I am yet to take a good look at my surroundings when the cook’s assistant – a young girl of 22 – admonishes me. “Indian women don’t come alone,” she tells me, a bit disapprovingly. “Won’t you get bored?” she asks narrowing her eyes at me. I say I won’t if she doesn’t let me. She rolls up her eyes and walks away – a bit disgusted at my decidedly un-Indian-like behavior.
I had shown up late on a foggy and rainy night the day before. With my skin darker than hers and Hindi a shade better, I couldn’t pretend to be European and be excused for being alone.
Rinchenpong is a tiny rural village in West Sikkim – about five hours from the capital, Gangtok. A five-hour taxi ride from Bagdogra airport brings you to Yangsum farm, a lovely old 44-acre heritage farm run by Thendup Bhutia, its 40-year-old owner. Bhutia opened his beautiful home to guests some years ago. Constructed in 1833, the old wooden farm-house was remodeled in 1966 – but retains its authentic, old feel with a serene prayer room that feels like an ancient mini-monastery.
There are other guests staying at the farm – mostly from Mumbai, Kolkata and Gujarat. But I don’t end up seeing much of them as they assemble every morning to head out to the more touristy spots in the area: Pelling, a rhododendron sanctuary, ancient ruins, the Gouda cheese factory, a local winery and a lake four hours away.
If you want to do the tourist thing and don't mind spending a few hours tossed around daily on practically non-existent roads, Yangsum farm is evidently a good place to base yourself. But if you are willing to walk around five hours every day through thick jungle and the clean village houses scattered in between, Yangsum farm is the best place to base yourself.
A stone throw from Rinchenpong’s little market, with its smattering of shops, is the Rinchenpong monastery, the region’s oldest (1730) and the third-oldest in Sikkim. Young monks in robes – the monastery is housed next to a school for monks – throng the place. Once inside, the calm and serenity of the Ati Buddha – a single statute – takes hold of you. At a height, the monastery has a panoramic view of the mountains on all sides – an attraction that pulls in many non-Buddhists.
Nearby is the Poison Pokhri, a lake whose waters were poisoned years ago, ostensibly to ward off foreign invaders - which, according to locals, is more of a legend than an actual happening. We don't trek to the lake as my guide doesn't think it worth the effort and instead head off towards two heritage houses in the area.
The two houses – one lived in and the other a Lepcha village house preserved as is but no longer occupied – are among the highlights of the area. The house of Ugen Dome is one that tourists can explore for a small charge. The house is built over two floors in the traditional style and dates back around 200 years. Dome’s family still resides in the house – an act of courage to my mind as the house creaks as you walk about and has a distinctly spooky air and feel. It is wonderfully located, surrounded on all sides by gardens and facing the Kanchenjunga mountain range.
The Lepcha dwelling that is no longer lived in is at the base of the walk that leads you through a very old monastery – no longer in use – and a challenging, leech-infested walk through the jungle on one of the most beautiful paths in the area. Although many hundred miles away, the house is remarkably similar to old dwellings found at Hida folk village in Japan’s Takayama district.
A highlight of my trip is the easy mingling with locals. Four communities – the Lepcha, Bhutias, Hindus and the migrants – seem to peacefully co-exist in Sikkim. On one of the days – four or five days after I arrived, I have become a familiar face for the locals -- I am invited to a local Hindu puja. The tiny hut is aglow with the growing embers of the havan. The samagri smells divine and a young priest is chanting in a hypnotic drone. The ladies of the family are frying a jalebi-like sweet to be served to the gods and the gathered assembly. The puja, I learn, is being held to alleviate a nagging back pain that has beset the head of the family – after visits to doctors and the big hospitals in the area have failed to produce any results.
On another day I spend a couple of hours at the local blacksmith’s house on one of my walks and he has promised to make the three “best knives in the world” – a task he sets about by firing up the coals while I am still there (he delivers the knives later to the farm I am staying at). I also visit the house of a local lady – famous for her home-made butter, ghee and cheese.
Locals I encounter are warm, happy and welcoming; the villages are spotless and houses have manicured gardens.
If you don’t mind skipping the more touristy spots in Sikkim, there’s another world here to be discovered. Almost everywhere I go, the local people surround me like I am a find – although it is Rinchenpong that is a find for me.
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