map-NE-India

 

For her 70th birthday, Yvonne wanted to go mountain biking in Sikkim (a former Himalayan kingdom that is located south of Tibet and between Nepal and Bhutan). Sikkim has been part of India only since 1975. Sikkim is at center top of the map at left.

After a long-planned trip with a British company didn’t materialize (not enough participants), Yvonne contacted the company Naturebeyond in Siliguri in the northern part of West Bengal. One of the owners, Pallab Bhattacharya, patiently and carefully designed an itinerary tailored to our exact wishes.

Before the biking tour, we spent a few days at a nature reserve east of Siliguri (map of the area at the bottom of this page) to adjust for the 12-hr time difference.

After the biking tour we went to Kolkata and then toured Orissa (described separately).

 

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We started our biking tour just north of Siliguri in West Bengal and crossed the Sikkim border north of Darjeeling two days later.

 

The picture on the right shows our vehicle (with the bikes on top), Pallab, Karma, Joy and Juergen.

 

Pallab (left) even helped us get set up with a computer USB modem of an Indian cell phone company. This gave us internet access in the most remote areas as long as there was cell phone coverage. Karma was our biking guide. He is from Sikkim, has a Tibetan father and a native Sikkimese mother. Next to him is Joy, our driver, who is a Raj Bangsi of West Bengal. Both were absolutely perfect - cheerful and fun to be with. They treated us like royalty which added to the trip’s being an unforgettable memory.

 

Below are Karma and Joy.

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We started biking just outside Siliguri and went steadily uphill for over 20 miles.

 

By the time we got to Kurseong, we had pedalled  from an elevation of 600’ to 4800’ in 4.5 hours (moving time).

 

Our GPS track is in red overlayed on Google Earth.

 

The reason for the steady 3.7% climb was that the road pretty much follows the railroad track of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (the “Toy Train”) a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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The roads are narrow and winding and have many signs like the one on the right.

 

Here are some others:

 “Life is short, don’t make it shorter”

“Be soft on my curves”

“This is a highway, not a runway”

“Either drink or drive”

“Slow drive, long life”

“Drive with care, life has no spare”

“Live for your today, drive for your tomorrow”

“Better late than never”

“Reach home in peace, not in pieces”

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We were given red velour chairs and pampered with snacks at our rest stops and excellent box lunches at our lunch stops.

 

The road was narrow with cliffs on one side and drop offs on the other which made it rare to find a pullout like this one for our snack breaks. This first day of biking was on a secondary road which happily for us meant there was little traffic.

 

After being exclusively addressed by Karma with “Sir” and “Ma’am” Yvonne told him to call us Juergen and Yvonne. His reply: “I can’t do that, Ma’am.”

 

The second day of biking from Kurseong to Darjeeling wasn’t much easier. We climbed some 3900 feet.

 

The problem here was that the entire way was being resurfaced. There were piles of rocks and sand, lots of traffic, road construction equipment - and the road was very narrow.

 

 Fortunately, the drivers in Sikkim are both very careful (they don’t race around) and good, so we weren’t afraid of getting hit. People often cheered us on – even with “go Papa, go Mama!” which made us laugh.

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Many Indian states have hugely diverse populations of different ethnic composition and different languages.

 

Our guide and driver spoke six different native languages and used Nepalese to communicate with each other (not native to either one). Both knew only a little Hindi – learned by watching Bollywood films!

 

One political problem in West Bengal is a movement by members of the Gorkha population to establish a separate Indian state, something the central government does not support. Occasionally, strikes and road blocks cause travel delays.

 

 

Note that Sikkim has left-hand traffic. Not only did we have to get used to that – it also meant that the “rear view” mirrors we put on our glasses had to be used on the right side.

 

There are also almost NO bikes.

 

It’s just too hilly.

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Our frequent crossing the railroad tracks was not easy.

