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



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



Monday, 13 January 2014

My first Liebster Award!

A few days back, fellow blogger Sharanya (+Shey divine) honoured me by nominating my blog for the Liebster Award.I felt pretty happy about it, getting an award right at the beginning of the year what can be a better start to a New year? It feels great to know people are reading and enjoying my ramblings and recipes.And do not forget to check out the awesome cake recipes she has on her blog - Just not the cakes.

Just like you I was curious to know more about this award as I had heard a lot of people getting it. Liebster is a German word meaning sweetest, kindest, nicest, dearest, beloved, lovely, kind, pleasant, valued, cute, endearing, and welcome.Pretty Neat isn't it? A warm way to share a little of the blog love around to those new to the blogsphere.By this little gesture one gets to discover so many nice and exciting blogs.

Rules for the nominees:

1.Blog about the award on your blogspace
2. Copy paste the badge and mention about the person who nominated you
3.Nominate 5-10 blogs that you enjoy to pass on the award who have less than 200 followers.
4.Inform the nominees about the award by leaving a comment on their blog
5.Answer the questions posted by the person who nominated you
6.Create 11 questions for the nominees

The questions Sharanya wanted me to answer:

1.Before and after blogging , what changed your life ?
 Writing, Food, Photography – all three had been my love all through these years. Before I started my own blog, I used to write stories, articles etc. on certain webpages. But I always felt that I was not able to connect with more people. Curries & Stories was started as an experiment, where I could write about stuffs I wanted to. Also wanted to uphold some of our very traditional recipes which might get lost in time as people now a days preferred readymade foods to cooking a meal themselves. Once I started actively blogging here I found that there were so many people who actually read what I wrote and even appreciated it. Now 1.5 years later I have met so many new bloggers, made beautiful friends, learnt new things about culture and food, that I feel it has been quite an enriching experience so far. I would have definitely missed out so much had I not started this blog. 

2. When and what motivated you to blog ?
It was kind of self-motivated. I wanted to write about everything that interested me and reach out to people, hear what they have to say about it, etc hence started my own blog.
3. Who chose the name of your blog ? and why ?
I chose the name myself. The blog was going to be about food, travel, photography and my random ramblings. I knew there was going to be a lot of stories behind every curry, hence the name J
4.What is the best and favorite recipe you have posted so far ?
Mutton Rogan Josh… has been one of my favs so far. I really love red meat and this recipe turned out rather well than I had expected.

5. How often you post recipes in your blog ?
I really wish I could post at least one recipe per week but unfortunately it all depends on the spare time I manage to squeeze out of the workload. On an average its about 3-4 recipes/ month
6. Who is your role model ?
My mother has always been the ideal person for me in everything

7.What are your favorite spices ?
Radhuni (Celery Seeds), Jeera (Cumin) – they are very versatile and can be used for seasoning most of the daily dishes prepared at home.

8.What is the most popular recipe / post in you blog ?
Mutton Rogan Josh once again

9. If you were asked to bake which of this will you choose  Chocolate Cake / Focaccia / Pizza / Strawberry Swiss Roll ?Chocolate cake but of course!

10. Who Clicks and edits the photographs for your blog ? and what is your favorite font ?
I do all the hard work here, running about with the camera throughout the length of preparing any dish and becoming the butt of ridicule of anyone who sees me like that! And after that sitting the editing the pics as I create the post.

I like the fonts Garton & Josephin Sans.

And now drum roll please! Here are the nominees:

+Radha Natarajan of Your Everyday Cook

+Pavani N  of Cook's Hideout

+Happys Cook of Happy's Cook

+Madhavi K  of Madhu's Everyday Indian

+West Northman of NorthWestKitchen

+Maneesha Dixit of Taste of India, from my mother's kitchen

+Hema Srivastava  of Hema's Musings

+Recipe Manic of  Recipe Manic

+Priyas Feast of Priyas Feast

+Archana Kumar of The Yum Factor

+Resna Nishad of  Resna's Tasty home


+Yes Cook of Yes I Can Cook


My set of questions to the nominees:

1. How did you come up with the name for your blog?

2. Something that you learned recently

3. What’s the most unusual thing you’ve eaten or want to eat?

4. How long do you usually take to write a post?

5. Name 3 things that you love about being an author

6. If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life what would it be?

7. Secret/ fun fact about you that not many people know

8. Does any certain scents or smells bring back old memories of  for you?

9.What goals do you have for your blog?

