Monday, January 31, 2011

Sikkim Trek: The First Day, We Walked

We got up reasonably early, I guess: around 7:00 or so, give or take. We were prepared a massive breakfast and this we eagerly ate, operating under the correct assumption that walking 18 kilometers uphill would require calories.

We stopped at the Yuksom market to pick up extra rolls of toilet paper, socks, curiously tasteless Indian chocolate bars and other accoutrements of civilization that were entirely guaranteed to be denied for the next 10 days. Kiran had, thoughtfully, stashed some bourgeois chocolate from France in his stuff.

On the trail, up the road. We passed through a great corridor of white prayerflags, the white kind mounted on poles that are typical up here, a more imposing variant on the sort of prayer flags that (by what appears to be law) adorn every US dorm-room. We stopped at the trail-head and registered at the trekking office, where they filed our papers away. This was presumably how they would take down our names if we vanished and were never seen again. We bought some potato chips from a woman manning a small wooden booth and regarded with interest our accoutrement: we had pack ponies. We had porters. We had a cook. All of our heavy bags had been taken from us and covered with a mostly water-proof tarp, and all we had to carry were our daypacks with rain gear, snacks, and water. "This is a lot better then trekking back home," I commented.

So it was. Trekking back home involves an enormous pack that requires the mind of a rocket-scientist to successfully and ergonomically pack: everything rattles and clinks when you are walking uphill, your shoulders are eternally compressed, and the forces of Good Trail Craft dictate that you can't leave anything behind in Virgin Nature when you really just want to chuck all your possessions and live in the forest so you won't have to carry your goddamn pack anymore. And here we were, footloose and regarding with (perhaps ill-advised) confidence our impending 18 mile walk. We could do it!

We began walking. The trail is a narrow cut alongside a very steep gorge, where the river runs down to Yuksom. The lower portions of the trail go through a bona-fide tropical jungle—there are creepers, malevolent and possibly deadly vegetation, the not-so-far-off cries of monkeys and unidentified forest creatures, electric orange tree mushrooms, and rushing, enormous waterfalls seemingly every other mile. The trail was an absolute mess, of course, an abomination: I have a friend who does trail maintenance in the Rockies and this trail would have driven him up the wall, with watercourses running down it and debris on the trail and tons of irrational twists and turns, and almost nothing in the way of formal marking.

Walking over this beast on a bridge was a bit intimidating. I imagine some nutjob in a kayak has already been down this then proceeded to get remarkably high post-survival. Well, if that person survived.

The rains this year had been awful, and many parts of the trail had washed out—our guide told us that some parts of the trail and even one of the bridges had been repaired only days before. You often found yourself teetering on the edge of a very small and muddy and rocky path, choosing your steps carefully because falling would have mean rolling at very high speed (while screaming) all the way down to the bottom of a gorge.

The Yak Is Not Your Friend.

The other reality of Trekking in Sikkim is that you must share the trail with all the pack animals that use it as well—commerce around here is still done, to some extent, on the back of a dhzo (a yak/cow hybrid) or a pony. Furthermore: You don't have the right of way. The dhzo does, and the dhzo has sharp horns and a nasty attitude to back him up if you start to feel sassy. The animals chew up the trail with their hooves and leave enormous piles of dung every few feet or so. They always come with a minder, who usually will warn you a second or two in advance of the dhzo's arrival by shouting something vague in Nepali.

This would be the trail. Well, in the lower bits, anyway.

Our guide and various Sherpas I passed by on the trail taught me the usual method for yak avoidance. It is thus: scramble up the steep and mossy side of the trail as quickly as you can. If at all possible—and if you're resourceful, it almost always is—cling onto the side of the trail for dear life while the dhzo go by. Do not make eye contact with the dhzo because that pisses them off, or makes them interested in you, and for all we know they can actually smell your fear. Rip off a tiny, pathetic sprig of vegetation to flick at the dhzo if it gets too close. This will not do an ounce of good if you make the animal mad, but will make you feel better. When the last animal goes by, scramble down from the trail. Check yourself for leeches. You'll need to.

Did I mention the leeches?

This part of the Himalayas is host to Asia's fascinating terrestrial leech. They come in a dizzying array of sizes and are usually yellowish or greenish or maybe black, it's all kind of a crapshoot. They want to find you and get to know you. They want to crawl out from under the leaf debris, somehow worm their way underneath your clothing, find a nice tender (preferably embarrassing) part of you and begin to suck your blood. There are some good things about leeches: Unlike mosquitos, the bites don't hurt, and leeches carry no diseases. Unfortunately, leeches release a anticoagulant chemical in their saliva when they bite you, which means that, once you've pulled the leech off, you will bleed incredibly for a good long while.

I discovered that leeches, like ticks, are almost impossible to crush or kill with your fingers. I got to the point where I would, upon intercepting a leech pre-bite, roll it between my fingers while humming to myself and walking, sort of like the world's most repellant stress-ball. I mean. The texture is the same.

This all sounds really awful when I write it out. The strange thing is that it wasn't. There was a great romance to it, especially for those prone to it, like Kiran and I—as I have previously stated, we were both exposed to far too much adventure literature as children—and we both loved walking up the trail through the jungle, the knowledge that we were making our way towards the interior of the Himalaya, going on what could be considered in most circles to be a bona-fide adventure.

