With so many attractions on a grand scale – such as the Forbidden City or (to the North) the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs – it is easy to overlook Beijing’s more modest but nonetheless charming sights. Strolling in the remaining old style hutongsor residential alleys is an obvious favorite. There are other sights too, for the visitor who needs to balance all the grandeur with something on a more human scale.

XU BEIHONG MEMORIAL MUSEUM

This tranquil and relatively uncrowded museum is nonetheless one of Beijing’s most enjoyable. Dedicated to the acclaimed modern Chinese painter Xu Beihong, it houses his remarkable collection of oil paintings, sketches and water colors in a modest but efficient way.

 

   SONG QINGLING’S HOUSE

Honorary chairman of the People’s Republic towards the end of her life, Song Qingling (1892 – 1981) was married to the famous republican Sun Yatsen, and was a leading figure in her own right. Her former residence originally belonged to the Qing royal family, and features a beautiful garden of pine and cypress trees, a small museum and traditional style pavilions.

 

THE TEMPLE OF CONFUCIUS

This temple dedicated to the pre-eminent Chinese philosopher Confucius was built in the Yuan dynasty, and houses his ancestral tablets. Today, part of the complex also contains relics from archeological digs near Beijing. Connected to it is the former Imperial College, built in 1287, now a library, and a beautiful square pavilion.

Beneath the sun, in the sea blowing over the islands, the Japanese dry much of nature’s bounty in the age-old way. Once upon a time, drying was the only practical means of preserving nature’s abundance. Today, with various other preservation techniques available, the method of choice is still, frequently, air and sun-drying, which is apropos for a variety of reasons. One of which is the power of the sun and the way its being used for sustainable energy all over the world. In terms of the Japanese cuisine, it’s undeniably simple—a bit of unused space under the eaves, a corner of a footpath, or perhaps just a bit of string, and let nature do her work.

Numerous dried foods hold an important position in Japanese eating habits. No meal would be complete without the tsukemono, “sour things”, that are Japanese pickles. Anyone who has visited Japan has surely been served a tiny side dish of crisp pickled daikon radish, colored in brilliant hues of yellow or pink. Essential to the pickling process is the prior reduction of moisture in the radishes. In late autumn one can see fences, apartment balconies, even tree branches hung with the huge, sausage-like roots, as the process begins.

Myriad seaweeds thrive in Japan’s waters. They are, of course, harvested commercially in enormous quantities, but are also popularly gathered and dried by women and children who live in coastal villages, providing mineral-laden nutrition and appealing taste of the sea to their daily miso soup and a whole range of other traditional dishes. Enjoyed by man and gods alike, rolls of dried seaweed are often included in the sacred offerings presented at Shinto shrine celebrations.

By virtue of availability, seafood holds a prominent place in the Japanese diet. Assuredly, traditional Buddhist prohibitions against eating meat, and a shortage of land to use for grazing contributed to its primacy. Pungent dried fish flakes are sprinkled over many foods as a favored flavoring. Butterfly fish are semi-dried before grilling to intensify their flavor and make them easier to handle. Fully-dried squid and fish fillets are favorite morsels to accompany an evening’s pleasurable sake drinking with friends. Throughout the year seaside residents put much of their catch out in the open air, and fill their larders with the dried fruits of the sea.

An uncommon experience may be had with hirezake, the dried and toasted fins of the poisonous blowfish, fugu, steeped in hot sake for a rich aromatic winter beverage. One might see them arranged graphically on a tray, drying at the entrance of a Tokyo fugu restaurant on a cold winter afternoon.

In late autumn the leafless branches and vivid orange fruit of the persimmon tree stand out against the chill, clear blue sky. Throughout the countryside the peeled fruits are strung up against barns or hung from rafters, slowly shrinking in size and increasing sweetness. This popular snack is also available commercially, artfully packaged in strips of pale green bamboo. New Year good luck door ornaments, shimekazari, frequently include a dried persimmon or two in their arrangement, symbolizing health and happiness.

Around country farmhouses all sorts of beans from the garden are dried in the hot September sun in preparation for the pantry. Some will later be transformed into healthful bean curd, tofu, while others will be cooked and sweetened to be used in various popular desserts.

Dried foods are an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whether processed at home, purchased at the local supermarket or enjoyed in a bar, these edibles seem to possess the flavor of Japan. They call to mind a time when nearly all Japanese lived near and in close harmony with nature, a time many now long for.

As for being in harmony with nature, I’m proud to announce that this period of research research was  supported by a loyal fan and friend, Powersun Consultants of California. www.powesunconsultants.com , a US company the distributes solar panel panels and raises money for sustainability not only in the US by abroad. I am grateful to have met Francis, the owner, in my travels and for our passions to be connected. He is a proponent of both health, travel, and sustainability, so if you are reading this and you live in CA, see what he and his solar panel installation company is up to!

