Prays

Buddhist prayer flags are to be seen all over Sikkim, but no visit is complete without a trip to a monastery. We went to Rumtek – serene, intricate and intriguing.

I’d been hankering for some local ‘organic’ food and beer throughout the journey (Sikkim is supposedly the organic farming capital of India). We did our fair share of momos, but it was at the foothills of the monastery that my beer wish got fulfilled. Local beer and a serving of thukpa, momos and fried rice.

And all those clouds that had been obscuring our views finally burst into rain, catching us on our dinner run to M.G.Road.

Bookman’s bookshop got a well-deserved browse for gifts for my nieces and nephew, and I came away with a recent book on the history of Sikkim for myself.

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And what did I learn? Beyond the breathtaking landscapes, Sikkim has a murky history, with most of the action set between the 1940’s until the 1970’s.

Too soon, it was time to say goodbye to the Himalayan state and head back to Bagdogra. The Teesta river accompanied us all along the way, even beckoned us to stop a few times.

My last photo just before we entered West Bengal, after which I spent all my time looking at the phone and trying to resolve a transportation dispute!

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I end my Sikkim travel diary with some words of wisdom:

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Gaze

Of the 3 days that we spent in Sikkim, we managed to pack in quite a bit of action after the initial hiccups of getting the right permits and the right transport.

Our homestay in Gangtok was the charming Bookman’s B&B. The cafe and bookstore attached to the homestay were wonderful too, especially with all the lovely baking smells on our floor. Before exploring Gangtok however, we had to find our way to Zuluk one way and back another. After the sunrise spectacle from the peak at Zuluk, the plan was to pack up and drive to Changu Lake, stopping at sights along the way. The driver promised us that we would see Kanchenjunga again, but the off-season clouds chose to pick that day to cover up the mountain and deny us the sight.

Still, there was so much to admire. Longthu and Nathang Valley:

Baba Harbajan Mandir (the old one):

Elephant Lake and Cafe 13000, with long distance views of the Chinese border:

We couldn’t visit Nathu La pass as it was a day of trade/exchange, when the gates would be closed for visitors. We did spot the odd trucks carrying Chinese goods for sale in India, and hopefully going back with some Indian merchandise.

By the time we arrived at Changu (Tsomgo) Lake, it was shrouded in mist. The “blue lake” was a vast expanse of grey. With some yak fashions. And dress-up photo ops:

 

Rays

Sikkim. Viewing the peaks in the non-peak season. Therefore, none of the clichéd photos of either the summer blooms or the wintry snowy landscapes. Mostly barren mountains, with the promise of colour. Expecting clear blue skies and getting clouds. Making us look harder and deeper. Winter may be coming, but we got there first.

As always, I began my holiday planning from the homestay search. Gangtok, Lachung, Lachen, Rumtek, Pelling … all beckoned, but when Airbnb lobbed ‘Zuluk’ at me, there was no other place I wanted to see. Mum and Usha Aunty, my travel companions, had little choice but to go along with my plans.

It took a fair bit of my hard headed determination to get us to Zuluk, and what a delightful experience that journey was. Living with the locals, partying with strangers, and the private theatre of the sun’s romance with Kanchenjunga at dawn to cap it off!

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Our hosts’ kitchen at Zuluk

 

 

 

Getting to the viewing site was an adventure itself. A series of misunderstandings and an overcast sky the night before all threatened to put a dampener on our excursion. We left late, and hoped and prayed with all our might that it was not too late. That wish was granted:

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Kanchenjunga waited alone until we got here

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The sky turned fiery

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The clouds made way

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And the sun came out in a blaze of glory

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While Kanchenjunga blushed

We woke and dressed up at 2.30 am to get to this spot in time, and were blessed to be the only ones at this spot. More of the scene unfolded as the day got brighter.

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Paused our chattering teeth just enough for a sunrise selfie

After we had thawed a little in the sunshine ourselves, we looked beyond the obvious landscape, and found this:

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A bit of frost that couldn’t decide whether to stay icy at the freezing temperature, or to thaw with the gentle persuasion of the sun’s warmth.

And the reason I picked Zuluk? The ‘roadscape’:

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Laze

A journey through India is never complete for me without stopping by in Kolhapur. It’s a shame that I had a 3-year gap from the last visit to this one. Happily, not much has changed in our neighbourhood, except for the addition of many new neighbours. The lake is still visible from the terrace, and plenty of birds to be sighted and identified. 2 out of 3 was not bad for me (identifying birds… ahem… not my specialty).

First, I had to drive out to the Khidrapur temple (or Kopeshwar temple, as it is known), a 7th? 12th? century, ancient site that has been on my wishlist for a few years now. Baba told me about the design of the temple: how the natural light is gradually cut from the entrance to the sanctum sanctorum which is completely windowless. The idea being, your eyes gradually get used to the darkness, and at the most sacred spot you can feel one with God, with no further need for external light. However, the Archeological Society of India has put a dampener on this experience with strategically misplaced tube lights. Plus, the guard at the entrance prohibits photography inside, simply as a show of his power, I guess. The temple is beautiful, and atmospheric, and some other lucky people have made nice pictures in their blogs here.