Kiran decided that he would try taking one of the porter's packs, to see what it was like. The porters are all Sherpas and fufill every steroetype we have of remarkable strength and endurance in the face of carrying remarkably heavy shit for miles and miles uphill. Instead of the ergonomic and form-fitting packs Kiran and I had, these guys carry enormous boxes of god knows what (including fresh eggs) on their backs, usually with a forehead strap of some kind and the assistance of lots of twine. "Let me try it on," Kiran said. The porters regarded him with extreme suspicion, but agreed. Kiran is a strong guy and was able to hoist the thing on his back, but the balance threw him off. "I don't know how they do it," he said, after he attempted three or four times to get the forehead thing to work for him.

"Neither do I," I said. The porter politely picked up his load again and tossed it back on his back after Kiran was through. He was chewing tobacco.

Kiran in his natural habit. I have a lot of photos of Kiran Taking Photos, which gets uncomfortably meta.

We stopped for lunch at a small rest-area about three or four hours in. The porters immediately unpacked the kitchen gear from the pack-ponies and swiftly set up a small and fully-functional kitchen in a small rest-hut. A folding table and a folding chair were produced from somewhere, and they were set up on a small grassy area, and Kiran and I were bidded to sit down, whereupon we were served tea. We sat and drank tea and watched a small troop of monkeys in a tree, not far from us.
"This feels awfully colonial," I think I said.
And did it ever. In the good way.
We were served a starter of instant-noodle soup with supplementary vegetables - tasty - and an enormous quantity of grilled cheese sandwiches, which we devoured. They had actually hauled a metal grilled-cheese sandwich making press up the mountain.

Off we went, again. I discovered, to my surprise, that I was a fast walker, quite fast. I used to be a fast hiker when I was a kid in Utah, and I'm in pretty good shape, but I'd operated under the assumption that I'd lost the touch and I would probably be wheezing desperately along by mile two. This wasn't the case. It felt nice, I have to admit, to keep on passing people, including the occasional Sherpa and porter. Some people like to take their time while hiking and admire the view - Kiran likes to pause and take photographs. I guess I prefer the aspect of trekking that is athletic endeavor to some extent, I like the heart-pounding-in-your-chest and the silent, eternal competition against everyone else on the trail. I like walking alone, too, I really like it. I'll stop sometimes when I know there's no one before me or behind me for a ways and slow down for a moment or two, taking in the sensation of being quite alone in the middle of what most would consider to be absolute-nowhere.

We came upon a few small groups of people who live up in these mountains. Women with large hats gathering forest greens, stopping and looking at us with extremely mild interest as we walked by. They lived in small dwellings, with the eternal smoke of kitchen fires coming out of them.

It rained off on and on throughout the day, or at least drizzled. I had rain-gear in my backpack, which I switched out constantly: I finally gave in and resorted to an umbrella. I would occasionally walk by small and mossy stone cairns in the rain and feel like I had just wandered out of a Basho painting: I liked this. The bamboo all around, the sound of rain splashing on the leaves, and the occasional hint of a rain mist - waterfalls somewhere off in the distance.

Kumar is an endlessly patient and kind man, but I think the look on his face here says it all. ("Please walk this way before this bridge collapses," maybe).

We reached the bottom of the gorge. There was a rope bridge across it, the sort of bridge one imagines in an Indiana Jones movie, with prayer flags tied on it. Apparantly this bridge had gone out a week before or so, and had recently been repaired. The slats were old and had some holes in them, and flowers were going through the wood. The water below was white and icy-cold and moving incredibly fast, and I battled the impulse to stay on the bridge and enjoy the obvious danger of it. The endlessly-patient Kumar stood on the other edge and gave me a "For god's sake get off this thing" sort of look, as is evidenced in the photo.

The problem with climbing to the bottom of a gorge is that you've got to climb out of it again. And so we did. Up and up and up and up, past steep and indifferently cut trails. We passed the Tenzing Norgay mountaineering Institute, which is located up here and is (probably intentionally) difficult to get to - but no time to stop there, just keep on going up. It was growing darker, though it wasn't late, and it was raining. The trail was slippery with mud and the mist kept on obscuring what was up ahead : I sat down to wait for a bit - Kumar, our guide, not nervous if I got too far ahead - and spooked myself when I saw a hint of weird color coming through the trees. Just prayer flags, of course, stuck to a tree somewhere up ahead.

I began walking again, when Kumar and Kiran appeared over the ridge - the German boys were a bit behind me as well. I felt as if I were approaching the crest of the hill, or at least something approximating it, and I was right - the ground began to level off slightly, there seemed to be an end in sight.

There were sheep everywhere, all of a sudden: The trail had been entirely monopolized by white and black sheep, which smelled somewhat rank in the wet. One of the German boys was behind me, and we both waded, tentatively, through the sea of sheep, not entirely sure what they would do. The sheep politely got out of our way, to the minimum extent required for us to pass: I occasionally steadied myself on a solid and unconcerned sheep rump. Past the sheep was a little hut of some sort, with a little covered area: we stopped and waited for the others to catch up. A man wearing the ubiquitious golden rain boots came out of the hut and regarded us with mild interest for a moment : then he went back inside.

We put up at Tsokha.

