West Sikkim Travelogue - Pelling

Next morning we left Kaluk and headed for Pelling. I was feeling really sick, due to my hangover from last night’s heavy drinking and eating. We had lots of local wine and Chhang along with pork momo, not to mention the heavy dinner afterwards. Chhang is a local drink which is almost similar to light beer. It is served in a big glass made of bamboo and it is drunk with a straw. It is served and drank warm.
After the checking out formalities were done, Krishila, our host wrapped yellow stoles around our neck as a farewell gesture. We told them we would come again.
On the way we stopped at a few spots. The Bermiok rock gatden was built around a small waterfall. The view was beautiful as usual but nothing special to see around. There was a giant Dharmachakra in the midst. The trail leading to the top of the garden was broken at places and the rocks were quite slippery. 

view from the rock garden
Dentam valley is small picturesque village where the alpine cheese factory is situated. There was nothing much to see there, except the big cheese making machines. My friend bought a packet of Gouda cheese, which tasted awful. I’m not a big fan of cheese; they smell really bad.

When we reached Singshore Bridge it was almost 10.30 in the morning. Singshore is a 200 meter long suspension bridge which is considered to be Asia’s second highest bridge. It was really high and really long; since it was a hanging bridge, it was quivering when any vehicle was crossing by. I felt a little nausea when I looked down from the bridge. The river streaming through the hills below (the driver said it was not a river, just a small jhora) looked like a thin blue ribbon from there.

One thing that is very common when you travel around Sikkim is the prayer flag. One can see them everywhere. The flags are supposed to cast away evil spirits. Although one might wonder how there could possibly be any evil spirit in a place like Sikkim. Where the living people are this polite and kind hearted, the spirits should be good too. Another thing that caught my attention while travelling across west Sikkim was a kind of red flower. I had never seen such a vibrant red in my life before. The flowers were everywhere. I asked the driver what they called this flower. He said it had no such fancy name; they just called it Laal patta. Perhaps it is the nature of Himalaya and its people. Humility. They will not attempt to grab your attention, they are not desperate. They will not show you any superior sophistication, they will just open their arms and embrace you with such warm affection that you will want to keep coming back over and over again.

Pelling is just 5km away from Singshore. It was around 12 noon when we finally reached Pelling. The Kanchenjunga welcomed us to Pelling in all her glory. The view of the mountain was more breathtaking from here. There are three parts of Pelling, upper, lower and the helipad. My exuberance was maxed out and I decided to stay near the helipad ground. This was a very bad decision which we later realised. The hotel manager and his assistant were Bengali. Pelling was almost empty during this time of the year and we became their only guests. I was pretty sure the manager and his assistant hadn’t talked for a very long time and our checking in opened the rusty floodgates of their mouth. The serenity that we had enjoyed at Kaluk was totally gone and we had to force participate in the gibberish fest till we retreated to our room.

As I mentioned earlier, we were the only guests in the hotel, so we got the best view room. We could see the Kanchenjunga from one window and a solitary monastery on a near hilltop. It was called Sangacheling monastery. I told my friends that I wanted to visit that monastery at any cost. I named it Mission Sangacheling. I will tell later how our mission went. At lunch our verbally enthusiastic hosts kept asking us about our tour plan for Pelling. We were leaving for Calcutta the day after, so we had only one day at our disposal. We had to chalk out the plan optimally so that we could cover most of the places. After a short discussion we decided to keep the next day to visit Yaksum valley. The hotel manager told us that Pemayangtse monastery and Rabdentse ruins were not much far from Pelling and if we started in the afternoon we could be able to cover both the spots and be back by the evening. I knew we had very little time and I was not going to waste it sitting in our room.

