Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Sikkim Revisited

Gangtok looked different this time.

Its hilly skyline is now dominated by sloping concrete roofs, its main roads are lined with big-brand outlets, and MG road is being refurbished for the annual flower-show. There are more vehicles on the roads but pedestrians now have a special barricaded walkway to themselves. The big news is that Nathu-La Pass is now open for international trade -- there is optimism in the air.

My last visit to Sikkim was in July 2001. I had taken a bus from BBD Baug Kolkata to Jalpaiguri from where I had sqeezed into shared 4WD to Gangtok. It was a bit like stepping into another world - cheerful people, smart policemen in blue uniforms, clean streets lined with tall pines and wild flowers. From Gangtok I had travel led to the misty tea-estates of Temi; stayed at the Youth Hostel in Namchi, marvel led at a football field hacked out of a hill-side where aspiring Baichung Bhutia's practiced hard from dawn to dusk.

From Namchi I had hiked ~25km to Namthang, helped myself to a memorable meal of Thukpa and Dansberg beer and managed to reach Jalpaiguri station just a few minutes before my train departed for Delhi.

This time the gateway was Bagdogra. This must be the only Indian airport where you can view a squadron of MiG-21's from the lounge. From here, it took us about 3 hours to reach Rangpo border check post, where quarantine SOPs were still in place against the bird-flu outbreak in West Bengal. All visitors disembarked at the gate and walked over sacks soaked with disinfectants while masked personnel in blue plastic gowns sprayed the empty vehicles rolling across the border .

Birds may not care about quarantine but it was rather reassuring for the visitors. It was also the first reminder that Sikkim is different. Its is a place where the government machinery is discreet and works efficiently.

If you ever needed proof that building-designs affect human behavior, just visit any government office in Sikkim. Each office is crowned with the state crest and each doorway, roof and window is so lovingly carved and decorated that it clearly shows on the people working inside. In one such office we met Mr. Karma Gyatso, the Principal Secretary of the Health Department.

Mr. Gyatso is not your regular 'floating' IAS officer whose commitment and vision is limited by the next transfer order. He has been with the state for over 17 years and has been instrumental in making Sikkim one of the healthiest states in India. It is one of the few states where the three-tier referral system actually works (PHC-CHC-DH). Since budget is a constraint, he has roped in the Manipal Group to start a medical college near Gangtok, and now he wants to revamp MCH facilities at Sir Thotub Namgyal Memorial (STNM) Hospital with foreign assistance.

Near Rangpo, at a place called Bagey Khola, Sikkim now has the most picturesque engineering college in the country, nestling in a valley next to the Teesta river - the Sikkim Manipal Institute of Technology. It looks dramatic at night but during daytime the valley is blanketed by emissions from factories close by - especially the Wai-Wai noodle plant and Zydus Cadila Pharmaceuticals.

While new industries sprout in the lower valleys, on the outskirts of Gangtok, the old monastries still stand in grand isolation. At Enchey Monastry the monks were practicing their Dhunchen's and Gyaling's (horns & flutes) while incense smoke danced in the breeze. At the Deorali Chorten new buildings had come up next to the stupa, blocking a lovely view into the forests but the Tibetology museum nearby looked much the same.

At the museum, I learn't something about the links between the ruling families of Sikkim and Bhutan, and downstairs, I was fascinated by an image of Asita. According to the caption, he was a Buddhist scholar from Bengal who revived Tibetan buddhism and died in 1054 AD at Lhasa. This bit about Asita was confusing. If Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche) introduced tantric buddhism to Tibet in circa 800 AD why did they need a "revival" within a span of just two centuries?

Official trips always seem short when you travel to interesting places. My return flight from Bagdogra was a 12:50 so I had to start from Gangtok at 7:00AM. Once more we drove through Tadong, Ranipool, Chuba-khola, Martam-khola, Singtam, Bagely-khola, Rangpo, the new Teesta Bridge, Swati-khora (a bridge built by one M.R. Nair, CE!), the old Coronation Bridge, Sevoke station, along 'Uttarayon', a new township near Siliguri, to reach Bagdogra in about four hours.

The incoming Jet flight, 9W-601, had taken us to Guwahati before bringing us back to Bagdogra. On the return flight 9W-602, we went to Guwahati first before flying back to Delhi. A strange detour made worthwhile by some stunning views of the Brahmaputra river, Kanchenjunga massif and of a window frame in which you could see the Ganges at the bottom and the sunlit western Himalayas at the top, both separated by a few hundred kilometers of mist and cloud-carpets!

Wonder if it will be another seven years before I visit Sikkim again...

Monday, February 04, 2008

Downloading from YouTube

God Bless Gagandeep Sapra and the Indian Express! - finally the information I was looking for, in five easy steps:
  1. Get Firefox Version-2
  2. Get add-on tool called Download Helper
  3. Download FLV player (needed for opening YouTube video format)
  4. Go to YouTube, wait for the three balls of Download Helper (on URL band) to change from grey to colors, then click, select file and download.
  5. Save (each file is at least 5MB)
So SimBle!