Star Date:  June 2008
The Kingdom of Sikkim; Darjeeling N. E. India


Hello Dear Family & Friends!



(Hello!  Sikimese Subba greeting)



"Money is a good servant and a bad master." 
(Elambha's 76 yr old Dad, Jainta Hills)


"Capital as such is not evil; it is its wrong use that is evil. Capital in some form or other will always be needed."

(Mahatma Gandhi (1869 - 1948)  Indian national leader).

Gleaming like a lost jewel in the folds of the Eastern Himalayas, the Kingdom of Sikkim is rich in history and mysticism. Named "Nye-mae-el lang' by the Lepchas, it means Abode of the Gods. Obscured by thick forests and guarded by soaring snow capped peaks, this dramatic tiny kingdom, now state, has valleys full of wild orchids and rhododendrons, bamboo groves, untouched forests, wild rivers, gentle streams, pristine lakes and snow fields home to the legendary Yeti. Standing sentinel over the western border is the magnificent and sacred Mt. Khangchendzonga, the third highest peak in the world, home of Sikkim's guardian deity.

Surrounded by Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, Sikkim is home to over 4000 species of plants, many of them rare. There are 407 known varieties of orchids, 690 types of butterflies and unique birds such as flashy monal golden necked pheasants all hidden amongst verdant forests, flower covered valleys, isolated monasteries and imposing snow covered peaks. Animals abound and even if you don't spot a Yeti (abominable snowman) it is possible to see snow leopards, red pandas, bears, wolves and more. One monastery near Yuksom claims that it had to relocate further down the mountainside due to harassment from wandering Yeti. One of those interesting phenomenon's from the unknown.

Many different people, the Bhutias, Nepalis, Tibetans, Subbas, and the Lepchas have lived here in peace for centuries. This myriad of cultures has been interwoven in every day life and produced a unique Sikkimese culture. Traveling within 25 miles of Bhutan and 30 miles of Tibet it is easy to experience the tribes people and villages that have oozed over the borders, without having to hassle with permits or visas of their parent countries.  We noticed that these different groups or castes are still designated not only by their looks and costume but by their last name. Our friends in Yuksom were D. S. and Budha Subba (Subbas group) and the manager of our hotel was named T. Gaytso Bhutia (of the Bhutia group). No doubt what their ethnic background is. Interesting. How would that work with our mixed up backgrounds in the melting pot called America. Would I be called Nancy Norwegian, English, Irish, Croatian & Scotch?

To our relief, we discovered that it is easy to obtain a travel permit at the Sikkimese border crossing at Rangpo.  The road up to Gangtok winds through lush forests, past hundreds of little waterfalls. Arriving in Gangtok is comical as hundreds of Indian families walk the hills clothed in hilarious attempts to stay warm at this cold hill station elevation of 6000 ft. - a relief from the 100 degree weather on the plains below, but a shock to the system. Having just had my dear polar Tec sweater drop out of the jeep, I joined their ranks with 2 blouses, a windbreaker, a gortex jacket and a silk scarf around my head. Though once you started walking up the hills layer after layer peeled away. Supposedly high season, it was pulsating and we were sad to hear that the bad habit of guzzling hard liquor has caught on in Indian hill stations, making for noisy houseguests and less than happy families. We spent the next day driving through winding, narrow mountain roads, exploring waterfalls and gazing over spectacular vistas.  We saw Himalayan bears, wolves and civets in their forested surroundings at the Zoological Park; later spotting a magnificent snow leopard, red pandas and finally surreptitiously petting a purring female mountain leopard through the wire, as her enormous male companion growled with disapproval or envy. Stopping at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, the Orchid Sanctuary and Enchey Monastery, we finally twisted our way up to Rumtek Gompa Monastery. Hiding away in a little tea house for some Tibetan momos, potatoes, and vegetables we then walked up the hill in search of the legendary black hat used to crown the Karmapas or leaders of this black hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Woven from the "hair of angels", this hat has to be kept locked up in a heavy wooden box to prevent it from flying back to heaven. No one has seen this ruby topped hat since 1993 and only when the 17th Karmapa takes his rightful place on the golden throne in the main hall, can the box be opened. Rumtek was constructed between 1961 and 1966 to replace Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, which was destroyed during China's cultural revolution. The young 17th Karmapa fled from Tibet in 2000 and awaits the day when he can rule this displaced Buddhist sect, only after political tensions have died down with the big Chinese neighbor to the north. When in Tibet in 1999, during a period of paranoia by the Chinese government, I was approached by a Tibetan man at a restaurant, asking if I wanted a private blessing and Buddhist initiation by the Karmapa, 2000 ft up from Lhasa, in a neighboring monastery. I told him I was interested in Tibetan meditation, but not the dharma or scriptures. He told me I already "knew the dharma..." and to please join this group of pilgrims, free of charge, to meet the Karmapa. This was the second time, out of the clear blue, I had been told I was a reincarnated Tibetan monk. "O mani padmi hum." I still remember my disappointment when a respiratory infection, common at such high elevations, prevented me from climbing up to the higher, dangerous altitude. We still talked to this man several times, and with each encounter it seemed as if we were being watched or followed by authorities more and more. In the Potala Palace we even played hide and seek with the man tailing us, thinking it was fun. Just months after spending so much time with the Karmapa's assistant we read in Asian Newsweek that this young 16 year old leader of the Tibetan Black Hat sect had made a daring escape to Dharamsala in northern India, involving hiding in the trunks of vehicles, a helicopter ride across the Mustang, and finally crossing the mountains by foot; all with the Chinese officials in hot pursuit. Guilty by association in that case, Joseph and I were pleased to see that this paranoia has subsided in China. Authorities are moving forward and trying to have the upcoming Olympics happen without incident. The Chinese government is still touchy about acknowledging the reign of the new 17th Karmapa, as they will be with the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, when he flies beyond the snow peaks. We have all made forward, positive changes in our lives. Let's hope that the Chinese government is able to continue doing the same.