Tsokha is a very small village perched on the side of a hill - the view is commanding, in the event of there being no fog. There was plenty of fog and we would have no idea how commanding that view actually was until some time later. It is just about medieval, with roughly 10 full-time residents and a bunch of dogs and cows and chickens wandering the premises at all times - the path through it is muddy and full of yak dung, and there are various pack animals tied up to various things throughout the village. The whole affair, this trekking-hard-all-day to arrive at an electricity less village reminded me with a sort of false nostalgia of the not-so distant past, when traveling meant you went overland or by sea and not at all, and lodgings were small and indifferent inns in equally small and indifferent places, and everything was conducted by way of candlelight.

We were staying in a small backpackers shelter, which was (comparatively) luxurious indeed when compared to the kind of camping I was accustomed to back home. I had a room of my own, even, with a wooden block door that sort of locked, and a bunch of candles stuck in wine bottles arranged around the window. Kiran and I were both exhausted past the point of talking, and slightly damp: we silently adjourned to our respective rooms and changed clothing.

Another man was staying in the guesthouse. He was trekking alone, and he was from Calcutta. Kiran immediately struck up with a conversation with him, as they both leaned on the railing of the shelter's porch and stared out into the black (and getting blacker) night. I listened to them talk, mostly. He was a film director and had a wry and ironic intellect, as do so many Indians of this particular era. He and Kiran talked about Bengali film stars and logic and philosophy: I was too tired for this and took covert notes on their discussion, as if I was observing them for a scientific study. There are few greater intellectual pleasures then watching two fiercely intelligent Indians have a bit of an intellectual shake-down - it's something about the cadence of it, I guess.

They talked about Calcutta some. "I admire Bengalis," Kiran said. "Bengal is the cultural center of India, it's where all the intellectuals come from, the writers, the thinkers, the musicians."
The man from Calcutta snorted. "Maybe once, but no—not anymore. That's gone."
(Everything is no longer what it once was. But in the case of Calcutta, perhaps that is the truth).

Kiran took this one. Delicious, mysterious, orangey mushrooms in question.

We had dinner by candlelight. The man from Calcutta dined with us. He shared his forest mushrooms with us, the same lurid orange one's we had seen growing on the trail, the sort of mushrooms that one generally assumes are fatal. They were delicious, and tasted better then any $13.00 a pound bundle of oyster mushrooms I had previously purchased at Whole Foods. "I need to take these back to the USA and sell them to rich people and gourmet restaurants," I declared. "I would be rich." And I would be, if only I could find an investor.

I had weird and lucid dreams that night, which I always have at elevation. I handle elevation better then most people, but it always comes through in my subconscious, which does not want me to forget where I am.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

away to yuksom: waterfalls, roadstops, being rained on

The trek. I should explain about the trek.

Sikkimese houses on the drive to Yuksom.

We had arranged the thing quite casually. We arrived in Sikkim, and that evening, headed to the tourism office. Like most things in Sikkim, the tourist office was friendly and functional, and we received a few sheafs of travel brochures, some maps with relevant information ticked off, and the name of a couple of trekking guides that had not, to date, managed to kill anyone. Armed with this information, we made for our guide's office.

This particular trekking outfit was called Sikkim Peak tours, located on Tibet road in Gangtok. We immediately met with the friendly and extremely hip owner, a guy called Madan, who showed us photos, told us about the Goecha La trek., and let us know what we were getting into with considerable detail. He spoke immaculate and nimble English, had dated and broken up with a Lithuanian woman, and dressed sort of like a hip-hop star, as do many young Sikkimese people. He was refreshingly honest about the weather. "It's the rainy season. You might get rained on. I mean, it's supposed to be ending...."
"But it hasn't quit yet," I said, regarding photos of healthy looking middle aged people, hiking up the side of mountains. They ha d killer tans. The sun was shining.
"No," the owner said, "no guarantees."
Kiran and I were both dedicated to the idea of trekking, really dedicated, and we'd come this far, and we wanted to go, damnit, curse the rain, curse the weather, hang it all, we were going. Anyhow, the weather forecasts looked positive. Sort of positive. One had to wonder about the quality and technological advancement of weather forecasting technologies in rural Sikkim, but, regardless. We had reason to be positive. If all went as planned, we would both fufill child-hood dreams of Himalayan adventure. We would find ourselves regarding the snows and walking in the footsteps of great mountaineers, befriend a Sherpa or two, get to sound rugged and adventurous to our friends back home.

We signed up.

Terraced rice paddies a plenty.

If you read no further, let it be known that they did an excellent job at a reasonable rate. Kiran and I, when selecting trekking operators, thought for a bit and realized that we did not want to go with the lowest bidder when it came to paying someone to keep us alive in a remote wilderness. We concluded we were willing to pay at least a little more for comfort, good food, and the knowledge that we would actually come back alive. This we got. We would encounter people on the trek who had gone the budget option and had regretted it.

Kiran and I paid roughly 300 dollars each or so for a 10 day trek with a number of porters, a guide, pack ponies, a cook, tents, food, lodges where available, emergency medical supplies with specific high-altitude sickness medications, and rental sleeping bags and other hiking gear. This is middle-range for Sikkimese treks. It suited us fine.

We also sorted out the matter of trekking permits. Trekking permits, in theory, can only be issued to groups of foreigners, of at least two, and they can only be issued through a registered trekking agency. This can be fudged a bit. As Kiran is an Indian citizen, we couldn't form a group ourselves. However, our trekking company knew of a group of two Germans and one Israeli embarking- with a different, if friendly, outift -the same day we were. So, they lumped me in with the three boys on the permit and off we went.

