Capital of Sikkim, the overgrown and colourful hill-town of GANGTOK (1870m) occupies a rising ridge in the southeast of the state, on what used to be a busy trade route into Tibet. Today, rapid development means an ugly assortment of concrete multi-storey buildings is growing virtually unchecked, and the urban sprawl retains only a few traditional Sikkimese (688m) architectural elements. However, a short amble soon leads you away from the congested centre to bring you occasional glimpses of the snow-capped Himalayas, and on a good day you can see Kanchenjunga and the fluted pyramid of Siniolchu (6887m) poking above the surrounding hills. Though it lacks the colonial charm of nearby Darjeeling, Gangtok has a certain relaxed buzz with good food, bars and modern cafés alongside traditional markets where time seems to stand still.

While modern Gangtok epitomizes the recent changes in Sikkimese culture and politics, its Buddhist past is the root of its appeal for visitors, evident in the collection at the Institute of Tibetology and the charming Enchey Monastery, as well as the impressive Rumtek Monastery, 24km west of town. However, the palace on the wooded ridge above town, used by the chogyals between 1894 and 1975, is now out of bounds, part occupied by the government and a closed chapter in Sikkim’s heritage. Sikkim’s pride and joy, the orchid, is nurtured at several sites in and around Gangtok, and celebrated at the Flower Show Complex near White Hall, a colonial mansion on the ridge above town.

Though central Gangtok – which means “the hilltop” – is concentrated immediately below the palace, its unchecked urban sprawl begins almost as soon as the road rises from the valley floor at Ranipool, 11km southwest. Most of the town itself looks west; one explanation for the lack of development east of the ridge is that tradition dictates that houses face northwest, towards Kanchenjunga, Sikkim’s guardian. Unlike Darjeeling, Gangtok is not renowned for its snow views but these are, nevertheless, available at different points including at Tashi Viewpoint, 5km to the north, best taken in at sunrise.

The town’s best shopping areas are the Main Market, stretching for a kilometre along the pedestrianized MG Marg, and the local produce bazaar in the concrete Kanchenjunga Shopping Complex. Stalls sell dried fish, yak’s cheese (churpi), and yeast for making the local beer, tomba. At the huge complex run by the Government Institute of Cottage Industries, on the National Highway north of the centre, visitors can watch rural Sikkimese create carpets, hand-loomed fabrics, thangka paintings and wooden objects, and buy their work at fixed prices. Curio shops on MG Marg and on Paljor Stadium Road sell turquoise and coral jewellery, plus religious objects such as silver ritual bowls and beads.

Right at the top of town just below a colossal telecom tower, 3km from the centre and reached by several roads (the most picturesque follow the west side of the ridge), Enchey Monastery is a small two-storey Nyingmapa gompa. It was built in the mid-nineteenth century on a site blessed by the Tantric master Druptob Karpo, who was renowned for his ability to fly. Visitors are welcome; the best time to go is between 7am and 8am, when the monastery is busy and the light is good. Surrounded by tall pines, and housing over a hundred monks, it’s a real gem of a place. Built by the chogyal on traditional Tibetan lines, its beautifully painted porch holds murals of protective deities and the wheel of law, while the conch shells that grace the doors are auspicious Buddhist symbols. Enchey holds an annual chaam, or masked lama dance, during the Losung festival around early December according to the lunar calendar.

The walk down from Enchey leads to the Flower Show Complex  at the northern end of Ridge Road near White Hall, where a large well-maintained greenhouse has a good collection of orchids and other Himalayan plants laid out around a set of water features. The complex, with a shop selling seeds, plants and bulbs, used to host the annual International Flower Festival in March and April; it’s sometimes staged at Saramsa, 14km from Gangtok near Ranipul. Although in theory guards deny entry to the Royal Palace to anyone without permission, visitors not carrying cameras are occasionally granted access to Tsuklakhang, the yellow-roofed royal chapel at its far end, to see its impressive murals, Buddhist images and vast collection of manuscripts. Here too there’s a lama dance, known as kagyat, at the end of December, during which the main gates are open to the public; some years the kagyat takes place in Pemayangtse instead.

Beyond the chapel the road meanders down to the small Deer Park  and beyond to Deorali, 3km from the centre on the National Highway, where, set in wooded grounds, is the museum-cum-library of the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. Here you can see an impressive collection of books and rare manuscripts, as well as religious and art objects such as exquisite thangkas (scrolls) and a photography archive. You can also get here from the upper town via the new ropeway.

A couple of hundred metres beyond the Institute on the brow of the hill, an imposing whitewashed chorten, known as the Do-Drul Chorten – one of the most important in Sikkim – dominates a large, lively monastic seminary. The chorten is capped by a gilded tower, whose rising steps signify the thirteen steps to nirvana; the sun and moon symbol at the top stands for the union of opposites and the elements of ether and air surrounded by 108 prayer wheels. Behind the monastic complex, a prayer hall houses a large image of Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava) who brought Buddhism to Tibet at the request of King Trisong Detsen in the eighth century AD. He later travelled through Sikkim hiding precious manuscripts (termas) in caves, for discovery at a future date by tertons. Curiously, part of the head of the image projects into the ceiling protected by a raised section of roof; belief has it that the image is slowly growing.

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