We had spent two amazing weeks travelling from Kerala, our home-state, to Delhi, Agra, Sikkim and North Bengal.
It was now time to return.
Sanjeez drove us from Darjeeling back down into the plains of Badogra.
From there we flew to Delhi, then Cochin.
Our journey had taken in some of the greatest and most iconic sights of India:
The Red Fort;
The Taj Mahal;
I had celebrated my 59th birthday during this trip
and it was one of the happiest and most fascinating holidays I’ve experienced in all those years.
The disaster struck just three days after we were safely back in Kerala.
The Himalayas were hit by an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale.
Its epicentre was Gangtok, where we had spent the first three days of our Himalayan adventure.
The devastation wreaked on the mountain communities and roads was immense.
Well over one hundred people died.
A confluence of colour,
The contrast of light and shade,
A meeting of land and sky,
The occasional harmonies of monks and music,
The fusing of health and safety,
And the fellowship of friends in need.
All were encountered as we travelled on to Darjeeling.
..”Strange friend,” I said, “here is no cause to mourn.”
“None,” said that other, “save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also..
From “Strange Meeting” by Wilfred Owen.
Pictures taken in Gangtok and Kalimpong, Sikkim.
When we left our hotel in Pelling, the hotel manager came with us.
During our stay he had developed a respiratory tract infection and worsening fever.
As we checked-out, he asked if we could drop him at the next town.
Unlike Pelling, it boasted a hospital.
Initially I had assumed his cough was due to the dust that swept through the hotel lobby.
– it was undergoing a major refurbishment –
but now the poor man was looking distinctly unwell.
On ushering him to the front of the Toyota, our hotelier assured me a back-seat was quite adequate.
But I gently insisted that he sit in the more spacious front seats, relax and enjoy the view.
I felt rather hypocritical:
Our patient had interpreted my gesture as an act of chivalry and kindness.
My motive was less noble.
I thought him less likely to spread contagion if kept in relative isolation.
We left him at the hospital then continued our journey to Kalimpong.
Our paths never crossed again.
All pictures taken on the road to Kalimpong.
Having left the lake of dreams our minds returned to less lofty aspirations.
In the short-term, I was happy to settle for tea.
A simple lodge was found and refreshments ordered.
Then, after exploring a giant Buddhist prayer wheel
And the local shops
We headed back to Pelling.
Pictures taken in Sikkim.
We were told that no leaf ever rests upon the lake:
for should one fall upon its surface, birds swoop down to remove it.
wishes made beside this lake are always fulfilled.
Khecheopalri Lake is considered sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists.
It can only be reached by walking a quiet woodland path,
marked by small piles of stones and colourful prayer flags.
The path ends at a wooden jetty.
The lake itself is surprisingly small,
But its silence is powerful;
Its untrammelled interconnection to life and nature, almost palpable.
Having cast silent hopes upon the waters,
we walked – and wondered – back towards our car.
The lake remains unchanged:
still; patient; mute.
Eternally waiting on her next petitioner,
and another dream..
Pictures taken at Lake Khecheopalri in Sikkim.
After three nights in Gangtok, it was time to move on to Pelling:
a six-hour journey hugging the sides of steep hills and gorges.
We dipped in and out of cloud, slowly rising above this landscape of terraced rice paddies.
A land of diverse beauty and character.
Pictures taken on the road from Gangtok to Pelling, Sikkim.
Pictures of Robin – my kind helper, travel companion and friend – taken in Rumtek Buddhist Monastery, Sikkim.
The Buddhist monks in Rumtek are not an enclosed community.
They seem to be in constant communication with the outside world.
Pictures taken at Rumtek Monastery, Sikkim.
Pictures taken in Rumtek Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Sikkim.
Situated less than thirty kilometres from Gangtok, Rumtek is the largest monastery in Sikkim.
Rumtek glories in brilliant colour, inside and out.
But it is also the site of sectarian contention.
A situation serious enough to warrant armed guards, who politely but thoroughly examined our passports and paperwork.
Sadly, Tibetan Buddhists are not immune to the violence and community-shattering controversies which beset all religions.
Pictures taken at Rumtek Tibetan Buddhist Monastery, Sikkim.
An offer of tea is difficult to refuse,
Even when a little climbing is involved.
Pictures taken in Gangtok, Sikkim.
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 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.
Until I visited India, my concept of its geography was flawed.
I imagined it sat like an inverted triangle, pointing down into the Indian Ocean.
This is not the case.
India is shaped like a diamond whose top has met with mishap:
Perhaps a telling metaphor for Partition; Britain’s farewell gift to the subcontinent.
The triangle I envisioned was the southern half of India.
A northern landmass of almost equal size sits above that, its apex still pushing inexorably up into Asia, giving rise to the Himalayas.
Because of this geography, to reach north-east India from Delhi, we would be travelling south-west:
over 1,000 km south-west,
The state of Sikkim lacks its own airport so we flew from Delhi to Bagdogra, North Bengal.
We travelled with Kingfisher – surely the only airline owned by a brewery.
Rather disappointingly, they did not serve beer.
But it was a comfortable flight, made even more pleasant by a cabin crew of charming air-hostesses
Wary of cold weather, I had come well prepared not only for alpine vistas but also for a cooler climate.
As we stepped onto the tarmac I scanned the landscape, waiting to be awed by my first glimpse of the mighty Himalayas.
There was nothing.
Not even a small hill.
The surrounding countryside appeared utterly flat, and the temperature positively tropical.
But there was no time to ponder such matters.
Our bags should soon emerge on the luggage carousels and, hopefully, a new driver would be waiting to greet us..
Photograph taken on-board the Kingfisher Airbus. Map of India taken from the web.
If you’ve got it:
Picture of boy with umbrella taken in Upper Pelling, Sikkim.
Taking a break.
The man with the golden gum-boots..
Picture taken during my travels in Sikkim, North India
Picture taken at the Rumtek Tibetan Buddhist monastery, Sikkim.
Picture taken at the Institute of Handicraft and Handloom, Gangtok, Sikkim.
Adopting a posture.
Picture taken on the road to Gangtok, Sikkim, during my travels in northern India.