Tucked within the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim is the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Stretching from the cold desert of Lhonak valley along the ridges of Lachen in north Sikkim to the historical town of Yuksom in west Sikkim, this high altitude national park was notified in 1977 with an area of 850 square km and later extended to cover 1,784 square km. KNP is said to cover a little over 25 per cent of the state’s total geographical area. The western boundary of the park runs across the international border shared between India and Nepal.
Overlooked by the snow peaks of the world’s third highest peak, Mt Kanchenjunga, and its associated peaks, KNP consists of glaciers, lakes, steep-sided valleys, flat areas, etc. With its ecosystem ranging from sub-tropical to alpine, KNP is considered a key biodiversity hotspot.
The UNESCO recognition of 2016 was based on several criteria which considered both the cultural and natural features of KNP.
One of the criteria cited by UNESCO was ‘Mount Khangchendzonga and other sacred mountains represents the core sacred region of the Sikkimese and syncretistic religious and cultural traditions and thus bears unique witness to the coexistence of multiple layers of both Buddhist and pre-Buddhist sacred meanings in the same region, with the abode of mountain deity on Mt Khangchendzonga’.
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Another criterion highlighted that KNP ‘has one of the highest levels of plant and mammal diversity recorded within the Central/High Asian Mountains. Khangchendzonga National Park is home to nearly half of India’s bird diversity, wild trees, orchids and rhododendrons and one third of the country's flowering plants. It contains the widest and most extensive zone of krummholz (stunted forest) in the Himalayan region. It also provides a critical refuge for a range of endemic, rare and threatened species of plants and animals’.
What makes KNP an interesting study is that it has an altitudinal range of more than seven kilometres in a relatively small area, which has endowed it with a remarkable variation in plant and animal species. KNP has 422 species of medicinal plants, which form the basis of many traditional healing methods, apart from flowering plants, conifers, ferns, orchids, etc. The park is home to six species of cats -- Leopard, Clouded Leopard, Snow Leopard, Jungle Cat, Golden Cat, and Leopard Cat. Other animals include Jackal, Tibetan Wolf, large Indian Civet, Red Panda, Goral, Blue Sheep, Himalayan Tahr, Mainland Serow, two species of Musk Deer, two primates, four species of pika and several rodent species, including the parti-coloured Flying Squirrel.
KNP is also considered an Important Bird Area (IBA). Birds from at least four biomes are said to be present here. As many as 300 of Sikkim’s 324 bird species are found in KNP. Three species of birds endemic to the eastern Himalayas are found here; they are hoary throated barwing, whit-naped yuhina and black-browed leaf warbler. Some of the birds found here include the colourful pheasants, snow cock, snow partridge, falcons, hawks, etc.
Trekking through the varied terrain is the only way to see KNP. There are several trek routes across KNP of varying degrees of difficulty. The trek routes are not only known for their natural beauty but also offer a look into the life of the people who live in these remote regions. Trekkers are likely to come across hills, lakes, caves and rivers, which are considered holy by the people of Sikkim. One may come across ‘mendangs’ or holy stones inscribed with the words ‘om mani padme hum’. Apart from chortens or stupas, there may be the occasional monastery.
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Two of the well-known trek routes in the northern part of KNP are the Green Lake trek and the Tholung-Kishong trek. Lachen, a village in north Sikkim, is the starting point for the Green Lake trek, which involves five-seven days of hiking on a 35 km trail across difficult terrain. The Tholung-Kishong trek starts from Linza village, also in north Sikkim. The Tholung Monastery is known to be a storehouse of many rare objects and scriptures, which were brought to this remote monastery from other monasteries across Sikkim for safekeeping during the invasion of Sikkim by Nepal.
However, with several moderately difficult to difficult treks starting from Yuksom, it is a relatively more popular destination for those wishing to explore KNP. Yuksom, in west Sikkim, itself is a historical town being the first capital of Sikkim. The Nature Interpretation Centre at the forest check gate in Yuksom, ahead of the starting point for the trek routes, offers a fairly comprehensive insight into the park and its natural wealth through display boards and photographs.
First time explorers to the region may try the three to four day trek to Dzongri. The more experienced can go beyond Dzongri to Thangsing and/or to Samity Lake and Goecha-la.
The best season to trek in KNP is from March to May/early June and again from September/November to early December. In winter, when the high altitude birds descend to the lower levels, the forested trails around Yuksom are convenient for bird watching.
Entry formalities: Permission is required for entering KNP for trekking, expeditions, filming, etc. from Chief Wildlife Warden, Forests, Environment & Wildlife Management Department, Government of Sikkim. If trek routes lie in the Restricted/Protected Areas, domestic tourists have to obtain Inner Line Permit while foreigners have to obtain Protected Area Permits. Apart from individual entry fees, one has to pay entry fees for local guides and porters with the team, charges for the pack animals, environment fee and camera fees. Indian students are offered concessional fees.
Owing to the natural and cultural significance of KNP, there are many rules and regulations to be followed by anyone entering it. You can only engage local trekking agencies, guides and porters, and even owners of pack animals who are subjects of Sikkim and possess a government authorised Certificate of Identification. Trekkers have to carry sufficient Kerosene or LPG for heating and cooking purposes, and also provide food to guides and porters, so that nobody has to use firewood. Even fodder for pack animals have to be carried for the entire duration of the trek to prevent free grazing of animals inside the park. All non-biodegradable garbage has to be carried back to the point of disposal.
Getting there: Although Sikkim’s own airport has been inaugurated at Pakyong near the state capital Gangtok but (as of October 2019) it is not operating. Therefore, the nearest airport to Sikkim is Bagdogra in the neighbouring state of West Bengal. From Bagdogra, one has to travel by road to Gangtok for a further drive to Lachen and Linza for treks in north Sikkim. Bagdogra to Gangtok is around 130km and takes nearly five hours, depending on traffic situation. For west Sikkim, from Bagdogra, you can travel to Yuksom via Jorethang and Legship, a total distance of nearly 150km. On the way, you may spend a night at the popular tourist town of Pelling and visit the Pemayangste monastery. Sikkim does not have direct train connections. The nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri (West Bengal), from where you have to travel onwards by road; time taken is approximately the same as travelling from Bagdogra.