With my last post for Sri Lanka finally published, I can now begin on my backpacking travels of India. Plenty of kilometres on the clock in the amazing sub-continent so what better place to start than the present and work backward? I’m currently in the northern state of Sikkim, it’s the start of monsoon so things are beginning to get a little wet but at least things have cooled down a little.
There is a sense of remoteness in Sikkim. Put it down to the travel - journeys are not far in distance but take an age due to the terrain; I don't think I've seen a flat piece of ground larger than a cricket pitch or a straight piece of road in over a week. Check out the map below - never-ending hills and the numerous switchbacks needed to climb them mean even the shortest journeys take far longer than you’d expect, with narrow roads and wet conditions slower things further. Little did I know that the journeys were only to get rougher as I headed further into Sikkim.
There’s also the lack of people. Sikkim is India’s second-smallest state and is the least populated at barely 600,000. This was the first time I didn’t feel like I was in a country of 1.3 billion people.
Before entering Sikkim I had to grapple with the necessary permits. As this is a sensitive area, the Indian government are a little paranoid over who can enter Sikkim, with the main issue being the northern and eastern borders with China/Tibet.
First up, the Inner Line Permit. This is the one you need before you even set foot into Sikkim. They’re pretty easy to get (and strangely free, a surprise given the way India overcharges foreigners), just a bit of a hassle. You can get them from offices in Delhi, Siliguri, Varanasi and Kolkata, although given they’re only valid for 15 days you need to be fairly sure when you’re travelling to Sikkim. For this reason, I chose Darjeeling to get mine. A bit more of a hassle as there are two offices to visit. First, the Foreigners Registration Office. Not too bad as it’s right in the centre of town. Fill in a form, they sign and stamp it and you think you’re done. Oh no. You then have to take said form on a 20-minute stroll down the hill to the District Magistrates Office; again fairly straight forward as they’ll issue it straight away, just a bit of a hassle (try to avoid the 1200-1330 lunch closure). Handy hint – check out my Darjeeling blog post and tie this all together with visits to the tea estate and mountaineering museum as they’re all on the same road.
If you want to travel to any areas near the border with Tibet, you’ll need a Protected Area Permit. As you can only travel into these areas (typically North Sikkim and Changgu Lake) on a tour, the tour agency will take of this for you. All you’ll need is a passport photo. There is a cost for this permit but it’ll be bundled into the total price of your tour. Nothing to worry about here other than the two-foreigner limit – see the North Sikkim section below.
The shared jeep pulled into Gangtok, capital of Sikkim state. A friendly local (who I soon discover is not the exception) showed me to the taxi stand where I can catch a shared vehicle to the town centre. A short but sharp slog up steep lanes and I reach my hotel. Given low season, I’m not surprised to find myself the sole occupant to the dorm and can’t help but admire the views out the window (the town below, which itself is above a sea of fog)
Gangtok clocks in at about 80000 residents but given its stretched location across a series of hills, it never seems busy. The main pedestrian drag of MG Marg is car-free and welcoming, with its focal point being a statue of Mahatma Gandhi (hence the MG). Besides organising a north Sikkim tour, the next few days gave me an opportunity to explore nearby Rumtek monastery, ride the cable car to and from the city below and Namgyal Tibetan institute and (most importantly) find suitable places to watch the World Cup.
I’m not usually one for a tour, I prefer to do things independently. But when it comes to North Sikkim, things are a little more difficult. As a foreigner, there are certain restrictions – you need another permit (and this permit can’t be issued to solo travellers, there needs to be at least 2 foreigners listed) and you need an official guide. So having spent half a day wandering Gangtok playing “Hunt for a Foreigner”, I got a call on my mobile. It was an Irish guy called Mike, same predicament as me, luckily a travel agent gave him my number. I met up with him and his Indian girlfriend at a cafe; we all hit it off immediately so started hunting for a tour. As luck would have it, we bumped into another couple at a travel office, they were Indian and English so were also stuck without a second foreigner. With our party now at 5 (and ticking all the permit boxes), we were ready.
The next morning we headed north. As with the rest of this region, roads were in terrible condition so the going was slow. Potholes and hairpin bends were so regular as to be the norm.
Water is the defining force of this region. Hills are green with dense forest. Valleys have been eroded by rivers over the millennia. Roads are scarred with landslides. Waterfalls are everywhere, cascading down hills and sometimes turning roads into temporary fords. And always the ever-present threat of rain.
We reached Lachen by 6.00pm, too late to do anything but watch the World Cup in the shop attached to the hotel before an early night. We awoke at 6.30am for a 7.00am start. Unfortunately our guide managed to oversleep so we left at 8.00am. The further north we went, the worse the roads got. We were also steadily climbing – by the time we reached Chopta Valley we were at 4035 metres above sea level. We headed further up the valley then left the jeep to explore. Our late departure robbed us of the chance to hike the valley so we were spared the worst of the oxygen-weak atmosphere. Instead we had to settle for a short but scenic walk away from the road. The surrounding hills still bore the last remnants of snow from winter months before. Pink and orange rhododendrons provide a vivid contrast to the barren hills.
Further on lay 5000 metre plus Gurudongmar Lake but not for us; the army deem this area to be off-limits to foreigners as it’s only a few kilometres from Tibet (what are we going to to do, overthrow the Chinese government and free Tibet?!), leaving us no choice but to head back south towards the Chungthang junction then head north to Lauchung, our next overnight destination.
