I can see how bright blue skies and sunshine, like pats of butter melting over pitched roofs and treetops, make for a crisp opening. But writing on hill stations in the Northeast ought to come rolling in mists, wrapped around sodden, blue mountains. On cue, therefore, the wind picks up. As does the rain. And by the time I buy my harlequin umbrella and wander through the dissolving mists and shadows on MG Marg, my first night at Gangtok condenses into a steady, determined downpour. The streets empty out. The shutters roll down in a hurry. Umbrellas — plaids, checks, florals, bright pinks and purples — scurry past me in huddles of twos and threes.
Then, abruptly, I have company.
Wet as a crow and hugging a bunch of plastic bags to his chest, the young man who has stepped into my leaking refuge wonders if I can ‘drop’ him to Laal Bazaar. Home for the holidays, he had been wrapping up last-minute shopping for college-mates in Bangalore, when the heavens split. Ten beautiful minutes later, we’re still animatedly discussing the weather, the nightlife and the absent cows of Gangtok.
No, we don’t exchange numbers. Or promise to meet again on Facebook. Because in a place so caught in mist and legends, serendipity is by (mother creator) ItbuMoo’s design. And you treat it with insouciance. This is Sikkim. That mythical Shangri-La wedged between those other mythical Shangri-Las of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal. A place where ex-Chogyals (kings) and Gyalmos (queens) still people the morning papers and a living god, the 17th Karmapa, waits to take his seat at Rumtek. Here, clocks are indulgent and maps superfluous.
For Gangtok is easy to navigate. All roads lead to or out of the mall road (well, almost). A no-parking, no-driving zone renovated in 2008, the promenade is just the sort of place that Nainital should take a walk in. Polite, unhurried and surprisingly clean. Abuzz with just as many tourists as locals — a motley bunch of Nepalis, who first came in chain gangs to work on tea plantations in the 19th century and now form about 70 per cent of the population; Bhutias, who migrated from the Kham Province in Tibet a couple of centuries before that; and Lepchas, who consider themselves the original inhabitants of the land; and also the swelling ranks of Biharis, Marwaris and natives of Darjeeling, who came in search of a living. But it’s not merely the colourful demographics or the over-constructed hillside that define the city or its microcosm, the mall road.
It’s the strains of Nepalese rock emanating from the Bose speakers on the lampposts, the old-as-the-hills Bhutia matron’s invitation to tea and the conversations with friendly strangers, who jest about how everyone in Gangtok is either related to the ex-royals or owns a hotel, that make the mall so special. Even the absurd diktat of painting each building a nondescript shade of green hasn’t robbed it of its character. Nor has its unimaginative nomenclature, which herds it with Delhi’s Ring Road, Bombay’s Marine Drive and countless other M.G. Roads that litter the cities of India.
Food is never far from your mind or your fingers on MG Marg. At any given point in the day, you see people slumped over the curlicue benches — exhausted by their last meal, comforted momentarily by the soupy smells wafting in the air and racked by the thought of deciding on their next meal at one of the 30-odd restaurants along the promenade.
I devise a foolproof, time-of-day method. So when the din of the afternoon distils into the jolly laughter of the evening, I walk down to the Baker’s Café, where the regulars drop anchor. Temi tea and muffins for the university academic, sandwiches for the schoolgirls in hitched-up skirts and a large pizza for the boisterous boys back from their angling trip at the confluence of the rivers Teesta and Rangeet. On clear, post-monsoonal days, the café also rewards its patrons with a splendid view of the five peaks of the Kanchendzonga; a comfortably warm spot to see the snow plumes rise or to stargaze at a superbly flecked sky.
Next, I polish off spicy pork sausages at Gangtalk (bar and restaurant) and wash them down with hot, velvety chocolate at Cacao (bistro)—both new kids on the block. Rest awhile on an empty bench. And when dusk gathers the last of the light, I clamber up the short flight of steps to Pub 25 and post a local pint. Sikkim is known for its home-grown beers—Hit, He Man 900 and the mellower Dansberg, all brewed at Bollywood actor Danny Denzongpa’s Yuksom Breweries—comparable with the best in the country. It’s a pity they aren’t available outside the Northeast. In Gangtok though, foamy glasses of these brews are clinked at popular pubs 31A (at Zero Point), Code Orange (on the outskirts of the city) and the brand new King B (at Hotel Mayur).
For dinner, I totter down to 9’ine (towards Star Cinema), a ‘native cuisine’ dining room with 20-odd covers and a kitchen the size of a soupspoon. 9’ine—which opened its doors about a year ago—is an example of a growing trend; of young Sikkimese entrepreneurs straddling or giving up successful careers as filmmakers, techies and hoteliers abroad or in Goa or Pune to come back and score a home run. Just as well that they do. For 9’ine brings out dish after dish of what only those privy to Sikkimese home-cooking can know intimately—gundruk (fermented leaves of mustard, radish and cauliflower), kinema (fermented soyabean dish), maalhoo (cottage cheese cooked with butter and eggs) and soya curry.
