I can’t see the Himalayas but it’s not my guide’s fault. If anything, it’s mine. I’ve come to Sikkim, in north-eastern India, at the height of summer when there’s less rain and more haze and... my guide, Pujan, tries to explain the meteorology but I fail to follow because I’m trying my best not to say, “What’s the point of coming to Sikkim if you can’t see the snow-capped peaks of Kanchenjunga?”
On the winding five-hour drive into the mountains from Bagdogra – slowed by a traffic jam caused by an earth slip hastened by an early monsoon – the sky grows dark after 4pm and I distract myself by reading the guidebook and looking at my phone.
“Enjoy the internet while it lasts, my friend,” says Pujan, eyeing my sneakers with pity and my winter clothing with amusement. He tells me that in summer, two layers is all you need, though a decent pair of walking shoes wouldn’t be a bad idea.
This isn’t the most obvious time to visit India – unless you enjoy sweating around the clock. But this far north, the climate is temperate, the air cool, the scenery spectacular and, as this is India’s least populous state, crowds are few. I walk the peaks and valleys of west Sikkim for five days and see only one other traveller.
Getting to know Sikkim
The guidebook calls Sikkim “a window to the Himalayas”, though all I can see from mine is mist and trucks. On the map it’s shaped like a thumb print, south of Tibet, flanked by Bhutan and Nepal, with the seven sister states of West Bengal curling below it. A kingdom of the Namgyal dynasty from 1642 to 1975, Sikkim saw off invasions from its neighbours, became a British protectorate in 1890 and then in 1975 became India’s 22nd state, making it about as old as David Beckham.
It’s home to cascading forests, green lakes, golden temples and Kanchenjunga, India’s highest mountain range. I scroll through pictures of snow-covered peaks glistening at dusk before the sun sets on my data connection.
We arrive at Hatti Dunga House, the first of three homestays. A hut decorated with tree bark and bamboo, it’s equal parts simplicity, luxury and style. Our welcome is a bonfire and a pot of Darjeeling tea laced with honey and lemon. I am the guest of Shakti Sikkim, a travel company staffed by enthusiastic locals that serves up authentic Himalayan experiences. Each of our village homes comes with teak fittings, brass ornaments, tiered gardens, postcard views and a seat by the fire.
The valley below us is filled with mist and there isn’t a star in the sky. Gazing into the flames, Pujan tells me plastic is banned here and that Sikkim went organic long before it was a thing. That Buddhists and Hindus live as one community and even intermarry. That I’m lucky to be here when the orchids and rhododendrons are in full bloom.
“Will I get to see the mountains?” I ask. He smiles and quotes the guidebook. “It’s like seeing a tiger in the jungle,” he says. I’m not sure if that’s a yes or a no.
The next day brings the first of many walks. I begin with a breakfast of fruit, berries, grains and eggs while I gaze down on flower-filled gardens, grazing goats and quaint homes in pastel shades. As the mist disperses, shades of green peep out from the haze. Our destination is 10 minutes away if we were crows and could fly. Since neither is true, the journey takes us all morning as we descend one hill to slowly climb another.
SEE ALSO: The Himalayan Hike With No Crowds
Dining with locals
We move through terraces of orange and red flowers, past bored cows and beautiful dogs and people carrying bushes on their backs. The pathway weaves among ferns and orchids and bamboo and the walk assumes its own rhythms: the crunch of leaves under foot, the buzz of insects talking to trees and the grace notes of birds in the canopies. It is this meditative music that removes thoughts from minds and complaints from lips.
The air is moist enough to quench a small thirst and the track changes complexion every few minutes. The flatlands have plots of corn, buckwheat and the millet used in the famous local beer, tongba; the inclines have cardamom and ginger plants, Sikkim’s two biggest cash crops, growing amid fluttering prayer flags, the bricks of ruined monasteries and religious symbols etched into stone. Pujan is concerned that I’m walking too fast, panting too hard and seeing too little. The mist slowly reveals more paths and more green but the snowy mountains remain hidden.
