Darjeeling to Gangtok
Internet wise, this was a very frustrating city. On top of the electricity short-cuts, the BSNL workers started a strike, which made the city's only server to mal-function, so we had very little success in downloading our blog, and even when we managed to do so, the pictures refused to co-operate and we had to move them to another location – you may see some of them in
On the way from Darjeeling to Gangtok we discovered the institution of shared jeep – it is very cheap and very crowded, but there is a middle way – we paid for 4 seats, so we had a whole bench for ourselves, instead of sharing it with others. Later we got even more sophisticated and we paid just for 3 seats, which makes some lucky guy come with us but 3 for a bench is not too much.
The way was very nice, 4.5 hours long, with a big river flowing down the road, a long break half way. We got to Gangtok which is the capital of Sikkim, went to hotel that was mentioned in the "Lonely Planet" as medium priced and turned out to be high over priced. This is because the management was changed and some renovation was done, and it was all our fault for using the 1999 edition of the guide book, so very soon afterwards we invested in buying the last addition, which is also not brand new since it came out in 2003. Interesting enough, many changes have been done, many hotels disappeared and many others inserted, which adds a lot to the guide's credibility.
A nice morning took us to Rumtek, which is the one of the largest Buddhhist "Gompa"s (=monasteries) in Sikkim. It is the headquarters of the "Black Hat" sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and was established by the 16th Karmapa when he fled from Tibet. The then King of Sikkim asked him to stay there and gave him the land. After he died in 1990, a big scandal started with choosing his successor; there were two candidates, much intrigue, a high priest killed in a car accident, suspicions of Chinese spies, and more. At the moment one candidate lives in Dharmasala under the auspice of the Dalai Lama, while the other lives in France. The Indian government does not allow them to come to Rumtek, and there is a movement for returning the Karmapa to Rumtek. An Indian soldier is at the monastery gate, and our passports were checked when we entered.
We met Michal, an Israeli from Neve Ur who spends most of her time in India and she gave us two pieces of information _ a very nice guesthouse just inside the monastery compound, and the fact that Sogiel Rinpohe, the author of "the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Living" is in Gangtok, and will lecture on Monday in a monastery outside Gangtok.
The monastery itself is very big, richly decorated, and contains also the big Nalanda Institute for Buddhist studies, and the Golden stupa which is built over the remains of the Sixteen Karmapa, but we did not see it at this time.
Back in Gangtok we booked for a one day travel for the day after, and went to see the marvelous Orchid show on the town ride. There is not much to tell, as you should see the pictures. We went on strolling in the direction of the King's palace, which was closed, and then to the near-by monastery. It was deserted, but at the back entrance we heard some chanting, so we entered and saw a bunch of Westerners sitting cross legged and a relatively fat Buddhist monk leading the chanting, using a recording on a pair of huge speakers and helping occasionally on the drum. It turned out this is Sogiel Rinpoche himself, and in the intermission he inquired from where we came, and when I told him that we are Israelis he shook my hand warmly. We asked about the expected talk, and he promised us there will be an English translation, and gave us the exact name of the Monastery.
We went with Tikva and Ayala (in a separate jeep) and their friends on a tour to the lake up in the hills. The way was very long and steep, crossing many army camps, and as we rose higher there was snow – first only on the road side, and then on the road itself. The lake is about 1 km long, and was frozen, and all the shores also with snow up to 1 meter. We borrowed snow boots, and we walked around the lake, after refusing to take the Yaks that the local guides offered to hire. Eti suffered from the heights, and it seems that we are going to avoid such heights later in the trip, but the views were magnificent, and I have no other choice but to remind you of the pictures in http://photos.yahoo.com/efipaz1
On the way back we passed through a line of milestones put by the local regiment in remembrance of all the battlefields they served, and when I saw the milestone titled "Palestine 1914-1917" I could not resist the temptation to take a picture, even though the driver and the guide were quite terrified at taking a photo in a military zone…
We started walking to the monastery where the Rinpoche was going to talk, after about one hour of walking we realized that it is still quite far, so we took a taxi and it took him another half an hour drive. When we arrived we saw a tent with westerners, and a big crowd of local people, saying mantras and rolling their praying wheels, all waiting for the Rinpoche. Michal arrived also, and we all waited until he came in a very posh Mercedes, was greeted with trumpets and seated on his chair facing the crowd. He started talking in Tibetan, saying from time to time "Gentlemen", which was the only word we understood. After some time when we realized that no translation will be available, we left the place and went back to Gangtok.
Sailung Guesthouse, Rumtek
We stay at a small homey guesthouse just inside the gates of the monastery, so we do not have to show our passport to the soldier at the gate every time we enter. The guesthouse is run by a lovely lady named Pema, who told us that her parents came to the place with the 16 th Karmapa on his escape from Tibet. After several years in the place, and after building the monastery, the Karmapa gave his followers plots of land, and they settled there. There is a beautiful view from the window, and a number of cows just outside.
We went out towards the old monastery, and saw a column of smoke, and heard horn blows. As we approached closer, we saw some Buddhist monks inside a little village. Approaching them we were welcome by a young lady, who explained that this was a Yohrzeit for her grandfather, we joined the ceremony and were offered food in a small hut.
