My fascination for mountains has taken me to places like Annapurna in Nepal, the Everest Base Camp, also in Nepal and the imposing Sheela Pass-Tawang circuit of Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India. I had heard a lot about Sikkim, its awesome Himalayan ranges with Kanchenjunga as the guardian deity, its affable and easygoing hill people, the exotic Sikkimese cuisine, its predominant Buddhist culture and, of course, its world famous orchids. But, as luck would have it, for a long time I was unable to make it there. However, finally, in the month of March, I was offered an invitation by my Sikkimese friend, Lobzang, who runs a very successful hotel business in Gangtok, the picturesque capital of Sikkim, to go on a leisure trip to this marvelous mountain state. If you’re feeling jaded by the heat and hassles of India, Sikkim is the perfect antidote. It’s clean (plastic bags are banned) and the mountain air is fresh. Best of all the people are among India’s most friendly, with a charming manner that’s unobtrusive and slightly shy. To really savour some true Sikkimese atmosphere, visit a village tongba-bar for some local millet beer: it’s a bit like warm Japanese sake.
Plunging mountain valleys are lushly forested, interspersed occasionally with rice terraces and groves of flowering rhododendrons. Tibetan-style Buddhist monasteries (gompas) add splashes of vermilion to the green ridgetops and are approached through atmospheric avenues of colourful prayer flags set on long bamboo poles. Straddling the Sikkim-Nepal border is Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga; 8598m), the world’s third-highest mountain. Khangchendzonga’s guardian spirit is worshipped in a series of spectacular autumn festivals and its magnificent multiple white peaks can be spied from many points around the state. Sikkim has long been considered one of the last Himalayan Shangri Las. But hurry.
In the last few years a tourist boom has seen ever multiplying numbers of visitors, mostly middle-class Bengalis escaping the Kolkata heat. Every year, more concrete hotels protrude from once-idyllic villagescapes and most towns are already architecturally lacklustre huddles of multistorey box-homes. Fortunately, although Sikkim is tiny, its crazy contours make road construction very tough. So for now, finding the ‘real’ Sikkim is just a matter of hiking a little away from the beaten path of metalled roads. Just watch out for its infamous leeches and wrap up warm.
Siliguri is the gateway city to the Eastern Himalayas and we arrived at Bagdogra Airport by an early morning Jet Airways flight from Kolkata. My friend Lobzang had sent his personal vehicle (a 4x4 Drive), and we straightaway hopped into the sturdy Scorpio. Our friendly driver – Tenzing – was of the opinion that there was a likelihood of a thunderstorm forecast by the Met office and so we quickly zipped, zapped and zoomed our way through the enchanting Dooars.
We passed by Siliguri town and were captivated by the magical blend of immaculately landscaped tea gardens and stunning wildlife. The Siliguri-Jalpaiguri tourist circuit, though not all that developed in terms of tourist infrastructure as compared to destinations like Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok, has over the years evoked a sense of curiosity and awe in me with its three T’s – Tea,
Timber and Tourism.
The Climb Uphill
The ascent from the plains of Siliguri to the high mountain terrain of Sikkim via National Highway 31A is nothing short of a fairytale mountain ride. The four-hour drive from Siliguri to Gangtok offers spectacular window views of the Sikkimese countryside with mountains nestling besides the turquoise-blue Teesta river, our companion throughout the journey. Rhododendrons and orchids create a riot of pink, yellow and mauve blossoms. There are a number of interesting mountain cafeterias and we savoured some of the best ‘Momos’ (Tibetan Dumplings) along with Sikkimese wine, every time we needed a break from our bone-rattling Himalayan ascent.
I always had the opinion that being a predominantly mountainous state, travelling in Sikkim would be an arduous and gruelling affair. But all my preconceived notions were swept aside once I found myself in Gangtok – the breathtakingly beautiful capital of Sikkim.
We checked in at the classy Sonam Delek hotel, which is located strategically in Tibet Road and my friend Lobzang was absolutely delirious with joy as we met after three long years. Instead of dining at his hotel, Lobzang invited us to have a traditional Sikkimese dinner at his quaintly pretty residence, which was a brisk 20 minutes drive from the hotel.
Gangtok – Picture Perfect
Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim is a mystical land and is steeped in history. The tumultous history of the land finds echoes in the rise and fall of the peaks and valleys that surround it. Directly overlooking the city is the hill – Lukshyma, and the ‘mother of pearl’ citadel of the magic mountains, Khang–Chen–Dzongda. The sight of the impressive Rumtek Monastery, renowned the world over as an important seat of Tibetan Buddhism and the world’s second largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery, is breathtaking, where we witnessed the Bumchu. Bum means pot, and chu means water. The lamas opened a pot of holy water to foretell the year’s fortunes. Meant to replace the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, which had been partially destroyed during China’s Cultural Revolution, Rumtek’s main monastery building has a giant throne which awaits the crowning of Kagyu’s current spiritual leader, the (disputed) 17th Karmapa, who currently resides in Dharamsala.
Behind the monastery building, up a flight of stairs running past a snack shop (good tea and momos!) stands the Golden Stupa. Stuffed with religious paraphernalia, the smallish room holds the ashes of the 16th Karmapa in an amber, coral and turquoise-studded reliquary to which pilgrims pay their deepest respects. The keys to the shrine are usually with obliging lamas enrolled at the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies opposite. Leave a donation, and you’ll be blessed with a holy metal dorje (talisman symbolising lightning).
