Meg Noble Peterson

Author of Madam, Have You Ever Really Been Happy? An Intimate Journey through Africa and Asia

Category: Sikkim

THE CHARM OF DARJEELING IS MORE THAN THE TEA….

…even ‘though it’s mind-boggling to choose among the dozens of varieties grown on the hills outside town. It reminds me of the vast tea plantations I visited in the Cameron Highlands in Indonesia in 1996. Rows and rows of beautifully pruned dark green bushes (always make me think of boxwood), their tender leaves being hand-picked by an army of sari-clad women. These jobs are at a premium and coveted–paying well and providing benefits.

As you may have surmised, I’m skipping back to December 6, right after our trek in Sikkim, hoping to catch up while resting my injured knee. Bear with me as I relate the highlights of the last month of 2010.

Our driver from Gangtok, J. P., met us the last day of the trek and squired us for two days over the winding, pot-holed country roads to visit our last two monasteries, Sangacholing, considered the oldest in Sikkim, which lay amidst thick forested hills opposite the Pemayantse Monastery. All the monasteries we visited on the final days of our trek were like this…way up in the mountains, not open to cars, and reached by banks of stone steps. We were in good shape, however, having climbed many much steeper hills in the previous three weeks.

It took hours on roads not to be believed to get to the outskirts of Darjeeling. At times the switchbacks were so severe that J. P. had to stop and go into reverse, then turn sharply in order to stay on the road. But the scenery was well worth the ride: deep valleys, bamboo forests, and ever-climbing terraces. Finally, Darjeeling appeared on several hills…a bustling, noisy, rather beat-up-looking old hill station from British colonial times. You could see relics of the old mansions and government buildings squeezed between the dilapidated wooden buildings that dotted the hills. Streets wound around and the bazaar was extensive and colorful. Alleyways connected the upper and lower levels, but I found the shrill honking of motorcycles and cars (where do they find these horns?) jarring after about thirty minutes,  and begged for mercy. There is still an appalling amount of trash and garbage everywhere, but a truck comes around in the early morning hours and shovels it away, leaving room for the next day’s offering. Stray dogs abound, rummaging through the smelly debris.

To visit Darjeeling you need stamina! Streets go down, down, down and up, up, up. And the climbing didn’t stop when we checked into The Dekeling Hotel, a comfortable haven run by a delightful Tibetan family. It’s  nestled into a hill and we were given a sixth floor attic room, reached by climbing innumerable stairs, turning corners, walking through reading and breakfast rooms, and, finally, the laundry. I felt very proud that I found my way back without dropping bread crumbs! Note: this was the first night in three weeks that we’d slept in sheets. It was heavenly.

There is a charming old train from British days that runs from Siliguri to Darjeeling, called the “toy train.” Very popular with tourists. We saw two stations and enjoyed following the small tracks as they wound back and forth from one side of the road to the other. It was funny to see women sitting on the tracks with their goods laid out for sale in front of them. Obviously, they knew the train schedule well.

The day before we left, we arose at 3:30 A.M. and met J. P. to head for Tiger Hill to view the sunrise. This is a tradition and is well worth waiting for hours in the bitter cold. We arrived about two hours early in order to find a parking space. Hundreds of cars soon lined the hill road, and droves of people stood and shivered together to catch the first rays of light. Excitement and expectancy filled the air.

At 6:20 they were rewarded as pale pink streaks crept over the Kangchenjunga range. Where we were standing was an entirely different view and took longer. But what a sight! Way over to the left I could see the white cone of Mt. Everest next to Makalu and Lhotse. This was the first time I’d seen Everest look like what it is…the highest point on earth. It was an emotional moment for me. When I saw it from Kala Pattar in 1987, it was in the distance and did not look so powerful. Close by were the Three Sister, also white with snow. I had last seen them in Nepal in 1999 on the Annapurna trek.

The next day we visited the Himalayan Mountain Institute and The Climbing School, where Tenzing Norgay’s ashes are entombed, and where equipment and clothing used in the historic 1953 Everest expedition with Sir Edmund Hillary and other major climbs were on display. Close by was the Padmajo Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, where we ogled the tigers, Himalayan wolves, and red panda bears.

So it was off to Siliguri, visiting a tea plantation factory en route, which probably hadn’t changed since British rule. A camera crew was making a documentar and photographing the women as they sat cross-legged on the floor sorting leaves.

I have to say that it was a great experience to take a first class sleeper to Delhi, complete with three meals, tea, and free bottled water. We giggled as we luxuriated in these small excesses. Little did I know just how great they were until I experienced 2nd and 3rd class!

I’m still in Gokarna, happy to have had my mosquito netting installed, and loving to listen to the roar of the Arabian Sea every night. I finally went swimming, lay down in the sun, and didn’t even flinch when a cow walked two feet from my head. He takes his morning and evening constitutional in front of our guest house. It’s the only beef I’ve seen in southern India.

