Darjeeling and Sikkim
From Darjeeling, I got my required permits and traveled several hours through extremely steep valleys north to the former kingdom of Sikkim. In 1975 the people revolted against the monarchy and became a state of India, but it still feels like an independent country. There is a large Tibetan population, almost everyone is Buddhist (Mahayana/Tibetan) and the most common language was Nepali (lucky for me!).
My first stop was the capital -- Gangtok to do more paperwork and figure out a plan. I met up with several independent backpackers here and got to see some cool stuff like the world famous Museum of Tibetology.
After several days in Gangtok, I took off west with 2 other backpackers. Dan (Upstate NY) and Jade (English) and I all went across the valley to Rumtek where there is a famous 300 year old monastery (though one monk was sure it was only 20 years old : )
This is a picture of the newer one.
In between bidis and chai breaks, we took a day hike up the mountain behind the Gompa. About half way up I looked over and saw this vine hanging from a tree. I stood in amazement for a second... could it be? Then with a big smile on my face, I walked over and gave it a tug. After that -- it was 20 minutes of exhausting laughing and swinging back and forth over the cliff for Dan and I. I had always wanted to swing on vines in the jungle!
From Rumtek, we took a circuitous route farther into western Sikkim to Pelling, then the next day to Khecheopalri Lake.
The only way to describe this place is just magical...
We had the good luck of meeting a monk in our jeep that showed us the holy lake itself, then up a steep hill to a tiny mountain village (4 huts I think?) There was a family that let basic rooms and cooked spectacular food! There was also a small gompa... but well there is no way to really do justice the feeling of this place and the people that lived there....
Each night we would have a bonfire... sometimes we would all hang out in the kitchen with the family showing each other tricks we could do. I spent a couple evenings meditating next to the gompa -- which although silent, was just buzzing with energy. The birds and plants were just bursting with color and life... I tried to take some photos like this one of the fern, but of course photos can't capture the shivers up my spine, the sweet smells or singing of the birds.
While at Khecheopalri, A German guy (Tim) and Swiss girl (Nina) came hiking through from the north. Although they continued on south-east after a couple days, we ended up randomly meeting on our last day in Sikkim. The 5 of us all wound up in the same jeep to Darjeeling and I led the group to a great guest house I had found earlier. We stayed at the Shamrock, run by an old fiery Tibetan woman named Pema.
All of us pitched in and made a huge Indian food Christmas dinner together -- which we ate with Pema, her 3 servants and another German man (Karsten - AKA: "Shakti man"). It was really nice. We even found red wine and cheese!
We had several days together in Darjeeling before splitting up. Dan and Jade went to Varanasi , Nina and Tim went on to Bodh Gaya and I came south to Calcutta. Still missing these guys a bit... guess that's the magic and the challenge of traveling.
Anyway, I am having a wonderful time here in Calcutta -- I'll be here for a little while longer as I explore this amazing city and explore my options from here.