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Himalayan beauty lures visitors to the edge of India

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob Verger
Globe Correspondent / December 16, 2007

SIKKIM, India - It isn't easy to get here.

The ride from Bagdogra Airport in West Bengal to Gangtok, the capital of the neighboring state of Sikkim, threads through hectic towns, along crowded roads, then through dark forests.

From there the route follows the expansive Teesta River. Sharp mountains loom, foothills of the Himalayas. After hours on the bumpy, climbing, serpentine roads that pass through small villages, the traveler is rewarded with Gangtok. The night I first encountered this remote city, it almost seemed an illusion, a splash of light in the darkness.

This is Sikkim, one of India's frontiers with China and a popular tourist destination. It was an independent kingdom until 1975, when it became part of India. Fewer people live in Sikkim than in any other Indian state. Sticking upwards like a tiny thumb, Sikkim is at a crossroads: China to the north and east, Nepal to the west, and Bhutan to the southeast. Its unique location and rugged Himalayan beauty make it a striking place to visit, a place whose isolation is its own reward.

Though Sikkim has been part of India for more than 30 years, it feels like its own country. While I was there last December, more than one Sikkimese described visitors from other parts of India as foreigners. Another, when asked how he felt about Sikkim's unification with India, laughed and said that it was better to have been taken by India than by China. (Sikkim became an Indian state in 1975. It was an independent protectorate before then, and for years eyed by China as a part of Tibet, which it had claimed. Sikkim had been governed by a treaty that put its foreign relations and military in India's hands.)

An adventure in Sikkim is best begun in Gangtok (altitude 5,500 feet), a thriving city of more than 50,000 people. The Lepchas were this region's first settlers, and Gangtok, in the Lepcha language, means "hilltop." The city spills over the steep terrain and seems to have only two directions: up and down. Its potholed, steep streets switchback tightly, and small alleys climb snugly between buildings.

I was joined there by my friend Andrew Mahlstedt, an American teacher living in India at the time. After exploring Gangtok, we booked a day trip through a local tour operator to Tsomgo Lake, which sits at 12,400 feet in a mountainous basin only about 11 miles from Tibet. The ride there follows a narrow road etched precariously into the snowy mountainsides, and we shared the asphalt with lumbering Indian Army trucks, the wheels wrapped in jingling chains.

When we arrived, we found the lake partly frozen, and the surrounding peaks obscured by clouds; only their snowy, rocky flanks were visible.

Despite the state's strategic importance, it is safe and stable, and the reopening last year of Nathu La, a pass closed in 1962 after the Sino-Indian War, is a good sign. Indeed, there is a sense of peace here.

While making our way through the outskirts of Gangtok one evening, a young man called out, inviting us to join him by the fire. We squatted beside the flames and chatted with him and his family. His eagerness to share the fire was emblematic of the kindness we encountered throughout the state.

Many people stop in Gangtok to organize a trek in the Himalayas, and so did we, making plans to explore the foothills of Mount Kanchenjunga, in west Sikkim and glimpse the world's third-highest mountain.

To begin, we took a shared jeep ride that stopped to pick people up as we descended the winding roads from the capital. The landscape grew more lush as we lost altitude, passing fields and green groves of bamboo.

After a day of jostling travel, we arrived in Yuksom (altitude about 5,800 feet). The next day, we walked into Kanchenjunga National Park, with Sudan, our guide, and his friend Sandeep, a porter and cook.

We explored the park for four days, beginning by following a trail that climbed through clouded forests and across suspension bridges strung with Tibetan prayer flags. Eventually we made it to the Tibetan settlement of Tsoka, whose few residents had moved down to Yuksom for the winter.

The next morning we labored up the snow-covered trail along a ridgeline, breaking free of the fog that lingered in the valleys below. The sun shone brightly, the snow beneath our feet melted, and ice fell from the giant moss-covered pines and rhododendrons along the trail. It felt as if spring had come to the Himalayas.

We pushed higher, and the snowy peaks came into full view above Dzongri, a gathering of trekkers' huts at around 13,000 feet. In the morning light I hiked with Sudan to the crest of a ridge graced with prayer flags and overlooking a great valley.

To the west, the Singalila Ridge marked the border with Nepal. And there in the distance, its summit reaching over 28,000 feet, was Kanchenjunga.

We spent our last night in the tiny settlement of Bakhim. It was the off-season, and we were the only people there besides a caretaker, whom we joined in his hut. Inside, we gathered by a clay stove in the corner, which was heated by a small fire.

In the morning we started the long descent back to Yuksom, and from there caught another jeep back down to the plains. The next day we would fly to New Delhi, leaving behind a place that still seemed like a remote kingdom.

Rob Verger, a freelance writer in New York, can be reached at robverger@gmail.com.

If You Go

Before you go: All visitors to India must get a tourist visa at an Indian consulate for $60. A free and easily-obtained permit is also needed to enter the state of Sikkim. The consulate should be able to stamp your visa with permission to do so. Once in Sikkim, a trip to Tsomgo Lake or a trekking expedition requires other permits, but a local tour operator arranges them as part of the package. All foreigners must also, as a formality, register at Sikkim's domestic border.

How to get there: Fly into either New Delhi or Calcutta, and from there on one of several carriers (among them, Jet Airways; jetairways.com) to Bagdogra Airport. Hire a taxi at the prepaid station outside the airport. Sikkim Tourism also offers daily helicopter service from the airport to the capital, Gangtok, weather permitting. There is also train service from Calcutta to railheads close to Sikkim.

Where to stay: There are dozens of hotels, including many luxurious ones, in Gangtok. A good option for budget travelers is the Modern Central Lodge (011-91-3592-204670), which was decent but not spotless. Visit the Tourism Department link at sikkim.gov.in.

What to do: Take a day trip to Tsomgo Lake and enjoy hot noodles or dumplings at one of the many small restaurants. Explore the shops in the walking district of downtown Gangtok . Visit the Himalayan Zoological Park outside Gangtok and see red pandas and snow leopards. Go for a multiday trek in Kanchenjunga National Park.

Information:
incredibleindia.org
sikkiminfo.net

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