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 IndiaMike.com, 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.

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