Gangtok stymies all expectations of India: majestic heights, moderate temperatures, and small crowds.
The city of approximately 30,000 is the capital of Sikkim, the country’s least populated state, nestled in the Himalayas between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. Gangtok lies in the shadow of snow-capped Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest summit. The surrounding hills are home to wildlife, elaborate monasteries (and ubiquitous prayer flags) and some of the sharpest hairpin turns you’ll ever see. It’s beautiful.
To reach Gangtok, you must first land in Bagdogra, West Bengal, and skirt a succession of harrowing turns for three-and-a-half hours (don’t fret, roadside monkeys are there to cheer you on). Upon entering Sikkim, a visitor’s permit must be procured. It’s a mere formality, but it admittedly feels a little strange to get a passport stamp within the same country.
Our trip was one of highs and, well, highs. We visited countless monasteries and temples, snapped photos of saffron-robed monks and red pandas, witnessed the filming of a Bengali movie, and enjoyed a rare and affordable cappuccino along Gangtok’s main pedestrian stroll (like virtually every other place, a Mahatma Gandhi marg or road).
There were other interesting moments: one of my co-travelers was nearly bitten by an angry roadside monkey who apparently had a strict “no flash photography” policy, and another wound up with a couple of leeches on her ankle. Bloodsuckers, it seems, are found in moist grasses everywhere. Taking off my shoes, I discovered a big fat leech. I was spared only by my choice of socks that day (thank you, Kodiak!!).
But the most memorable part of the trip came the day before we were scheduled to leave Gangtok. An impending road block for some political reason or other meant we had to rush out early. We hastily booked a hotel near the Bagdogra airport, in the city of Siliguri. Ominously, the hotel name was a mispelling of a Greek god.
We arrived late at night. The smell when I opened our “Super Delux” room nearly knocked me flat. It was a fragrance most foul and sharp, like someone had fermented potpourri and doused the room like a moon-faced teenager in so much Axe spray. My spouse thought the stink emanated from newly laminated wood-paneled walls and floors. We blasted our fans and A/C to relieve some of the pressure, but no luck. Worse, it was too late to do anything about it.
Throughout the night, the stench would periodically wake me up. I dreamed uneasy dreams and slept fitfully.
In the morning, still grumbling and without my regular coffee to temper my ill feelings, I investigated the room and found about 20 of these little white devils (right) lodged in every cupboard, shelf, and nook. What percentage was deodorant, napthalene, camphor, 1,4-dichlorobenzene, or some other heinous concoction, I did not know. I only knew I had uncovered the source of the odour (alas, too late).