Just as Africa has ubiquitous shared minibus taxis for the locals to get around, so does Sikkim have shared jeeps to negotiate the steep and winding mountain roads. There seems to be a bit more attention to animal welfare here, though – goats get to clamber about in the rear seats instead of being tied to the roof rack. Between ten and thirteen people are crammed into a standard 4×4, not counting those hanging onto the sides or riding “upper class” (on the roof), which provides some cushioning on the twists and turns but causes weight concerns when bridges over steep ravines have to be crossed.
Just about everywhere in Sikkim has spectacular views of Mount Kanchendzonga, India’s highest peak (and the third highest in the world), though it’s usually wrapped in cloud by noon. The climate is like a permanent crisp British autumn (though there’s no frost so people still grow bananas), and I spent several days exploring the villages and gompas around Ravangla, Tashiding (home of the Thong-Wa-Rang-Dol chorten, said to wash away the sins of whoever gazes on it) and Pelling (near the ruins of Rabdentse, the second capital of the ancient kingdom of Sikkim) and sampling the tonbga (local millet beer, served hot in a wooden jar).
Heading back south, I wound up in the hill station of Darjeeling (famed for its tea) and, along with hundreds of other thrill-seeking tourists, caught a jeep (at 0430) to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise over a stretch of the Himalayas. The view is dominated by the Kanchendzonga range (as it’s the closest), but you can also see three more of the world’s highest peaks (Everest, Lhotse and Makalu). Everest itself is just peeking over the horizon, but it’s most definitely there. For the rest of my time in Darjeeling, I was enjoying the cold weather and managed to leave my trek towel behind as I was using it as an extra blanket. Curses!
Back on the hot and dusty plains, my wanderings took me south and west to the small but busy town of Bodhgaya, Buddhism’s holiest site. It was here, more than 2500 years ago, that Siddhartha Guatama sat under the Bodhi tree (a fig) and became the Buddha (enlightened one). The current Bodhi tree was grown from a cutting taken from a tree grown from a cutting of the original (if that makes sense), and is the focal point for thousands of pilgrims along with the huge temple just behind it. Most countries with sizeable Buddhist populations have temples and monasteries here, which reflect the architecture of their country and attract even more tourists and pilgrims. There are also hundreds of Tibetan refugees (many spend the winter here and travel down from Dharamsala), which means tent restaurants and hearty Tibetan food, from noodle soups to delicious flatbread. Drinking tea under canvas reminded me somewhat of the G8, though there were fewer monks there.