This beautiful land, characterized by great tracts of virgin forest and deep river valleys, is home to ancient monasteries such as Pemayangtse and Tashiding and the attractive but rapidly developing town of Pelling. The old capital, Yoksum, lies at the start of the trail towards Dzongri and Kanchenjunga. In the far west, along the border with Nepal, the watershed of the Singalila Range rises along a single ridge, with giants such as Rathong and Kabru culminating in Kanchenjunga itself. Only two high-altitude trails are currently easily accessible but require permits, and are expensive; however, several low-altitude treks with numerous variations provide ample opportunities to enjoy the wonderful profusion of orchids, rhododendron forests, waterfalls and terraced hillsides with a backdrop of majestic vistas. If you’re coming directly from Darjeeling via Jorethang for a high-altitude trek, arrange permits and itineraries in advance.Read More
Perched at the end of a ridge with a grand panorama of the entire Parekh Chu watershed including the Kanchenjunga massif, the hallowed monastery of Pemayangtse, 118km from Gangtok and a mere 2km from Pelling, is poised high above the River Rangit. It’s a 9km journey along the main road from Gyalshing; or you can take a steep, 4km short-cut through the woods past a line of chortens and the otherwise uninteresting remains of Sikkim’s second capital, Rabdantse, now made into a park.
Pemayangtse, the “Perfect Sublime Lotus”, founded in the seventeenth century by Lhatsun Chempo, one of the three lamas of Yoksum, and extended in 1705 by his reincarnation, is one of the most important gompas in Sikkim and belongs to the Nyingmapa sect. The views and the surrounding woods create an atmosphere of meditative solitude. Surrounded by outhouses featuring intricate woodwork on the beams, lattice windows and doors, the main gompa itself is plain in comparison. Built on three floors, it centres around a large hall which contains images of Guru Rinpoche and Lhatsun Chenpo (the latter was an enigmatic Tibetan lama who is the patron saint of Sikkim), and an exquisite display of thangkas and murals. On the top floor, a magnificent wooden sculpture carved and painted by Dungzin Rinpoche, a former abbot of Pemayangtse, depicts Sang Thok Palri, the celestial abode of Guru Rinpoche, rising above the realms of hell. The extraordinary detail includes demons, animals, birds, Buddhas and bodhisattvas, chortens and flying dragons, and took him just five years to complete. The two-day annual Guru Drogma chaam is held here during Losar, the New Year (Feb/March), and attracts visitors from all over Sikkim culminating with draping the monastery with a gigantic thangka.
In 1980, the Denjong Padma Choeling Academy was set up by the monastery to provide for destitute children and orphans; there are currently around three hudred children being housed, clothed, fed and educated here. Generous donations have enabled further building and projects including the yak and dri dairy project near Dzongri. Volunteer teachers are always welcome, for a minimum of two months, and have the opportunity to study meditation and Buddhism. For more information, contact Sonam Yongda at Pemayangste Gompa, West Sikkim 737 113 (t03595/250760 or t 250141) who also organizes occasional meditation courses.
Considered the holiest in Sikkim, the beautiful gompa of Tashiding occupies the point of a conical hill 19km southeast of Yoksum, high above the confluence of the Rangit and the Rathong. “The Devoted Central Glory” was built in 1717, after a rainbow was seen to connect the site to Kanchenjunga. While a new road has eaten its way through the forest to the monastery, the climb is still recommended – the well-marked path leaves the main road near an impressive mani wall (inscribed with the mantra Om mani padme hum: “Hail the jewel in the lotus” in silver paint) and leads steeply past rustic houses and fields and along a final flag-lined approach. The large complex consists of a motley collection of buildings, chortens, chapels and the unassuming main temple itself, which was recently rebuilt using some of the features and wooden beams of the original. At the far end of the temple complex, surrounded by numerous multicoloured mani stones inscribed with a mantra, is an impressive array of chortens containing relics of Sikkim’s chogyals and lamas. On the fifteenth day of the first month of the Tibetan New Year, devotees from all over Sikkim gather in Tashiding for the Nyingmapa Bhumchu festival, when they are blessed with the holy water from an ancient bowl said by legend never to dry up. Oracles consult the water’s level to determine the future.
- Moving on from Pelling
- Moving on from Yoksum
West Sikkim walks
West Sikkim walks
The numerous trails crisscrossing the countryside of West Sikkim take you into the heart of the Singalila forests. Best visited between mid-April and mid-May, when the rhododendrons are in full bloom, the Varshey Rhododendron Sanctuary (aka Barsey or Varsey) covers 104 square kilometres, which range in altitude from 2840m to 4250m and are home to black bear, red panda and pheasant. Entry permits (Rs50 [Rs25]) for the sanctuary are available from forestry departments at Hilley, Soreng, Uttarey and Gangtok, and the most popular trail is the 8km round-trip from Hilley to Varshey (3030m), which offers majestic views. You can extend the walk to Uttarey (3–4 days with tented accommodation), from where you can either take transport to Jorethang and points en route, or continue on foot to the small town of Dentam. From Dentam, a river-valley trail leads to Rinchenpong (4–5hr), a good base for West Sikkim treks; another trail from Dentam leads east up the ridge to Pelling (4–5hr). There are numerous permutations and possibilities to trekking in this region including an extension, with prior arrangement with tour operators and the appropriate permits, into the long high-altitude Singalila Ridge trek to Dzongri and beyond.
