue of the Buddha Park from far glittering in the mild sun rays. The path from Ravangla to Pelling is full of curves and bends. If you have motion sickness, make sure to pop an Avomin tablet before you venture out. I had taken it every day just to be on the safe side. Every moment had a beauty of its own – serpentine road through a dense jungle which looked like swampy evergreen forest, the sun peeping from behind the clouds and falling on the small log huts by the side of the road, long stretches of road bedecked with bright red and blushing pink Poinsettias, rolling lime green terrace vegetation, shinning silver bridges against the deep dark gorges, shimmering mountain rivers few thousand feet below and frolicking waterfalls all along the way. Everyone had said the road for Pelling was in a “better” shape but as we found out that it was only slightly better than the road towards Ralong Monastery – the roads were filled with loose pebbles at places which was pretty dangerous. If this was better we shuddered to think how terrible the “bad” road towards Rinchenpong was.  But our driver looked pretty unperturbed about it and was deftly maneuvering the already battered Omni through the hairpin bends and steep curves.

We had taken the Kewzing road to Pelling. On way we crossed the small village of Legship – a small village in the valley. We saw people tilling the land with hand tractors along the terrace gardens. Roughly it was 43 Kms from Ravangla to Pelling and took around a bit more than 2 hours. In between we had expressed the fact that we were hungry and wanted to stop for breakfast but our driver as usual was not interested to stop at any place which was not certified by him. So we sat back quietly and enjoyed the nature instead.

One enters upper Pelling through the Zero Point. Pelling is such a famous place that I expected to see a lot of hotels and population like Gangtok. But when we reached there we found out that it was a tiny nondescript mountain village, smaller in size compared to even Ravangla and dotted with assorted hotels of all sizes and mountain dwellings. Finally our driver halted at a tiny almost blink and miss roadside shack for breakfast. Why wasn’t I a bit surprised when it turned out to be a Sikkimese joint? Anyway there was no other road side food joint open in the city at that time which appeared almost dead compared to all the lively places in Sikkim we have been so far. Someone informed us since it was not the ‘season’ time hence hardly any buzz around. We settled down in the rickety chairs of the shack and ordered bread, omelet and coffee. It was hard to sit without shivering even inside the shack as icy cold winds cut through our jackets and sweaters.

I wanted to use the washroom before our food arrived and asked the lady manning the shack for the same. She informed that there was a bathroom down the slope but “you won’t be able to go up to there”. Pretty cool! It defeated me why they had to build a washroom only suited for the mountain goats. Anyway I was in a dire need to find a washroom so I stepped out of the shack. There was a hotel by the side of the shack I decided to try my luck there. There was hardly a soul at the desk. After calling out a few times a teenaged local boy came out and I placed my request. He pointed towards the basement without any word and went away. I began to climb down the stairs and the place was eerily empty and dark. There were lines of rooms with doors ajar which were waiting for housekeeping. I could not spot a single soul or a bathroom there. So again I went up found the boy and asked where the washroom was. He said keep going down and on your right. It was a scary situation, the first floor itself was dark and cold and when I went down further it felt like a dungeon for the dreaded criminals. I was wondering how would my family find me if I was even murdered out here. Somehow I spotted the dark and dingy washroom on the right with a door without latch. All the while I was shit scared and chided myself for being so stupid. As soon as I was done I raced to the top floor. I was still edgy after thanking the boy and running out of the Hotel.

The warm breakfast was already on the table when I reached. Our driver had ordered a bowl of Maggie which also looked very tempting. But travelling on a light stomach was a better idea on these mountain roads which made you queasy. The bread was soft and sweet. We loved it so much that we ordered additional plates of the bread alone. The shop was also selling walnut packets. The lady at the shop told us that they were local produce and were not easy to break like the Kashmiri ones. We planned to buy some of them for gifts on our way back from the sightseeing.

