Friday, November 16, 2012

Sikkim: Pelling

Sikkim provides the much needed succor to the urban eye tired of fast-pacing itself through concrete jungles and air-conditioned cubbyholes.
What you find is greenery in abundance, mountains, slopes, fresh unpolluted air and plenty of waterfalls.
Pelling is closest to Mt. Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain peak in the world.  The view is something to die for. No painter's hand can do justice to this scenic beauty.This is the view that you wake up to:

Kanchenjunga: view from our room

Kanchenjunga: another view from our room

And there are waterfalls of all sizes! There are so many that our car had to drive through one of them as we went to visit the Kanchenjunga waterfalls. A natural car-wash ! Here's the picture:

Driving through a waterfall

The swirling waterfalls, the regal mountain peaks and the lush greenery all around make Pelling a worthy trip.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Sikkim: tastes, tips and takeaways

Some tips for the tourist, not found in a tour itinerary:

1. When you go on a tour, the norm in India is that the tour operator stops at some restaurant for lunch-break. In Sikkim, you find no such 'proper' place for lunch. You only find some small eateries selling local food.
The local food normally found is noodles, thukpas and momos.  We had a dig at all three. The Momos were quite tasty and my family liked them particularly because of the really spicy chutneys served with them. The chutneys vary from place to place and so do the momos' size. But inside, it is the same stuffing of finely chopped cabbage and carrot.
By default, the thukpa was rejected by family as it was a very, very watered down version of Chowmein and was quite bland in taste. The Chowmein, we found, was ok, though not yummy.

The Thukpa

Momos with the spicy onion-green chilli Chutney
2. It is also important that we do not waste much time in eating at a restaurant. One, there aren't many on your way to the tourist sights. Two, you cannot afford to spend about an hour on ordering and eating food as it is dark by 5 pm itself and you need to complete all the sight seeing before that time.

3. Another strange thing is the abundance of banana trees on all the mountain slopes. Surprising to find these trees one normally associates with the tropical plains and not the colder temperate regions. You are, therefore, assured of finding banana fruit wherever you go. The abundance does not convert to inexpensive though.

4. Day times are ok but nights are cold. So you need some warm clothes. October was pleasant and just one sweater was enough for me. Nathula is much colder and you need to properly protect yourself.

5. Lower oxygen levels at Nathula could be a deterrent for BP patients.

6. As mentioned in my earlier post, a visit to MG Road in Gangtok is a must-visit place, not just for its walk, but also for its many eateries (and pubs too).

7. Sikkim, being a mountainous terrain, you get some very good exercise as you keep climbing and getting down slopes all the time. It looks easy for the locals as they do it all the time but it is not the same for many of us whose only exercise is to move our fingers across the keyboard. Even to go to eating food at the MG Road, we had to climb up a steep flight of 50-60 steps. To do this, I had to stop at least 3-4 times. Going here may not be a great idea for the elderly.

8.  A pleasant surprise was to find many restaurants claiming 'pure vegetarian' food. I found this to be a relief as I thought the North-East India is known for its meat eating habits. Later, I came to know that it is because of the prevalent Buddhist religion which forbids consumption of meat and second, to support the vegetarian tourists who visit the monasteries here.

9. Rabdentse  Palace Ruins at Pelling can be skipped. One, it is almost razed to the ground. Two, you need to walk 2 kms up and down the mountain and it is not worth it! I say this because the climb is definitely quite tough for people not used to trekking. And if you have to go, then start at at least 2:30 pm and not later as you cannot see anything in the dark if you reach late. It took me (a person not used to any physical exercise) almost 45 minutes one way. It was the ancient capital of Sikkim and may be of historical value for the interested.

10. All the monasteries are worth visiting because of the peaceful aura.

11. Particularity intriguing are the 'Mani Khorlo' or the prayer wheel that we found almost everywhere...mostly near monasteries. We are supposed to rotate them clockwise as we say our silent prayers. We found two giant ones in Sikkim...about 10 feet high! Here's the ones that we found on our way to Rumtek Monastery:

Mani Khorlo: On our way to Rumtek Monastery

If I'd stay back, I am sure, with all the physical exercises going up and down the mountains and through breathing the pure mountain air, I'd return much thinner and healthier.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Sikkim: Travel to Nathula Pass, a spine-chilling experience

Nathula, 55 kms from Gangtok, is a mountain pass through the Himalayas connecting India and China. It is at an altitude of 14000 ft above sea level.
To go to Nathula, one needs a permit from the Indian government. It is open to Indian citizens only on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. We were asked to submit two passport size photos and two photo ID proofs (our tour operator insisted on our passports towards ID proof).
We were there just two days after the roads were thrown open after a major landslide in September which had killed four people.

The road after the landslide

And the delayed monsoons ensured that the roads, if any, were full of mud and slush.

