Falling in Love with Bulbulay
It’s a holiday destination that will seem like a home away for home for most Nepalis, as well as for expatriates living here, and it’s charming, to say the least.
“Do you have an ILP?” queried the man behind the reception desk at the Tourism Information Center on MG Road, Gangtok, Sikkim. I am nonplussed for a moment. Here I am, in the tourism office to get some additional information so as to write an article on the beautiful town of Gangtok, and this grey suited man asks me, “Do you have an ILP?”
“ILP?” I ask. “Inner Line Permit” he explains. “I didn’t know that I needed one,” I answer. “Well, then that makes your visit illegal here,” he says. “But in Nepal we welcome you with open arms. We don’t ask you for any permits,” I respond somewhat righteously.
After some half serious jousting, the matter is settled with the man advising me to say that I am from Darjeeling, if asked. Actually, this was the only time I felt myself to be in an alien land; otherwise my two-week sojourn in this lovely town was like being at home away from home. Gangtok is like that: you will find mostly Nepali people everywhere and Nepali is the lingua franca. The one big difference being that the people here appear to be fairly contented unlike the Nepalis in most other places, including Darjeeling and Nepal.
Gangtok is 124 km from Bagdogra International Airport, 126 km from New Jalpaiguri Railway Junction, and 114 km from Siliguri. My journey began in Siliguri, where I shared a taxi with five others. The three-and-half hour drive on National Highway 31A took us first down to Teesta bazaar along the Teesta River, and then, crossing the bridge, upwards to Rangpo, the border town of the erstwhile kingdom of Sikkim, now the 22nd state of the Indian Union. Sikkim has a checkered history. In 1700, it was invaded by the Bhutanese, who were then driven away by the Tibetans. From 1717 to 1733, the kingdom was raided time and again by the Nepalis, as well as by the Bhutanese. In 1791, China sent troops to drive away the Gurkhas, and established control over Sikkim.
The Nepalis again attacked Sikkim, which prompted the British East India Company to attack Nepal in 1814. In 1817, the territory annexed by Nepal was ceded back to Sikkim. In 1849, the Chogyal (the Sikkim ruler) became a puppet king under the British governor. In 1947, India agreed to a special protectorate status for Sikkim. In 1973, demand for greater representation for the Nepalis by the Sikkim National Congress led to riots. In 1975, the Kazi (Prime Minister) appealed to India to make Sikkim a part of India. In April of the same year, the Indian Army seized Gangtok, and following a referendum in which the majority voted to join the Indian Union, Sikkim became the 22nd state of the Indian Union on May 16, 1975. China eventually recognized Sikkim as an Indian state in 2003. Small wonder then, that Sikkim is considered to be a sensitive state and thus, the need for special permits for outside visitors.
I stayed for two weeks in Gangtok, and would have liked to live there forever. Now, you might ask me—why would I like to live there forever? The answer is not that complicated. Gangtok is a hill station, and I have always had a special affection for such places, specially the weather (summer: max 21 degrees Celsius; winter: min 05 degrees Celsius); the constant opportunity the city affords for regular exercise (walking up and down); the familiarity of the language and customs (80 percent Nepali); the brisk pace of development, and last but not the least, the relatively low cost of living. One more reason is that living in Gangtok means living in a society that is quite affluent and educated, and so, less likely to go down to the levels of petty behavior as one finds in poorer and less literate societies. And, yes, the scenery is invigorating.
I stayed in Tadong at a cousin’s place, some 10 minutes by car from the town center. She teaches English at a girls’ school, while her husband is a microbiologist at the government hospital. During a breakfast of porridge, potato bread, kabuli chana (chickpeas), eggs, and milk, my cousin says, “We are paid pretty well, you know. I’m quite happy with my job.” One point here: a large number of Gangtok denizens are government employees, and from what I hear, the special status of the state makes its citizens immune from income tax. Now, allow me to relate a typical day spent while in this tax-free paradise. After breakfast, I walk out to the street; a taxi arrives, on the way from Ranipool to the town center. Another point here—shared taxis are the most common mode of transport in Gangtok.