We got picked up in a jeep. I was glad to see that we would be traveling in a jeep and not a small and ancient station wagon, as many of Sikkim's cars seem to be. Some random camping gear was placed on top, and away we went. We were heading to Yuksom, a small village in Western Sikkim, about 138 KM or so away. This may not sound like much, but considering that Sikkim's roads are small, poorly maintained, and horrifyingly steep, the journey takes about six hours, six hours of looking out the window of the car intermittently and feeling your pancreas drop into your crotch from sheer height and wishing you hadn't, six hours of feeling your tailbone in sharp relief every time you go over some sort of boulder, six hours of wondering (helplessly) if that tiny little metal bridge with the fraying wires will actually hold a full-size jeep and is not, in fact, a bridge made for really light yaks and small, swift-footed children instead. Pack your Dramamine. And maybe your Valium.

Primal terror aside, though, it's one of the most scenic road trips a person can take. We dropped into valleys and went through small villages laid out along the indisputably mighty Teesta river, little burgs full of women chopping up fish by the river-side and liquor marts full of bored people and small, polite looking Buddhist stupas, every half-a-mile-or-so.

Kiran took this one.

We stopped for lunch at a legitimate Sikkimese roadstop. Our order was taken by a nine year old kid. The kitchen and bathroom had a commanding view out over the mountains. A terrible Indian horror movie was playing on the scratchy TV inside. Kiran ordered a curiously strong Hit beer - the local stuff - and we both ordered a variety of food. Set meals with curry, daal, vegetables, and papad, and some of the ubiquitous pork gyathuk soup.

Pork fat, noodles, and broth. You can't go wrong.

The food was all right, really, especially for truckstop cuisine - I've seen some stuff at Australian roadstops that could induce suicide on gastronomic grounds - and we were pretty content with the whole experience. It helps if you really, really, really like daal.

We began climbing up again, and the landscape was so classically Asia, the sort of thing that might illustrate a dictionary entry. Rice paddies and decaying, seemingly ancient stupas, set back in the jungle, immensely tall bamboo and tiny, brightly colored houses, water-buffalo and exotic tropical flowers.

Kiran is helpfully providing size contrast.

There were waterfalls everywhere, the one benefit we reaped from the incessant rain, and they ran right over the road. Kiran is fond of waterfalls and fond of taking photos of them especially, and we stopped a lot.

I find waterfalls pleasant enough, but I have to admit this was a pretty good one, as falling water goes.

We got into Yuksom, got our hotel rooms, and figured we would have a reasonably sedate evening. Then, the power went out.

"Oh, a power outage," I thought. "Well, we get those all the time in India, it is what it is, whatever."

I went to a little cafe next to our hotel. They had lit candles and were still serving tea and snacks to a random assortment of trekkers from small European countries. "How long is the power going to be out?" I asked the owner.

"Oh, you know. Maybe six hours?" he said.

I went silent. "Six hours?"

"Oh, yes," he said, "yes, maybe more. Very small village, here, and lots of rain..."

I swore under my breath. I went to go find a place where I could purchase a headlamp. It was raining. The sun had just gone down and it was dark, incredibly dark, primordial dark, and here I wanted a headlamp. I found one at a little trekkers shop a few doors down, failed at bargaining the price down much - they did have me by the balls, I mean, out in the dark in a tiny village in the rain and no way to see anything - and then, it didn't come with batteries. So I walked down the road to a tiny little kiosk type thing, in what was probably the market, if I had been able to see anything, and someone sold me some batteries. They sold me some Bhutanese ketchup and some socks and a roll of toilet paper as well.

I'd lost Kiran in the dark at some point, but we managed to meet up again at the restaurant. The power outage had got us both a little flustered, I suppose. It's one thing to travel for six hours in a jeep up and down the sides of mountains and then find yourself damp and in the dark in a semi-primitive village in the middle of the Himalaya. I mean, it's what you want desperately when you're sitting at home on your couch and reading a travel guide, but in actual practice - well.

We had got it into our heads that we should probably find the three boys I was on the trekking permit with, at least to say hello, or something - and after all, it'd be a bit more fun to trek with more people, wouldn't it be? I dutifully decided to track them down. It couldn't be hard to do in a tiny little village with roughly 15 foreigners in it, all staying in the same four little trekker hotels.

I turned them up in the pleasingly named Yak Hotel. They had paid a little less money then us and were sharing a room down a corridor that seemed to be a curious combination of basement and alley. I knocked on the door. They were all asleep and unhappy about this and I felt bad, though in my defense, being asleep at 8:00 PM is weird. They would turn out to be nice guys and good company when not roused from deep sleep, but, later.

I found Kiran again. We had dinner prepared by our trekking cook. He set up his tent and his stuff in the courtyard of our hotel and soon enough we had dinner, a quite good dinner considering that it had been prepared in a tent in the rain in a black-out. We met our guide, Kumar, and we talked some about the trek, and what we'd do the next day, and how far we had to walk. 18 KM, apparently, all of it uphill. Like, really uphill. More uphill then we perhaps were familiar with in our daily lives. This all sounded really abstract while we were sitting down.

