Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Club Mahindra Bloggers Trip - Sikkim

When I first started writing trip reports, I would endlessly pain my friends to leave comments. They were irritated by my constant messages and I was irritated that they would not comment. Then in 2008, I started this blog and slowly and steadily built a small base of readers. Most of the readers were strangers who had come to my blog in search of a good travel story. After some months of communication, some of these people even became good friends. I would chat with them regularly and connected on social networking sites. I even went to the extent of traveling with a fellow blogger who I had known only through his blog. It was a great success which made me believe that it was easier to make friends with common interests. I started meeting fellow bloggers whenever I happened to be in their city. Up until this trip, I had met Lakshmi Sharath, Arun Bhat, Arun Nair and Neelima Vallangi. With each of them, conversation was effortless and it felt like we already knew each other. It has been over 2 years since I moved back and the only friends I made are those that I met through travel forums, group trips and blogs!!

When Club Mahindra offered to take me on a trip to their resort in Sikkim, I jumped at it, not because it was Sikkim, but it was with 8 other travel bloggers. The fun started in the flight itself. There were 5 of us and we pretended to own the aircraft. During the 3 hr flight to Calcutta, we had loud arguments/discussions about everything from exercise to investments to altitude sickness. Calcutta airport was a serious dump!! How does a city that claims to be the most intellectual and philosophical city tolerate that stink is beyond me. We felt bad even eating a sandwich from a Coffee day. Bagdogra airport was much nicer. The drive to Gangtok was along the Teesta river and it was beautiful, but very windy. The combination of windy roads, heavy traffic and diesel smell did a number on me and I was seriously nauseous. Multiple stops and five long hours later, we reached Gangtok.

Back at the resort, we ordered some drinks and set out to get to know each other. It was a motley group of nine. We could not be more different than the other. One was a compulsive chatterbox while one was a quiet listener, one loved eating while one loved cooking, one took pictures of everything in sight while another took pictures of herself at every sight. One wore very trendy clothes while another wore her husband's jeans. One was a meticulously planned traveler and another was a spontaneous I-will-figure-out-as-I-go person. The group was a mixture of travelers of all ages and ailments. However different we all were, we shared a common passion (borderline obsession) for travel. I felt completely at home with these serial-travelers. Everybody was coming from a trip and/or going to another trip after Sikkim. Some traveled for work while some quit work to travel and yet others chose travel as their work. These obsessive compulsive travelers/foodies seem to have found an answer to the work-life balance equation (less work...more life). It was refreshing to talk to people who never let work come in the way of life. Life is not just about earning a is about living!!

Moving on - Gangtok itself was not very impressive. Having passed through another hill station recently (Nainital), I will go out on a limb and say that all popular hill stations in India are avoidable. They are noisy, polluted and the man made structures block out mountain vistas. Trick is to find a small village just outside these hill stations and stay there. Club Mahindra's Royal Demazong was six kilometers outside Gangtok towards the hills. A tiny dirt road lead to the most impressive location in that region. Set in the middle of the majestic Chola range, almost halfway to the clouds (scroll down to see those pictures) was a beautiful heritage structure. Our rooms were very tastefully decorated and spacious. The best part was the balcony which offered uninterrupted views of the mountains all round. On a relaxed holiday, I could imagine myself sipping my morning coffee in the balcony listening to the songs of the birds.

Our first stop the next day was the Bulbulay Himalayan Zoo. While I no longer enjoy zoo's, this one was different in that animals were kept in large open/semi-open/closed enclosures. I was also excited about the prospect of seeing snow leopards, Himalayan civet cats and the star attraction - the Red Panda Bear. A beautiful walk through the woods took us to the first attraction - Black Bear or Bhalu. A bear rolling on the ground and wrestling with a piece of wood was misconstrued as two bears making out which led to a lot of innuendos and jokes. The Leopards, handsome as they are, posed for photographs.

The drive to the Lingdum monastery was just beautiful. Light green rice fields interspersed with dark mountains was a sight to behold. Many a time, I made the driver stop on narrow roads just to get a quick shot of these landscapes.

This was my first monastery in the east and I was impressed. It was a very non-touristy place and we found ourselves to be one in less than 20 tourists at the site. The architecture of the monastery is like other Buddhist structures in Nepal, Bhutan and North East India. With rising levels and pagodas, it looked very grand and majestic.

Loud temple music and the ringing of the gong made me walk into the inner sanctum where the evening prayer was going on. Monks were chanting scriptures while tapping their music cymbals. Outside in the courtyard, a big group of monks were practicing a prayer dance. The older monks were unfazed by our presence, but the younger ones would look at us from time to time and blush. I wonder how kids as young as these decide to become monks.

However exhausting the days were, we used to stay up till late in the night and have very interesting discussions. Men were bored by the relationship conversations, but took part in the singing session with gusto. I doubt if anybody on our floor slept that night. Looking back at the trip, I think my most favorite memories were not of the places, but the people. Some of them will remain good friends and travel buddies for years to come.

Coming up - Sikkim 2, Drive to Nathula Pass and Tsmongo Lake