One of the smallest states in India, it’s really big on heart and experience. Be it culture, nature, history, food or adventure, Sikkim has it all and then some. Journeying through the length and breadth of the erstwhile kingdom was not only a life-changing adventure but a life-affirming one.
The four-hour road journey from Bagdogra International Airport in Siliguri, West Bengal, to Gangtok, catapulted us headlong into everything quintessentially Sikkim – mountains, monks, and momos! I had read up on the north-eastern state that was once a separate kingdom while planning the trip, of course. All the facts and figures, routes and names zoomed around in my mind as we slowly gained altitude – 28 mountain peaks, 80+ glaciers, 227 high-altitude lakes, five major hot springs, 100+ rivers and streams, about 60 monasteries and the third highest mountain peak in the world and the tallest in India – Kanchenjunga – at 8568 metres. But as we wended our way through every bend in the mountainous road, I found my tightly held facts unspooling. Just as the mist descended over the valleys that I passed, a sense of calm settled over me. By the time the vehicle pulled up at my hotel in Gangtok, I was in a Sikkim state of mind.
In and around Gangtok
Exploring the capital’s main artery – Mahatma Gandhi Road – busy at it was, didn’t shake that all’s-well feeling. Colonial-style street furniture, lively locals smiling at each other, friendly furry dogs and gorgeous purry cats, and tantalising aromas of food all gave me a Gangtok-brochure-coming-alive sort of sensation. Only it was actually the real thing! With the capital as our base, we started to explore this part of eastern Sikkim.
First stop the next morning was at the Flower Exhibition Centre near White Hall, which, despite its very banal name, had the most exotic flowers of many varieties and hues, including a big selection of orchids. This place plays host to an annual flower show in spring and I can only imagine what floral splendours one can witness when the season supports them to pull all out all the stops.
At Enchey Monastery, the bright colours and vivid paintings of the buildings, stood out against the blue skies. Turning the ornate prayer wheels and lighting lamps gave a deep sense of comfort even to my non-religious heart. A woman wearing a traditional Sikkimese kho solemnly offered incense in memory of her forebears at a stone shrine as her little daughter skipped around irreverently.
About 24 kms away from Gangtok, sits Sikkim’s largest monastery – Rumtek – with a golden stupa containing the relics of the highly revered sixteenth Karmapa Lama, as well as building housing the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies. Maybe because it’s the largest, or one of the most important, or perhaps because it has all the attributes that a ‘proper’ monastery is supposed to have – flowing streams nearby, mountains behind, a snow range in front, and a river below – this Dharmachakra Centre somehow felt more ‘serious’ in its vibrations than other monasteries I’ve visited across India and Bhutan. That was until I tried to play with a sweet fluffball of a bunny that I met near the exit and the young monks that had seemed so assiduously rapt in their studies swiftly came and picked up their pet and disappeared! Little kids will be little kids no matter where they are, right?
Next, we paid a visit to the campus of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, whose buildings were in the Sikkimese architectural style, similar to the monasteries. This institute is a research centre that focuses on the religion, history, language, art and culture of the people of the Tibetan cultural area, which includes Sikkim. It was inspiring to hear all about the library, which holds one of the largest collections of Tibetan works in the world outside Tibet, and to see the well curated museum of Tibetan iconography and religious art. The Government of Sikkim’s Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom was an educational experience too. We not only got to see the many artisans and artists in action, and talk to them about their skills, but could also buy a lot of local handicrafts – beautiful Lepcha weaves, woven baskets, hand-painted masks, thangkas, etc from the right source.
Doing the touristy thing of climbing up to Tashi viewpoint to try and get a glimpse of the cloud-sheathed Kanchenjunga but instead posing with the double dragons? Check. Visiting Hanuman Tok and Ganesh Tok temples? Check. These latter spots actually afforded some spectacular views. And the fact that the Indian Army is so closely associated with them, made an impression on me as well.
Back at MG Road, we tried to find local cuisine but were hard put to find anything other than thukpa, momos, and a variey of rolls. As delicious as these were, we were keen to sample things that the Sikkimese ate at home on a daily basis. It was only on our last night here that we finally found a homey little eatery that served the nettle soup I had been seeking so desperately! Zingy and very green, it was exactly as I had imagined it would be. Other dishes made from meats and fish along with fermented soybean, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, pumpkin leaves and ferns were closer in flavour to what I have eaten in parts of South-East Asia. Unfortunately for the rest of my travels, it was back to momos, which as much as I love, can get a bit much after a while!
