When I was in my teens, I found an old military survey map, paper glued on a canvas backing. It covered Darjeeling and neighbouring Sikkim. It intrigued me with its interesting contour lines and the nature of the landscape it encoded. Five decades have passed since my curiosity about Sikkim began. Today, what I had wondered about so long became reality.
Our host in Darjeeling drove us to the shared taxi stand near Chowk Bazaar. We paid for two seats to Gangtok and were led to a parking area filled with Tata and other makes of jeep. We were told that our Tata jeep would only depart when another 8 passengers were found. Soon a young Bangladeshi couple joined us. We waited and no more people turned up. Eventually, the Nepalese driver, Deepen, appeared. He told us that if we were happy to pay a modest supplement, the four of us could have the jeep to ourselves and, more importantly, depart immediately. We and the Bangladeshi couple agreed and we set off.
At first we drove along the Hill Cart Road, following the Toy Train tracks to beyond Ghoom, where we turned on to the road to Sikkim.
Most of the four hour journey is downhill along an often steep winding road with many hairpin bends, as Gangtok is at a far lower altitude than Darjeeling. We saw many beautiful flowers and ferns with huge leaves growing by the road as well as small forests of trees with very tall trunks. Occasional sloping tea gardens punctuated the luxuriantly verdant landscape. Many stretches of the road through the part of West Bengal through which we were driving are surfaced with tarmac from which numerous small hard stones project to make them safer when wet. I did not notice this type of road surface after we entered Sikkim.
For quite a distance, from Melli to well beyond the Sikkimese border town of Rangpo, we drove through the beautiful valley of the River Teesta that flows down from India into Bangladesh. The clear turquoise waters flow between wide white sandy beaches. From Melli to Rangpo we drove on the West Bengal bank of the river, looking across at Sikkim on the opposite bank.
After passing under a decorative arch with the words “Welcome to Sikkim”, we entered Rangpo and parked near to the visitors’ registration office. There, we showed our permit that we had obtained at Sikkim House in Calcutta and our passports. All three documents were stamped and their details entered by hand in a large book.
We continued our journey through a part of Sikkim in which the scenery was less spectacular than between Darjeeling and Rangpo. Also, the architecture of most buildings we saw lacked in aesthetic merit. Many of them are several storeys high.
Our road left the Teesta valley and began winding upwards through unattractive small towns in the environs of Gangtok city. As we approached the latter, the traffic became heavier. Most of the buildings we passed after entering Gangtok have at least 5 storeys and do not look particularly old. If Gangtok were on flat ground, the place would look nondescript. However, because the city clings to steeply rising hillsides, the vistas resulting from the piling of rows of buildings one above another are picturesque and impressive.
Some of the places we drove through were designated “ODF Village”. At first, I was puzzled by this. Then at one place, I saw the words “Open Defecation Free”. This means that emptying bowels in places other than toilets is forbidden.
The shared taxi stand in the centre of Gangtok looks like an ill-maintained multi storey carpark. We drove into an upper storey which was crammed full of jeeps. Some of them, including ours, shuffled back and forth like pieces in a badly made rubik’s cube in order to access a parking space. A lot of shouting accompanied these difficult manoeuvres.
Our drive unloaded our bag. He had driven magnificently with great skill and care, sometimes with his mobile phone in one hand. When we boarded, I had tried to put on a seat belt. He and the local taxi drivers we used on our first day in Gangtok told me that there was no need to use safely belts. It seemed to me that using a seat belt suggests to the drivers that I am not confident that they are going to drive well.
A local taxi delivered us to our hotel. Soon after this, we took another one to Lal Bazaars in central Gangtok. There, we ate lunch in the first floor Potala Restaurant. Some of the tables on one side of this unpretentious eater, were in compartments with curtains that could be closed to provide a degree of privacy. The steamed pork momos I ate were delicious. They are like Chinese dumplings but larger and with thicker doughy coverings, more like polish piroschki. Beneath the restaurant and under a metal roof, there is a long line of shoe polishers and shoe repairers, all sitting on the floor and very busy.
After eating, we climbed a long staircase with many landings. This is lined with all kinds of shops except for food sellers. The staircase leads to MG Marg, a wide almost level pedestrianised shopping street lined with many upmarket shops and a variety of cafés and restaurants. Many people were milling about, looking at shops or just enjoying themselves. Although not nearly as picturesque as the Stradun in Dubrovnik or the Pedonalja in Albania’s Berat and Shkodër, it serves the same purpose: a place to promenade.
After sunset, we returned to our hotel to await dinner. I am pleased that I am fulfilling my long held wish to visit Sikkim, but my first impression of Gangtok is that it is not nearly as attractive as Darjeeling. Despite that, it is beginning to grow on me.