 

Tribal ethos, Buddhist traditions and the mountains have synthesized Sikkimese life into highly developed interactions, Joys and sorrows, like the seasons, are shared. Marriages and funerals are celebrated with equal pomp and circumstance. Marriages, more often than not, are made to find families, tribes and villages together. Births and deaths are accepted as continuing cycles of existence. Life is a rebirth and death is just another journey into that mystic cycle. Prayers are chanted, lamps are lit and the long horns sound their call, the BardoLamsol, into the mountains and valleys. It is the call that helps the dead to find their way into the next step of their rebirth, a journey that takes 49 days. The lamas depart, even as the prayer flags deck the hills, their messages to the gods carried by errant winds, or so the faithful believe.

A copy of Himalayan Journals by Joseph Dalton Hooker, the English naturalist who travelled dangerously in Sikkim in the 19th century and took the rhododendron to Kew Gardens, is an ideal travelling companion.

The esoteric charm of the older monasteries in the west; the mystic, wonderful lake deep in the forest at Khecheopalri where for a rupee, the lama floated a butter lamp for the Englishman and the trek in unsurpassed mountain scenery up to Dzongriare much the same as they were when Hooker saw them almost 200 years ago.

Pemayangtse has been described as the premier monastery in Sikkim whose lamas preside over royal functions and where Kagyet dances are held in December. It was built on a spur at the end of a path from the Chogyal’s old palace at Rabdentse, now Sikkim Tourism’s “Hotel Mount Pandim”. Capricious openings of mist reveal, even for a moment, a breathtaking panorama of snowy peaks around the monastery. The ridged splendor of Pandim behind which rises the perfect triangle of Narsing, is the outstanding act in this drama. The monastery itself is veneered with age. Within its somber interior, butter lamps glow softly lighting the frescoed walls and wooden rafters painted with Buddhist allegories. A shaft of sunlight falls on the central image veiled with fragrant incense. Lamas chant Om Mani Padme Hum, a hundred thousand, a million times in an aura of devotion. Across via sacra is a Lamasery. A kindly prior hands out oranges to red-robbed novices who run in merry laughter during an hour-long break away from the books. Seminary life can be hard for little lamas.

If Pemayangtse has the importance, then Tashiding surely is the most sacred place of worship. Guru Padma Sambhava, the progenitor of Buddhism in Tibet, en route to that country, rested at this site. A rainbow starting from Kanchenjunga ended on a spur between the rivers Rangeet and Ratong and here Tashiding, the eagle-headed temple, was built. It holds the Bumch, the pot of sacred water, fresh as the day it was blessed by the wise man from the south, Ngadak Sempa Chempo, more than 300 years ago.

North of Pemayangtse, at Yuksom, starts the 32-kilometer trek to Dzongri(4,000 meters) the base camp of Kanchenjunga. It is a stunningly beautiful walk past huge mendongs (sacred walls), through field and forest. Paddy and millet grow green during the rains, gold in autumn. In villages dotted with terracotta and mud thatches, women churn butter in enormous wooden casks. Cattle laze in the sun. In the afternoon, the shade of the giant sal, hung with flowering epiphytes and long green ferns, is cool and dark. A sudden wild cherry or rose gives a burst of color, a sunbird flits by and then all is still again, the silence broken only by the soothing call of the Himalayan cuckoo.

The road goes up to Bakkhim where there is a night halt. Night is a wondrous time in the Himalayas. Stars are so bright, they almost outshine the moon. The sky is deep, holding the mystery of the mountains within it. Fitting fireflies, the sound of the crickets and the smell of the wood fire are the only signs of life. At dawn, the sun lights up each peak in turn in shades of purple, pink and gold to greet the day. Trekkers move on through meadows strewn with primroses, gentians, geraniums, poppies and wild strawberries. Swift streams and waterfalls banked with sedge and lichen sparkle and dance over large boulders to the music of a shepherd’s reed. Giant prayer wheels lodged on their sides turn with the torrents. Silver fir, and flowering rhododendrons and magnolias shade the way. The inhabitants of Tsokhaat 3,000 meters keep their animals with them in their stone houses until snow covers the grass, when they move down to temporary huts in the apple orchards and orange groves of the lower valleys.

When is a good time to visit Sikkim? There is a Tourist Festival in May with all the trimmings. In March before the mist veils the snows, the spring flowers bloom. November is the time for the Nepali festival of lights. The sky is washed a clean azure. Hillsides are pink with cherry blossoms going into December when the valleys are laden with oranges and poinsettias paint the hills red.

