We finally left Pelling feeling recharged and ready for some more of Sikkim, as time was suddenly streaming along without signs of slowing down. It was a bright and warm day when we sat on the roadside waiting for our jeep to take us around the mountains once more, along dangerous roads and to somewhere new, interesting and with its unique unknown experiences.
You can see the route we took above, winding around the hills with shafts of light spotlighting various parts of the sparsely populated hills. It is quite something to be able to see houses if you look up and down 170 degrees.
The jeep was more comfortable than usual but that is probably now because we are used to having legs dangling outside or contorted to ensure 10 people can fit in one jeep. We rolled into Khecheopalri during mid morning as usual and shouted to be dropped off at the trekker’s hut. There was no one around and so we hung around a bit until a little girl walked in off the road and asked to help us. She told us the rooms were Rs150 and it is hard to haggle with young girls without feeling guilty and also wondering if they can make that call in the first place. We did anyway and secured the room for Rs100 (1.20 pounds for a twin). We needed food and the girl vaguely told us she might do food. There is no one else around, so is she the manager of this place!?
We decided to head out to have a quick look round and grab a bite to eat. The 4 restaurants in Khecheopalri all said they were not doing food at all. great- what were we going to eat and this would mean we have to leave tomorrow. We went back to the Travelers Hut and asked the girl if we could eat and after making our request for Chinese noodles (we are sick of greasy veg Chinese noodles now, but it is what is cheap, filling and generally on offer).
Throughout Sikkim we were looking for a nook of complete peace, a place to meditate, take stock, get back to nature, go past boredom and more. There are some remote places we visited, including Yuksom, but none of these places were quite right for different reasons. In Khecheopalri lake we found it. Refuelled we headed to the lake itself and passed the meditation centre (looking good) and then before the lake saw a sign for “Home Stay”. Walking up a steep path towards a lookout there were two lone buildings, one shrine and one a guest house. One way looking out across the valley to Yuksom and the hotel we had visited just a week and a half ago and the other overlooking Khecheopalri’s sacred lake.
The lake is the shape of a foot print, which was supposed to be that of Shiva. The story goes that one day the indigenous Lepcha people were collecting the local nettle to eat when a conch shell buried itself into the ground and water started filling up the lake. It certainly had a very spiritual feeling about it and was the most quiet, relaxing place we have been in Sikkim yet. we were right to think that things would not stop surprising us and impressing- we love this state of India the most so far.
We met Sonam the manager of the guesthouse who promised to tech us about the local medicinal plants and head out into the jungle. Sold! We agreed to be back the next day and headed back for what would now be the only night we would stay in the Traveller’s guesthouse. For dinner we arranged to eat the same as the family to ran the place and sat in their outside kitchen watching the young girl, who turned out to be 10 years old and her sister make fire and cook for their family of 5. Dinner was what we learnt to be pumpkin Dal, a watery version of the South Indian Dal, with pumpkin mushed in to give it some substance. This was accompanied with the tips of the pumpkin plant, with skin peeled off- something we have never thought of eating, but was delicious and something we are definitely going to try in the UK.
The next day after a night of tossing and turning because of the hard beds we headed off for the guesthouse, with beds of the same nature, knocked together by Sonam himself. We negotiated free tea and a reduced food rate to fit our budget with him and started exploring our new wooden abode. The place was surrounded by wildlife and plants of all kinds, the perfume of a marijuana tree outside was delivered by the winds streaming up from the valley, but everything was peaceful.
We met two Spanish girls who had been staying for a few nights, but were covered in bed bugs and scratching like mad. We hoped that our room overlooking the lake was blessed and we wouldn’t succumb to the same fate. We sat for the first time on plastic chairs looking out over the valley, soaking up the nothingness filled beauty of the landscape.
