Trip to Sikkim - The Forgotten Kingdom at the foot of the Himalayas
Entering Sikkim is almost like entering a new country. It is known that there are many and diverse India's, all within the same country. Every second is a new discovery. At first, the eyes did not reach me to see and my heart did not stop being surprised. Then, the saris, the colors and all the oddities of this culture, became something more common to me. But now I do not feel like writing about that India, but about the current one, which for me at this moment is the current one, where I am now, of which I am in love: Sikkim.
The situation of Sikkim is privileged, as it is immersed in the Himalayas, with Nepal to the west, Tibet to the north and Bhutan to the east.
Day 1 - GangtokFrom Kalimpong, we traveled by shared jeep (here they use the jeeps as buses) to the capital of Sikkim, Gangtok, after passing through Darjeeling and the Teesta river. Many changes are perceived since entering Sikkim. The first may be the features of the people, then the multitude of wine stores, and the funny and countless messages on the road.
Gangtok is about 1,600 meters above sea level and we find it surrounded by a thick fog. The fog is something that has been accompanying us from the last mountainous places and that will accompany us throughout Sikkim. If Shillong surprised us in modernity, Gangtok surprises much more. To start here everything is more expensive than the rest of India. The streets are better and there are pedestrian lanes where you do not have to dodge vehicles. The establishments have much more class, with innovative and striking posters for consumption.
In Tibet Road, there is the cheap accommodation, where we found a good and cheap one but so wet that we were frozen inside the room. The city is hilly and like Kalimpong, there are superimposed streets with steep stairs that connect one with another. On the first day we arrived, we could not do anything else but walk a little, because at 3:00 in the afternoon everything becomes dark and gray in the fog.
The 200-year-old Enchey monastery is almost at the top of Gangtok, on a steep ascent. From it, we can see the enormous and deep valley with terraced slopes to facilitate cultivation and beyond. If the fog left us we would have impressive views of Tibet, which is about 40 km from here. We pass the monastery of Enchey and after an hour and a half, we stop at Tsomgo Lake. It is a place considered sacred, so we meet a great crowd of local people.
We also walk through one of the crowded gardens, where the Do-Drul monastery, is located, with its stupa surrounded by prayer wheels and at last to the Rumtek Monastery.
That night we shared the room with a Japanese boy, a Korean, an Indian, a Greek girl and another from Indonesia. The weather is cool, so everyone sits on their bed, wrapped in blankets. Some use the cell phone, others read, while some play cards, I write in my notebook. Every once in a while someone makes a comment, and the talk begins.
Seven people, each traveling alone in India, but tonight we were all together, sharing a room with great friends. None had fixed plans. Each one would be traveling through this country between 4 and 6 months and none had previously planned to go to Sikkim, but here we were.
Day 2 - Nathula
In the morning, our road continues until we reach the 4300 meters high Nathula Pass. We descend to the Nathang Valley and the famous Zuluk Zigzag Route and finish in Lingtam. It is the Old Silk Route that is unanimously defined as one of the most beautiful routes in the world.
In the afternoon we took a shared jeep to west Sikkim, not far from the Nepal border, to the small village of Pelling at 2,100 meters altitude. Of course, all the way and Pelling are mired under the continuous haze. We travel in the jeep with two Belgians and a French couple with whom we will walk together through Sikkim.
Although it is empty right now, Pelling is a town dedicated to tourism, (rather local tourism and Bhutan) due to its impressive views of the Himalayas. As soon as I stepped at Pelling, a beautiful energy took possession of me. Many times I had read books or articles about trekking between mountains, shelters to which to arrive after many hours of walking, with homemade meals and firewood. All that was breathed in this place.
Around Pelling, there are two of the oldest monasteries in the state. There is the Sanga-Choling on the top of a hill and as usual, the place is surrounded by high flags with prayers that flutter in the wind. There are also enclosures with several stupas in honor of the monks. The Pemayangtse Monastery is of great importance. It was established as a high class, housing only pure monks. Inside are the different deities and a multitude of paintings. Some of them hidden under savannahs in which Buddha appears in erotic positions with naked women.
In the monastery we visited the ruins of what was the second capital of Sikkim in antiquity. Since Kalimpong, we have been accompanied by a diet very different from Indian food. Here the Tibetan food prevails and although in the end, it was a bit tiresome, we liked it a lot. It is generally very mild, far from the spicy Indian food. There are Momos, a kind of cooked dumplings stuffed with cabbage, onion, and carrot, (sometimes meat too).
The Thukpa is a soup of spaghetti with different vegetables that taken very hot at night or the morning when it is cold a lot is appreciated. Finally, there is the Chowmein, cooked pasta, then fried with vegetables or meat.
The morning we left Pelling we had a glimpse of the mountains! Only the snowy peaks of the great mountains were allowed to see for an hour, not enough, but enough to give us an idea of the great masses in front of us. After a few days touring Pelling, we decided to walk through the mountains to Khechuperi Lake. The theoretical five hours ended up being seven.