Anum Pedro for Mexican fare, Apna Dhaba for the North Indian dal makhni-chicken tikka refuge and the House of Bamboo are other contenders for the dinner cheque and tip on M.G. Road. The last, hardly a surprise, given that nine out of the 10 plates served in Gangtok’s restaurants groan under the weight of momos and thukpa. Traditional Lepcha, Bhutia and Nepalese cuisines have long lost steam in what an in-the-know local journalist calls ‘the momo-thukpa society’. She also recalls how Little Italy (in Deorali), the go-to place for most locals, dared to snub the duo at first, only to give in sooner than you could say tagliatelli.
What draws the average punter to Little Italy though, is not the promise of a gourmet meal. Packed to the gills on weekends, it’s the combination of live music and a good tipple that the locals love. Home-grown bands belt out favourites here as well as at Live & Loud, off M.G. Road. But the music had stopped when I went visiting. The city was in mourning. The night was boarded up. And by daybreak, Gangtok was already gathering to bid farewell to Steve, the lead guitarist of a local band.
For everyone knows everyone in Gangtok. And one way to breach its small town order is to unpack your bags at The Shire on Arithang Road. With a garden overrun with avocado, passion fruit, lemon and tomatoes on a tree (no, not on a vine) and a handful of homey rooms, The Shire is what it appears to be—an extension of Mr and Mrs Kazi’s house. The ‘home away from home’ its website peddles. My room, I was glad to discover, had an entire wall held together by windows, an old-fashioned writing desk and a selection of books on Sikkim, thoughtfully stacked by my bed by Karma, the couple’s youngest son.
Descendants of the late Rai Saheb Gyalsen Kazi, once a judicial secretary at the Palace, the Kazi family, understandably, doesn’t air its political sentiments without provocation. But dining table banter lets slip what is commonly acknowledged across Sikkim: the older generation that witnessed the plebiscite followed by the annexation by India in 1975, still resents the way it was done. The younger lot has long reconciled itself. And unlike its neighbouring states, tax-free Sikkim is now at peace with its status. No loud autonomy rants and secessionist chatter here. Yet I wonder if the only surviving (rediscovered) print of Satyajit Ray’s documentary on the ex-kingdom, shot in 1971, awaiting its release this year, will suffer a double censorship once again—this time, from the (older) people of Sikkim (not the monarchy) and the politicos of Delhi.
Politics, however, can barely hold its own against Mrs Kazi’s chhurpi (yak cheese) and bamboo shoot, pork trotters and chilli, fiddlehead ferns and nettle soup. Fragrant and moist like cardamom fields in the rain and orange blossoms in first blush, it’s Sikkim on a plate. So heady are the smells that I struggle with simple phrases like ‘pass the gravy’ and eat my meal in grateful silence. Yet, hours ago at Laal Bazaar, the cane baskets of nettle leaves and konnechro (mushrooms), lingo (ferns) and chhurpi, tend rils of pumpkin and soybean paste seemed far afield from my comfort zone as a cook and a diner.
Daybreak finds me coiling up the hill to the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, its bejewelled roofs rising against a watery sun. It’s the anniversary of Buddha’s first sermon at Sarnath and celebrations are due all day. Walking past the main temple, I cross the living quarters of the younger monks on my way to the Golden Stupa and imagine messy dorms behind the latched doors, perhaps with telltale signs of a friendly scuffle or a late riser’s woes. Upstairs though, orderly rows of maroon robes sway to the sound of their own hum. But it’s the surfeit of army fatigues like lichen on the walls and portraits of Trinley Dorje that shore up troubled truths, hinting at the underlying unrest between the two warring factions of the Karma Kagyu or the Black Hat order, each with its own candidate for the Karmapa’s seat.
Back in the city, I visit another of Sikkim’s iconic lamaseries: the Enchey Monastery of the Nyingma Order. Home to the deities of Kanchendzonga and Yabdean, and blessed by Druptob Karpo or the flying lama with tantric powers, this is where Gangtok prays. Tantric Buddhism also finds room at the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, where thangkas and rare manuscripts share space with several curious implements—such as human skull cups and thighbone trumpets that serve as a reminder of death and impermanence. A few paces down the road at Do Drul Chorten, tamer symbols of mani-lhakor (prayer wheels) and rows upon rows of chimey (butter lamps) keep the faith alight.
But faith is never in short supply in Sikkim. Not even when you swing from switchback to switchback, hairpin bend to bend in a battered car that threatens to plunge off the road and into the Teesta. So I hold on to my faith and to my mandibles, as I tumble down to Bagdogra airport, wondering all along if Gangtok, with its head in the clouds, will be as distant and numinous when the new airport takes wing two years later at Pakyong (a few kilometres outside the city). Something in the mountain air tells me I needn’t fret. An open house, Gangtok will always have heart and elbowroom for a tourist with an umbrella.
Several airlines operate direct flights to Bagdogra from Delhi and Kolkata (from Rs 4,800). From here, take a taxi to Gangtok (5hrs, Rs 2,000).
