Off season Sikkim might sound crazy to those not keen on taking on the cold – but a winter not experienced in the mountains is just half the deal. The cold season in Sikkim pulls you out of your own comfort zone but puts you in the much greater comfort of its flawless natural beauty and warm, welcoming people. Here is my attempt to put it in words.
Getting lost in Gangtok is awfully difficult, as the hillsides converge underneath it, caressing the town, and in the process making sure you walk in circles. Situated in central Sikkim, on a hill top and blessed with magnificent views of Mt. Kanchenjunga, the town is a prime tourist destination and also a base for exploring the rest of the state.
While the travelling itinerary offered by local travel agents for Gangtok can be quite restricted, one big recommendation would be a visit to the grand Rumtek monastery. Avoid newer attractions – they’re more like picnic spots and do not get excited by the multitude of viewpoints – the whole town is a viewpoint – you don’t need a guided tour for that. Just walk up.
A day-trip to Nathu-La is a must, especially if you want to get a taste of high altitude minus the intensity of a mountain trek. The road to Nathu-la is a typical mountain road – snaking up on the side of a mountain, leaving the window seated passenger staring at a drop, the bottom of which he cannot see. I listened to the gasps of some co-passengers who suddenly found themselves away from the wide roads of the plains. The border post itself is just that – except with a spectacular view of the Tibetan mountains behind the Chinese border fence. It was buzzing with the sounds of people clicking their cameras voraciously. A while later I realized that the soldiers on the Chinese side had slunk off as they must have sensed the approach of over eager tourists looking for a picture.
The return journey from Nathu-La included a stop at the famous Changu Lake, nestled in mountains and frozen. There is a settlement nearby where you find a complex of small restaurants and souvenir shops, friendly locals and pink-cheeked kids. One would like to think of this high altitude lake and picture it as pristine and far away, like in a wuxia movie, a home to either Gods or centuries old kung-fu hermits. But the reality is that the serenity of this beautiful spot is somewhat muddled by the presence of loud tourists – bargaining, chattering and getting amused by the novelty of it all.
Gangtok’s most popular area would arguably be MG Marg. A swanky avenue complete with fountains and lamps, it is lined with many commercial establishments and is kept so neat, that it should be a case study for urban administrators across the country. But the real fun is walking down towards the older market of downtown Sikkim, where the streets are unkempt and the beer is cheaper. Recommendations? – Try the cuisine in Potala restaurant, situated opposite a cinema hall in Lall Market. Sip some Dansberg beer, owned by the movie star – Danny Denzongpa. Try the meat pies or shyafales, and the rest of the menu also offers generous choices if you are a meat eater.
From Gangtok it was fairly easy to fix a trip to Yumthang, a high altitude valley, which involves an overnight stay in Lachung town just below. One regret for me was not being able to go ahead with a trip further to Gurudongmar Lake, the path to which was entirely snowed in and hence out of reach. The drive was not very comfortable considering that most of the roads were being worked on – add to that a punctured tire and we reached our destination when everything was pitch black and the air was more than just frigid.
Our driver for the trip, Pema was from the village of Lachung itself. His job was to ferry tourists to and from Gangtok, and in the village we stayed at the Lachung Faka inn. It was clearly a lot of team work that made these trips possible and everyone from the travel agent to the driver to the inn owner had an informal network between them, at times community based. As the rest of the entourage emerged from the jeeps, I walked to a shop in the building’s front and looked for something to eat. Cans of barley wine from across the border caught my attention and I picked up one.
Our hostesses were two lovely young sisters, who took care of the inn while the rest of the family had left for the winter. Later as we sat down inside their traditional kitchen – we sipped on some local millet wine from ornate bamboo tubes – changg – as it was called in that part of the world.
Despite the hardship of shipping fresh produce to such cold extremities, the kitchen was well stocked to accommodate the travellers. The food was simple and rather thoughtfully prepared to keep in mind the vegetarian sensibilities of most of the tourists. Even though I was disappointed on missing out on something more local, it made business sense to cater to the majority of the customers. Our hostesses were adept in their communication with some of the North Indian tourists, speaking functional and fluent Hindi and fending off over-enthusiastic banter from some of the male contingents with absolute grace.
The next morning, we set off for the valley of Yumthang. Earlier, while the rest were getting up and ready, I took a walk down the main street of Lachung. We had arrived in darkness but in the morning I looked around and saw iced up slopes surrounding this tiny settlement and heard the hurried rush of a river nearby.
Yumthang valley was just like the pictures I had seen, but even more, blanketed in snow with mountains on all sides. Although the valley is more popular during spring time due to its wild flowers, the winter landscape has an edginess that captivates in its own way. We had reached a little late per schedule, and the sun reflected blindingly off the softening snow. I walked down towards the river, one of the tributaries of the Teesta, the same one I spotted flowing along Lachung. I sat by the banks awhile, listening to the cold clear water trickling – and my own heavy high-altitude breathing. There was some deadwood on the banks, poised artfully with white mountains in the backdrop. Rust colored lichen adorned the place, and a large of spot of evergreen pine forest stood further down in defiance to such wintry climes.
The afternoon crept in and it was soon time to leave the valley with an impending back-breaking trip back to Gangtok awaiting us. The short trip back to Lachung was picturesque, if rather uneventful and a quick lunch at the inn later, we were on our way back.
Leaving Lachung was like waking up from a surreal day dream, and as the vehicle careened along the curves of the Sikkimese mountains, I felt like I had lost the serenity that for some time had engulfed me while I sat at the banks of that icy river. During another puncture induced pause in our homeward journey, I stood on the edge of the road some 30 kilometers away from Gangtok, peering through the ubiquitous rhododendrons on the hill-side at a giant ember in the sky, which was slowly getting swallowed by the silhouetted peaks. Mountain sunsets can never get tiring, the fleetingness of it all too delicate to become a habit, and it is with such positive thoughts I realized – that the misery of punctured tires on a cold Sikkimese evening in the middle of nowhere can be lessened. With some help from members of another passing car, we got back on track and reached Gangtok after nightfall.
The cold, the tired muscles and the stiffness that resulted from the bumpy journey could be jarring to an extent, but as we trudged back down the hill towards MG Marg to look for hotels, the town welcomed us with warmth that even the unfamiliar can rejoice with. This warmth is greatly the result of the friendly people of the place, forever courteous and smiling – and also supplemented by the healthy approach to taxes, or lack of, on alcohol.
My story ends here – but as a person from a fractured region, I had some takeaways from the trip. Sikkim is a success story that can be emulated by a lot of other states. Amidst its conflict filled origins, status disputes and growing uncertainties in the surrounding regions, it has blossomed as a stable and forward looking destination for travelers world-wide. As more and more people discover this place, one can only hope that it is not just Sikkim that caters to its visitors, but that the visitors themselves can respect and immerse themselves in the tranquility of this Himalayan state.