Centuries ago, Tibetan merchants discovered a route to India through Sikkim by which they could carry on trade in Chinese silk, spices and other valuable products. They would cross some of the highest mountain passes with their yaks and mule trains, walk through eastern Sikkim and end their journey in Kalimpong (in West Bengal now). Eventually the travel and trade drew to a close. Over the past few years, the route, dubbed the Silk Route, has been discovered by inquisitive travellers, and that was where we were heading for.
Earlier in the day, we had obtained the required permits from the police station at Rongli Bazar. The permits were a must as the Silk Route almost hugged the Indo-China border. After Rongli, we stopped awhile at the Que Khola Falls in Nimachen. Fed by the rains of the previous few days, the waterfalls gushed across the hill slope, jumping down the ledges in torrents. People stood at the base to catch the spray and click selfies. A prayer-flag lined wooden bridge led to the other side of the hill, where there were a number of food kiosks selling dumplings or momos and other local delicacies.
Our permits were checked first at Lingtham and then at the Pangolakha Forest check gate. We had to pay an entry fee at the latter as our road lay through the sanctuary.
It was late in the afternoon when we reached Phadamchen village. Although we could have stayed in Zuluk (over 11,000 feet), the first point on the Silk Route, we chose Phadamchen because it was at a lower altitude (around 8000 feet) with a less severe climate.
Our homestay was located to the side of a fairly lonely road that ended in a meadow. On the opposite side, the mountain ranges dovetailed to form a wavy pattern of forested slopes. Behind us, the village extended across the stepped mountain ending in a dense circle of trees.
Being located on the outskirt of the village, it was blissfully quiet. Only small birds chirped unseen among the pine and fir trees that covered the nearby slopes. As we sat on the first floor balcony and watched the mist arise from the valleys below, it suddenly got windy. What started with a gentle breeze soon turned into a thunder squall. Streaks of lightning zigzagged across the dark sky. Then came the rain. As if someone was tipping endless buckets of water earthwards.
The rain continued well into the night. Hardly anything was visible outside. So after an early dinner, we retired, excited about our trip on the morrow.
Next morning, the rain had stopped. A weak sun was trying to shine through the cloud cover. We started for Zuluk. The forested slopes kept us company. Suddenly we found a congregation of cars up ahead. People were roaming around. The police stopped our car too. There was a huge landslide ahead and the route was closed. Nobody knew when the road would clear but definitely not before two to three days, he said with an air of superior knowledge.
There was not much we could do. Our onward drive to Gangtok was also not possible. The only option was to return to Phadamchen. Thankfully the homestay did not have any booking and accommodated us. Since we had the greater part of the day left, we decided to explore the village and its surroundings.
We drove through the village and after taking permission from the police check post went to Nimachen. Perched on top of a hillock was the Nimachen Karma Tashi Chokorling and Mani Lakhang. It was a steep climb but the steps cut into the mountainside helped. The ochre coloured Buddhist temple stood in sharp contrast to the surrounding green hills. Despite the cloudy weather, we could hear birds chirping in the depths of the forest. Rows of colourful prayer wheels surrounded the temple. Prayers flags fluttered in the wind. Prayer sessions are held early morning and in the evening, the caretaker told us.
We returned to Phadamchen and drew up at the Mandala Homestay at the end of a steep road. Run by a Buddhist monk, the guest house and the restaurant financed an orphanage and a free school located in the same premises. One of his assistants showed us around and we interacted with some of the children, with the monk as our interpreter. If you are not keen to explore but want a quiet holiday in the lap of the mountains, to the accompaniment of an orchestra of breeze blowing through the trees and birdsongs, this was an ideal abode. From the balcony, we got a panoramic view of the surrounding hills and forests, part of which came under the Pangolakha Wildlife Sanctuary.
By the time we returned to our Diamond Homestay, a hot meal was waiting for us.
Post lunch, we decided to take a walk along the lonely road going up to the meadow. But some kind of construction work seemed to be going on here and lots of building material were scattered around. As we strolled back, we realised the weather was changing. The mist, which had enveloped the mountains, rising upwards from the valleys below, as usual, was now rolling towards the village. We decided to head to our homestay but the misty veil beat us to it. It drew itself so tightly around us that we could hardly see beyond arm’s length. Taking care to avoid the edge of the road, which ended in a sharp drop to the valley below, we returned to the homestay more by instinct than sight.
Information: If you are coming from Rongli, Phadamchen is about 20km but takes long because of the mountain road. It is ahead of Zuluk, the first point on the Silk Route and about 10km away. There are several homestays here, which can be booked through authorised travel agents (we booked ours through Roopkatha Tours and Travels). The best time to visit the area is between March and May, and again in October-November. The weather remains cool throughout the year. March/April is also good for birding.