Take in the mesmerising Khangchendzonga, the celebrated monasteries, and everything else East Sikkim has to offer.
“Khangchendzonga”or Kanchenjunga, the radiant one. Golden when the rays of the Sun fall on her. We could have spent our entire holiday just gazing at her mesmerising form, now visible, now lost in the gossamer draperies of mist. Like most tourists, we make it a point to pull ourselves out of bed at dawn to gaze at these snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas.
The flight from Kolkata to Bagdogra takes an hour. And from there, we climb up to Gangtok, a five-hour drive, passing by the town of Siliguri on the banks of the Mahananda, and the beautiful terracotta ware in the wayside stalls at Matigara. Tall and slender trees line the route. The Sun throws patterns of light through the trees. The river Teesta gurgles over rocks and boulders, and we can sight her as we journey up the hills.
Along the way, we treat ourselves to freshly-plucked corn roasted on coals and dusted with chilli, salt and lime. Luscious litchis, complete with twigs and leaves, are carried by vendors in baskets, giving us a taste of this fruit-rich State.
Monkeys clamber on parapet walls on the roadside. Across the bridge and the check post, and it is “Welcome to Sikkim.”
At Rangpo, the entry point, we stop at the guest house with its white Pomeranian mascot. Beautiful pictures of Nehru and Indira Gandhi with the late Chogyal and his family line the walls. Sikkim, an erstwhile monarchy, became part of the Indian Union in 1975.
The call of the lights
It is almost dark when we arrive at Gangtok. The hillside is flecked with lights, and our first impression of the capital of Sikkim is of a sloping sky filled with stars. Next morning, we are off to see the sights.
Tourism is a priority in the hills, and at the Bhanjhakri Falls, the Shamans, the tribal medicine men and women, are showcased. There are images and masks to represent them at the park. Tourists preen in the beautiful native dress of the Bhutia community and take photographs. The majority of the Sikkimese are Hindus or Buddhists.
The romantic Silk Route lures us the following day, and we are on our way to the Nathu La (Pass) on the Indo-China border. It is a perilous climb, and the heart operates its own traffic lights each time we look down — coming to an almost complete stop at the red light of the bends where there is often a sheer drop of a thousand feet. One can't help saluting the skill of jeep drivers who make these trips so many times a week during the season.
Mountain streams eagerly rush to meet the Teesta far below. We come to the sacred Lake Tsomgo, a placid grey green now, but an icy sheet of white in winter.
There are gaily-decorated yaks with scarlet saddle cloths and brightly-coloured woven threads covering their horns. The animals walk along with “Am-I-not-looking-ever-so-dainty” expressions while tourists snap their pictures or take a ride. Higher, and we come to the mountain beyond which, we are told, lies China.
We reach the spot where a memorial has been erected for Harbhajan Singh, a sepoy who went missing while patrolling the border. It is now a shrine for those praying for the recovery of loved ones who are ailing.
At the Rumtek monastery the next day, we are in for a lovely surprise. The balconies are filled with devotees and viewers. In the impressive courtyard, the annual Chaam dance is in progress. The performing monks wear brocade robes and colourful masks, and in a slow, stately rhythm, twirl around while the red clad monk-musicians play on pipes and other musical instruments.
We feel we can stay here forever, so hypnotic and calming is the dance. But time is short and we make our way to the 200-year-old Enchey monastery and the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology set up by the late Chogyal, which has an interesting collection of Tibetan literature and artefacts.
In the evening, a short stroll on the Mahatma Gandhi Marg in Gangtok offers a blissful, undisturbed shopping experience, as it is completely closed to traffic.
The price of development is visible in Sikkim as in all hill stations, with too many multi-storeyed structures clustered together.
Sikkim's handicrafts are on display at the State emporium. The dragon-patterned, small tables in scarlet and blue make one pause, but the panic stricken “How do we transport them?” cry from the family reluctantly makes one turn aside.
East Sikkim is all we can manage in four days. There is so much of the State left unexplored.
Flowers grow in abundance here and the rhododendron festival is a highlight of the calendar. Sikkim is an adventure lover's delight with the scope for rafting and trekking. But that is for “braver souls”, we add sotto voce.
Even our farewell is sweet as we bite into rich plums bought at the wayside stalls of the local market on our way down. And, sold by local girls whose peaches and cream complexion seems to bounce off the fruit in their baskets.
Keywords: Sikkim tourism