The next morning, the 6am alarm buzzed and it was time to head northeast. Our group had discussed the value of the tour the previous evening (of course, Mike and I made sure this discussion happened during the half-time break of the Belgium-Panama game), we all agreed the highlights lay ahead. Indeed they did – not long after leaving Lauchung we struck a small valley, complete with forest, cloud-shrouded peaks and a lake. Further head lay Yumthang Valley, our main destination. We reached it 30 minutes later; a small and rocky river, hills on either side of the valley with higher peaks in the distance. There were more tourists than Chopta Valley but nowhere near enough to detract from the stark scenery around us. The longer we stayed, the more I respected its beauty. Sure, it would have been stunning in summer, with bright blue skies and everything well-lit but a visit in low-season gave a different perspective. Smaller crowds meant more chance to appreciate its stark beauty, the mild wind leaving Tibetan prayer flags flapping in the wind and clouds moving slowly towards the horizon.
All too soon it was time to leave. A short detour via the Yumthang Hot Springs (picturesque bridge, disappointing hot springs enclosed within a stone building) and we were back to Gangtok.
For the last part of my Sikkim travels, I grabbed a shared jeep in Gangtok and headed west to Pelling. True to form, the journey was not easy - only 37km as the kingfisher flies but 127km via road, meaning a 4-5 hour journey. There’s only one shared jeep a day to Pelling and it was full by the time I reached the station at 6.30am. Luckily, I was able to get on the next jeep to Geyzing, only 9km from Pelling, and grab a shared taxi from there. Pelling is famous for its Himalayan views but given I was travelling in low season I wasn’t too hopeful. Sure, the clouds hovering in valleys looked moody and atmospheric but by this stage I was kinda over moody and atmospheric and just wanted to see some mountains! Public transport is virtually non-existent in Pelling (just a few shared jeeps and taxis to Geyzing) so luckily there are a few sights within walking distance. After the cramped jeep from Gangtok I needed to stretch my legs so the first stop was the Sanghak Choeling Monastery. One of the oldest in Sikkim, its only about 30 minutes’ walk from town. Unfortunately, at the moment most of it is a construction site, with the huge Buddha statue at the top of the hill being off limits; luckily the main monastery made up for that as I turned up just as afternoon prayers were beginning, which involves chanting and music (horns, drums and bells). The next mor
ning I headed east, again on foot. A short distance from town is the hilltop Pemayangtse Monastery, dating back over 300 years, it too is one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. Further down the road lie the ruins of Rabdentse, the second capital of Sikkim. The ruins themselves were nothing amazing but the views of clouded-covered valleys were (surprise, surprise) moody and atmospheric, while the 800 metre walk to the ruins through forest provided a pleasant break from strolling the roads. As I approached the gate to Rabdentse from the main road, I spotted a large mesh aviary. Signs promised a wide variety of birds from the local region so I paid my 50 rupees and headed in and onto the elevated walkway. So what did I see flying around the aviary? Pigeons. That's right, fucking pigeons. And not even some special breed of Indian pigeon, merely the kind that would crap on you in any town square. There are four breeds of pheasant but these are barely visible as they’re imprisoned in mesh enclosures below. Apparently they’re kept caged because it was breeding season. Got me stumped how pheasants managed to reproduce over the years before humans invented cages.
For the first time in this trip, I really noticed I was travelling in low season. I was the only guest at my hotel; when I enquired about local tours I was told to just hire a taxi as no tours were running, an opinion quickly confirmed by visiting a few local travel agents. I use the term travel agents loosely as I’m not sure what they do – no train or bus tickets, no tours, just taking commission from taxi drivers outside? (example - 1800 rupees quoted for a half day tour, 1300-1500 to negotiate direct with the taxis).
The usual half-day tour here is to head north to Lake Khecheopalri, with stops in Darap village and several waterfalls. After my North Sikkim trip, though, I’d had my fill of lakes, valleys and waterfalls so was looking for something a little different.
I opted to deal directly with the taxi drivers – within 2 minutes we’d agreed a price of 1300 rupees and I was on my way. First stop was Mangey Falls (yeah, I know what I’ve just said above about waterfall but hey, it was on the way). About 60 metres high, nice for a 5 minute stop but nothing amazing. Next stop was the Singshore Bridge, at 100 metres high it’s the second highest gorge bridge in Asia. Designed for pedestrians and light vehicles, these days it is more of a tourist attraction (although being low season, it was pretty quiet during my visit.
My last stop (besides a local restaurant for some fantastic chicken momos) was the Alpine Cheese Factory. This had caught my eye when I was researching West Sikkim, not the sort of place you’d expect to find. They don’t actually run any tours of the premises but since it is so small, you can stand in the open doorway and observe them at work. Given I hadn’t had any proper cheese in months I picked up a small piece of gouda from their store. Although with India being India, it was impossible to find any crackers that didn’t contain sugar! Aaargh!
A final word of warning – Pelling has 5 travel agencies but none can book bus or train tickets. I was only planning on staying 3 nights in Pelling but ended up staying 5 (not a bad thing with a flexible itinerary, it is quite a pleasant town). You’ll have to get a shared taxi to Geyzing to get a train ticket from the SNT ticket reservation counter. But .... they are closed on Sunday so you can’t leave on a Monday if you were planning on a ticket via the ‘tatkal’ late allocation of seats. And at the moment they are not issuing tickets at all due to a “link failure”. Further down the road is a small computer store that also issues train tickets, although they’re not so keen (i.e. don’t know how) to issue tatkal tickets; my attempt to book a ticket involved the agent grudgingly agreeing, but then being unable to secure a ticket before they sold out (the first time this had happened to me in my four months in India – make of that what you will). My recommendation if you travel Sikkim? Hit Pelling first, Gangtok will be easier to leave from as they have an official railway reservation office and better transport links to Siliguri (where you’ll find the New Jalpaiguri station).