From the tea gardens of Darjeeling, we moved on up into the Sikkim state. I’d never heard of Sikkim before the trip and was a bit unsure of what to expect. A greener landscape than the arid cities, perhaps. But when you think of “Incredible India”, Sikkim isn’t somewhere you’d think of.
The funny thing is that it is in fact places like Sikkim that truly make India incredible. An independent country until 1975, it’s harder to get into the state of Sikkim than any other in the country. With the help of the Indian in our multicultural trio – who came armed with multiple copies of all sorts of paperwork – and a worker at the state border, we sailed on smoothly, and the supposedly gruelling process of getting into Sikkim felt more like simply an opportunity to stretch our legs.
After a roller coaster ride up and down piles of rock for around five hours, our first stop in Sikkim was the tiny village of Pelling. The landscape changes ever so slightly from Darjeeling to here; the hues in the trees become a little less blue, a little more green, and we were at all times bubbled by a light fog, as we entered the ethereal.
The early morning mist made me feel like a lot of Pelling and the areas around were designed as film sets, not real life. Do places like these really exist? Our first sight of wonder, Khecheolpaldri Lake is set into land that is accessed by a “holy walk”, Khecheopaldri meaning “the heaven of Padmasambhava”. For around 1km, its visitors can walk underneath a sky of colour from the endless strings of prayer flags. The reward at the end of the holy walk is the lake, with its eerily thick fog resting on top. To look out over it, visitors complete their holy walk by turning rows of cylinders called “prayer wheels” – the core of which is home to a life tree. Khecheopaldri Lake is a sacred place for both Hindus and Buddhists.
Close to the lake are the Kanchenjunga waterfalls, which at first glance, don’t look that impressive – especially after seeing enough namtok for a lifetime in Thailand. It’s only when you head closer into the area, past the vegetable momos (dumplings) and makeshift tea stands that the view opens up, and suddenly the waterfalls become a bit more impressive. It looks a little like there are a number of men just loitering around the base of the falls, but really, they are strategically placed. As soon as you move to get closer to the water, the hands of the men balance you from one rock to another, keeping you stable throughout the short walk. It’s genius and makes a visit to an otherwise ordinary waterfall a little special.
A highlight of our time here was eating a hot, homely supper by candlelight on the top of a mountain, where our hotel was perched. Keeping us warm was a huge bonfire, where we met some of the locals to the area. The finishing touch on our extra-super-unimaginable evening was spotting the occasionally firefly in the darkness. This was about Magic Moment #51 during our trip; still, with all its simplicity and spontaneity, it was a particular favourite of mine.
In truth, it was actually the spontaneity and timings of things happening that made the moment. You stop thinking about where is important to see, to eat, to stay, because everything had a way of working out anyway. Pemayangtse is another of the countless amounts of Tibetan Buddhist monasteries that are hidden in the mists in the mountains. That is expected. The unexpected was finding ourselves as guests watching the training monks chanting through their afternoon lessons. Rather than asked to leave, we were sat down with a cup of masala chai and a bowl of snacks, as monks as wee as 3 years old to young adults bellowed different tones at alternating rhythms, a few percussive instruments scattered across the room completing our afternoon’s ensemble. Photography is often not permitted in monasteries, especially at times like these, but nothing would come close to seeing it in person regardless. The sound I can still recall, the faces of the monks still singing joyfully I can still see, and naturally, the goosebumps can still be felt.
Moving to the heart of Sikkim, we travelled to Gangtok, the once capital of Sikkim in a state of independence after the British rule. The municipality of Gangtok rests deep into its surroundings; I felt like we were moving far towards the earth’s crust to get to the centre of the town. Magic Moments and perfect timings strike again: just as we moved into the pedestrianized streets, a showcase of dances from India’s many states began. In the performances alone, the level of diversity in a country such as India is crystal clear. Some outfits seemed almost middle-eastern; the music played was staccato and dynamic. Some outfits were vivid, telling stories of the relentless chase in relationships, vocals being prominent in the music to accompany the tale. Rain started to fall after some time but the dances were carried out all the same, where we watched from the windows of a pure vegetarian restaurant. It wasn’t until the downpour had drenched the performers and the crowds had all disappeared that the showcase was abandoned, but still, to see as much as we had unexpectedly was our fortune anyway, regardless of getting a bit damp.
