A walk in the wilderness
If there is one Indian state that is all about the wild outdoors, it has to be Sikkim. A national park around Mt Kanchenjunga (the Khangchendzonga National Park, or KNP, a Unesco world heritage site), seven sanctuaries, 28 important peaks and a designated ecological hot spot. So whichever trek or walk you choose, there will be virgin forests and minimal human interface.
Most of Sikkim lies above 3,000m, with Mt Kanchenjunga towering over the landscape, so you traverse a variety of terrain ranging from sub-tropical, mixed broad-leaf and conifer forests to high alpine meadows. If you are a birdwatcher, you probably know that it’s also home to many varieties of bird species that feed off local flora such as orchids and rhododendrons.
You can try a combination of trekking and cycling here. There are miles of quiet roads, with bed and breakfast places along the way. Ancient monasteries make for great cultural stops. The great thing is that since views of the Kanchenjunga are virtually guaranteed wherever you go, you can choose your stops, accommodation and hours of walking.
Most of the trekking action happens in west Sikkim; the north is mostly a border area and, therefore, restricted, and the east is overrun with roads. Yuksom, the starting point for most treks, is the ancient capital and you can visit the stone coronation throne there and bone up on Sikkim’s history.
Trekking in Sikkim is a walk in the wilderness, amid hills, flowers, birds and forests. You see as many yaks as you do people. It’s one of the few places where you can see Mt Everest, Mt Lhotse, Mt Makalu and Mt Kanchenjunga, all over 8,000m in height, in one frame.
All peaks lie in military zones with restricted access, so getting permission to climb a peak would be a long shot. Trekking is easier, as long as you stay away from the border areas, but it requires permits from the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) as well as the Sikkim government.
At 8,586m, Mt Kanchenjunga dominates the skyline—home to glaciers (18) and lakes (17), it can be accessed both from Sikkim and Nepal. Mt Kanchenjunga is said to be the “abode of the Gods” and climbing the peak from the Sikkim side is banned on both religious and cultural grounds. The area around the mountain has been declared the Khangchendzonga National Park (KNP), and most treks lie within its 1,784 sq. km area.
If you want a near constant view of the Kanchenjunga, try the Singalila Ridge trek. This ridge sweeps down from the icy heights of the mountain itself, and the second day of the trek is a near vertical ascent through the staggeringly beautiful KNP, but I barely noticed my surroundings, the sudden and brutal ascent bringing on mild altitude sickness. This climb gets you to the high-altitude outpost of Sandakphu—local lore holds that the Kanchenjunga and its surrounding ranges resemble a sleeping Buddha from that point. Once you’re there, the rest of the trek is fairly straightforward—the terrain is almost flat. There are tea houses on the route, but they are more like shacks, decrepit and untended. I would vote for camping out any day, but do watch out for the gigantic yaks.
If you prefer a gentler trek, more like a walk in the park amidst a variety of flora, try the Barsey Sanctuary trek. Wild orchids of every variety are draped on trees, rhododendrons in shades of red and pink, along with white magnolia flowers, add splashes of colour to the dense green hillsides. At a height of 2,000-4,100m, this sanctuary, spread over 10 sq. km, is home to several species of rhododendron, primula, magnolia, oaks and pine. By way of excitement, you get to cross the Singshore bridge, the second highest bridge in Asia, and from Phoktey Dara, you can see the Everest range in the distance. There are many quaint lodges at Barsey and Hilley should you want to avoid camping.
The most popular trek in Sikkim, the one that gets you so close that you are just 9km away from the Kanchenjunga, is the Dzongri Goecha La trek. The trail’s gnarled and ancient trees, with tough ferns hugging them, and the sodden carpet of fallen leaves seem straight out of Lord Of The Rings and Avatar. The walking trail has planks of wood laid across the path. Once you get to Yuksom, get an early start—the first day will be a long walk into the KNP. Leeches abound in summer at this height, so we chose to stop higher, but that made for a very long first day, with 9 hours of walking, not recommended for first timers. En route, to Deurali, you are “rewarded” with views of snow-capped peaks: Kanchenjunga, Sinolchu, Kabru, Pandim, Jopuno, Kokthang, Narsing and Talung.
Getting to Dzongri takes three-four days of straight uphill walking. The campsites in Dzongri are on nearly flat land and many guides offer a day of rest here, allowing you to pull out a book and laze in the high-altitude meadow, drinking gallons of hot beverages. If you care to take a stroll, you may meet, as we did, a group that was spending a week at Dzongri to observe butterflies.
Sunrise on the Kanchenjunga is early, so you have to be off by 3am and climb another 300m uphill for the vantage point. The trek from Dzongri to Goecha La is tough, and if the weather is wet, most people prefer to turn back from here. But experiencing Goecha La is a step up—it’s a high-altitude mountain pass (4,940m), and the base to climb higher up the Kanchenjunga.
You should also spend a few days in Gangtok, the capital that was declared the cleanest city by the Union tourism ministry last year. You will be pleasantly surprised by how orderly and well maintained it is, much like its wild side.