Sikkim is a state in India that has rightfully been described as a hidden land, an off the beaten path paradise also known as a Shangri-La, which makes it perfect for an adventure.
It was during the winter of 2006 in the quant hill town of Darjeeling in the Indian Himalayas that I first decided to visit Sikkim. I had heard about the beauty of the place and it was only several hours drive to its capital Gangtok from where I was.
Many travellers can’t be bothered to get to Darjeeling, never-mind organising the special permit to visit Sikkim and start getting off the beaten path. But it’s worth the effort, and then some.
Sikkim is a small state in-between Nepal and Bhutan high up in the Himalayan Mountains and home to many historic Buddhist monasteries. It was Rumtek Monastery that was the most important of them all, and as I was studying Buddhism at the time it was of great interest to me.
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I spent the first week around Gangtok day hiking in the nearby mountains and staying with Buddhists in a monastery meditating. I was lucky enough to see a cham dance, where the Tibetan monks get dressed up in traditional costume and music is played in an offering to the gods, and for meditation.
It was such a peaceful time being with the monks and I loved the whole area.
But after a while the adventurous side of me kicked in and I met other travellers in a budget hotel who were talking about renting a four wheel drive to head up into the mountains.
It was in the middle of winter and not the best time to do it, but we arranged the vehicle and a guide to drive us anyway. Maybe as it was not the best time made it the best time…
The Journey Into The Sikkim Himalaya.
In the beginning it was a winding road going through gorges and valleys, slowly heading up more in altitude.
The lush scenery became more barren the further up you got.
It started to get very remote and you begin to see why some people describe it as the hidden land. For sure Gangtok gets its share of visitors, but leave that behind and drive several hours into the mountains towards the Tibet border and you can see the Himalayan paradise that had been described.
We crashed in a cheap shabby hotel at a small settlement for the night and after a freezing sleep woke up to continue the journey. Further up we went, on and on until eventually we reached a high mountain pass and Tibet was not far away.
We could go no further.
Getting out of the vehicle we decided to go hiking around the area. With Buddhist prayer flags watching over us we started walking in the valley.
The driver had left us and taken the vehicle a few miles back to a small military outpost, where he said for us to walk back to when we were done exploring.
After an hour or so wandering the weather started to turn nasty. In the mountains it can go from sunshine to storm very quickly. It started to snow lightly to begin with.
Three of the girls travelling with us were from Israel and had never experienced proper snow before, part of the reason why they wanted to go on the trip. Well they were about to experience it now 14,000 feet in the Himalayas in winter!
The light snow soon turned into almost whiteout conditions. We had left the road an hour beforehand and knew we were going in the right direction, but just had no real idea exactly where the road or the settlement we were trying to find was.
Visibility got worse.
Thankfully the weather started to improve after an hour or so and when the visibility got better we saw that the small settlement was nearby. We strolled into the village looking forward to a hot drink.
The three Israeli girls sure got a taste of the snow that day.
Buddhist prayer flags dominated the village.
The driver saw us coming and called for us to come inside a small house for a hot cup of chai (tea). We were so happy to huddle around a warm fire place! Aside from the three Israelis there was a German guy and an Austrian girl.
With the weather getting worse again it was decided that it would be best to find a place to sleep for the night. Driving back down for a while we came across a simple cheap lodge to stay in.
Inside the lodge we all cuddled up together by a fireplace as a woman cooked up a hot filling dinner. We all got along well and were very happy to be warm!
After another freezing night we woke up to glorious sunshine. Yes!
Taking a different road from the day before we headed towards a new area to explore. This was higher in altitude than the previous day, and after a few hours of driving up a winding road you could feel it in your breath.
But the road eventually levelled out and I ended up in what felt like a fairytale land. Surrounded by the steep Himalayas we had entered the mountain paradise. Snow covered everything, Buddhist prayer flags flew everywhere, a river ran through the valley, mystical stupas cropped up all over, and there was even a hot spring.
It should be noted that during the whole trip we didn’t come across any other traveller. Being in the middle of winter and so remote it was perfect for getting off the beaten path.
There was so much snow up there that the vehicle could no longer move. It wasn’t that far from Tibet so that didn’t matter anyway. We were happy to get out, and unlike the day before with the storm, we had perfect weather to see everything.
We walked for a long time and then came across a hot spring that was covered by a building, in order to keep the worst of the weather out.
Even though the sun was out it was still bitterly cold with the wind, a fact that was not lost on me as I got undressed for the hot spring.
Inside was bliss!
Very hot soothing water too warm you up.
It got so hot after a while that I went outside to roll around in the snow to cool down, before jumping back into the water. We did this for a very long time. Happiness in simple things…
It was so nice up there, but with no people around or anywhere to stay, and daylight running out, we went back to the vehicle too descend and find somewhere to sleep.
On the way back we passed more Buddhist Stupas and a very remote monastery.
In this small monastery there were some old Tibetan paintings, and even though it was not the most impressive in size that I had seen, the location and atmosphere more than made up for it.
Driving further along we caught the sunset before arriving at a town to sleep in.
Sikkim is such a small state that it’s easy to see a lot of it, especially if you have a private vehicle. In the space of four days we were happy with what we had done and decided to head back to Gangtok the next day, partly because we were limited on how far up we could continue with the weather getting worse.
This Sikkim journey was one of my favourite road trips.
I will be back again…
If you want to go there and do something like this then just hang out in the budget hotels where other travellers will be and meet up. It’s better to go in a group for fun, and also to save money on the vehicle rental. Take a driver as a guide as he/she will be able to get you to places you may not have known about, and also to help with talking with the locals.
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