From Penlong on the North Sikkim Highway where the road forks to go up to Nathu La pass on the Chinese border, Kanchenjunga is seen in all her glory. Day and night, in sunshine and moonlight, she dazzles magnificently from base to tip for her devotees to worship her completely. The immense, marvelous five treasures of the snowy mountains hold true the old Sanskrit saying: “In a hundred ages of the gods I could not tell you of all the glories of the Himalayas.”

 

No more a sophisticated feudal capital of kings, Gangtok is now a modern Indian small town with the inevitable Mahatma Gandhi Marg in the centre. Traditional Khosand Honjus have given way to unisex jeans and jackets. Pigtails and plaits have been shorn into untidy mops of hair. The long turquoise and gold earring of the Sikkimese grandee lies in the family vault with his wife’s pearls and corals and priceless auspicious zee. Taxis asking exorbitant fares dart in and out of the market square. Sikkim Supreme orange juice vies with imports from Bombay and other cities further afield. Temi tea picked from Sikkim’s only tea garden finds a place on the shelf with the older Darjeeling packets. In the new department store, shopkeeper and customer join in watching Tom Cruise in a video film, part of the town’s Parvenu Culture.

Come October, the Palior Stadium sees keen competition for the Governor’s Gold Cup for football. Striped Lepcha weaves, exquisitely carved wooden furniture, woolen carpets woven in traditional designs and for the sariatorially adventurous, local habits and headgear are made and sold at the Government Cottage Industries Emporium, a training center-cum-saleroom for local craft.

Gangtokhas many reasonably comfortable hotels. Norkhill, Tashi Delek and the government-run Mayur offer star facilities, but for atmosphere, the Tibet Hotel is good value for money. A grand old Tibetan with plaited hair and mandarin moustache guards the entrance to this enterprise of the Dalai Lama’s Charitable Trust. The young manager’s courteous manners have not vanished in his modern management training. Service is willing if a little haphazard. The sheets and blankets are clean, a plus point in a moderately priced Indian hotel. What really wins the day is the Tibetan-style food served either in the room or in the hotel’s snow Lion restaurant which specializes in gyako or chimney soup, a version of the Chinese hotpot. Smaller eating places serve the popular momo or meat-stuffed dumplings and thukpa, a noodle soup garnished with meat and vegetables, accompanied by a lethat chili, or kinder soy sauce.

Gangtokis not really geared to public eating yet, so good restaurants are a rarity.

If ever you are invited to a Sikkimese home, the evening will probably start with chang, a millet beer served in a thumba (bamboo mug), piled with the fermented grain and filled with hot water, sipped through a bamboo straw. What would the Sikkimese do without the omnipurpose bamboo? They eat on it, off it, hunt and build with it. After several refills of the thumba, with which have arrived bits of fried pork, spiced eggs and chicken wings, comes the main meal: So Cha, a delicate soup of nettles; Chu, cottage cheese cooked in butter; Don, meat and bamboo shoots and trout baked over embers in split bamboo—a forest food elevated into a gourmet delicacy; and plenty of steaming boiled rice. The Sikkemese o not eat dessert, but plenty of fruit: bananas, oranges, apples and pineapples end the meal.

But pray that it is Loosong, the harvest festival in December or a marriage or a funeral feast for then you will get Si-Kam, which appears in winter when most festivals and major occasions crowd the Sikkemese calendar. Si-Kam is not merely a food, it is a status symbol. The end result of a culinary ceremony that spans days, it has the pride of place at most Sikkemese tables. Each village, hamlet and home gives Si-Kam its own individual touch. Pigs are raised, fattened and killed with special expertise and the choicest hunks put under heavy weights to drain off moisture. After this, generous squirts of alcohol (for the fastidious only the country brew will do), are rubbed into the meat until it is saturated and it is hung up on hooks to catch the cool mountain breeze. When it is nearly dry, it is unhooked and cooked with radishes and the giant red Bhutan chili over a slow fire for very long. Si-Kam is now ready to eat, with the luxury of red Bhutan rice. A taste will reveal why Si-Kam was offered as a tribute to kings.

The Tourism Department of the Government of Sikkim is pretty well organized. They have helicopter flights over the mountains in season and conducted tours in and around Gangtok and further away by luxury bus.

At Ranipul, these is a diversion from the main road to Gangtok, to Saramsa Gardens, a well laid out park with a variety of orchids and palms. Medicinal herbs are also grown here. Further up the road is the Institute of Tebetology at Deorali, a center for research in Tibetan studies, and a good introduction to monasteries. The monastical building with carved cornices and curved roof houses a museum and an enthusiastic curator who will interpret the eight lucky signs, explain the Norbu (ten wisdoms) and identify 11th century manuscripts from Tibet, Chinese translations of Sanskrit texts lost to India, Lepcha manuscripts and Tantric ritual instruments. Upstairs is a small but valuable library where monks sit studying scriptures from all over the Buddhist world. An hour away from Gangtok is the Rumtek monastery, seat of the head of the Kagyupa sect of lamas, the Gyalwa Karmapa. Pang Lhablsol, dances to Kanchenjunga, are held at Tsuklakhang, the Royal Chapel at Gantok, in September every year. They are Sikkim’s very own offerings to her tutelary sacred mountain.

