Sikkim – of borders, Buddha and the BRO

Mitsu Fonseca shares her experience of travelling through Sikkim, a northeast Indian state nestled amidst the icy peaks of the Himalayas.

I arrived in Sikkim after trekking along the Indo-Nepal border for seven days. This is where I decided to rest before heading back to the bustling coastal city of Bombay.  As I stepped out, I couldn’t help but take in a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, with the scent of sweet pine all around, and the calm Sleeping Buddha clearly visible in the distance. 

Sikkim is a tiny state in the North-Eastern part of India. Flanked on three sides by Nepal, China and Bhutan, its people have since long, learned to live in harmony with the neighbours. Free movement is permitted for Indians into Nepal and Bhutan, and trekkers love ‘walking’ into another country across the international border.

On the eastern front, Nathu La is a mountain pass for trade in the Himalayas, connecting India with China’s Tibet Autonomous Region. In the early 1900s, this pass was vital during the British expedition to Tibet to secure a strong hold over the region by preventing Russia from interfering. Nathu La opens its doors to trade from Monday through Thursday every week when the Chinese cross the border to sell tax-free goods to citizens of India.

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Cheerful plants decorate the streets of Gangtok

Gangtok is a hill-side town which serves as the base for a number of Buddhist pilgrimage tours. Its streets have a quaint European feel to them, while the shops are lined with several Chinese and Tibetan artifacts – the Buddha most prominent in them all.

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A sleeping Buddha on display in a local shop. Credit: Mitsu Fonscea

As a tourist, Sikkim won’t disappoint, and as a trekker, it almost never will. The Kanchenjunga mountain range is firmly set in this Indian state, beckoning mountaineers from around the world to climb its jagged slopes. Considered a more dangerous climb than Mount Everest, the Kanchenjunga with its deep crevices exudes a calm unlike any other range in the country. The Sikkimese worship this mountain. If observed from afar, it looks like a man resting peacefully, with his hands on his abdomen. With Buddhism prevalent in the state and the neighbouring countries, the mountain range got the name – The Sleeping Buddha.

Into the unknown! #India they say is the most difficult country to #travel within, mainly because of it's complicated #transport system that differs around the #country. Throw in a very #traditional society at every turn & some rogues & you might thing of putting off that #solo trip to some of the most beautiful places here. But these places also house the kindest and warmest people ever. Not someone who loves #cities or #temples, I prefer the rough paths. Paths untouched by too much #technology or #machinery. Paths with #rustic #beauty. And if one can travel from India's north to the south, east, west as well as it's union territories detached from the mainland, alone, , travelling #solo to anywhere in the world will be a lot easier. #Indian #Himalayas #mountains #Sikkim #Kupup #highway #border #army #bridge

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Gangtok is close to a number of tourist attractions in the Eastern district of Sikkim. From colourful Buddhist monasteries to serene lakes, and from high mountain passes to tea estates. I arrived at the beautiful Tsomgo Lake after driving through thick fog and traffic that refused to move for hours. Dotted with yaks wearing colourful ornaments and thick scarves, the lake provided the perfect backdrop for a photo-op in the middle of a light wind-storm.

Glacial Lakes are a beauty that are hard to find elsewhere. Wouldn't you agree?

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Crammed in the back of a jeep with random people, I wanted to travel on to Kupup. A village on The Silk Route. Kupup is an ancient trade route between India and China. There was something about the high altitude lakes and their gleaming blue waters that appealed to me the most. I convinced the other passengers to come along with me to Kupup and then to the Indo-China border to meet the Indian Army men and check out their hidden ‘bunkers’.

Throughout the long and tiring journey, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) has put up interesting messages for drivers to chuckle at and prevent road accidents in the mountains.

We stopped about two kilometres from the border to admire a sea of clouds providing a fluffy edge to the otherwise rugged terrain and a beautiful mountain lake, 13,000 feet above sea level. Most who make it this far also climb a flight of stairs to an old Hindu temple, which also serves as a fantastic point for 360-degree views of the place.

Tibetan food is widely available throughout Sikkim and is mainly meant to give warmth to the body. Thukpa is a delicious soup made of meat or vegetable broth and noodles that must be had when in Sikkim. Momos are another delicacy and prepared with chicken, pork or vegetables and eaten with spicy sauce on the side.

For avid trekkers, the Goecha La trek in the Yuksom valley of Sikkim spans eight days and takes one through rhododendron forests, glaciers and rugged mountain slopes. Though a difficult trek for first-timers, it’s also the most rewarding one in terms of views of the mighty Kanchenjunga from up close.

Though Sikkim may be one of the smallest states in India, there’s still plenty to explore and experience. Other places of interest are the towns of Pelling in the west, Lachung in the north and Ravangla and Namchi in the south. The Yumthang Valley boasts of high altitude meadows and snow peaks, while the Gurudongmar lake at 17,800 feet in North Sikkim, is one of the world’s highest mountain lakes, and is considered sacred by members of the Buddhist and Sikh communities.

Sikkim is just one of India’s 29 states but is well-known for its hospitality and also as the country’s first ‘organic’ state. The mountain boys are huge soccer fans and it’s normal to spot them wearing jerseys of the teams they support. After all, Indian soccer player Baichung Bhutia hails from Sikkim. The people of the mountains are warm and welcoming, and many work as trek guides too. Hiring one from any of the small towns and villages isn’t difficult, and it’s much better when you traverse a place with a local than with a tour company. I don’t know about you, but I definitely have more of Sikkim added to my travel wish list!

How to get there: The nearest airport is at Bagdogra in West Bengal or Guwahati in Assam. Both are well connected by air from all major Indian airports such as Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore or Kolkata.

Hire a cab and enjoy a four hour scenic drive through lush tea estates and valleys to the town of your choice in Sikkim.

Where to stay: Take your pick from the many hotels, youth hostels and homestays in the towns. ATMs are easy to find in Gangtok. Accommodation can easily be booked via booking.com, Airbnb, MakeMyTrip.com, etc. I’d suggest a homestay with a splendid view of the mountains or the valleys to truly enjoy the beauty of Sikkim.

 

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