West Sikkim high-altitude treks
West Sikkim high-altitude treks
Two high-altitude treks are currently allowed in Sikkim. The first, from Yoksum to Dzongri, in the shadow of Kanchenjunga, passes through huge tracts of forest and provides incredible mountain vistas; all-inclusive rates from a decent agency are around $50 per head per day. The second, the Singalila Ridge, explores the remote high pastures of the Singalila frontier range with breathtaking views of the massif; per-person daily rates are higher, at around $65. Trekkers for either of the two must have special permits and travel in groups of at least two organized by authorized agencies. Check permits and arrangement for porterage, guides and food before you set off – all should be included in the cost; scrutinize itineraries too. Bring adequate clothing, boots and sleeping bags and a hat for warmth. The best time to do both treks is between October and mid-November, when the weather is clearest.
The Dzongri Trail
Although Dzongri is the junction of several trails, the prescribed route onwards leads to Goecha La via Zemanthang and Samiti Lake. Well-marked and dotted with basic accommodation, the trail, also used by yak herders, is at its best in May when the rhododendrons bloom.
It takes approximately 6hr to climb the 16km from Yoksum (1780m) to Tsokha (3048m). The forested trail begins gently before arriving at the Parekh Chu above its confluence with the Rathong. The next 4.5km involve a knee-grinding ascent, entering the lichen zone and cloud forests, past the Forest Rest House at Bakhim (2684m) to the Tibetan yak herders’ settlement of Tsokha where there are a couple of trekkers huts.
This day can be spent acclimatizing yourself to the altitude at Tsokha, perhaps with a short trek of around 5km towards Dzongri, to a watchtower for superb views of Kanchenjunga and Pandim.
The 11km section from Tsokha to Dzongri (4030m) takes at least 5hr, rising through beautiful pine and rhododendron forests to Phedang Meadows (3450m), before continuing to the hut at Dzongri.
Once again, it’s worth staying around Dzongri for further acclimatization. This gives you the opportunity to climb Dzongri Hill above the hut, for early-morning and early-evening views of Kanchenjunga’s craggy south summit and the black rocky tooth of Kabur, a holy mountain towering above Dzongri La (4400m), a pass that leads to the HMI base camp 12km away at Chaurikhang and the Rathong Glacier (a recommended variation).
The 8km trek from Dzongri to Thangsing (3841m) takes around 4hr, descending against an incredible backdrop of peaks to a rhododendron forest, crossing a bridge and continuing through woods to the Trekkers Hut at Thangsing at the end of a glacial valley.
The 10km short, sharp shock up to Samiti Lake (4303m) takes around 3hr through alpine meadows traversing glacial moraine before arriving at the emerald-green Samiti Lake (local name Sungmoteng Tso). If you are still going strong, you could continue to Zemanthang (4453m) where there’s a trekkers hut.
The climax of the trek, and also its most difficult section by far simply due to its high altitude. From Samiti Lake, the 14km round-trip climb takes around 4hr up to Goecha La and 2–3hr back down again. The trail follows glacial moraine to a dry lake at Zemanthang, before a final grinding rise following cairns and the occasional prayer flag to the narrow defile at Goeche La (5000m), where Kanchenjunga South is clearly visible on a clear day.
Most of the long 24km hike from Samiti Lake back to Tsokha is downhill and takes around 8hr, involving a short cut after the bridge to avoid Dzongri. There are several variations to this finish.
The Singalila Ridge
Itineraries for Singalila Ridge treks range between ten and nineteen days and though more expensive due to the area’s remoteness, they prove exceptionally rewarding, with views from Everest to the huge Kanchenjunga massif ahead. It’s best done from south to north facing the views as the trail rises towards the snows through remote alpine pastures and past hidden lakes. From the roadhead at Uttarey (1965m), 28km to the west of Pelling, or from Soreng, 30km to the west of Jorethang, the trek ascends to Chewabhanjang (3170m) on the Sikkim–Nepal frontier. Thereafter, the trail rarely descends below 3500m, high above the tree line; the highest point of the trail is the Danfeybhir Tar, a pass at 4400m. Several lakes such as Lampokhari, all considered holy, are encountered along the route, and here and there dwarf rhododendron forests bring a blaze of colour in season (April–May). The route dips down to Gomathang (3725m), a yak-herders’ shelter on the banks of the Boktochu, then passes through a delightful forest of silver fir and rhododendron before arriving at the welcome sight of the bungalow at Dzongri. You could descend from here via Tsokha to Yoksum or continue to Goecha La, thus completing a grand and rewarding traverse.
Conservation and the Kanchenjunga National Park
Conservation and the Kanchenjunga National Park
Established in 1996 with the help of the Sikkim Biodiversity and Ecotourism Project, the Khangchendzonga Conservation Committee (KCC), a community-based NGO based in Yoksum, aims to promote ecological awareness to locals and visitors alike. The KCC’s main concern is the impact of tourism on the fabric of the Kanchenjunga National Park, and their methods include planting trees, mobilizing local participation in the planning of ecotourism and organizing clean-up campaigns. Conservation has also been embraced by the Sikkim government, which has put in place a code of conduct, banning the use of wood for fuel in preference to kerosene; however, wood fires continue to be part and parcel of the Sikkim landscape. KCC initiatives include keeping trails clean, publishing leaflets to promote eco-awareness, training local workers including porters and guides in the ecotourism industry, and organizing self-help initiatives. For more information on the KCC, contact their coordinator Pema Chewang Bhutia at Visitors Information Centre, Gompa Road, Yoksum (t03595/241 211 or t9832 452527, wwww.sikkimkcc.netfirms.com/kcc/). There is a Biodiversity Centre here and they also provide low-altitude guides for Rs300 a day.