We walked around Rumtek Monastery, transported back to neighboring Tibet, as monks debated each other in their unique slapping fashion. Other monks chanted or read scriptures, and from the rooftop we witnessed the backdrop of magnificent snow peaks, while 4 llamas played 10 ft long copper and brass horns, considered holy in Buddhism. We drifted back down the mountainside to Gangtok, floating on the notes resounding from the peaks. 

The trip through Ravangla to Pelling from Gangtok was a non stop treat to the senses. The road snaked it's way along steep cliff sides, followed river valleys, and crossed mountain passes; through forests dripping with orchids, rice terraces, bamboo and hapu groves and tiny villages. At 6500 ft elevation, Pelling is a funny little village, its development hanging precariously on the unrivalled views of Mt. Khangchendzonga (Tibetan meaning: big 5 peaked snow fortress). Ritualistically, weary travelers drag themselves out of their warm covers in hopes of glimpsing this elusive 28,209 ft peak, knowing that it only grants brief audiences for those who persevere (Mt. Everest is 29,035 ft. and 2nd highest K2, or Chogori, is 28,251ft.). The Portuguese couple we talked to had been trying for 4 days to see the peak, and on this, their last morning, their reward was returned tenfold. During the rainy season it is easy to ask, "Mountains, what mountains?" as only the lush green lower mountains are visible. When the big boys, the snow mountains, grace you with their presence, your heart skips a beat and joy wells up inside you. The glory of our astonishing world is revealed and one can only be thankful for the beautiful gifts of Mother Nature.    

As the first rays sun kissed the summit of Mt. Khangchendzonga, the world's 3rd highest peak, the veil of clouds parted revealing the 11 snow peaks, standing like sentinels at the gateway of the Himalayas. Prayer flags fluttered in the breeze, carrying their messages toward the heavens. Birds sang in harmony, greeting the new day. It was one of those instances during which every sentient being pauses in the moment, remembering that there is something greater at work in this masterpiece called life. Slowly the day unfolded around us, with wooden shutters flinging open to exclamations of wonder at the spectacle before them. The Tibetan family from the guesthouse finished their incantations in their rooftop prayer room and lit juniper branches in the burner resembling an alchemical oven. Joseph prepared our fruit salad and we ate up on the roof, watching as the clouds danced over the peaks and the villagers in the lush green valleys below came alive. Suddenly, about 2 hours after the show began the curtain dropped and these mysterious sentries disappeared from view, retreating to their mystical realm.

Up and ready to go at 6:30am (a rare occurrence in colder climes) we decided to walk an hour through the forest up to Pemayangtse Gompa (2105 meters). One of Sikkim's oldest and most significant Nyingmapa Buddhist 'gompas', or monasteries, it was founded in 1705. Named "Perfect Sublime Lotus", it is located high atop a hill surveying the surrounding valley, the location in the pine forests was spectacular. We were spurred forward up the path by the sound of a lively 'puja' by 50 monks, complete with horns, drums, symbols, singing, chanting and rice throwing. The hall upstairs houses fierce statues of deities, and the top floor has an intricately painted 20 ft tall carving, created by a single monk in 5 years, supposedly from one tree trunk, depicting the usual lower terrors of hell, life on middle earth, and the wonders of Padmasambhava's heavenly abode. Recently painted colored murals line the walls and tantric funny business involving even the less than bashful blue Buddha, are covered by 6 gold cloths, rewarding only the curious.

