Sikkim: Stairway to Heaven
Sitting at the lap of the mighty Himalayas, Sikkim is a wonderland blessed with snow-clad peaks, rugged mountain roads, lush alpine meadows and warm residents always willing to lend a helping hand
Sikkim, the rugged Himalayan state made of dramatic landscape, India's highest mountain (8,586 m) Kangchenjunga, glaciers, alpine meadows and a bewildering variety of wildflowers, has been an enigma for centuries.
Tourism in Sikkim got a fillip when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the state's first high altitude airport at Pakyong on September 24, 2018. The airport is located on the top of a hill and is about 2 km above Pakyong village at 4,500 feet.
My fascination for mountains has taken me to Annapurna in Nepal, the Everest Base Camp, also in Nepal, and the imposing Sheela Pass-Tawang circuit of Arunachal Pradesh. I have heard a lot about Sikkim – its mountains with Kanchenjunga as the guardian deity, affable hill people, quintessential Sikkimese cuisine, predominance of Buddhist culture and, of course, its glorious Orchids.
In March, last year, I was offered an invitation by my photographer friend, Dr Prodip Das, to join him in his Sikkim assignment. We were guests of the Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim, and the hospitality provided to us was immaculate.
I first found myself in Gangtok – the breathtakingly beautiful capital of Sikkim. We checked in to the government hotel, located strategically at the heart of the town. The drive from Bagdogra Airport to Gangtok was among the most beautiful drives I have experienced – offering spectacular window views of the Sikkimese countryside nestling beside the turquoise-blue Teesta River, your companion through the journey. Rhododendrons and Orchids create a riot of pink, yellow and mauve colors.
The Department of Tourism wanted us to embark on a Helicopter Tour of Sikkim covering places like Gangtok, Yumthang, Singtam, Geyzing, Yuksom, Dikchu, the Zemu glacier along with high altitude monasteries.
As we fastened our seat belts, the Bell helicopter gradually began its ascent. The city of Gangtok, with its urban landscape, appeared like a million studded diamonds.
The ethereal scene of feathery clouds drifting and kissing the hill tops, the village hamlets appearing like a fairytale community, the swift flowing Teesta River meandering through the mountainous terrain like a coiled serpent and high altitude monasteries looking more like secluded enchanted zones of 'Eden on Earth' had us all awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the Himalayan grandeur.
We were particularly amazed by the dramatic alpine-forested landscape of Yumthang. From a height of 14,000 feet, the alpine panorama exploded with a profusion of colors, courtesy the fiery red Rhododendrons that bloomed extensively. The imposing Kanchenjunga range stood like a sentinel guarding the state of Sikkim. The cascading waterfalls, particularly Lachung, appeared mystical.
As we moved on to exploring the Kanchenjunga trail, leaving behind majestic Yumthang, there was more drama awaiting us. At the far horizon, we could see the bewildering Kanchenjunga – snow clad and steep, really steep. Down below were endless rows of snow-clad Himalayan ranges. Every now and then, the helicopter would come so close to the peaks that one could literally touch them!
Kanchenjunga is all about uneven peaks, icy curves, forceful mountain torrents and frozen fissures. You can't help but admire the sheer ruggedness of Kanchenjunga. I have had the good fortune of embarking on a mountain flight in Nepal to explore Mount Everest and its surrounding peaks. Based on my personal experience, I can assure you that the Kanchenjunga helicopter trip is at par with that of Mt Everest, if not a notch higher in natural grandeur.
The mountain flights operated by Sikkim Tourism offer a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As the helicopter begins its gradual Himalayanesque ascent, one really doesn't have to wait long to find what's in store for them. The prospect of encountering some of the tallest mountains of the world right from the comforts of one's helicopter seat is enough to make one's adrenalin pumping. Of course heli-tourism has changed the way people travel to Sikkim. It has come as a boon, particularly to those who love mountains but are hard-pressed for time to explore mountain vistas either by travelling on road or by embarking on treks.
After successfully finishing the principal task of aerial photography, we indulged in some dharma courtesy the monasteries of Sikkim. We visited Rumtek and Pemayangtze monasteries. Rumtek Monastery is the seat of the Seventeenth Karmapa while the Pemayangtse Monastery located in West Sikkim belongs to the Nyigma order. I struck up a conversation with an American convert who has been residing at the Rumtek Monastery for more than a decade and learnt that Tibetan Buddhism came to Sikkim way back in the 15th century. I was given a running commentary of the great rivalry in the Tibetan order of Buddhism between the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats by this frail looking American Lama. The Gelugpa sect managed to ascend Tibet while the Nyingmapa sect sought asylum in Sikkim.
The sight of red-robed Lamas chanting mystical ancient mantras to the beat of drums while butter lamps flickering before statues of the great Guru Padmasambhava has enchanted tourists from all over the world. The monasteries of Sikkim are conspicuous by their frescoes that depict Buddhist legends and there is always the Thangka paintings made of rare silk and brocade that are such a rage with both Western and Indian tourists. The Buddhist trail in Sikkim is indeed a world apart
No visit to Sikkim is ever complete without a trip to Nathu La, which has now been opened to tourists. Situated at an awesome height of 14,200 ft, we were amazed by the sight of Indian tourists posing for photographs with soldiers of the Chinese Red Army. There was an air of informality at Nathu La, belying our expectations.
In the days of yore, Nathu La used to serve as the gateway to Tibet. This high altitude pass is now open to tourists five days a week and is a must visit site for quintessential mountain aficionados.
On the penultimate day of our mountain trip to Sikkim, we visited the Khangchendzonga National Park and tribal communities of neighboring areas in West Sikkim. In this part of the world, the Mountain Institute has played a significant role in protecting the rare alpine forests and meadows. According to the Institute's spokesperson, there were more than 400 Orchid species, 144 mammals, 300 species of avian life and a mind boggling 400 plus butterfly species.
We were amazed to see how well Mountain Institute had engaged and involved local communities in promoting community eco-tourism, site maintenance and conservation education. From imparting training to guides to developing market strategies for promoting eco-tourism, the Institute has played a vital role in uplifting the local Himalayan economy.
We rounded off our Sikkim trip with a fabulous get together dinner at the in-house restaurant, Yatung, of the up-market Chumbi Residency Hotel, renowned for its thematic ambience. Try out the locally brewed 'Chhang', prepared by fermenting millet. This signature brew of Sikkim, served in a light wooden tumbler, is believed to bring no hangover!
Traveller's Fact File
The nearest airports are Pakyong Airport (28.7 km) and Bagdogra Airport (124 km).
For those who do not want to take a road journey to Gangtok, you can avail the helicopter ride to Sikkim conducted by Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim, from Bagdogra to Gangtok and vice versa.
Hired taxis and cabs are also easily available at Bagdogra Airport.
Gangtok is choc-a-bloc with hotels to suit every budget. Hotel Mayfair, Hotel Norkhil, Hotel Tashi Delek, Hotel Tibet, The Chumbi Residency are some of the up-market hotels of Gangtok. They are centrally-located and offer impeccable mountain hospitality. Most have a predominant Tibetan ambience. For those interested in government run accommodation, Hotel Mount Jopuno is a great place to stay.
In addition to an Indian visa, foreign travellers must possess an Inner Line Permit, issued by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs or New Sikkim House, both in Delhi. The permit is valid for 15 days. A visit to the interiors of Sikkim requires a Protected Area Permit, which may be obtained in Gangtok from the Department of Tourism.