Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Scary Day and a Haunted Night at Pelling, Sikkim

We all have fears, many reasonable and so many unreasonable. We all want to face our fears too but it is easier said than done. Never in my life had I to face three of my biggest fears in a span of 24 hours. At the end of it, I am still scared of those. Old habits die hard is all I can say!

For all the traveling that I do, it’d be easier to travel solo. It is terribly impossible to put together a team at the whims of a dreamy wanderer. But the only reason I never dared to go solo was because of these fears. 
  • Spending nights in dingy hotels in strange places freaks me out totally.
  • Seeing a dog a kilometer away would have me in a paranoid frenzy(this applies to any moving creature that I can come across, as harmless s it could be)
  • Walking all alone in a thick forest where even light barely manages to get in gives me the chills.

It can come as a surprise to you that these are my fears considering all the crazy adventures I had so far and yet the truth remains that I never had to actually face these situations on my own. But the universe decided it was time for me to face my fears when I was in Sikkim this July. I felt the quest was incomplete at the end of a week spent in North and South Sikkim which is why I decided to explore West Sikkim as well. But the catch was I had to do it alone. 

I was just as much anxious as I was excited about the journey ahead. While everything else about traveling solo had me excited, the fact that I might exactly be in one of these situations was worrying me. But with great passion comes great courage. ;) 

The first two days spent in RavangLa were brilliant. I enjoyed freaking people out when they learned I came all alone during off season. There wasn’t another traveler in the town and most of the hotels were closed down while a few stayed open because the owners had little else to do. I stayed at a hotel run by an old man who assured me there was nothing to be scared of and his assurance worked well also because the top floor was actually a family residence. I was dreading the night but I managed just fine and was still alive the next day morning. Phew, I was glad to have survived the first day and night as a solo traveler. 

Two days later I was on my way to Pelling and I was expecting something similar there as well. But the fact that Pelling was much more famous than RavangLa meant there were lot more hotels and lodgings in this place. Pelling is situated at a height of 2150m in West Sikkim and offers a splendid view of Mt. Kanchenjunga. It also forms a base for many who proceed towards Yuksom for treks further up. It was so popular with the tourists that the village wasn’t any quaint settlement but the exact opposite. The entire mountain side was Pelling – Lower Pelling, Middle Pelling and Upper Pelling! 

Knowing I would be traveling to Pelling the next day, the elderly gentleman at RavangLa offered to arrange accommodation with his friend in Pelling and I obliged. As it turns out it was a good hotel located in Upper Pelling high up the mountain right next to the forest. I took a morning taxi from Ravangla to Geyzing village and from there took another shared taxi to reach Pelling by afternoon. The entire village had worn a deserted look with the roads empty and the tall hotels closed. There weren't any tourists as well, except for four foreigners I came across.

First, The Dog Scare!

I still had the whole afternoon to myself, so I thought let’s walk to the nearby places, meaning Pemayangste Monastery and Rabdentse ruins, both 4 and 5 kms respectively from Pelling. It was a lovely afternoon to walk around and so I set out to Pemayangste first. The subtropical forests of Sikkim are very dense with thick undergrowth as well. In monsoons, you can only imagine the plushness of the foliage. This forest also supports a variety of fauna.  The road to the monastery goes along such forest and I had to deal with inch sized some sort flying beetles or some insects but I carefully managed to reach the monastery. Had a good time exploring and talking to the monks there. My first excursion as a solo traveler went well I thought, with a good feeling I was walking down the road when my heart skipped a beat! I saw a dog sitting in the middle of the road. Good thing was it was a friendly dog. The sad thing was it was a friendly dog. As soon as I came near it, it started wagging its tail and was all over me. I couldn’t shout and couldn’t move either. I tried talking to the dog, asking it to sit down and calm down.  Before you think I am a freak, you should know I never liked pets and have never had any animals around me. With great difficulty I managed to calm the dog and walked away. It felt like forever and my heart was pounding for few minutes after that. Can’t imagine the situation if the dog would’ve chased me, heart attack? ;)

Pemayangtse Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries of the State. It was originally established by Lhatsun Chempo, one of the revered Lamas to have performed the consecration ceremony of the first Chogyal (Monarch) of Sikkim. This ancient monastery belonging to the Nyingma Sect has been considered as one of the premier monasteries in the State.

Second, The Freaky Forest Scare!

