After Calcutta or Delhi, or any other whirlwind Indian city, Sikkim is like a peaceful, lulling hammock waiting to cradle weary travellers. The air is cleaner, the people more retiring, and the rice terraces, with fluttery prayer flags and rhododendron bushes, are reminiscent of Tibet.
It hardly feels like India at all.
Sikkim is the tiny landlocked nub of north-east India covered by the Himalayas. The easiest way to get here is to fly from Calcutta and drive from teeny Bagdogra Airport.
Sikkim is sandwiched against Nepal and Tibet so requires a separate entry Visa. And don’t make the mistake of calling its residents Indian. ‘No ma’am, we’re Sikkimese,’ they correct me in their soft lilt.
Most Western tourists visit during the Indian summer, when the climate is warm, balmy and dry. Only the more intrepid (or impatient), brave the monsoons while making the four-hour climb to the mountain peaks.
But we are determined. Our journey is cut short one hour into the four-hour climb to a beautiful mountain-top town in West Sikkim called Pelling, which at 2,150m above sea level, is kissed by clouds. A chunk of carriageway breaks away, slides down the mountain and with no way to reverse, we have to wait for gangs of lethargic repairmen to rebuild the road in front of us.
As the queue of dusty traffic stands still and heat presses down on our chests, someone hands around coconuts with straws. Another sets up an impromptu stall selling old rice studded with midges and cigarettes are handed about. The sense of community is overwhelming.
The pop-up market gently dissolves again when we’re off, an hour later. Darkness blankets the single-lane road with a sheer drop. Rain pelts the windscreen and we’re very happy when we reach the safety of the hilltop Elgin Mount Pandim hotel.
The next morning, we learn from the Sikkimese host and her British husband that another hunk of mountain slid away, taking with it a home and nine of its ten family members. A trail of 200 locals from neighbouring villages trek to the wreckage wearing identical silver Wellington boots, carrying spades. The sole survivor is a grandmother.
The incident says more about Pelling than its snow-capped peaks or the Sangay Waterfall, which splits dramatically into forked lightning falls. