Touring stunning Sikkim

Trip Start Jun 30, 2010
Trip End Jun 01, 2011

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Where I stayed
Season's Guest House, Lachung
Hotel Kabur, Pelling
Hotel Yangri Gang, Yuksom
Dungmali Guest House, Namchi
Mingtokling Guest House, Gangtok
Modern Central Lodge, Gangtok

Flag of India  , Sikkim,
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Namaste from beautiful Sikkim! Sikkim means ‘happy homeland’ in Limbu and it is impossible not to fall for this tiny, lush, mountainous, predominantly Nepali-speaking Indian state, situated beyond Darjeeling’s tea plantations in the Eastern Himalayas. Sandwiched between Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, Sikkim is home to some of the most easy-going people in India (75% Nepalese Gurungs, 20% Lepchas, the former rulers, with small populations of Butias of Tibetan origin and Limbus, also possibly of Tibetan origin). Having travelled from Delhi to Kolkata and north through West Bengal to Darjeeling, Sikkim immediately felt peaceful and comparitively affluent. According to the guide book this is because China has never officially recognised India’s claim to Sikkim, which was independent until 1975, so the Indian government has made it a tax-haven and poured finance into the state’s infrastructure and industry to 'bolster pro-Delhi sentiment' (Lonely Planet).

Our three weeks in Sikkim were spent touring via the ubiquitous and beyond 'cosy' public jeeps (14 inside and 4 on the roof of a 10 seater was not uncommon), taking an organised tour around North Sikkim (an extra-restricted area because of its proximity to China) with a great young Sikkimese guide called Bemjamling and driver (with the stamina of an ox), and hiking eight days into the wilderness of the Sikkimese Himalayas with a local guide, cook and porter team to a high pass called the Goecha La to look out over the Khangchendzonga mountain range (see separate entry for more on that).

Sikkim’s landscapes range from deep humid valleys such as the Jorethang valley at just 300m above sea level to pine and Rhododendron forest, alpine valleys and soaring Himalayan peaks, including Khangchendzonga (3rd highest mountain in world and worshipped as the guardian deity of Sikkim). Wooden villages cling to steep, forested mountain slopes and the larger, rapidly modernising towns such as Namchi (meaning 'Sky High'), Pelling and the capital, Gangtok have developed along ridgelines. Waterfalls cascade and freefall down the green mountainsides, providing stunning spectacles and, of course, the ideal car-wash where they cascade roadside.

Most settlements are connected by a network of tortuous, vertigo-inducing, bone-shaking roads that take a battering every monsoon and are disrupted by large, frequent landslides. The uncharacteristically late monsoon this year meant landslides were still occuring at the end of September, into the tourist season. Even the jeeps were struggling with the conditions. The roads are a lifeline for Sikkim's communities and its economy and the scale of work underway across the state in a bid to keep the roads open was quite staggering. We came across numerous women work-parties squatting at the road edge in their colourful saris, hammering away at big grey rocks to create high mounds of gravel. Men and women, all ages, filled potholes and worked alongside bulldozers and diggers to load lorries and fill heavy-duty wire cages with boulders to brace unstable slopes. In North Sikkim the road authority, the Border Road Organisation (BRO), likes to emphasise the importance of its work with signs saying "Wondered who it is that defies death to keep the roads open? BRO." Other BRO signs urge driver caution such as, "Overtake for the Undertaker", "If married, divorce speed", "Driving faster can cause disaster", and "Don't gossip, let him drive" !

Despite the road conditions, and some poor weather, we were able to get around Sikkim easily; Sikkim's small size, just over 7,000sqkm, enabled us to gain a good appreciation of its historic sights, the local communities and culture, and its incredible scenery. Sikkim is one of India’s greenest states both in terms of forest cover and environmental awareness and policy. It is ‘one of the 26 global biodiversity hot-spots’ and over 82% of its land area is ‘Recorded Forest Area’ (Sikkim Tourism). Plastic bags were banned years ago, polluters are fined for river spills and people are positively encouraged to plant trees. It was interesting to see a number of hydro-electric dam projects were underway; street banners advertised information and consultation events. One hotelier in Gangtok told us that local people had protested against a dam to try to protect the livelihoods of the fishermen, to no avail. He put it simply, 'more people wanted electricity than wanted fish.'

In the mist at Solophok, outside Namchi, we wandered around the giant Shiva statue and Hindu temple complex, still currently a building site. Our Catholic guesthouse owner, Mr Dungmali, was very excited about this complex, less than a mile up the hill, which would undoubtedly bring hundreds of Hindu pilgrims to stay. We then taxied across to the opposite hillside to the even larger golden Padmashambhava statue at Samdruptse, who's foundation stone was laid by the Dalai Lama. Quite a sight even in the mist. At Gangtok we booked our roadtrip to North Sikkim (Yak Treks & Tours based at New Modern Central Hotel), and were warned not to stray too far down Gangtok's forested slopes as a balu (bear) had attacked a goat-herder only a few days before! Sights on our tour around North Sikkim included: Kabi Lungchok, site of the Lepcha-Butia bloodpact and now a holy site and WWF nature reserve; Seven Sisters Waterfall; bright green rice terraces and cardamon slopes around Mangan; the huge HEP engineering works at Chungthang; the alpine Yumthang Valley with its ice-blue river, landslides, rhododendron walks and Indian Army camp; Lachung Gompa (1880) and Phodonog Gompa (1740); the Tashi viewpoint; the numerous landslides and 'death defying' roadworks. From North Sikkim we headed west to Pelling to visit the monastery there. We got caught in the afternoon monsoon and were soaked to the skin in minutes, but the next morning we woke to crystal clear views of Khangchendzonga. We jeep-shared with a fun Israeli couple, heading to Yuksom via Lake Khecheopalri, a peaceful, holy lake lined with prayer flags, and the Khangchendzonga Waterfall. 

Yuksom was once Sikkim's capital, three lamas crowned the first chogyal (king) of Sikkim there, and it remains a quaint, rural village, despite being the trailhead for the increasingly popular Dzongri/Goecha La trek. Here we were forced to relax by the relentless monsoon rain which continued for four days. We did brave the rain and leeches to visit the Norbugang, site of the Coronation Throne and home to an ancient pine whose branches drooped dangerously under the weight of the bryophytic bromeliads, ferns and orchids. But most of our time in Yuksom we spent very contentedly sat under the bamboo gazebos of the Yak Restaurant and Gupta's eating our way through the menus, chatting with other travellers, and getting prepared for our next trek.... 

Best wishes
Nickie & Phil

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