There are three things I’m absolutely certain about: it’s pouring outside; I’m in a shed with a guy who is dressed as if for a ritual, strumming a three-stringed wooden instrument and singing in an unfamiliar tongue; and I’ve had a really strong drink out of a bamboo cup. How did I get here? My memory draws a blank. Isn’t this how dreams work? When a ginger cat climbs onto my lap, I know from the gentle purr of her tiny frame that this isn’t a reverie. So I jog my mind back to the beginning and connect the dots.
Around a week ago, after a four-hour drive from Bagdogra airport in West Bengal, I arrived in a rain-soaked Gangtok that looked right out of a Jeremy Mann oil painting. All along the snaking hilly route, the emerald-green Teesta had kept us company in the valley below, its dammed waters at once still and sparkling. By my side in the car was Sankar Sridhar. A renowned photographer of the Himalaya and its peoples today, Sankar’s very first sight of a mountain was in Sikkim during his teen years. For him, this was a homecoming of sorts. For me, however, this strange land presented a new muse.
We had entrusted our trip logistics to Kipepeo, an operator that specialises in community-centric, socially-responsible tours of the Northeast for discerning travellers. The Northeast may be less explored than, say, Himachal, but Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, bears the aura (and burden) of a typical hill station. The slopes are covered in concrete, and traffic jams are a notoriously regular occurrence. But there’s something that distinguishes it from every other mist-draped hill town. Sikkim is the only place in India other than Goa where one can gamble legally. The advertisements began right at the airport–an online portal called Golden Gaming International invited us to bet on sports matches, while conventional casinos occupied a place of pride in luxe hotels like Mayfair and Royal Plaza. Strangely enough, locals weren’t allowed to wager their money; only tourists could throw the dice.
Gangtok may have placed its tourism bet on gambling, but the city’s real allure lies on its pine-lined pavements. On a walk down Jeevan Theeng Marg, where our hotel Rhenock House stood tall, I discovered a bibliophile’s dream–a bookstore that doubled as a cafÃ© and a bed & breakfast. Redolent of Paris’s Shakespeare & Co., Rachna Bookstore (on the first floor) was sandwiched between CafÃ© Fiction on the ground floor and Bookman’s BnB on the second floor. With closing time near and the power flickering, I foraged the poetry section, and to my delight, discovered an author-signed copy of a familiar anthology, A Strange Place Other than Earlobes, amid rich reserves of English poetry written by Indians. It isn’t the casinos or the bustling MG Road with its shopping outlets, it’s these hole-in-the-wall establishments that give Gangtok its charm. With a French-press coffee and cheesecake, I savoured some corporeal poems, as the rain’s ceaseless pitter-patter on the roof and a gentle strumming of strings allayed all my travel anxiety.
Since winter was retracting its claws, we decided to go north. As many as 28 species of rhododendron bloom between April and May in the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary near Yumthang Valley, which has come to be called the ‘valley of flowers’. But to get there, we had to tread the 123 kilometres from Gangtok to Lachung. En route were spectacular panoramas, overrated waterfalls taken over by selfie tourists, and a forest-ensconced memorial stone in Kabi-Longtsok where Sikkim’s two major tribes, Bhutia and Lepcha, swore a blood brotherhood in the 13th century.
The village of Lachung (8,900 ft) is blessed with a spectacular location, but its proximity to Yumthang has ensured that local wood houses have lost out to multi-storeyed concrete hotels. Thankfully, our red-brick homestay, Bayul, was located in Shingring Ten, about two kilometres uphill from Shingring, the hub of all things eyesore. The only abode higher than this house was that of the Rinpoche. The land for the guru’s home was given by the grandparents of Bayul’s owner, Pema Wangyal Lachungpa, who lived in the homestay with his wife Rinchen Palmu Bhutia and two cuddle-hungry cats, Mimi and Kaali.
Lachung locals are happy to grow their own vegetables and fruits, but depend on trucks from Siliguri to bring them rice, oil and other rations. This kitchen-garden culture was decadently evident when we sipped a sweet wine crafted from wild blueberries that grew on the hill slope behind the house. Pema harped on about its anti-carcinogenic effects, while Rinchen swore of its anti-ageing glow. Outside, the fir hung on to its dew and the snow-capped mountains their puffs of cloud. Before we could finish our first serving of organic wine, the sunlit valley was filled with a sea of frothing white and the hills were pummelled with icy sheaths of rain that climbed the village folds like a giant on a morning stroll. A day in Sikkim had at least three different weathers.
The route to Yumthang wears a different garb every season. In early March, as we started the one-hour uphill drive, the landscape bore the unsaturated murkiness of a receding winter. There was still a month to go for the rhododendrons to unfurl, and the juniper, fir and pine trees remained shrouded in mist. In a few minutes, however, it all changed. Snowfall does not share rain’s affinity for the emphatic war cry. It has no beginning and no end. It just accumulates, like belief, over time. And so, in the middle of nowhere, Sikkim gave me my first snowfall, surrounded by befuddled yaks munching on their brunch leaves, fluttering prayer flags and commanding snow-capped mountains. The silver fir and pine stayed awfully still, as if to let the snow perch on their outstretched arms. In a matter of minutes, the dull grey landscape had turned into a shining white kingdom. There indeed is a Narnia at the end of the wardrobe if you venture at the right time.
