Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest peak, steals the show in this once royal Kingdom. For less travelled treks and empty spaces, head to Sikkim in the eastern Himalaya.
In 1975, pinned between Nepal, Tibet, India and Bhutan, the Kingdom of Sikkim sloughed off three centuries of Chogyal rule and became the second smallest state in India (Goa wins the top prize). Sitting high and alone at the eastern end of the Himalaya, it is the only state with an ethnic Nepali majority.
Deep river valleys slice through its vertiginous mountains, each fold in the earth’s crust looming higher as it marches towards Asia. To woo its new populous, the central Indian government ploughed money into Sikkim’s infrastructure with massive road improvements. It was a joy (and relief) to find such smooth well maintained surfaces after the potholes of Kalimpong.
We bought our visas in Darjeeling – a painless exercise – but you can also purchase them at the border. Stays for foreigners are now 30 days, with the possibility of a further 30 day extension once inside the state.
Declaring itself one of India’s “green states”, Sikkim is a plastic-bag-free-zone and has banned smoking almost everywhere. On closer inspection this Utopia turned out to have almost as many rubbish ‘drifts’ as elsewhere in India and the smoke from burning plastic every evening made our eyes stream and throats constrict. It didn’t seem any different to West Bengal
Gangtok is a strange city. Seemingly modern, and made of concrete boxes thrown at the side of the mountain, it lacks visual appeal, but the people were engaging and friendly and it has a spectacular view across the valleys and mountains. Many of the women wore western dress and there were no sarees in evidence apart from those worn by a few Indian tourists. Some residents wore the apron-style traditional dress seen all over this part of northern India.
We didn’t have long there, only two nights, but we enjoyed walking around the town, soaking up the atmosphere and sampling the food (plenty of noodles and momos). People stopped to chat to us and passed the time of day, without trying to sell us anything. Like Darjeeling and Kalimpong, it was much quieter than the India we have come to know south of the mountains. No shrieking, loud-talking on mobiles or raucous trading goes on in this part of India. It felt like another country.
Eager to discover more of Sikkim, we headed north-west to Pelling. The ‘town’ – really just another row of characterless concrete-box hotels perched along a ridge – was full of smartly but inappropriately dressed domestic tourists (high heels, elaborate hair, swathed in gold jewellery, and that’s just the men). Jamie and I were welcomed with wide smiles by the locals who told us that domestic Indian tourists were ‘too noisy’. We tried to sympathise.
On the first night we discovered the balcony at The Melting Point, one of the two decent bars in town – the other being the large roof terrace at the Hotel Kabur, frequented by backpackers and local people, and a great place to wind down with a drink and simple food. Wrapped in fleeces and with beers in hand, we gazed upwards at five crystal clear peaks in the gradually darkening crisp, blue sky. Not a single cloud marred our first close up of the massif.
Pelling is close to some exciting treks and places of interest – the Rabdentse ruins, Pemayangtse Gompa, Kanchenganga National Park and Kechopari Lake. But, even though surrounded by the beauty of the Himalaya, as a place to stay it lacks heart. It is full of noisy Jeeps whining up and down the hill roads, or groups of tourists talking at the tops of their voices, while local people watch them through weary eyes.
Trekking and hitching
On our third day we were on our way back from serene Kechopari Lake when we bumped into the President of the Darap Eco-Tourism Committee Project. Having stayed overnight in Kechopari, without planning our return journey, we tried to hop on one of the many day-tripper Jeeps crowding the area. No chance. Luckily for us, our new local friends knew of some people heading back our way and were sure we’d be able to cadge a lift.
A short while later a beaten up diesel truck stopped in front of us and we climbed in the back. Along with a local family of Limboo people. And another family. Then three elderly ladies in glorious local dress and bedecked with nose and ear-rings – they sat in the front next to the driver. Then a few blokes and some chickens. Then a load of giggling girls. And a fella with a bucket of water (with something lurking in the bottom). It was all very cosy. The journey, which had taken us a whole day to walk the previous day, was eaten up in just over an hour. From the outset we were serenaded by a motley gaggle of kids and adults with rousing, happy folk songs. Then we came to halt.
Bemused by the gestures and shouts from our fellow passengers, Jamie and I jumped off with the rest of them. We were in a tiny village called Darap. It was lovely, but it wasn’t Pelling. The driver would accept no money, it was his honour that we had travelled with him and his family. Jamie pressed some notes on him, which he finally took with much reluctance. In the middle of all the commotion, and waving of goodbyes, a smart little car turned up with a smart looking man at the wheel.
“Get in, I’ll run you back to Pelling.”
Amazed at this apparent serendipity Jamie and I were delighted to accept his invitation. I was reverentially offered the front seat and, for a change, Jamie had to squeeze in the back.
Sushil Tamang turned out to be a mine of information. He told us all about the state government’s drive to promote tourism, which it had identified as a major source of income. It actively encourages self-help village tourism, offering grants and aid to local people to make their homes suitable for tourists. Sushil had studied hotel and catering at university and had set up his own modest ‘village resort’ in Darap. He’d also galvanised local people into forming a local tourism committee.
“We all work together to promote our area,” he said.
“All those hotels in Pelling? They are not owned by Sikkim people. They belong to some rich men from the south. No wonder you think they are without charm.”
We swapped cards and he graciously dropped us right outside our charmless hotel refusing all attempts to accept payment for the lift.
Peace at last!
It took us about two minutes to decide that we would leave Pelling immediately and move to Darap. Sushil wasn’t able to offer us accommodation in his own homestay but he recommended a family close by. We were thrilled.
Dara Gaon Village Retreat is a small, hidden homestay run by Shiva Gurung and his wife, Radha, with a little help from their children. The village of Darap clings to the foothills of Sikkim’s eastern Himalaya in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, and, although just a few miles down the road from the concrete hotels of Pelling’s main drag, is in another world.
We stayed for several days, immersing ourselves in Lepcha and Limboo life. Radha showed me how to make momos and Shiva suggested plenty of activities like cultural sight-seeing, bird watching, trekking, fishing and walking. But what distinguished it for us was getting to know the local people in and around Darap.
Sushil arranged for Purna, a young local student, to take us on a trek off the beaten track. His parents still live high in the valley in a 200 year old dung and bamboo hut. Purna lives next door in a tiny one-room Wendy house which he shares with his brother, it is also made of bamboo and cow dung and has a dirt floor. But he has a small TV, shelves of books and posters of gorgeous girls on his walls. We drank butter and salt tea, millet beer, and creamy milk straight from the cow. After a particularly happy afternoon sharing a hot rhododendron hooch with the extended family, the walk back down was more of a challenge than usual. We just made it before dusk.
On our last day – as I performed my morning ablutions in the bathroom – the ground shook beneath my feet, then after a groan all was still. We’d had an earthquake. Months later, when we were back in the UK, Sikkim was hit by a much bigger earthquake, but I’m pleased to say that all our friends, although shocked and frightened, were fine.
To arrive at Shiva and Radha’s nirvana you must leave the car and take a short hike, climb a winding, near vertical stone path, and cross a wooden bridge over an ice cool mountain stream into a wide terraced garden. We stayed in one of the two simply built wooden chalets, each with en-suite shower room and wide veranda (complete with heavy rocking chair). It rates as one of the best places I have ever been and we intend to go back. If you’re ever that way, we suggest you stay there too.
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