The tiny and beautiful state of Sikkim lies to the south of Tibet, sandwiched between Nepal to the west and Bhutan to the east. Measuring just 65km by 115km, its landscape ranges from sweltering deep valleys just 300m above sea level to lofty snow peaks such as Kanchenjunga (Kanchendzonga to the locals) which, at 8586m, is the third highest mountain in the world. A small but growing network of tortuous roads penetrates this rugged and beautiful Himalayan wilderness.
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For centuries Sikkim was an isolated, independent Buddhist kingdom, until war with China in the early 1960s led the Indian government to realize the area’s strategic importance as a crucial corridor between Tibet and Bangladesh. As a result of its annexation by India in 1975, Sikkim has experienced dramatic changes. Now a fully fledged Indian state, it is predominantly Hindu, with a population made up of 75 percent Nepalese Gurungs, and less than twenty percent Lepchas, its former rulers. Smaller proportions survive of Bhutias, of Tibetan stock, and Limbus, also possibly of Tibetan origin, who gave the state its name – sukh-im, “happy homeland”. Nepali is now the lingua franca and the Nepalese are socially and politically the most dominant people in the state. However, the people of Sikkim continue to jealously guard their freedom and affluence and remain untouched by the Nepalese Gurkhas’ autonomy movement in neighbouring Darjeeling. Although only Sikkimese can hold major shares in property and businesses, partnerships with Indian (non-Sikkimese) entrepreneurs and subsidies to indigenous Sikkimese industry have led to prosperity – fuelled by its special status within the union.
Places to visit in Sikkim
Historically, culturally and spiritually, Sikkim’s strongest links are with Tibet. The main draws for visitors are the state’s off-the-beaten-track trekking and its many monasteries, more than two hundred in all, mostly belonging to the ancient Nyingmapa sect. Pemayangtse in West Sikkim is the most historically significant, and houses an extraordinary wooden mandala depicting Guru Rinpoche’s Heavenly Palace. Tashiding, a Nyingmapa monastery built in 1717, surrounded by prayer flags and chortens and looking across to snowcapped peaks, is considered Sikkim’s holiest. Rumtek is the seat of the Gyalwa Karmapa – head of the Karma Kagyu lineage – and probably the wealthiest monastery in Sikkim. The capital, Gangtok, a colourful, bustling cosmopolitan town, is home to a bewildering array of trekking agents only too happy to take your money in dollars and to arrange the necessary permits.
Sikkim’s gigantic mountain walls and steep wooded hillsides, drained by torrential rivers such as the Teesta and the Rangit, are a botanist’s dream. The lower slopes abound in orchids, sprays of cardamom carpet the forest floor, and the land is rich with apple orchards, orange groves and terraced paddy fields (to the Tibetans, this was Denzong, “the land of rice”). At higher altitudes, monsoon mists cling to huge tracts of lichen-covered forests, where countless varieties of rhododendron carpet the hillsides and giant magnolia trees punctuate the deep verdant cover. Higher still, approaching the Tibetan plateau, larch and dwarf rhododendron give way to meadows abundant with gentians and potentilla. Sikkim’s forests and wilderness areas are inhabited by a wealth of fauna, including extremely elusive snow leopards, tahr (wild goat on the Tibet plateau), bharal (blue sheep), black bear, flying squirrels and the symbol of Sikkim – the endangered red panda.
Brief history of Sikkim
No one knows quite when or how the Lepchas – or the Rong, as they call themselves – came to Sikkim, but their roots can be traced back to the animist Nagas of the Indo-Burmese border. Buddhism, which arrived from Tibet in the thirteenth century, took its distinctive Sikkimese form four centuries later, when three Tibetan monks of the old Nyingmapa order, disenchanted with the rise of the reformist Gelugpas, migrated south and gathered at Yoksum in western Sikkim. Having consulted the oracle, they sent to Gangtok for a certain Phuntsog Namgyal, whom they crowned as the first chogyal or “righteous king” of Denzong in 1642. Both the secular and religious head of Sikkim, he was soon recognized by Tibet, and set about sweeping reforms. His domain was far larger than today’s Sikkim, taking in Kalimpong and parts of western Bhutan.