We sat and took in the whole ambience of the 'puja', watching as serious leaders carried less than enthusiastic mini monks on their shirt tails, some nodding off to sleep, sneaking food or the whole row of 'tadpoles' in the back poking, squirming and finally practicing the fine art of hand goggles from the ranks of 'junior birds men'. This reminded me of antics during long Catholic masses as a child, such as dropping little balls of fluff down on bald heads from the choir loft above, starting to laugh so hard that we had to walk out before exploding, needing a bathroom run to prevent dying of boredom, or finally perfecting different finger games. Once the puja ended we exchanged finger games with the mini monks and we are sure the new one we taught them will ripple through their ranks next puja. As we were leaving the main courtyard we were invited to join the head monk and his assistant for a delicious vegetarian lunch. At seventy seven and 64 years these old monks were warm, friendly and their twinkle gave away their connection with the greater good. Just as we started down the hill the heavens opened up and we ducked into the little 'Lotus Bakery', run by the school across the road. We enjoyed fresh vegetable puffs steaming from the oven and split a piece of hot apple pie, as we talked with several foreign volunteers teaching at the school. After 'goofing' with the jumping, uniformed little school kids we headed back down the mountain.   What a morning! 

The following day after a spectacular encore by the snow peaks and inspired to get an early start by the afternoon downpours, we headed up another mountain in search of Sangachoeling Monastery. The ascent brought us past forests, green farmland and remote villages in the valleys below, and finally up through the mist to the tiny monastery perched up in the clouds. The view was dramatic amid the fluttering prayer flags and the monks, all dressed in sweatpants and t-shirts were friendly, making up for the undistinguished little temple. We were invited over and over again to join them in their puja the following day but that climb isn't something we wanted to repeat. Savour the moment.  Who knows what tomorrow would bring.  Even the snow peaks were completely hidden behind clouds the next morning.

The superlatives continued as we drove from Pelling to Yuksam. It is hard not to sound like a travel brochure when describing these far off corners of Sikkim; hidden away for centuries in the Himalayas. After taking a jeep on the rough roads it is easy to understand why most parts of this amazing little kingdom remain untouched. Waking up in the sleepy mountain village of Yuksom, we were greeted by villagers singing merrily as they went about their day, birds chiming in, yak bells tinkling, and streams providing harmony. We feasted our eyes on one of the snow peaks poking out above the mist settling in on the green mountainsides. The Subba, Tibetan and Bhutia locals were welcoming, humble folks completely untouched by the outside world, especially when a downed tree stopped their spotty electricity service for 48 hours. Quiet and peaceful. We were drawn in like moths to a flame and we spent the next 4 days visiting with locals at little tea shops, hiking through the countryside, and cooking our dinner while often discussing health with the Subbanese couple D. S., Budha and daughter Elkei each night. It all started with Joseph buying the only bananas in the village from their tiny shop. They wanted to learn more about a vegan diet - they were vegetarians - and we spent many delightful hours together while cooking. I learned how to make 'momos' from scratch. It took over 2 hours! After dinner we would share a cup of tea by candlelight. Progressive thinkers D. S. was an environmental teacher, Budha a nurse, and they welcomed our ideas on the Home Stay they are building. After all, we have a few ideas about accommodations after 5 years on the road. We encouraged them to use local materials and art, rather than constructing another mismatched 'wanna be' western hotel. They grow all their food in their organic garden and confirmed the claim of billboards stating that all of Sikkim produce is grown organically. The King and later the Minister of Environment traveled around the world searching out new ideas for keeping Sikkim plastic free, clean, green and serene. With the diligent guidance over the years, of an American group of volunteers, we were overjoyed to see that it IS working.

Trekking through the mountains around Yuksom is the main reason a few straggling travelers end up there. The arduous 10 day treks up to the snow mountains or Goecha Peak require permits, and thus are expensive ($30-50 day). Just picking a path and seeing where it leads is a rewarding alternative. Located in a valley, most of the paths wind up the mountainsides through lush, mature cryptomeria pine forests and along rushing streams. Checking out our fitness level real quick, we luxuriated in the silence and the final view from the top.

