Sikkim: travelling where nature smiles

After dismissing the northwest of India because of the cold and snow at this time of year, I decided to explore the northeast instead. It wasn’t just the slightly better weather that appealed to me though, it was also the fact that it is the most underexplored area in India and government restrictions on foreign travellers still remain. My first state in the Northeast was Sikkim, one of the least populated states in India and famous for being home to the third tallest mountain in the world.

It’s only one of two states left in the Northeast that still requires foreigners to get a travel permit and although I grumbled about the paperwork and office visits I actually don’t think it’s such a bad thing. I don’t think it’s necessary for security reasons like the government claims but in terms of conservation and restricting a potentially damaging tourism industry I think they’re doing the right thing. The Sikkim Tourism Department claims Sikkim is where nature smiles and although a bit of a cringey slogan, it’s far from wrong. After arranging my Sikkim Inner Line Permit in Darjeeling, which allowed me to travel for two weeks in east, west and south Sikkim, I crossed the border and headed to Gangtok, the capital, for my first stop.

You can’t really call it a city, but it is the most populated place in Sikkim. It had some nice restaurants, a market and monasteries dotting the hills around with lookout points over the mountains. I stayed at the only hostel in the city and in fact, in the state, which felt more like a home stay than a conventional hostel. The family running the small place was gorgeous and it has to be one of my favourite places I’ve stayed.

State-run buses do exist but only run a couple of times a day and to be honest I hardly saw any of them after leaving Gangtok. The main way to get around the state was by shared jeep or sumo, which only leave when they are full with 10 passengers. The roads were both horrendous and spectacular. Most were unpaved, all were full of potholes and they were generally only wide enough for one vehicle or two if you squeezed within inches of each other. There was road construction everywhere and when I mentioned it to a local guy he said, “It’s continuous. Never stops.”

There’s no flat land in sight in Sikkim and so the roads are either winding up the mountain or coming down and so land slides are extremely common meaning that there’s never any point in putting the earthmoving machinery away because clearing rubble is a constant need. The number one job in the state would be in excavation and road construction although it seemed like mostly bands of locals doing the bulk of the work. The twisting, mountainous roads resulted in half the jeep rides ending with young children spewing out the window, but on the bright side the views were spectacular.

From Gangtok I travelled to Namchi, which is famous for having one giant Buddhist statue and one giant Hindu statue on opposing hills. I decided to walk the few kilometres to one and caught a taxi to the other but both had clouds hanging around the top and so the Mount Khangchendzonga view was hidden from sight.

After Namchi, I caught a jeep to Geyzing and then a shared taxi to a town called Pelling. Pelling has unrivalled views of the world’s third tallest mountain Khangchendzonga, which I was only just able to make out from underneath the cloud early in the morning. The town had plenty of hotels but most were closed for the winter. In fact I didn’t book any of my accommodation in Sikkim and just walked in to places to ask about prices upon arrival. People had warned me that Sikkim was expensive but being that quiet I paid dormitory prices but had the luxury of picking whichever private room I wanted.

There was only a couple of small restaurants in Pelling dishing up the same few menu choices to only a handful of local people. I struggled to even find little snack shops and when I asked if there was somewhere I could buy snacks all I got was, “No, not really.” I walked out to a monastery and some ruins; the ticket offices were even closed but the gates were open so I went in anyway.

I then wanted to go to a small town called Yuksom, which is at the main entry point into Khangchendzonga National Park and has some nice monasteries to explore. I was assured by both the hotel manager and the tourist office that I would get a jeep passing through Pelling to Yuksom between 12.30-1.30pm so I sat and waited in the middle of town until around 2.30pm when I decided to give up.

So the next day I gave it another shot, except this time I travelled back to the bigger town of Geyzing and then hoped to guarantee a jeep from there. I found one with Yuksom on the dashboard and the guy let me in. Of course the jeep was empty so I knew I would have to wait until it was full. Three hours later, after the driver had bought me chai because he felt so bad, the jeep was finally full and off we went towards Yuksom. It took two hours to drive the 40km road of countless hairpin bends to the small town. I thought Pelling had been quiet but Yuksom was even more so. I walked into one of the first hotels but there was nobody inside. Then a lady yelled, “He’s coming!” And I saw a guy running down the road.

There was only one restaurant in town open the few days I was there and it had an extensive menu but I figured out after asking for various things that she could only really make a few items. So fried rice it was for lunch and dinner just like in Pelling. Luckily I like rice because that’s basically all I ate in Sikkim.

The next day I hiked a steep 2km to Dubdi monastery which also had an empty ticket office. It was a beautiful clear day and I finally had a perfect view of the snow capped mountains. Then I walked back to town for my fried rice and then out to Coronation Park where the first king of Sikkim was crowned back in 1642, which was really beautiful. The town was dead quiet all I could hear were my feet hitting the pavement, some street dogs barking and a guy cutting firewood. I never thought I’d find somewhere like that in India.

That night I walked into the same restaurant prepared for more fried rice and the lady beams at me, “Chicken is possible. Chicken curry and rice?”. I definitely didn’t say no to that.

There was only one jeep leaving Yuksom at 7am heading towards a place called Legship where I changed jeeps and headed towards Ravangla which was perched on top of a beautiful valley. It has an impressive gold statue of Buddha that was only completed in 2013.

I returned to Gangtok to end my Sikkim trip, as according to permit requirements foreigners have to enter and leave Sikkim through the Rangpo checkpoint not far from Gangtok (although my jeep driver never stopped on my way back through to go through exit formalities, probably because I was squashed in the back and he knew no one would see me, so I never officially ‘left’ Sikkim according to my passport). I was pretty happy to return to the beautiful family and plentiful food choices of Gangtok before continuing on to explore more of the Northeast.

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