Over the centuries, territory was lost to the Bhutanese, the Nepalese and the British. Sikkim originally ceded Darjeeling to the East India Company as a spa in 1817, but was forced to give up all claim to it in 1861 when the kingdom was declared a protectorate of the British. Tibet, which perceived Sikkim as a vassalage, objected and invaded in 1886, but a small British force sent in 1888 to Lhasa helped the British consolidate their hold. By importing a Nepalese labour force to work the tea plantations of Sikkim, Darjeeling and Kalimpong, the British sought to diminish the strong Tibetan influence and helped alter the ethnic make-up of the region, with the new migrants soon outnumbering the indigenous population.
After Indian Independence, the reforming and intensely spiritual eleventh chogyal, Tashi Namgyal, strove hard until his death in 1962 to prevent the dissolution of his kingdom. Officially Sikkim was a protectorate of India, and the role of India became increasingly crucial, with the Chinese military build-up along the northern borders that culminated in an actual invasion early in the 1960s. His son Palden Thondup, the last chogyal, married twice; his second wife was an American, Hope Cook, whose reforms as gyalmo (queen) did not prove popular at home and irritated the Indian government. The embattled chogyal eventually succumbed to the demands of the Nepalese majority, and Sikkim was annexed by India in 1975 after a referendum with an overwhelming 97 percent majority. The chogyal remained as a figurehead until his death in 1981.
The state continues to be treated with care by the Indian government, partly through a lingering sense of unease among the disaffected Sikkimese minority and an increasingly complex ethnic patchwork but, more importantly, because Sikkim remains a bone of contention between India and China. Today, the Sikkim Democratic Front forms the government of Sikkim; generous government subsidies and loans have helped to ensure that people remain generally contented, while extensive road-building is bringing benefits to remote communities despite the many landslides in recent years.
Earthquakes, landslides and dams
Although earthquakes are a common occurrence throughout the Himalayas, the one that struck in September 2011, with its epicentre at Mangan 42km northwest of Gangtok, was particularly destructive, leaving around sixty people dead and a trail of devastation as far away as Gangtok. The effects of the magnitude 6.9 quake were felt throughout the region, in Nepal and as far away as Kolkata. Much of the destruction took place around hydroelectric projects and led to disrupted roads and infrastructure. To compound the state’s communication nightmare, unseasonal rains in 2012 resulted in deadly landslides and loss of life, and North Sikkim was virtually cut off from the rest of the state for several weeks.
Industrialization and the construction of dams and numerous hydro-electric projects on Sikkim’s rivers, such as the Teesta, has brought pressure on the state’s diminishing indigenous population, threatening their lifestyle and heritage, particularly in Dzongu, the heartland of Lepchas. Although the voice of their protest is now all but lost, the destruction of habitat and the extraordinary strain on the state’s fragile road system is self-evident.
Best time to visit Sikkim
Summer, from April to mid-June, is characterized by warm weather and clear skies. From late September to November, temperatures are moderate, cherry blossoms are in bloom and the skies intermittently clear for views of Kanchenjunga. An influx of tourists during these two high spells means higher hotel rates, especially in Gangtok and Pelling. Discounts are possible during low season, from February to March, when it’s freezing and the fog plays spoilsport. The monsoon lasts from June to September, when road conditions deteriorate and landslides are common. Winter can be bitterly cold in the northern reaches, but still a good time to travel. Check for road closures when it snows.
Festivals in Sikkim
- Losar (in/near Feb)
The Tibetan New Year, celebrated with grand monastic dances.
- Bumchu Festival (Feb/March)
Lamas gather at Tashiding, where a vessel containing holy water is opened and examined – the water level indicates the future of the state.
- Losung (Dec)
Marks the end of the harvest season. Spectacular masked dances, or chaam, take place at various monasteries.
- Dasain (Dussehra; Sept–Oct)
The Nepali community celebrates this ten-day Hindu festival marking the victory of good over evil; Goddess Durga is worshipped and her idol immersed in a river.