10. Which is the most difficult recipe you tried to prepare?

11. What would make you stop blogging?


Nominees– once you’ve reposted this, do comment here so I can read your answers!

Thanks again to Sharanya for nominating me!
 

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 2

Continued from Part 1

Day 3: Gangtok & Surrounding Sightseeing

"These mist covered mountains
Are a home now for me..."
- Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits

We got to know next morning that the temperature had reached minus levels previous night hence such an intense cold wave. The sleep quality was very good in spite of the cold. We woke up early in the morning. We chatted in the balcony having the morning tea and biscuit. It was bit cloudy that day, and weather report showed chances of rain. We were hoping that at least it would not rain while we were on sightseeing.  Post tea we quickly bathed and got ready as our cab was about to arrive at 9.30 AM. A very important tip when you are visiting a hill station during winter: never skip the morning bath if hot water is available. It instantly refreshes you and you feel a bit less cold throughout the day. So dare it and have a bath every day. By the time we got ready breakfast was served in the room – bread toast and omelet. The cab arrived soon and we started our full-day sightseeing tour.


Do-Drul Chorten: This was the first point that we visited. The cab stopped at the base of a uphill walk to the Chorten. The slope was a bit steep as we were out of breath within a few minutes of walking. The huge white Tibetian pagoda with its golden spire is a landmark of Gangtok. Built in 1945, it is surrounded by 108 prayer wheels and houses several rare religious scriptures. The Chorten also has two huge statues of Guru Rinpoche (Guru Padmasambhava) around it. The Chorten is surrounded by dormitories for novice monks and glass-walled galleries with countless flaming butter lamps burning inside. It was a silent place, everyone was praying earnestly. We went around the Chorten and took a few snaps. Saw two cats in the premises playing with each other. One of them was quite friendly and liked my petting. They are mostly pets of the monks who stayed in the same premises as I saw one of them walking inside with a monk. The air was very crisp and we could see faraway mountain ranges as we started our descent.

The inhouse cat @ Do Drul Chorten

Namgyal Institute of Tibetology : Less than a kilometer away from the Chorten is the Institute of Tibetology. A beggar was playing a local musical instrument, the music of which was so soulful that it can’t be described in words. I felt like standing all day and hearing him play but we walked inside the institute instead. This fantastic museum housed in a traditional Tibetan-style mansion was built in the year 1958 to promote research in Mahayan Buddhism and Tibetan language and traditions. The verandah inside is adorned with a magnificent painting of four celestial guardians kings located in the four directions of Mount Meru. Built in a traditional style, this institute boasts the world's largest collections of books and rare manuscripts on Mahayan Buddhism, in addition to the works of art and silk embroidered Tankhas. Moreover, it also houses relics of monks, samples of Lepcha scripts, masks and sacred objects like Kapali, Tantric ritual objects, such as a thöpa (bowl made from a human skull) and kangling (human thighbone trumpet). The library on the 1st floor has precious Buddhist tomes, some dating back several hundred years.  A handicrafts shop is present opposite to the gate of the institute, but everything was very expensive for which we didn’t see any tourist going in. A quaint restaurant is present by the side of the handicraft shop selling coffee, sandwich etc. A doggie was coming after us; we bought some cake and gave him which he happily devoured. We gave some money to the beggar before we went back.

Entrance of the museum & Frescoes on the wall
The shop & Cafe outside museum
The Beggar & Doggy

Next we started for the Rumtek Monastery.  24Km from Gangtok, it took us about 90 minutes to reach. The road was very picturesque with lush green vegetation all along. Rumtek is located on a different mountain than Gangtok.  I don’t remember well but mostly somewhere in between we stopped at the Nehru Botanical garden. It was just a shadow of any Botanical Garden I have visited till date. It looked like no one ever tended to the plants over here; half of them were wilting away while some which still had flowers were cobweb covered. The plants inside the green house were all dried and dead. The whole area cut such a sorry figure that we wondered why did we even stop there.
The Monks playing soccer

