To say that Sikkim is breathtakingly beautiful is to state the obvious. However, its beauty is almost schizophrenic, sometimes serenading you and at others, grabbing you rudely, as it encroaches on your consciousness and overtakes your mind, making you slave to its lurching landscapes and picture perfect vistas that spring on you at every hair pin bend. Just before you have the time to take in this startling and stark beauty, the scene changes in a flash, the road narrows excruciatingly, and another view fights for your complete attention.
It’s simply overwhelming, this constant tussle between the powerful beauty of the land and its untouched territory, which darts exclamation marks at every jeep that dares to traverse its roads that are virtual cliff hangers. A mere 40 km jeep ride from our hotel in Gangtok to the Tsango Lake takes close to 2 hours, our nerves rattling as much as the tyres that skid, settle and skid again as they come to grips with the boulders that double up as roads in this terrain that defies every man made contraption. We marvel at the chatty jeep man’s driving prowess as he takes us from 4700 feet to 12400 feet, deftly willing the jeep into submission.
It’s man versus nature in Sikkim.
Tsango Lake strikes you as an oasis, albeit amidst huge rocky mountains. It is tranquil, serene and after the haranguing trip to reach there, you need that dose of calm and peace. It’s almost as if the landscape has laid out a haven for you after testing your mettle – and the sight of the lake is a reassuring reminder that you’ve made the grade. As a reward, you are treated to the Lake that is flanked on all the sides by snow capped mountains. It’s still here, very still. The waters offer you a crystal clear ripple-less reflection as we unmount from the yaks who have trudged there with us. Or rather on whose back we have in turn precariously balanced and clumsily sat on! The gear doesn’t help much in any of these adventures. It’s bitingly cold and though the snow has melted on the lake, its nip and brace is very much present in the air. So we, like all good tourists, trudge to the makeshift shops that line the path to the lake, and equip ourselves with colourful and warm coats, mufflers, monkey caps, gloves, boots – the works! The boots and the not-made-to-order apparel does get in the way of wading through the melted snow that flows through the pebbles dotting the lake, but then again, we are more than thankful for their shield in protecting us from the icy winds and the chilling temperatures that threaten to make icicles of us.
The 360 degree panorama of snow laced mountains, and the languid lake nestling protectively in its centre, makes for compelling visuals. So we get trigger happy, and the yaks too trudge happily into the frame.
Sikkim is a small state. Just 2740 square miles is neatly divided into East, West, North and South Sikkim. Its capital, Gangtok is in the North. In fact the entire North Sikkim is strewn with waterfalls, and frighteningly rough roads, which make them slippery as well. It’s easy for an atheist to become a devout here, I muse, as the mind turns to the almighty once too often to take you through safely to your destination!
Gangtok is, unlike most of Sikkim, pretty well developed. 5 star hotels, internet cafes and offices dot this hilly capital. Orchids are in full bloom, and an annual orchid show is organised at Gangtok, that attracts international tourists. You mind boggles at the sheer variety and colours on display- and any trip to Sikkim should always coincide with this flower show.
Lachung, around 120 kms from Gangtok is as remote and cut off as it is magnificent. The hotels are basic and we have been warned that there is no provision for hot water in the rooms as electric supply is erratic. We arrive at a hotel called Le Coxy, which doesn’t live up to its exotic name. The room can accommodate exactly 4 people and 2 suitcases, provided those 4 people do not move around too much. A creaky bed, a creakier wooden floor, and a basic bathroom form the hotel ‘room’. Food facilities are equally basic but fresh. We know for a fact that the food we eat is actually cooked a couple of hours ago and not something that the refrigerator relinquished after a long wait.
But then, people don’t brave the roads and the basic amenities that Lachung offers for creature comforts. Nature lays out a resplendent show at the Yumthang Valley at 14,000 feet above sea level. Yumthang is home to the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, and has over twenty-four species of the rhododendron, the state flower. But much more than that, Yumthang is a vast grazing pasture enclosed on all sides by the splendour of the ice peaked Himalayas, a tributary of the river Teesta gurgling through the pebbles – framed by the grandeur of the open clear deep blue skies. Except for the wind chill that engulfs us, everything is perfect – and all is right with the world. Some enterprising souls have put together a makeshift stall of hot chai and soup and nothing warms the heart and tides us through the next couple of hours as much as these steaming cups.
In fact time tends to stand still at Yumthang Valley. Or more accurately, it ceases to have meaning here. Verdant grasslands are waiting to be walked on; little hillocks throw up myriad photo opportunities, white polished pebbles spring deftly from our hands to be swallowed after rippling in the icy flowing waters – and Yumthang has all the makings of a paradise waiting to be discovered. So discover it, we do. In our own way. Stop, stare, internalise, marvel, meander, drift, dream – the green meadows flanked by the whiteness of the ranges bring home the sheer magnitude and exquisiteness of nature with startling clarity. At Yumthang, nature seeps into your being with astonishing ease.
A large part of Sikkim, with the exception of Gangtok is largely untouched by the advances of the modern world. You come to a land in which nature rules.
If North Sikkim is marked by its gushing waterfalls, West Sikkim is cloaked in mist, a bouquet of fauna, and awash with clouds. Pelling, where we halt, is quaint, straight out of a picture book. Day excursions take us to the Rimbi waterfalls, the Pemyangste Monastery, rock gardens and Yuksom, which means ‘the meeting place of 3 monks’ and was the first capital of Sikkim.
But to really enjoy the solitude of Pelling, simply soak in its array of flowers that make a colourful carpet on the road, take a walk along the wooden houses that line the mountainside. Pelling is also the trekker’s delight, with its scale worthy peaks, crisp air and challenging trekking terrains.
A holiday to Sikkim in effect means bowing to the nature of nature. Acceding that it is more powerful, compelling and wondrous than us. And then surrendering to its temperament, totally.