 

The roads were narrow and the tracks had to be crossed at an angle to avoid slipping into the gaps.

 

The road condition was like this for the entire 2nd day – but from then on the roads had very little traffic again. This was an experience – that would have been dreadful if the drivers hadn’t been so nice to us!

 

Besides funny road signs, some trucks are highly entertaining.

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The narrow roads and steep shoulders do cause accidents.

 

 

Darjeeling is a delightful town at an elevation of 7000’.

 

It was developed by the British in the mid 19th century as one of their “hill stations” and is most famous for the tea that’s grown everywhere nearby in extensive plantations.

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Sikkim has the third highest mountain in the world (only Mt. Everest and K2 are higher).

 

The mountain’s name is Kangchenjunga; it is 28,169 ft (or 8,586 m) high. The name means “The Five Treasures of Snow” as it contains five peaks, four of them over 28,000 feet.

 

It’s visible from Darjeeling in the picture on the left which was taken from our hotel window. We made a sunrise excursion to a view point called Tiger Hill. The chart below shows the major mountains visible from that site. 

 

 

 

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This is our telephoto of Kangchenjunga in the morning sun taken from Tiger Hill.

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On the way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Gorkha war memorial which is dedicated to the Gorkha soldiers the British used for their military campaigns.

 

Close to Darjeeling are a number of fascinating Tantric Buddhist monasteries.

 

On the right is the Dali monastery of the Kagyu sect. Built in 1971, this monastery forms the headquarters of Drukchen Rimpoche the XII, the supreme leader of the Kagyu lineage.

 

Tantric Buddhism originated in India around 600 CE and spread into Tibet where it flourished and became firmly established while Buddhism in India practically disappeared eventually. Today, Tantric Buddhism is practiced in Sikkim, Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and in a region of NW India - Kashmir/Ladakh and Himachal Pradesh where the Dalai Lama has his exile government. We’ll visit that region next!  (Summer, 2011)

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Also close to Darjeeling, in the city of Ghoom, is the Yiga Choeling monastery which was established in 1875 by the Tantric Yellow Hat sect.

 

The Dalai Lama heads the Yellow Hats, the largest Tantric Buddhism sect.

 

Monks on a platform in the back of the Bhutia Busty monastery (Red Hat or Nyingma sect of Tantric Buddhism).

 

The Tibetan Book of the Dead was found here and translated into English in 1927. Later in our stay in Sikkim we witnessed a burial ritual following the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

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Tea plantation north of Darjeeling (with our vehicle and Joy).

We thought that having a guide named Karma and a driver named Joy was wonderful!

Joy is a common man’s name in his W. Bengali ethnic minority which is Hindu but has its own language and only about 50,000 members.

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This is the Sikkim border which is at the bottom of the mountain Darjeeling is on.

 

Because of border disputes and other unsettled political issues (primarily with China because Sikkim borders on Tibet) a special permit is required to enter Sikkim.

 

Our biking in Sikkim consisted of going down a mountain, crossing a river, and then climbing up the other side. Over and over again! Level rarely happens in Sikkim!

 

Just like our first day, our third day of biking in Sikkim wasn’t easy: we climbed 5000 ft in about 25 miles (of 28)…and it was warm!

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Another snack break with a view.

 

It made us smile to come around a curve and spot our red chairs waiting for us!

 

We’d crossed the river below us not long before.

 

A typical nice memory about Joy’s quick humor: Yvonne was taking her backpack out of the SUV and Joy offered to carry it for her. She said she was ok because it was light. Joy answered that if it was heavy he wouldn’t have offered. (Of course, he would have!)

 

It was pretty late by the time we neared our hotel in Kaluk.

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The local millet beer is fondly clutched by Juergen….

 

This was Juergen’s first millet beer (he had barley beer in Tibet). Here he’s getting directions on how to stir it.

 

He didn’t know then that he would taste more millet beer later in 2010 - on a different continent, Africa, in the Dogon area of Mali.

