By Subhasish Chakraborty
In the Land of Kanchenjunga
My fascination for mountains have taken me to places like Annapurna in Nepal, the Everest Base Camp also in Nepal and the imposing Sheela Pass-Tawang circuit of Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India. I have heard a lot about Sikkim, its mountains with Kanchenjunga as the guardian deity, the affable and easygoing hill people, the quintessential Sikkimese cuisine, its predominant Buddhist culture and of course the world famous Orchids. But, as luck would have it, I was unable to muster the time and the energy to embark on an exclusive mountain tour of Sikkim.
However, this time around in the month of March, I was offered an invitation by my New Zealand based photographer friend – Tanmoy Das to join him in his Sikkim assignment. We were guests of the Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim and the hospitality provided to us was immaculate.
I always had this opinion that being a predominantly mountainous state, traveling within Sikkim would be an arduous and grueling affair. But all my preconceived notions were swept aside once I found myself in Gangtok – the breathtakingly beautiful capital of Sikkim.
We checked in to the government of Sikkim run Hotel Mount Jopuno, which is located strategically right in the center of the town. By the way, the drive from Bagdogra airport (North Bengal) to Gangtok was one of the most beautiful drives that I have ever encountered.
The 4-hour drive from Bagdogra offers spectacular window views of the Sikkimese countryside nestling besides the turquoise-blue Teesta River, your companion throughout the journey. Rhododendrons and Orchids create a riot of pink, yellow and mauve colors.
We were briefed about our itinerary by an official of Sikkim Tourism. The Department of Tourism wanted us to embark on a Helicopter Tour of Sikkim covering places like Gangtok, Yumthang, Singtam, Geyzing, Yuksom, Dikchu, the Zemu glacier as well as the high altitude monasteries. After an early dinner, we retired for the night with the prospect of viewing the imposing Eastern Himalayas from high up in the air.
Apart from us, there were three other photographic crew from abroad who were part of this exclusive helicopter ride. As we fastened our seat belts, the Bell helicopter gradually began its ascent. The city of Gangtok with its urban landscape appeared like a million studded diamonds. As the helicopter gained in altitude the entire Himalayan panorama slowly began to unfurl like a veil slipping out of the face of a beautiful woman.
Tanmoy and the rest of the crew were provided with the opportunity of their lifetime – that of shooting absolutely breathtaking vistas of the Himalayan panorama. They had all come equipped with their latest hi-tech photographic equipments and made full use of them.
The ethereal scene of feathery clouds drifting and kissing the hill tops, the village hamlets appearing like some fairytale community, the swift flowing Teesta River meandering through the mountainous terrain like a coiled up serpent and the high altitude monasteries looking more like some secluded enchanted zones of ‘Eden on Earth’ made all of us feel awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the Himalayan grandeur. Every now and then, there would be announcements from the cockpit about the actual height the helicopter was traveling and to make use of the oxygen masks if one was feeling giddy due to the rarified environment.
We were particularly amazed by the dramatic alpine-forested landscape of Yumthang. From a height of 14,000 feet, the alpine panorama kind of exploded with a profusion of colors, courtesy the fiery red Rhododendrons that bloomed extensively. The imposing Kanchenjunga range stood like a sentinel as though it was guarding the state of Sikkim. The cascading waterfalls, particularly Lachung appeared as though some mythical deity was pouring milk over the undulating mountains. I could well visualize in my mind’s eye, the often-repeated mythological story that my late grandmother used to tell me at bedtime of the river Ganga pouring out of Lord Shiva’s matted hairs.
As we moved on to exploring the Kanchenjunga trail, leaving behind the majestic Yumthang, there was more drama awaiting us. At the far horizon we could see the bewildering scene of the ominous looking Kanchenjunga – snow clad and steep, really steep. Down below were rows after rows of snow clad Himalayan ranges. Every now and then the helicopter would come so close to the peaks that one could literally touch them!
