by Humera Ahmed
Pristine and lush valleys, snowy peaks, a varied flora and fauna, serene monasteries, fluttering peace flags, and smiling friendly people, Sikkim like most hilly regions offers a variety of experience depending on the season of your visit.
My first visit there was during August of 2012 when the monsoon was in full swing and the Teesta river in spate and waterfalls gushing down mountainsides. Most of North Sikkim and the road to Nathula Pass was closed due to recurring landslides. But Gangtok– the capital and its surrounding area (located in East Sikkim) were un-crowded.
I visited the tourist hotspots¬ magnificent monasteries, exquisite Botanical Garden and shopped for souvenirs at MG Road –Gangtok’s chic and charming Mall. I visited the Tsuklakhang Royal Chapel Monastery where the erstwhile rulers of Sikkim, the Chogyals held their coronation, marriage and victory ceremonies before the state was merged with India on 14 April 1975.
I, however, managed to see parts of West and South Sikkim on route to Kalimpong. I was able to make brief halts at various places: at scenic Pelling with its waterfalls and wonderful views of the Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world; at Namchi with its towering 135 feet statue of the Buddhist monk, Guru Padmasambhava and the wonderfully landscaped Temi Tea Estate in Revangla.But I felt a sense of disappointment – having missed seeing the wonderful North and the Nathula Pass- the Indo China border post and the unparalleled Tsango lake.
North Sikkim is best visited in April- May especially if one wishes to see the Gurudongmar Lake- located at a height of 17800 ft and the Valley of flowers at Yamthang. So in the first week of May, with three women friends, I went off to Sikkim.
We reached Gangtok at 9 am. And an hour later after getting our permits, we drove up in an Innova to the Nathula pass which is about 14000 ft high, on the beautiful winding road. A cold wind blew and as we climbed the pass it started snowing and the check post was not visible. I got as a memento a certificate of the visit from the army for a nominal fee. We then visited the beautiful Tsango Lake with its clear waters reflecting the mountains encircling it and returned by evening to Gangtok.
The next day we drove out in the crispy cold morning air in a Balero as the steep mountainsides are difficult to negotiate in an Innova. Our driver Chindi a pleasant-faced youngster (probably wondering how he would handle four aged but unusually pepped up women) played a wonderful recording of Nepali and Hindi songs. I particularly liked the Nepali songs – without understanding the words. Most Sikkimese are multilingual: they speak Hindi, Nepali and Bhutia and have a working knowledge of English. Though the state is home to an ethnic and religious mix, they live harmoniously together, be they Lepchas (the indigenous people of Sikkim whose numbers are dwindling fast, and who follow either Christianity or Buddhism/Bon religion), Buddhist Bhutias (whose ancestors came from Tibet) or Hindu and Buddhist Nepalese (now more than half of the population).
On route, we passed some awesome waterfalls notably the Seven Sisters and the Naga falls. At Chingthang my friends prayed at the golden-domed Gurudwara– Guru Nanak Lama Saheb, built on the confluence of Lachung and Lachen chi- tributaries of Teesta river. Legend has it that the Sikh Guru visited this spot on route to Tibet and China. We had a night halt at Lachen -a beautiful little town with splendid views of the surrounding pine-covered hills and snow peaks from a century-old Lachen Monastery.
The next morning at 5 am we set off on a rough and winding road to Lake Gurudongmar, breathing the pine-scented air of a stupendous variety of conifers. We breakfasted at Thangu, the last village on route.
At 17800 ft, the Gurudongmar lake with its crystal clear icy waters surrounded by snow peaked mountains- prominent being the Kanchenjunga- is spectacular. The lake, one of the sources of the Teesta is considered holy by Buddhist, Hindus and Sikhs and its 5km circumference is encircled on foot by pilgrims. Near it is the temple dedicated to Guru Padmasambhava, who is said to have stilled the waters of this lake with his hand. Guru Nanak was here too– the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh Holy Scripture, is a reminder of the visit.
We spend the night in picturesque Lachung.
The next morning we descended down into the fantastic Yamthang Valley, ablaze with flowers. Ecstatically we captured in camera and mind’s eye the wonderful sight of white, pink, mauve lavender Rhododendron forests and a variety of alpine flowers, spreading for miles. It was an unforgettable experience. ***