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Thursday, 3 May 2012

Yentha Travel: Sikkim Sojourn - Part 1
First part of an extensive tour of a state of India that doesn’t often find a place on the itinerary of those of us down south | By Madhusudan Narayanan
On May 01, 2012

 Yentha Travel - Exclusive travelogues brought to you  in association with Kerala Travels Interserve.

Our family went on a weeklong holiday to Sikkim and it turned out to be one of our best vacations ever. Since we were travelling all the way from Bangalore to Calcutta for a wedding, we decided to explore the Northeast. We zeroed in on Sikkim. After the wedding reception, we took the Darjeeling Mail to New Jalpaiguri station. New Jalpaiguri which means olives in Bengali, is the sister city of Siliguri and connects Darjeeling to the plains of West Bengal through the world famous Darjeeling Himalayan Railways. After a short break at Siliguri where we had our breakfast, we commenced our 4 hour drive to Gangtok on National Highway 31A.

 Kanchenjunga, the guardian deity of Sikkim

We meandered around the scenic hills and over the serene looking Teesta River and finally arrived at Gangtok for lunch.  As we checked into our hotel- Hidden Forest Retreat, we realised that the name did justice to the place. It was spread over three acres of lush green garden with all kinds of trees, bamboos, ferns, flowers, shrubs, lilies and orchids with a variety of birds and butterflies making this their home. The retreat is an extension of the flower nursery, which specializes in tissue culture and breeding orchids, lilies and azaleas for over two decades. Through the entire retreat runs a network of stone paved pathways that lead up and down the hill into the dense forest and orchid nursery.

Sikkim, which is one of the smallest states in India, is famous for Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world at 8,586m.  Rising 300m above the Indian plains, the state borders the edge of the Tibetan Plateau on its north and Nepal on its east. Historically a Buddhist kingdom, Sikkim has close links with Tibet. It is  home to over 250 monasteries of mostly the Nyingma-pa sect. Sikkim is rich in flora and fauna. About 450 varieties of orchids, over 600 species of butterflies, 500 species of birds along with red pandas, snow leopards dot the length and breadth of Sikkim. The largest collection can be seen at the Kanchenjunga National Park. In fact, ornithology tourism is also gaining in prominence in Sikkim.

After a sumptuous lunch, we took a short drive around Gangtok. The capital of Sikkim is also the largest city in the state. It’s a melting pot of different cultures. Situated at an altitude of 1,700 m above sea level, Gangtok lies on the eastern side of Sikkim and is the headquarters of the eastern district. Being on the lower Himalayas, it offers some breathtaking views of Kanchenjunga.

Our first destination was Do-Drul Chorten. Built in 1945 by Trulshi Rimpoche, Do-drul Chorten is one of the most important attractions in Gangtok. The beautiful milky white stupa has a revered golden Shikhara containing 108 prayer wheels, which makes it a highly revered religious place. Do-drul Chorten contains the complete mandala set of Dorjee Phurba (Bajra Kilaya), a set of Kan-gyur relics (holy books), and many other holy objects including the complete Zung (mantras). Two huge statues of Guru Rimpoche (Guru Padamsambhava) adorn the side of Do-drul Chorten further adding to the beauty of the stupa.

Madhusudan near Tsomgo lake

Next, we proceeded towards the flower exhibition centre. A variety of multi-colored orchids, seasonal flowers as well as bonsai were on display. The entire exhibition is in a well-planned, enclosed greenhouse and is an excellent place to observe the flora or take photos. The flower shows follow the seasons and focus on the specific flowers that flourish at that time. It was just 6 and already dark! So we decided to skip the other attractions and went back to our hidden forest retreat to call it a day.
Do DrulChorten

We woke up at 6 in the morning the next day, to get ready for a visit we had been anticipating for quite a while. We had submitted our identity proofs and photographs a week in advance to get a permit to visit this place. We were headed for the famed Tsomgo Lake at a height of 12,000 feet and on the ancient silk route! Tsomgo lake is situated 35 km  from Gangtok, on the Gangtok-Nathula highway which forms a part of the old trade route from India to China. Before 1962, caravans of mules carrying goods used to ply this route. The stretch of the route just below Karponang, 15  km from Gangtok was particularly dangerous. Its steepness resulted in many mules slipping to their death into the ravine below. During  winter the lake freezes over. Back in the old days, Lamas forecasted the future studying the colour of the water of the lake. If the water of the lake had a dark tinge, it foreshadowed a year of trouble and unrest in the state.

The journey to the lake was very scenic through the snow-capped mountains. My 3-year old daughter squealed with delight as soon as we reached our destination. As I turned around to find out what had attracted her, I spotted a pair of yaks! A couple of Sikkimese Sherpas approached us and offered a ride on the yaks around the lake. My daughter and I rode ‘Shamu’, while my wife got a ride from ‘Hritik’! The Sherpa had indeed named his yak after the famed Bollywood actor after watching “Kaho Na Pyar Hai”. Hritik has been doing the rounds of the lake for the past 9 years after a year’s training!

Walking on snow

After getting back to our hotel, we had a quick lunch and proceeded towards Yangsum, a village in West Sikkim and our abode for the rest of the week. The 135 km ride took us 5 hours to cover. We took a break at Jorthang, a small town located in a plain landscape of South Sikkim. In fact,we were told that it was the only town with a plain landscape in the whole of Sikkim. The town is known for its annual Maghey Sakrati, the important fair festival of the Nepali ethnic community of Sikkim. Our next halt was Rinchengpong, a small village in the hills of West Sikkim, 6,000 ft above sea level. This village had played host to Rabindranath Tagore, no less, for a couple of days in the 1920s. Rabindranath Smriti Van, the house where the poet stayed and enjoyed the scenic view of the Himalayas, is just 2 km from Rinchenpong bazaar. It is a major tourist draw and has been maintained well.

Madhu and his family

About 3 km from Rinchenpong bazaar is the Resum monastery. Located at the junction of three hills, this place of worship was built almost two centuries ago by a local Lepcha (original inhabitant) and is still under private supervision. The place offers an excellent view of the mountains, especially of the sunrise from behind the Kanchenjunga. A 30-minute walk through the jungle will take you to a popular tourist attraction of Rinchenpong — The Heritage House. The stone and wood construction, which came up in 1860, was used to host the British governor, a regular visitor. In the semi-darkness, the interiors reveal multi-cultural influences, including wall paintings and wood carvings of the traditional Tibetan school. One of the oldest monasteries of Sikkim, the Gey-Sanga-Yangtze Gumpha, is also a walk away from the main bazaar. It houses a statue of Ati Buddha with a lady embracing him. This unique religious icon of the Nyingma sect of tantrik Buddhism symbolizes the power of lust.

On that note we take a break from the narrative. Watch this space tomorrow for more about a less known region of our country ... (to be continued)

Madhusudan Narayanan is an Analytics professional based out of Bangalore. He is a keen wildlife enthusiast and nature tourist. He has hiked up the million year’s old Briksdal glacier in Norway, located a few hundred miles south of the Arctic Circle. His favourite holiday destination is Queenstown in New Zealand. Closer home, his favorites are Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary, Vedanthangal bird sanctuary, Kabini River basin, the Nilgiri biosphere and Matheran.

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