A bright yellow sign on the winding road to Sikkim reads, IT’S NOT A RALLY, ENJOY THE VALLEY. Another pronounces, THE ROAD IS HILLY, DON’T BE SILLY. And as I’m puzzling over GO MY FRIEND, ON THE BEND, a rusty, moss-green SUV with a dozen people crammed inside it speeds past us on a blind corner flanked by a hundred-meter drop.
We are driving from Siliguri in West Bengal to Gangtok, Sikkim’s small capital. A ravishing wedge of undulating hills and snowy Himalayan peaks squeezed between Nepal, China, and Bhutan, Sikkim was, until 1975, an independent Buddhist kingdom. Now, it’s India’s least populous state- and one of the most isolated. Because of the terrain’s rugged contours, the few roads that exist can be tortuous. Nor does Sikkim have an airport or a railhead (the nearest are in West Bengal’s Darjeeling district). For the visitor, this means some bone-jarring drives and rustic accommodation- but it also means encounters with a culture and natural landscape that have been wonderfully preserved.
This is my fourth trip to Sikkim; the first time i visited was in 1999, with my mother. Then, I made the mistake of taking a local bus from Darjeeling to the village of Pelling, whose attractions include the stunning 18th century monastery of Pemayangtse and spellbinding views of Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain. The rickety bus was filled with chickens, goats, and wizened grandmothers with gold hoops through their noses and chillum pipes clamped between their lips. But it was the road that frayed our nerves: little more than a goat track, it zigzagged up and down vertiginous, rock-strewn hillsides. When we finally arrived at Pelling, my mother delivered an ultimatum: either we return to Darjeeling by helicopter, or we walk back.
‘Has Sikkim changed?’ people ask me when they hear of my repeat visits. Not really, I tell them. While other parts of India have developed at breakneck speed, Sikkim remains much as it’s always been: bucolic villages still cling to terraced hillsides; musty and mesmeric monasteries of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism still make visitors blush with their raunchy murals; and the views of the mist-wreathed Himalayas are as magical as ever. Oh, and the roads haven’t improved one bit.
On this trip, I’ve arranged to visit the remote Lachen Valley in northern Sikkim, eight hours from Gangtok. The drive takes us past bamboo groves interspersed with hamlets of pastel-hued houses. Apple orchards blossom with the early spring sun. And everywhere are fluttering prayer flags and gold-spired stupas, some freshly whitewashed.
My guide, Dinding, a moon-faced young woman with flushed red cheeks and silken black hair, tells me the stupas were built to appease the mountain spirits, which are held responsible for the area’s many landslides.
‘Does it work?’ i ask as we pass a three-ton excavator that has just cleared a pile of rocks from the road. ‘Sometimes,’ she replies.
By the time we reach Lachen a snowstorm has rolled in from Tibet, reducing visibility to a few meters and cutting off the village’s electricity. Our small hotel is new, but its wooden walls are uninsulated and there are drafty gaps under the doors. We huddle around the building’s only heater, sipping glasses of locally distilled Castle Pride malt whisky. The storm rages through the night, but by morning it has disappeared, revealing a big blue sky arching over a valley of stone houses encircled by jagged Himalayan peaks.
Driving, however, is the lazy way to see Sikkim’s mountains up close. The other way is to walk, as I did 10 years ago on a trek to Kanchenjunga. The route took us along a moderately difficult eight-day trail that wound upward through forests of rhododendron and azalea before reaching Goechala, a4,910-meter-high pass at the foot of the great mountain. On the shores of sacred Samiti Lake, the fog was so thick we could barely see two meters ahead; that night, we pitched our tents inside a deserted stone cottage, burning juniper branches to keep warm. The next morning, however, I woke to a staggering view: the-sun drenched south face of Kanchenjunga, so close that I felt like I could almost reach out and touch it.
A decade later, I’m happy to discover that- thanks to an innovative outfit called Shakti Himalayas- exploring Sikkim by foot does not have to mean roughing it. The Delhi-based company, which also owns the exclusive 360° Leti lodge in Uttarakhand, has helped spruce up five village houses in southeast Sikkim as homestays for its three- to five-day guided walks. It is exceptionally well done, and gives travelers a unique opportunity to experience traditional village life, without compromising too much on comfort.
Pujan, my sprightly 30-year-old guide, picks me up in Gangtok one bright and sunny morning for the drive to Radhu Kandu. It’s almost dusk by the time we reach the village; though we’ve been on the road for most of the day, we’ve traveled less than 50 kilometers as the crow flies. But a warm welcome awaits us at a wood-and-stone house tucked into the edge of a lush forest, where the family matriarch smudges a red tikka on my forehead and loops a garland of jasmine around my neck. An outdoor fire and butler with evening drinks are waiting in the central courtyard, and I can smell dinner- a range of local curries and flat breads- being prepared in the kitchen.
The next day, Pujan and I set off for the second homestay, a three-hour walk away in Hee. We traverse dark, eerie woodlands and terraced orchards where flowering fruit trees mingle with the spiky leaves of cardamom plants. We meet a pair of men hefting huge bundles of green sapwood downhill, and we pass cute, blue-trimmed houses festooned with lilies and orchids. Greeting us at Hee are glorious views of Kanchenjunga, which I savor over breakfast the next morning.
It’s late afternoon on day three when we make the uphill slog to Rusem Monastery, a derelict gompa that two or three hundred years ago belonged to a wealthy and powerful family of landowners. Pujan tells me the family hired a local monk to perform rituals here, but then reneged on his payment. So the monk cursed them, and the family fled, leaving the prayer hall to the elements.
From Rusem, it’s a short, scenic amble to Sandyang Lee, the last stop on our route. Another storm is brewing and fog has enveloped the hillside. I worry that we won’t be able to see Kanchenjunga again, but sure as day, early the next morning, there the mountain is, jutting high above the rising mist.
Where To stay
Sikkim’s fanciest hotel is the Mayfair Gangtok (91-359/225-0555; mayfairhotels.com; doubles from US$215), with 53 good sized rooms overlooking forested hills outside Gangtok.
Five-day guided village walks with Shakti (shaktihimalaya.com) will set you back US$1,974 per person, all-inclusive. Lower down the price scale are Blue Sky Tours, (blue-sky-tours.com) three-day excursions to the valleys of northern Sikkim, which cost about US$325 for two, including car, driver, meals, and basic accommodation.