Foreigners require an Inner-Line Permit to enter Sikkim. Check sikkim.nic.in for a list of offices (in Gangtok, Siliguri, Darjeeling, New Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai) that issue these permits.
Where to stay
The Shire (from Rs 1,550; theshiresikkim.com) is conveniently located—barely 10 minutes on foot from M.G. Road/Laal Bazaar. And yet it seems miles away from the busy, touristy quarters of Gangtok.
About 10km outside the city, Mayfair Resort and Spa (from Rs 12,000; mayfairhotels.com) is not for the budget traveller. Check in if you’re used to butlers, jacuzzis and pillow menus.
You could also try Sonam Delek (Rs 1,000, hotelsonamdelek.com), The Hidden Forest Retreat (from Rs 1,500, thehiddenforestretreat.org), The Nor-Khill (from Rs 6,900, elginhotels.com) and Denzong Regency (from Rs 5,500, denzongregency.com).
What to see & do
Enchey Monastery: Perched a couple of kilometres above Gangtok, the 200-year-old Enchey is much smaller in scale than Rumtek, but it’s just as charming. Most locals offer their prayers at this lamasery, especially during the two-day festival of Chhaam in January, when traditional masked dances are staged here.
Namgyal Institute Of Tibetology If you’re allowed to pick just one city attraction, let this be it. A museum of Tibetan, Lepcha and Sanskrit manuscripts, Buddhist thangkas, scrolls, statues, frescoes and unusual Tantric exhibits. Expect to spend at least an hour under its bright yellow roof.
Do Drul Chorten: Surrounded by prayer wheels, this large, white Buddhist stupa holds several religious relics of the Nyingma order in its womb.
The Ridge: Best explored on foot, start at the White Hall built by the British, wind your way up to the Palace gates (closed to visitors) and halt at the Flower Exhibition Centre known for its display of orchids (in season through spring and autumn) and other local blooms.
Hanuman Tok & Ganesh Tok: These two temples are wonderful vantage points for a bird’s eye view of the city.
Directorate Of Handicrafts And Handlooms: Go here for traditional furniture, curios and handloom. It is notorious, though, for padlocked doors (read numerous, unexpected holidays).
Rumtek Monastery The region’s most important drawing card, the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Centre, is about 25km outside of city limits. The seat of the Kagyu or the Black Hat order, it was re-established in 1959 and modelled on the lines of the original headquarters of the sect in Tibet. It’s a steep climb up, but well worth the sweat, especially if you arrive at the time when the lamas are in prayer, chanting and swaying in perfect unison. Early mornings (7.30am onwards) are especially charming.
Tsongmo Lake Budget a full day for a visit to this spectacular Himalayan lake, also called Changu lake, about 40km above the city.
Nathu-La Further uphill, at 14,200ft, lies the Indo-China border. Ask your hotel to help you arrange for permits the day before you visit.
Where to eat
The promenade, MG Marg, is lined with eateries, most of which are perfectly acceptable. Still, these are some of the nicest places I went to: Baker’s Café 03592-220195; Gangtalk 9593270314; Cacao 204418; Pub 25 205324; Code Orange 645740, 9332262580; 31A 9735027943; 9’ine 205061; Anum Pedro 9593288872; Apna Dhaba 204855; Little Italy 281980; Café Live and Loud 205024; House of Bamboo 229390; Tangerine 03592-2206619.
What to buy
The best souvenirs are often edible. In Gangtok, pick up dalle khorsani (cherry pepper) pickles, Temi tea (from the eponymous, government-run estate in South Sikkim), cherry brandy and cardamom, ginger or paan liqueurs. Counted among the hottest chillies in the world, jars of dalle can be bought for Rs 80 (200gm) at most grocery stores; try the ones at the Supermarket (next to Laal Bazaar). For Temi tea, you’ll need to trek to Himalayan Tea House, along the steps that connect M.G. Marg to Laal Bazaar, for a good selection (from Rs 700/kg). The liqueurs are available at most liquor outlets (from Rs 100). Gourmands can also look for chhurpi or yak cheese and tongbas, quaint cylindrical receptacles used to make chhang with fermented millet and hot water.
Thangkas, carpets, masks, cloth bags, wall hangings, handmade paper products and other collectibles painted, printed or embroidered with Buddhist signs and symbols are also available at the Government Institute of Cottage Industries and souvenir shops across the city, including the delightful Kendoika on M.G. Road.
When to go
Gangtok is at its dreamiest during the rains, but minor landslides sometimes block the arterial road to Bagdogra airport; the rubble is usually cleared in an hour or so. The most popular windows for tourism are the orchid seasons—late April to mid-May and then September-October. But Sikkim really is a year-round destination: summer is peak season, but its white winters are wonderful too.
Gangtok has surprisingly few bookshops. But Rachna Books (03592-204336, rachnabooks.com) has a modest, but well-chosen, collection of books on the ground floor and a space devoted to cultural events upstairs (including music recitals and exhibitions). The friendly owner, Raman Shreshta, is happy to show you around and share his cup of tea.