As a British person, it’s only fitting that the weather plays a big part in my experience of a place! In Sikkim, the days were mild to the point of refreshing, the foliage reflecting the cooler and perhaps wetter climate. It wasn’t expected that in this same charming state, the landscape could change once more. Already, the frame of India’s dry and arid lands had been washed away by the showers and uprooted by its plush greenery – could we expect more?
And yet there was. On the edge of Gangtok, the Border Roads Organisation (given my favourite acronym of BRO) have set another checkpoint, this one proving to be stricter with those it allows through (the friendliest member of the workforce appointed the Indian among us as the official guide of the vehicle). Without an “official guide”, the excursion is tricky (read: potentially impossible) to do, and with our (ahem) guide, the car was still stopped at regular intervals to be warned any intention to go further towards the Indian-China border than our intended destination would have “severe consequences…”
Almost instantly past the BRO office, shrubbery disappeared. The trees became stripped, black, thin and tall; the mist intensified and the landscape reformed into yet another world that was until that point inconceivable to enter.
Escalating the mountain-side, BRO signposts posed thoughtful quotes. Where in England we’d expect to see “SLOW DOWN” on the approach of hairpin bends, the road signs here have a more poetic nature, such as “Better to lose a minute of life than lose a life in minutes” – and a bit more randomly “If you can dream it, you can do it” (which incidentally is my favourite Walt Disney quote.)
Up through the other world we climbed to an altitude of 12, 400 feet. Queue Magic Moment #72 (approx.): Discovering Tsomgo Lake.
Tsomgo (or Changu) Lake is one of few places I’ve been and struggled to believe that it is on Earth. As another sacred place for Sikkimese, many myths and legends have formed there. Some stories still raise the hair on our skin. As we walked around the right hand side of the lake, the driver accompanied us, telling us the most famous of its stories:
A major from the nearby army base once took a trip to Tsomgo Lake and fell into its icy water. Though the army searched for months, his body was never found. To this day, if soldiers misbehave by sleeping on duty, for example, or are mischievous with women, they will often feel being slapped, or punished inexplicably… Another strange phenomenon to have transpired here was the presence of the Dalai Lama in the form of a bird. Some locals believe the lake itself is a footprint of the Dalai Lama, made when he fled Tibet to escape the Chinese occupation over 50 years ago.
Sikkim’s unique identity is maintained through its tales of folklore and timeless traditions. Stepping inside the handicraft museum is like stepping into a recently abandoned home of a hoarder, each relic telling its own story. Through woodwork, textiles and fashion, art and music, Sikkim opens up to its own uniqueness, most of which can still be found in the suits women wear and the furniture in their homes and hotels. This is joined to a government school of arts and craft.
Relatively close(ish) to the town is another of Sikkim’s myriad of monasteries, clothed in mismatching material, prayer wheels and scarves that are custom gifts and offerings to others in Sikkim. Do Drul Chorten, and a short walk from the monastery, the Institute of Tibetology serves itself as an info hub to the inquisitive mind. Those who are curious about Buddhism can gain knowledge the best of books can’t write. There is a focus on the recurring face of Padmasambhava, the maddeningly alert figure that changes its form in different imagery in Tibetan Buddhism. Padmasambhava was noted as the second Buddha, the founder of the first monastery in Tibet and iconised as a guru image. The chronicles continue to reel in cultural artefacts from Sikkim, India and its neighbouring countries. It was also Padmasambhava that hailed Sikkim as one of the world’s last utopias.
Leaving Gangtok for our final stop of the North East India adventure, sights became set on Kalimpong – yet another place I’d previously heard nothing about! The highest viewpoint of Kalimpong hides a little behind a 30 ft statue of Hanuman, at Hanuman Tok. Hanuman is a Hindu god, devoted to Rama. He represents strength and energy, and people will often pray to him as a reminder of the selfless devotion to a god. He’s quite easy to recognise and once you learn about his monkey face, it comes up time and time again all across India.
Kalimpong is as floral as the name might let you imagine. The short time we spent there was wrapped in flowers of all colours and vibrancy, through the gardens of Deolo Hill and stopping briefly to ogle the countless amounts of cacti in Kalimpong’s flower nursery left us filled with scents, gusted with the relentless beauty of nature and the slight urgency not to forget about that beauty.
The unfaltering hospitality of Sikkim’s people touched our hearts right until the end, warmed and welcomed by its locals who truly seem to love what they do and don’t want for anything else than what they already have.
The true charm of visiting a place like Sikkim is taking the experience with you, and view the world afterwards with a new and unexplainable feeling of hope. Incredible India, indeed.