 

The hotel in Kaluk had a wonderful view of Kangchenjunga. Pallab had selected the best room for the view of the mountain in each place we stayed.

 

For several days we kept cycling closer.

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We started Yvonne’s birthday with breakfast on the lodge’s roof with a wonderful view of Kangchenjunga.

 

Karma gave her the red scarf.

 

The host gave her the white scarf and the flower arrangement, which was made by his 10-year old daughter.

 

The people in Sikkim had a very distinct and pretty architectural style.

 

Unfortunately, very few houses are left. Here is one of them in the very old style.

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We visited the Rinchenpong monastery near Kaluk.

 

…here again with a view to that wonderful mountain.

 

The monastery was very interesting in two respects. One was a burial service that lasted over 70 days (not continuously, but on selected dates). There was a lot of chanting and music inside but pictures were not allowed.

 

The other interesting feature inside was the Tantric non-duality altar sculpture.

 

We have seen many of such presentations but never one in which the Buddha image was in one color (blue) and the female partner likewise in one color (white) with both of them nude.

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From Kaluk we proceeded to Pelling by car (see map at the end) and stayed at a fancy old British hotel.

 

Pallab arranged for the birthday cake which we shared with Karma and Joy.

 

We celebrated by having sherry on the lawn with a view of the mountain.

 

We lucked out seeing our favorite mountain again from Pelling.

 

Later, while waiting at the Siliguri airport to fly to Kolkata we met a young German couple who had planned to hike to the base camp. They arrived in Sikkim just a few days after we did but never even saw the mountain once as it started to rain when they arrived. They decided to continue their holiday elsewhere.

 

The rain caused us to miss only our last day’s planned view of it (when we were only 25 miles away!). We were SO lucky!

 

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We had to pose with our favorite mountain in the background – with our bikes - even though we were visiting monasteries that day.

 

We spent a day in Pelling and visited the Pemayangtse monastery which dates from 1705.

 

It is the head of all the other Nyingmapa monasteries in Sikkim

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Some of the old woodwork at the Pemayangtse monastery.

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Near the above monastery are many prayer flags and below…

 

…a circular depiction of the mantra Om-Ma-Ni-Pad-Me-Hum (‘Hri’ in the center if expressed in a mandala form like here) in Tibetan characters.

 

This is the mantra of Avalokiteshvara (Chenresig in Tibet) whose present incarnation is the Dalai Lama.

 

Mani means jewel, Padma means lotus.

 

The background of this page depicts the same mantra written linearly.

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Two miles south of Pelling is the Rabidentse, the second capital of Sikkim which dates from the late 17th century.

 

The three chortens on the left were for the royal family.

 

On top of the hill opposite is the 17th c. Sanghak Choeling monastery, Sikkim’s oldest monastery. We visited it next.

 

The Sanghak Choeling monastery belongs to the order of the Nyingmapa sect.

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On our way from Pelling to Yuksom we visited a famous pilgrimage site, the sacred Kecheopalri lake. It was some distance off of our biking route, so we took the car for that detour.

 

The lake’s original name meant “Heaven of Padmasambhava” and is sacred to both Hindus and Buddhists and is believed to be a wish fulfilling lake.

 

It is also an integral part of Buddhist religious pilgrimage involving Yuksom, the Dubdi monastery, the Pemayangtse monastery, the Rabidentse ruins, the Sanghak Choeling monastery and the Tashiding monastery (all of which we did).

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Karma and Yvonne are spinning the Buddhist prayer wheels on a walkway leading to a Hindu site.

 

Yvonne covered her legs when biking not only to be respectful of their culture while on the road, but because we often experience places when we bike where it would be very bad to go with bare legs – like here.

 

The trident symbolizing Shiva at the end of the walkway. That’s where you do the wishing.

