Eastern Sikkim's Silk Route, an ancient corridor for the exchange of goods and culture between India and China, is a place of remote and pristine beauty
The snow-covered mountainous trail that used to connect Lhasa in Tibet via the Jelep La Pass to India is an ancient and spectacular one. In the old days knowledge was exchanged, art and culture was disseminated and, of course, silk was traded.
After Jelep La in eastern Sikkim, the Silk Route makes a rapid descent into Tibet's Chumbi Valley.
In the 19th Century, the East India Company came to an understanding with the Chogyal of Sikkim to use the route, mainly for trading tea. Over time, the Silk Route fell into disuse – demand for tea dropped with the advent of large-scale tea plantations in Bengal and Assam.
The 76-km track along the Rongli river coils around beautiful pine-covered hills. After Lingtham, the hills are suddenly shrouded by a soft blanket of clouds. At Zuluk, a hamlet of some 60 houses at 9,400 ft above sea level, there is a modest tourist lodge with running water and room heaters.
Starting early next morning for Gnathang, after crossing the Thambi viewpoint, there is a majestic view of the Kanchenjunga. The first rays of the sun create a kaleidoscopic effect on its snow-capped peaks.
A snow-covered road leads to Gnathang (12,300 ft above sea level), where some 200 families live in a village which houses a monastery and a memorial for a British soldier. Ninety-year-old Donga Bhutia says she remembers seeing Tibetan kings, British caravans and Buddhist monks using the route. A young woman Pema Sherpa, has turned an abandoned bungalow into a tourist lodge at the edge of the village.
After Gnathang, Kupub is the last human habitation near the Jelep La pass. The Sikkim government has tried to promote tourism in the region, but restrictions on tourist movement, as a result of the proximity to the border, is a huge barrier.
PhotoFile, a fortnightly photo feature that captures different aspects of Indian life and society.