As we tour Gangtok, we discover that the hills are still alive with beauty

When my friend Indu and I sat down to decide on our annual trip, we mutually hit upon Sikkim. Both of us love the mountains; and the lovely pictures we had seen and the remoteness of the place were added incentives. We booked ourselves on a flight to Bagdogra in West Bengal, from where we drove to Darjeeling and then to Ganktok. The Teesta River followed us all the way, in its green glory, winding through the Himalayas like a bejeweled snake goddess.

Our hotel in Gangtok was the Royal Demazong, a Mahindra resort facing the Chola range. It was a beautiful setting and the traditional warmth of the Sikkimese staff added to its charm.

Gangtok is a neat and well designed city, its buildings aesthetically constructed and with an oriental touch. It is spacious, unlike some of the North Indian hill stations cluttered with dilapidated buildings and unchecked growth. The mall road, named Mahatma Gandhi Road, is a pedestrian’s paradise. Wide and clean and dotted with flower pots and benches, it even has Bose speakers playing piped music. This is a city of law-abiders, we realised, which had not yet seen an influx of tourists from North India! The Ropeway or cable car gave us a bird’s eye view of the town and the Bhusuk River rushing 1,000 metres below us.

No trip to Sikkim is complete without a visit to its pagoda-like monastries. Tibetan in origin, they preserve a form of Tibetan Buddhism. Rumtek, the oldest and the most magnificent, was built in the 16th century and is the seat of the Karma Kagyu sect. It has seen sectarian violence in the past and the Indian army still has a presence here.

The centuries-old structures of Zurmang Kagyud and Enchey Monastries are also magnificent. Enchey was built by the eighth Chogyal or king of Sikkim on the spot where the Tantric ‘flying’ monk Lama Druptub Karbo is said to have built his hermitage. The vibrant masked Cham dance festival is held here each year. Gonjang, the youngest monastry, was established in 1981, and we saw it being re-painted by jean-clad, spiky-haired artists who created traditional gods and goddesses on the interior walls while listening to rock music.

At the Directorate of Handicrafts, we saw artistes weaving exquisite carpets and bamboo products. The shamanistic-themed Ban Jhakri falls included an aerial ride just above the narrow falls. At the permanent flower exhibition, we found 600 species of orchids. The giant Do Drul Chorten or stupa, with its rare mandalas and holy mantras, was surrounded by 108 lazily turning prayer wheels that monks and visitors pushed periodically. Unfortunately, the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of Tibetan works outside Tibet, was shut that day.

On our last day, we visited what turned out to be the highlight of our tour: the Nathu La Pass. On the border between India and China, the pass at 14,450 feet was once part of the Silk Route between India and China and was closed down in 1961 during Sino-Indian hostilities. It reopened in 2006 but tourists still need Army permits to visit.

The route to Nathu-La was dotted with frozen water bodies, including Lake Tsomgo, and by an army of yaks in colourful saddles. At the spot, two structures face each other across a barbed wire fence, and beyond the Chinese side one glimpses Tibet. The Chinese soldiers in their thick jackets and caps were persuaded to come down to the fence and be photographed shaking hands with us.

Somewhere between Nathu La and Jelep La passes is the Baba Harbhajan Singh Memorial, dedicated to Baba, a young soldier who lost his life during the Sino-Indian war and is revered by both Indians and Chinese. Both sides believe his spirit still protects them from inclement weather and even skirmishes with each other!