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Travels with (and without) Mafa - Pelling

INDIA | Wednesday, 20 January 2016 | Views [423]

I'm sitting in an internet cafe in Namchi called Frets. Unsurprisingly it has pictures of Jimi Hendrix, Mark Knopfler et all on the wall and rock music is playing. The owner is called 'Jerry', his father, David, is a minister somewhere. I'm in friendly hands, a cup of hot, sweet milky tea to my right, Samsung Galaxy ahead.

Last I blogged in earnest I was in a Gangtok cafe, preparing to leave for Pelling the following day. On my way back from the cafe to the New Modern Central Lodge I noticed and passed what I first took to be a strikingly pretty Indian woman but realised, on passing, was in fact a strikingly pretty European, albeit in Indian trousers. I regretted not striking up conversation whilst I could but then could only hope against hope that we might meet again.

The next day, waiting at the taxi stand for my jeep to Pelling, once again I noticed what I at first took to be another beautiful Indian woman who I eventually figured out to be the same person as the evening before, this time without the Indian trousers (this took a little while). We started talking and it turned out that Mafa was from a village near Napoli, had recently worked on Roman Road in Bethnal Green and was also going to Pelling.

The journey to Pelling already sweetened by this chance remeeting proved to be six hours of beauty, twisting up and down through semi tropical forests punctuated by single or rows of rhododendrum trees with their splashes of vermilion, and occasional homes, children, dogs, chickens playing or sitting by the side of the road. 

With one angry honk preambled altercation between our driver and another vehicle behind us (steady on, mate), we reached Pelling around dusk where I disembarked with Yung Su, my fellow passenger of the front seat, at the Kabur Lodge, Mafa staying on, as I believed, to try to find cheaper lodgings.

The Lodge was barrenly devoid of other guests, so I was delighted when Mafa walked through the front door declaring that she had been assured by the driver that alternative lodgings were no cheaper than the rate she had been offered at Kabur. That evening we went for a meal of vegetarian thali, Yung Su had curtly declined the offer to join us, that was excellent and then, hugging welcome and unexpected hot water bottles, made our way to bed, me via a bout of chi gung and watching Die Hard on the telly. 

The following morning I awoke to spectacular views of the Kanchenjunga range and following a breakfast, of what I remember not, and hot tea, Mafa and I took the slowly inclining road from the lodge to find Pemayantse Gompa, founded by one of the three lamas who had inaugurated the first Sikkim Chogyal/King. To our left as we climbed you could catch glimpses of Kanchenjunga through gaps in the tall pine and tropical trees and to our right similar trees and lush giant ferns climbed up the steep hillside. 

It did not take long to reach the first gate of the monastery, so worn and ancient that it could have come from a Chinese (or Korean) movie. From there we climbed the twisting and, of course, steep road past large stupas or chortens to the main gate and thence to the monastery following another steep climb. The monastery, perched on top of the hill and commanding fantastic views of the Kanchenjunga range and surrounding hills immediately became a favourite of mine. This was further cemented by three stories of exquisite Buddhist murals inside. 

Mafa and I exited the monastery only to explore a road that wound around the side of the hill and brought us back into the main courtyard via a cave, littered with bottles, and the monks living quarters. Bidding farewell to the ticket collector for the second time, we eventually left the monastery after a further detour which took us back to intricaely carved wooden outbuildings by the monastery entrance.

So, exit completed we turned left to find Sikkim's second capital, Rabdantse, a relatively short walk away via, for us, a short cut that took us down to an empty reservoir and up past chicken hutches to Rabdantse itself. This meant inadvertently avoiding the 10 or 20 rupee entry fee, which caused Mafa some guilt and, strangely or not, me none. Rabdantse is like a well preserved park with undulating green spaces divided by walls that were populated by young men with slick hair and black leather jackets, one playing a guitar, and young girls sporting in pairs. 

Mafa and I made our way to one of the higher points and consumed a brief picnic of apples/ oranges and, for Mafa, cigarettes whilst resting there. I found the atmosphere unexpectedly peaceful and could have stayed longer but we had planned to visit the equally famous Sangha Choling on the other side of Pelling and so made our way back the way we came and the short 2 kilometre journey to Pelling. From there, thankfully invigorated by a lunchg of vegetable chow mein, we started up to our second monastery. This entailed a short climb to a hellipad above Pelling, a further short and mistaken descent through houses stacked on the side of the hill and then a long and laborious, but once again beautiful, climb in the slowly fading light up steep stone encrusted tracks to the gompa.

Sangha Choling immediately became another favourite monastery, Badly damaged by an earthquake in 2011 I believe, and with chortens resting right on the edge of steep slopes it felt more like a secluded retreat centre than a bustling monastery. A kind Lama showed us around the interior of the monastery, which was being repainted with murals, and then offered us tea in his room, which was littered with musical instruments, odds and ends, and in a tall metal cabinet ancient thankas/ Buddhist scrolls. The Lama also offered us hand woven necklaces which he chanted mantras and puffed over (several times) before fixing them around our necks. Both Mafa and I were happy to pay for these, for myself pleased to support the restoration of the monastery.

After another tour of his bedroom and butter lamp offering room (not sure what this is called) Mafa and I finally made our move back to Pelling assisted by her torch and the fading light. We ate and smoked inside and on the balcony of the Melting Point Restaurant, overlooking the valley and up to the nght stars before commening the short uphill climb to Kabur Lodge, where, once again equipped with hot water bottle, and for me after chi gung and a rather good (I know, I know) late Schwartzeneger movie I went to bed 



Tags: jeeps, monasteries, walks

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