Okay, so that was the dog scare, I thought I felt half more brave than earlier and ventured into the broken entrance that led to Rabdentse ruins. The visitors block at the entrance was deserted and there was broken glass everywhere, the furniture broken and the building abandoned. There was just vehicle standing at the entrance and no one knows I came here in case something happens. The ruins are at a distance of a kilometer or so from the gate and there is paved trail leading to it. The ruins are supposedly spread all across inside the dense foliage and on top of the hill are the ruins maintained by the Govt. As I started walking along the forest trail, I was kind of dreading the eerie feeling that was creeping into my mind. For someone who has spent so much time in forests, you must be wondering why I was so scared. Well all the times I was in forest, I was never alone. Always in a group! Being alone in a forest is really scary, I tell you. Sound of forest is like the creepy background score of a movie if you are all alone. There was absolutely no one along the trail and the forest was really dense with very little light entering, not to mention the looming dark clouds which were about to burst any moment. After the scary walk, there was light all of a sudden. I had reached the ruins and it was in a clearing on the hill top. As much I was relieved I was still dreading the fact that there could be an unfriendly dog around or maybe thieves. Luckily there was the caretaker family cleaning the lawn. While returning I took another hiking trail through forest which was a bit open, I reached the road head and breathed a sigh of relief. Barely escaped another heart attack!

Rabdentse was the second capital of the erstwhile Kingdom after Yuksom and till the year 1814 A.D., the King of Sikkim ruled from this place. Today, the ruins lie hidden from the main road at a walking distance from the Pemayangtse Monastery.

Finally, The Horror Scare!

I thought I was done with the scares for the day but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The biggest and worst scare was yet to happen. Like I said earlier, I was put up in a hotel in the far corner. The hotel was a huge five storey building and I was on second floor and the only occupant of the hotel apart from few hotel staff put up in the basement. The hotels next to this were closed and there was no other tourist staying in Upper Pelling. Safe to say, there were not more than half a dozen travelers in Pelling. By evening it was raining heavily and by nightfall, it was still pouring outside. Initially I had planned on keeping the television and lights on the whole night while I tried catching a wink. Unfortunately by midnight, there was a short power cut and after that the cable network conked. There was this eerie silence of the night with the rain still lashing outside, the insects screeching and the occasional creaking of wood. I was freaked out beyond measures, remembering scenes from all horror movies I had seen and imagination played a major part! I was painfully aware of the deafening silence inside the room. The phones were out of order and even if I screamed the voice wouldn’t reach the basement. I was up all night playing the same four songs on my mobile and was so so so glad to see the first rays enter the room. This has to be the scariest night ever! Next night, it was still raining, the phone was still not working, I was still alone but the tv was working. Got past somehow and live to tell the story! ;)

And this was the view from my Hotel room. Staying in Upper Pelling, the views were superb till the light lasted. Then after dark, the horror story begins! ;)

Too many scares for a day, don't you think? I was traveling solo in Sikkim for a week during offseason and this was the freakiest day of all! At the end of it, having faced my fears, I think I still am scared of all these things. :)
Have you had any such scary experiences during your travel? 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Six reasons why Off Season is the new Season!

Well, having a smooth trip where everything goes according to the plan can be nice and all that but the human psyche sure does enjoy a misadventure or two! I mean, what are you gonna tell back home? I had the most amazing perfect trip ever and that's it? For me, (mis)adventures define travel. I take the road less taken, do the crazy, if I come out with flying colors I do have a great story to tell and if I fail, I still have a great story to tell!

While there are many ways to get yourself into trouble like giving into masochism and entering the forests in the absolute wrong time just for the pleasure of it, which I am sure most of my trekker friends in Western Ghats understand. I wasn't a traveler earlier. I was a trekker which meant I had little to do with the over crowded over sold tourist destinations and the noisy tourists. I was happy wandering in the valleys and mountains with little or no human presence apart from us trekkers. Then I started to travel and reality hit me hard. Even though India holds an abundance of natural scenery, the all pervasive tourist crowd and bad planning only makes it hard for me to enjoy the scenic beauty. In a bid to avoid this, I started traveling slightly ahead of season of just after season. It worked, well to an extent it did. Although, lately I have been traveling off season to places and I have to tell you, it is an awesome experience! I'll tell you why.

