High on a hill

Written by Jane Harris No Gravatar

We are in Yaksum in the west of the restricted state of Sikkim – up near the Chinese border. It wasn’t our original plan to come here but we found ourselves unable to get straight to Darjeeling because of strikes affecting all infrastructure and services in the area. The strikes support a move to create an independent state of Ghorkaland – a move that has, to date, been resisted by the government.

Once beyond a police check point, our journey into Sikkim followed a steep river valley. It quickly became apparent that damming and other huge hydroelectric projects are the reason that the river itself is dwarfed by a far wider bed. We learnt later that the projects are being undertaken by private companies who pay the state government for the right to do so. They are opposed by many locals.

The village of Yaksum itself is a very pleasant place of a couple of hundred dwellings plus a few hostels serving walkers starting the high-altitude Dzongri trail – to which it acts as a natural gateway. At the moment, we are virtually the only outsiders here because it is winter and therefore some time before the trekking season re-starts. Even so, it is warmer than where we have come from – by which I mean that we have been able to stay toasty in the evenings wearing only a fleece, thermal leggings, hats, gloves and a blanket.

Yesterday we hired a guide and walked up to a sacred lake. I say ‘up’. It was actually 1000 metres straight down then a further 1000 metres straight up again – just to get there. My legs were still aching from a rapid descent the previous day and frankly the climb exhausted me – although I did my best not to show it whilst being overtaken by local women and children carrying loads of firewood twice their size. Our journey took us through dozens of small farmsteads perched precariously on the valley side and growing crops including squash, barley, beans, and the ubiquitous cardamom.

The lake was, well, a lake – remarkable to me only for the size of its trout. However we were treated to what has become one of our favourite Himalayan meals in a small shack nearby – a plate of steamed vegetable momo. Momo are small dumplings – a little like ravioli – filled with either chicken or vegetables and steamed or fried. Fuelled by these we began the long walk home.

The next day’s climb was a mere 600, or so, metres up to the town’s small Buddhist monastery. Sikkim’s strain of Tibetan Buddhism is an important part in the lives of most people here. The first- born sons of most families will enter into monastic service for life. The deceased of the village are carried up to the monastery for burning on whatever is deemed an appropriately auspicious date after their death. The families then host what in our country would be a series of wakes over the next three years. If they are unable to do so in their homes because the cost is prohibitive this too will take place in, and be funded by, the monastery.

The monastery was built in the 1700s and is intricately decorated inside and out with images from Buddhist teachings. Having taken off our shoes we walked, as instructed, in a clockwise-only direction around rows of prayer mats. We reach a series of altars, the middle one of which depicted the Buddha himself. This was surrounded by candle shaped offertories created from a paste of egg, flour and water plus other gifts of fruit, vegetables, biscuits, rum and masala crisps. Walking up a wooden staircase to the right of the front door we come to a room in which 108 prayer books are stored and cared for. Each, year, in February these are paraded through the village below to ensure the health of crops for the coming year.

At one of the lodges we visited last week I started reading the owner’s book about Tibetan Buddhism and have to say that, as a way of living, it really appeals to me. If only they could build their places of worship somewhere a little more flat.

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