Sikkim

Sikkim Day 7 – Up & Away

One more monastery before we left. We bade farewell to Mintokling and left for Enchey monastery, located within the town. It followed the same pattern as the other two we’d visited, the only exception being a lot of sleeping beings we found – a foreigner, a few dogs. The monk in charge was pretty rude when we almost stepped into an area inside the sanctum, we weren’t supposed to. We didn’t bother to point out that they should ideally cordon off that area, since there was no way to put a sign. Buddha really wouldn’t have minded.

As we reached the limits of Gangtok, I wished I could take a snap of the CCD outlet with arguably the best view among its kind. We left for the 4 hour drive to Bagdogra, and there was a sense of finality as we passed familiar places and checked them off, like a countdown. – Ranipool, Singtham, Rangpo, and then into West Bengal – Malli, Teesta, Rambi, Sivok, and finally Siliguri. We stopped at the newly opened mall for lunch, actually still under construction, but with a restaurant, a multiplex and a few shops operational. We thought we’d try the food court, but the elevator wasn’t working and climbing up 4 floors (still under varying degrees of construction) didn’t really appeal. The loos worked, but were also victims of rigorous testing by the construction workers. Prakash, our driver from the first 2 days, claimed that the legendary Pawan Chamling owned the mall.

The sudden shift from all the cold mountains to the stifling plains was very depressing, especially as we passed shanties and huge mounds of garbage as we continued from Siliguri to Bagdogra, in typical city traffic, where we shift to cm/hr measurements.

We’d been sent a message the previous day, asking us to report 2 hours in advance owing to congestion. They were right, the baggage check queue almost went out of the airport. Bagdogra airport was a revelation as far as standards went. International check in times, aside, this was one of those heritage airports, from the time IA/AI planes ruled the Indian skies. Utterly ill equipped, the staff seemed to be always paying homage to that era. Their security checks were indeed pertinent – one visit to this place and you’ll be very tempted to you-know-what-mentioning-which-could-get-me-into-trouble. The railway station ambiance was topped with a bunch of women, exceeding their baggage quota by 216 kgs (!!) and then shifting bags to cabin baggage/ putting them back like veg shopping. We sat waiting, and I got bored enough to check my mail. The place was so crowded that I stored this in my drafts “‘Opening a secure connection. Content cannot be seen by anyone else’ does not include the guy looking over your shoulder.”

We finally took off, about 20 minutes late. Our plans to make a quick dash to the Howrah Bridge from Kolkata airport were dashed, as the taxi operators weren’t sure of getting us back in time. So we sat in the CCD outside, and drank in the airport sights at dusk, quite an ironical finale to a vacation, as though helping us make the transition to routine.

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Sikkim proved a decent trip – for me, vacations are in the mind, and a different setting can only help. Despite a few niggles, there’s no reason to follow the advice of one of the drivers ahead of us, on the way from Gurudongmar.

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The single biggest thing for me was regaining the motivation to continue that book, for whatever it’s worth. But for now, we  seem to have developed a 3M fatigue – momos, mountains, monasteries, so maybe its time for a break from that. Like I told Mo, we were carrying the Leh baggage, and it will always be a difficult gold standard to measure up to. But having said that, there was a coincidence that seemed to me like the Joker character introduction in Batman Begins. The first chapter of the book I was reading was set in Tibet, at the exact same place mentioned in the first bottle of water I got during the journey.

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Maybe, someday………….. :)

PS. For those interested, we customised a tour with Yak & Yeti

Sikkim Day 6 – Sikkim Pop and Zero Point Someone

The room did have a nice view from the window, but it was better from the balcony. The only snag was reaching the balcony, as the door refused to budge. I remembered my erm, MBA education days when I jumped out through the window (we did that during a few lectures) and opened the door from outside. It was worth it, as always. :)

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqT3gUvxs-s

We left the hotel by 7, after a hurried breakfast, to see the famous rhododendrons in Yumthang, and to visit Zero Point, where all roads apparently ended.  Yumthang was only about 25 kms away, and as we climbed further towards Yumesamdong, the flowers changed their color from purple to red to a pale pink. Apparently there are about 10 different versions. The driver made us listen to Sikkim pop, and even a Nepali song, the latter reminding me of early 90s Bollywood.

