Off the beaten track- Sikkim
Manas Subramony| Guest Writer
“Of monks and monasteries
Pretty people and eerie valleys
Is that a stream of utter bliss?
That my hand curves over.
My heart beats faster
As I near the enigmatic mountains
I hear the Teesta echo
Flowing by the meadows
beseeching with a garden of flowers.
Where I follow by hand and eye
the limits of the Kanchendzonga
The snow dappled peaks
Resting high above the clouds.
Come hither, to the twenty second state
Hidden away in tranquillity
The land of the mystique
One of ethereal beauty.”
After much deliberation, my friends and I had eventually narrowed down our long impending trip’s destination to the twenty second state of the Indian union, Sikkim. Nestled away among the Himalayas, this tiny state shares its boundaries with Nepal, Tibet (China) and Bhutan. Needless to say, the three similar, yet distinct, cultures overlap pretty well in the state. The Kingdom of Sikkim, founded on the Silk Road had been continuing its protectorate status with India till 1975, despite China’s invasion of Tibet. A multi-ethnic state now, it enjoys the highest literacy rate among all the Himalayan states.
It is often said that the journey, if not more, is as amazing as the destination, and what better way of commencing the trip than by embarking on a forty-hour long train ride in the blue, dingy coaches of the LTT-Guwahati Express. Indian train travel has often been romanticized by ardent travelers, and rightfully so, despite the lamentable hygiene standards and abysmal food served. As the train chugs across the breadth of the country, you witness its diversity in a short duration- much like watching the highlights of a Test match.
The nearest railway junction to Sikkim is New Jalpaiguri Junction, near Silguri, in West Bengal. Gangtok is a four hour long journey by road through Rangpo. On entering Sikkimese territory, you get a whiff of plenty of things, which are unique to the place. For instance, it is very easy to fall in love with the state- primarily because of the awfully beautiful and polite people. Coming from the city, it was hard to believe the warmth and politeness of the locals, to an extent that it makes you wonder whether you merit so much niceness. It’s also very easy to underestimate the travel time in the state. Traveling to a town as close as 5km away could well take more than thirty minutes as the highway (which hardly qualifies as one) curves along the mountains, crosses ledges and runs across the river while failing to accommodate two-way traffic, comprising of army trucks and private SUVs, on a one lane landslide ravished road.
One of the Himalayas’ best kept secrets, Sikkim is a welcome change from India’s regular travel destinations, and is waiting to be explored.
Our SUV conquered yet another hairpin as we saw boys and girls in green sweaters, reminiscent of Ranbir Kapoor in Barfi, scurrying away to the government school. It was pretty evident from the beautiful street architecture – the aesthetically installed green railings along the pavement, overlooking the valley, and the street lights which blended well with the towering trees- that we had reached the capital. It was quite impressive to see how proactive the traffic cops (both men and women) were in regulating the uniformly coloured taxis in the hilly town. The best part about getting accommodation in Sikkim is the option of staying in the many ambient homestays, away from the characterless and boring hotels. We planned well to stay only in homestays, run by the sweetest of people.
MG Marg (it is almost a norm to have one in every hill station in the country), Gangtok’s social and shopping hub, is a happy place at dusk. Snack stalls, fine dine places, cheap alcohol, discotheques and scores of shops along the main drag keep the good times rolling. You can vouch on getting friendly company as my friend swooned over a criminal lawyer while he played his guitar for her at Burpies.
Lying in the heart of the eastern Himalayas, North Sikkim is usually a three day tour, scantily visited due to frequent landslides and earthquakes. The quaint valleys of Yumthang, known for the numerous species of Rhododendrons come on the way to Zero Point- the end of the last motorable road to the citizens, with the Chinese border just a few miles away. The ride to Zero Point is bumpy though, but isn’t that what intrepid travel is all about? The essence of traveling by road in Sikkim were the occasional huts and shops on the way, where the locals welcomed the travellers inside to some steamy momos and numerous bowls of delicious Maggis. One such stretch of road at Yumthang Valley offered us some Tibetan tea. Apart from being impressed by the procedure of making it, we were more appalled by the ingredients since they didn’t use sugar, but butter!
The highlight of the North Sikkim tour for me though, was Gurudongmar Lake at 17000 feet- one of the highest lakes in the world. Despite being unable to feel our fingers thanks to the freezing temperature and the gusty winds, the thrill of facing the adverse weather conditions kept us in good spirit. What was funny during this trip though was the remedy to breathing problems at such high altitudes offered by the localities- popcorn!
Nathu La and Zuluk
Probably the most frequently visited place in Sikkim by tourists, the Nathu La pass at the Indo-Chinese border was quite a disappointment for us. The North Sikkim hangover could possibly be blamed for this, but the sheer number of people standing in queue to see the Chinese border put us off. About three hours away from Gangtok, geographically visiting Nathu La was inevitable for our Zuluk plans. In the south east of Sikkim, Zuluk is a tiny tranquil village with hardly any communication network. It usually does not attract many tourists, so it worked out well for us, tucked away from the rest of the world.
Our homestay in this sequestered village was probably the best place that we had stayed in. Our affable hosts made us feel comfortable in our tastefully appointed rooms, while making good dinner conversation by the kitchen fire. Sharing stories about how Vishal Dadlani once sneaked into the village and occupied the room that we were staying in, our host was very easy to mingle with. While people head towards Sikkim in search of spirituality, I believe this place is what it is primarily due to the hospitality of its beautiful people. Although their niceness eventually rubbed off on my arrogant city-boy skin, I couldn’t help but feel guilty when a popcorn vendor apologized to me for handing over a folded twenty rupees note.
Though we were scoffed at by our cab driver for staying for two long days at a place as boring as Zuluk, it was probably only here that I felt the simplicity of life away from the hustle and bustle of Mumbai. We failed to get a view of the mighty Kanchendzonga in all places except at Thambi Point near Zuluk, which felt like a good culmination to the trip.
Sikkim was a fantastic adventure off the beaten track, and a welcome diversion from the conventional notions of holidays in India. As I boarded the train to my mechanical life, I couldn’t help but wonder if I could ever find people as nice as them in Mumbai while convincing myself that no one could match the swagger of our cab driver, Amrit-ji, when he kept halting the car to light a cigarette.
Featured image: Shirley D’Souza