From the Zero Point in upper Pelling, one road goes steep uphill towards the helipad and Sangachoeling monastery, while the other slithers down towards lower Pelling. The two places on our itinerary were Khecheopalri Lake and Pemayangtse Monastery. The sightseeing points in Pelling are so spread out that if you are doing a one day trip then only selected places could be covered.
Khecheopalri Lake

Khecheopalri Lake : Khecheopalri Lake is almost 2 hours journey from Pelling town. The car stopped at a place surrounded by mountains. Some construction work is happening nearby. There are a couple of shops selling mementoes, local food etc. outside the gate. Paying individual entry fee and parking fee of Rs.10 each we entered the gates of the lake. A pebbled path bifurcated a few steps ahead of the gate. Again there were no signs indicating the direction of the lake. We asked a local who showed us the direction. The Khecheopalri village comprising of a small number of mountain huts are situated on the side of the path leading to the lake. There is a small garden where we saw a Chorten. A couple of steps ahead on one side of the path there was a temple like structure with a door. We peeked inside and saw a massive prayer wheel rotating inside. It was almost 500 times the normal prayer wheel! We kept on walking along the way. The surrounding was very peaceful and quite. We walked through a beautiful forest of aged trees overlooking the path like protective guardians. It was so silent that only the bird’s chirping could be heard and whenever we tried to talk among ourselves it sounded like a small echo. There are a couple of big boulders on the road side on which colorful chants have been painted.

The mint green moss covering the rocks seemed like a fine carpet. We walked along admiring the beauty of nature. It’s a long walk hence there are a few benches placed on way, but you don’t tire easily as you soak yourself in the sublime green canvas all around. There was a shrine near the lake in front of which a young lama was jogging up and down. It amused us and before we asked the reason of his behavior he smiled and said “khub thanda ajke” which indicated that he was jogging to keep his body warm in the cold weather.
In front of Khecheopalri Lake

Khechoepalri Lake, also known as the Wishing Lake is a sacred lake for both Buddhists and Hindus is ensconced in the midst of the Khechoedpaldri hill. As the legend goes this place was once a grazing ground having lots of stinging nettles. One day when a Lepcha couple was peeling off the bark of the tree, they observed a pair of conch shells falling from the sky and get embedded into the ground. The ground trembled violently and a spring of water came out which soon transformed into a lake. According to local belief the lake has a shape of Goddess Tara’s footprint. Deemed sacred, the lake thus began to be worshiped locally. Another interesting story associated with the lake is whenever a leaf falls into the lake; the birds pick them up as a result of which the water of the lake is crystal clear.
Locals praying at the lake

Stones Piled in a certain order around the Lake
I had seen the monsoon pictures of the lake which looked very stunning. But during this time of the year the lake was looking pretty dull because the hill in the backdrop was not as green. In fact the first impression was not impressive for me. Very calm and placid, the lake is festooned by fluttering prayer flags.  A wooden broadwalk leads to the waters. One has to open their shoes and step on the broadwalk. The area around the broadwalk was marshy. There is a balcony kind of thing at the end of the broadwalk where one can simply stand and pray. Ideally it is not expected that one would cross the balcony and go into the water or touch it. But we saw a mother with two small kids standing in the muddy shoreline just in front and praying with incense sticks. They also filled the water of the lake into a bottle to take back something similar we do with Ganges water. Another characteristic of the lake is its fishes. The huge shoals of black carp swim around the shoreline circling in the water. Though it’s written on a board outside not to feed the fishes, we saw many people feeding them puffed rice and breads. The tranquil environ brings you peace. We offered our prayers and then stood observing the local people praying devotedly. After sometime we made our way back. It was a rewarding meditative and spiritual experience at the end. As a tourist you may not like it very much but since it’s a spiritual place if you come with a dollop of reverence you will surely like it more.

Before we came out we bought a few things from the souvenir shop – a pair of prayer wheels shaped earrings, chestnuts and some picture postcards. The prices were a bit exorbitant but well that’s the case for every tourist place.
We made our way back through the same winding forested roads going from one mountain to the next. Pemayangtse Monastery is nearly 50 minutes from the Khechoepalri Lake. I personally felt that the beauty of Ravangla was more stunning than Pelling, maybe the tourist influx in Ravangla is still less compared to Pelling which has helped the place preserve its natural beauty. During the monsoon I feel everything would look magical but the way to Khechoepalri Lake is closed due to road conditions.
The Large Prayer Wheel

Pemayangtse Monastery:
Pemayangtse means “perfect sublime lotus”. The over 300 year old monastery is situated on a hill top in the west district of Sikkim is at the beginning of the popular Dzongri trek route. Pelling is the nearest town from there. The monastery is located at a height of 6840 feet surrounded by majestic range of snowcapped mountains which we were not able to witness due to the prevailing veil of clouds. Lhatsun Champo, one of the three Lamas of Yuksom, founded the monastery in 17th century – one of the most important gompa belonging to the Nyingmapa sect. A pretty steep winding road with fluttering multi colored prayer flags leads you to the Monastery. The car was unable to scale it as the road was in a terrible shape with loose gravel. We left the car at the bottom of the road and walked up. We were out of breath by the time we reached the entrance. I wondered why the path leading to the Monastery was always so steep – did it mean to reach god you need to go through a bit of hardship? Maybe or maybe not.
The Monastery

