Even though it is one of India’s smaller states, the former Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim has been a delight for travelers for some time. Heavily influenced by Tibetan Buddhism, beautiful monasteries are all around and the world’s third highest mountain, Kanchenjunga (8598m), can be seen from almost any viewpoint. Given their size and variety of sights and wonders, we usually dedicate at least a month to fully explore an Indian state and Sikkim was no exception.
We began our time by exploring Gangtok, the state capital located in the eastern district, which stretches along a precipitous mountain ridge. Fairly clean and modern, we enjoyed the few sights that Gangtok has to offer such as the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. This is a fascinating place, full of information and exhibits on Tibetan Buddhism, housed in a traditional Tibetan-style mansion.
We also saw the nearby Do-Drul Chorten, a white stupa surrounded by a picture gallery. Another stop was to Tsuglhakhang, an impressive temple located towards the southern end of the ridge. On the northern outskirts of town lies the atmospheric Enchey Gompa (gompa meaning monastery in Tibetan), a very quaint place with lovely murals on its walls.
Outside Gangtok we paid a visit to Rumtek, a village dominated by the temple complex that lies there. It is home-in-exile to the Kagyu, the black hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Built in the mid-1960’s, it was intended to replace the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet and is a sprawling complex with a school, snack stalls and lodges.
In and around the complex there is also the Golden Stupa, containing the ashes of the 16th Karmapa, and Old Rumtek Gompa, an atmospheric monastery that looks out to some fabulous views. Note that when we were there, we had to present our passports and Sikkim permits at the entrance.
The state of Sikkim is split into north, east, south and west districts; the allure of the mystical northern part meant that this was somewhere we weren’t going to pass up. Given the fact that the area has no public transport whatsoever and that North Sikkim is within close proximity to the Chinese border, foreigners are not allowed to travel there without a permit (easily obtainable).
Realistically, the only way to see the highlights is to go on a tour. As we are very independent, we normally steer clear of organised tours due to the lack of flexibility and the usually high price tag. However, we teamed up with a friend from a recent trek, who was also in the area and wanted to go; this made things cheaper for all of us!
Driving to Lachung
We were presented with several options, finally opting for a three-day, two-night tour. We were collected in the morning by our friendly driver and guide and made for Lachung, home to the Lachung Monastery, established in 1880. Amazing views can be seen from the monastery grounds.
We also stopped by the Seven Sisters Waterfall; multi-staged and cascading down the rocks just off the road, it makes for a good photo opportunity.
We stopped for the night at a simple guesthouse in Lachung. Welcomed with much appreciated chai and biscuits, we rested up for a while. We then took a short excursion around the immediate area, viewing the rugged landscape and simple living of the people that inhabit this part of India year-round.
We returned for a delicious dinner of rice, dal, veggies and chapattis, all washed down with more chai, before heading to the warmth of our beds – we had another long day ahead of us!
Yumthang Valley and Zero Point
Rising early and filling up on puri (Indian fried bread that arrives on the plate the size of a balloon) and potato sabji (vegetable and potato curry), we set off on the 24 kilometre journey to beautiful Yumthang Valley. The mountains and winding roads in this area don’t make it easy if you’re prone to car sickness but the views are enough to take your mind off feeling queasy.
We arrived at our final destination which is, quite literally, the end of the road: Zero Point. This is the point in Sikkim where the tarmac literally stops; beyond this location there is nothing but rough mountainous terrain and high mountain passes that lead towards the Chinese border. No civilians, Indian or foreign, can go beyond the end of the road. Only military and personnel from the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) can go any further.
Whilst we were there, we met other groups of Indians from all over the country, either on a tour or with their own transport, who had made the same journey to appreciate the diverse beauty of their incredible land. With high snow-capped mountains all around, Zero Point is a fantastic point to reach and experience.
Once we had had our eyeful, we headed back along the Yumthang Valley, stopping for chai alongside a yak herd, which was a little surreal! We were also able to take a short wander into the lush pastures of the valley, which are framed by jagged mountain peaks and dotted with prayer-flag-draped bridges. The glacial waters of the Yumthang River add to the beauty of the scene.
Back at the same guesthouse in Lachung, Lynette and I decided to join our guide for a walk around the village and up to a viewpoint. However, as we got higher, the mist began to roll in, the cold began to bite and it started to rain. At this point, we wisely decided to turn tail and headed back to the sanctuary of the guesthouse.
It turned out to be a wise decision because not five minutes after our return, it began to rain heavily! After a dinner that was as good as that of the previous night, we got some sleep to be ready for the return journey the next day.
On our way back to Gangtok, we stopped in Phodong village to visit Phodong Monastery. Established in 1740 and belonging to the Kagyu sect, it houses extensive murals and a large statue of the ninth Karmapa. A further 1.5 kilometers uphill took us to Labrang Monastery, home to 100 monks. Its walls are lined with over 1,000 icons of Padmasambhava and upstairs in the main building sits a statue of the guru, wearing a necklace of severed heads!
Originally we had planned to visit Lachung, Yumthang Valley and Lachen, the latter hosting a monastery and more spectacular mountain scenery in the Thangu and Chopta valleys, as well as the fabled Gurudongmar Lake, only accessible to Indians. As we wouldn’t have been able to journey to Gurudongmar, one of India’s highest lakes, we decided to keep our trip to three days; Lachen would have added an extra day and night to the tour.
North Sikkim truly is a wonderful place to be in, so far removed from the busy noisy buzz of the city, offering some small measure of peace and tranquility in the wilderness.
If you’re planning to visit North Sikkim, note that you’ll need to arrange a tour as it is both mandatory and recommended. You’ll need to get permits for the area beforehand as well. There are lots of companies offering the same trip with different price tags and package options; do your research but going as part of a group is recommended. Remember to take warm clothing, a torch and, of course, your camera to snap the amazing views!
Whilst you’re in Sikkim check out the rest of the state, from Namchi to Yuksom!