We left Darjeeling the next day for Pelling in Sikkim. Our route took us through slopes cushioned with the wobbly lines of tea bushes before becoming much steeper and more wooded. Pithy signs by the roadside advised drivers to exercise caution:
Remember your family are waiting for you
Better late than late
Don’t drink and drive
This is no rally, enjoy the valley
Passing an oncoming truck required careful manoeuvring, particularly on hairpin bends where there’d be a drop one side, a deep ditch the other and not an inch of road surface to spare. Larger vehicles would advance slowly towards each other as each driver gauged just how much width was available to him; cars might opportunistically, cheekily, squeak through the narrowest of gaps between the two while ‘negotiations’ were going on. I shut my eyes more than once as a truck (or our bus!) leaned precipitously over the edge as we jerkily eased past. We saw one casualty – a car about to be hauled up from about 300 ft below. Probably it had gone off the road some while before as there was no sign of either driver or passengers. Fortunately our small bus could fit underneath the arm of the crane. Just.
On Sikkim roads there was an added frisson of excitement in the form of landslides – and extra delays because of repairs. Roadworks were ongoing and provided employment for many; teams of men – and women – worked on the roads, smashing rocks to build up surfaces that had crumbled or been washed away. And miles from anywhere we’d sometimes come across one man and his trowel removing weed growth from the side of the road.
At one point, a red tape across our road indicated that the way ahead was blocked. We stopped … and waited … Several minutes elapsed before a young boy – who looked all of ten years old – appeared on the scene. He was in charge of traffic control. Blasting was being carried out further up the hill to clear some landslip; after several more minutes, he lowered the tape and we were on our way again. So much for Health and Safety and Child Labour laws.
We arrived at our hotel in Pelling hours later than expected – and were welcomed with a glass of cherry brandy rather than the more usual insipid orange squash. There is no alcohol tax in Sikkim so prices are ridiculously low. Kanchenjunga was still with us – albeit from a slightly different angle – and early the next day we looked out from the hotel garden as ‘rosy-fingered Dawn, child of the morning’ touched its peaks.
We visited Pemayangtse Monastery which had been badly damaged by the earthquake two months previously (September 2011). Bamboo scaffolding supported one side of the building but life was going on as normal. We caught the tail end of a procession around the monastery with the monks chanting, banging drums and blowing long trumpets. Two of them then blew helmet conchs at each corner in turn. We went inside and were plunged into a cornucopia of colour: vivid murals cover the walls (some with alarming cracks); there are vibrant designs painted on doors, window shutters, pillars and ceilings; there are richly coloured silk hangings, golden statues, silver bowls filled with rice and bank-notes … The pièce de résistance is on the top floor: a seven-tiered wooden model of Guru Rimpoche’s heavenly abode, complete with rainbows, angels, buddhas, bodhisattvas, incredible in its detail. (It took one monk five years to make.)
The roads in Sikkim were bright with colour: prayer flags were strung out across and alongside; poinsettias, hibiscus, marigolds, tall yellow daisies, rich blue morning glories splashed the verges.
We reached our hotel in Gangtok and walked in to the Reception area – to find we were on the fourth floor! The ‘ground’ floor opened on to the street below. Gangtok is not a particularly attractive town. Square boxy buildings cling to the hillsides – although we saw a few that hadn’t clung tightly enough, half-collapsed and leaning perilously, showing severe earthquake damage.
We visited the Drodul Chorten – a huge white stupa surrounded by 108 prayer wheels; it’s a significant number as it’s the number of books of Buddha’s teachings. Devotees (and tourists) spun the wheels; a young monk sounded a gong. The atmosphere was restful and uplifting. Next door was the Institute of Tibetology with yet another amazing array of richly coloured artefacts.
Our way to Rumtek monastery was scenic with cut rice draped over terraced hillsides like flowing golden waterfalls. It is one of the oldest and largest monasteries in Sikkim with some of the world’s rarest and oldest manuscripts and religious artefacts. Real life and monastic life played out side by side: two Monks played chess surrounded by a group of others offering advice and encouragement; another monk pegged out some washing; a line of women carried heavy baskets of large rocks on their backs for construction work that was going on.
We crossed back over the dingy milky-jade Teesta River and re-entered West Bengal. Some time later we passed a line of children marching with placards demanding compulsory education for 4 – 15 year olds. We were miles from anywhere on yet another narrow twisting mountain road. I’m not sure who would have seen their message who could act on it. If anyone.
We arrived in Kalimpong nearly five hours later than expected after another long drive fraught with bends and roadworks. It’s a small, dusty, multi-faceted town: we visited a sugar-pink confection of a Hindu temple containing near-life-size lurid dioramas of the gods and goddesses; St Teresa’s RC church with a decidedly oriental-looking Madonna and Apostles; the Durpin Dara Gompa crammed with colour and with a bust of a Buffalo Bill lookalike outside (in fact Sherpa Tenzing). We also visited Dr Graham’s school/orphanage and chatted to the headmaster, his wife and some of the students; the teenagers seemed very rounded, focused and well-spoken – and were looking forward to becoming lawyers, doctors – and one, a fashion designer. But before that they were looking forward to the end of year ball in a few weeks’ time. (The aspiring fashion designer hadn’t designed her own dress, though.)
For us it was onwards to Puentsholing in Bhutan …
Our average speed in Sikkim and West Bengal had been 10 – 11 mph