Resting in Rumtek

Our driver and guide eventually admitted that the landslide on the road back to the capital would take more than a few hours to clear and explained that we would have to “tranship”. This innocent sounding word actually implied that, while 4x4s were backed up on either side of the rock fall, passengers would negotiate exchanges with the drivers and clamber over the rocks to pick up another ride on the other side.

No, it doesn’t sound very safe, does it? Especially as the typical Indian family needs to keep all of its considerable luggage with it at all times and is certainly not prepared to obey any mere road repairing team and await their turn. Grahame & I had no choice but to leave most of our luggage (and all of our snacks) with our poor driver and join our guide in this mad scramble across loose rocks so shiny with newly dislodged mica that my hiking boots ended up as sparkly as disco apparel. At least I wasn’t attempting the climb in a saree and sandals.

Our guide managed to obtain a (probably extortionate) taxi ride to the nearest small town, this was made all the more interesting by the driver’s habit of switching off the engine to coast down every bit of downhill road and the fact that his windscreen wipers appeared to work only intermittently. Needless to say, he drove with his face right up close to the window. After what seemed like an eternity but was probably no more than an hour, one of the agents from the Gangtok office came out to meet us in his own car for the final leg of the journey.

Bearing in mind the fact that we were still negotiating the steep twisty bends that make every road map of Sikkim look like someone has spilled a bowl of spaghetti, dusk was not the best time to be enveloped by a fog so thick that it obscured everything in our path. Somehow, we reached our hotel in Gangtok and, perhaps because I had resorted to a miniature bottle of whiskey found in my hand luggage, I fell out of the car and embraced the life-sized model of a Grenadier Guard who stood incongruously by the entrance.

This state of euphoric relief and the knowledge that it would take at least 24 hours for Raj, our original driver, to catch up with us now made us very glad that we had built in a couple of days of more leisurely pursuits in and around the capital. A substitute driver took us up into a hills to Tsongu Lake for the obligatory yak ride which was a whole lot more fun (and comfortable) than either of us had expected. We visited the handicraft school and museum where students can take courses of up to three years duration in weaving and embroidery or wood carving and Tibetan decorative painting. Amusingly, no boys have chosen the former but we did see a couple of girls wielding chisels in the woodworking class. And the cost of attending this institution? The joining fees are 50 rupees, that’s about 60 pence or just under a Dollar.

For this interlude we had a couple of nights at a simple hotel situated on the opposite hillside from the capital at the monastery village of Rumtek. The monastery itself was actually 3k away and what started off as a gentle stroll seemed to get longer and steeper until even Grahame was puffing a bit. Not being alone, I felt safe to flag down a painted truck and the Nepali driver was only too happy to give us a lift the remainder of the way. He categorically refused a tip so I told him I would put it in the offering box.

In spite of the fact that this particular monastery boasted the usual Tibetan “painted box” architecture, fluttering prayer flags, burgundy robed youths and dated only from the mid nineteenth century it does actually stick in my mind. First for the rather anodyne sentiments posted up all around the entrance: “use sacred occasions to carry out environmental activities such as tree planting”, “create your own vegetable gardens”, “explore the possibility of wind energy” and then for the absolutely gorgeous flowers that someone had taken the trouble to pot out all over the site. Such exotic orchids and amaryllis could not possibly cope with the frequent heavy rainfall on that hillside and so whoever had painstakingly propagated them must also have been regularly doing the rounds to shelter then from the elements.

Our “simple hotel” would itself have bordered on the monastic but for the kindness of the proprietor and his little family of staff. After all, we were the only guests and unreliable rainfall due to recent climate changes has reduced the holiday trade to a trickle but the meagre fare was nutritious and tasty. To my surprise, I was even politely shown into the kitchen but was soon relieved to discover that this was a misunderstanding because I had actually asked to see the “kittens”. Well, I would, wouldn’t I?

This hotelier was the first Sikkimese we had had a chance to talk to at any length because both the guide (who we had now parted from) and the driver (who was somewhere on his way down the mountain with our luggage) are from West Bengal. He gave us some insight into the attitudes and history of this tiny state (which I will attempt to recount later when we get to the ancient capital) and he told us the best mountaineering story I have heard in a long time. Apparently, a couple of years back an Australian team came here to attempt Kanchenjunga from the Indian side. In spite of the way in which the Nepalese authorities on the other side allow hundreds of expeditions to assail their sacred peaks and tick off another “eight thousander”, this group of Ozzies spent six months in West Sikkim waiting for a set of permits that never came.

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