Saturday, March 25, 2017


The name Calcutta evokes images of squalor and emaciated servants, living in a giant slum. That might have been the case when the British made Calcutta their capital, but today's Kolkata is just a huge modern city. A lot of the colonial architecture has survived, and so did the huge park in the center. Much of it is a cricket field, and there is the Victoria Monument in a manicured garden at the south end. This being India, the park is cut into sections by large streets packed with thundering honking traffic, protected from pedestrians by fences. Sikkim was so peaceful...

Near the park is the New Market, an enormous covered market crowded with tiny stalls selling mostly clothes but also food, jewelry, toys, and various household goods. There is also a dark smelly cavernous meat section that probably hasn't changed much since the time of the British. The market spills over to much of the surrounding city blocks. Unfortunately it's infested with touts more than usual.

Friday, March 24, 2017


Yuksam is the site of the first Kingdom of Sikkim. There isn't much left though, there is a Buddhist shrine at the site of the throne. It's very scenic there though - Tibetan temples, lakes, waterfalls, beautiful views of the valleys and mountains and the beehive villages built up steep slopes, narrow winding mountain roads in catastrophic condition that are navigable only by jeepsies (Indian copies of old US jeeps), and a singing stone.

Which is a large rock that, when struck with a stone, makes a sound as if it were metal. Quite astonishing. Consequently, the region is called Ting-Ting.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Himalaya views

When I woke up at dawn in Pelling and opened my eyes, there was the mountain panorama of the Himalayas, dominated by the Kangchenjunga massif. Kangchenjunga is at 8586m India's highest mountain and the third-highest in the world, only some 250 meters lower than Everest.

The mountain views are even moire spectacular at Rabdentse, Sikkim's second royal city, now in ruins. It's location with the backdrop of snow-capped Himalaya peaks is fabulously scenic. I was the only visitor so early in the morning. Nearby is the Pemayangtse Gompa, one of the most important Buddhist monasteries.

The mountains around Rabdentse are criss-crossed by unmarked paths. There are many ways to discover these paths: logs worn smooth by passing feet, broken branches, exposed roots, lack of rocks... But I used none of those and simply followed the discarded candy wrappers. Sikkim is very clean, in fact smoking is forbidden in the state, but the tourists can't seem to break the habit.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Little Tibet

Across the valley from Gangtok is Rumtek, a small village that is essentially a Tibetan monastery, founded by Tibetan monks exiled by the Chinese cultural revolution. Atypcally, it's guarded by the army, and entering requires a passport and inner line permit.

They have a large beautifully appointed prayer hall, and the monks were sitting in four rows, chanting. The chants were punctuated by Tibetan horns, bells, and drums. The ceremony was no different from others I have seen in Tibet. I watched and listened for a long time.

Sunday, March 19, 2017


The ancient kingdom of Sikkim is now part of India, but requires a special "Inner Line Permit" to enter. Sikkim is a large rectangle, neatly boxed in by West Bengal, Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It's up in the Himalayas and is essentially all mountains. The culture is entirely Tibetan, except less rustic than Tibet. People have cars here, not yaks. And the momos (Tibetan dumplings) are not made with fermented yak butter.

The main city is Gangtok, like Darjeeling climbing up a mountainside, all the way up to the ridge and spilling over to the other side. It's more orderly and less charming than Darjeeling, but there is still a lot to see here. It's more modern when you walk the streets, but almost rural in the spaces in between, which are reachable only by interminable narrow stairs.