Friday photo: Windows

As Bangalore reels under the vicious attack of an early summer, my thoughts are in the cool, cool hills. Sikkim, Ladakh, Himachal, anywhere at all in the Himalayas is where I would rather be right now.

So this Friday, a photo from Sikkim: a young girl looking out of the window at Pemayangtse monastery at West Sikkim.

Yellow

Not quite an image of the hills, but Sikkim was as much about its lovely people and unforgettable food (not to forget the heady chang), as it was about the snow-peaked mountains.

Read about our quest for a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga

And lots more Sikkim stories here

Also see: Friday photo series

The perfect Sikkim itinerary

The small northeastern state of Sikkim was once rightly dubbed ‘the hidden kingdom’ after a book (1971) by the same name by Alice Kandell. The mighty Kanchenjunga, considered a benevolent protector, dominates the region, making itself visible from various points within the state. Take a tour around the highlights of Sikkim.

Begin at Gangtok

What to do

Walk up and down the pedestrian-only MG Road, stopping for hot momos and chowmein at one of the various cafés on the street.

MG Road

Make a day trip to Tsomgo lake (called Changu by locals), located in the middle of snow-covered mountains. Here, you can ride on a docile yak or pose for photographs next to one. From there, head on to Nathu La pass (open to Indian visitors only on Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday), on the Indo-Chinese border to play in snow and wave at Chinese soldiers on the other side.

At Tsomgo lake

Pay a visit to the monasteries in and around Gangtok, in particular, the stunning Enchey and Rumtek.

Rumtek monastery

Take a ropeway ride (8.00 am – 4.30 pm) up to the highest point in Gangtok for fabulous views of the town and the surrounding valley.

Where to stay

The Mayfair Gangtok comes with a spa and a casino and is set amidst lush greenery away from the bustle of the town. The Oriental is another popular hotel in the heart of Gangtok.

Go West: Pelling

What to do

Pelling is really not for active vacationers since there is nothing much to do here but take long walks on shaded mountain roads and gaze in awe at the Kanchenjunga. The views are spectacular especially after the monsoon, between the months of October and February.

A must-visit in this region is the Pemayangtse monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim, founded in 1705. If you are lucky and the skies are clear, the Kanchenjunga may be visible clearly from here.

Visit the Khecheopari Lake, also known as the ‘wishing lake’ and considered sacred by the Sikkimese. Indeed, this is a place of worship for both local Hindus and Buddhists, and surprisingly clear of tourist traps. The path to the lake is studded with prayer wheels on either side while colourful prayer flags whirl in the wind closer to the water.

Khecheopalri lake

If you happen to be there on a weekend, look out for local haats (markets) where farmers from the area bring in their produce for sale; it makes for a lively and colourful morning

For those really bitten by the travel bug, a trip to Yuksam village (38 km away), the starting point for the tough trek into the Kanchenjunga National Park is recommended. Spend your day ambling down the narrow main road, snacking on chilli-cheese toast and tea at Guptaji’s small café, and watching the clouds play hide and seek with the mountains surrounding you.

Where to stay

In Pelling, stay at the Elgin Mount Pandim Hotel, close to the Pemayangtse monastery. It also comes with a spa in case you want to soothe those aching muscles after long drives on the mountain roads.

Go North: Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake

What to do

This is the most popular circuit among visitors to Sikkim, Gangtok to Yumthang Valley and Gurudongmar Lake in the north.

The first morning, wake up early and head to Gurudongmar lake situated at a (literally) breathtaking 17000 feet. Most vehicles take a compulsory halt for an hour at Thangu village at 14,000 feet for breakfast, and more importantly, to get you acclimatised to the altitude. Enjoy the ride thereon through a surreal moonscape path, which affords plenty of photo-ops. Go prepared with layers and layers of woolies and the idea that you will feel disoriented at that height and for perhaps a couple of hours after you descend.

Gurudongmar lake

The next morning, make your way to Yumthang, a mere 24 kilometres from Lachung and at a (relatively) more comfortable altitude of 12,000 feet. The road leading to Yumthang, known as the ‘valley of flowers’ is well laid and lined with rhododendron trees on either side. This area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Yumthang is the stuff of picture postcards, with snow-capped mountains on all sides, with the crystal clear Yumthang river flowing through the meadow.

Yumthang valley

Where to stay

Lachung and Lachen villages are the base for Yumthang valley and Gurudongmar lake respectively. The Fortuna is one of the most popular and comfortable hotels in this area. Accommodation otherwise is mostly basic and not very luxurious there – discuss your options with your tour operator before you leave. The friendliness of the locals, the pure mountain air and the fresh water springs all around more than make up for any mild discomfort you may experience.

Note: You cannot rent or drive your own vehicle in Sikkim since many places require special permits. Therefore you need to arrange for excursions through an authorized tour operator in Gangtok. For North Sikkim, it is best to take a package that includes your travel, stay and food from one of the authorised tour operators who line MG Road.

