Northeast India offers one of the richest tapestries of culture and nature on earth. With so many places to see, where should a trekker begin? At the International Tourism Mart (ITM) held in Assam earlier this year, participants were given a choice of tempting itineraries, but I already knew Sikkim would be my choice.
Rushing out of the hotel in the dark at 5 am with 30 kilogrammes of gear, I joined seven others on a ride to the train station in Guwahati. Ahead of us was a six-hour train journey to New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal, followed by a three-hour car ride to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim. “This journey had better be worth it,” I said to myself.
Travelling to Sikkim by land can be a physical and mental challenge, particularly for city folk such as myself. But it’s a good chance to cultivate a sense of adventure and a carefree spirit while leaving the ordinary behind.
The road up to Gangtok, a Buddhist monastery town, in some places is little more than a single-lane track strewn with rocks. Some people in our group — I confess I was one — experienced nausea and vomiting from the altitude (the town is 1,440 metres above sea level) and motion sickness.
Located in the eastern Himalayan range, Gangtok features a temperate climate throughout the year. With its strong Buddhist traditions and heady cultural offerings, Gangtok used to be an important transit point for traders travelling between Tibet and India.
M.G.Marg, the heart of Gangtok, is a kilometre-long stretch with hotels and shops, restaurants and bars on both sides.
The next morning at Rumtek Monastery, 24 kilometres from Gangtok, colourful prayer flags flapping in the wind and young monks spinning prayer wheels had us thinking we were in Tibet and not India. The four-storey monastery, the largest in Sikkim, houses a collection of unique religious scriptures and art objects and is a major centre for Tibetan Buddhists.
Religious and cultural attractions aside, Gangtok is a cosmopolitan town of about 100,000 people and offers the tourist all possible amenities. Hotels are available in a range of prices, including luxury ones (luckily, we landed one in this range). MG Marg, the main street, is quite a great place to chill out and do souvenir shopping for your loved ones. A litter- and spitting-free zone, no vehicular traffic is allowed to enter, making it quite safe as well as clean.
The mall is lined with shops on both sides, including a variety of restaurants, cafes and even some nightclubs. Sikkim is also the first Indian state to legalise casinos. Alcohol here is relatively cheap as well owing to the low excise duty.
Mount Khangchendzonga is the third highest mountain in the world and also one of the Himalayas’ most majestic peaks.
That evening after walking around the city, we all retired to bed early, thinking of the following day’s journey to Tsomgo Lake, reportedly the most beautiful landscape in Sikkim. When the driver picked us up in the morning, everybody was well prepared with heavy woolen clothes as our destination was at a much higher elevation than Gangtok.
Situated at 3,755 metres, Tsomgo Lake (also known as Changu Lake) is accessible only by a narrow, winding road which for me was quite a hair-raising experience. I had managed to get into the front passenger seat to avoid motion sickness as the car snaked back and forth. I also had a better view of the snow-capped mountains and snow-covered local houses.
A few hours later we were admiring the breathtaking view of the lake as the brisk wind whipped the prayer flags. But for me the real novelty was yak riding, at 300 rupees (165 baht) for 15 or 20 minutes in the saddle as a herder leads his beast along a hilly trail beside the lake. Anyone with a camera would be spoiled for choice when it comes to memorable images, and the spectacular scenery once more reminded me how tiny and insignificant humans are.
Tsomgo Lake in East Sikkim is an ideal habitat for the Red Panda and many species of birds. This placid glacial lake remains frozen during the winter months
Tsomgo Lake is a sacred place for local people, and lamas used to study the colour of the water in order to divine the future. The ideal time to visit is from March to May or between October and December, as during winter the lake is always frozen.
The following day, we headed out of Gangtok to visit the North district, the largest but least populated of the four districts that make up Sikkim. It is famed for the natural beauty of the Himalayan landscape and its perfect blend of nature, culture and religion. Kabi Lungchok, where the historical Treaty of Blood Brotherhood between the Lepcha and Bhutia was signed ritually, was the first stop of our day trip.
Before coming to Sikkim, I knew very little about the area or its people, who look very unlike other Indians. In fact, there is very little Indian influence in the area. The first known inhabitants of Sikkim were the Lepchas, farmers who lived on paddy, cardamom and oranges. Very few of their descendants remain today.
Prayer wheels spun by devotees are a main feature of Buddhist monasteries throughout Sikkim.
Later came the Bhutias, who migrated from Tibet and settled in the northern part of Sikkim. They made up to about 10% of the total population. The rest were Nepalis, accounting for up to 80% of the population. These three major ethnic groups, their religion and traditions have created a melting pot of various cultures. All are very friendly, warm and welcoming.
Our trip wasn’t all about mountain peaks, temples and glacial lakes. For passionate tea lovers, the Temi Tea Garden in South Sikkim produces high-quality tea that’s sold in neighbouring Indian states and also exported worldwide.
Nestled in the luscious and extremely fertile stretches of the ascending hills, the gardens offer remarkable views from the top. The day we visited was Republic Day of India so the tea processing factory was closed, but the experience was still highly memorable.
No visit to Sikkim would be complete, though, without an encounter with the mighty Khangchendzonga. On our final day we journeyed in Pelling, where travellers go for the closest views of the third highest mountain in the world. The crowning glory of Sikkim stunned us all as we tried to capture the best pictures to share with friends at home.
With its magnificent snow and ice scenery, Khangchendzonga is often regarded as the undisputed monarch among the peaks of the world. However, the Sikkimese revere the mountain as the abode of their guardian deity.
My experience in Sikkim left me convinced that it is a perfect place to enjoy unique natural attractions, culture and history. It certainly won’t disappoint adventure seekers who enjoy trekking, hiking, rafting, camping or paragliding, along with simple accommodation at local home-stays.
For mountain bikers, I think the routes may be suited only to very experienced riders with plenty of experiences at high altitudes. For those bent on soul-searching, meditation amid the magnificent landscape will make you feel at home. But all in all, good physical health is a must-have requirement for this journey.
Yes, Sikkim is sheer magic that can easily be love at first sight, as happened to me and many others.
About the author
Writer: Nithi Kaveevivitchai