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We finally arrived at Zero point well over a couple of hours later. It turned out to be the Himalayan version of Kumbh Mela, with potential participants of music reality shows belting out everything from Shammi Kapoor to SRK hits, and generally going crazy at what perhaps was their first encounter with snow. Alcohol is freely available, thankfully so is coffee, though it stays hot for less than a couple of minutes.

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The driver said that there was a proposal to build a road from here to Gurudongmar, but the Lachen guys stopped it with a petition. Tibet is less than 50 kms away. We returned, and stopped at Yumthang for what appeared to be the driver’s brunch, and watched while people irritated a yak and almost got gored in return. We made a brief stop at the hotel, and after a quick lunch, started our trip back to Gangtok. The driver estimated a 5 hour journey, which actually turned out to be 6. We also saw this interestingly named place on the way back to Chungthang. Sometimes life does seem like a

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We passed the tourist points we’d halted at earlier, but thanks to the rains, they had absolutely no crowds. The driver, to our irritation insisted on following another driver, who was painfully slow. He also educated us on the pitfalls of shared cabs, as each passenger had his own tastes and harassed the drivers on where to stop, and not stop. At Naga falls, he seemed to give up on his companion, and told his passengers that he had seen their driver drinking. If we weren’t in a hurry, I’d have loved to stay and watch.

We hurried because though the rope way seemed a lost cause, we thought we’d roam around Gangtok a bit more and maybe drop in a Lal Bazaar again. The driver, though, was glued to his mobile, after having been out of a network for the last couple of days (the network is practically non existent long before Chungthang) I think he let all his near and dear ones know we hadn’t done him any harm, though the chances in those last few kilometres to Gangtok were pretty high. A Buddhist with a liking for Hit beer, our driver.

We finally reached Gangtok at 7.30, and after getting dropped back at Mintokling, decided to check out the last place in our list, for dinner. Arthur’s, on Tibet Road, another place recommended online, almost opposite Cafe Live & Loud, turned out to be a near replica of Allen’s Kitchen, but a few rungs lower in terms of character. While we waited for the food, we heard the owner tell a friend of his who had arrived just then, that if she’d come a few minutes earlier, he might have left immediately, because there was a large group of South Indians. Meanwhile, we leafed through magazines and found one with Charukesi’s Sikkim article, as the owner came over and asked us where we were from. :)

The chilly pork was quite good, as was the Chicken Thupka. The article too. Prices are very reasonable. We decided to pay another visit to Baker’s Café, found it closed, and went to our backup option – Cacao. It had only one other group, and we sat watching the street on our last night in Gangtok. Peaceful.

Sikkim Day 5 – Amitabh Falls and Feats at 17100 ft

This was the big day, the day we would visit the lake at 17100 feet – Gurudongmar. The driver said that the earlier we started, the better. Our versions of ‘early’ obviously didn’t match, and we left, with me still in REM mode, at about 5 AM. For the record, that’s practically the day before, not early morning.

But the views of the sunrise, as we moved past heavily wooded mountains was worth the early start. We stopped at Thangu for breakfast – eaten in a tiny ‘hotel’, as we warmed ourselves next to the stove. Breakfast consisted of Maggi noodles with loads of chilies. Thangu also serves as the first loo break. I use the word ‘loo’ very loosely here, it is a shack with a hole in the ground, hopefully with some moving water way down that will ensure that you don’t get to know the intricate details of what the previous occupant had the day before. Thangu also has a military camp, and a tourist guest house, where, the driver said later, he had picked up a trio of Dutch cyclists a few days back. (they cycled till there from Chungthang!!)

