Lush green hills half-hidden by clouds, gushing waterfalls breaking the silence of the valley below, and pristine mountain air – Sikkim is easily the crowning glory of the Northeast. Exceptionally welcoming with its variety of culinary dishes, charming culture, and magnificent scenic beauty, Sikkim is however not very accessible to the lazy traveller (the airport is still under construction).
But if you’re in love with the mountains like me, it is just five hours away both from its nearest airport in Bagdogra, as well as the nearest railway stations, New Jalpaiguri and Siliguri in West Bengal. Here’s a brief glimpse into the different parts of the state and their diverse delights.
Gangtok: Urban with a twist
The capital of Sikkim, Gangtok is a gorgeous hill-town with a surprisingly trendy sense of fashion. Get all your winter shopping done here while you take a stroll down MG Marg. Places to visit include the Rumtek Monastery, the seat of the Kagyu Order where the 17th Karmapa is exiled, Enchey Monastery, the oldest of the Buddhist institutions and home to the Nyingma Order, and the famous stupa Dro-dul Chorten, which is surrounded by 108 prayer wheels.
For a taste of the rich flora and fauna, take a trip to the Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Gardens with its abundance of orchids, as well as the Himalayan Zoological Park, that houses the Tibetan wolf, the Snow leopard, and the Himalayan black bear among others. All this can be easily covered within a couple of days, thanks to the taxi association, the most prolific mode of transport in the city.
Lachen: The big pass
Onward ho, to Lachen, a sharp contrast to the urban mood of Sikkim. Snugly located in a district of about 1,000 people, Lachen turns a chilly 4 degrees at night with a severe wind cutting through the valley. The most attractive tourist spot is Gurudongmar Lake, about 67 km from Lachen. Flanked by rugged mountains and acres of rhododendrons, the route to Gurudongmar is breathtaking. It is advisable to start before dawn, otherwise there’s a high chance of it getting windy and clouded by mid-day. You can stop at Thangu Valley for food and refreshments – piping hot bowls of the state-favourite, wai-wai. Be cautious, however; it is one of the highest lakes in the world (5430m), and the normal traveller might suffer from dizziness and shortness of breath due to the rarefied air.
Lachung: The ‘small pass’
Lachen’s sister town, Lachung , is just a 3-hours drive away on a route that takes one past many quaint waterfalls and streams. Lachung Monastery is a key attraction in the homely town. It also provides the base for tourists travelling to Yumthang and on to Zero Point. The Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, with its impressive variety of rhododendron gives it the title “valley of flowers.” Yumthang is arguably the most beautiful valley in the region, offering a sweeping view of the surrounding grand snow-capped mountains. Locals provide special boots for tourists who want to wade in the tributary of the Teesta River that flows through. One can journey to Yumesamdong, Zero Point located 23 km away. Covered in snow, it is a sight that leaves one speechless with wonder.
Pelling: View of Gold
Located in west Sikkim, the rather densely populated tourist spot of Pelling boasts a wonderful view of the Kanchenjanga and the range of the Himalayas. One can visit the 17th-century Pemayangtse Monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim. It is close to the Rabdentse Ruins, the former capital that was destroyed by the Gurkha army. The ruins also afford a wondrous view of the Kanchenjunga. Sangachoeling Monastery, another 17th century monastery is located 8 kms away from Pelling and can accessed through a forested area along a hill. The region is interspersed with numerous waterfalls, a few notable ones being the Kanchenjunga Falls, the Rimbi Falls and the Chhangey Falls.
Endless loops, Silk Route
The most magnificent of the tourist spots is not a spot per se, but a travel route, popularly called the Silk Route. One can start from Gangtok, through Changu Lake, Baba Mandir, Nathu La Pass and Kupup Lake and ending in Rongli,near West Bengal or vice versa, depending on one’s destination. While tourists throng to Changu Lake,Nathu La and even Baba Mandir in large numbers, this route is less frequented and more closely monitored by the Army. The terrain is bleak and the vegetation comprises mainly of short, scattered shrubs. What is most remarkable is the sight of the winding roads like many strips of grey lace, laid on the mountain side. The vista seems almost to be too beautiful to be true.
Responsible tourists only, please!
A few tips for travellers :
Since Sikkim is a border-state, expect the presence of the Army even in the most remote areas. The sight of an Army helicopter flying over the valley is not rare. Sikkim has strict rules regarding spitting on the road, public smoking, and disposing plastic bags. Breaking any of the rules can lead to heavy fines.Many of the above-mentioned places require Army permits, so make sure you carry the necessary documents of identification.Since Sikkim receives heavy rainfall, it is better to avoid the monsoons in the mountains. According to Sikkim: A Traveller’s Guide (Arundhati Ray and Sujoy Das), March to May and October to mid-December are the best times to visit.While many of the hotels offer touring packages and there are travel agencies available, one can have equally-satisfying, self-planned tours with the help of the taxi association.Make sure you gorge on the local cuisine of delicious momo, thukpa, noodles and so on.Don’t forget to pack woolen clothes. In extreme cases, however, the hotels have room-heaters that can be rented, so you’re set.
When asked to think of a hill-station, the average Indian would probably think of Shimla, Mussoorie or Darjeeling. But with its diverse flora, beautiful streams , snow-clad mountains and rich heritage of monasteries, Sikkim has a unique appeal. Exploring the beauty of the land is demanding as it is rewarding. If you’re up for the challenge, you’re in for a real treat.