Pemayangtse monastery was founded by Lama Lhatsun Chempo in 1705. It is one of the oldest and most famous monasteries of Sikkim. This monastery was built for ‘pure monks’ or the ta-tshang meaning ‘monks of pure Tibetan lineage’. This practice is still followed. Only the monks of Pemayangtse are entitled to be called ta-tshang. Pemayangtse means ‘pure sublime lotus’ in Tibetan. This monastery follows the Nyingma Order of Tibetan Buddhism. The three floors of the monastery are open for the visitors. We had to pay Rs. 20 entry fee. This was the first time we paid fee to enter a monastery. The inside of the monastery was cold and dark; it felt like we entered a parallel mystical world. Deep silence was prevailing everywhere. On the ground floor, there was a large prayer room filled with idols and other antiques. The walls were covered with colourful paintings of Buddhist gods and goddesses. Most of them were sitting in Yub-Yum position. After exploring the ground floor we took the stairs and went to the first floor. The stairs were made of wood and very steep. The first floor also had a similar prayer room with various idols and forms of Lord Avlokiteswara. Lord Avlokiteswara is considered to be the main deity in Tibetan Buddhism. He is supposed to be one of the avatars of Lord Buddha. The adjacent room to the prayer room was sort of a mini library. Although it was written ‘visitors not allowed’ on its door, the room was open and there was no one around; I couldn't resist and entered the room. Then I realised why visitors were not allowed. The room was filled with stacks of ancient scriptures and scrolls. In the middle, there was a large idol of Lord Amitabha sitting in Padmasana offering Barabhaya. Oil lamps were burning in front of him and it created a magical atmosphere in the room. I was the only visitor thankfully. I sat down in front of him and kept looking him in the eyes for some time. I did not have to utter a single word, I was sure he could read my mind and could assess how restless and agitated it had been for a long long time..

On the top floor there was a humongous wooden structure that represented Guru Rimpoche’s heavenly palace. It was a colourful seven tiered wooden construction with several forms of Buddha and Bodhisatvas depicted all over it.

Traditional Lepcha house, opposite of the monastery
We had already sneaked a peek of the Rabdentse ruins from the courtyard of Pemayangtse. It was quite a view, the remains of ancient palace on the hilltop. However, the journey to the palace was not an easy one. At first the ruins seemed so nearby, then after walking for some time we realised the distance between us and the palace remained constant or it seemed so at least. After a while, we thought we were lost and no matter for how long we would keep walking we would never reach it. Suddenly the hilltop view of Rabdentse felt like a mirage to us. However, we were not ready to give up and kept walking and asking for directions whenever we spotted a human being on the road. Everyone gave the same answer, ‘Aage hai. Aage hai.’ After walking for more than forty minutes we reached a large yellow gate. From the gathering of vehicles around it, we realised we were at the right place. However, the sad part was not over, it had only begun. The palace was still more than a kilometre away from the gate and the only option was to trek the narrow and steep path. When we started to climb the path it was already cloudy and was getting dark. The trail seemed even darker due to the trees covering the sky over our head like a big vast canopy. Beneath our feet there was thick layer of soggy moss that felt like carpet. The trail seemed never ending and we were completely exhausted. But we were not alone. Many people like us were also trying their very best to reach the top. To distract my mind from the path, I started to chat with one of our fellow trekkers. A very big chubby middle aged lady came to climb Rabdentse with her husband and two kids. She was from Gangtok only, to my surprise. This was the first time I met a tourist in Sikkim who was from Sikkim only. And despite her weight, she seemed fit enough. 

ASI's motivational message boards on the way up to Rabdentse
When we reached the top, it was 4 in the afternoon. My friends were exceptionally quiet all the way and as soon as we reached the palace they ran for a place to rest their bottom. I didn’t know what got into me, there was no sign of exhaustion in me and I got busy looking around and clicking pictures. The view was breathtaking and had it been a sunny day, it would have looked much better. The surrounding hills were covered with dense fog and looked like mystical faraway land from there. 

Rabdentse’s history is both long and disturbing. It is the same old story of struggle for power, greed, jealousy and its inevitable consequence, death. Rabdentse used to be the capital of Sikkim from 1617 to 1814. The city was invaded and destroyed by Nepalese army, except the ruins of the palace and a few chortens that had remained. The last king who ruled Sikkim from Rabdentse was Tenzing Namgyal who fled to Lhasa when Nepal invaded Sikkim. Years later, his successor, Tshudpud Namgyal retruned to Sikkim to claim the throne and shifted his capital to Tumlong, as Rabdentse was too close to Nepal border. We stayed there for about 15-20 minutes and then started climbing down.

                                                                                                       (To be continued)