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~ Originally published on the Conde Nast Traveller website on May 07, 2013
~ Read my earlier Sikkim stories here

Friday photo: Sikkim

At Pemayangtse Monastery near Pelling, one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim, dating back to the 17th century.

Pemayangtse

Pelling and its surrounds are famous for magnificent views of the Kanchenjunga. Unfortunately, in the few days that we were there, it rained and rained and the entire mountain range remained covered in a cloud of mist.

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Read about my quest for A glimpse of the Kanchenjunga here

Also see: Friday Photo series

Stranger in my country

Published in Mint Lounge (September 04) as Stranger in a strange land

Stranger in my country: travels in Sikkim

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Nancy is the local school teacher at Lachung village in North Sikkim and has recently returned home after some years outside the state. She has been chatting non-stop with me in the darkness of the late evening about her school and students. Among other things, she says that Hindi is one of the languages taught in her school, as in all other schools in Sikkim now. In the middle of the conversation, she leans over and says confidentially, “It is for the Indian children, you know, Sikkimese children really don’t need Hindi”.

I am slightly taken aback but do not give it much thought. Till a few days later, when back in Gangtok, Norgey, the owner of the guesthouse we are staying in, tells me breezily, “Oh, but there is nothing much to shop for here in Sikkim, we do all our shopping in India”.

In the time I spend in Sikkim, India truly feels far away – and it is not just about what the people say. Like everywhere else in the country, kids are out on the streets but it is not cricket they are playing. It is football that rules here, the way it rules the streets of perhaps only Goa. It is Baichung Bhutia who smiles from posters and hoardings all over the market, kicking a careless ball and seeking votes for the reality dance competition he was once part of; from Soccer King to Dancing King, they proclaim.

Barely two hours out of Gangtok, on our way to Lachen – base village for the trip to the high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake – we encounter groups of giggling, uniformed children waving down our vehicle for a ride. Our driver finally stops to take in Shaily, who gets into the front seat with him and starts chatting rapidly in the local language. She smiles diffidently when I ask her a question in Hindi but refuses to answer. At school 7km away, she hops off with a soft thank you bhaiyya, thank you didi and disappears through the gate. All along the route, we see school children getting into and out of tourist vehicles, hitching rides with perfect strangers. The city cynic in me is horrified but our driver says this is normal in Sikkim: “Children have nothing to fear, madam”.

On the way to school

Apart from this distraction, the roads are quiet. No blaring horns, no overtaking on the hills, no stopping in the middle of the highway. I realize I am overly sensitive by this point but I keep thinking about how different Sikkim indeed is from the India I know. The “difference” is perhaps in my mind as much as it is in theirs.

For, in the general elections last year, Sikkim had a record 83% voter turn-out (compare this with just over 41% in Mumbai). In Gangtok, I keep meeting people who came back to their homes in towns and villages across the state just to vote. Sikkim became the 22nd Indian state in 1975, when the Chogyals (the royal family of Sikkim) gave up their right to the throne after 300 years – driven, people say, by fear of invasion from neighbouring China. It would be 18 more years before China finally gave up claims on Sikkim and accepted it as a part of India.

But it’s perhaps no accident that the army is omnipresent in Sikkim. Most of the state is served by the 19th regiment from South India and the signboards and slogans on the rocks are written in Tamil, perhaps aimed in keeping the soldiers motivated in their arduous efforts. In conversation with one of them (in Tamil), I get a sense that these army-men feel as much strangers in this part of the country as I do; the bitter cold, language, food and terrain all unfamiliar, perhaps even inhospitable.

After a pit stop at the “The world’s highest cafe at 15,000 feet”, proudly managed by the army, we pass only bunker after desolate bunker on our way to Gurudongmar Lake. There are no signboards to show where we are headed. Our driver forges ahead on the rocky terrain on what seems like pure instinct. The landscape is stark and stunning, the snow-capped mountains of the Kangchengyao range seem within touching distance. Most of this part of the drive is in monochrome, a dry brown with a few spots of snow visible in the distance. At the lake, the army makes its presence felt again, maintaining the tiny shrine on the shore and providing welcome cups of hot tea to visitors who feel rapidly breathless, sick and disoriented at that altitude (over 17,000 feet).

gurudongmar lake: 17000 feet

Even within Sikkim there is nowhere that gives such a strong sense of being alien as Gurudongmar. Like many other Sikkim lakes, Gurudongmar (named after Guru Padmasambhava) is held sacred by locals; indeed, it is the most revered of them all. The lake remains frozen for most of the year but, when the ice melts, the waters are a clear, sparkling blue. Colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze, as a few brave souls walk down the steep steps for a stroll around the edge of the lake. The wind starts to get bitter, cutting through the layers of protective clothing we are ensconced in. Despite the acute discomfort, there is a desire to linger but local legend has it that after noon, the wind factor is so strong that stones start flying. And so, we reluctantly head back towards Lachen village, and then on back to Gangtok.

The next evening, I am strolling on MG Road, the cobble-stoned promenade in Gangtok where locals and visitors, young and old alike meet, shop and drink. I am here to shop for souvenirs – local tea and cherry brandy mainly – to take back to ‘India’ with me. Kanchenjunga, the venerable protector deity is an invisible presence in the far distance, revealing itself only in the post-monsoon winter months.