The monk quarters were situated outside the gompa and had intricate woodwork on the beams, lattice windows and doors – it was very very pretty. A small lhakhang near the entrance contains a statue of Dorje Phagmo (Vajra Varahi) which was presented to Chogyal Gyurmed Namgyal by Terton Terdag Lingpa of Tibet as a gift when he married his daughter. The three storied main gompa looked a bit tattered. Colors had washed off, peeling paints etc. It was being renovated at that time, paintwork was going on. We paid the entry fee and walked around the back of the gompa to enter it. Photography is prohibited inside. The main prayer halls with colorful doors and windows have intricate Tibetian designs. There is an exquisite display of thangkas and murals. There are eight incarnations of Guru Rinpoche better known as guru Padmasambhava inside. The main statue of Padmasambahva seen here is in his wrathful form as Dorje Bhurpa Vjarakila with multiple heads and arms. Padmasambahva is revered more in Sikkim than Gautam Buddha because it was he who revived Buddhism in Tibet and spread the Tantric form or Vajrayana of Buddhism widely.
The Monastery Entrance

The first floor had a vast number of antique Buddhist idols, painting and scrolls. The top floor has a seven tiered painted wooden structure depicting the heavenly abode of Guru Padmasambhava known as "Sanghthokpalri". It was carved out of a single wood by Dungzin Rimpoche and took five years to complete. There is a meditative solitude in and around this place.

The Monk Quarters
Having completed the sightseeing for the day we started for our journey back to Ravangla. On way we stopped at the same shack we had breakfast in the morning in Pelling town to buy Walnuts. It had taken over two hours to reach Pelling from Ravangla. But as the daylight was decreasing and the driver had to go back to Gangtok after dropping us at Ravangla (he was assigned to chauffeur us till Ravangla tour, from next day we had a different driver) he drove the tattered Omni like a F1 car along the dangerous mountain road. He didn’t even give us a lunch break and we didn’t dare to ask for one. We were being tossed around in the car like rag dolls and were scared shit. I think this is what people call as “near death experience”! The tryst for destiny of our Schumacher came to an abrupt halt almost 1.5 Km before Ravangla when the Omni decided to put its foot down with a flat tyre. As he fixed the tyre we stood outside basking in the mellowing rays of the setting sun. We could see Ravangla town and the statue of Buddha from there which looked pretty as usual.

We reached our hotel by 4:30 PM. The Hotel was abuzz with a tourist group. Before we retired to our room we asked the elderly assistant in the Hotel to give us some food to which he happily obliged. It was a very tiring day with so much of travel and uncomfortable Omni seats. As soon as we freshened up, the elderly person came with a tray of piping hot flaky paranthas and begun bhaja (fried Eggplant). It felt like heaven, after the long day without any proper food.

We spent an hour or two resting and then we went for a walk again along the town center. Bought some more packets of Temi Tea varieties. The shops were already closing down. We wanted to purchase some fresh vegetables as they tasted better than the plains. The Vegetable market was down a dark alley way. We bought some carrots and large green chilies. On way we fed the canines biscuit, the entire pack had come to know us in 2 days only.
The Traffic Center at Night in Tricolour lights

Dinner comprised of Fish curry, potato fries, dal and rice. It was the best comfort food for our tired souls. Some of the other tourists were having chilly chicken and fried rice. We took a flask of warm water from the kitchen and ambled back to our room. The windows of our room didn’t have any grills. We opened them and sat for some time looking at mist floating around the road below. The tri-color light at the traffic junction imparted a warm glow around it. Some of the local dogs still sauntered around. The town was slowly slipping into a dream world. Ravangla was truly a memorable trip for us, we were sad that we were about to leave it the next day. As we switched off the lights and got ready for bed the neon planetary stickers on the room ceiling silently shimmered in the dark, it seemed as if we were lying under the open sky. We slowly drifted into sleep thinking about the beautiful time spent in this town.

To be Continued... Part 5

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