 

Many Hindu tourists from Kolkata visit Sikkim – because it is so peaceful and cool here (neither of which Kolkata is). The only tourists we saw were from other areas of India.

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We returned to the biking road after the visit of the Kecheopalri lake.

 

The biking downhill from Pelling was much fun – we’d “paid” for it with so much climbing the previous days!

 

We started out in pines and junipers with birds singing and wound up in palms before crossing a river and climbing back up to pines.

 

This is on the uphill part of the biking profile where we took a rest at a nice waterfall.

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While climbing to a monastery, we passed this timeless scene. Note the wooden plow.

 

This was hard work as the available area was tiny and rocky. He continually had to lift the plow out of the ground and reinsert it.

 

We climbed (walked up through woods) to the Dubdi monastery near Yuksom which belongs to the Nyingma sect.

 

Established in 1701 it is the oldest monastery in Sikkim.

 

It is central to the history of Sikkim as it is closely linked to the founding of the State of Sikkim at Yuksom in the middle of the 17th c. by Letsum Chenpo and his two associate lamas.

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Like most monasteries, it has many elaborate paintings. The fellows on the left are guardians.

 

The one with the lute is Dhritarashtra, Guardian of the East.

 

Wrathful Buddha.

 

In Tibetan Buddhist iconography, this is not a personification of evil or demonic forces.

 

Rather, these wrathful images are benevolent gods who are presented in this manner to symbolize the amount of effort it takes to vanquish evil.

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Outside the Dubdi monastery.

 

On the right is the coronation throne of Norbugang. It is here where the crowning ceremony for the first Chogyal (king) of Sikkim was held in 1641.

 

The largest of the four raised seats was for the great Nyingmapa Lama. On his right was the king, the other two seats for high-ranking lamas.

 

The large pine is said to be from that time.

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Next to the coronation site is the Norbugang chorten (stupa) built in memory of the coronation.

 

It was built from earth and stones that were brought from all parts of Sikkim, with the coronation gifts put inside.

 

Temple and chorten of Norbugang.

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Another interesting presentation of the famous mantra of Avalokiteshvara.

 

The nearby Kathok Lake is a holy lake associated with the coronation site.

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We walked around the lake and enjoyed the serenity.

 

We spent quite some time there – we were the only visitors.

 

 

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Continuing on, we passed by this less serene scene. A butchered animal is being cut up and distributed among the customers.

 

This is near the entrance of the Tashiding monastery complex. It was built in 1717 and belongs to the Nyingmapa order.

 

This example of the Om-mani-pad-me-hum mantra is the background for this page.

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The hill on which Tashiding is located is where Guru Padmasambhava is said to have shot an arrow before meditating on the spot where it fell.

 

Surrounded by chortens, mani stones (stones with inscriptions of Om Mani Padme Hum, hence “mani” stone), water-driven prayer wheels, and Mt. Kangchenjunga looming behind, this is a magical spot.

 

Large crowds gather here during an annual festival. The mere sight of the Thongwa Ramgdol Chorten is supposed to wipe away all sins.

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These mani walls are stone structures with a compilation of exquisitely carved stone tablets.

 

 

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The mani walls should be passed or circumambulated clockwise since, according to Buddhist doctrine, the earth and the universe rotate that way.

 

This row of Buddha images with different mudras (ritual gestures) has one wrathful Buddha inserted.

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Are YOU all you can be?

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The image on the right of this picture shows Padmasambhava holding the vajra (thunderbolt) in his right hand.

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We were told that this monk arrived here several decades ago and has been carving inscriptions ever since.

 

After we finished our long visit of the Tashiding monastery we found this lunch set up.

 

Quite a setting! Karma and Joy made everything special – and fun.

 

In our hotel in Yuksom we had an interesting dinner:

 

A dish of yak cheese mixed with mountain fern, Chicken Sikkinese with spinach, and green nettle soup.

 

We enjoyed it very much.

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Crossing a bridge in Sikkim. We didn’t bike that day because it rained.