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The next stop was at Gaigong, where the military guys checked our papers, and warned our driver to refrain from using his army fatigues style jacket. They didn’t notice my umbrella. Immediately after Gaigong, we noticed some yaks having their breakfast.We moved on, and gave a lift to the yak owners. We dropped them off a while later, at a place which offered no shelter from rain or sun. The driver said he pitied them, because they were refugees from Tibet, who hadn’t even seen Gangtok. They survived on yak milk, and provisions the army sometimes gave them.

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The terrain was barren, but breathtakingly beautiful, literally. The driver advised us to munch on popcorn we’d purchased at Thangu, as its smell apparently boosts the metabolism. Ok. We raced with another cab and had fun climbing the last 1000 feet.

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I asked the driver where the name Gurudongmar came from and characteristically, he gave me his own bizarre explanations. I was tempted to give it right back to him with an equally bizarre ‘Guru -Dong – Mar’ version, based on ‘Tehelka’, the Bollywood film. (featuring Amrish Puri as Dong, and Dilip Dhawan – ‘Guru’ in Nukkad. Amrish Puri actually kills him after this song.  Mar. Note that the film also deserves credit for the first use of the Avatar hairstyle in Bollywood)

Gurudongmar is quite a beautiful place, and has many stories associated with it, as I learned from the military camp at Gaigong later. Drinking the  water from the lake is supposed to help women conceive. Also, one part of the lake, apparently marked by the Guru in question at the behest of locals who needed drinking water, remains unfrozen even in the coldest winters.  The lake is at 17100 feet, and you tend to struggle for breath sometimes, but if you have erm, enough airs, you can take a walk around the lake, while watching most people participate in a puke fest. I was afraid for D, but she seemed strict about her retch workout timings.

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCH9r08i4G0

The return journey was relatively uneventful, though we detoured a bit for the Chopta Valley view. Photography is prohibited in military areas, and the driver raced ahead when I asked for a single shot of the ‘café at 15000 ft. We got back to Lachen by 1.30, and after lunch, immediately set out for Lachung, 50 odd kms away. Bollywood refused to leave me as the stereo played a remix of ‘Saat samundar paar’ from Vishwatma!! Awesome! The only tourist attraction was Bhimtala falls, according to the driver, who also said it was more popularly known as Amitabh Falls, because of its height.

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We reached Lachung by 5.30, and settled ourselves in a room with a view, and I started reading “Chasing a monk’s shadow”. Dinner was significantly better though D refused to the chicken, after her nocturnal adventures of the previous two nights.

Sikkim Day 4 – Seven Sisters and the Houses of Lachen

Before we left Gangtok, we thought we’d take another shot at the rope-way. We reached there, sharp at 9.30 -opening time, and as should be expected from any self respecting government run set up, they claimed that routine maintenance would ensure that it opened only by 10.30.

We couldn’t wait, for this was the day we began our journey to North Sikkim…with a driver who went by several names.. and surnames – Bhutia, Denzongpa. In turn, he was confused by our itinerary, until we told him, we’d pay extra for our trip to Zero Point later.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ItOVTAtJY30

The first stop was Tashi view point, from where, on cloudless days, one could see Kanchenjunga. Dark clouds loomed in the horizon, literally, and we saw the gurudwara at Gangtok, less that 10km away through a telescope, for Rs.10. And from there began the ‘Bone Awareness Drive’. The roads, which even on their best days, wouldn’t offer much solace, were more like rivers thanks to the rain. The Mahindra Maxx waded and bounced across them, introducing us to new sights and hitherto undiscovered bones at every turn. D reminded me that we could end up with a Wonderla experience. My back wished I was back in the hotel bed, but the scenic view made up for all of this.

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The rain meant that the tourist’s attraction was more for the toilets provided at the scheduled tourist stops. The next stop was the ‘Seven Sisters’ waterfall. Our own waterfalls cost us Rs.2 each, the dowry has to be paid for, after all, I grumbled.

Phodong monastery was relatively more peaceful, with monks munching away at the local version of Lays. This guy seemed to have some food for thought though.