Rumtek Monastery: The entry is controlled by Para-military forces and at the entry point of the monastery one is required to show passport (for foreigners) or ID card (for Indians). From here to the Monastery is a long and steep walk of about 10 minutes. But that 10 minutes feel like an eon due to the steepness of the slope. The aged may ask the military permission for the cab to drop them near the monastery premises. The approach road has many souvenir shops but they were a bit pricy and you can get the same stuffs in M.G Marg.At an elevation of almost 5000 ft and surrounded by lush green landscape, the monastery is a visual treat besides offering spiritual solace. Its build on a large spread area and there are so many buildings and no Signboards one gets confused as to where is the entrance. It happened to us and we mistakenly went up the long and tiring flight of stairs only to know that we have come the wrong way! The saving grace was that there was something to see at the top of the stairs as well – the Golden Stupa. My mom asked a tourist coming down regarding what was inside and he replied “you are a women so you will like it, my wife liked it, it’s all gold” . Such a chauvinistic response but we still went inside anyway. We were welcomed by mantra chants playing from a speaker. It was a small room that enshrined a magnificent Golden Stupa and contained relics and paintings that belonged to the 16th Karmapa. Opposite this building is a college of Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies.We went down the stairs to the other end of the premises where the entrance of the Monastery is situated. Some young monks were playing soccer outside the entrance. Everywhere there were military people with guns. It almost seemed like we were entering any guarded fortress than a religious place. To be more precise it felt like some scene from an assassination gameplay, quite unsettling but we somehow got used to it. The three-storied building painted in red and gold is a perfect example of Tibetan architecture. This is largest monastery in Sikkim. There are beautiful frescos on the walls of the monastery. The prayer hall is beautifully decorated with silk thangkas, scrolls and frescos depicting the numerous legends associated with Buddha. There are huge gongs and clarinets placed around the seats where the monks sit and pray. The golden statue of Buddha in "Bhumisparsa Mudra" represents the earth witnessing the moment of enlightenment of Gautam Buddha. Yog-Yogini idols of Tara are also present in the main hall which is very rare to spot in West Bengal. Photography is not allowed inside so couldn’t capture the idols. Somehow I was not very impressed with the monastery maybe I had heard so much about it that expectations were set at a higher level and also because of the presence of so many militaries around killed the religious feeling somehow.
Rumtek Monastery

We came down and it was almost lunchtime. I was eagerly looking out to taste some chicken momos or something nonveg. Our driver took us to a restaurant outside the entrance of the Monastery named “Taktuk Bhutia Phenchumpa”. The Chicken Thukpa was out of the world but veg-momo was just ok ok. The piping hot Thukpa on a chilly afternoon was just perfect! Post lunch we started our journey back to Gangtok for rest of the sightseeing. The intensity of the cold was increasing as the day progressed because the sun could never show up behind the clouds.

Young monks watching something interesting

By the time we reached Cottage Industry and Handicrafts Center we were very cold and stiff. From outside the building didn’t look much promising; we were not willing to go out in the cold but still our driver suggested we take a look. The moment we stepped out of the car we froze…icy winds were cutting through our face and body. We literally ran inside the building for some warmth at least. The museum houses hand-woven carpets with traditional motifs, blankets, shawls (in Lepcha weaves), 'thangka' paintings, dappled appliqué work, graceful 'Choktse' (hand carved foldable tables), hand-painted masks, dolls, hand made papers, rich brocade and embroidered boots and many other objects. We wanted to spend more time seeing the stuffs on display but the unbearable cold winds coming through the open vents forced us to change our plan and scurry to the car. At that moment I knew what the frozen icicle feeling was, we were shivering like anything. 