Sikkim used to be an independent monarchy till 1975 and was ruled by the powerful Chougyal dynasty. As a mountain city (1,547 meters), and with a population in excess of 50,000, Gangtok has developed primarily along its arterial roads, with the NH 31A being the most prominent. Most roads in Gangtok are two-laned driveways and some roads have very precipitous slopes, so beware! From Enchey Gompa, the main road swings northeast around the telecom tower to a collection of prayer flags, where a footpath scrambles up in around 15 minutes to Ganesh Tok viewpoint. Festooned in colourful prayer flags, Ganesh Tok offers superb city views and its minicafe serves hot tea and Indian snacks.
Hanuman Tok , another impressive viewpoint, sits on a hilltop around 4 km drive beyond Ganesh Tok, though there are shortcuts for walkers. Gangtok’s best view of Khangchendzonga can be found from the Tashi viewpoint, 4 km northwest of town, beside the main route to Phodong. Offering gorgeous views both to the east and west, is the famed ridge, a shaded promenade cresting Gangtok’s upper reaches. It’s a pleasant place to stroll away your time in manicured parks and gardens. You can see the imposing structure of the Chogyal Palace, closed to visitors, but a fine sight from a distance, nonetheless, and testimony to Sikkim’s rich, vivid past. The impressive Tsuglhakhang temple near the palace is often open early in the morning (and during major festivals) to pilgrims and curious tourists. During the spring bloom (March and April) it’s worth peeping inside the Flower Exhibition Centre, a greenhouse full of exotic orchids, anthuriums and lilium.
I also took a detour to Namchi. Painted in shimmering copper, pink and bronze, the 45m-high statue of Guru Padmasambhava, the hallowed Buddhist leader, sitting atop a giant lotus plinth, lords over the forested Samdruptse ridge 7 km from Namchi and is visible for miles around. Taxis from town charge around Rs 600 return. Alternatively, pay Rs 400 for a one-way drop and walk back to Namchi, following the road down to the atmospheric Ngadak Gompa, via the ruined Ngadak Dzong, which dates to 1717 and exudes a sense of old Sikkim. Even grander than Samdruptse’s Padmasambhava is the massive 33m Shiva statue which sits within the complex of Char Dham.
Spread over the Solophuk hilltop 5km south of Namchi, the site intends to bring together all revered Hindu pilgrimages from across India (albeit in the form of replicas), and is strewn with temples and pagodas built on an epic scale. Apart from visiting these concrete behemoths (each of which enshrines sundry deities of the Hindu pantheon), there’s a 4-D simulator show within the complex that recreates popular pilgrimages, airplane flights and car races for kids. Nearby, the Yatri Nivas dishes out a superb thali for lunch.
The Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a fantastic museum housed in a traditional Tibetan-style mansion in Gangtok, boasts a jaw-dropping collection of artefacts related to Vajrayana Buddhism and Tibetan Culture.
Further up along the same road is the Do-Drul Chorten, a large white Tibetan pagoda surrounded by dormitories for novice monks and glass-walled galleries with countless flaming butter lamps burning within. The institute sits in a park and is conveniently close to the lower station of Damodar Ropeway, a cable car running to the Secretariat ridge with great views of town.Gangtok Zoo, among the better-maintained zoos in the country, occupies an entire hill opposite Ganesh Tok viewpoint.
Red pandas, civet cats, Himalayan bears, clouded leopards and snow leopards roam around in extensive forested enclosures so large that you’ll value a car to shuttle between them. Gangtok’s rustic facilities and its warm-hearted folk offer visitors a fascinating experience of life in the Eastern Himalayas you never knew existed. In Gangtok, East meets West at the crossroads, with youths sporting designer jeans and Ray Ban goggles brushing shoulders with wizened ‘baku’ clad old timers, carrying prayer wheels, and chanting ‘Om Mani Padma Om’. The bar scenario in Gangtok and the rest of Sikkim is absolutely fabulous and highly subsidized. You can easily step into any roadside stall and ask for your favorite tipple, guzzle to your hearts content, mop your mouth and be on your way for just a song.
Nathula pass- last frontier
Having spent three eventful days in Gangtok, my hotelier friend Lobzang, true to his indomitable Himalayan spirit, came up with the suggestion that we visit Nathula Pass, the high border town and India’s last Army post. Nathula Pass had remained out of bounds since the year 1961 due to the bitter acrimony between India and China. But with the thaw in the Indo-Chinese bilateral relationship in recent times, the Pass was opened to tourists in 2006. But a special permit is still required to visit Nathula Pass.
The Pass, which is all of 14,450 feet above sea level, is located at a distance of 56 Kms from Gangtok on the Indo-Chinese border. In the days of yore, it was part of the famed ‘Silk Route’ merchants took to trade in Tibet.
Traveling to Nathula pass is an adventure in itself. As we embarked on our journey to the high mountains from Gangtok, the serpentine roads, turbulent waterfalls and mist-laden Himalayan peaks were our signposts. The presence of the Indian Army is very palpable, with Army settlements spread across the Nathula Pass and its surroundings.
The ultimate high from us was the once in a lifetime opportunity to be photographed in the company of soldiers from the Chinese Red Army. Already, the Ministry of Tourism is predicting a tourist boom at Nathula Pass. While it is still early days as far as mass tourism is concerned, the few who make it to the Pass have a whale of a time pitching tents in this rarefied Himalayan zone, appreciating the hardships of army men, mixing with the hardy locals and bargaining with the few shopkeepers for that prized souvenir, be it woolens, prayer wheels or scarves. If you are driven by the spirit of adventure and wish to stay overnight at Nathula Pass, you should carry all the high altitude paraphernalia, which were provided to us by Hotel Sonam Delek. Take the help of the Indian Army when it comes to selection of site for pitching tents as they know the topography best.