Sunday, May 20, 2012

Culture Corner: Sikkim

Sikkim a kingdom for centuries, in the 70s their two much larger neighbors to the north and south began pressing for takeover. The king fled and India, falling on the most advantageous side of the Himalayas, took control. Firefights still supposedly occur between India and China deep in the mountains, but we witnessed none of the hostility, and in fact were pleasantly surprised by the multi-cultural and effervescent atmosphere of what is now a province.  Cool climes and steep vistas, the former kingdom is a surprisingly interesting place to spend several days.  At the crossroads of Bhutan, Tibet, China, Nepal, Burma, and of course India, a huge mix of culture can be found.  Noticeably cleaner and possessing verve, Gangtok, Sikkims capitol, has a feel for life that Calcutta and many other cities of India’s heartland simply do not.  Entry at roughly 500m (1,600 ft.), during our time in the former kingdom we ascended to approximately 4,000m (13,100 ft.) in Yumthang Valley and there were able to enjoy the mighty Himalayas.  Here are some photos of this portion of our trip.
Gangtok, one of the word’s most vertical cities, occasionally has a view to the world’s third highest peak.  Unfortunately here it is occluded by clouds.  Despite several opportunities, we saw the peak only for the briefest of moments as we prepared to leave the city early-early our last day.
Bordering Nepal and Tibet, Buddhism is the predominant religion of Sikkim.  (Sikh worship is now centered roughly in the regions north of New Delhi).  Painted in vivid detail, above is one of the door guardians of Rungtek monastery.  Real life Indian soldiers wielding automatic weapons also served as door guardians here.  At impassse, both Indian and Nepali sides claim to have located the most recent reincarnation of the monastery’s karmapa.  We were told by the locals that more than 90% of the people in the region support the Nepali (we saw numerous posters and stickers to support this opinion).  However, as the Indian government wields political power, their 10% is just as valuable, hence the impasse.   Like us, all the door guardian can do is look on while humans be humans pretending to be religious.
One of civilization’s guardians… Sorry, couldn’t resist.  This is a poster advertising one of the many retro cinemas that have become retro only because they haven’t stopped operating since the time such entertainment was considered groundbreaking.  Nothing is more congruous with Indian culture than a leather vest, shotgun-wielding action hero with paint splashed on his forehead.  If ever proof of globalization was needed…
At the risk of putting my cultural foot in my mouth, I will say only that this is a girl living in Sikkim, leaving her cultural background for the more erudite.
A portion of the “normal” road temporarily blocked by landslide, our alternative route to Yumthang Valley didn’t inspire any further confidence.
Cutting through the ice and snow of glaciers, the road to the Valley was far from hospitable.  On several occasions our vehicles and others required manual assistance over the rough spots.
And voila, Yumthang Valley!
Prayer flags and a beautiful meadow of mountain wild flowers, the Valley is a very nice place to spend a day.
What goes up, must come down.  Here is part of our return trip to flat land – a better presentation of the extreme hazard posed by our road.  When encountering these obstacles, the vehicles simply drive over the landslides (when possible), in effect compacting and recreating the road as they go.
One wrong turn and, well, you see…
Not for the faint of heart.
Truck drivers in Sikkim loved to paint their trucks a kaleidoscope of colors, religious symbols, and company logos. Looking closely at this truck you will find dolphins (in the Himalayas!), a Puma logo (the driver’s undying love in the company motivating the free advertising), the Buddhist wheel of life, and the eyes of what is probably some Hindu god.
Even the monkeys came to see us out, properly.

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