Kanchenjunga is all about uneven peaks, icy curves, forceful mountain torrents and frozen fissures that compels even the most discerning world traveler to appreciate its majesty and grandeur. You can’t help but admire the sheer ruggedness of Kanchenjunga. I have had the good fortune of embarking on a Mountain Flight in Nepal to explore Mount Everest and its surrounding peaks. Based on my personal experience, I can assure you that the Kanchenjunga helicopter trip is at par with that of Mt.Everest, if not one notch higher in terms of natural grandeur.
The Mountain Flights operated by Sikkim Tourism offers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to those who otherwise would not have been able to explore the beauty of the Eastern Himalayas. It is a sheer delight to see people in the age group of 65 plus, both from India and abroad hopping into the five-seater Bell helicopter for the ride of their lives. As the Helicopter begins its gradual Himalayanesque ascent, one really doesn’t have to wait long to find what’s in store for them.
The prospect of encountering some of the tallest mountains of the world right from the comforts of one’s helicopter seat is enough to make one’s adrenalin pumping. Within an hour or so, visitors have the rare opportunity to get up close with the snow clad mountain peaks and according to Jonathan Agnew from faraway Las Vegas –“I have heard a lot about Mt.Everest in Nepal. I visited Nepal once but as luck would have it, I was unable to get onboard a Mountain Flight due to limited tickets. However, all my disappointments vanished with the 90 minutes Kanchenjunga helicopter trip that I undertook today. I will definitely recommend my friends back home to embark on a Sikkim Helicopter ride”.
Of course Heli Tourism has changed the way people travel to Sikkim. It has come as a boon particularly to those visitors who love the mountains but are hard pressed for time to explore the mountain vistas either by traveling on road or by embarking on treks. The helicopter rides are competitively prized. For instance the one-hour flight to West Sikkim costs US $ 85 while the most popular Kanchenjunga Flight, which is of 90 minutes duration is pegged at US $ 170. Sikkim Tourism also operates exclusive Mountain Flights to Yumthang, Gangtok as well as to Bagdogra. Bookings can be done at the office of Sikkim Tourism located at M.G.Marg.
After successfully finishing the principal task of aerial photography, we indulged in some ‘Dharma’ courtesy the monasteries of Sikkim. We visited Rumtek and Pemayangtze monasteries.
Rumtek monastery is the seat of the Seventeenth Karmapa while the Pemayangtse Monastery located in West Sikkim belongs to the Nyigma order. I stuck up a conversation with an American convert who has been residing at the Rumtek monastery for more than a decade and learnt that Tibetan Buddhism came to Sikkim way back in the 15th century. I was given a running commentary of the great rivalry in the Tibetan order of Buddhism between the Red Hats and the Yellow Hats by this frail looking American Lama. The Gelugpa sect managed to ascend Tibet while the Nyingmapa sect sought asylum in Sikkim.
His Holiness the Seventeenth Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje spent the first fourteen years of his life in Tibet, and in the year 2000 he fled Tibet and was given asylum in India. Presently His Holiness is awaiting permission from the government of India to return to his rightful place – the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Center.
The sight of red robed Lamas chanting mystical ancient mantras to the beat of drums while butter lamps flickering before statues of the great Guru Padmasambhava have enchanted tourists from all over the world. The Buddhist trail in Sikkim is a world apart. You can literally feel the inherent peace and harmony of being one with Mother Nature. At times you feel really close to Godhead as the chanting of the Lamas blend harmoniously with the droning prayer wheels.
Hollywood’s brush with Tibetan Buddhism is known the world over. Superstar Richard Gere, one of the best-known faces of Tibetan Buddhism in the world eulogized Buddhism and Tibet at the all-important Academy Awards. Films like “Kundun” and “Seven Years in Tibet” too received worldwide attention.
There was a rumor going around Rumtek monastery that a renowned Hollywood star was residing in Rumtek but there was no way one could verify the authenticity.