Sikkim, I learn, is known variously as Sukhim (new home) to the Nepalese, Denzong (valley of rice) to the Tibetans and Ney Mayal Lyang (paradise) to the Lepchas. It is the Lepcha interpretation that I agree with the most.

In the next few years, it will be possible to fly into the new airport coming up at Pakyong, close to Gangtok. Enhanced connectivity with the mainland may perhaps infuse a greater sense of belonging among locals. For now though, I have to make that long drive to Bagdogra for the return flight. Entering West Bengal, the cacophony of cab horns and traffic jams sounds unnaturally loud after two weeks of peaceful driving on the Sikkim roads. Close to the airport, painted signs by the road say ‘Be Indian, Buy Indian’. I think they could have just as easily been ‘Be Indian, Bye Indian’.

TRIP PLANNER

Getting there

Fly to Bagdogra from Kolkata or New Delhi (Rs. 8,000 round-trip on Jet Airways & Kingfisher). Or take a train from any of the major cities to New Jalpaiguri and a bus or cab further on to Gangtok (3.5 hrs by road). If you’re in the mood for a unique experience, try a chopper ride from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok (Rs. 3000 per head, 35 mts).

Where to stay

For the best local experiences, stay in homestays / small guesthouses in Gangtok. We stayed at The Shire Guesthouse (Rs. 1,500-Rs. 2,500 per night per couple, inclusive of food). Or stay at the Tashi Tagey Guesthouse for some of the best home-made Chowmein & local cuisine. If you are inclined towards the comfort of large hotels, check out The Oriental (double rooms from Rs.2800 per night) or the up-market Mayfair Gangtok (Rs. 12000/ onwards per night inclusive of breakfast and dinner). In North Sikkim, your travel agent will put you up in a small guesthouse as part of the package.

What to do

Take a day to visit the monasteries in and near Gangtok – Enchey, Phodong, Rumtek – and another to visit the China border in the East – Nathu La via Tsomgo Lake. Spend your evenings on the pedestrians-only mall road (Mahatma Gandhi Road). All trips to North Sikkim and Nathu La need permits which can be arranged by local travel agents along with tours.

Blowin' in the wind

In North Sikkim, drive on surreal lunar terrain to Gurudongmar Lake and take a picnic basket to the picturesque Yumthang Valley of Flowers, a rhododendron sanctuary. Closer to Gangtok, you can take white-water rafting expeditions on the cold waters of the Teesta. Make this another day trip from Gangtok, or as we did, stop en route to Bagdogra airport on your way out and end the trip with a bang. Of course, you get to the airport drenched and have to change before they let you into the aircraft!

Sikkim’s valley of flowers

The trip planned for the day is to Yumthang valley and we have moved to Lachung village from Lachen the earlier evening in preparation. After that nerve-wracking ride to Gurudongmar Lake and all the discomfort caused by high altitude, we are sure that this drive is going to be easy. And so it is, comparatively speaking.

For one, it is a mere 24 kilometers away from Lachung village. Also, Yumthang is at a much lower altitude (just less than 12000 feet – which is cold by any standards but we are feeling complacent, having bravely borne the highly disorienting altitude the day earlier).

This route is very pleasant, through roads lined with rhododendron trees in full bloom on either side. Dubbed the ‘valley of flowers’, this area comes under the protected Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary (home to over 24 species of this flower) and is especially pretty during the early summer months when the ground is covered with flowers of all colours. Herds of yaks graze peacefully along the sides, unfazed by curious visitors who point their cameras at them (the driver says that this used to be only a grazing pasture for yaks before tourism suddenly burst into the scene).

Yumthang valley itself is the stuff of picture postcards – ‘alpine meadow’ is a term used by guides and guidebooks in describing it. Snow-capped mountains surround the valley from all sides while the Yumthang river flows placidly in the middle. And tiny flowers blossom in clumps from the green grass, small carpets of yellow and purple as far as the eye can see.

It is the ideal picnic spot; children screaming and running around while adults look on in amused indulgence. The water of the Yumthang is crystal clear, a blue-grey speckled with green and looks deceptively inviting. However, it is freezing cold (even though it is peak summer), as we discover when step into it tentatively.

The other must-do thing in Yumthang valley is the hot sulphur spring across the river accessed through a rickety wooden bridge. Known locally as Tsa Chu, the spring is believed to have curative and healing properties. As everywhere else in Sikkim, colourful prayer flags flutter in the breeze across the bridge, waving out to visitors. At this spot, there are several small stalls selling tea and snacks along the banks of the river and the tourist groups make their way here from the open valley for refreshment.

Yumthang Valley is best visited in summer to experience the flowers in bloom and enjoy the mild, slightly sunny weather. However, in summer, there is no snow in this region and eager tourists usually head further up to Katao (roughly 15000 feet), known locally as Yumsedong or ‘zero point’ and said to have snow through the year.

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