Next we made our way to Flower exhibition Centre. The pavement outside the exhibition center is well manicured and small stretch of garden with sitting areas, washrooms and snack stall is present. Long trees line on both side of the road imparting a beautiful character to the entire stretch. Once you enter the park you go down a flight of stairs to reach the exhibition hall. Many trees like Dhupi are planted by the side of the stairs which are labeled for the benefit of the tourists. Entry fee is Rs.10 for the exhibit. Once you enter it’s a small green house with different species of flower 7 plants. The temperature is kept at an optimum for the growth of the orchids. It had a good collection but a very small exhibit, in 15 minutes you can complete viewing it. I had expected more flowers specially orchids. Good number of hydrangeas ranging from the usual blue to pink ones were present. Peruvian lily or Alstromeria in pink, yellow and white grew there. We only saw 4 colors of orchid, reddish brown, pink, yellow and white. Maybe in a different season one is fortunate to see more species of flowers. There is a small bridge sort of thing made in between the park where you can stand and pose for photos. If you like flowers you will like this place. But if you have been to bigger flower exhibitions where there are a lot many flowers on display you will kind of feel this doesn’t measure up to them. One odd thing though; loud Bollywood movie songs were being played inside the hall which didn’t match with the environment at all. Maybe they were trying out the concept that plants grow better hearing music? I would maybe rate the place 2 on a scale of five. But I really liked the pedestrian walk outside the park, very peaceful and romantic. 

Next on our list was Ganesh Tok. It is a quaint Ganesh temple situated at an altitude of 6,500 ft located next to the tall television tower on the hillock on Gangtok–Nathula road. By the time we reached Ganesh Tok, clouds were beginning to fill up the valley below. At the entrance of the temple, there were a few shops offering traditional Sikkimese outfits (Yenthatse with Thokro-Dum for men and Dumvum with Tago for women) for rent to pose for photographs. They offer it very cheap @ Rs 30-40 only. It was so cold that I was not at all interested in letting go my winter wear to slip into the traditional dress, though the lady at the store assured me that she would put it over my jacket only. A flight of stairs lead you to the main prayer hall. The idol here sits on a throne rather than on its vahan the Mushak or Rat. A terrace encircles the temple area from where one can get a bird’s eye view of sprawling Gantok town and Kanchenjunga on a clear day. The misty valley was also looking beautiful. A photographer’s treat for sure. There is a sitting area below and a cafeteria serving hot tea, coffee and snacks. A group sat there sipping coffee in front of a bonfire. An arrow proclaimed a souvenir shop somewhere down the slope but mostly it was non-functional at that time. The avenue in front of the sitting area is festooned with colorful prayer flags.

View from Ganesh Tok

The penultimate destination was Tashi View point. It is situated on the curve of a looping road. One needs to climb up quite a number of steep stairs to reach the viewpoint. The late king of Sikkim, Tashi Namgyal, has constructed the Tashi Viewpoint. It is located 4 km away from Gangtok, from where the visitors can get a perfect view of the opposite hills, including Mt. Kanchenjunga. But we had tough luck. The clouds were literally following us everywhere and as usual Kanchenjunga had hidden it’s face behind the whipped cream like clouds. But the view of the winding mountain road below was very beautiful. It was almost 4 pm and pretty cold and windy.We took some snaps of the twin dragon at the center of the view point. There is a shop selling Sikkimese stuffs on top of the viewpoint. This shop had much more things than what we saw in shops of other points.  There were tiny sets of brandy and wine gift bottles, woolens, boots, cute Chinese dolls. Temi Tea packs and many other things. We spent quite some time here.
Tashi View Point

From here we traveled back to Gagtok city point. Instead of getting down at our hotel we decided to go to the M.G. Marg once more to buy some woolens which will make the intense cold a bit bearable. Last night on we had understood that we were very ill prepared for the cold weather over here.

The same festivities were still going on that evening as well drawing a lot of crowd at the center of M.G.Marg. It was an overcast day hence it felt like it was already 6pm at 4.30 pm. We went to several shops looking for the right kind of winter wear. Finally at one shop we selected some beautiful Sikkimese shawls and a pair of thermals for me. By the time we we done with our shopping it was pouring outside. We only had one umbrella with us and it was already late. So we had no other option than to buy a cheap one from the store and start for our hotel. The rain had subsided by then, but it was more chilly due to the rains. We rushed through the nearly deserted roads towards the shared taxi stand. Fortunately we got a cab and soon reached our hotel. It felt so good to be back in the warmth of the closed room. The store bought winter wear relieved us a lot from the cold. We freshened up and ordered some coffee and onion fritters. The rain had again intensified outside blurring the valley in front. We watched Ritchi Rich movie having the snacks. For dinner we had chicken curry and rice which was very delicious. The following day we were going to Ravangla.

To be continued...

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