Friday, May 11, 2007

Himalayan Holiday - To Gangtok

Paras introduced us to our guide John who would accompany us for most of the trip, and then we left the airport for Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. The journey is almost 100 kilometres, but the twisty Himalayan roads would mean that it would take about four hours. This would include a brief stop at the border town of Rangpo to collect an Inner Line Permit for me. Sikkim is a sensitive area being close to three neighbouring countries: Nepal, Bhutan and, most sensitive of all, China. For this reason foreigners are restricted when it comes to travelling in Sikkim. Fisrt you need an Inner Line Permit to enter at all; various other areas require further permits, and some locations are completely off limits. Fortunately Paras knew what to do, and we would experience no problems.

First we had to leave West Bengal, my first communist state, Ukraine having given up on that ideology some time before I went there in 1999. Bagdogra is on the plains at an altitude of 126m. The terrain changes swiftly to mountinous - Darjeeling is only 25 miles away as the crow files at an altitude of over 2,100m. The first stretch however is straight and flat, and the signposts warn of wild elephants. Soon the hills loom up and the bends start. The signs change from warnings of pachyderms to cute rhyming couplets urging drivers not to fall off the road: 'Don't be silly/The road is hilly' and 'Enjoy the valley/It's not a rally'. Paras had thoughtfully provided some beer in a coolbox which helped to soothe out the bumps.

We made a stop to take pictures of the arched Coronation Bridge over the Teesta river. Whilst I was walking outside the vehicle, a local asked me where I was from. He then wanted to know how rural England compared to our current location. In particular he wanted to know what crops were grown. He was concerned that we didn't grow rice or mangos, but seemed happy when I told him we import some from India. We didn't cross the bridge, as that would take us eastwards to Assam. Instead we pressed on towards Sikkim.

As we continued upwards the temperature dropped and the plant-life became a bit less tropical. Many hairpins later we reached the checkpoint at Rangpo. Sikkim is a relatively new addition to the Indian union, having been an independent, absolute monarchy prior to 1975. Border posts and passport stamps mean that there is still a feel of travelling 'somewhere else'. The Inner Line Permit was issued promptly and with minimum fuss, but we had to wait for our driver to finish his meal. This gave us an opportunity to walk around Rangpo's main shopping street. The obvious difference was the amount of wine shops. Wine shops tend to stock more whisky and beer than wine, but that is the name by which off-licences trade in India. Brewing is a major industry in Sikkim, and alcohol isn't taxed. That makes it a popular purchase for people on the other side of the state line: Rangpo is an Indian equivalent of Calais.

Passes acquired, and driver fed, we continued into the night to Gangtok. We were staying in the Sonam Palgey hotel. This was built for guests to the last king of Sikkim's coronation in 1963. The woman at reception was wearing the national dress, and the main foyer had some colourful tables and black and white photos of the ex-royalty. Some of the pictured women had hairstyles that would not look out of place in a Star Wars movie.

We then went to the restaurant for some food before bed. We noticed pork on the menu; very tempting as we hadn't had any in quite a while. Being used to spicy food a vindaloo held no fear, and nor did a mild beer to wash things down. How wrong we were. The beer was my first warning, an unfamiliar Sikkim brew, it was emblazoned with the words 'HIT SUPER STRONG' and promised a Yak felling 8% alcohol. I called over the waiter and pointed out that I had asked for mild, usually a respectable 5% in Pune. He replied that this was the mild version! Next came the food. As is common in India we were given some raw green chillies to munch. The ones in Pune, whilst hot, are quite edible. Amateurs beware: I can drink neat Tabasco with no ill effects. One bite was enough to demonstrate that the chillies from the north east are a breed apart. They were insanely hot. The north east is after all the home of the fearsome Naga Jolokia, aka the world's hottest chilli. The raw chillies set the tone for the rest of the meal. This vindaloo, with an authentic sauce rather than the British curry-house variety, was a scorcher. San eventually ordered some raita, which along with the beer provided some welcome relief. The curry conquered, it was off to bed; tomorrow we would be sightseeing in Gangtok and the immediate surrounds.

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1 Comments:

Blogger ASHOKANISM said...

good

10:07 PM

 

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