The power did come on that night, just as I was about to go to bed. A little shutter of electricity, and the lights were on in my room. It was a musty room and there was a stain on the floor that seemed actively malevolent - I had to cover it with a pillow because it unnerved me to look at it, as if it would turn into some kind of Stephen King like beast in the night and engulf my face - but other then that, it was serviceable enough.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

sikkim: rumtek monastery, institute of tibetology, chili momos

I woke up feeling more rested then I had in weeks. Some confluence of altitude and the incredible stillness of Sikkim, even in its largest city—I went to my window and looked out of it for a while. The clouds had burned off, at least for the time being, and Gangtok was spread out before the valley, houses and schools, built tall and clinging to the sides of the hills. The monasteries stood out, built at elevation and catching the light adeptly, as monasteries ought. Kiran and I had planned a day of tourism for ourselves. We had contracted a car for the day for something around 15 bucks, and we were going to see as much as we felt like seeing of Gangtok and the area around it. On the agenda was the famous Rumtek monastery, the seat of the hotly contested Karma Karmapa. We would also work in the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a theoretically authentic Tibetan lunch, a visit to a scenic overlook (if the weather held) and perhaps a look at some charming native handicrafts. Promising.

Breakfast was paratas and toast with real jam, not that candy flavored stuff you find down in India proper, and a sort of delicious and thick honey cake the proprietors made themselves. And the local tea, strong as anything, served out of that same porcelain ware. You couldn't beat the view.

The taxi picked us up: a standard car, nothing much four-wheel about it. Rumtek Monastery is located on the other side of the valley, and getting there requires a steep descent down to the depths of the river valley, and an equally steep and bumpy climb up to the other side. "Maybe it take two hours," the driver said, optimistically, when we asked him how long getting there and back to our side of the valley would be. We were already feeling concerned about lunch.

Sikkim is at a very high elevation, but Gangtok, especially around the bed of the river, is aggressively tropical, a real Asian wonder-land of banana palms and rice paddies and endless, towering bamboo in all sorts of curious shapes and sizes. This incredible wealth of vegetation would impress us throughout our trip to Sikkim: we were both more accustomed to the high-elevation places of Europe and the USA, where high altitude inexorably means scanty plants and rocks and not much water. This kind of aggressive life, high up, was new to us. It explains why the Sikkimese have managed to live here so long and with such relative ease, in any case: finding enough to eat in these parts is not much of a struggle.

We hit the valley floor and crossed over the stream, which was filled with rocks and flowing with an aggressive, alpine sort of force. Then, climbing up again: the road was poorly paved and full of gravel, and we bumped around a lot, since of course there were no seatbelts. The Biswakarma celebration was in full fling, and truckloads of excited men would go by us intermittently, hooting and screaming and blowing their horns, the trucks all covered in marigolds and orange paint—and we kept on climbing, up the hill, switchbacks, crossing over roads where waterfalls had covered the track, all the way up to Rumtek.

The Rumtek monastery is not particularly old, having been rebuilt from older foundations in 1959. It was rebuilt when the 16th Karmapa washed up in Sikkim after fleeing Tibet, and, finding the area pleasant, decided to restablish him in the environs of Gangtok. Sacred objects were brought from the Tsurphu Monastery, back home in Tibet, and the Sikkimese and Indian government funded the project: the new monastery was officially inagurated in 1966.

This would all seem fairly ordinary for a Tibetan monastery if not for the Karmapa controversy. The Karmapa is the spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyua school, a sub-school of Tibetan Buddhism, an influential school that holds the "black hat," supposedly said to be woven from the hair of dakhinis, or the Buddhist semi-equivalant of angels. When the 16th Karmapa died in 1981, it was, as is the case with Tibetan Buddhism, time to locate his young reincarnation. The Sharmapa, the head of another major sect, is often given the job of recognizing the Karmapa, at least from the 14th century until the 1790's. Due to a bout of politicking, the Tibetan government banned the Sharmapa from reincarnating, a ban that formally held until 1963. This meant that the Sharmapa had to live in secret for a few hundred years or so, give or take.

You can see how this gets complicated.

When the 16th Karmapa passed in 1981, then, two young men were submitted as his reincarnation. They were Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje. Mysterious letters involving ancient prophecies were disseminated about both boys. That's part of how the system works, lots of mysterious letters and ancient prophecies.

Ogyen Trinley Dorje, born to nomadic parents and recognized by a search party under the supposed final instructions of the 16th Karmapa, has been officialy endorsed by the Dalai Lama, Situ Rinpoche, and Gyaltsab Rinpoche. He was formally enshrined as the Karmapa at the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet in 1992, but eventually chaffed under Chinese control and decided to escape to India at the age of fourteen. He resides in a monastery near Dharamsala and operates as a spiritual teacher.

Shamar Rinpoche, on the other hand - the person theoretically responsible for choosing the 17th Karmapa in his religious school - advocates Trinley Thaye Dorje, born in Lhasa and the son of Mipham Rinpoche, another reincarnated lama. He currently studies under Shamar Rinpoche and resides in Kalimpong, very close to Sikkim (in fact, once part of Sikkim, like Darjeeling). He was appointed by the 16th Karmapa's Karmapa Charitable Trust as the legal and administrative heir of Rumtek. This theoretically gives him the right to reside at Rumtek. Naturally, it isn't that simple, as the monks that control Rumtek don't want him.

Two people claiming to be the 17th Karmapa, two warring camps that don't agree with one another, and a whole lot of legal battles and trash-talking. The soldiers are here to quash any sectarian violence between different factions: they'll probably be here for a long while yet.

All this controversy and politicking means that Rumtek is a much more contentious place then most other Tibetan monasteries. The army officers are stationed at the entrance and around the perimeter of the building. Posters demanding the return of Ogyen Trinley Dorje to the monastery are tacked up everywhere you look (as they are around most of Sikkim).

