Sikkim: tranquility and momos

“I slip, I slide, I gloom, I glance,
Among my skimming swallows;
I make the netted sunbeam dance
Against my sandy shallows.

I murmur under moon and stars
In brambly wildernesses;
I linger by my shingly bars;
I loiter round my cresses;

And out again I curve and flow
To join the brimming river,
For men may come and men may go,
But I go on forever.”

-A.L. Tennyson

Sikkim is a landlocked state in the north-eastern part of India, sharing its borders with China, Bhutan, and Nepal. Surrounded by the Himalayas, Sikkim used to be an independent country, until it joined India in 1975.

I had vehemently opposed travelling to Sikkim at first. “You always take us to the mountains.” I cried to my parents incessantly. “They are beautiful and all, but they are all the same!”

But oh, how wrong was I! Sikkim was different. It was very, very, different.

Sikkim is not an easy place to reach.

The nearest railway station, as well as the nearest airport, is located near Siliguri in West Bengal. Sikkim is approximately a five-hour drive from Siliguri, that is five hours of picturesque views and breathtaking sceneries.
River Teesta crawled along with us, slowly and gracefully, leading the way to Sikkim. Vibrantly painted houses, heavily influenced by Buddhist architecture, with sloping roofs and narrow windows, lined the way. Mountains overlapped and separated. The clouds that we saw up above were soon next to us, and sooner still, below us.

It was almost like we were driving up to paradise, and paradise it was.

Probably the most exciting thing about visiting a new place is to try the local food there. For me, ‘Thukpa’ was one of the two highlights of my food expeditions in Sikkim.
Thukpa is a dish consisting of soupy-noodles. It originated in Tibet and is quite popular in Sikkim. All we had to do was have hot, piping Thukpa, on a cold day, in a small hotel we found midway our road trip, to understand why it was so popular there.

The other highlight was, of course, momos.

I remember the first lunch that I had in Sikkim.
We stopped at a restaurant on our way to Gangtok, and being the north-Indian I am, I ordered roti. “It would take an hour.” the waiter said. “One hour for a roti?!” I exclaimed. How could cooking a roti possibly take anything more than fifteen minutes tops? But that’s just how it was like for the next two weeks that I spent in the eastern part of India -no rotis. “What can we have right away, then?” I asked. “Noodles, rice, and momos,” he said simply.

And momos we had -lots of them.

We later asked the local driver, who was driving us around, about momos. “Do you often cook them at home?” my father asked. “Of course!” the driver replied. “We often have them for lunch. My wife and I prepare them all day, but by the time it is lunch-hour, all the momos are finished. The children can’t resist sneaking them out of the kitchen.”

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One of the most distinctive features about Sikkim was the inclination of the locals towards education.

I remember walking into a small tea-shop, in the middle of nowhere, very far away from the main-town of Gangtok, and coming across a little boy, probably eleven or twelve-years-old, sitting on a chair, his legs popped-up on the table in front of him, effortlessly watching an English film on HBO. He gave me a warm and welcoming smile and signalled to the adults in the kitchen about the arrival of customers. This left me speechless, really. I could honestly not, even remotely, imagine a similar situation in Delhi. “Do you go to school?” I asked him later. “Yes.” he said. “What class are you in?” I asked. “Sixth,” he said, a little irritated. I was clearly disturbing his movie-time. Giving him a smile, I walked out, feeling proud for some reason.

On another day, as our taxi drove out of the parking of a tourist location, a young boy approached us for the parking fee. “Rs. 20/-” he said. My father, in a jolly mood, decided to grill him a little. Somewhere in the middle of the conversation, my father asked the boy if he went to school. “Yes, I am in class tenth.” the boy replied. “Why are you working here, then?” asked Papa. “I have holidays.” he replied simply.

Towards the end of our trip, we went to Zero Point, which is at the height of 15,500 ft. There we came across a young woman who was pursuing Masters in English and had set up a food-stall there, at such a height in such chill, to earn extra pocket-money for her studies. Probably for the same reason that I had felt proud a couple of days ago, my proud father had us have a picture clicked with her.

Lachung, a village in North Sikkim, at the height of 9,600 ft, serves as the base camp for people that wish to travel to Zero Point. A beautiful village with vibrantly painted houses, most of which serve as hotels, and the Lachung river, a tributary of River Teesta, running through its heart, Lachung left me spellbound. As we went out for a walk during the night, when the temperature was around -7º C, listening to the river flow, watching the stars, and feeling the cool wind, I felt intimidated, and yet, liberated. Intimidated because here I was, in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of nature. And liberated because here I was, in the middle of nowhere, at the mercy of nature.

The next morning we left for Yumesamdong, popularly known as Zero Point. As we drove higher, and higher still, countless emotions ran through me. The roads were dilapidated, the mountains covered with fresh snow, and the tracks covered with ice. Despite the glaring danger, the mountains provided a unique calmness. “If you were human, you’d be femme fatale -a very, very, beautifully dangerous woman,” I whispered to the mountains.

There was one sight in particular, that left me speechless. Our driver stopped the car in the middle of the broken road to show us a beautiful sight of destruction. He pointed to the mountain that we were driving on, “When the earthquake hit Nepal last year, lots of destruction took place here. Rocks from this mountain flew right there -” he pointed towards the mountain on our right, the one right opposite to the one we were driving on, “and cut the trees there into halves.” He showed us the wood that lay at the foot of that mountain. That mountain was indeed injured terribly. In that one moment, I realised how unimportant and worthless human life was in the larger scheme of things; we were all at the mercy of the forces of nature.