Gangtok and its people were friendly and accessible, and we had enjoyed our days there. But it was now time to head north for something even more riveting. After making sure we had our Protected Area Permits that would allow us to visit this area that’s so close to the Indo-China border, we were off to Lachung, which would be our base to explore a really remote part of Sikkim.
Lachung: A once in a lifetime experience
The drive was exhilarating in both good ways and bad, with a photographable view a minute but also hair-pin bends that kept my heart in my mouth for most of the journey! The temperature started to drop, and the rain pelted down as we approached the ornate gate that welcomed us to this rugged yet picturesque mountain town. The deafening roar of the raging Yumthang River as we gratefully settled into our cosy wooden-walled hotel room gave the entire experience a sense of the surreal.
The rain continued the next morning, as we made our way into the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. Mist cloaked the Chuba-Sagochen mountains and Lava Pass that surround the sanctuary, lending them an aura of exceptional mystery. In the dull light, the colours of the rhododendrons in bloom stood out in almost-neon hues. The 40-plus varieties of Rhododendrons growing here typically flower from mid-April to mid-July.
Being by ourselves in a 43 sq km almost completely silent space was an eerily beautiful experience. I kept my eyes peeled for a glimpse of the incredibly gorgeous snow leopard or Himalayan red panda. Or even one of the many Himalayan birds that make this area their home. But to no avail.
At least the Yumthang valley nearby, 25 kms from Lachung, was awash with violet Azaleas. As bucolic as it gets, with woolly yaks grazing on the grassy slopes, the green waters of the rushing river singing merrily by, and polished stones on the banks just waiting for someone to pick them up and examine them, this meadow fringed by glacier-fed rivers running down from the surrounding mountains have a unique sort of jagged alpine beauty that’s different from what you see in Switzerland and Austria
A peek at the hot springs a short distance away and we were ready for steaming hot Maggi and ice-cold Hit beer, brewed by Yuksom Breweries that are owned by actor Danny Denzongpa, who is from Sikkim. We could have spent hours in the Yumthang meadows, but we decided to go on to Zero Point, since the skies had cleared up a little. The snow-capped mountains almost seemed within touchable distance at Yume Samdong, the last civilian outpost at 15,300 feet above sea level before you reach the Indo-China border. The brave Indian Army is much in evidence here, even running the eatery that feeds adventurous tourists!
We were certainly not short on adventure later that day, as the rain came back with a vengeance. Sikkim is filled with waterfalls, some permanent, some impromptu. While we had happily stopped for pictures at Bhimnala falls en route, which the locals like to call the Amitabh Bachchan falls because of their exceptional height, it was really frightening to see suddenly created cascades pounding down from the mountainside onto the road while driving back. The light conditions too altered beyond belief, reminding me why the mountains are known for being treacherous friends. Even at four pm, the fog had got so thick that visibility was almost down to zero and our driver Palden, despite being an ex-army toughie, appeared visibly nervous. The line of vehicles waiting the fog out, so many travellers praying for the road to clear before the shadows lengthened and night fell, it made for some major drama that sounds good in a book but is nerve wracking in real life.
The Nathu La adventure
As if this wasn’t enough, we had planned to visit the Nathu La the next day. Part of the ancient Tea Horse Road a trade route that connected the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan in Southwest China with Tibet and the Indian sub-continent, this is one of only three still-functioning border trading posts between India and China today. Nathu La, only 54 kms from Gangtok, is quite a production to reach. We not only had to apply for permits much in advance but also had to make sure that we reached the Third Mile checkpost before 10 am to go through all the checking. Foreign nationals and young children aren’t allowed on this route and they are very strict about it, so we felt fortunate to be on our way. Palden was worried about the weather turning as it had the evening before, so he urged us not to stop for a bit at the 15th Mile settlement like we saw many others doing.
Even so, by the time we reached the famous Tsongmo Lake that’s only 16 kms before Nathu La, we could see that the weather gods were starting to get a bit disgruntled. We didn’t stop at the new Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple since Palden was determined to get us to Nathu La. Unfortunately, by the time we reached the base of the steps of the original temple, we had lost the race. The kindly Indian Army guys told us that we’d have to turn around as it was unsafe to go any further. We stopped to see the bunker of the brave martyr in whose name the temple there was built and take a few photographs.
