The ‘Hidden Land’ of Sikkim

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Namaste from Sikkim! Above is the mountain Khangchendzonga, the third highest in the world. This is the view on a clear day from the capital, Gangtok, where we have been for about 9 days. This will be the last post for a while.


After leaving Ilam with Bhupal, we ventured down south through the Terai and over the border to the West Bengal, India. Garam bhayo! It was very hot. It was fun having Bhupal with me and I’m glad that Barry and my parents made me take an escort, for the traveling alone in these parts can get lonely. We made it to Bagdogra airport near Silliguri to meet up with Teddi and Tierney, the two other girls on the Sikkim trip. Goodbye Bhupal! I’ll see you soon when I return in two months. Hello Sikkim, I’m so happy to see you.

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Sikkim, India

The car that Spaff and Kathy, our program leaders, sent for us was spacious with comfy seats and even air conditioning. It was a treat after the buses and Hari’s jeep. We rolled on up through the lush valley north past Darjeeling, over the border, and eventually reached Gangtok the evening of September 26. The great river we were next to in Sikkim is called the Teesta River and carves out the mountains creating the temperate and tropical valleys of Sikkim.

SIKKIM!!!!!!! Holy moly. The “Hidden land”.

We are staying at the Hotel Pomra, run by a Tibetan family. Spaff and Kathy have made connections with them on their past trips and so we feel almost like family. Pema the owner constantly speaks Nepali with me, and I’m slowly but surely catching on and able to contribute to the conversation.

Tentative first week schedule:

Morning chora, which is a walk in a circle around the top of the hill on which there is the Royal Palace Monestary, and enjoy the misty mornings.

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Round 645 or so

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Futbol in the morning mists

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The forest among the capital of Sikkim, full of life

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One of the many tree flowers

When it is clear you can see Mount Khangchendzonga, the third highest in the world and the guardian of the land of Sikkim. The mountain range traps the monsoon clouds from the Bay of Bengal and creates lush temperate and tropical rain forests of this small Himalayan state. The native Lepcha community worships the mountain and see their creator and protector Kang chen to reside on the top. The first Lepcha was thought to be created out of the snows of the mountain. The Buddhists see the deity associated with the mountain as Dzonga. More on this later. I have some papers for the independent study which go more in detail about the religions.

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After a morning walk do some yoga. I have done my own yoga practice for the past 7 days and cannot believe how much it makes a difference in how I feel. I am almost frustrated that I haven’t gotten myself to do it consistently before, but there’s no time like the present. A solid practice clears the mind and opens the body to whatever the day will bring. As Krishna would say, make your mind clear like a crystal.

Breakfast! The food here is unreal. For breakfast it could be round Indian roti with curried beans and potatoes, eggs boiled or an omelette, or some random western breakfast which I usually pass up and eat what the lamas eat. Oh, and I’m the only one in my group who eats with their hand. I prefer it now after a month in Nepal.

We eat in the dining room of the hotel, and our first night we ate with the family.

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Meal with the family. Momo on the left, Amma and Amila, Sunaum and Kathy on the end, Lamala, myself, Teddi and Tierny with birthday cake

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It was Tierney’s 19th birthday! With Lamala/Shengala

Currently at the hotel there are lamas called in from Tibet doing a puja for 49 days, which is a ritual ceremony when someone in the household passes away. In this case Pema’s uncle, the patriarch of the family who founded this Hotel, left this world. Today is the 34th day. There are candles lit by Amma and Amila, the grandmothers of the house, thorma sculptures made by the monks and by little Sunaum, our young rambunctious friend [he turns the thormas into cars and dinosaurs], and the lamas chant from the Buddhist scriptures during most of the day. I love listening to them. The Tibetan Buddhist practice runs all throughout the Himalayas, and the first time I really heard it was at the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu. Blowing the horns, chanting, and sending out prayers for all sentient beings. I’ll be learning more about this during my time here.

After breakfast is a language class with Phunsok, our wonderful teacher and guide around Gangtok. She has taken us to explore MG Marg, the main hang out spot and street of Gangtok, a talk by a Tibetan Lama 16th Zurmang Gharwang Rinpoche on “Essence of Taking Refuge” [I will write up a paper on this too], to visit and get blessings from Guru Dodrupchen at the Chorten Gompa, and teaches us ettiquite along the way. We said goodbye to her yesterday.

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With Teddi, Phunsok and Tierney

Lunch is a buffet of delicioius Tibetan/Indian/Nepali dishes with tons of vegetables and lots of meet. Piro, dherai piro. [Very spicy] Meeto meeto! Yummyyy. I have eaten to my hearts content after not getting much protein in Nepal. We are building up the strength to go on a week long trek on the 14th.