There is no shortage of taxis (actually, too many) and they just keep on rolling in every few minutes. I get down at Metro Point, and the fare? Just 12 Indian rupees. I must confess that the thought did cross my mind, “How I wish I could travel as comfortably on 12 rupees in Kathmandu!” But, casting aside such unsettling thoughts, I walk on to MG Road. There’s a bust of Mahatma Gandhi at the center of this boulevard (actually it is a mall), and so that explains the initials. There are many shops and eateries (always busy) lined up on both sides. One seems the most crowded; it offers just two fares, momos (meat dumplings) and spring rolls. The mall is divided by a low marble and concrete balustrade that serves as a container for flowers and other greenery. Alongside are rows of wooden benches.
I sit on one. The sun is shining generously, and is especially welcome on this cool January morning. The elderly are sunning themselves, the younger ones are busy shopping and eating. I enjoy the sight of the fashionably dressed girls strolling around the mall. The young are generally fair of complexion, good looking, and well attired. “Fitting denizens for a fitting city,” I think, eyes enjoying the sight of a pretty bunch. An old man sits down and remarks, “A year ago, this was the most crowded road. Cars would be parked on both sides, and walking here was like going through a maacha (fish) bazaar. I just can’t believe how they have managed to do all this!”
But enough of hyperbole, however justified. Let’s see more. I take a busy lane down to the circular shaped Lal Bazaar. Three storied, the ground floor has stalls selling mainly vegetables, fruits, groceries, meat, fish, and other foodstuff. I marvel at the neat way such a large cornucopia is organized. The first floor has most of the things found downstairs, but in addition, there are stalls displaying clothes and readymade garments, toys, and footwear, and here too, as almost everywhere else in the world now, one comes across stalls selling a plethora of Chinese made goods, everything from umbrellas to nail clippers; readymades to shoes and slippers; toys to mobile phone covers. The third story has more of the same.
As evening draws near, I walk down to Tadong. Midway, I pass Deorali, where the lower terminal of the ropeway is located (yes, a ropeway transverses over the city) as well some other important landmarks. I decide to visit them the next day. For now, I am content to amble along the road, brushing shoulders with many pedestrians. The brushing of shoulders is due to the fact that most people walk on only one side of the street. Why only on one side? Good question. It is because only the footpath on one side has a green colored railing that starts from Ranipool some 12 km downhill and continues right up to the town. So, walking is safe and easy. Across a bend, I come across the Indian army’s Black Cat commando base (you’ll see plenty of military people around the town). Further downhill is an imposing Gurudwara made of white marble. I walk on, taking short cuts down one of the many hillside stairways—another example of thoughtful construction by the authorities. Gangtok has a lot of parks, many located on hillsides. You will also find benches on streetsides around the town, really very thoughtful.
The next day sees me in Deorali once again. Passing the ropeway terminal, I visit the Chogyal Palden Thondup Namgyal Memorial Park (big name, small place) with the statue of the late Chogyal inside. Next, I go on to the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. It’s an interesting place with dozens of thankas (religious paintings) and statues inside. More interesting, at least to me, is the adjacent library housing books on Buddhism, mostly. Many of them are quite ancient texts and I spend an hour browsing through the lot. With new found knowledge, I carry on to the Do-Drul Chorten (Stupa). I meet a lot of Buddhist monks, both male and female. I have always noticed that monks, of any religion, look well fed and robustly healthy. Young males in their sleeveless maroon colored robes mill about. A group of female nuns are making their way up to the stupa. I can hear the sound of chanting coming from inside the huge hall. There are lots of shoes and sandals outside the door.
I peek inside, its jam packed. A dozen or so monks are in the front, some reading from scriptural texts, and some beating a tempo on hand held drums. Their chanting is rhythmic, and the large gathering looks on with pious eyes. A young monk sidles to my side. I ask him, “Is this a special occasion?” Seems I have come at an opportune time. According to him, these chantings and prayers will carry on for seven days non-stop. It is to herald Losar, the Tibetan New Year, a week hence. I also come to know that the government has banned the import and sale of meat products for 15 days prior to Losar. Told you, the authorities are considerate towards all sensibilities. I leave, hopefully with blessings, and go on to MG Road. I’m hungry now, so I try out the eatery serving momos and spring rolls. Gourmet connoisseur that I am, I come out feeling a bit let down. The momos didn’t taste any different than from anywhere else.
