Gangtok maintains a garden of colourful flowers.
Its older blooms are particularly exotic.
Pictures taken at the Flower Show, Gangtok.
From spiritual sightseeing to ethnic ersatz:
Sanjeez moved us on to the grandly titled “Directorate of Handicraft & Handloom”,
an institute dedicated to preserving local crafts.
We passed through quiet and spacious classrooms,
where students sat at their work in almost total silence.
There was no sign of any teachers.
And like our visit to the Tibetan monastery, this experience felt rather unreal.
We had been charged a small admission fee and I began to wonder if the institute’s main purpose was to be included on the itinerary of every tourist who passed through Gangtok.
The students seemed almost like mime performers,
trapped in their cultural tableau vivant.
Pictures taken at the Directorate of Handicraft and Handloom, Gangtok.
Our first morning in Gangtok found us viewing the Do Drul Chorten, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery
The monks, looking out on their world, appeared to be just as curious as we were.
The community mainly consists of young men in their teens and twenties: some are mere “schoolboys”.
Many are Tibetan refugees.
They were polite but seemed largely indifferent to the presence of pilgrims and tourists.
Instead they appeared determinedly focused on the middle-distance, staring out onto whatever was happening around them.
My assumptions were challenged.
I had expected the monks to be sitting in silent meditation, chanting prayers or reading sacred texts.
But their time seemed largely unstructured.
Although silent, the very strong sense of communication between them was almost palpable.
It was like stepping into a boy’s boarding school during a moment of high drama.
Initially I wondered if the young monks felt like exhibits in an exotic zoo. Perhaps their “look out” was a defence against the constant scrutiny of outsiders and their cameras.
But I saw exactly the same phenomenon in all the monasteries we visited.
Whether it’s a search for distraction, their game of interaction, or part of training in mindfulness, I cannot tell.
The monastery is not an enclosed order.
And although I could not understand what was happening, this community’s strange, unsettling atmosphere had some sort of magnetic attraction.
It defied expectation and explanation.
In my mind, the monks remain inscrutable,
waiting and watching from their window on the world.
Pictures taken at the Do Drul Chorten, Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and Institute of Education.
Our suitcases appeared promptly on Bagdogra’s luggage carousel and within minutes we emerged from the airport terminal.
Once more our arrival was made easy.
A member of the tour company was waiting to welcome and garland us with traditional white Tibetan scarves,
the symbol of pure hope and intentions.
The courier briefly reviewed our itinerary and needs. We exchanged 24 hour contact numbers and he urged us to call in the event of any problem. They would be making contact with us every day to check that all was well.
An extremely young porter had been tailing us, keen to push the luggage trolley. Our guide finally smiled his agreement and gave him a few rupees
Sanjeez, our new driver, was ready.
Unlike Ravinder’s urban saloon, Sanjeez was in charge of a very hefty, all-terrain Toyota.
It seemed there would be mountain vistas after-all..
First the city clutter was left behind.
We then drove through countless miles of a very green but very flat terrain,
the landscape of tea plantations on an almost industrial scale.
But this scenery began to change.
Though it remained green and fertile, we were climbing.
The road looped its way up increasingly steep hills.
Every valley funnelled its own fast-moving river,
and was littered with massive boulders.
Where access was easy, men gathered stones and sand from the riverbed to be used for home and road construction:
the latter a never-ending process in a region subject to frequent landslides.
Intermittent queues punctuated our progress along the road.
They marked the sites of recently fallen rocks or trees.
Road transport would need patience and skill.
Finally we reached Sikkim.
India classifies this state as a restricted area.
Because of unresolved border disputes with China, anyone entering or leaving requires papers.
Robin had brought his Indian passport.
I proffered my “Letters of Transit”:
a crumpled and fading British passport; an Indian lifelong visa; and proof of my status as an “Overseas Citizen of India”.
It felt, just a little, like a scene from Casablanca.
Extra passport photos and copies of my documentation were also required, but we had been pre-warned and were prepared.
With our papers checked and my passport stamped, we continued a relentless ascent for another hour or more until the first stop on our itinerary was finally reached.
Our journey would follow a very small part of the ancient silk route.
The next three nights were to be spent in Gangtok, state capital of Sikkim.
Sanjeez sounded the horn of his Toyota and a team of young staff swooped down to collect our bags.
In a matter of seconds we, and the luggage, were assembled at reception, being welcomed to the first of our hotels in the clouds.
Pictures taken in North Bengal and Sikkim.