- Tihar (Diwali; Oct–Nov)
The Nepali version of Diwali, this is an elaborate five-day affair, when houses are cleaned, adorned with marigolds and lit up.
Food and drink in Sikkim
Sikkimese food is a melange of Nepalese, Tibetan and Indian influences; rice is a staple, eaten with dhal, forest vegetables and pickles, including the supremely hot, fire-engine-red dalley chilli pickle. Churpi, a fresh cow-milk cheese, is generally made with a fern called ningro. Gyakho is a traditional chimney stew served on special occasions. Phing (glass noodles), shisnu (nettle soup), gundruk (fermented spinach), gyathuk (soup with handmade macaroni and local herbs; usually with beef) are other typical specialities, along with chicken, pork and beef dishes. Khodo (millet pancake) and fafar roti (buckwheat pancake) are generally eaten for breakfast. Tibetan dishes including momos and thukpa are found easily.
Restaurants in Gangtok serve alcohol; Hit and Dansberg are the local Sikkimese beer brands. Look out for tomba, a traditional drink usually served in winter, consisting of fermented millet served in a wooden or bamboo mug and sipped through a bamboo straw. The mug is periodically topped up with hot water; once it’s been allowed to sit for a few minutes, you’re left with a pleasant warm, watery drink that’s best on a cold evening. Chaang is a local millet beer, milky and fermented, found more commonly in homestays.
Permits for travelling in Sikkim
State access Permit
Foreigners need to obtain a Restricted Area Permit (RAP; previously known as an Inner Line Permit or ILP) to visit Sikkim. Permits can now be obtained online at sikk.imilp.in, or in advance along with your Indian visa, but agencies abroad charge exorbitant fees so are best avoided. If obtained within India, Sikkim permits are free and can be arranged through the tourism agencies listed below, trekking operators or at the Sikkim border at Melli and Rangpo in a dedicated office. In order to apply, you’ll need two passport photographs, and photocopies of your passport and Indian visa. Check the latest information at sikkimtourism.gov.in. Permits are date-specific and initially valid for thirty days from entry (no return within three months); extensions are normally available up to a maximum of sixty days.
As well as Gangtok and its surroundings in East Sikkim, the RAP covers all of South Sikkim and most areas in the east and west of the state, apart from most high-altitude treks. Sensitive border areas, like Tsomgo Lake (also known as Changu or Tsangu) in East Sikkim, most of North Sikkim except for Mangan and its immediate vicinity, and all high-altitude treks including the Singalila Ridge and Dzongri, require the additional Protected Area Permit (PAP); foreigners can only enter these areas in groups of at least two accompanied by representatives of approved travel agents who arrange the permits.
- Airport immigration At the four main entry points: Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai.
- Foreigners’ Regional Registration Offices In Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.
- New Sikkim House 14 Panchsheel Marg, Chanakyapuri, New Delhi.
- Sikkim tourist centre SNTC Bus Stand, Hill Cart Rd, Siliguri.
- Sikkim tourist information centre Sikkim House, 4/1 Middleton St, Kolkata.
Trekking and mountaineering permits
High-altitude trekking in Sikkim remains a restricted and expensive business. Firstly, foreigners have to acquire trekking permits (aka Protected Area Permits or PAP), which also act as entry permits for these areas. These are only available from the Sikkim Tourism offices in Gangtok, but can be arranged through trek operators.
Carefully check documents and itineraries – you don’t want to be rushed, especially at altitude – before you set off. Trekking parties consist of a minimum of two people; tour operators charge an official daily rate of US$60 to US$150 per head per day, depending on group size and route.
While most major peaks require permission from the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) in Delhi with at least three months’ notice, as well as mountaineering permits, the Sikkim government, through the appropriate Gangtok trekking operator, hands out permits for the following treks: Frey’s Peak (5830m) near Chaurikhang on the Singalila Ridge; Thingchenkang (6010m) near Dzongri and Jopuno (5935m) in West Sikkim; and Lama Wangden (5868m) and Brumkhangse (5635m) in North Sikkim. Recommended Gangtok agents include Namgyal Treks and Tours.
