Above: The 200-year-old monastery of Lachen sits in isolated splendor in northern Sikkim.
A land of mystical monasteries and towering Himalayan peaks, Sikkim lends itself to exploration by footâ€”and these days, that no longer means having to rough it.
By Leisa Tyler
A bright yellow sign on the winding road to Sikkim reads, ITâ€™S NOT A RALLY, ENJOY THE VALLEY. Another pronounces, THE ROAD IS HILLY, DONâ€™T BE SILLY. And as Iâ€™m puzzling over GO MY FRIEND, ON THE BEND, a rusty, moss-green SUV with a dozen people crammed inside it speeds past us on a blind corner flanked by a hundred-meter drop.
We are driving from Siliguri in West bengal to Gangtok, Sikkimâ€™s small capital. A ravishing wedge of undulating hills and snowy himalayan peaks squeezed between nepal, China, and bhutan, Sikkim was, until 1975, an independent buddhist kingdom. Now, itâ€™s Indiaâ€™s least populous stateâ€”and one of the most isolated. Because of the terrainâ€™s rugged contours, the few roads that exist can be tortuous. nor does Sikkim have an airport or a railhead (the nearest are in West bengalâ€™s Darjeeling district). For the visitor, this means some bone-jarring drives and rustic accommodationâ€”but it also means encounters with a culture and natural landscape that have been wonderfullyÂ preserved.
This is my fourth trip to Sikkim; the first time I visited was in 1999, with my mother. Then, I made the mistake of taking a local bus from Darjeeling to the village of Pelling, whose attractions include the stunning 18th-century monastery of Pemayangtse and spellbinding views of Kanchenjunga, the worldâ€™s third-highest mountain. The rickety bus was filled with chickens, goats, and wizened grandmothers with gold hoops through their noses and chillum pipes clamped between their lips. But it was the road that frayed our nerves: little more than a goat track, it zigzagged up and down vertiginous, rock-strewn hillsides. When we finally arrived at Pelling, my mother delivered an ultimatum: either we return to Darjeeling by helicopter, or we walk back.