This time the town was even more diminutive: 4 shops, 1 lake, 1 guest house, 1 hotel and further up there were about 6 houses (which were also offered as homestays). The lake is surrounded by trees, but not a leaf falls on it if so a boatman would go to pick it up. It is a pure and magical place. To access it there is a prayer roller corridor through which the devotees pass, among them many Bhutanese, who consider Sikkim as the Shangri-La (heaven on earth).
The place is one of those that look like something out of a Bollywood movie and instills great tranquility. The rooms of the wooden hostel, very basic, are full of slogans written by other travelers of the type "Love is the key" or "The best things in life are not things." In my imagination, the ancient kingdom of Sikkim was part of those kingdoms lost in the Himalayas, distant, mythical, more or less isolated, as it could well be also, Zanskar, Bhutan, Mustang, or Ladakh.
We decided to stay at the nearest guest house. As we were told that the other accommodation on top of the mountain was full, we climbed all the way up and discovered a small Shangri-La. There I met a boy, who was in charge of the lodging. His father had built the place so that he could work but he was just on vacation. So he had decided to put a sign and was waiting for his first guests (later he would confess that he did not even expect to be paid, he just wanted to have guests).
Here it gets dark every day around 5 in the afternoon and that added to the fact that the light is constantly cut, they make a good excuse for long chats by candlelight. The conversations taught me a lot about the communities here. Also that in Sikkim they play football (instead of cricket as in the rest of India) and since they are Buddhists they can eat beef. That the monks who have yellow in their clothes are those who can not marry, the others yes.
We went there for a day in our short stay in Sikkim, but we could not resist staying one more night, in which we all sat around the fire telling stories of travel, people, and experiences, accompanied by a homemade alcoholic drink called Thongba. The Thongba is a container of cane in which fermented millet is poured. To take it hot water is poured and after a few minutes, it is taken with a fat straw also of cane, (something like the Argentine mate).
Since I arrived in this area I am struck by the number of jeeps that move on their roads. Discovering these small-big realities are what make me realize how far away we are from reality. That's why I appreciate traveling so much, to break that arrogance that makes us see the world as we imagine and not just as it is or can be.
The second day we spent there, the lama, made a "puja" for the full moon. In this puja, he prayed for us. We all went to a small temple with candles and he recited prayers accompanied by music with the bell and a drum. It was something very spiritual, but very extraordinary. On the other hand, at one point he sent a flask of whiskey to one of us and we had to roll it together until we finished it, and the same with a second flask.
Day 3 - Yuksom
We were very sorry to leave the lake, but we wanted to see the Bumchu festival in Tashiding. We started on our way to Yuksom on foot. Again a steep descent to a river, with landscapes, towns and wonderful people. The climb was hard until Yuksom but rewarded when arriving at the beautiful village that has the Kabur North (7,338 m) and Kabur South (7,317 m) peaks as a backdrop.
Due to the festival, we did not stay very long and we left in a jeep until Tashiding a few kilometers from Yuksom, but when we arrived, it was a surprise. When we arrived, everything was over, although quickly we climbed up to the monastery where we could still see all the celebrations from the previous night.
Changing plans again, and with the climate that little by little was improving during these days, we decided to give a new opportunity to Pelling to see the views of the mountain range. We marched there and we were lucky. Arriving at Pelling, the sky was a little clear. We took the hotel from the first day and we were observing the huge mountains for hours among which stands out the third highest mountain on the planet, the Kanchendzonga (8,598 meters). Although it is visible, the fine mist prevents taking good pictures.
From here we would have liked not to have to go to Gangtok, but we had all the luggage there. In the night we go to a restaurant to eat great pizza and to have a few beers.
Day 4 - Ravangla
The morning begins with a journey towards Tashiding. We are in the epicenter of the Tibetan Buddhism of the Eastern Himalayas. There are as many temples as they are scattered. Immersed in the forest, the place is so idyllic that I support the bike to a cabin for the night.
We first choose the easiest trail to the Tashiding Monastery and then the one leading to Pokhari Dara Lake. In the network of slopes, we visit Hungree, Dubdi, and Sinon, all revered temples hidden in the jungle. We move to the historic Kewzing market and continue to Ravangla. We pull straight up to Yangyang and then reach Phodong.
We are now rather at crossroads. About 40 km separate us from Gangtok and 80 from Lachen with a couple of days ahead of schedule. Nevertheless, we decide to go down to the capital, on the other hand, to aim again towards the North would mean to start another tour.
After Gangtok, by jeep, we move to Darjeeling, again in West Bengal. Those energies that invaded me the first day have accompanied me throughout my stay in Sikkim, in every little town I visited and with every person I met. The houses made of wood or mud, the homemade meals (Momo and Thukpa), the smiles of the people, the Buddhist flags waving to the wind, the monasteries, their monks, the tourists preparing themselves or returning from long treks on the mountain, absolutely everything conveys me warmth.
Every 100 meters one can find a small wooden chair, and there a woman, next to a child, who always has a stove on, and in that tiny space can cook the most delicious meals.
I had been to Buddhist and mountain areas before (Dharamshala and Manali), but here what I feel is different. Maybe it's because it's not so touristy and most people I cross are people coming from long trekking, or maybe it's just because this place has special energies for me, that fill me and give me happiness.