I consider myself an adventurous person. Go with the flow, if you will. If someone says “Hey, I heard about this great place…” I’m in. But when too many things are outside my control and I feel them going south, I rebel. That’s what happened in Sikkim, an Indian state in the chilly Himalayas. It was to be my one week of winter and I was really excited about going. Sikkim borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, and requires a special permit for foreigners to enter. Even then, we are only allowed in certain areas. Two of the places on the itinerary were outside those areas and required not only an additional permit, but a minimum group of four foreigners. Because India and China don’t have great relations, apparently the Indian government is leery about foreigners getting too close to the border. Why four foreigners are safer than one, however, is a mystery to me. Upon reaching Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, I learned they wouldn’t let me travel to Tsmogo Lake, even though I was travelling with very responsible Indian nationals. There weren’t many foreigners in Gangtok, and finding three who wanted to go to the lake was a long shot. Plan aborted.
While we figured out our plan B, we hired a driver and spent the day sightseeing around Gangtok. From several look-out points (including my guesthouse room), I could see snow-covered Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world. It was stunning. Also along the route were a few temples and views that seemed to go on forever. The air was clean and crisp. Actually it was downright freezing. When the sun shone brightly midday, it got up to about 50 degrees F, but at night it dipped into the 30s. I packed every piece of warm clothing I had, which wasn’t much, and I wore all of it at the same time. On our way back to town, the driver got a flat tire. Thankfully people in other parts of the world know how to change a tire without the help of AAA. And with the rocky road conditions, I don’t think it’s a rare occurrence.
After our fill of mountain views, the driver took us to a pork momo shop that we never would’ve known about or found on our own. Let me pause and tell you about my love affair with momos. They are nothing more than steamed dumplings filled with meat or vegetables, similar to dim sum, but they are divine! While pork isn’t super common throughout India, it can be found in Sikkim which has more Buddhists and Christians than Muslims (with Hindus still being the majority). When the weather is cold, nothing beats hot, steaming dumplings served with a spicy sauce of blended sesame seeds and fresh chilies. Instead of using water as the base, they steam the little pockets of goodness over a meaty broth, which they also serve on the side as a soup. Add a beer and you’ve got the perfect meal. There is only one item on the menu of this small shop, which always a good sign. Each pork momo is 10 rupees (about $.15) and they are huge. That day it was my afternoon snack, so two was enough. I had momos four times that day- breakfast, lunch, snack and dinner. Nothing else. And no it wasn’t too much. Thinking back, I should’ve had a midnight momo snack as well. I wish I had some right now!
The next day a new plan was needed, and my friend said she heard about a little village called Ohkrey. It was in an area of West Sikkim I was able to visit, so it was fine by me. We started by car at 8am and drove up… and up… and up. The road conditions ranged between tolerable pavement to barely drivable dirt paths with rocks and huge holes. But even the paved portions were only a single lane, hugging steep drops with no guardrails. My heart skipped several beats as I looked at the river hundreds of feet below with barely a strip of dirt separating us. After five hours of harrowing driving up hairpin curves, I wondered if we’d ever reach Ohkrey. I also thought, “This place better be worth it.” After passing through the small town of Sombaria for, what else, momos, we reached Ohkrey. There was nothing there. Not even a small town center or market. No restaurant that I could see. Across from the guesthouse was some construction, and a little ways up the road there were a few homes, but that’s it. I thought THIS is what we drove five hours up a friggin’ mountain for?! I was also chilled to the bone and the Sikkimese seem averse to heat. The guesthouse owner said he could provide a small space heater, but that wasn’t even a standard offering and it did next to nothing. I was not pleased.
Upon checking in, all I could do was sulk- after my tea, of course. So I barricaded myself in my room and crawled under a pile of blankets to keep warm and pout for an hour. Then my friend knocked at the door asking if I wanted to go for a walk. I knew I needed to shake myself out of it, and even though it was near freezing outside and would be dark in 30 minutes, I pushed myself out the door.
We walked up the road and saw a few children playing around their home. I waved to them, and they waved back saying “hello”. The kids always suck me in. We made our way down the path to their house where they had a fire burning outside. These kids who live in the middle of nowhere speak three languages: Nepali, Hindi and English. As a monolingual American with access to first-rate education, it’s a little embarrassing. We gathered around their fire, took photos, gave them a chocolate bar and continued on our way. Ok, there’s nothing here but maybe this place has a certain charm. I mean, who can say they’ve been to middle-of-nowhere Ohkrey in the Himalayas? When I signed the foreigner log at the guesthouse, I was #11 on the list. The guy in the #1 slot visited back in 2011. I always enjoy visiting off-the-grid places, but I needed to get over my tantrum about this trip not being what I expected to remember that.
Upon returning to the guesthouse, darkness fell and the owner built a big, beautiful wood fire outside. I sat there with my multiple layers of clothes, gloves, scarf and hat, and slowly all the frustration I was holding onto melted away. I started talking to the owner who has lived in Ohkrey his whole life, as did his father, grandfather and great-grandfather before him. His three children were all in Bangalore, however, and when I asked if residents who left Ohkrey usually returned, he said no. I can understand why, but it was still sad to think one day this village could vanish. The owner is a sweet man of 56 years and he kept asking me, “You are feeling bored?” I wasn’t. In fact, I was the opposite of bored. I was at peace high in the clouds in a place few know about, drinking Sikkimese beer in front of a crackling fire while listening to Shakira’s “Hips don’t lie” on a cell phone. These are the moments. They’re the ones that stick in my mind long after the shrines and vistas have faded. And to think I could’ve missed it by holing up in my room, refusing to surrender.
Soon we were called to dinner and headed into the dining room. Mind you, there are five rooms in this guesthouse and we were the only guests. Cozy would be an appropriate descriptor. We were served a steaming bowl of dal (lentils) along with chicken and vegetables with roti (bread). Then came the butter which was placed on our table very nonchalantly and noted as “local butter”. It was a deep yellow color; hard and crumbly. Honestly, it didn’t look like much. Then I put a piece on my roti with a sprinkling of salt. Oh my god. I mean OH MY GOD. Ok, butter is good, but this was the best I’d ever had. It was grittier than commercialized butter, but dissolved into a rich, sweet creaminess on my tongue. I couldn’t stop eating it. “Just one more small bite,” I would say as I scooped up a piece and smooshed it between a small piece of roti. Then I abandoned the roti all together and just sprinkled a bit of salt on the butter and ate it plain. I know it’s completely disgusting, but trust me, you would’ve done the same thing. It was otherworldly.
Ok, Ohkrey, you got me with your local butter. I judged you at first. You weren’t much to look at (I really wasn’t impressed), but then I dug in and you won me over. I guess when you stop pushing against yourself and embrace where you are, you can end up on top of the world… enjoying a vat of unctuous butter.