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Zero Point, at the height of 15,000 ft, is just what its name is about -it is the point where India ends for civilians, the point where the road ends. Located very close to the Indo-China border, Zero Point is everything you could have ever imagined, and more. The sun shone brightly above half snow-covered mountains and frozen lakes. The chill was unbearable and the winds fast. There were stalls lined with alcohol, selling hot tea and noodles.

In that moment and at that place, everything around me was suddenly infinite.

There were two things that we came across in Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, that were sheer brilliance.
The first was the way they handled the traffic.

All roads in Gangtok were lined with a walkway that was fenced with green iron frames. It regulated traffic excellently. There were traffic policemen at each crossing to ensure that the pedestrians could cross the road at ease. There was a rule in place to ensure that no car stopped on a busy road, and what was wonderful was that the citizens took this very seriously. The dedication of the citizens towards ensuring that this entire set-up worked efficiently was indeed, commendable.

The other wonderful thing was how the roads were lined with beautiful flowers. They were beautifully and strategically placed on the mountain-side of the road and were maintained regularly. “The wife of the Chief Minister is very fond of gardening,” our driver told us, “and it is from her gardens that these flowers are brought. Her love for greenery and flowers is one of the reasons why Gangtok looks beautiful. It’s a perfect revenue model as well -the money of the state remains within the state!”.
“These roadside flowers are a new feature here, though.” our driver told us. “The Prime Minister is visiting Sikkim for the first time. Maybe he should visit every six months -I am sure that would serve as great incentive to beautify the city.”

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And this is just an additional family selfie with a red panda in the background (skew your eyes a little and zoom in -I swear its there), because you really cannot conclude an article on Sikkim without mentioning the super-cute and super-lazy red pandas.

Somewhere deep inside, we’re all red pandas.

Calcutta: the city of yellow and chaos

Kolkata, formerly and lovingly known as Calcutta, is the capital of West Bengal and the principal hub of commerce, culture, education, and arts, in the eastern part of India. It is located on the Hoogly river and maintains an old-world like charm. In the one week that I spent in Kolkata, I realised fully well that this was definitely not the last time I would be there.

Through this short article, I would be trying to do the impossible, that is explaining to you through few instances and pictures how Kolkata was like.
Why impossible, you ask?
Because Kolkata was, in all senses, ineffable.

If I had to describe Kolkata in one word, I would pick ‘quaint’.

As we drove through the streets of Kolkata, I felt like I had been transported to the past.
I was accustomed to the tall buildings, fancy houses, endless flyovers, and the overhead metro tracks of Delhi. The short, similarly painted houses of Kolkata, with wide roads and almost no overhead metro tracks took me by surprise. Despite being full of people, cars, and chaos, the city had a different kind of space, a quaint openness, that gave the city an old-world charm. Yellow taxis shuttled across the city incessantly. Tram tracks peacefully coexisted with cars. Hand-pulled rickshaws carried people around slowly. There were countless Hindustan Ambassador’s, sported not by beacons, but owned by the citizens. The majestic bridges, the Howrah and the Hoogly, are awesome and breathtaking. My aversion to fish moderated slightly as I hogged onto delicious homemade pomfret. The roshgullas and sondesh were next level altogether. Having heard so much about the richness of Bengali theatre, I even watched a Bengali dance-drama, of which I didn’t understand one word, and yet walked out mesmerised.
As I tried keeping up with the different culture and the mesmerising city, it dawned on me that despite being among the top three metropolitan cities in India, Kolkata had a unique way of making you feel like a part of history, making you feel like you had come home.

 

The tram services, then horse-driven, started in Kolkata in 1873. Today the tram is run on electricity and operates on more than twenty routes.
I have always been fascinated with the idea of trams -it is wonderful how trains coexist with modern forms of transportation, on narrow, busy streets. What a perfect blend of history and modernity! Hence, it was only natural that I decided to travel in one before flying back home.

After asking for directions from Park Street, we were directed to ‘Bata Modh’, where we were to find the tram. After walking through narrow lanes filled with chatter and overhead cables, we spotted tram tracks and a tram heading towards us from the opposite direction. Unable to find a station or stop as such, I asked the nearest traffic policeman as to how we were supposed to get onto the tram in the first place. “Just wave and ask them to stop.” he said simply. That is exactly what we did, and made our way inside the tram. The conductor smiled at us and could easily figure out that we were here for a joy ride. As we sat on the wooden, surprisingly well-maintained, seats of the tram, the conductor handed us tickets worth Rs. 5/- to travel in a piece of heritage that surely costs a lot more. Slowly and shakily the tram made its way through the narrow streets of Kolkata, stopping every few minutes to pick up more people.
I sighed as I sadly looked out of the window, hoping this piece of heritage wouldn’t lose to the call of ‘development’ and ‘urbanisation’.

 

I saw the Hoogly bridge twice; once we drove through it, and the other time I went boating below it. Both times its majestic beauty left me breathless.

Known as the Vidyasagar Setu, this absolutely beautiful piece of architecture connects Kolkata in a grand manner. The Princep Ghat, from where one can hire a boat, was maintained well beyond my expectations. As we moved around in the river for half an hour, coming across ships and watching the sun rise higher until it was directly above the bridge, I think I understood why this city has caught the eye of so many.