The monasteries of Sikkim are conspicuous by their frescoes that depict Buddhist legends and there is always the Thangka paintings made of rare silk and brocade that are such a rage with both the Western and Indian tourists. Many monasteries have good collection of ancient Tibetan manuscripts as well.
No visit to Sikkim is ever complete without a trip to the Nathula Pass, which has now been opened to tourists. Situated at an awesome height of 14,200 feet above sea level we were amazed by the sight of Indian tourists posing for photographs with the soldiers of the Chinese Red Army. There was an air of informality at the Nathu La pass, which belied our expectations.
In the days of yore, Nathu La pass used to serve as the gateway to Tibet and the easiest way to reach Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. It used to be referred to as the “Silk Route” due to the fact that in the bygone days, the flourishing silk trade used to be conducted from Kalimpong in the Indian side to Lhasa in Tibet. This high altitude pass is now open to tourists five days a week and is a must visit site for the quintessential mountain aficionados.
On the penultimate day of our mountain trip to Sikkim we visited the Khangchendzonga National Park and the tribal communities of the neighboring areas in West Sikkim. In this part of the world The ‘Mountain Institute’ has played a significant role in protecting the rare alpine forests and meadows. According to the Institute’s spokesperson there were more than 400 Orchid species, 144 mammals, 300 species of avian life and a mind boggling 400 plus Butterfly species.
We were amazed to see how well the Mountain Institute involved the local communities in promoting concepts like Community Eco-Tourism, site maintenance and conservation education. From imparting training to guides to developing market strategies for promoting Eco-Tourism, the Institute has played a vital role in uplifting the local Himalayan economy around the Kanchendzonga National Park.
We rounded off our Sikkim trip with a fabulous get together dinner at the in-house restaurant – “Yatung” of the up-market Chumbi Residency hotel, which is renowned for its thematically designed ambience that evokes the nostalgia of the watering holes along the legendary Silk Route to Tibet.
I must confess that the local fare at Yatung restaurant is in a class of its own. Try out the locally brewed “Chang” which is prepared by fermenting Millet. This signature brew of Sikkim served in light wooden tumbler is believed to have no hangover syndrome. Check that out for yourself on your trip to the Indian Shangri-La!!!
Traveler’s Fact File:
The nearest airport from Gangtok is Bagdogra, 124 Kms. away in North Bengal. Scheduled flights arrive to Bagdogra from Calcutta, New Delhi and Guwahati. Major airlines like Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Spice Jet etc. offer regular flights to and fro Bagdogra.
For those who do not want to take the trouble of embarking on a road journey to Gangtok can avail of the Helicopter ride to Sikkim conducted by Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim from Bagdogra to Gangtok and vice versa. The flight timings have also been kept flexible so as to suit the requirements of passengers arriving or departing Bagdogra and vice versa.
Hired taxis and cabs are easily available at Bagdogra airport.
Gangtok is choc-a-bloc with hotels to suit every budget. Hotel Mayfair, Hotel Norkhil, Hotel Tashi Delek, Hotel Tibet, The Chumbi Residency are some of the up-market hotels of Gangtok. They are centrally located and offer impeccable mountain hospitality. Most have a predominant Tibetan ambience. Hotel Tibet in particular is famed for its no-holds-barred Tibetan appeal. The in-house restaurants offer Chinese, Continental and Indian cuisines but try out the local Sikkemese delicacies prepared to perfection by the resident chef.
For those interested in government run accommodation, Hotel Mount Jopuno is a great place to stay and is centrally located at P.S.Road.
In addition to an Indian visa, foreign travelers must posses an Inner Line Permit, issued by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs or New Sikkim House, both in Delhi. The permit is valid for 15 days. A visit to the interiors of Sikkim requires a Protected Area Permit, which may be obtained in Gangtok from the Department of Tourism.
For further information on Gangtok and the state of Sikkim, please feel free to contact –
Sikkim Tourist Information Center,
Tel: 91-03592-221634, 203425 and 227720