Free afternoon. We have developed a love for the Indian sweet shop called Unique, on MG Marg. Four sweets a day… is that too much? Probably, but… when in Gangtok! MG Marg stands for Mahatma Ghandi Marg, and has a sculpture of Ghandi in the middle. Yesterday it was his birthday and he was dressed up in katas, white satin shawls for blessing, and lines of marigolds around. MG Marg is a spacious walk way, something quite foreign to me at this point, kind of like a mall. This place is teeming with life, and tourism, mostly Indian tourism, and the diversity enlivens it. Mostly Nepali people, Lepchas, Bhutias, Tibetans, with all sorts of worldviews from Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian. Peace permeates the city.

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Monks and tourists on MG Marg

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More dogs, and kids, on MG Marg

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MG Marg is the best place to people watch

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Dogs decorate the sidewalks, or in the middle of the road, they don’t care

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This one sports the dreadlocks

Other ventures: Photo credit to Tierney at

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Trying to look Nepali

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The monastery at the royal palace, the home of many monks, cats, dogs, nuns…

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Little monks

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Entrance to the Gompa, the Tibetan temple, at the monastery

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Obsessing over a cute dog

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Teddi obsessing over “Fox Dog” or “Crystal”, the dog who hangs outside of Pomra Hotel

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We took a ride on ‘the Rope’, the gondela that takes you from upper Gangtok to lower Gangtok.

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Rugged landscape of the Sikkim

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Tall birch trees that characterize this place

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Took a journey to the Institute of Tibetology, where I will spend my November days in Sikkim being a student.

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Bhavachakra, the wheel of life in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition.

What the Bhavachakra represents: In the middle are the three corruptions; the Rooster represents passion, the snake as anger, and the cow as ignorance or stupidity. These are the emotions which enslave us in our day to day lives. Next ring are the light good deeds and the dark bad deeds, which accumulate good or bad karma. The largest sections represent the three higher realms of existence, (left to right) the human realm, the god realm, and the demi-god realm. The lower realms of existence are the hungry ghosts, the hells, and the animal realms. The outer circle represents the life cycle, starting with the birth into this world, all circomstances from past karma, to growth, reproduction, and death. This is the cycle of life and what in India is known as samsara. The demon with the cycle in his clutches is the god of death, Yama, who clutches the world. To break out of the cycle is to attain Buddhahood, enlightenment, or whatever one would call it. This is the ultimate goal of Buddhism, but also acknowledged as almost impossible at this day in age, the degenerate age, farthest away from the time of Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha.

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In the library at the Institute of Tibetology. In the middle is a shrine of Guru Padmasambhava, the indian Tantric yogi who brought Buddhism north to Tibet. Surrounding are what are saved from Tibet of the buddhist scriptures.

Some other ventures

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Spafford Ackerley, one of our wonderful program directors, gazing out at Gangtok

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I know this is a little random, it is just all I have time for now.

Visit our program blog, which we are all contributing to, to learn more about our stay here in Gangtok, Sikkim. This post is especially good, written by Teddi, the 22 year old from Seattle who spent last summer as a kayak guide. Learning to be a good human being and articulates some of what we have learned from the surrounding Buddhist community.

Some other interesting things about Sikkim:

Numerous dogs speckle the streets all over the neighborhoods, on the main street, and are always sleeping and peaceful during the day. However, at night, they are always out and about barking, and howling. We hope one day when we are back in Gangtok to investigate the dog night life.

For the next three weeks I will have no access to a computer, which I am stoked about.

Travel to Rabongla, Sikkim, to visit a Sacred Cave and statue of the Buddha, hike the mountain Mount Maenam, and partake in an “empowerment” which is a transmission of the Buddhist teachings. This is going on for over a month, but we are going to sit in for three days to maybe learn some stuff and find some peace within ourselves. Next we are going to some hot springs and a Bird Sanctuary [woooo!], and to a very sacred cave, which I will probably be writing about in my study, called Tashiding.

Four of us, Teddi, Tierney, Matthew and I will then embark on a week long trek around Dzongri, which I’m assuming will be life changing. This land is the hidden land after all. We are going with a few Tibetans and Dzo, a mix between a yak and cow.

Then we will be traveling around and seeing the Rumtek monasteries, during the time that the Durga Puja will be happening. We then have a 9 day meditation retreat, where we will be sitting in meditation all day.

For the last chunk of time we are all doing our independent projects/homestays/studies, during which I’ll be getting down with my independent study and hopefully turning out some good work about all of this stuff I’ve been learning. It will be nice to get it all out in writing so my head doesn’t explode (getting to that point).

One last thing: I thought this was so funny because it is a bunch of cartoon heros and baby Krishna, the Hindu deity.

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See baby Krishna under the rainbow?


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Marieta Bialek

Marieta Bialek is a student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she is majoring in Religious Studies and Environmental Science. Marieta earned Religious Studies credits while participating in the Himalayan Connections program in the fall, 2012; she is originally from Aspen, Colorado.
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