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We had lunch at the Hotel Kanchendzonga, so named because they took a fancy to it, not for any view. Simple, but effective meal. Mangan was the next break, but the erm, tourist attraction was the garage, where our driver had a few repairs done on the brakes. Then came the Naga falls. Falls count anywhere as tourist attractions, it seemed, judging by the crowds, though the roads practically served as waterfalls anyway. We got lucky at the Singhik view point, beating the rain by a few minutes. Amazing view.

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By the time we reached Chungthang, it was 6.30. From there the road split – left to Lachen, and right to Lachung. We’d left Gangtok for Lachen, so we began the climb with the fast setting sun as our companion. The 30 km took us about 2 hours.

The driver discussed how tourists were spoiling Sikkim’s ecosystem by littering and not even acknowledging the ubiquitous garbage disposal bins. From there we moved on to philosophy, the pace of life and respect for human lives in cities, and how even cows were now contemplating why they were crossing the road at night. The last one was important, because they chose to do so in the middle of the road, and narrow roads meant we had to coax them to finish the job and then contemplate. Horn vs. horn.

Lachen had homestays disguised as hotels. We reached there at about 8.30, and had a simple meal, right in the kitchen, followed by sleep in a strictly functional room (with clean loos) I stretched out and completed ‘The Immortals of Meluha’, while D woke at 2.30 and chose to retch, such was her gall.

Sikkim Day 3 – Tea, Gangtalk, and the legend of Pawan Chamling

The alternate plan we chose consisted of the tea estates in South Sikkim, and the Padmasambhava statue in Namchi. Our driver was the same, and that’s when we figured that we still didn’t know his name. Our expectations of a unique local name evaporated at the mention of ’Prakash’. We followed the same route as the day before, this time though, Prakash offered a lift to some lady friend/relative of his. The sign on the road that said ‘Welcome to Nathula and the old Silk Route’ seemed to be mocking us.

The tea estates were actually more peaceful than Rumtek, as we watched the workers, laden with baskets, moving slowly.

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httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s7OdfkZfmsA

The rain insisted on greeting us again, and the tea estates and Namchi were shrouded in mist, just before the clouds opened. The kids didn’t seem too unhappy about having to stop their football game though. :) The break meant that I even tried my hand at doing what  I’ve seen Twilight Fairy and Ashu Mittal do amazingly well.

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Meanwhile, the mists meant that even the tall, all seeing statue couldn’t have had a view worth talking about. Pawan Chamling made his first appearance as the man who had conceptualised the entire statue idea. Thankfully, he didn’t do a Mayawati. Thereafter, we would behold this name on many bridges and other constructions. To borrow an old Escotel ad line “Only the rain covers Sikkim more than Pawan Chamling does”

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We arrived late at Gangtok, at about 3, and were famished. We decided to drop in at Gangtalk. Though we initially got a seat inside, we managed to shift to one that offered a good view of MG Marg. By the time we got our food, it was almost 4. It turned out that they had other burning issues to tackle in the kitchen, literally. We spent our time looking at the Bollywood posters on display – Teesri Manzil, Guide, and hey, Karz. I looked at D, and she glared back. There was a raucous group at the neighboring table. A kitty party, we thought, and points were being given for the most absurd cackle that could be generated. If ever a ‘Gangtok Times’ were launched, this crowd would probably populate Page 3. My prayers, Gangtok. The meal was redeemed by a superb Khwa Sye (sic). (Khao Soi) The owners were quite apologetic about the delay, and we saw the scene enacted at many other tables. We were the last set, it meant we had a longer chat. They promised that if we returned for dinner, they would redeem themselves.

We had planned to catch the ropeway in the evening. We reached there at 4.40, and learned that though the information that it was open till 5 was right, ticket sales stopped at 4.30. We trudged back, to a place where I clicked ’the bull in the china shop’, even as D bought herself a nice handbag, and finally ended up across the street  (from Gangtalk) at Baker’s Café. Mostly for the MG Marg view. We were lucky enough not to get a seat that offered the view, because the other side had an even more splendid view.. of the mountains.