We have tea with local craftsfolk whose curious tools intrigue me as much as their creations – like the wire saw that’s used to carve patterns onto wood, the guitar- shaped duster for fluffing cushions and the handlooms made of bamboo and rope. Villagers greet us with twinkling eyes, their features a blend of Lepcha, Bhutia, Bengal and Nepali; an eclectic mix of faces. The paintings for sale are mostly abstracts, none of which feature landscapes, the painters wisely deciding not to compete with the natural artistry that infuses these hills.
That night, over nettle soup, fried ferns and yak cheese – delicacies whose names don’t quite convey the bewitching flavours – I tell Pujan about my three imaginary companions and their different approaches to adventure. One chooses to travel only in the mind, preferring nature documentaries to actually leaving the house. Another, fuelled by FOMO or YOLO or some such abbreviation, will do anything to tick every box in the guidebook. For those of the latter persuasion, a week in Sikkim would entail paragliding in the capital Gangtok, yak riding by Tsomgo Lake, rafting in the rapids of the Teesta River, flower picking in Yumthang Valley and braving the treacherous roads to get from waterfall to Kanchenjunga base camp.
Then there’s my third friend, whose goal is immersion, relishing five days in a forest rather than seeing five attractions in a day.
Spotting the Himalayas
We lunch by a waterfall on butter beans, squash and an exquisite mutton curry. We watch eagles circling the treetops and Pujan tells me about the animals found at higher altitudes, all described by colours: black bears, red pandas, blue sheep, snow leopards and blood pheasants.
“No tiger?” I ask. He shakes his head.
Up here, religion is more of a medicine than an opiate and monks play an active role in the flow of village life, presiding over births, deaths, celebrations and rites of passage. At dawn, we visit the Rinchenpong Monastery, where novice monks chant prayers and sutras in rooms painted with Tibetan iconography at its most splendid and macabre.
Sonorous incantations linger in the ear and set the mood for the walk that follows. The uphill trail traces the mountain’s contours via forests of alder trees, wild rhododendrons and winding creeks. At the top of the hill, Pujan offers me internet, which I decline, reluctant to succumb to unread emails.
The night before, the local children had put on a dazzling show involving glittering costumes, catchy songs and dance moves that mix folk art with Bollywood. The music is still wedged in my brain, mixed with the chanting of monks, the sound of distant water and the winds playing with the leaves. I taste the flowers in the air and look up to find Pujan grinning and pointing.
And there I see it. Beyond the trees and the endless hills. Beyond the lake swarming with carp and the giant statue of a Sikkimese prince looking down on us. The Kanchenjunga range shrugs off the evaporating mist to reveal the piece that was missing from my canvas. I finally see the tiger.
The white range catches the sun. The crags glisten and the mountains dwarf the hills and the trees. The mist blows back in while we watch and the range disappears. In this moment all the ills and aches and boredoms of my life evaporate. Tonight, I’ll learn to cook a biryani, drink wine by the fire and ask if I can take a wild orchid home. My three travelling friends are with me and they’re all happy.
GOOD TO KNOW
Entry: In addition to acquiring a visa to visit India, carry a photocopy
of your passport and two passport-sized photographs. You’ll need both at the Sikkim border for your entry permit.
What to pack: Make sure your walking shoes have good grip and have been broken in. Pack sunglasses, sunscreen and a waterproof jacket. Even in summer, the temperature can drop to chilly. While it’s not weather for thermal underwear, do take a few layers of clothing in your daypack.
Etiquette: You may take photos at monasteries but observe basic temple etiquette with regards to removing headgear and shoes and dressing respectfully. Avoid littering, single- use plastic and picking flowers from private gardens, all of which will make you unpopular with locals and guides.
Getting around: Shakti Himalaya offers all-inclusive, private journeys to different parts of northern India, including Sikkim and the Kumaon Himalayas. Home-style food and accommodation, low-impact experiences and supporting local communities are the company’s main focus.