Yuksom means 'meeting place of the three lamas', referring to the trio of Tibetan holy men who established their first temple in Sikkim in 1641. Peaceful tree filled Norbugang Park holds the original coronation throne of the first Chogyal  or king  and is a relaxing place to sit, as is holy Kathok Lake across the road. There are 2 newly renovated Gompas near Yuksom, supposedly rebuilt by a revered Rimpoche, or precious lama held in high esteem, and given to the people of the area; Kathok Wodsllin Gompa and Ngadhak Changchub Choling. As always, temples are located in serene, inspiring places and worth the walk. The jewel in the crown is the difficult but rewarding trek up the stone path to Dubdi Gompa, high above Yuksom on a mountaintop overlooking the whole valley. Traveling through Yeti country, not a single one showed his furry head.  We had to be content with squirrels, herds of yaks, bands of 'mariachi frogs' and endless chirping birds. Established in 1701 it is labeled Sikkim's oldest monastery, with a small stone temple housing old wooden beams and lively murals. Climb up in the morning, before the mist moves in, to have time to enjoy sitting in the serene gardens surrounding the temple.

It was here that we met, Tenzing, a monk from Arunachal Pradesh. His reputation preceded him, as he drifts from village to monastery, drinking tongba (fermented millet seed 'hooch') talking to women in hopes of having a relationship, telling of his two wives in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, and discussing openly about the secret lives of Buddhist monks. Claiming many of them have girlfriends or little boy monk friends he is taking Lord Buddha's advice literally: "Do as you wish as long as there are no attachments". He freely admitted that he was 'weak' against the temptations of the flesh this time around. We spent the afternoon with him discussing religion and ideologies. He acknowledged that each monastery has a few centered, mystical monks, but many use the ritual and fear of damnation as a front for controlling the masses, as they live their secret lives. After over 10 years as a monk he is fed up with the hypocrisy that plagues all religions. Once villagers observe his behavior, they often shout at him and tell him to remove his holy garb. We asked him why he didn't just don sweat pants and a t-shirt in exchange for his maroon and saffron robes, but it seems the perks of the job: free lodging in monasteries, reduced passage on buses, and regular 'free lunches', keep him flaunting his truth in the face of believers. Who are we to judge? What an interesting, colorful character.

We literally crawled down the side of the mountains in our shared taxi sumo jeep, along dirt trails and across spectacular suspension bridges through Tashiding, ending in Jorethang.  As we said goodbye to Sikkim we climbed back up into the mountains on a narrow paved road surrounded by endless miles of the famous Darjeeling tea plantations. The perfect springtime weather of Yuksom was replaced by cloudy, cold, and the often rainy weather of Darjeeling. Formally home to Nepali born Tenzing Norgay, and now his son, Jamling, it is easy to see that he is revered in Darjeeling. The first man, alongside Sir Edmund Hillary, to conquer Mt. Everest, he started as a simple sherpa waiting his turn for an expedition to the tallest mountain in the world. In those days they used to walk from here to Tibet and attempt to ascend the north face. I met Tenzing at Northland College in Wisconsin, when I was only 16 and gazed in awe, along with a small handful of people, at the movie he took from the top of the world. An inspiration to me, it was fun to once again walk in his footsteps. When the clouds part and Everest shows it's magnificent head from Tiger Hill, if you look carefully you may just catch a glimpse of Tenzing's spirit enjoying the view.

Another one of those hill stations flooded by hoards of Indian tourists escaping the heat of the plains, just arrive ready to jump into the fray. Weather permitting there are endless attractions to take in, including unbeatable views of the mountains, a zoo, museums, temples, monasteries, and the infamous Toy Train, a steam engine built with a 2 ft wide track system in the 1880's mainly to haul potatoes, of all things. Booked ahead for weeks, Joseph had always wanted to take a ride on it. As we left the carriage after a short 10 minute ride because the steam engine broke down, we joined in the disappointment of the Indian couple next to us who sighed, "Things in India always get all jumbled up."

With only 2 days left on our Indian visa we couldn't believe our ears: there would be a 'bonda' or strike the next 2 days. Not wanting to tangle with the Indian Immigration authorities we immediately caught one of the only jeeps running down toward Siliguri. Told there were no buses running to the border because of the strike we caught the only phantom bus as it raced by. In the rain in Pasupati, we piled into a rickshaw pulled by a strapping young man, across the bridge and along the 2km bumpy road towards Nepal. Closing at 7p.m. we had only 20 minutes to make it. No problem!  Little did we realize that oddly the time changed 15 minutes ahead when we crossed into Nepal.  Arriving at the border crossing at 7:05p.m. in the dark, we rushed in to find a vacant office. Luckily the officers had just gone upstairs where they lived, and happily came back down to issue us visas. Namastes! We breathed a sigh of relief and thanks as we entered this laid back mountain Kingdom of Nepal.