 

Sikkim has its own “personality.”

 

We’ve really enjoyed getting to know the differences among the old Himalayan kingdoms, which was a big reason we wanted to visit Sikkim.

 

Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, Sikkim: their landscapes and architecture are so different. Only the tantric religion is a constant.

 

We hope to add Ladakh to this list soon! (like summer 2011)

 

Karma told us that when he is not guiding, he helps his family harvest cardamom - a significant export crop for Sikkim.

 

In his village, he showed us the new sprouts of the plant coming out of the ground. The seeds of the plant are used for flavoring drinks, as cooking spices and in medicine.

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On our way to Ravangla, we passed this fascinating site. On a platform looking over a steep hillside was a wooden image of a female deity.

 

There is obviously an indigenous cult still active – which existed before Buddhism. We always look for these experiences when we travel.

 

This image is created new each year and it is hoped that it will provide healthy harvests.

 

This is a great example of our benefiting from traveling “slow.” We were walking on the edge of a village when we noticed it; we hadn’t seen it when we were in the car passing by.

 

We add extra days to what tour programs present for more in-depth travel and are happy when it pays off.

 

 

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Ralang monastery near Ravangla belongs to the Kagyu order.

 

It is host to a festival when Mt. Kangchenjunga is worshipped. It is residence to over 100 monks.

 

 

 

We noticed a couple of young people with 6 fingers on one hand. Karma said it’s not un-common here! One of the “fingers” is small and not useful.

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This Buddha image is inside the Ralang monastery.

The disks are offerings made of yak butter.

 

Our final biking day was mostly a fun downhill ride but still involved over 1000 ft of vertical climbs.

 

Those zig zags are when we went down through Sikkim’s only commercial tea plantation.

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We stopped our bikes to take a picture of a ceremony performed with music by local monks.

 

We’ve forgotten details, but it was for blessing a farmer’s land.

 

In the car we wouldn’t have seen this scene (it was a little uphill from the road) but on the bikes we could hear the wonderful Tibetan low-pitched horn a long time before we got there.

 

Yvonne blasting downhill through the tea plantation. Note the woman with the basket.

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We stopped to let this Hindu procession pass. Images from the Ramayana were enacted.

 

On the float were children representing Rama, Sita and others.

 

The Ramayana is one of the great epics of India (the other being the Mahabharata).

 

It tells the story of Rama (an incarnation of Vishnu) whose wife is abducted by the demon king Ravana of Lanka.

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With a lot of loud noise the effigy of Ravana was elevated on a pole to be burned later.

 

The Rumtek monastery was built originally in the 16th c. where it served as the main seat of the Karma Kagyu lineage in Sikkim. When the 16th Karmapa arrived in Sikkim in 1959 after fleeing Tibet, the original monastery was in ruins and he rebuilt it as his main seat in exile. It is now the largest monastery in Sikkim.

Two rival organizations supporting different candidates for the 17th Karmapa claimed stewardship of the monastery. Neither candidate resides in Rumtek. A lengthy battle is being fought in Indian courts. Since 1992, the monastery has been the site of pitched battles between monks supporting one candidate or the other. Indian soldiers guard the grounds and patrol the monastery to prevent further sectarian violence.

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Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, lies on a steep hill.

It even has a cable car to get people from one level to the other!

 

 

In Gangtok, we found this shrine for Padmasambhava.

 

This was a fitting place to say goodbye to Sikkim.

 

It was a wonderful experience.

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map-tracks

 

The map above combines all of our tracks (driven and biked) for the northern part of West Bengal and Sikkim.

 

Prior to biking, we wanted to spend a few days around Siliguri to get over the jetlag caused by the 12-hour time difference.

 

Pallab set us up at the Riverwood Forest eco-resort from where we did some sightseeing that included a visit to Gorumara National park.

 

That’s where we saw the rhino on the right.

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