- 7 nights
- Mintokling guest house, Gangtok
- Fortuna residency, Lachung
- Chiminda International hotel, Pelling
Sikkim is a small State in North India. It is home to half the world’s 3rd highest mountain, the other half of the mountain lies in Nepal. Kanchenjunga, meaning 5 peaks, is a beautiful grouping of mountain tops visible from all over the state. This thumb shaped state is entirely mountainous and is surrounded on 3 sides by Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan. It was easy for us to observe how unique this corner of the country is as are the people who live there, with a range of local ethic backgrounds being represented. There is a sense of gradual blending of the genetic features from Indian to Chinese to Nepalese, similar to what we experienced in East Asia. People are in tune with their regional pride and their genetic heritage.
While we were in Sikkim, it was quite rainy – we found that most locals use umbrellas (sorry Seattle people – no hoodies here!). Upon entering we had to get a State permit – Sikkim is one of the strictest in terms of permitting. If you are not an Indian National, then you need a permit to enter the state, a different permit for North Sikkim, and specialized permits with extremely long lead times if you want to visit the Kanchenjunga National Park for trekking. In the very North of the state, there is a high lake called Lake Gurudongmar at 17,000′ that we wanted to visit, but these parts are reserved for Indian Nationals only. Upon entering the state, we found posters that advertised Sikkim as an eco-friendly destination, with no smoking allowed throughout the state, and we were looking forward to clean mountain air. What we found, and this is true for other parts of India, were polluting Indian-made cars, and police officers smoking in restaurants. Walking along the beautiful mountain roads, it was disappointing to know that these heavily traveled roads are fume-filled during the tourist season and police officers often do not do their jobs properly. The area is highly becoming more visited, mostly by Indian tourists looking to escape the heat of the plains, and this changes the vibe of Sikkim significantly. In any case, the natural beauty of this state is incredible – steep hills, villages with traditional Sikkimese construction (reminiscent of the Chinese style), waterfalls, snowcapped peaks and glaciers, as well as plenty of wildlife (the high pitched nighttime insect chirping is unlike anything we have heard before). We also noticed, as we drove around, that there is a lot of construction going on there in the forms of dams, retention/draining systems for roads, and roadwork. A lot of this is due to the heavy rain – when the monsoons hit, they hit hard!
We spent a total of 3 nights in Gangtok, which was our launching point for the North and West of the state. The capital of Sikkim, it is good for walking and is noticeably cleaner than the littered streets of Darjeeling. Be prepared to walk up and down steep staircases to avoid the 3 main long hairpin bending roads that comprise most of the town. The central shopping road, MG Marg, is pedestrianized and is quite charming to walk up and down.
Our hotel, Mintokling Guest House, is a family-run establishment that has been around for a while. Tenzing and Pema, the brother and sister that run the place are friendly and the restaurant served up some great food. It was a good base to explore the town. It was easy to find a rabies shot at one of the few pharmacies which I decided to have administered at the local hospital the morning we left.
One of the places we visited was the ropeway. We were really looking forward to taking the cable car down to bottom part of town and taking in some good views. We arrived at the ropeway station and waited patiently for a cable car. When it arrived we found the car jam packed full of people – like a Tokyo subway car- we’re talking sardines! It was funny but we were not up for being that close to a lot of BO. We chose to wait for the next, hoping it would be less crowded. Well it wasn’t – so we decided to walk instead. It was funny, we remarked to each other – only in India would there be an attraction to take in the views – but they cram you in so tight – that the only view you get is of heads and maybe a bit of sky if you’re lucky. Kinda sounds like a water park with not enough water! (That’s actually not a joke – more on that in the next post)
One of the best parts about being in Gangtok, and just Sikkim in general, is walking around town, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. When the mountains decide to expose themselves through the clouds, you will be amazed at their magnificence and size ! We visited some nice places in town including the fresh produce and spice market and a pretty park on top of the hill. The produce and particularly spices were amazing and fresh. We often encountered locals selling fragrant cardamom, cinnamon, white peppercorns, saffron, and many more spices on the streets. The park was great for a sunset stroll up on the ridge of the mountaintop over Gangtok.
One of the places we knew we wanted to visit was Lachung, 30km from the Tibet border, it is a small mountain village that is a perfect pit stop on the way to the beautiful Yumthang Valley. We set up an overnight tour including driver to visit this remote Alpine meadow full of wildlife and very close to the glacial source of the Yumthang river. The 7 hour drive up was very rough and rugged despite our vehicle being the highly coveted Mahindra Scorpio. Our moody driver, a lovelorn Sikkimese, pined for his desired wife and told us some familiar stories about unrequited love between young couples whose families forbid it. He also tried to make extra money off us by telling us he would drive us to Zero Point glacier if we paid for some bribes for policemen as well as an extra 3500Rs for him. We weren’t having it and decided we would get to a glacier on our own at some point during the trip (Finally made it in Iceland but you’ll have to check back for details!)
The Yumthang Valley was incredible – crisp cold air at 12,000ft, glacial river close to its source, lots of animals including horses, yak, cows, and many insects. The weather was somewhat cloudy when we went but as the morning progressed (We got there at 7am), the sun appeared and burned up the fog. This was lovely and revealed the peaks that give the place its name, the Switzerland of India. The famous flowering rhododendrons were reaching the end of their season but added a small pop of various colors. There was a sense of natural enchantment in a very remote and high up place.
Pelling, in West Sikkim, was our next stop. We had to stop overnight in Gangtok on our way there, which served as a good place to pick up my 3rd rabies vaccination which would be unavailable there. Pelling is a hot stop on the tourist trail and that is because of the views. Its prime location in West Sikkim puts you in good proximity to the mighty peaks of Kanchenjunga. As luck would have it we never saw the massive mountains unobstructed on a clear day, but fought the clouds for every stolen glance, each of which took our breath away.
Being there for 3 nights in a gigantic windowless room was disappointing at first but we soon experienced the perk of windowless India travel – no street noise – we took the opportunity to enjoy the cool weather and rest up.We had a love hate relationship with our hotel. They sadly didn’t stock bottled water, which led me on a sneaky mission through their kitchens late at night. I was surprised to find as I was attempting to raid their fridge, that my rabies shot was not there as requested. Oh Joy – it was in the freezer, where the dead rabies spores experienced their last living moments. Well the hotel people tried to shirk their responsibilities, but Tushar, who puts people in their place all over the world now, made sure they replaced it by sending an employee to the next town 2 hours away to fix their mistake and get me the shot I needed to stay alive! Tushar ended up administering that one, and all I have to say is OUCH!! It didn’t quite make its way into my muscle but slowly seeped in from a big lump in the fatty layer of my upper arm. Yikes it hurt – and I made a note to myself to make it a priority to find a nurse for the next one.
One of the funnest things we did in Pelling was host a party in our gigantic 2 bedroom family windowless suite. We made friends with Roope, Shruti, and Renee at a local establishment while chilling on the deck and enjoying the sunset. Countries represented: Finland, France, USA, and India! We chatted with many people from all over the world on our travels and this helped enhance the experience of our travels by chatting to people who were also traveling, but in their own unique ways. The sense of crossing paths with world people on their own crazy adventures helped us with our cultural awareness.