T he mountains up in the North East have this uncanny quality of being able to hide the most exquisite vistas in plain sight. Follow the road-signs and make your way along the winding roads and you are sure to reach a viewpoint that boasts panoramic vistas or a monastery that houses years of ancient wisdom.
However, get off the beaten track, take a turn off the main route and follow that mountain trail and you are likely to be greeted by the sight of a quiet hamlet nestled on a hillside – wooden houses painted in myriad colours dotting the landscape, esoteric prayer flags fluttering in the wind, children dressed in the unmistakable blue and white of a school uniform making their way back home, some furry friends happily trotting behind them – life unfolding with a characteristic tranquillity that is so unique to the mountains!
Nestled in the North Eastern Himalayan foothills, Sikkim for years has been a haven for travellers and tourists alike.
If you’re a tourist with a mission, there are sights and sounds galore that will make your Instagram feed proud! If, however, you’re a traveller, you’ll be amazed at the vast expanse of unexplored terrain that this mountain state has to offer.
In my many years of travelling in and around Sikkim, sometimes making my way through crowds of Bengali chatter to witness the spectacle of sunrise at a particular peak, and some other times as a solo traveller trudging along with a hefty backpack that often looks heavier than me, I’ve discovered that for those that seek, Sikkim has many hidden delights!
Over the years, I’ve learnt to carefully manoeuvre my way around the many tourist hotspots and find sanctity in the more removed corners of the Himalayan foothills.
To Gangtok or Not to Gangtok: Choose Wisely
Gangtok, being the state capital, is the most sought-after base for the crowds thronging to Sikkim. Being at the centre of most tourist activities, Sikkim has all the conveniences that city life offers, but in the backdrop of the mighty mountains. Located at a height of 1600m, it is characterized by numerous cafes, hotels and touts, all of whom want your business. If it is your first time in Sikkim, a visit to MG Marg is a must, if nothing, for the fragrance of the freshly baked goodies that linger on the paved mountain streets early in the morning.
ProTip: When in Gangtok, head to the Secretariat area. Located just below the erstwhile King’s Palace, this particular area hosts majestic views of the mountain town below, while being a quick 12 minute walk away from the tourist babble following a shortcut any local will be happy to show you. It is close enough for you to make that quick trip to the bar downtown, yet away enough, to let you enjoy that quiet tea at sundown, while you watch the majestic valley below disappear in the cloud cover.
If, however, you have the luxury and liberty of time and choice, head to Rumtek. Nestled in the slopes of the mountains diametrically opposite to the main Gangtok town, Rumtek is a small hamlet about an hour’s drive away. Home to the very famous Rumtek Monastery, you are likely to find crowds of tourists on a day trip from Gangtok heading up in packed tourist vehicles intent on collecting their share of good karma!
At Rumtek Monastery, the serenity and seclusion, despite the throngs of people right outside, is likely to catch you off guard. The Tibetan monks, young and old, dressed in their deep maroon and orange robes coupled with the eclectic curio shops add more than a dash of enigma to the already humbling setting.
The towering peaks in the distance, their tops disappearing into the clouds, the terraced farms and plantations around, the Buddhist chants being carried by the wind, make for a wonderful afternoon spent in the serenity of the mighty Himalayas.
The road between Gangtok and Rumtek, is lined with eclectic farms, homestays and organic estates many of which offer accommodation at reasonable prices. With gorgeous views of the valley below, narrow trails that open up to extensive alpine meadows, timid streams that turn into raging waterfalls with a single generous shower, Rumtek makes for a very pleasant stay away from the city chatter. Warm smiles and genuine hospitality, traditional Sikkimese handicrafts, kitsch decor and the unrelenting green is a welcome change from the commercialization of the tourist hotspots around.
Spend some quality time at a Trekker’s Base in Yuksom
Traversing through rainforests and into picturesque meadows, Sikkim is known the world over for its several trekking routes – the Dzongri-Goecha La trek being one of the most sought-after. On one of my escapades of romancing the mountains, I spent a week ambling about in the hamlet that is the entry point for the Kanchenjungha National Park – Yuksom, a quaint little village that was once the first capital of Sikkim. As is characteristic of places that have a long history, Yuksom, established somewhere during the 1600s, has this old-world charm to it.
Located about a quarter hours’ drive from Pelling – another tourist hotspot in West Sikkim – the hamlet is used to fleeting faces. A narrow motorable road leads you into this quiet village where you are likely to come across mountaineers from across the world, either setting off or coming back from various treks.
Spend an evening chatting them up over a cup of butter tea – the warmth of the butter and the tea combined helps to keep warm — the warm glow of the memories are likely to stay much longer!
If you’re not up for an arduous trek through the mountains, some of the smaller hikes around might interest you. An uphill climb through a lush forest trail will bring you to Sikkim’s oldest monastery –Dubdi Monastery. Situated at the top of a hill at a height of 2100m, the solitude of the place has this unique comforting quality, while the towering view it offers tends to overwhelm. I spent a memorable afternoon there, meditating amidst the reverberating Buddhist hymns, and came back a few knots lesser. You probably will too!
Trek the Rhododendron Trail
In yet another secluded corner of West Sikkim, is the mountain town of Varsey. Transportation is sparse to these parts of the state, so make sure you reach Jorethang, the connecting town, by midday. Another connecting vehicle will then take you up the terraced valleys, often along with locals headed back to their village after a hard day’s work.
Having crossed the small, cosy and less famous village of Okhrey, Varsey is the starting point to the famous Rhododendron trail. One of the things that stayed with me about this trail was the enchanted green of the forests. The blue skies, dotted with the ferocious green cover come together to create a magical misty hue that lasts through the trail, making it seem right out of a fairytale! No wonder that it is called one of the most scenic trails in the far West.
Once in Okhrey, you can stay overnight and start your journey to Hilley the next morning. It’s about 10km by car and the last 4km on foot – the more adventurous can start early and trek the whole way. As I made my way past a small natural lake, some breathtaking views of Mt. Kanchenjungha and endless stretches of rhododendrons, the age old saying that insists that it is about the journey and not the destination, made a lot of sense.
At the end of the trail, rests a lone wooden house that often doubles up as a guesthouse for the intrepid traveller that chooses to stay the night. The owner, much to our delight, greeted us with many enthusiastic stories of his own travels and bowls of steaming Maggi!
Get a taste of the traditional Lepcha cuisine
The taste of Sikkim in all its authentic glory also lies in its esoteric cuisine. Having recently been declared as India’s first fully organic state, fresh organic produce lines the markets as well as the traditional Lepcha kitchen. Wild ferns, nettles, bamboo shoot and mustard leaves are often combined with traditional spices into mouth-watering delicacies. Whether you are a vegetarian or a fond meat-eater, the fine mix of sharp and bland flavours that is typical to the cuisine here is sure to leave you asking for more. If you’re among the more adventurous, try a traditional cooking class. Most hotels will be happy to arrange one on request.
Take a day to do absolutely nothing
A getaway into the idyllic foothills of the Himalayas remains incomplete if you can’t forgo the pace of an urban lifestyle. A fulfilling characteristic of mountain life is the slow and serene quality to it – the lungs full of fresh mountain air, the waking up to the chirping of birds, the vibrant shades of green all add to the experience. To truly experience the taste of life in the mountains, take a day to do particularly nothing – walk around one of the village trails, or just sit and soak in the sun, while you watch the colourful birds and butterflies. Breathe in, and like the locals advise, take a moment!
(Written by Aishwarya Guha)