The high-altitude treks most commonly offered by the operators are the Dzongri–Goecha La route, plus its variation starting from Uttarey and the Singalila Ridge. The exhilarating trek from Lachen to Green Lake is possible, but permission must be obtained from Delhi (most easily arranged through a Gangtok agent) at least two months in advance. At the moment, Dzongri still bears the brunt of the trekking industry in the state, and the pressure is beginning to tell severely on the environment.
Low-altitude hikes often come without the restriction of permits, and makes Sikkim an alluring destination for quiet walks off the beaten track. The rhododendron trails around Varshey, West Sikkim, for example, are particularly pleasant. A word of warning: avoid trekking unaccompanied in forest areas due to the risk of black bears.
Some areas, such as Nathu La on the border with Tibet in East Sikkim, and Gurudongma Lake in North Sikkim remain completely off-limits to foreigners.
Ignored by most travellers en route to higher trekking trails and the great gompas of west Sikkim, southern Sikkim nevertheless offers quiet charm, its lichen-covered forests draped with a stunning array of orchids and inhabited by rare and endangered animals. The region is dominated by the great, forested peak of Maenam – towering high above the town of Ravangla – a challenging day-trek and famous for its plants and flowers and for the tremendous view from its summit. Easier options such as the delightful jungle walk to the lesser heights of Tendong are just as rewarding, while high above the district capital Namchi, the gigantic statuary of Samdruptse and Solophok are clearly visible from as far away as Darjeeling. Sikkim’s sole tea garden, the organic Temi Tea Estate, welcomes visitors and provides a good base from which to explore the area.
The beautiful land of West Sikkim, characterized by great tracts of virgin forest and deep river valleys, is home to ancient monasteries such as Pemayangtse and Tashiding and the rapidly developing tourist hub and hill-station 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 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 appealing alternatives. If you’re coming directly from Darjeeling via Jorethang for a high-altitude trek, arrange permits and itineraries in advance.
The hallowed monastery of Pemayangtse, perched at the end of a ridge, with a grand panorama of the entire Prek River watershed including the Kanchenjunga massif, is poised high above the Rangit River. It’s a 9km journey along the main road from Gyalshing; or you can take a steep, 4km short cut, walking through the woods past a line of chortens and the otherwise uninteresting remains of Sikkim’s second capital, Rabdantse, now made into a pleasant park.
Pemayangtse, the “Perfect Sublime Lotus”, was founded in the seventeenth century by Lhatsun Chempo and is one of the three lamas of Yoksum. Extended in 1705 by his reincarnation, it’s 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.
Pelling and around
The rapidly swelling town of Pelling, situated 2085m above sea level, is most notable for its expansive views north towards the glaciers and peaks of Kanchenjunga. High above forest-covered hills, in an amphitheatre of cloud, snow and rock, the entire route from Yoksum over Dzongri La to the Rathong Glacier can be seen. Frenetic building activity has somewhat detracted from Pelling’s quiet charm, and the area is a magnet for Bengali travellers; the main drag from the crossroads to Lower Pelling is chock-full of hotels and not much else. However, on a clear day, you can gaze in awe at the world’s third-highest peak from any of the numerous hotel terraces in Upper Pelling, and there’s easy access to attractive walks in the hinterland. One noticeable element missing is a bazaar, although a few shops are now beginning to appear.
A new road blasted up the steep ridge from near the helipad just above Pelling makes a good 4km walk to reach the small but highly venerated Nyingmapa monastery of Sanga Choling, one of the oldest gompas in Sikkim and another of Lhatsun Chenpo’s creations. Gutted by fire, it was rebuilt in 1948 and houses some of the original clay statues including a stunning Samantha Bhadra.
