Planning to visit Sikkim for the first time?
Here's a detailed post about my experience and a 7 to 10 Days Sikkim itinerary covering Gangtok, North, East, and South Sikkim
From the time I read James Hilton describe Shangri-La as a mystical, harmonious valley landlocked by Mountains; I wondered if there exists a real life match to this fictional place. The pursuit of Shangri La took me to the depths of the Himalayas, drawing me into fascinating corners and cul-de-sacs I never dreamed of visiting. And finally I found it in Sikkim.
Cavernous valleys, snowcapped mountains, roaring rivers, fluttering prayer flags and green homes dotting the zigzag mountain slopes - no wonder Sikkim is known as the Himalayan Shangri La. A jewel-like mountain state of North East, flourished under the benign shadow of colossal Mt. Kanchanjundga. The locals revere the third highest mountain in the world as their guardian deity.
Sikkim metamorphosed from an independent Himalayan Kingdom to the twenty-second state of India in 1975. However, one thing remained untouched - Sikkim’s reverence for the nature.
An all-organic State
Nature is above everything in Sikkim, where ‘eco-friendly’ and 'all-organic' are not loosely thrown around terms but practiced by one and all in daily life. During my sojourn, I didn’t see any wafer packets or cola bottles spoiling the gorgeous landscape. Sikkim didn’t become an all-organic state by fluke; the local government and people put in a mammoth effort.
To propagate the idea of 'all-organic state’ Sikkim Government runs lot of eco-conservation programs and hosts lot of exotic festivals,
explained Chen Yang a travel guide who works closely with the Sikkim Government.
Festivals like International Flower festival, Yakten - Bojeytar Village Tourism Festival, Dentam Rhododendron Festival and Pang Lhabsol among others elucidate the love and respect Sikkimese have for their nature.
Besides the unique festivals, Sikkim is great for adventure, wildlife, culture and spiritual travel.
Here’s my experience of traversing through the alpine landscape, thick luxuriant tropical forests, torrents Rivers, high mountain peaks and unruffled high altitude lakes – everything that makes Sikkim a true Shangri La.
Arriving in Gangtok
Climbing up the winding roads to Gangtok from Siliguri took me more than five hours. The scenic route was picturesque, though pretty bumpy! The indulgent lunch at a small restaurant facing the Teesta River couldn't provide any respite from the backbreaking journey. I was staying at an Army Guesthouse in Gangtok so thankfully I could enjoy the modern day luxuries in the lap of Himalayas. My Army friend helped me secure my inner line permit, taxi and homestays in North and South Sikkim. As the night befell, I went to sleep looking forward to experience the ethereal beauty of this jewel-like mountain state.
Gangtok and East Sikkim
At the break of the day my driver, Ritu Tamang and the magnificent mountains greeted me. After soaking the sweeping view of the snow capped Mt. Kanchenjunga from the Tashi View Point, I decided to invoke the spiritual side by visiting the Gonjang Monastery, located about 6 km away from Gangtok. A young monk sitting on the edge of the wall watching a WWF fight on his smartphone, a group of monks taking a Coco-Cola break from their studies and teenage monks flirting with the guitar strings behind the closed doors of their room were the sights I couldn’t envisage in a religious place.
Happiness is not guaranteed by giving up the pleasures or desires of life but by not being their slave
explained the senior monk who probably read my mind.
The rest of the day was spent paragliding over the snowcapped mountains and thickly carpeted forests around Gangtok, enjoying the panoramic views of Gangtok from Ganesh Tok, revisiting the old world charm at the Royal Palace and suicide point infamous for kings throwing their enemies from a drop-dead gorgeous hilltop.
The day was wrapped up with a passeggiata on the MG Marg, the social-commercial hub. It was packed with restaurants serving toothsome delicacies, export surplus shops staff haggling with customers, travel agents taking last minute bookings and tourists enjoying the crisp air of Gangtok.
For most visitors, a trip to Sikkim usually includes a trip to Gangtok, Rumtek and Nathula La via Tsomgo Lake and Harbhajan Baba’s Mandir. However, always curious to discover places beyond the obvious, I chose the road less traveled. Not only I visited the old silk route but even tried my hand at playing golf at Yak golf course in Kupup, the world’s highest golf course (13,025 feet above sea level). Three days were not enough to explore East Sikkim but North Sikkim was already booked so I had to return to Gangtok.
After an early morning start and backbreaking journey of seven hours from Gangtok we finally reached Lachen. The arduous journey was made beautiful by - the roaring jade green water of Teesta River rushing through massive boulders, soaring snow-capped peaks embroidered with long ribbons of waterfalls, lush green forests dimpled with alpine pastures and the hot pakodas made to order at Naga Waterfalls.
After spending the night at a Bhutia (Tribe of Tibetan origin) homestay, I started my journey at 4 am through stunning frozen mountainscape where the majestic mountain peaks were glowing in the molten golden dust of the sunrise. Sacrificing my sleep was nothing when we saw the staggering snow-blanketed vistas and crag-rimmed Gurudongmar Lake (17,800 feet above sea level). I had not seen anything as phantasmal as Gurudongmar Lake was. Even the -19 degree temperature and AMS inducing thin air couldn’t confine me to my car. I sat near the lake trying to take in the beauty around us. There was nothing but perfect silence. Cautious enough to not get carried away, I took baby steps to enjoy the bounty of nature.
After visiting the Gurudongmar Lake, I reached Lachung to explore the stunning Yumthang Valley and Zero point the next day.
South Sikkim formed the next leg of my trip. The larger-than-life religious statues at Char Dham, Samdruptse Monastery at Namchi and Buddha Park is a must visit even for non religious person. I really enjoyed the majestic mountain and valley views from Tarey Bhir, Helicopter Point and Temi Tea Garden, the state’s only Tea Estate.
Besides the indescribable beauty of Sikkim, I was left awestruck by the calm and composed demeanour of the Sikkimese people.
"So is everyone in Sikkim happy like you?" I asked my driver.
No, of course not but we are less complaining than others and that makes us happy in general. I think it’s a combination of our cultural identity, family ties, respect for Mother Nature and Buddhist traditions of letting go. We are happy with what we have.
I learnt a life-changing lesson that day.
My trip had come to an end and I had fallen in love with the mythical Himalayan land worthy of being called the Himalayan Shangri La. So are you ready to visit this mystic land this holiday season?
How to reach Sikkim:
By Air: The nearest airport is Bagdogra in West Bengal
By Rail: The nearest railway stations are New Jalpaiguri (125 km) and Siliguri (144 km) in West Bengal
By Road: Regular bus services run by the Sikkim Nationalized Transport directly connect Gangtok to Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Siliguri. For local transport, Cars and jeeps are available for hire in Gangtok and other big towns of the state
- Sikkim was an independent Himalayan Kingdom until 1975
- Pawan Kumar Chamlingn is the longest serving Chief Minister in India
- Kanchendzonga, third highest mountain in the world, is clearly visible from many parts of Sikkim
- Sikkim has the maximum foreign population - Nepalese origin population outnumber the natives
- Sikkim has a temple built to honor a soldier – Baba Harbhajan Singh’s temple
- Sikkim is the only Indian state with monasteries of all 4 schools of Buddhism
- 11 languages are spoken in this tiny mountain state
- The Singshore Bridge spanning 198 meters is the second highest suspension bridge in Asia
- Sikkim’s state animal is the Red Panda - an endangered species
- Sikkim has produced India’s most popular footballer - BaichungBhutia