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Surrounded mostly by foreigners and giggly high school girls, yet another music related nostalgic journey was triggered as I listened to ‘The Power of Love’ and ‘I want to know what love is’. The girls seemed to be enjoying it much, and I wondered whether these songs would always appeal to an age in life and stand the test of time, despite other entrants in the music scene.

We arrived at Mintokling, struggling for breath, and caught glimpses of  poor Shashi Tharoor also struggling to retain his post. Dinner was at Café Live & Loud, and the chilly pork was awesome. Another place with a great ambiance. They’ll probably remember me too, when they get their internet bill.

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Reciprocally, D would remember them later at night too, as her cheese pizza retraced its path. I wondered if she  had sampled the massively popular, Danny Denzongpa owned ‘Hit’ beer  (he also owns an alcohol brand called ‘He-Man’) when I was looking at the ‘pure’ Gujarati restaurant across the road.

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For now, we hit the bed.

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Sikkim Day 2 – Mixed Signals

We began the day slightly late, since we had minimal plans. Fresh from the giant momo experience from the day before, we decided to go out for breakfast and the Sonam Delek on Tibet Road ensured that we were well fed, though they did seem surprised that someone from outside (not a guest staying there) would choose their place for breakfast.

We set off for Rumtek monastery soon afterwards. The Alto snaked its way through Deorali and Ranipool, and finally reached Rumtek, where the parking space was already full with arriving and departing visitors. A small climb got us to the monastery where the monks seemed to be having a lunch break. We were lucky enough to take a look at the sanctum before it too closed for an hour. It also meant that the silence in the small room was disrupted by a visitor shouting from the window to her companions below to come quickly. The monk in charge tried to dissuade her repeatedly and finally gave up.

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We walked around a bit and took a few snaps. The title of this post has a lot to do with the scenes there. The monasteries in Leh were places which awed us with their silence. A sense of peace was all pervasive, not just in the way it was reflected in the face of monks, and the grace in their interactions with us, but in our own selves too. Rumtek seemed to be fighting a losing battle with what is popularly known as progress. Monks with cell phones, prayer wheels and satellite dishes side by side, and the way inhabitants seemed to be basking in the attention of tourists.

We stopped on the way back and D was delighted to try out a Sikkim dress at Shanti View point. Photographs and even a ‘behind the scenes’ video followed. We reached Gangtok just in time for lunch. The beef at Allen’s kitchen (opposite Dominos Pizza) was highly recommended online, and we decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, Allen told us that he had stopped serving beef since many of his clientele had objections, but the pork momos, Thai red curry combo, the chicken chowmein, and the banana milk shake in the end meant that we had no reason to complain. This wonderful place, which oozed character, was one of the most redeeming happenings in the trip. I showed Allen the print outs that extolled the beef he used to serve. He could sense our disappointment and even offered to get it for us the next day.  Amazing place, and an awesome guy. If ever you go to Gangtok, make sure you drop in here.

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As we stepped out of Allen’s kitchen, our biggest enemy made its presence felt. I have been in downpours in Kerala, and the ones in Sikkim match them in intensity and duration. Gangtok has this nice navigation structure, which might be common in hill towns, I guess. Though the roads loop, there are stairways between roads for pedestrians. We emerged out of one straight into the Gandhi path, okay, MG Marg, where people were busy sheltering themselves. We waited a while staring at my ‘status’ …….

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….and then plodded into Lal Bazaar, several floors of everything from vegetables to apparel. A mall of roadside vendors, if you will. They however didn’t seem very interested in us purchasing anything. D wondered if it had anything to do with the way the people of the region are treated in the rest of India. I thought it had to do with their revenue coming from foreigners.

Music band merchandise (I remembered some twitter folk when I saw a ‘Lamb of God’ bag), luxury brands, all can be found here. A few hours later, we left, with my newly acquired army fatigue design umbrella, and the amazing lightness of being sheltered from the torrential rains. We dropped in at Cacao, a decent coffee shop, from where we could watch MG Marg,as they watched us.