A stretch of the slippery road

What was truly a spine-chilling experience was traveling on these roads or non-existent roads. The roads become very narrow in places, sometimes just as much as the width of the vehicle that you are traveling in!  The waterfalls which exist everywhere in Sikkim wash away the roads. Where there is a strong waterfall, it is not possible to have a road, and your vehicle actually rides over the stones to travel across. All the slush on the roads jeopardize your travel further, as you never know when the vehicle could simply slide 14000 ft to the valley below. Though there is lovely scenery and nature filled with trees, mountains and waterfalls all around, you are rudely brought back to the real world with all the rocking and rolling of the car. Most of the time you sit through the journey praying and hoping you make it through. At one place, we waited quite some time for the crane to clear away huge boulders from the route which had come rolling down due to landslide. People are known to be stranded overnight for this very reason. And while returning, unless you manage to climb down before 5 pm, the diminishing visibility only makes things worse. Not for the faint-hearted, this experience!

The road can get as narrow as this
Visiting in winters is ruled out as temperatures can drop to below minus degrees. Visiting in the rainy season is ruled out as heavy rainfalls cause massive landslides. So that leaves a narrow window for visits. While we were there in October-mid, we were shivering from cold. It is necessary to wear shoes, and cover yourself head to toe to save yourself from the biting cold.We also saw some ice falling around us...not snow...just some random pieces of ice here and there.
The vehicle drops you at the bottom of the steps leading to the border and it is a steep climb up around 50-60 steps. Not an easy climb, especially due to lack of oxygen at that altitude.
After you catch your breath, it is time to get breathless again as you open your eyes to what you see around you: The Indo-China border and the beautiful mountain ranges all around you. Is this Yash Chopra's Switzerland, you wonder?
Patriotic feeling surges through you when you see the Indian soldiers guarding the border. And a quiet, reverent moment when you see the Indian War Memorial with names of all martyrs.
 The Chinese soldiers are busy clicking our photos and we theirs. They helpfully pose for us, with us. It is heart-warming to see their friendly nature. I was told that the Indian soldiers do the same when the Chinese visit the border, which is three hours before us as their time is ahead of us. Perhaps, this is the only international border which doesn't have a no-man's land.

And...the China post

Nathula Pass is a must-see.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Sikkim: MG Road, a dreamy stretch at Gangtok

As written in my earlier post here, Sikkim is a land of hills, slopes, waterfalls, steps going up and down all the time, hazardous roads and routes.
Again, I am not providing a list of sights to see but those which have made a strong impact and I feel these are must-not-be-missed experiences. Will write about them in the next few posts.
At Gangtok itself, there isn't much to see. For all your tourist expeditions, you need to travel to its outskirts.  Yet, there is one place, visiting which will prove to be the most delightful experience for you, and that is the MG Road.

MG Road, Gangtok
The best thing about Gangtok is that it is a plastic-free area. The second best thing is that no vehicles are allowed to enter MG Road. The whole town is centered around this 1 km stretch which has many restaurants and shops on it. Now what's special about this road?
One, in absence of any vehicular traffic, you find a cleanliness so unusual of Indian roads. Not only is it kept clean, you will not find any littering on this wide road which is a completely pedestrianized zone. Along the length of this road, in the center, you find flowers, mainly roses, which further help beautify the area. Benches on both sides of the flower beds, and old-fashioned lights add to the languorous aura.
So away from the din of crowded streets and over-crowded malls in our cities!
As it gets to be dark early, no tourism is possible after 5 pm. The best way to spend time in the evening is to take a stroll along this street and enjoy the peace.
I only wish the tourists could respect this calm and talk in softer tones!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Kolkata: some tips for the tourist

We visited some of the tourist sights mentioned. This post is not to describe any of those sights, as plenty of information is available on the internet. Yet, the tourist must be informed of some things that may not be available on an itinerary.

Timings: Most of the places that are listed are closed from 11.30 am to about 3.30 pm. So the best thing is to plan for lunch or shopping during the time.

Traffic jams: I thought Hyderabad was bad in managing traffic but thankfully we have only fixed hours when we expect a peak and can plan accordingly. But in Kolkata, as per our cab driver, traffic starts at around 7 am and continues till 8 pm or may be even beyond that. They still seem to follow the conventional office hours of 9-5 but even after 8, I didn't find it relenting.
Once we had to go from College Street to Ballygunge. We started at 2 pm and reached the restaurant at 3: 45 pm which is at a distance of less than 5 kms! So you need to really be prepared if you have a train or plane to catch. While our train was scheduled to leave at 11 pm. we left our hotel at 9:15 and reached the station by 9: 40 pm!. The traffic is THAT unpredictable!
I have got so used to the term 'phanka' while in Kolkata. When you ask the driver, all you get to hear is that, "if there is 'phanka' we can reach in half hour or else, it will take 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours". Sometimes we were late and couldn't complete what was planned or sometimes very early... like on our return journey, we were at the airport by 2:50 pm for the 5 pm domestic flight!

Weather: Visiting Kolkata during summer can be very miserable. Therefore, we selected the cooler airs of October to visit, but believe me, even in October, you cannot think of wearing your clothes twice without a wash.The clothes stick to your body when you step out from the AC wala  car. It's better that you carry thin clothes even during October.