We walked through the huge doors and into the main monastery. It is large and imposing in that darkly lit and mysterious way that Tibetan buildings excel at, and covered in the colorful and very typical paintings of the Tibetan tradition: butter fat lamps hung in the main room, and there were niches containing thousands of Buddhas, and endless drawers of sacred texts. A group of monks crouched on the floor with pencils and rulers, intently laying out a mandala painting: I watched them for a while, and they good-naturedly waved at me.

We tried to see the other parts of the complex, including the 16th Karmapa's stupa and the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, but they were closed for lunch. Monks were ambling around the campus holding plates of daal and vegetables. We got hungry ourselves.

The view from Rumtek.

We made our way back to Gangtok, down the same bumpy and fractious road. MG Marg: Gangtok's main throughfare. It's a walking street, done up for pedestrians only, and has a lot of little clothing shops and casual eateries.

Gangtok putting on a pretty reasonable bustle.

Nothing too fancy, but when taken in comparison to the rest of India - well, almost magical. Quiet, not crowded, kept clean, everyone minding their own business, no one tugging at you and attempting to sell you things: semi miraculous. Kiran and I walked down it in a somewhat dream-like state. "This isn't India," I think I kept on repeating.

We ate at the Tibet Restaurant. Simply and honestly named: all Tibetan food, all the time. Momos: Tibetan dumplings filled with meat, vegetables, or cheese. Gyathuk: Tibetan noodle soup with some kind of protein involved. Lots of tea. We never did sample butter tea. Not quite brave enough.

Kiran took this photo.

These chili momos were excellent: pan fried dumplings served in a thick and slightly smoky chili sauce, with plenty of kick to it.

Kiran also took this one. His camera is swell. (I in fact ran out and bought the same camera when I got to Bangkok, but more on that later).

Chili chicken is another ubiquitious Indian dish, and Kiran and I both happen to love it. It's difficult to go wrong with fried chicken pieces with onion, green peppers, and a big hit of chili. It's the Indian answer to buffalo wings and is consumed in about the same quantities at bars across the subcontinent.

Kiran took this one.

Gyathuk soup with pork. Honestly, gyathuk tastes roughly the same as any other Asian noodle soup. The broth is usually made from boiled pork, and the flavor is usually pretty delicate, though you can lump some chili in there if so inclined. Which I usually am.

One acquiese to India post-lunch (while our cab driver doubtless waited with impatience, watching the storm cloudes). Softy Cones. Soft-serve ice cream, that's all it it is, of course. But they made up some of the fabric of Kiran's Andhra Pradesh childhood. "We have to get them," he said.

I must report that I looked almost everywhere and could not find a single cheesy I WENT TO SIKKIM type shirt. I felt let down. This is probably indicative of something important about Sikkim, however.

Then back into the taxi, and off to the Tibetology center. A storm was coming in, from over the mountains, and we readied our umbrellas. It was the rainy season, after all—not like we hadn't been warned— but it was jarring all the same, to look up at an angry and festering sky and think, "Well, wait, we're going to be trekking for twelve whole days out in this, out in the middle of nowhere, and wait just a second, hold up."

The rain had begun to fall by the time we got to the center: we huddled under our umbrellas and dashed indoors. The Center possesses a museum and a couple of libraries.

The library upstairs was a magical sort of place, if you are (like me) inclined to libraries. Tons of books up there, old and dusty and bound in an archaic fashion, and new ones as well, endless series of dictionaries of some sort, some cracking scrolls: all of it written out in Tibetan script, incomprehensible to me. A small man sat in a desk in a corner and flickered his eyes at me when I walked in: otherwise, it was empty. The rain fell down outside and I walked contemplatively through the rows of books for a while. \\

The Tibetan tragedy, the Tibetan loss of self and land. I feel bad about it, I do. Still: I have been to Xinjiang, far Western China, I've met a couple of Uighurs, I know a bit about what they are going through as well. It is easy to draw parallels between these two peoples, both caught under the foot of an ever-more-powerful China, unable to get away, watching their culture and their history taken away from them, reconstituted into the immensity of the Chinese Borg. In all honesty, I feel more sorry for the Uighurs. No cute and cuddly Dalai Lama to interest Western kids, Muslims (scary) instead of Tibetan Buddhists (hip!), living in a place so back-of-beyond and inhospitable that no one except the really dedicated takes adventure-travel-tours out there. They are both living out tragedies, the Tibetans and the Uighurs, but publicity is, sometimes, not a *bad* thing.

We went to the overlook. It was raining. There were little brochures with pictures of the overlook and the mighty Kanchdenzonga looming over it and exalted looking tanned tourists, and there we were, looking out at rain mist and not feeling sure what to do. "Tea?" I said," and Kiran agreed, "Tea," and we went to the tea shop. Kiran ordered pakoras. "This is home for me," he'd say often, "eating pakoras and drinking tea."

So we ate pakoras and drank tea and talked about nothing in particular, listening as some Sikkimese kids played guitar and sang. Tons of Sikkimese kids play guitar around here, many of them surprisingly well. We hung out like this until we got bored of watching the rain mist, and headed towards home.

Dinner was at the afore-mentioned Hidden Forest Retreat, which can give you all your meals if you feel inclined to do so. I normally avoid eating where I'm staying, but this was a worthy exception: they make an effort to prepare organic food, and it's all authentic Sikkimese cuisine.

