Sikkim – I

While this article is about my trip to Sikkim, it won’t read like a travelogue. It is more about discovering a very unique part of India I knew absolutely nothing about before I arrived there.

Sikkim looks deceptively tiny on a map, and it is easy to underestimate the challenge of visiting Sikkim. The first problem is that Sikkim is the only Indian state with no airport  and no trains. Just getting there is a not inconsiderable challenge. And when I went there (late May), the roads were in a terrible state, and this is before the monsoon. The recent earthquake was definitely a factor in that and the damage was still very visible in the worst affected places, where the side of a mountain had collapsed, as if it had been sliced off with a giant  cleaver.

The only way to get to Sikkim is to take a train to New Jalpaiguri station or fly to Bagdogra airport in West Bengal. Which doesn’t seem too bad as they seem to be right next to Sikkim. Fortunately, driving times in Sikkim are easy to calculate. Look  at the map, come up with a rough estimate based on the distance, and then quadruple it. So the drive to the capital Gangtok is 6-8 hours from the airport or train station, depending on whether the traffic is bad, awful, or absolutely terrible. The funny thing is once you’ve been to Sikkim, you wouldn’t have it any other way. I shudder to imagine what would happen to Sikkim if it was easily accessible from a large city, or had an airport.

The most refreshing thing about Sikkim is it is absolutely nothing like the Himalayan states in North India. From pictures, I had expected Gangtok to be another overcrowded hill station precariously perched on the sides of multiple hills along the lines of Shimla or Mussoorie, a charmless place you pass through or stop at to orient yourself and then get the hell out of to reach smaller places at higher altitudes. Gangtok looks similar on the surface, but it turns out to be very different. The first thing you notice is the lack of tourists. There were tourists of course, but it was nothing like Shimla or Mussoorie in summer where it seems everyone from the plains had climbed and crammed themselves onto a handful of hills.  The city center (on MG road of course) is a plaza where vehicles aren’t allowed, immaculately paved with fountains, benches, and plants scattered around, with far more locals than tourists wandering around. Traffic is very organized for a hilly city with narrow roads, with traffic policemen and women at major intersections directing traffic. There are proper fenced pavements on all major roads so you can walk around without the fear of being run over or falling off a hill trying to avoid a bus that seems to be wider than the road. Walking around the plaza, it soon becomes clear that the culture is very different from most parts of India. The songs I hear playing are those I haven’t heard since I left Sydney a few months ago, and the way young people dress is also closer to contemporary fashion in Sydney, not ‘Indianized’ as most major Indian cities are. There are pubs everywhere and alcohol is freely available in bars, liquor shops and even tiny corner stores. There are real bakeries and cafes with several types of bread and muffins and cakes.

You soon realize that this is a place where women are safer than they could ever be in Delhi, and I even see European looking women in shorts walking around confident and undisturbed. The more fancy and expensive malls in bigger cities are of course a bit like this, but in Sikkim this isn’t the culture of an extremely rich and westernized minority, it’s the culture of the place itself. I see more signs of it throughout my trip, and the contrast is even more stark as my last trip to the mountains was to Kashmir, which remains extremely conservative. Women leave home for a few months to run shops in small tourist towns during summer, running corner shops and cafes. One of our hotel managers is an extremely competent and busy young woman.

We decide to hang around in Gangtok for an extra day, as it is fast becoming my favourite cities in India. Gangtok has arguably the ideal climate, with the annual temperature range from 5-25 degrees. It is still India of course, not Austria or Switzerland. But I haven’t been to a more pleasant city in the hills in India, and if keeping it this way means six hours on a bumpy road to get there, I don’t really mind. We see more tourists by the time we leave Gangtok, but the charm persists.

Sikkim soon begins to feel like a vast place, as we are told how it takes 6-8 hours to drive to most places we had planned to visit. You also begin to understand the insane topographical variations that are crammed into a small area. Sikkim goes all the way from a few hundred meters above sea level to 8500+ meters at the top of Kanchenjunga. West Sikkim is a land of green rolling hills, where travelling often involves going all the way down in a valley to cross a river and back up, just to reach a nearby town that is a few kilometers away as the crow flies. North Sikkim is a high altitude place with fewer people, worse roads, and stunning vistas, all worth the back breaking drive up from Gangtok. I calculated that it took us almost twenty hours of driving from the airport to reach the northernmost driveable place in Sikkim, Gurudongmar lake. It’s not a place for flying visits.

to be continued…

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