The Monastery Trail
You won’t need a guide for this most rewarding circuit which has come to be known as the Monastery Trail, taking in the highlights of western Sikkim including several holy places and monasteries; do ask advice from either hotels Kabur or Garuda in Pelling, where you can pick up a rough map of the trail. Each section takes between 4–7 hours and the growing network of home-stays allows the intrepid trekker to explore off the beaten track. Most walkers start the popular 3–4 day trail from Pelling via Darap to Kecheopalri, then continue to Yuksom (with a steep descent and a knee-grinding ascent to the small town) where there are some decent hotels and home-stays. Continuing from Yuksom takes in monasteries such as Dubdi (above Yuksom), Hongri and Sinon before descending to Tashiding. To return to Pelling, walk down to Sakyung from where there is an unrelenting ascent to Pelling. Along with several extensions, alternative routes from Tashiding include walking to Borong, Ralang and Ravangla with a dip in a hot spring along the Rangit River; the advantage of this variation is that it would help you get on to the road for Gangtok. For trail information in Tashiding ask at Sanu’s home-stay.
The sleepy, spread-out hamlet of Yoksum at the end of the road which runs north of Pelling and at the entrance to the Rathong Chu gorge, 40km north of Pemayangtse, holds a special place in Sikkimese history. This was the spot where three lamas converged from different directions across the Himalayas to enthrone the first religious king of Sikkim, Chogyal Phuntsog Namgyal, in 1642. Named the “Great Religious King”, he established Tibetan Buddhism in Sikkim. Lhatsun Chenpo is supposed to have buried offerings in Yoksum’s Norbugang Chorten, a vast white stupa built with stones and earth from different parts of Sikkim, to be found in Norbugang Park, a kilometre north of Yoksum, which also houses the Coronation Throne, a simple stone throne of the first chogyal. In front of the throne, a large footprint embedded in a rock belongs to one of the lamas. Kathok Lake, a small pond nearby at the top end of town, was also part of the original ceremony, but it’s disappointing and pretty scummy these days.
The village’s main role these days is as the start of the high-altitude Dzongri Trail, but unless you have a trekking permit, you’re not supposed to venture any further and the authorities are quite vigilant.
Considered the holiest in Sikkim, the beautiful gompa of Tashiding occupies the point of a conical hill 19km southeast of Yoksum, high above the union 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 Buddhist 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. 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, which – legend has it – never dries up. Oracles consult the water’s level to determine the future.
On the increasingly popular monastery trail, Tashiding provides a good base from which to explore the treks along watershed of Mt Narsing and the Rangit River, with several holy lakes and caves a few days walk away.
West Sikkim walks
The numerous trails crisscrossing through West Sikkim’s wonderful profusion of orchid and rhododendron forests, waterfalls, terraced hillsides and river valleys, give independent walkers the opportunity to explore the region without the headache of red tape (permits) and the expense of tour operators and expedition costs. Apart from the occasional forest lodge or guesthouse, a growing network of homestays allows intrepid trekkers to wander off the beaten track, especially along the Monastery Trail from Pelling. On the western boundaries of the state, the rhododendron forests are best seen around Varshey.
The Singalila Range’s rhododendron forests, lauded by the famous botanist Sir JD Hooker who travelled here in 1848, are best visited between mid-April and mid-May when the flowers are in full bloom. Of these forests, the Varshey Rhododendron Sanctuary (aka Barsey or Varsey) covers 104 square kilometres, ranges in altitude from 2840m to 4250m and is home to black bear, red panda and pheasant. Entry to the forest is via Hilley, Soreng or Dentam and entry permits for the sanctuary are available from forestry departments at Hilley, Soreng, Uttarey and Gangtok. The most popular route 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 out or continue on foot to the small town of Dentam.
From Dentam, a river-valley trail leads to the quiet village of Rinchenpong (4–5hr), a good base for West Sikkim village walks; another trail from Dentam leads east up the ridge to Pelling (4–5hr). There are numerous permutations and possibilities for trekking around Varshey 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.
High-altitude treks in West Sikkim
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 from around US$50 per head per day including permits. The second, the Singalila Ridge, explores the remote high pastures of the Singalila frontier range with breathtaking views of the massif. Trekkers for either route must have special permits, travel in groups of at least two and organize the trip with an authorized agency. General advice on trekking equipment and health issues is given in Essentials.
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.