Kiran took this one.

They even take requests. Kiran is an Andhra boy who is extremely fond of karalla, or bitter melon, and I happen to love it myself. We sat down and there was a big bowl of fried bitter melon awaiting us. Excellent.

We would leave the next morning for Yuksom, a fairly remote village in eastern Sikkim, where we would start our trek in the mountains. We both loved Gangtok and wanted to stay longer, but you know, lure of adventure, that kind of thing. Off we went.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

sikkim: first day!

I wanted to go somewhere out of the ordinary in India, but had no particular plans. When a guy called Kiran Varanasi posted something on IM about going to Sikkim, I replied.

Sikkim is a small state in Northeastern India, wedged in between Nepal and Bhutan. It is a fairly long distance from anywhere, and is reached either by way of a five hour and bumpy taxi ride from a small and pissant Bengali town, or via helicopter. Sikkim is known for its incredible Himalaya landscapes, its impressive Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, and its reputation as some sort of untouched and mostly left-alone sort of hill top paradise, where the trees bloom with un-named flowers and red pandas frolic in the rhododendron jungles. It is also an excellent destination for trekking, the real kind, the kind you read about as a kid and always wanted to do: yaks and porters and walking up the sides of mountains.

To Kiran and I, all of this was catnip. A cursory introduction on, and we decided we'd go there together.

This, of course, sounds incredibly risky. Going on a two week vacation with some random dude you've never met before? That you first encountered on the Internet? Do you want to be murdered and thrown into a pit?

But: I'm of the Internet generation. I've met tons of people from the internet and not a single one of them has murdered me. I figured my odds were good, right? I looked him up and found his blog which involved a lot of ruminations about history and the philosophical ramifications of the Internet and esoteric literature. Like MY blog. This seemed promising.

Kiran's from Andra Pradesh, and specializes in work with computer research, primarily involving motion tracking systems and other things I am not intelligent enough to adequately describe. He's lived and worked in America and Europe, and is currently a PHD candidate in Grenoble. (Now a PHD as I write this! Congrats, buddy).

We ID'ed each other after some cell phone tag: I was finishing up a blog post. We sized up each other up. He looked less like a criminal on the run from the Turkish mafia, and more like a tired person who has just flown from France. I hope I looked as little like a drug-smuggler on a bender as possible, but with me, there's no guarantee. We immediately began discussing (I think) some really esoteric shit involving South Indian history. I thought to myself: This was going to go just fine.

Our flight to Bagdogra out of the startlingly nice—how long will THAT last—Delhi airport was on time. An hour and a half long or so jaunt over to East Bengal. From there, we planned on taking the helicopter to Gangtok. You know. As one does.

But, seriously. Getting to Gangtok is not a particularly easy process. The other option is a six hour long taxi ride. The taxi ride costs around 40 dollars each. The helicopter? 60 dollars. Takes an hour and a half. Glorious views. Did not outwardly appear to be held together with duct tape and glue. Decision made.

This is Kiran. Sometime you can meet nice people on the Internet!

It was an utterly fantastic ride. The helicopter did not dissolve into flaming pieces and shoot us out of the sky. Instead, there were remarkable vistas of the immense green space of the Bengal delta, seguing into the higher and higher, ever higher hills of the Himalaya. Villages up so high that you can't imagine anyone living there without horking down oxygen canisters like Skittles. (Also, ridiculously high altitude corn fields and what appeared to be high-altitude forest cows. Always going to find these things in India, anywhere, any time, possibly under rocks).

Unfortunately, I had not bought my new, awesome camera at this point. This is my explanation for why the photos are, shall we say, inadequate.

Gangtok appeared over the ridge. It's your classic Himalaya city, I suppose, at least if you're the kind of person who has a preconcioeved idea about what Himalayan citiesa re supposed to look like. If I have to use the Shangri-La metaphor one more time when describing this place to people, I am going to choke a bitch. Just go out and read Lost Horizon, okay? Then be sort of amused by the woo-woo 1930's philosophy in it and the whole CRAGGY ADVENTURER AND BEAUTIFUL MAIDEN aspects and YOU CAN NEVER RETURN then have a brief contemplate vis a vis George Mallory then you can put it down, and I can leave the damned metaphor alone.

We decamped into the tourist office, where they stamped our passports, offered us tea, and were very friendly. The tea and the friendliness were recurring themes in Sikkim. (You'll have to pee a lot. Thankfully, Sikkim has far and away India's cleanest bathrooms).

We ended up in a share-jeep to our lodgings, with a woman who insofar as I could determine was Sikkim's head of tourism. She was very attractive and professional, and was very intent on us having a good time. "You're staying at a good place," she said, approvingly.

Kiran took this one.

We were. The Hidden Forest Retreat, which I had found through the scientific method of Tripadvisor, turned out to be pretty much exactly what the name described. Just close enough to town for convenience, with a view that would belong perfectly in a painting on a nostalgic Nepali restaurants wall. The owners have a side business in cultivating and growing exotic orchids. Everything is quiet, the air is cool, the owners are friendly and sleep excellent English, and they bring you tea and biscuits and let you have a nice sit-down and enjoy the far-off song of birds with unpronounceable names. In other words, it is nothing like the rest of India whatsoever.

This is the view from my hotel room's little balcony. I think this was a deal for twenty dollars or so, including excellent meals.