MY ADVENTURES WITH THE TIBETAN COMMUNITY ARE OVER AND I’M OFF TO SOUTH INDIA

I’m now in Dharamsala just a day away from the grueling overnight bus trip to Delhi and then a flight to Cochin in Kerala, South India. Am working on getting my blog updated on the events of the past three weeks. Stay tuned!

To read about my travels in Sikkim, scroll down to my post from Dec. 6th, or go to http://megnoblepeterson.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/sikkim-is-everything/

SIKKIM IS EVERYTHING I EXPECTED, AND MORE…

My two daughters, Martha and Cary, and I trekked for two weeks in the Kangchenjunga range (Kangchenjunga is the third largest mountain in the world, and I was seeing it this time from the Indian side, not the Nepalese, as in 1996), and we experienced the challenge of a lifetime! Many thanks go to Kalsang Choden of the Potala Tours and Treks, with whom we planned our trip in Gangtok…and to an amazing guide, cook, and porters, all of whom took care of us as if we were family.

Take the rocky, unpredictable “trails” of the White Mountains and add altitude and freezing weather and you have the Sikkim Himalaya. We went up and down with a gain of 3,000 ft. on the very first day of climbing! But we enjoyed every minute (especially the two half-days of acclimitization rest), because we were immersed in a fairyland forest of bamboo, pine, and huge rhododendron, which was covered in a variety of hanging moss. We passed streams and waterfalls, crossed narrow, swinging bridges, and came upon sudden views of mountains rising out of the mist, only to disappear in an instant, swallowed by cloud and forest. It was so magical that we whooped and shouted for joy! Many trails just cut through the forest, and many were treacherously slippery with mud, and some were meticulously built with rocks jutting out for a better grip on the slope. These were also pathways used by locals to get from village to village. I don’t know what I’d have done without Cary, who sang me the Tara mantra and took my hand whenever the going got tough.

After six days, imagine getting up to 14,000 ft. to holy Lake Simiti and being surrounded by peaks freshly covered in snow. And imagine being pummeled by high winds as we considered whether to continue up the ridge on the higher altitude trek we had originally planned. The temperatures were plummeting and the ridge was covered in ice and snow. Nobody was going there…and certainly not us! The weather had turned cold much earlier than expected this year, but at least we managed to avoid the earlier rains that other trekkers had faced.

We had our beautiful starry nights, of course, and we had our frigid runs to less-than-optimum squat outhouses during those nights.  And we had one night in Thangsing when we were sure the tents would blow away. But we had terrific food and the challenge of watching Martha’s reaction to high altitude kept us occupied. What a good sport she was! We had been promised by Kalsang that we didn’t need diamox because we’d have garlic soup every day. And she was right. But Martha still had her problems. First she lost her appetite (which gave the rest of us more food, though we weren’t that hungry, either). Then her eyelids began to swell, giving her the look of a curious frog. We photographed her daily and watched with each 1,000 ft. of elevation to see her improvement as she descended. Still, with all the discomfort, she’s game for a trek in Langtang in Nepal next year. Bravo, Martha!

We returned via our original route back to Thangsing, Dzongri (where we had seen the sunrise in the early morning from a high point), Phetang, Tshoka, Bakhim, and our starting point, Yuksom. Our final three days were spent on a monastery trek, every bit as steep, but in lower altitude along terraced hills dotted with small farming communities that clung to the mountainsides. We spent time talking with and photographing several families eager to see themselves on the digital screen. We observed unusual vegetation–fields of cardamon and trees being pruned of leaves, which are fed to cows to produce more milk. The countryside abounded in  flowering bougainvillia and poinsettia bushes. And school children passed us along the way, shouting, “Hello, how are you.”

Everywhere we went Cary was intrigued by the gardens, especially those at higher altitude. We also enjoyed watching the young children, many of whom helped round up the animals and care for them. Some were as young as four-years-old. It was just part of their day and their responsibility as a member of a farming family.

Some of the monasteries we visited are: Dubdi and Hongri (where we tented about six inches from a cliff!); Sinon (or Silnol) and, on the very last day, the famous Tashiding Monastery, which was being prepared for the upcoming visit of the Dalai Lama. Groups of men and women were working– preparing the grounds, painting, and constructing new out-buildings. It was a beehive of activity! We were also there during the visit of a high lama from Ladakh, whom we watched being carried up the many steps to the main monastery, shielded from the noonday sun by a colorful umbrella, and accompanied by drumming and the blowing of ceremonial horns.

After a gala farewell with our guide, Tenzing, and his staff, we headed for Darjeeling, a veritable city in the sky, famous for its tea and its unusual scenery. Stay tuned for a recap of the next three weeks. Sorry there are no pictures. I’ve taken about 2,000, but am not good at uploading from internet cafes.

In the meantime, I hope you all have a Merry Christmas and an auspicious New Year!

SIKKIM IS A FASCINATING COMBINATION OF CULTURES, AND IT’S A LONG WAY AWAY….