And so it goes.........................................Next month the rooftop of the world, Nepal.  Until then let's take the time to see how much money rules our lives.  Who's the master and who's the slave?  If necessary make some changes in our priorities, simplify wants and become in control once again.  It's not how much you earn, it's what you don't spend that makes the difference.   Until next month Keep Smiling and  Take Care!.  We are glad you stopped by. Thanks for keeping in touch, we always love hearing from you!


Love, Light & Laughter, 
xoxoox  Nancy & Joseph

Travel notes:

$1.00US = 40 Rupees

Hotel Prince, Near Nayuma Cable Office, Tibet Rd. Phone # 737101, friendly older couple run this busy place, packing Indian tourists in each night. Both this and Ken... Residency upstairs are clean with hot water, if a little worn around the edges. Rooms vary. With both get a room with a view, front, big opening windows (450r high season). There are so many places, but in high season they were all full. Look around. Get into the festive mood of Indian families out playing.
Several 'hole in the wall' places along the main plaza serve good, cheap S Indian food. One up the stairs even boasts a vintage 10 inch black and white TV to which the less than busy staff are glued.

Hotel Garuda, down the steps from the 'roundabout' 300r, clean but worn rooms, some with partial mountain view windows.  Run by Dewa & a Tibetan family, Daw Lamu is a sparkling 12 yr old girl 'employed' in the hotel and she loves to have you chat with her.  Best part of this hotel is the rooftop!
Take a shared jeep to Khecheopalri Lake from Pelling. Enjoy the lake and hike 20 minutes up and stay at the Pala Guesthouse. We weren't able to arrange a jeep so we missed it but it comes highly recommended. You can then hike to Yuksam 3-4 hours. Round trip from Yuksom can take up to 10 hours, depending on weather so maybe arranging to have your bags dropped in Yuksom and doing the hike would be a good option?

Hotel Yangrigang, on the way into town, across from the Ngadhak Monastery gate, phone # 03595 - 241217, basic but charming Swiss Chalet rooms with wooden floors and half walls, cheaper the further down you go but only 400r finds you in a good room. Many to choose from along the road.

Jungle View Homestay, all the way through town towards the Hospital, as the road veers sharply up the hill, continue straight. First place on the left. 200r, home cooked family style meals 50pp

D.S. and Budha's Guesthouse:  phone # 97330 4983  97330 51803 (the name was yet to be chosen) is a little down the same lane as Jungle View on the right, across from the Hospital and should be worth checking out. Great people who understand the concept of tourism and good service ( a certified guide), they speak good English and will be helpful in making your stay in Yuksom memorable. They plan to make fresh food from their organic garden, teach guests local customs and handicrafts, organize shorter hikes visiting villages and unique places. Don't miss them. They should be open by August 2008.

Darjeeling, West Bengal:
Buddhist Lodge, 43/1 Laden-la Road, phone # 0354-2254710, cell 9832049571, up an alley from the main taxi/bus stand. Have the address ready as it is almost impossible to find in the warren of tiny alleys making up Darjeeling. A simple, quiet place right in the middle of the action. Pick one of the rooms with the windows forward, top floor best. Let attentive and sweet Krishna help you settle in and find your way around the city.

A slower version of Darjeeling, this was recommended as an alternative to the hustle, bustle of Darjeeling.





Yaks hauling wood down the main road in Yuksam.


Mini monk.


Prayer flags flutter in the breeze, sending prayers to the heavens.


We traded secrets on how to avoid boredom with this little monk
 - alias "junior birds man".


Ah, the Himalayas, Rooftop of the World!


We were invited to share a delicious vegetarian lunch and pleasant conversation with these two older monks.


 Brass horns, six to ten ft long, echo through the mountains
 at prayer time.


 This mini monk was sent to retie the broken prayer flags.  Every time
 he would get the knot almost done we would wave at him and he would
smile and wave back, dropping the flags.  After 3 times, we left him to
his task. wondering how many times we could have fooled him?


Reading the Tibetan Buddhist scriptures.


Debating the teachings of Buddha.


A lively puja, not unlike a New Orleans funeral jazz band.


This female mountain leopard loved having her neck rubbed through
 the cage, while the enormous male growled in disapproval.


Off to school.


We made momos with D.S., Budha and Elkei in their kitchen.  Yummy!













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