We headed off to downtown Gangtok for dinner. The hotel was a bit far from town and, this being Sikkim, there were lots of hills, so we hailed down one of Gangtok's fifty million empty taxis. Gangtok does not exactly see a lot of tourism, so finding a free taxi is an easy endeavor - and the taxis are all jeeps covered in decals and sparkly Nepali signs anyhow. It turned out that we had arrived during the Biswakarma Puja, a religious celebration that is devoted mostly to guys who drive cars for a living. Lord Biswakarma is the Hindu deity devoted to architecture and engineering, which has come in the modern era to be represtend by technology, factories, and of course, cars. As Indian trucks are usually incredibly exuberantly decorated to begin with, the end result of all that decoration during Puja time is pretty impressive.

The taxi drivers in town were understandably extremely jazzed about this. They had all gone in together on a very large flowery display for the puja ceremony, were throwing a party, and had, judging by their behavior, gone in on a bunch of the local moonshine (chang) to liven things up. We got invited to attend the puja by a couple of taxi drivers, but didn't make it for reasons I am currently unable to entirely recall. This did mean that our time in Gangtok involved a lot of decorated cars, trucks, and taxis, and lots of incredibly excited young men covered in bodypaint yelling whenever a taxi went by. It was fun.

One of Kiran and I's many points of agreement is food. We agree that we both like it, and we agree that we will eat anything, and we really agree that the primary point, or at least one of the major points, of foreign travel is eating food we have never eaten before. We decided to find some Sikkimese food.

We decided on Tangerine, located at the Chumbi Residency hotel. It's three flights of stairs down to the dining room, but it's worth the walk: the open dining room is lovely and ambiently lit, and you can choose to sit at a table or kneel on mats. The menu offers authentic Sikkimese specialties alongside the usual Indian suspects.

Sikkimese food is much more similar to Chinese and Tibetan food then it is to Indian food. No surprise there, as Sikkim is extremely culturally distinct from low-land India. There's a lot of bamboo shoots involved, and a lot of fermented or preserved vegetables. Although Sikkim is at a high elevation, the low-lands are tropical, and a wide array of fruits and vegetables are available, as well as river fish. Momos, the popular Tibetan dumplings, are ubiquitous here, as well as gyathuk, a kind of Tibetan noodle soup that is not particularly distinguishable from other Chinese pork-noodle-soup concoctions. The Sikkimese are also fond of eating wild fiddlehead ferns when they are in season, as well as stinging nettles. Unfortunately, neither were available when we were in Sikkim. The Sikkimese, like any self respecting mountain people, have a healthy array of incredibly potent alcoholic beverages. More on that later.

We were both pleased to discover that the Sikkimese happily eat pork—almost impossible to find in most parts of India. Beef is also available, though judging by its relative cheapness when compared to the other meats, I think "beef" actually means "old yak that we can't use to haul stuff up mountains anymore." I wouldn't over-question it.

This was a very subtle bamboo shoot curry, that tasted much more Chinese then Indian. Plenty of ginger and garlic, and a little bit of soy, thickened with some corn starch. The Sikkimese call bamboo "tama." As previously noted, they eat a lot of it. You have to boil it with turmeric water for about 15 minutes before it is edible, in case you were wondering.

This is pork gyari, a Sikkimese pork curry prepared with sliced and smoky-flavored pork, with ginger, garlic, onion, and what tasted like soy sauce. Tasty, especially when one hasn't eaten pork in a month or so and is experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

We also tried an interesting local soup—which I have been unable to identify on the Internet—that seemed to involve greens, mushroom, and lentils. I must also note that Kiran and I, both enormous snobs, gave Tangerine's bhindi masala an enthusiastic thumbs up.

We walked through town for a while, and decided to stop and have a coffee at a achingly hip cafe up some small side-street. A light rain began to fall, and we sat in a nearly empty cafe. I had a cappucino. There was an indie band playing inside. Everything was quiet and very clean, and decorated with independent art. They were selling CDs by a local Sikkimese underground rapper.
"This is nothing like India," I think I said.
"Nothing at all," Kiran said.
"You keep on thinking that the Sikkimese are going to rip you off, or something. All this niceness - they've got to be up to something."
"And they actually are that nice! They really are!"
"It's freaking me out."
We were silent for a moment contemplating this. The rain fell, and people with multi-colored umbrellas passed by quietly in the night. It was something like a Hopper painting, but in Sikkim, and far far away.

The niceness of the Sikkimese would hold true throughout our two weeks in their country. It is a bit jarring when compared to mainland India, where scamming tourists has been elevated to the level of an art, a philosophy, a science that for all I know is taught in semi-undercover vocational schools across the subcontinent. Maybe it's just because Sikkim sees so few tourists that they haven't bothered yet. Maybe it's because the Indian government filters a lot of money into Sikkim to stop the natives from getting cantankerous. Maybe they really are an authentic, honest-to-god, Happy People. It's hard to say.

We also sorted out our trek that night. More on that later.

We headed back to our hotel by way of exuberantly decorated taxi, after spending about half an hour in a parking garage watching as the drivers set up for the Vishnakarma puja, drank a lot, and joked around with each other in Nepali. We selected a driver whose tire was blown out, and so we sat around and communicated in Hindi (Kiran) and in dramatically simplified English (me) while we waited. The Sikkimese remained nice. My hotel room was nicer. I slept like a rock.

It was all so quiet.