Sometime in the 17th century, into this sylvan world came three wise men from Tibet. From the north, by way of Dzongri came Kunzang Namgyal; from the west came Kathok Rigzin Kuntu Zangpo; and from the south, Ngadak Sepa Rigzin Phuntsog. Ambassadors of a more vigorous and cultivated people, they were the harbingers of Buddhism in Sikkim. They were met in friendship by the Lepchachief Thekung Mensalongat Yuksom where they invited a fourth, Phuntsog Namgyal from the east, and consecrated him the first Chogyal in 1642.

For the new rulers it was not to be an easy reign. Militant Gurkhas had begun to make aggressive forays from Nepal in the west. Rabdentse, the capital, was evacuated for safer areas in the north. In their wake, the Gurkhasleft a trail of devastation. Monasteries were desecrated and among other valuable texts, the history of Sikkim was looted from the hallowed precinct of Pemayangtse and burnt. The Chogyalsheld on. As the warring tribes locked in fratricidal combat, the British mediated and in the process annexed more and more territory. They built roads and bridges and schools and for Sikkim, the slide into the status of a Protectorate in British India, under the avuncular eye of a Resident of His Majesty’s Government, was inevitable. During the reign of Palden Thondup Namgyal, the 12thChogyal, the unequal struggle against the tides of time came to an end. Sikkim became the 22nd State of the Indian Union in 1975 and the course of Sikkimese history turned forever.

A helicopter service from Bagdogra airport near Darjeeling gets to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, in 30 minutes. The road from Siliguri in the foothills twists and turns its way up the Teesta river valley for 110 beautiful kilometers. On the way is Rongpo, the border town between West Bengal and Sikkim, famed for its distillery and the check post for foreigners. A half hour later is Singtam, where on the right day the weekly market bustles the little town to life.

Busteewallas(villagers), Yap Las and Chum Las (the landed gentry) trudge in from over the hills and far away with basket-loads of their produce to buy and sell and have a good old chinwag. It is in these village marts that the pulse of Sikkim throbs, a congregation of the races which have mingled in Sikkim meets in the bazaar.

A laughing Nepali woman weighs out rice while her petite rosy-cheeked Lepcha neighbor arranges her long skirts to sit comfortably behind her pile of fern fronds and mushrooms. A gaunt Tibetan Khambachews tobacco in phlegmatic rumination while hard bargaining goes on over his second-hand woolens and tracksuits – he won’t budge an inch. Blocks of Tibetan tea, fresh cheese and butter, edible greens of every description, chilis, tomatoes, brinjals and carrots sit in colorful heaps. In a corner a goldsmith from the plains fixes a nose ring for a young mother while her almond-eyed baby peeps from its carry sack behind her. An indignant piglet squeals as a Sikkimese hausfrau prods its worth. Amid this confusion a toothless grandmother picks with fierce concentration at the nits on her grandchild’s head.

The road weaves along the wooded and fern-covered hills, dipping down to the river. In the summer the river valleys of Sikkim come alive with butterflies of every kind which have earned the Teesta valley the nomenclature “the valley of butterflies”. A sudden steep uphill climb and there is Gangtok.

SIKKIM: AT NIGHT

Rivers and valleys, fields and forests, mists and mountains, Sikkim is one of the last wonderlands of myth and legend. Sandwiched between the two Himalayan kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan, on the trade route to Tibet and a buffer with China, Sikkim’s strategic position has long been the scene of change and drama.

SIKKIM: ABROAD GEOGRAPHY

This landlocked state in the cradle of the Eastern Himalayas is the original home of the Lepcha or Rong, a fast vanishing tribe of nomadic Mongoloid stock. These denizens of the woods lived on the land and off it. With his bow and arrow and his single edged ban, the Rong cut the jungle to make his home, hunted bear and cat, finished in the streams with his bare hands and foraged for roots and berries. In the verdant forests grew not only his food, but herbs, roots and berries that effected magical cures and potent poisons. When medicines failed, he turned to the Bonthing, or priest, who exorcised the evil spirits. In the pantheon of Rong existence all things animate and inanimate had spirits. Some good, some bad. He worshipped the trees, the rivers and the mountains. In Mount Tendong which rose above the raging Teestariver to protect the Rong, he had his savior. He believed that when he died, he returned to the land of his ancestors: the great mountain Kanchenjunga where all life began. This was his cycle of life. The rivers, the mountains, the forests and valleys and the changing seasons.

SIKKIM ABROAD: RIVERS