By now, the wind had picked up and the soldiers hustled us into our vehicle and advised that we don’t waste any time as the descent would be slower in the bad weather. By the time we went down the 10 km to the new temple, tiny hail stones had started rattling down on our vehicle. Within minutes, the entire landscape was transformed. It was a blanket of white everywhere, the monotones only broken by abundant growths of scarlet lichen. It looked like Christmas, but certainly didn’t feel like it because you could cut the tension in the air with a blunt knife! The four-wheel drive vehicle was slipping and sliding on the granular hail stones. Palden struggled to keep the tyres gripping the road. Winding and steep and dangerous on a normal day, the roads had turned into death traps before our eyes. Everyone held their breath and in the extreme silence inside the car, I could almost hear a collective mental prayer trying to outdo the howling wind outside.
Palden exchanged notes with many drivers we passed along the way. Checking on conditions, discussing ways to deal with all this. It was reassuring at first, but soon served to highlight the frightening situation more, with every shake of the head, sad downturn of the mouth, and the worry lines etched on every brow. Things got real very quickly when one of the drivers gave the news that another vehicle, one that we had seen several times along our journey, had fallen off the cliff onto the road below. When we passed it a short while later, we could see ambulance workers carrying the casualties out. It was the most disturbing sight I have ever seen, and it certainly cast an even darker pall of gloom over us.
The sun finally broke through the clouds. As if to bring us extra cheer, a double rainbow emerged. We reached a safe space, the hailstorm had abated and the roads were fine. We all heaved a huge sigh of relief. The sadness didn’t leave us but there was definitely a sense of having been spared a similar fate. How easily those bodies on the stretchers could have been us. The simple normalcy of using the facilities, the basic act of relieving onseself after a traumatic experience, was a primal instinct that gave all of us a strange sense of comfort. People advised us to eat something hot. The local stall owner recommended we try some Tongba (fermented millet that is drunk from a specialised bamboo container) to feel stronger for the drive back. It did do something, for sure, because I can’t quite remember that drive!
The hill town of Pelling is close to the Himalayas and Kanchenjunga and the starting point of many an arduous mountain trek in western Sikkim. We didn’t go there for the hiking, though. For me, what was truly memorable about the place was our visit to the Rabdentse ruins nearby. This was the second capital of the former Kingdom of Sikkim between 1670 and 1814 AD. The ruins today stand testament to their destruction by the invading Gurkha army. It’s a beautiful location on the lip of the cliff even today and the sylvan surroundings are refreshing. Amid chestnut trees, lush lawns and pretty flowers is scattered the debris of the once-strong stone fortifications from medieval times. Well preserved remnants of three stone chortens, the king’s throne, the precincts of the royal family, can all be seen even now. Walking around the complex, with nothing but birdsong for company, I could almost feel I was transported back in time to the days of the Chogyal kings, the second of whom moved their capital to this spot from Yuksom, which is 30 kms away. In fact, the locals believe that the royal palace at Rabdentse called ‘song khim’, which means ‘new palace’, was where the name of the kingdom of ‘Sikkim’ originated!
The ancient Pemayangtse Monastery built in 1705 AD had some of the most intricate idols and paintings of the rinpoches and mythological fables whose colours still dazzled even on its smoke-darkened walls. The ‘Heavenly Palace’ on the top level is probably one of the most evocative and detailed creations you’ll have seen inside a monastery. I found the even older Sanga Choeling Monastery (built in 1697 AD) really fascinating although this one was more about solid wooden beams and darker corridors than the later monasteries that feature a lot more ornate detailing.
Another impressive one of the many waterfalls we had seen on this journey were the Kanchenjunga and Changey falls, both quite close to Pelling. And then there was the very scenic and spiritual Khecheopalri Lake, which is considered very holy by all Tibetan Buddhists. A gorgeous nature trail lined with chortens, Tibetan prayer flags and colourful inscriptions on rocks took us to the beautiful lake. There were as many people praying and making offerings there as there were tourists, which was heartening, because I would hate this place of tranquil elegance to turn into a tourist circus.
When I visited Sikkim, the tallest statue of Buddhist deity Chenrezig (a 135-feet tall Avalokiteshwara) in the world and its accompanying sky walk hadn’t been unveiled at Sangha Choeling yet. In a way, I’m happy I missed the modern-day spectacles. Because for me, my travels through Sikkim were all about timelessness. The mountains are eternal, and everything connected to them, however ephemeral, always seems like they are there for many lifetimes. And I would like to spend many lifetimes going back to Sikkim for more. Much more.
Images and videos: Priya Pathiyan.