Going over the Coronation Bridge spanning the Teesta river, we crossed over from West Bengal to Sikkim. From here on, the sapphire blue Teesta became our companion. Originating in the icy confines of a glacial lake at 17,487 feet, Tso Lhamo, the Teesta gathers strength and volume as it streams down forming a natural divide between Darjeeling and Sikkim. Two incisions ran deep in the mountainside; the ravines of the Teesta and the road above it. Between them lay slopes of rain-drenched dense jungle. Miniscule flowers, bright spots on a green mat, dotted the slopes and often edged the road. Only some stubborn boulders remained grey-blue and bare. Up and up we wound, and then the road was running along the treetops, their trunks, hundreds of feet below, lost to view.
After five hours of winding up the mountainside, we crested a slope and were halted by traffic which heralded our arrival in Gangtok! Being tucked away in the outer range of the Himalayas has not prevented Gangtok from spreading out. The green forest has been replaced by vertical blocks of brick and cement coloured yellow, green and blue. When we entered the city, it was immediately identifiable by the characteristic bus stand and milling crowds - the hallmark of all hill stations.
An early start
Living at sea level in the western part of the country, I did not realise how early the day begins in the eastern mountains, until a strong beam of light hit my eyes. Groggily, I squinted at my watch. 4 am. Oh God! But the sun was over the hills, and soon I decided to follow the sun. We made White Hall our first halt to see the seasonal flower show that was attracting crowds with its rhododendrons. The place itself is value-added with its graceful two-storied structure, built in 1932 in memory of Claude White, Sikkim's first political British officer. We spent a while here, but soon headed out to the National Research Centre for Orchids at Pakyong, 40 km out of Gangtok.
The Centre is on a hillock surrounded by greenhouses, hothouses and orchidiums. The research scientist is delighted to have visitors and comes along to show us his precious blooms. We are told that there are 25,000 species in the family Orchidaceae, and India has 1,700 of them. Around 800 are found across the Himalayan hills while 450 species are native to Sikkim and Darjeeling. But of course, as forests continue to be decimated for development, these fragile and mysterious plants are threatened with extinction. The centre is now protecting and reviving important species like Cymb-idium, Dendrobium and others in greenhouses. Armed with this knowledge, we follow our guide and are swept off our feet as we set eyes on orchids of numerous hues, sizes and shapes. It is late afternoon when we guiltily realise that we have deprived our host of his lunch in our enthusiasm and finally take his leave.
Back in the city, we realise that the Gangtok Mall is just delightful. A pedestrian zone, well paved with lovely shops on either side and benches down the centre for idlers. However, we turned our attention to the bakery we spotted and went in for a coffee and snack. By the time we emerged, street lights were winking at us. This time we sat on a bench to enjoy the dip in temperature while shooting some night pictures of the mall.
Charged with the beauty of the hills, we took off for Fambong Lho Wildlife Sanctuary early next morning with Ogden, a botanist, as our guide. A dynamic young Lepcha, Ogden was all zest and kept up a running commentary about the flora of Sikkim. Often he would get the taxi to halt to show us wild flowers by the roadside. Fambong Lho covers 5,280 hectares and peaks at 7,000 feet. We walked steadily for an hour uphill through rhododendron forest, blazing with bright red blooms and pausing often to regain our breath or take pictures. The forest is reputed to be the home of the Himalayan Black Bear, Red Panda, Leopard, Civet Cats, Chinese Pangolins, several reptiles and over 281 bird species, although it was rather quiet on the morning we walked through.
A star turn
The next day, a buffeting wind engulfed us as we alighted from our jeep, pricking my half clad arms with icy spikes. Hugging myself for warmth, I dashed through the door of the hotel, Mount Pandim. In our room, the wide window attracted us like a magnet. Framed perfectly within its glass rectangle was a panorama that kept us glued to the ground. Finally wrenching ourselves away, we decided to drive to Yuksom, 40 km from Pelling.
Yuksom is perhaps better known for its connection with Bollywood star Danny Denzongpa than for its history. Along its main street the only major structure was that of a hotel belonging to Danny. The rest were shacks or makeshift tents beneath which locals spread out their wares, mostly clothes and shoes that come across the border from China. Nevertheless Yuksom, meaning the 'meeting point of three wise men' and its Dubdi monastery, are landmarks of Sikkimese history. It is said that three lamas converged here from different directions, and chose the first Chogyal, king, whom they crowned in 1641. Yuksom became the first capital of Sikkim. Dubdi was built later in 1701 an hour's trek away from Yuksom, deep in the forest. Once housing 30-40 monks, today only a few remain, but it still holds valuable paintings and manuscripts along with the statues of the three lamas who anointed the first Chogyal.
Face to face with majesty
Pelling, at 6,800 feet is remote. Even now, it is just one street with single storey homes and just a few hotels coming up. Pelling draws people today because it stands face to face with the patron Goddess of Sikkim - Mount Kanchen-gjunga. Perhaps, in the past, that would have propelled the king to build a summer palace here. Today, the palace is a heritage hotel with a frontal view of the high Himalayan range.
The alarm shrieked at 3.30 am. I groggily ran to the window, drawing the curtains apart. A thick curtain of cloud greeted me. 4.30 am. Anxiety struck my heart. If the clouds did not roll away, sunrise on the peaks would be lost. A minute or two later, one solitary peak raised its head. Rent apart, the cloud curtain dropped and there, close enough to touch, stood some of the highest peaks of the world, draped in dazzling white snow. The pyramidal shape of Kanchengjunga towered above the others. 5 am. The light got a bit stronger and a pencil thin beam of golden spangled light shot out. By the minute, the light spread rapidly, torching each peak like a taper put to candles and they flared up radiantly, blushing mildly. We watched the rapidly changing scene through the lens only in single pointed concentration, aware that this was a never to be repeated show.
After that, we turned our attention to our next destination, Pemayangtse Gompa, the second oldest monastery of Sikkim founded in 1705. Pemayangtse stands aloof on a hilltop, ringed by the mountains it venerates. As we entered the courtyard we heard chanting from within the hall, the sound floating melodiously on the crisp air and saw prayer flags flutter in the wind. To the left of the stairs is housed a large prayer wheel in its own enclosure. Pemayangtse is a three storied wooden structure. The main prayer hall holds a massive statue of the Buddha flanked by his other incarnations and teachers of the sect. The first floor has more idols of the stalwarts of Buddhism, and on the third floor is a unique floor to ceiling structure - the 'Sanghthokpalri' - a seven tiered painted structure that encompasses all that is on earth and ascends to heaven. Fascinated, I silently salute the monk who gave five years of his life to this creation. Then I descend to the main hall, the Lakhang. I sit quietly on a low bench facing the Buddha, absorbing the peace in His abode. A