For dinner we were scheduled to make momos, something I had already learnt in Gangtok. The filling was slightly different and casing made sightly wider than I was taught, but hey, everyone has their own style of moms, as Sonam pointed out. All 5 of us sat as a production line producing moms of every shape and creative style we fancied. In total we made 98 momos! Sonam also organised some Tongba with dinner and guaranteed that this with the momos would ensure we slept well. This millet had been fermenting for at least 1 year and so was stronger than what we had drunk in Gangtok. After eating around 28 momos myself and Laura also eating till she couldn’t eat anymore! We did sleep well that night, despite unconsciously moving around due to the hard beds. We had a great night though and Sonam was a real wild card after drinks, but unfortunately his Japanese wife was not impressed by his playful stupidity of crazy singing and crazy faces. We had a great night as the Spanish girls had a drum and Sonam was adept at making flutes with bamboo, while Mr Bean had a harmonica. It was a Chang and music filled night, but unfortunately Sonam was apologising in the morning, we suspect due to words from “the Mrs”.
The following lunchtime we were cooked another local dish mostly harvested that day from the jungle. “Mr Bean” delivered the goods, a local with a massive grin, bowl haircut and yellow wellies- what a legend! We ate a massive amount of rice with green Dal, another watery Dal which was made up of spices, onion and stinging nettles. This was accompanied by friend potato and local edible fern. There are apparently 7 types of edible fern in Sikkim, which are a staple and cheap diet of the locals. We would be going out to find some ourselves in the next few days. We also decided that we would show Sonam some of our local dishes. That evening we would make a beef and ale stew and the following day the Spanish girls would make Spanish Omlette. Helping to make the fire however we knew that it would be a hard task as all the wood is wet and so constant air feeding is required to burn anything. We realised that the first fire of the day was the most difficult and arduous because of the wet ground developing over night and soon you really begin to appreciate what it can take to make just a cup of tea in this environment. I also took 45 minutes of wood chopping, fire fanning and water boiling just to have a hot stand up wash, something we would not make a daily habit of for sure!
That day we had a small hike up to the lookout point and I experienced my first actual leaching. Sonam is a wealth of knowledge on the medicinal plats around the area and showed us at least 6 different types of plants for; killing pigs and leeches, stopping bleeding, reducing headache and stomach aches, antiseptic cleansing, making airplanes and more! It is amazing to see people really use their land and understand it to get along in an environment that has its unique challenges of being situated on a hillside. We sat on a flat rock at the view point and overlooked the lake to see the famous footprint shape. After this Sonam showed us a holy cave where monks go to meditate. He warned us of bears sometimes living there, but also explained how to ward them off by running away and then by playing dead if they go for you, as they are only attacking to defend themselves. The only problem that I got was a massive cloud of tiny flies taking off as I peeked out of the side of the cave. No worries though Titapate (antiseptic cleaning leaf) sorted that out, bar those in my eyes…
That evening we headed off to the next village, a 30 minute walk away to collect the needed supplies. A Kazakhstani couple turned up, so it meant we were cooking for 9. After walking too far and then weighing out 2.5 kg of potatoes and the rest of the few ingredients they had (they had some soya tofu and strong beer though!), we headed back up the hill weighed down and being rained on.
It was dark when we arrived back and people thought we had deserted them, but after a rum and coke we got cracking and I mobilised everyone to preparation duties as I stoked the fire. The meal was a mission and ended up taking 4 hours, which meant we ate at 10:30 (late for Sikkim!) and I had blisters from fanning the two fires we needed with a massive rice sieve! BUT the food was ace and really tasted like an English beef stew, despite using local variations. This is what cooking is all about. unfortunately the locals disappeared and didn’t eat with us, which was disappointing as we wanted this to be inclusive, but Sonam went to eat with his family without telling us at all. As a result there was more than enough and it cost more than we had wanted but it ended up being part of the next 4 meals, which made things easier later.
The next few days we bumbled along, ralaxing, meditating a little, but generally hiding due to the rain that started and was not going to stop now for a long time. This meant our plans to meditate in the cave or over looking the lake was thwarted and we actually started to get a bit of cabin fever. It is hard work to continually have to build a fire to eat, drink or do anything it seemed! It really is harder to relax and meditate than you think. There is always something to “do” and I am especially bad at “doing” things that are not really necessary. Our meditation comprised mostly facing out of the guesthouse at the view, sometimes this was “zoning out”, but either way I started to understand the fundamental starting point of Taoist meditation that I had been learning up until then.
