The Teesta River, which was keeping us company since we set off on our journey from Siliguri, the buzzing town that lies at the foothills of the Darjeeling hills, a parted company near the West Bengal-Sikkim border. Now we followed the bank of the Rangpo River as we drove towards Dalapchand, a wee village tucked inside east Sikkim.
At Rorathang, we changed from the left bank of the river to the right and began to climb. The road got steeper and the bends in the road sharper. As we drove past the sun-drenched forests of silver firs, oak, and other alpine trees, we rolled down the windows to breathe in the fresh air. Birds unseen chirped among the glades. By the time we reached Dalapchand, the mist had started rolling in from the valleys and the village seemed suspended in mid-air.
When we arrived, the sky was already covered with an ominous layer of dark clouds. Still, we managed to snatch half an hour of a village walk after a simple but tasty lunch. The organic farming pursued in this region impart a great taste to the vegetable and fruit grown here. Our homestay had its own patch of a kitchen garden, a small orchard, and a greenhouse for plants.
Spread over two ledges (upper and lower) Dalapchand is a fairly large village with a few administrative offices and schools. The tar road wound itself along the mountain slope. Narrow pony trails or foot tracks diverged from the main road to disappear among the verdant slopes. Scattered among these slopes were single or double-storied wooden bungalows, their balcony or window ledges overflowing with colourful potted plants, the backyard devoted to kitchen gardens.
In the past, Dalapchand served as a staging post for Tibetan traders who traversed the great mountain passes and the rough terrain to reach Kalimpong (now in West Bengal) to sell their goods and carry back salt and other merchandise. Thanks to a local person, we later caught a glimpse of a part of the old mule track which has survived.
According to local people, Dalapchand means ‘The Great Flat Stone’. In his book ‘Among the Himalayas’ (published in 1900), L A Wadell refers to the hamlet as a trader’s halting place. During his travels in the region, he found deserted barracks which were apparently inhabited by the British artillery but had been abandoned a few weeks prior to his arrival owing to the outbreak of a fatal fever. According to his Tibetan porters, Wadell writes, the death was caused by angry sylvan spirits.
Today, Dalapchand serves as a night halt spot for visitors keen to explore Sikkim’s famous Silk Route.
In fair weather, Dalapchand offers a pleasant view of the surrounding mountains, including the snow peaks of Mt Kanchenjunga. The forest surrounding the village is also good for short nature walks (but do not forget to take the services of a local guide). In March-April, you may also go birding here. Green fingers must visit during the flowering season, usually spread from March to early June, depending on the weather.
Sightsee if you must, you may drive down to Aritar village. Cars go up to the base of the hill on top of which lies the Mankhim Temple, revered by local people, especially the Rai community. Be prepared for a slightly steep climb to the temple. The best time to visit the temple is during the Sakewa festival, observed in honour of Nature; it includes worship of Mother Earth followed by community singing and dancing. From a viewpoint behind the temple, we could see the popular Lampokhari Lake nestling far below, amidst verdant hills and valleys. Later, we drove down to the lake proper.
Known as the Lampokhari Lake or the Aritar Lake, it is considered a holy lake by the local people. People pray to the spirit of the lake for wish fulfilment; if their wish is fulfilled, they release fish into the lake, we were told. Feeding the fish is a popular activity. Pathways run around the lake. You may also go boating in the lake. At the far end of the waterbody is a monastery encircled with prayer flags.
If you have time on hand, you may pay a quick visit to Chandaney Falls.
Usually, evenings were spent indoors, swapping stories with fellow travellers. The large glass windows offered a fantastic view of the night sky. If one evening it was a canopy of twinkling stars, on another day it was a canvas of myriad patterns drawn by the flashes of lightning. And when the heavens opened up, rainwater gushed down the mountainside with gusto, flowing noisily over the boulders.
Information: Siliguri in West Bengal is the gateway to the hills of Sikkim. The nearest airport to Siliguri is Bagdogra (about 14km away by road) and the nearest junction railway is New Jalpaiguri (about 7km away by road). Dalapchand is about 130km from Siliguri via Rangpo and Rhenock. Road conditions are good for the most part of the journey. Best time to visit: March to May, late September to November. December-February can be very cold. Landslides in the region make travel during monsoons difficult.