- Day 1
It takes approximately six hours to climb the 16km from Yoksum (1780m) to Tsokha (3048m). The forested trail begins gently before arriving at the Prek River 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.
- Day 2
This day can be spent acclimatizing to the altitude at Tsokha, perhaps with a 5km trek towards Dzongri, to a watchtower with superb views of Kanchenjunga and Pandim.
- Day 3
The 11km section from Tsokha to Dzongri (4030m) takes at least five hours, rising through beautiful pine and rhododendron forests to Phedang Meadows (3450m), before continuing to the hut at Dzongri.
- Day 4
Once again, it’s worth staying around Dzongri for further acclimatization. This gives you the opportunity to climb Dzongri Hill above the hut for 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).
- Day 5
The 8km trek from Dzongri to Thangsing (3841m) takes around four hours, descending against an incredible backdrop of peaks to a rhododendron forest, crossing a bridge and continuing through woods to Trekkers Hut at Thangsing at the end of a glacial valley.
- Day 6
The 10km short, sharp shock up to Samiti Lake (4303m) takes around three hours, 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.
- Day 7
This is the climax of the trek and its most difficult section by far, due to the high altitude. From Samiti Lake, the 14km round-trip climb takes around four hours up to Goecha La and two to three hours back down again. The trail follows glacial moraine to 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 visible on a clear day.
- Day 8
Most of the long 24km hike from Samiti Lake back to Tsokha is downhill and takes around eight hours, 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. The most common variation starts from the road-head at Uttarey (1965m), 28km to the west of Pelling, and 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. The route descends to Gomathang (3725m), a yak-herders’ shelter on the banks of the Boktochu, then passes through delightful forests of silver fir and rhododendron before arriving at the welcome sight of the bungalow at Dzongri which connects with the main trekking trails.
A fragile road etches its way up the Teesta Valley and splits at Chungthang with one branch bearing northwest to Lachen and beyond, the other due north to Lachung, to the beautiful valley of Yumthang and eventually Zero Point on the high plateau.
The huge earthquake of 2011, with its epicentre near the capital Mangan, severed the roads to North Sikkim and left over sixty people dead. Then, a year later, unexpected late-season rains caused deadly landslides that once again isolated the region for several weeks. Travellers to North Sikkim need to show their permits at Tong, from where the stretch of road to Chungthang has greatly improved in recent times.
Travelling north past Phodong, the highway reaches the town of Mangan, 67km north of Gangtok, the district capital of North Sikkim and perched high above the Teesta Valley. Recovering after the devastating earthquake of 2011 which all but demolished the bazaar and destroyed Rinzing Gompa, Mangan is nevertheless a convenient stop on an arduous route to the north (note that it’s the furthest you can go without a Protected Area Permit). The town itself has little interest other than its busy bazaar, a handful of hotels and the District Collector’s office, which is a relatively easy place to get a permit if you haven’t already picked one up in Gangtok.
Lachung and around
The road forks at the grubby town of Chungthang, 40km north of Mangan – the road to the right climbs rapidly to the group of small settlements of Lachung, the “big pass”, a mere fifteen kilometres west of Tibet. Across the river from the main cluster of settlement, Lachung Monastery is a two-storey Tibetan-style gompa belonging to the Nyingmapa sect, and worth visiting especially for its wonderful murals.
As the road north ascends past yak pastures, it enters the Shingba -Rhododendron Sanctuary, announcing the start of Yumthang (3645m), 25km north of Lachung, with spectacular rock and ice pinnacles towering to 6000m on either side. This beautiful tree lined valley does not have accommodation but boasts somewhat neglected hot sulphur springs. A pleasant purpose-made walking trail leads 10km along the valley floor, back to the sanctuary gates – due to the high altitude and problems with acclimatization, descent rather than ascent is recommended. Past Yumthang, the road continues up the valley and emerges on the high plateau land at Yumesamdong or Zero Point (the end of the road), at an altitude of 4770m with a backdrop, weather permitting, of the snowy sentinels along the Tibet border.
Top image: Gangtok Ropeway in Gangtok city in the Indian state of Sikkim, India © saiko3p/Shutterstock