It has only been two days since I left Maplewood, NJ, but what a two days this has been! Never mind the five plus hours to London, the layover at Heathrow, the ten hours to Delhi and the two hours to Bagdogra. Try adding another five hours driving to Gangtok over winding mountain roads that resembled dried river beds,  being held up  for one hour by a traffic jam (the only stretch of road being resurfaced, so far as I could see) and twenty minutes  to let two trains go by, and you can imagine the condition my body was in upon arrival.  But I’m not complaining. After only one day of roaming around this hilly town, visiting the Do-Drul Chorten Monastery, and poking around side streets and a main bazaar lining a modern pedestrian mall, my daughters, Cary and Martha, and I were once again immersed in the contradictions of modern India. You could see new buildings going up in rudimentary fashion next to shacks soon to be destroyed. Garbage and debris flowed in the gutters as you looked down several stories between buildings. Music blared, people swarmed in happy crowds, and children in crisp uniforms scampered to school. It is amazing how the cars careen over the hills with no guardrails, no policemen, and no traffic lights, and somehow manage not to run us down or take the sides off their cars.

We also visited the Sikkim Renewable Energy Development Association and learned of their work in solar energy and biogas production and will be visiting a rural biogas digester on our way to the Rumtek Monastery tomorrow.

It’s now Friday night and there’s a band playing down in the street. I won’t tell you it’s in tune, but it sounds as if they’re having fun! They then had a parade with people with placards demonstrating on behalf of the rights of the disabled. That’s the first time I’ve seen this in India. I’ve always felt that the sign of a progressive country is how it treats its people…all of them.

Time to go eat at A Taste of Tibet, and walk up the mountain to our hotel. And go to work on my jet lag. I want to be in good shape for the climb1

It’s great to get back to Asia. There are so many things here that remind me of Myanmar and Ladakh everywhere I look. I feel right at home….

AM I CRAZY, OR WOT?

SEEMS TO ME THAT THIS….

IS A LOT EASIER THAN THIS….

…BUT THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTES.

As most of you know, I’m off, tomorrow, for 3½ months in India, starting with a three-week trek in Sikkim with my two daughters, Cary and Martha. Sikkim is way up north and will be my taste of winter for this year. Am I blessed or am I blessed? This time I shall be looking at Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, from the Indian side instead of from Nepal, where I trekked for a month to its base camp in 1996. It was a wondrous sight and I’m sure will be just as wondrous from Sikkim.

Martha will leave on Dec. 10th and Cary and I will spend the rest of the month in Dharamsala, visiting our Tibetan friends, the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) schools in Dharamsala and Bir, and the lovely mountain village of Tso Pema.

In January I’ll be on my own, but have enough alternatives to choke one of the many elephants  (and tigers) I hope to see in the wild animal parks that abound in central and southern Indian. I plan to meet up in Tiruvannamalai with Lee Compton, from Whidbey Island, with whom I spent some time in Myanmar in 2007, and three weeks later on the beaches of Gokarna near Goa with Gullvi Eriksson, with whom I trekked in Norway and Sweden in 2005. Some of the places I have my eye on are Khajuraho enroute to Bandhavgarh National Park; Mangalore; Mysore; Hyderabad; Bangalore: Kerala; Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Cardoman Hills; and the Ellora and Ajanta caves. India is one big country and the guidebook, alone, takes up a good hunk of my daypack. I’ll probably be traveling by train, but who knows? Things have changed since I spent time in India twenty years ago and wrote about it in Madam. Those were the days when just making a call home was an all-day adventure. It’s a whole new world out there! So keep an eye on my blog posts. I’ll try to be brief, but hope to hit the high spots.

I’m overjoyed that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, has finally been freed by the military dictatorship in Myanmar, after spending fourteen of the last twenty years under house arrest. I urge you to check the web and follow the events as they unfold. I had planned to visit for a month in February, but changed plans at the last minute. It was just too difficult, logistically.  But I shall return soon.  Suu Kyi, whose father was assassinated in 1947, was duly elected in 1990, and immediately imprisoned by the military junta. She heads the National League for Democracy (NLD), and is still wildly popular and a symbol of hope for the Burmese people. I think the military has greatly underestimated her support among the people and somehow thinks that because an election was held, which has been condemned by most countries as a sham, she would be sidelined. As she says, there is much to be done and she intends to continue the fight for democracy in Myanmar. This is a struggle worth watching and supporting.

My blog would not be complete without mentioning at least one outstanding play. This month it is The Pitman Painters on Broadway, brought to us from England and written by Lee Hall, who also wrote Billy Elliot the Musical. Don’t miss it. We also had a concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony at the Plainfield Symphony. This is the year of Mahler and we started it with a bang (and the crash of cymbals!).

In conclusion, let me share with you the waning days of autumn as seen through my bedroom window. This gorgeous maple tree is so intense in the early morning sun that its reflection imbues my room with a rosy glow, filling my heart with warmth and happiness as only nature’s perfection can.

And down the street, not to be undone, we have a blaze of yellow that dominates the entire hill.

© 2017 Meg Noble Peterson & Site by Matt McDowell