Food: Like us, if you are vegetarians, you need to be double careful of the reviews on Burrp, if you plan to go by Burrp reviews. It looks like ONLY the non-veg part of the food is reviewed. Example, BBQ Nation, one of my favorite restaurant chains, doesn't have good reviews on Burrp, Kokata. We selected one which ranked very high on Burrp, Kolkata (Ivory kitchen on Camac Street) and was supposed to offer a HUGE buffet with a good balance of veg and non-veg food. We went in expecting a LOT! In the veg section, there were just about two simple salads, two starters and two of main course, some chat items and of course loads of sweets! For this buffet they charge 700 per head!  For the same price, Westin, Hyderabad, offers quality stuff four times this spread. Even Ohri's buffet has a much greater selection at half the price. Ivory Kitchen's buffet is not worth more than Rs.250-300 at the best.
Vegetarians do have a tough time as vegetarian food isn't available easily and the ones that we did find on the internet were at distances that intimidate us, given the traffic conditions...though none more than 5 kms away.

The Metro: We took a metro to save some time traveling and traveled from Park Street to New market. We had planned for a longer ride just to enjoy the metro ride but the jam-packed train with sweating bodies all around made us get off two stations away. The Metro, unlike our local train, doesn't come with a separate ladies coach.
One tourist sight that stands out in memory is the regal grandeur of St. Paul's Cathedral which is considered the oldest and called the mother church.

St. Paul's Cathedral
Belur Mutt and Dakshinewar are both 12-15 kms away from the main city. Given the uncertain tarffic conditions, we started at 1:30 pm itself to be able to reach there and finish our visit by 5:30 pm by which time the Mutt closes. When we were just about 1 km away, we decided that we could take some time for lunch without running the risk of seeing it closed.
What came as a very pleasant surprise was a vegetarian restaurant, Vegetarian Valley, we discovered on the way. The place is not great ambiance-wise and they make you wait for a while before the order is ready but the taste of the food makes the wait worth it. Not just the taste, but the wonderful courteousness and the pleasant smiles with which the food was served, the waiters keeping themselves at a distance so as not to intrude, yet at a distance from which they could observe when the plates are empty and serving is required. The price is quite decent too. For me, this restaurant was like a jewel discovered unexpectedly. I say this because who expects that kind of service, attention and courtesy from this teeny-weeny, seemingly dingy place?!

 For the more squeamish, there are the more renowned fast food joints at a stone's throw from here.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Kolkata: Places not to be missed

Among the places mentioned in the WB tour itinerary, I was interested more in Belur Mutt for its quietness and serenity. This was how I remember it from my childhood when I had visited it and thankfully not much has changed since then.
If you have no time to see any other place, the below two more than make up for everything that the city can offer to the tourist.

 'Boi Para' on College Street is not listed in any tour itinerary but I had short listed it and boy, was I glad?!
Any book-lover will drool over the thousands of books lining both sides of the street. You have around a 2-km stretch selling study books, fiction, non-fiction, old editions...every kind of book one wants, at throw-away prices. And yes, no pirated versions...only original, second-hand books. I picked up about eleven of them. I could hang on forever but had to drag myself away for paucity of time. It is a virtual feast for a book-lover and even if you spend all your allotted time here, you'd be left hungering for more!

Boi Para on College Street, Kokata

The Mother House  is listed as a tourist attraction. We were about to give it a miss but fortunately, we did not.

Entrance as humble as the place within
Even as you enter the street leading to the Missionaries of Charity, you have people helpfully pointing to the House. It is so easy to miss the simple building. Sisters who we met, humbly joined their hands in a gesture of greeting. The entrance has a sign showing that 'Mother' is 'IN.' When you step inside, a quietness and peace seems to engulf you. Immediately to the right, you have a hall housing the last remains of Mother Teresa. You need to only step into the room and you feel some connection with Mother. A feeling of spirituality encompasses you. Your eyes see the traffic just outside the windows with their old-fashioned half-curtains; yet, you are no longer a part of the world outside; you no longer hear the noises around, nothing seems to distract you as you allow the peace within to seep into your soul. Some ethereal experience as you kneel to speak to mother.
I had a sister talk to me and pray with me. I was gifted pendants with Mother's image on it. I was given quite a few and am willing to share with anyone who wants them.
We went upstairs and saw the room that Mother spent her days in. The room was the size of a prison cell: one tiny bed that was barely enough to accommodate her tiny frame, a box, a small cupboard, a table and chair. And NO FAN in the hot and humid Kokata weather! She never had a fan installed despite the fact that her room was directly over the kitchen where food in huge quantities gets cooked.
Photographs are forbidden here but how I wish I could share the picture of her room to inspire millions of people. Even otherwise, you feel somehow that you violate the sanctity if you take pictures. Something stirs deep within when you sit there to watch the room in awe. (found the photograph here.)
You are not required to remove your shoes inside, you are not required to queue there, you are not required to pay to get a faster 'darshan'; no one pushing you or jostling for place; whether you choose to donate or no, you are treated with respect. I got a special picture of Mother Teresa as I shared my memories of meeting her when she graced our school decades ago.

People who read this post and go there to experience what I did, may/may not feel the same way. I felt a deep, deep connection. Seeing the peace on the faces of the sisters working there so quietly, overwhelms you. Is it possible to give yourself so totally to a cause wanting nothing in return?!