Home to the majestic landscape of snow clad mountains, deep valleys and glacial lakes, Sikkim is nothing less than spectacular. It’s one of those places in the world where your eyes can feast onto the gorgeous setting all at once. Sikkim tourism, no doubt, boasts its region with pride for reasons which are obvious: in such a small secluded state in East India, travelers get to see Khangchendzonga, the world’s third-highest mountain from almost any viewpoint, Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim is sitting at an elevation of 5,410 ft, then there is the faint chant of the Buddhist prayer in sync with the movement of air – irrespective of where you are.
“This Sunday would be our 13th day in Bhutan. I cannot believe how amazing this life has been precious to give me opportunities to ..”, just as soon as my travel mind began to ponder about life philosophies, I was already drawn towards my longing-ness for a plate of my favorite Bhutanese dish Ema Datshi one last time before we rode back to New Jalpaiguri/Siliguri via Phuentsholing (Bhutan border).
It almost felt like it was just yesterday that we started our epic motorcycle road trip from Siliguri to Bhutan.
Along the way passersby stopped a minute to have a chat “there’s something about the clicks and clanks of a motorbike, the sounds of the engine, the hardships along the way, but mainly it’s how a tiring and gruesome day becomes a part of those memories that you keep telling your friends and family over the coming years – because sometimes it’s the struggles that we remember the most. With time and again, I realise motorbiking isn’t one of the easiest means to travel – you’re somehow constantly driven to reach the destination rather than exploring the open roads. But as we got to the end of this road trip from India to Bhutan and now towards Sikkim, I knew it was now or never. I had to let go, forget about reaching the destination and focus on enjoying the journey.
The second leg of our Himalayan road trip was still ahead of us. Next up was Sikkim. This little state in East India, sits on the foothills of the Himalayas bordering Tibet, Nepal and Bhutan. At about 116km, the route from Bagdogra, and Siliguri leads to the National Highway NH31A after meeting at Sevoke Road. The road snakes along the gorgeous Teesta river up to Rangpo, the bordering town of West Bengal and Sikkim. Gangtok is about 30 kms from here.
As we got closer to Gangtok, it’s rugged landscapes dotted with quaint villages and a rich tribal culture wasn’t really noticeable as the night kicked in early.
If you’re planning a trip to India, there’s no doubt you must add Sikkim to your travel plans. Here’s why you should:
Meet Sikkim’s Local
From Lepchas, the indigenous people of Sikkim, the Bhutias, the Buddhist descendants who migrated from Tibet, to Gorkhas who migrated from Nepal, Sikkim has a rich and unique blend of languages and customs. Just like how we got to experience the culture and traditional ways of life in remote villages during our motorbike road to Ladakh and Bhutan, Sikkims indigenous tribes are found in villages like Yangthang, Naku Chumbong and Yuksam. While each tribe has their own village, most are about 35 km from Pelling.
Getting Around Sikkim
The closest airport to Sikkim is Bagdogra Airport, about 120km from Gangtok. Foreigners would have to request an inner line permit for travelling to Sikkim allowing a permit to stay for seven days. The best way to get around the city is either drive or hire a car with a driver so he will know the rules in case you miss on any permits. Some places like Nathula Pass requires special permissions even for Indian Nationals.
Gangtok’s Food and Nightlife
There are plenty of restaurants where you can find traditional cuisines. Since Sikkim borders Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet, you’ll be surprised with the variety you’ll find here. A typical Sikkimese diet is rice and lentil, sometimes meat for breakfast and momos and thukpa (noodle soup with vegetable) for light lunches. One of my favorite place is the 9’ine Native cuisine in central Gangtok. After a bit of a chat with the owner of the restaurant, we requested him to surprise us with the dinner choice.
Sikkimese dishes are prepared to keep the body warm because of the cold climate, and its healthier as the major portion of ingredients consists of fermented vegetables, meat and dairy.
Sitting at one of the corner tables on first floor, we watched tourists walk by alleyways under their colourful umbrellas as it was the beginning of a stormy night. It was a perfect night for some soup, food and drinks to keep warm.
The course consisted of Gundruk soup made of fermented leafy vegetables, cottage cheese based dish, followed by steamed rice and chicken curry. It was divine!
A fascinating fact is that the first land based live casino in India was set up in Gangtok. There are plenty of pubs along the New Market area of M.G Marg (Mahatma Gandhi Market). The owner suggested to try Tongba at a pub few blocks away. The Tongba is the hard vessel that holds the alcoholic beverage made out of fermented whole grain millet. I wish I could say I loved it but I couldn’t gulp in more than 5 sips. It was too strong.
Driving to China Border in Sikkim – Nathula Pass
Since the weather seemed unfavourable, we decided to hire a local taxi (4×4) rather than riding. The road to Nathula Pass, highest pass on Indo-chino border, is not a smooth drive but one of the major points of interest. Covered in snow, the drive up the hill is quite fascinating although you might spend a few hours stuck in traffic. Since it takes at least two whole days to get permits to go to the border, we only visited Changu lake.
Stop by Tsomgo Lake
Hands down! Tsomgo lake is one of the main reasons I loved Sikkim. Second to the Pangong lake in Ladakh, this glacial lake that sits on a 12,313 ft is the most beautiful high altitude lake I have been to. Since it was a clear day, I was able to see reflections of the surrounding hills. In winter, the lake is surrounded by steep mountains covered in snow while the lake remains frozen. In summer the snow melts and becomes the source of lake.
Explore North Sikkim
If I’d ever had to go back to Sikkim, it would be to explore North Sikkim. We couldn’t make it as there were road blocks and the weather conditions didn’t seem to favorable. The landscape changes dramatically as the road winds upwards.
There’s something about the monasteries in this part of the world. One of the famous and largest monasteries in Sikkim is the Rumtek Monastery. Its fine architecture resembles the original one in Tsurphu, Tibet.
As I walked around the temple, I could hear a team of monks chanting their prayers. I went closer to one of the hall entrances to hear them closer. It led me to a prayer room and leaving the door partially open, I sat by the stairs reciting my favorite verse – the 4 dharmas of Gampopa:
chö lam du dro war chin gyi lop
Grant your blessing so that Dharma may progress along the path.
lam trul wa shyik par chin gyi lop
Grant your blessing so that the path may clarify confusion.
trulpa yeshé su char war chin gyi lop
Grant your blessing so that confusion may dawn as wisdom.
Have you visited any of these places in Sikkim? Write down your comments below.