We left and walked up to the old monastery, saw a gathering of locals discussing help for the poor monastery, and went back. On the way down we entered a smallish monastery, which turned out to be a nunnery, and the nuns invited us for a full-fledged Puja (ceremony) which is to be held the day after. Back home for some food, including a surprisingly good home made Shakshuka which Pema learned how to prepare from and Israeli gust several years before.
25.3.05 Full Moon Puja at the Nunnery
We woke up early and walked to the nunnery, we were welcome by nuns and monks – there is a small monastery nearby, and both the nunnery and monastery belong to the followers of the "second" Karmapa, so they do not share the worship in the big Rumtek monastery, which is also very rich and gets donations from abroad, while they are poor and rely totally on the local people. The monks help the nuns in big occasions like today. The day started for them at 3:30 at night, waking up and meditating, and now at 8:00 they had breakfast which we joined – Tsampa, that is barley flour, butter and tea all mixed together into doe, and hot tea with butter and salt.
The room was small with about 25 monks, the in two rows, chanting and using drums, cymbals, and horns from time to time. In the room were also some 10 laypeople, including the two of us, and the Mother Lama, sitting at a side table, busy with her responsibilities, escorted by her old cat. It was a long ceremony, interspersed with milk and salted tea about every half an hour, lunch and dinner. Several times the chanting was escorted with hand motions, complicated finger configurations, and several times we were given some liquor, to be put at the palm of the hand and drops were dropped out, not unlike the "Eser Hamakot" in Pesach Seder. The Puja ended at 5 o'clock.
We walked towards a monastery which was supposed to be one hour walk, but after two hours we declined and went back. Near the monastery we heard some commotion, and it turned out that it is Holly – the Hindu feast of throwing colored water and color powder. We were saved because we were in a Buddhist restaurant, and all we suffered was a symbolic "Tika" between the eyes.
Back to Gangtok, changing money and in a jeep to Pelling. We got late and it was dark but we found the Garuda Hotel, which is recommended by the lonely planet,
Three days in Pelling – full of wonderful sights.
On the first day we went to the PemaYangTze monastery. It is quite near the hotel, and we walked in a nice forest road, past a number of big Stupas (memorial columns), and up to the monastery. It is nicely decorated, and quite big. On the way down Eti felt a little sick, but after some rest we decided to go downhill, and we visited the ruins of the old Sikkim capital.
The next day we took a tour with WongDi, who is a relative of the family that runs the hotel. He is very religious, and enjoyed the opportunity to visit many holy Buddhist locations. We visited all the interesting places in West Sikkim – the Kanchanchunga waterfalls, the Ketchapuri holly lake which is very clean and calm, and it is said that every time a leaf falls into the lake a bird flies and picks it up. It is sacred to the Buddhists and the Hindu, as well as to the indigenous Lepcha. Yoksum is the starting point for the big tracks which lead to the Kanchanchunga Base camp, and is also a historical location where the first King of Sikkim was crowned by three Tibetan lamas. The tour ended in Taishiding, which is the second most important monastery in Sikkim. A very hard and stiff climb, and at the top is a forest of Stupas. An old Tibetan lady escorted us and explained the names of the kings and lamas that were mentioned on the Stupas. The whole area was surrounded by stones with mantras carved on them, and we were taken to a little makeshift hut, and saw an old monk who has carved them all, over several dozens of years.
31.3.05 Sangha Choling Monastery, Pelling
Another monastery, not far from the guesthouse, but the road was under construction so we had to take an alternate rout, which was very very stiff. On the way up we met a young guy who helped us by showing us the way, and he cut a nice walking stick for Eti. It turned out that his name is Chompo; he is a monk, who lives at home and comes to the monastery every day by foot, from a village far down the hill. He studied in the monastery from the age of 8 until 15, and then went on a three years, three months and three days retreat; followed by 9 months of ceremonies and now he is a qualified Lama. He showed us around, asked a young lama boy to open the monastery for us, and then we were invited up, where we joined an old monk whose job is to pray all day long. Then we went with Chompo to the forest, past a cremation ground build by him when he was a young monk, past some very old ruins of Stupas, and into the "jungle track". After some 30 minutes of walk he asked us to stay on the path, and he went down looking for some special plants, and fresh growth of ferns, which he later told us are used for a dish called "NinGooray" which we had in the evening at the guesthouse and was very delicious. We parted when he went down to the village, and we went back to the guesthouse.
1.4.05 PemaYangTze again
We went again to the monastery, as we forgot to see the most important part of it. The second and third floors of the monastery are very nicely decorated – on the second floor are a thousand paintings of the Buddha, and the third floor is renovated, pictures in very bright colors are very refreshing, many erotic pictures of the Buddha and a girl in his lap, and a wooden contraption in the middle, depicting the whole Buddhist heaven, with bodhisattvas, skeletons, Stupas, and what not, which looks like a "Gothic Disneyland" according to Eti. On the way pout I had a chat with a 45 years old monk who is a script, (Soifer Stam), both in Tibetan and in Sanskrit, and he jingled several mantras for my eternal benefit.