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Besides the odd outing around town, there’s nothing better to do at home than loll around, breathing the fresh air, and walking down to the lake. Which was made even more fun this time with my uncles and aunts visiting, and college friends driving down from Pune to spend a weekend together.

There’s a happy family portrait from that time sitting in my camera chips somewhere. I must shake off the laziness and put it up one of these days.

 

Forays

A wedding in Agartala. My reason for the last India trip. First time in the north-east part of the country. Suitably excited.

Wedding excitement aside, there are always sunrises to chase and palaces to paddle to. Scenic lake inside the college campus, great spot for landscapes and pre-wedding photo shoot (did both!). Would’ve liked to venture out further north and east, but for now, this will have to do.

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Sunrise at College Tilla Lake

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Before the wedding party could wake up, I was perched on their terrace, enjoying the views and the stillness

Ma and I spent a day out of town, driving up to the Neermahal and back. Agartala feels more of an extension of Bengal than the exotic “northeast” of my imagination, but hey, the wedding and the company all made up for it!

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Our day of sightseeing at the Rudrasagar lake

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Approaching the Neermahal

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Maharaja Bir Bikram was inspired by a palace in Jaipur, and built this one in the middle of the lake

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Life is a boat…

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Yes, it is!

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Lake. Tree. Sky.

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Live for the Golden Hour!

Haze

And an eventful Friday photo walk at Jama Masjid, Delhi. So nice to be reunited with my photopals, Sara and Arun, on this one.

Jama Masjid, Chandni Chowk, Winter, Haze. All the ingredients for an engrossing morning.

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Mughal Architecture

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One of the big entrances

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Why use a tap when you can wash at the tank?

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Like this?

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It takes a lot of focus

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The devout

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Jama Masjid, the Friday mosque

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One of the popular selfie guys

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Prayer hall

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No birds were harmed during our shoot, but we did our bit, shooing them around

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Take a picture, make a friend

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This shot has been 3 years in the making for me

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Waiting..

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Waiting.. and posing ..

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For a small additional fee, you can climb up a minaret, and pause at the terrace

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Did I say, “Haze” already?

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On a clear day, you might see the Red Fort in the distance, but this was not one of those days

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This man claimed his photo was in every country in the world, and I believe him

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Friday Prayers

We rewarded our industriousness with a paratha feast in the famous Paranthewali gali. We may have ordered everything on the menu there!

A day on a boat.. with plenty of time to sit and stare

Sundarban… The name entered my brain during a book club reading of The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh… and stayed there doing in some dark corner, doing nothing, waiting to be forgotten.

Then, with all the Kolkata planning, I thought, why not use the opportunity to travel a little further – Darjeeling? Sikkim? Agartala? Thanks to the internet, the mind can travel without any constraints. As it turned out, all my potential travel partners had to leave right after the wedding, and I only managed to convince my parents to stay on a couple of days longer, then frantically tried to find some places near Kolkata to visit.

That’s when (aided by Google and some other sites) Sundarban jumped right out from that cold storage of my brain right to the forefront. It made perfect sense to fit it in our West Bengal travel – Baba likes his art and architecture, so we had Shantiniketan – and Mummy likes nature and wildlife – Sundarban made just the right balance. There is only one good place to stay if you want any chance of spotting the Royal Bengal Tiger; that is the Sunderban Tiger Camp, situated inside the protected area of the forest. But, good luck with trying to get them to respond over a simple email from overseas. I had none.

Quick facts: Sundarban is a protected area of dense mangrove forests that straddles the south-eastern tip of West Bengal, India and parts of Bangladesh, and is one of the largest reserves of the Bengal tiger. It derives its name from the Sundari trees that are present in abundance in the region.

We settled for another tour company that were much more responsive. Their resort in the village bordering the Sundarban was neat and comfortable enough.

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There’s no electricity in the village. The power in the evening comes from generators. And the villagers choose to use that power to blare long music all evening. It may have been a way to scare off man-eating tigers, now that I think about it. Not much crowd in the middle of the week, but we had some Baul geet entertainment until late at night. This kid seemed to be quite popular, he makes appearances on TV, and some of the audience had him sing requests too.

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The first afternoon we set out to the Watch Tower, which was actually a tiger (protected) area. No tigers in the wild, a couple in enclosures, the less said about that the better.

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A disappointing start, but we had some lovely sunset views to enjoy.

The next morning, we set out earlyish, along with another family from the resort, on our boat cruise.

Tour around Sunderban

Tour around Sunderban

Our timing for visiting the Sunderbans was off, most of the animals are to be spotted early morning or evening, and we were wandering about in the middle of the day. We did see a few deer, monitor lizard, crocodiles from a distance, but for the most part we lounged on the boat, chatting and eating.

I wish I’d planned the excursion better, but as a means to bond with parents (who often complain that I’m forever running off), this one was perfect!

Tour around Sunderban

And as I was writing this post, I remembered a painting by Rabindranath Tagore. Was the scene above the inspiration for that painting, I wonder?

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