Whenever I think of Sikkim, I think of prayer flags against an azure sky. The state (the second-smallest after Goa and the least populous in India) – seems relatively uncorrupted by tourism.
That also means getting there is hard if you don’t have money for jet fuel (see box: Getting There). A friend and I took a small tempo, which squeezed four people into a back seat meant for two. Four hours later, when we reached Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, we were only glad that our backs and legs had survived. Note: It’s worth paying for an extra seat in the tempo just for the space.
One of the monasteries in Gangtok.
Once you’ve reached however, the fun begins. We made an unconventional first stop: the Directorate of Handicrafts and Handlooms. It puts on a curious little display – a typewriter-cum-calculator, another typewriter with just numbers, a beehive from 1936, the Buddha painted using fruit and vegetable dyes.
There’s a new addition to the artefacts. Narendra Modi visited the place recently. His comments in the visitor’s diary have been turned into a huge poster and displayed prominently. In high spirits
We were quite lucky to catch a Nepali rock show, part of an ongoing music festival, on our first day there, because the rest of our trip was as rustic as it gets. We headed to Lachung in colder North Sikkim on Day Two, spotting the Kangchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, on our way there.
For this part of the world, it’s best to get a guide. There are several tours, ranging from two to four days, that most first-timers opt for, and we did too. The tour operators also organise the permits required for Indians and foreigners, so carry your identification.
Top Shots! Find serenity atop a yak at the Tsongmo lake in East Sikkim.
But despite local aid, you might be at the mercy of the elements. Our itinerary included the Yumthang Valley and Lake Gurudongmar, but heavy snowfall had blocked the roads to the lake. Sikkim, it turns out, is a nice place to be thankful for what you to manage to see.
Be especially thankful for the woollies you packed when you left your hot city. By the time we reached Lachen, a town almost on the border of Tibet, it was too cold to focus on anything but keeping warm. It was near sub zero and we had to rent gloves – funny-looking pink ones – and gumboots in order to survive Yumthang Valley the next day. I looked like a cross between a forensic expert and a polar bear. But I certainly was warmer.
Tourism types describe Yumthang as a ‘grazing pasture’. Don’t listen to them. It’s anything but a pasture, unless the animals had taken to the taste of snow. But it’s beautiful. The entire area was dusted in white, we could have been in the Alps. It was the fluttering prayer flags that reminded us that we were still in Sikkim.
What’s a trip to Sikkim without a visit to a monastery or five? The serenity of Rumtek will make you wonder why it was so recently a hotbed of sectarian tension. Pigeons flutter around the main compound, little students amble to their lessons, and the sight of the monastery against the quiet mountainside is spellbinding.
At the beautiful Ranka monastery just outside Gangtok, it appears the gods wanted to make up for us missing Lake Gurudongmar. By a stroke of luck, the Lama dance – which happens once a year – was in progress. The huge compound in the middle of the monastery was turned into a stage, with several monks (their faces masked, their arms brandishing swords and other paraphernalia), dancing on.
Death be not proud: Many believe that witnessing a Lama dance, which happens once a year, takes away one’s fear of death. (Photos: Thinkstock)
When I asked a woman what it signified, she said that it was believed that if you saw the Lama dance, it would take away the fear of death. My slightly frightened self couldn’t agree more.
We also got talking to a Bhutanese monk, who was the best person for a quick understanding of Buddhism. "We all want something or the other," he said. "Nothing is enough. We should learn to be content with what we have."
The words had a lovely ring to them, coming from a monk. Those would be the perfect last words on which we left Sikkim with a smile on our faces.
* The nearest airport is Bagdogra, only 124km from Gangtok. Several domestic carriers operate from Kolkata, Delhi and other cities.
* If the weather and your budget permits, there are daily helicopter flights from Bagdogra to Gangtok.
* Or take the road. NH31A from Siliguri to Gangtok is a slow but picturesque two-hour ride.
From HT Brunch, June 14
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