Gangtok-Pelling-Namchi, Sikkim, India, June 23, 2018:
It is a sleepy little town in West Sikkim. According to Chong Gasho Bhutia, the town of Pelling has a population of around 800 people. Chong is our driver and guide, and he’s from Pelling. Irrespective of how accurate the figure is, everybody in Pelling seems to know everybody else – as is usually the case in most other sleepy little towns. In the 6 full days that we have been here, we have made umpteen trips up and down, in and around Pelling and the surrounding villages and towns, and it does feel as if Chong knows everyone. And I mean everyone from the shopkeepers to farmers to local transport owners and drivers and monks in the monasteries and police personnel and restaurant owners, staff and cooks … everyone.
There are several benefits to having someone like Chong Gasho as your driver and guide. For starters, he is quite knowledgeable about Sikkim and a wonderful ambassador for Pelling in particular. And he takes great pride in the Sikkim and Indian government’s various initiatives and efforts. For instance, the Organic Farming movement in Sikkim. Like other Sikkimese we met, Chong is an enthusiastic supporter and ambassador for the organic movement. From Gangtok to Pelling, we met not one, not two, but as many as four different organic fruits and vegetable stalls and tasted, learnt and bought Radish, Kheera, Carrots, local beans, little chilies and Chuche Karela. Thanks to the initiative and insistence of Chong, of course. And we are happy we gave in to his enthusiasm – the Kheera and carrots and raddish were all refreshing and invigorating.
Chong was born and brought up in Pelling and went to school in Pelling and nearby Gyalshing. He also studied for two years at the Sanghak Choeling Monastery in Pelling. His family had hoped that he would become a monk and follow a spiritual path. But he could not align his free-spirited approach to the stringent demands of monastic life. So, he went back to a regular education and thereafter attended college in Gangtok.
Watching him work and interact with others, and from snatches of conversations with people who know him, Chong seems to have been a restless person growing up, probably taken a few odd turns here and there, but one who is exercising great self control now to set goals and achieve them. And while he may not have taken to a monastic life, he is a spiritual person, something that you can sense in his silence, in the advise that he gives (for one so young, he seems to have a wise head), and the way he conducts himself.
Like the day we visited Tashiding, he stopped the car at a point where it seemed there was no road and he said: “We have to walk from here. I think holy places of worship are on top of mountains so that people have to undergo some hardship to understand the value of what they are getting, no? What do you think?” Then, after a pause, he said (and I had a clear sense that it was from his personal experience): “Yes, one has to experience some pain and hardship to experience joy.”
On another evening, while we were returning to the hotel, the conversation turned to when we would be able to see Kanchenjunga – something we had been discussing past few days. And he informed us that the weather was expected to clear up, so there was a slim chance that we could finally see the famed mountain, but that we would have to get up at 4.30 just before dawn to see it. And then, he stated the obvious truth in his simple, matter-of-fact philosophical manner: “To gain something you really want, you have to give up something else, no? If you want to see the Kanchenjunga, it is okay to give up some sleep one day, I think.”
A day on the road with Chong can be unpredictable. It is always fun and while there’ll be no dearth of good conversation, he also knows when to let you alone with your thoughts and the environment. Respectful of his guests, he is quite good with young children, taking care to ensure they are alright health wise and engages with them effortlessly in their games and chats and musical tastes.
When it comes to Pelling and the Buddhist religious circuit in the region, Chong is in his element. A practising Buddhist, he combines his education, knowledge and tourism responsibility quite well. At Yuksom and at the Pemayangtse and Sangak Choeling monasteries in particular, his folklore style of storytelling was interesting and yet, he knew when to leave us alone and when to turn up and take charge of the kids so that we had more time with artefacts and the peaceful environs.
One thing I personally liked about Chong (and respect him for it), is that he has the ability to say he doesn’t know, when he doesn’t know. Throughout the trip, he was confident about things he knew, even insisting upon his suggestions because he knew weather and road conditions; and when he didn’t know, he would say “I am sorry but I don’t know much about this place, but I know how we can find out.” And then he would proceed to call or meet the people who could help and then he would come back with the information to us to discuss the way forward and he would give his opinion, “I think it is alright to try it the way these people are recommending. We can do it, don’t worry.”
And that was one very important aspect of Chong’s conduct: he is dependable and true to his word.
Chong is one of the thousands of youngsters who are a part of Sikkim’s new breed. Young, energetic, eager to work and learn, and connected to their community and country. Passionate about Sikkim, they want to be a part of India’s growth story and are willing to work hard. And like other youngsters I have met from Sikkim, Darjeeling, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, Chong is looking to belong to and also play their part in shaping the new identity focused on development that is emerging in India. In fact, all throughout the two weeks tour in Sikkim, I kept meeting youngsters who seemed to have a sense that they were a part of something significant that was evolving in India, that they had to keep learning and working hard and they would meet their goals. And like Chong, most of them speak 5 languages – Hindi, English, Bengali, Nepali and their mother tongue (in Chong’s case, it is the Bhutia dialect of Tibetan).
Chong turned 26 years of age during our trip. And he celebrated his birthday with his friends that evening, leaving an hour earlier than usual. With all his wisdom and sincerity, Chong is also still a very young man growing up, with regular little hopes and aspirations and heroes and disappointments and joys. An ardent soccer fan, (Argentina and Messi fan really), daily discussions had a catch up on the previous evening’s matches. Right from Day 1, the car was adorned with flags of Argentina, Brazil, Portugal and Spain (we bought them at a little stand outside the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok). Then one day, Chong turned up with the Argentina flag gone from the car’s hood and he was mighty upset, sulking almost. As we started the day, I looked up last night’s results and found the reason: Argentina had lost 0-3 to Croatia. After a while, he started smiling again and the conversation turned to analysing matches and players and finally to rock and rap music and his favourite singers and we were on our way.
At the moment, Chong drives his car and works with travel agents and tour operators who give him work and tours. (For instance, he got our assignment from The Mountain Walker’s Sikkim travel partner.) He is diligent about his work, and ensures that he follows communication protocols. He hopes to work hard and grow in the rapidly evolving tourism sector in Sikkim. And as we stopped for lunch on way to the airport on our final day, Chong called a couple of his travel partners to let them know he was free for work.
By the time we reached Bagdogra Airport, he had an assignment from Bagdogra to Gangtok later in the evening. From Gangtok, Chong hopes to catch another assignment back home to Pelling and then maybe to … well, the future is beckoning so it might be anywhere.