The Spanish girls had their last day and although they couldn’t make spanish omelette, made 2 courses, including Bruscetta and a dried shrimp dish, which was good. More rum and a good night we said our goodbyes.
The next day we went out on the hunt with Sonam and his wife, who turned out to be a true sour puss. Deep in the jungle we were scouting out Sisnu (edible stinging nettle) and edible fern, but the rain and wet ground meant that leeches were EVERYWHERE. Sonam with just flipflops and shorts ignored them and said that they remove bad blood. the rest of us reviewed and flicked off the invaders from below and weren’t impressed with their approach of sticking out straight to look like a stick and then clinging on when you brush past. Things became more and more dense and we eventually gave up on leeches. I simply tied my shoes up as tight as possible and pulled my socks up. There are so many types of fern that a positive identification is hard. You need to pick those that are young with the leaves uncurling in a spiral before unwrapping its leaves. Some ferns are poisonous and if you rub any open wound or part of your body, including your eyes then that area will not stop burning for 3 days Sonam assures us. We sloshed through deep streams and thick grasses to search for just a few “spring vegetables” as they call the edible fern. When we arrived back it turns out that we only took a walk around the lake- the back way. Sonam’s feet had at least 26 leeches attached and full of blood. He covered them in ash to kill them through dehydration and blood poured down his legs…. they love the ankle area best. Laura also had been fully attacked and had 24 leeches, included fully infested socks, which she noticed only after peeling off the leeches and then rediscovering more after putting them back on! I can out fairly ok with only 7 due to the tightness of my boots. There were loads literally queuing up around the lip of my boots and when I opened my shoes they were off to find my pulse… unlucky suckers!
That evening after battling with the fire again, due to increasing water logging of the cooking area we eventually ended up with a meal harvested from the jungle and we ate 3 plates hungrily.
After a week in Khecheopalri we decided that we had overstayed our visit as well. Although we were indeed lucky that we did not have bed bugs (well a few suspect, but nothing major) we had been sleeping badly and became increasingly irritable, which is not the intended vibe of Khecheopalri and although we had completed some meditation we felt this was difficult due to the conditions making us wet, dirty, generally cold and hungry. We should be able to meditate to reduce our needs in these respects, but failed. We decided to head back to “Real India” and West Bengal to Darjeeling, which we diverted around due to the strike a month ago. It has gone quickly in Sikkim, but we feel that we did well in staying for a week in each place to understand it more than just as a fleeting visit, which most people seemed to do. We would love to go back to Khecheopalri despite the challenges it brought.
On our last night we thought we would have some chicken, as we agreed with Sonam it would be good and he seemed keen. we decided 2kg was enough for 4 of us but with some misunderstandings Sonam wouldn’t eat with us again as it was not local chicken (apparently it was from Siliguri). He went down to pick up some sugar, but promised he would be back to show us his way of doing this- the main reason for cooking the meal. Once again he deserted us and we battled with a fire with just wet wood, until Mr Bean came back and started cutting down bits of the house making it easy. Very frustrating to be left to cook despite paying for the meal and not being told where dry wood is or anything to make life easier. Sonam eventually returned and told us he would cook it. It was 9pm so we were skeptical, especially as it was 2kg. Sonam announced it was ready in 15 minutes after holding it naked flames… a sure fire route to a burnt skin and raw centre. Surprise surprise it was grossly undercooked. He put it back on the fire but after 15 more minutes was still not cooked. Sonam insisted that is how the locals ate it and they even ate it raw, with the Lepcha’s drinking the blood also. We refused and you could see his disappointment as he had to buy a whole chicken and sell 3kg to provide for us. They ate the chicken anyway to prove that they were telling the truth and I ate a few pieces that were dubious, but was weary because of Aurangabad. Yet I couldn’t see how they could be so confident and for us to not eat it. Surely they had done this before!? Perhaps it was so fresh that bacteria couldn’t have developed yet? Either way this proved that some cultural gaps were extremely difficult to close.
The next day we headed off at 6am again ready for a 3 jeep journey. With another jeep that has material as a roof and DIY welding on the body we set off one saturated roads hoping for the best.