1. You get to see what few have seen before.

I went to Chhattisgarh in summer when everyone said it was a bad idea. I went to Sikkim in monsoons when everyone said it was a bad idea again. But both the visits have been extremely fruitful. I got to shoot the fishermen on Indravati River with the falls in the backdrop which I still consider to be my best shot. During the peak season, the waterfalls are in full flow and flooded totally. In Sikkim, I saw much more than that. The monsoon beauty of the place and its wonders were indescribable. There were wild flowers and green grass all around Gurudongmar for one. I haven't seen any such photos of the place so far and I think I might be one of those few travelers to have seen that. Last year in Goa, we discovered the so-called monsoon pilots of Colem who will take you on a ride of your lifetime to Dudhsagar falls.

This would interest you more if you are looking for experiences rather than ticking boxes on your to-see places list. I know Sikkim is famous for grand views of Kanchendzonga, Goa for its beaches and Chhattisgarh isn't on the tourist circuit at all. But who set in stone so and so are the only things to do and places to see and the best time to go? I personally don't understand the concept of Off Season. Well to me if the locals are able to survive, so can you. You'll see something different than the usual. If you market that, off season will also become the best season. Just put up with few discomforts and you are good to go. Explore!

2. Accommodation comes for dirt cheap prices.

This possibly can be the best thing about traveling in Off Season. The accommodation comes so cheap, a backpacker can live in luxury during this time. All the hotels and resorts slash their prices to almost peanuts compared to the peak season charges and if you are good at bargaining , you have an added advantage.Off season is the best time to try out hotels normally I wouldn't prefer or can afford. We stayed in luxury in Goa and accommodation in the usually sky high charging places of Sikkim was dirt cheap, so was in Chhattisgarh and Ladakh too.

3. Business out of their minds, the locals are much more laid back!

This is definitely an advantage to the travelers who are looking to connect with the community and learn about the locals in the places they visit. When I was in Sikkim, during peak monsoons, with no tourist traffic, all the vehicles were used as public transport for locals. Without the crazy demand for vehicles to go for the sightseeing tours, the drivers were taking a break. One such driver, whom I had hired to take me to few waterfalls was Sonam. He had no rush to go back, and he patiently waited while I took out my tripod and shot long exposures. I asked him many questions of his village life and he asked me so many of our city life. In the end, we concurred the grass is always greener on the side. With all this interaction I came to know of one thing, that the boys give dowry to get a bride here in Sikkim.

5. Have a few adventures here and there!

Well, let's face it, it is called off-season for a reason! The heat is too much, or the cold or the rain. With excess, there is almost always going to be some problem. And then, considering the traveler that you are, you will somehow manage to get across the problem. Then it surfaces, the pride that you have managed to survive another (mis)adventure. Like, when I went to Mannavanur Lake in offseason, it was raining like hell, we had no shelter or tents, only a tarpaulin sheet to save our lives. But the sheet wouldn't hold against the lashing rain, so one of the villagers suggested we take shelter in the school for the night and get lost early next morning. We were drenched to the core, had the lake all to ourselves, had lovely conversations with an old couple who were serving hot dosas in the night! Well, you know things like this don't happen when there are a horde of tourists all around. It is rare that you get these kind of experiences when you pay for it, because you can't really be sure if people are being nice to you because it is their business to be nice or are they genuinely being nice.

6. Well people, there are no people around!

This has to be the biggest advantage for me! I know not many feel this compulsive need to be alone in places, but I, for one, hate the crowd. I know it makes me sound like a unsocial being, but it is the truth. I can't stand the ubiquitous crowd, the screaming children, the screeching vehicles, the loud conversations and many more such things that come with a crowd at a serene place. The reason travel is so special to me is because it makes me feel special. Being in places where few have been to, seeing things few have seen. When a million others are seeing what you are seeing, it isn't special anymore. But when I travel offseason, I get to have the entire place to myself. There are no people getting in way of my camera either (very selfish, I know!). It is just absolutely wonderful to see nature with no distractions, just plain nature.

Not just these, but another reason why traveling in offseason is good for the traveler who intends to gather experiences rather than few postcard pictures is the fact that you get to see the problems faced by the locals and the ways they get around it. Like for instance, how do the people of Pin Valley manage to stay disconnected to the world for six months when it snows or how the people of Sikkim manage the incessant rains on the mountains and the really really bad roads. When we understand their problems, we do have a better respect for them.

What do you think? Is it worth it, traveling in off season? Share your views and off season travel stories!

P.S - Point 4 is missing! I didn't realize it until a reader pointed it out. You didn't realize it too, did you? ;) Well, why don't one of you give me another reason, we'll add it! :))

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