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D discovered the ‘hot lemon with honey’ and I played safe with a hot chocolate. I was still muttering about the attitude of the shopkeepers when I asked for the bill. The girl smiled and told us to wait a while, since there wasn’t much we could achieve while it was raining so heavily.

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Suite Heart indeed. :) We walked out a little later, and arrived panting at Mintokling. The amazing heaviness of steep climbs!! A small nap later, we were ready for dinner.

Tangerine was another place recommended on the web. It was close by, on Tibet Road again, and we reached the subterranean restaurant (3 levels below the entrance) remembering that we would have to climb up after the meal.  Tangerine took me back in time with its music – Lobo, Air Supply, Foreigner etc made a decent setting, though we had to wait forever for the food to arrive. Thankfully, it was decent enough not to warrant another set of complaints. 😀

Sometime in between, our Day 3 plan got completely scrapped thanks to the rain, and we got busy choosing from alternate plans.

Sikkim Day 1 – Uninstall Driver.. please

As my friend Partha Jha (who has made it a habit to get into my vacation posts) would agree, there are many ways to see kim. ‘Off for some GangTalk’, said my status message on 15th, and that’s where it would start. That’s also where we end the silly wordplay, almost. :)

Two flights took us over 2500 km from Bangalore, and landed us in Bagdogra in West Bengal, the nearest airport, about 120 kms from Gangtok, an estimated road journey of 4 hours, that began at 3.30 pm. At the airport, we noticed this father’s touching concern for his daughter’s health – never too early to start exercising..

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zvgaaYZsi8g

We crossed Siliguri, and stopped at a roadside shop for some much needed nutrition. Sivok served us a decent chaat and chai. That’s the name of a place, by the way. :)

The climb began slowly as we uneventfully crossed Rambi (no Stallone jokes okay!) and Teesta. There was a minor roadblock at Malli, at the bazaar, but thankfully all was well in a few minutes. Darkening sky, mountains looming in the distance, the lights of the dam construction on the Teesta river, twisting roads, small roadside temples, perfect time for a small nap when suddenly the car stereo began playing ‘Ek Haseena thi’, from Karzzz. I asked D if she had anything in mind, and she told me not to drive her crazy at the beginning of a vacation.

The drive was quite a learning experience, as D and I now know ‘Kamini ki dastaan’ (the lyrics of the song above), and the Bachna ae Haseeno title track completely. There were a couple of others too, but for my own good, my brain seems to have cordoned off the area. We heard these about 5 times each, as they mimicked the looping mountain roads. Just when I was about to sing along and scar the driver for life, some primal instinct made him turn it off.

At Rangpo, where Sikkim began, the driver asked us to answer with a nearby town’s name if the cops asked us where we were from. When I asked him the reason, he said they were strict about not allowing in people from Nepal. D and I looked at each other to confirm our features and skin tone, and nodded to acknowledge the driver’s supreme intellect. We pretended to be asleep when we stopped at the border, in case we answered in Nepali accidentally.

To distract him from playing more music and havoc, we quizzed him on the various places in Gangtok we planned to visit, and he confidently gave us the respective distances from our hotel. It turned out later that the joke was on us – he was the one distracting us from his utter lack of knowledge of where the hotel in Gangtok was!! That meant that we took an extra hour to reach Mintokling, our campaign headquarters. Sometime during the journey, we were informed that due to heavy rains, our Day 2 plan of Nathula, and Tsongpo lake would not happen. Since we had one more day in Gangtok, we asked for the Day 2 and 3 plans to be interchanged.

Mintokling turned out to be an excellent place to stay, and we were thankful for its small restaurant. We ordered dinner, starting with momos and including a special Sikkim dish to go with the rotis. We confirmed that the dish had a gravy, and were met with an enthusiastic “yes, thick gravy“. The small detail that wasn’t mentioned was that the ‘thick gravy’ was enclosed in a super momo structure. A branch of peace was offered in the form of dal, and we left it at that.

The day ended on a high, as I found 2 Malayalam channels on the telly. It is somehow comforting to hear many people speak one’s language, when one has had an eventful day like the one above.