Anyway, now that I am somewhat rejuvenated, I decide to take a long walk to the state’s premier school, Tashi Namgyal Academy (TNA). I admire the well kept grounds and the freshly painted buildings (bright red roofs) with their elegant Sikkimese design (dragons, stupas, and so forth) particularly on the roofs and over hangings. Most government houses and other buildings are designed likewise, adding to the town’s charms. I take a short cut from behind TNA, which lands me on to the road in quick time. Across the street is an exhibition at the Directorate of Handloom and Handicrafts. It’s mostly handicrafts of India’s north eastern states which doesn’t interest me much, and shortly afterwards, I take the road going uphill. It leads me to a large taxi stand from where people travel to places like Tsongmo Lake some 38 km away at an altitude of 12,400 feet. I want to go, but then somebody tells me that there are security checks on the way, so you can understand why I don’t. Ditto for another famous tourist attraction, Nathu La Pass, located at 14,450 feet. I curse myself for not getting my ILP (Inner Land Permit, in case you have forgotten) at Rangpo! While returning, I decide to see the New Development Area—there’s a really nice bookshop, Rachna, on the way, and further below, the lovely Rhenock Guest House— both worth visiting.
The day before last (of my stay) turned out to be the best. I went to Bulbulay, 8 km from town. Here is where lies the 205 hectares of serene paradise also known as the Himalayan Zoological Park. Do I sound hyperbolic again? You will know in a short while why this is so. Before entering its gates, I go across to the temple called Ganesh Tok. From the top floor balcony I get a bird’s eye view of the sprawling town below. This visual feast over, I enter the hallowed grounds of the park, and am immediately transported into an extraordinarily tranquil world. The asphalted road meanders for miles through a dense forest, and today, it seems that I am the only visitor. So you can imagine my joy. Here I am among 205 hectares of lush greenery, the whole place to myself. I sing at the top of my voice. I sing all the ten songs I know. It is bliss, the whole environment exhilarating.
The first enclosure I come across is that of the black bear. I wait silently on the raised platform over a vast open space surrounded by a white wall. The warning on the board reads: Keep silent. Be patient. You might see the animal if you are lucky. Fifteen minutes pass. I sit on the stone bench. It isn’t my lucky day. I stand up and… and… what should I see but a black bear standing and gazing up at me. Oh, wow, it’s my lucky day after all. We stare at each other, my bear and I—communicating mutual admiration through our eyes. Having exhausted whatever visual communication possible, I drag myself off reluctantly. I swear, the bear watches with a sad look on its face. I should have brought some peanuts.
The park also has musk deer, blue sheep, barking deer, red pandas, a panther, some Himalayan Palm Civets, a snow leopard, some Tibetan wolves, barking deer, common langurs, and goral spotted deer, besides bird species like the Himalayan pheasants. The well-fed snow leopard lounges lazily. The Tibetan wolves are altogether different. Big, with white fur, three of them lie on top of their stone cave and give me alert looks, their ears all cocked up. I think, “What if they were outside the corral?” They look dangerous, is all I can say. The common spotted leopard is similarly ensconced within spacious surroundings. It brushes its body against the steel net. Is it asking me to give it a rub? Taking my life into my hands (or should that be, my hands into my hands?) I poke in a finger and touch its silky skin. Elation! That’s what I experience.
After some three hours, I begin the long trek downhill. The views all around are fantastic. I can see the colorful Paljor Stadium far below. Taking short cuts (and there’s plenty) I reach the 200-year-old Enchey Monastery, and from there, an area that looks really posh. The Chief Minister’s quarters are situated here, a beautiful establishment by any standards. “How apt,” I think, “The Chief on a high hill pondering daily on how to improve his citizens’ lives down below.” Sikkim, and particularly Gangtok, has much to be thankful for, not least, its good governance. Gangtok is a haven all right, life’s good, and the people, whether they are Nepalis or Bhutias or Lepchas, would rather identify themselves as Sikkimese than anything else, proud as they are of their beautiful land. Tourism is their lifeblood, and gracious hospitality, their culture. So, go visit Gangtok and fall in love like I did. Except, don’t forget to get your ILP at Rangpo.