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By -Manmohan Melville

Page 1  2  (Sikkim Travel Information)

 Sikkim a land of looming mountains and frozen lakes. Of monasteries and mysterious rituals. Of smiling people, who are still innocent and unspoiled by the ways of modern life. Sikkim is a tiny state, nestling in the mountain ranges of north-east of India, under the shadow of the majestic Kanchenjunga -- the third highest peak in the world.

 The state measures just 7,300 square kilometers -- roughly twice the size of Goa -- but, within this area, Sikkim has tropical valleys that are a mere 300 meters above sea level and icy peaks -- like Kanchenjunga  -- that rise 8586 meters into the sky!

 Sikkim derives its name from the word "sukh-im", which in the local dialect means "happy homeland". For a long time in history, it was an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom under the Red Hat or Nyingma-pa sect.

 In 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of India. And, it is only in recent years that this Happy Homeland has opened up to happy holiday-makers. That too -- not fully yet. Efforts are still on by the Sikkim Tourism Department to "market" it as a mountain destination for tourists.

 Sikkim is one of the most perfect destinations for vacationers in search of natural beauty, rugged adventure or spiritual tranquillity. This land of mist and mystery casts a spell on the visitor -- as one dreamy day floats gently into the next.

 In many ways, Sikkim represents India's Last Shangri-La. One last, wonderful glimpse at a way of life in the mountains, that once was -- and which may not remain, for long!

 Welcome to Sikkim!

 For first-time visitors to the mountain kingdom, the gateway to Sikkim is its capital city, Gangtok. And that is the first stop on my itinerary.  Even as I cross over the border into the tiny state, the difference is only too obvious. The air is not only cooler -- but definitely crisper! And at the first outpost -- the little town of Rangpo -- just kilometers after the border, another fact is suddenly evident -- the place is immaculately clean!

It seems as if those few kilometers across the border has taken me into another part of the world. The houses are in orderly rows arranged around a wide town square. The shop fronts are tidy. And there is not a piece of litter on the ground! The people of Sikkim pride themselves in their orderliness!  This trait is more and more evident as I approach the capital city. Gangtok rises in tiers along the sides of a high hillock, set between two deep valleys. Each tier of the hill becoming narrower and narrower -- from the bazaars and vehicle stands at the base -- to the royal palace along the thin ridge at the very top.

 Under the shadow of Kanchenjunga

 When I arrive at Gangtok, it is definitely off-tourist season. Hotel managers and tour operators are eager to give me attractive discounts. At the bus depot and tea-stalls, people are curious and helpful. Indeed, I find that most of the public officials (at post offices and tourist counters) are polite and respectful. Hey! I wonder, where did they learn these enchanting manners? But first, let me get around the city itself...

 Gangtok is situated in the southeast of Sikkim. It is the most developed city in the state -- having a large number of hotels, restaurants, tour companies and internet cafes. So naturally, it is the centre to which most tourists flock.

Unfortunately, because of the development of tourist trade, the city of Gangtok is gradually developing into a concrete sprawl. Many of the concerned citizens and politicians are only too aware of the dangers of unchecked construction on the slopes. Unlike Darjeeling, which is built on hard rocky mountain; Gangtok is located on a "younger hill", which tends to sink under the weight of new buildings -- resulting in "slip zones".

 Still, Gangtok has to be grateful at least to one ancient superstition that holds sway even today. In the old days, tradition dictated that all houses must face north-west -- towards the benevolent face of Kanchenjunga. As a result, even today, most of the eastern ridges are unoccupied -- acting as "green lungs" within the city. 

In the city itself, visitors will find that there are many ways to keep themselves engaged. They can take bracing walks from the base of the hill to the top of the ridge -- either along the gently rising roads or by the stone stairways that pass through beautifully laid out gardens. They can shop for curios in the colourful bazaars at Lall Market or New Market. Or they can visit the Buddhist monasteries and chortens (stupas) that dot the city. However, the real Sikkim unfolds only as one travels away from the capital city.

 Shangri-La Found!

 Broadly speaking, I would divide rural Sikkim into two zones -- the areas which most tourists find time to visit -- and the areas which even the most adventurous tourists find difficult to visit!

 Around Gangtok, there are many beautiful spots that are now conveniently accessible to casual tourists. Though these spots see a regular influx of visitors (especially during the summer and the Durga Pooja seasons), they still retain their pristine beauty.

 Tchango Lake is the prime attraction for the first-time tourist to Sikkim. It is situated 34 kilometers to the north-east of Gangtok, at a height of 3750 meters above sea level. 

This oval shaped lake is considered sacred by the local people. It remains frozen right till April -- the start of the summer tourist season in Sikkim. And so, visitors are delighted to encounter ice and snow on their vacation -- while the plains below are simmering in the summer heat.

 About 24 kms from Gangtok, in the opposite direction, is the Rumtek Monastery. It is the repository of many sacred Buddhist scriptures and treasures, making it the richest monastery in the state. Its treasures include a magical black hat which is said to give its wearer the power to fly (naturally, it is kept hidden from all visitors) and the ornate, jewel-encrusted tomb of the 16th Karmapa (which is on display to all visitors).

 Slightly more adventurous tourists may venture out to the isolated town of Pelling in West Sikkim. The highlight of this town is a visit to the Pemayangtse (Perfect Sublime Lotus) Monastery -- and the solitude of the surrounding mountains.

 Lost Kingdoms

 Solitude seems to be the key-word in the far-flung regions of Sikkim. The further one travels off the beaten tourist track -- the thicker the silence -- and the more breath-taking the natural beauty.

 One area that is yet to open up to the tourist trade is South Sikkim. Namchi town is the district headquarters of this area. The ridges around the town have many easy trekking routes -- but there is a total absence of tourist infrastructure here. I manage to trace just two worthwhile hotels and restaurants at Namchi.

 But, once I establish myself there, I feel that I should never leave. The people are as curious to see me -- a rare tourist -- as I am to explore their district. The food is excellent and cheap. And, I soon grow addicted to their salted tea, made thick with butter.

 Further west, the last accessible outpost of Sikkim is the little village of Yuksom. At one time, this was the capital of the mountain kingdom; but now it lies neglected after the rise of Gangtok. The only reason why avid trekkers come here, is because the village is the first base on the high-altitude Dzongri trekking path that runs northwards towards Mount Kanchenjunga itself!

 It is at isolated Yuksom, that I see some of the most memorable sights of Sikkim. I see the stone throne on which the first monarch of this ancient kingdom was crowned in 1642. I see thick, verdant forests of orchids along the path to the Dubdi Monastery. (Sikkim has more than 4,000 different species of plants -- including 30 varieties of rhododendrons and 546 varieties of orchids!) I see the sunrise paint the peak of Mount Kabur an incredible strawberry pink.

 And -- I guess -- it is at Yuksom that I left my heart.  Because of the skeletal transport system and the road construction work in that area, it was difficult to get there -- and even more difficult to get back.

 But, now that I am back, I often stop to wonder -- when will I return to those beautiful mountains?

Page 1  2  (Sikkim Travel Information)