A small protrusion in north central India, the state of Sikkim is a geographical crossroads that borders Nepal to its west, Tibet to its north, Bhutan to its east and the rest of Hindu India to its south. The rest of India is added to this list due its starkly contradicting make-up of religion, values and personality and as previously mentioned, may as well be its very own country (or at least added to one of the others).
Spending a few days in Darjeeling, obtaining a needed permit for Sikkim and regrouping after a long deluge of Varanasi and travel, it became apparent that this small portion of the country was different. Darjeeling was incredibly quiet, much cleaner and I wasn’t hassled at all for my business. Much of this had to do with its relative affluence compared to most of the India I’ve seen, but also their way of life. The more north you travel, the more, well, Buddhism you sense, both physically, with the gompas (Buddhist temples), monasteries and traditional Buddhist garb, but also their values of respecting the land, all living things and each other, their calm, controlled demeanor, and just their refuge to the beautiful, hard to reach places. Also, this area has seen much migration from Tibet, due to China’s imperialistic bullying, errrr, I mean, conflict with China, and Nepal from their largely corrupt government. These countries are synonymous with Buddhism.
In Sikkim, due to it’s rugged up and down travel through the Himalayan foothills, travel is by foot or jeep. So, my first day of travel was to Sikkim’s tourist hotspot, Pelling by a breathtaking jeep ride through untouched forests and waterfalls, getting a quick idea of how incredible this week was going to be. Pelling has gotten its tourist reputation due to the magnificent views of Mount Khangchendzonga (8598 meters), the world’s third tallest mountain! I checked into another lovely, local guesthouse with what would have been an amazing view on the beast, but, as is common in the winter, the views were non-existent due to cloud cover. The next day I awoke and was determined to view the 2 beautiful monasteries in the area. The first was up the ridge to Sangachoeling Gompa where the views down to Pelling were magnificent the setting wonderfully serene. There I met with a couple of Argentinians that were in my jeep and ended up trekking with them and a local to some meditation caves higher still on the same ridge. The habitat is not what you’d expect in the Himalayan foothills. It’s very reminiscent of high jungle or cloud forest habitat, with tall trees and bamboo everywhere. It was just stunning and felt completely untouched and pure. Later that evening we hiked down from that ridge to a small village where local families were busy tilling their gardens with their cows and preening their cardamom crops.
Not getting any views from Darjeeling or Pelling the previous night, I realized it was a good possibility that I would not see what many come to Sikkim to see, glorious Khangchenzonga. Luckily I was wrong and the beast reared its formidable stature that next morning and most of the afternoon. As you could imagine, I instantly became very camera happy!
A very holy lake to the local Buddhists was next on my itinerary, Khecheopalri Lake. A girl from my guesthouse in Darjeeling had told me if I go to the lake to make sure that I hike up to the small monastery above the lake to a beautiful village where there’s a very primitive guesthouse with delicious food. It sounded right up my alley and it turned out to be one of the highlights of my whole trip. This village had once of the most idyllic settings amongst gorgeous, lush landscape on top of a ridge, children gleefully prancing about through rich, colorful gardens, everyone working hard with gigantic smiles on their faces and loving life. What a place to spend a day and what a generous and kind family where the Bhutia’s and the most delicious food I’ve had in India to date.
Mr. Bhutia informed me about a gompa on a lookout higher above the lake that I could hike to the next day, before trekking to Yuksom, the small village and trekking base to Khangchenzonga. Another impressive view from high above the lake was had, then the trek led all the way down the valley though several villages of terraced farmland and what I kept thinking as meticulously laid stone steps and Tolkien-esque hobbit paths spanning thousands of feet all the way down to the river valley, before climbing back up a gazillion more steps to Yuksom.
While grabbing tea and dinner in Yuksom after a very long day of trekking, I ran into a couple of guys from London who’d been trekking in the area the entire previous week, imploring me to trek the first leg of the Khangchenzonga trek. After their high endorsement, I was convinced and was off the next morning in what was a mostly clear morning, thinking I had lucked out with the weather. The hike was simply breathtaking through lush forest forests and over old bridges spanning raging rivers and waterfalls. The only traffic I saw were the yak/mule crosses and their guides carrying goods to and from their village high above Yuksom and in the shadows of the Himalayas. Unfortunately the weather turned cloudy once again as I reached the highest I point I could on the trail, the first trekkers hut, before turning around. My immediate surrounding were quite enough to put a huge smile on my face. And another glimpse into local life was afforded at The Cottage Homestay, with a lovely family that allowed me the privalege of helping cook dinner. I'm sure I just got in the way, but it was fun for everyone! I am grateful for this family!
Finally, another highlight of my entire trip (I know, there’s many in Sikkim!) was the annual Chaam dances by the Pemayangtse monks that just so happened to be taking place at their gompa. A real treat it was to witness the perfect cultural highlight to a magnificent natural background and preceding week-long display before my volunteering project at Dakshinayan begins, the final phase of my adventure to India.