Sikkim: A Nearly Foreign State Of Affairs for a City-Bred

Posted on June 24, 2010

Ruchika Joshi:

When a gnarly 17-year old Delhiite hears of a three day trip to Sikkim, the first thing to strike her after the three day break part, of course, is the realization of that funny bulb-like projection at the top right corner of the Indian map. Why of course! It’s for real, something that until now for her existed only in miserly textbooks sharing a sentence with the remaining seven sisters.

After ignoring the initial suspicions of this relatively quiet state always having been there, and its mystic nature causing subtle hesitations, I packed my belongings and took the cheapest domestic flight to the Bagdogra Airport in West Bengal (turns out the Sikkim Airport is currently under construction). At this point, it’s important that I mention how lame I felt for carrying a woolen jacket on someone’s advice. Bagdogra was as hot as a frying pan and Gangtok (the capital) which is where I was headed first, was only a 4 hour drive from there and I guessed ignorantly, not much colder. Extra luggage makes me mad and I knew then that the jacket would be my object of fury for the next three days.

The two hour flight landed at about noon and the car ride that followed was quite uneventful, except for a tinge of resemblance between the roadsides of Bengal and that of the Mahipalpur by-lanes. So, I stared at the faces and the Bengali signboards till slumber took over.

A slight chill in the air and a state check post woke me up. This was not like Mahipalpur anymore. A whiff of fresh damp air, hillocks that imposed tranquility and the light buzz of an unknown tongue being spoken, I did pinch myself just to make sure I wasn’t still sleeping. I did it hard enough for the bruise to last a few days.

They had a different emblem in use; the official buildings conveyed that pretty clear. This may have something to do with the fact that only in 1975 did Sikkim officially became the 22nd state of the Indian Union after the prevalent monarchy was abolished.

Clean roads, a well-managed transport system (quite an achievement considering Sikkim’s mountainous terrain) and of course the placidity reflected in every being I passed by, really did make an impact. As far as I was concerned, New Delhi officially had a role-model to look up to.

The staying arrangements had been taken care of by my parents. A defence background meant that the Black Cats Institute was to be my home for the next three days. My first evening in Gangtok was thereafter spent making tedious arrangements to visit Nathu La Pass, the following morning. Located on the Old Silk Route, 54 km from Gangtok, Nathu La is one of the three Indo-China trading posts

At that time, I wasn’t quite sure as to what to expect from an everyday trading post. I didn’t even know why I going there in the first place, but I was, just as anyone visiting Sikkim was supposed to. Sealed by India after the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Nathu La was re-opened in 2006 following numerous bilateral trade agreements. The opening of the pass was expected to bolster the economy of the region and play a key role in the growing Sino-Indian trade. The opening also shortens the travel distance to important Hindu and Buddhist pilgrimage sights. Interesting but not all that engaging, you might say and at that time I would have agreed. But then took place the journey to Nathu La.

We started from Gangtok at around 7 in the morning. Gangtok’s unpredictable weather was for once, on our side, which basically meant that the clear skies and fresh air made the day ahead look promising.

Soon enough, the tamed town was left behind, and the terrain took up an existence of its own. Broken roads, monster-cars that cheated death on every hairpin bend among the mountains that inaugurated the Himalayas and the occasional tin houses in their simplest existence, beyond which the Himalayan range continued to dominate…wait, was that snow?! In April? That’s when I made a mental note to thank the person who suggested the woolen jacket.

We stopped at the Tsongmo Lake, a glacial lake on the way. Frozen and tucked away in the valley, its sheer water aroused the quantum of existence around it. The chilly temperature, the strangeness of this almost foreign land, the idea of how this dream was actually my own country and these people (Nepalis, Lepchas and Bhutias) my fellow men, left me a little overwhelmed. Standing there, among a stopped caravan of cars and fellow strangers to this land, and yet being in an exquisite state of solitude, brought with it an unreal sense of peace. And with a boy mischievously walking his decorated yak dangerously close to me, I snapped out of my trance.

I needed someone to talk to, share this magnificence with. And so I walked up to a nearby chai-stall and struck up a conversation with the chai-wallah asking him of the pass. He gave me a bored look. Clearly he had been bothered by those of my like before. ‘Do-char Chinese admi log hai madam, aur kya? Hamare jaisa hi. Ek Chinese ka building hai, India toh abhi apna building bana raha hai. Baaki pahad hai keval. Ek Chai?

(‘Just a few Chinese men. Human beings like us. There is a Chinese building too, India is still constructing its own. The rest of it is just the mountains. One cup tea to go?’)

The conversation was a short one, for obvious reasons. He had a livelihood to earn and having spent his entire life there, he didn’t really understand what the fuss was about. Why would a young girl like me from the city go all the way to Nathu La to see people and mountains. He couldn’t figure out what was it that got me so awestruck by the experience.

And it’s hard to put it in words, the sense of wonder and placid relief that the pass and the journey to it brought about. Living in a metropolitan city, where the pace of your life is set by others, where your days become so monotonous it’s hard to tell them apart, where for every breath you take in you might as well choke twice, where the lead skies and newspapers highlighting human miseries make up your mornings and where you forget that you matter and even who you are, it’s then that a place like Nathu La picks you up, fills you with strength, hope and gratitude, and props you up again.

As I stood there, I felt my existence like I never have. Staring at the stillness of the mighty Himalayas, the thought of a buzz of people going about their lives in a warmer June, so very used to their surroundings that right now have you wide-eyed with wonder, is bound to make for an interesting experience to say the least. It is then that I felt the world moving, almost in a frenzy but rhythmic nonetheless. John Keats’ ‘thing of beauty’ would be a close comparison.

The next two days, it rained heavily. (Blame it on the unpredictable weather and of course, my luck) Armed with an umbrella, I did a bit of local sightseeing within the dry intervals, in and around Gangtok. The famous Rumtek Monastery, the annual flower-show (unbelievable variety), the Banjakhri Falls and the Namgyal Institue Of Tibetology (truly intellectual) were the most I could manage.

But who’s complaining? The journey to Nathu La made up for it all. The sense of sheer joy and contentment that came with it couldn’t be matched. And then there were always hot steamy momos for comfort.

Reading this on your conventional day, you may not be convinced by what I promise this journey will do for you, and I don’t blame you. Getting there first, my own thoughts were restricted to being mad at a jacket. But that’s what this place does to you, it makes you step back and look at the bigger picture. And what is that big picture, you ask? There is only one way to find out. So go ahead, explore Sikkim in this lifetime and you will be spell bound by what you find.

The writer is a correspondent of Youth Ki Awaaz.

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