After what felt like miles of an uphill struggle for our small car, Yumthang quite literally was the first flatland (thang). At 11,800 ft, the Teesta flowed unhindered, flanked by towering white prayer flags (mani), which are erected in sets of 108, usually by the riverside, to mark the death of a dear one. The yaks here were tamed, and mounted by tourists accustomed to being driven around. An army camp provided the eyesore you would expect at an exotic place. We drove onwards to Zero Point, where snow-clad mountains sat in anticipation. The end of the civilian road (0km) before the Indo-Tibet border, Zero Point was dotted with a dozen tourist jeeps and temporary stalls that sold Maggi and alcohol to tourists flinging fistfuls of snow at one another. Local brews–‘Hit’ beer and ‘Saino’ red wine–lent them much-needed warmth at 15,300 ft. On the way back to Lachung, we realised the morning snow had already melted; the trees wore their solemn abandoned look again. No beginning, no end. In barely a month’s time, this valley would exhibit a riot of colours–rhododendron pinks and reds, poppy blues, magnolia whites and many shades of primula.
We reluctantly left the magical snowscapes of Lachung behind for the forested slopes of Dzongu. Located 70km from Gangtok at an altitude ranging between 3,000 ft and 20,000 ft above sea level, bordering the Khangchendzonga Biosphere Reserve, Dzongu is an area reserved for the Lepcha community, the first inhabitants of Sikkim. It comprises as many as 30 villages, split into numerous hamlets and divided between Upper and Lower Dzongu. The Lepchas believe their first ancestors were carved out of Mount Khangchendzonga, the mountain being the primary deity they worship. Right behind our homestay–Mayallyang (‘hidden land’) in Passingdang village–flowed the mighty Rongyoung River. Gyatso Lepcha, the 38-year-old owner of this mixed-material bohemian house in Upper Dzongu, is a lawyer by training but has dedicated his youth to preserving the Rongyoung. When as many as six dams were proposed on it in the early 2000s, the Lepchas came together to sit on a relay hunger strike that lasted three years. “This river is sacred to us. When a Lepcha dies, their soul is carried by this river to an ancestral cave near the Khangchendzonga,” explained Gyatso. “A shaman performs a ritual at the riverbank to guide the soul on this journey.” All this sounded right out of Avatar’s Na’vi handbook to me. Of course there are environmental implications to damming a river, which Gyatso understood: “The trout in the river swim against the current. If you dam the river, the trout can’t survive.” Fortunately for the locals, four out of the six proposed dams were scrapped after the protest.
The Lepchas are traditionally animistic, but a majority of them also follow Buddhism. “Other religions do not give us the scope to practice any other belief system,” Gyatso explained. It is common to have monks and shamans perform very different pujas at the locals’ homes. The Lepchas’ incorrigible bond with nature was made clear to us on a walk along the paddy terraces and adjoining woods of Lingthem, a village that hosts the most revered of monasteries in the region. While Passingdang and other villages have mostly adopted concrete, Lingthem has retained some traditional Lepcha houses (dok kay moo)–the frame made of wood, and walls of bamboo weave and straw, erected on a foundation of flat stones.
Samdup Lepcha, our 15-year-old guide on the walk, wore an improvised version of the traditional drape (thogro) and hat (thyaktuk), and carried a modest version (tukmok) of the traditional knife (puyuk). On the walk, he used this blade to fashion pincers out of a bamboo stem, which he used to pluck stinging nettle leaves for supper. He also pointed out a different variety of stinging nettle, one that caused especially bad rashes when touched. These leaves, he told us, are used in a playful wedding custom where males of the groom’s family are smacked with nettle by the bride’s family. Traditionally, though, the stinging nettle was used in hunts and to ward off evil spirits in the jungle.
The Lepchas have use for nearly every wild thing that grows in the region, and Samdup walked us through each one on our route. There was the kuntu plant, its outer skin so strong that it was used by hunters to carry game; there was a grass-like fern which when uprooted revealed bulbs (pani amla) that act as a source of water on treks; there was the tuntok fern that came in three varieties, two for consumption and one that produced enough heat in water to be used as a natural chemical for fishing; and then there was the wondrous herb called tikngyal. Among its many uses, tikngyal is ground and sniffed to alleviate altitude sickness. The paste of its leaves is known to heal cuts and wounds. It is usually grown near cardamom–the region’s stock crop–to ward off pests. When burnt, its fumes are poisonous to birds and bugs, which is why Buddhist monks never use it in their rituals but shamans do.
This complementation of religious beliefs is omnipresent in Lepcha culture. The shamans perform an annual puja (sohtap) in every village to prevent hail that could destroy crops. For this ritual, they collect offerings from every house–two eggs, chi (a drink made of fermented millet), rice, etc. A senior monk at the Lingthem monastery is said to have the same powers, but he is reluctant to perform the ritual for it ‘incurs sin’, I was told by the Chombu (head monk) at the Passingdang Monastery. The shamans, however, have no such qualms. While the younger generation of Lepchas is relatively pragmatic in its views, traditional beliefs still hold water in every house. “Everywhere in the surrounding region, including nearby Mangan, there are regular hailstorms. But Dzongu is always spared. There’s something to these rituals that we can’t explain,” Gyatso said. The Lepchas are so inextricably linked to their land, rivers, flora and fauna that a parallel drawn with the fictitious Na’vi of Pandora isn’t exactly hyperbole. And as long as you’re on their land, plucking wild fern to make lunch and using wild fruit for marmalade feels perfectly ordinary.
As many as 15 species of bamboo grow in the area, five of which are edible and the rest utilised in a variety of ways. It was not a surprise then that their evening drink of choice (besides tea) turned out to be homemade chi served in a bamboo jar and drunk through a thin bamboo stem. Its distilled version is called arak, which brings us to my current state of delirium. A shot of arak is twice as potent when accompanied by a medley of sounds wafting out of the thungbuk (a wooden string instrument), the popotek (a split-bamboo percussion instrument), the zoleethok (a bamboo stem filled with paddy that sounds like cascading water) and a bamboo flute. Gyatso’s cousin, Nim Tshering, is the one flaunting a traditional Lepcha costume and singing a love song about asking someone to wait for him. When a folk song on hope for the community’s identity is sung, every Lepcha under the shed joins in. A little while later, a guitar arrives on the scene and the wooden pegs of the thungbuk are turned ruthlessly to fall in tune with the modern strings. In the process, it loses its essence.
The Lepchas’ music is the sounds of their forest, the words of their ancestors and the trickle of their springs; it leaves you with a strange, optimistic high, much like their chi. Certain things are better left un-distilled.
Bagdogra airport in West Bengalis the closest one for now. There are direct flights (2hr) daily from Delhi. From here, it’s a four-hour drive (125km) to Gangtok. With the first commercial test flight landing at Pakyong on March 10, flyers will soon be able to take Spicejet flights to Sikkim.
Lachung is four hours away from Gangtok by road (â‚¹260pp in a shared cab). From here,Yumthang is an hour’s drive and another hour takes you to Zero Point (â‚¹3,000 by a private cab).
Dzongu is 70km away from Gangtok. Just two cabs ply the route, so book in advance through your homestay. (depart from Gangtok at 2pm, from Dzongu at 7am; â‚¹200—â‚¹300pp). In north Sikkim, a private cab costs â‚¹4,500 per day.
Separate permits (â‚¹100 each) are required to visit Lachung-Lachen and Dzongu, and other sites like Changu. Most permits can be acquired from the Department of Tourism office at Gangtok. However, the Dzongu permit has to be endorsed by a resident of the region. Ask your homestay to arrange this one (â‚¹200). The availability of permits depends on the weather conditions and route conditions in the respective areas.
Where to Stay
Rhenock House carries the label of a luxury villa but feels more like a hotel with decent service and rooms. From â‚¹4,500 doubles including breakfast, taxes extra; +91-3592201146, renakvilla.com
Bayul Homestay began welcoming guests in March. They have two rooms on offer. From â‚¹1,500 per person per night including all meals; +91-7477416331, +91-7547927127
Mayallyang homestay in Passingdang, Upper Dzongu, has five rooms on offer. From â‚¹2,000 per head including all meals; +91-8348332721
What to See & Do
Visit the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology which exhibits tantric texts and tools, ancient Lepcha manuscripts, Sanskrit scriptures written on palm leaves, and masks and hats used in Buddhist festivals among other artefacts. MG Road is for those looking to shop or dine in the city. The Directorate of Handicraft and Handloom gives space to local artisans to display their crafts like thanka painting, wood carving, embroidery, carpet weaving, etc. This is also a good place to pick up an authentic souvenir. Rumtek Monastery is a popular attraction as well.
You could undertake a number of hikes, including a one-hour trek to a waterfall behind Shingring Ten. Everybody who visits Lachung makes the drive to Yumthang (11,800 ft) and Zero Point (15,300 ft). There are three hot springs in the vicinity–one inside a British bungalow at Yumthang and two at Yumesamdong.
Take a guided walk of Lingthem–the village, woods and the monastery. Or head to Lingdem where another natural hot spring awaits you. Visit the Passingdang monastery at 7am or 4pm to witness their daily prayers. The monastery overlooks a hill that resembles Lord Buddha’s profile. MayalIyang provides a guide for â‚¹500 per day.
The Kipepeo package for this 5N/6D itinerary costs â‚¹28,000 plus taxes per person. Call +91-9930002412 or see kipepeo.in.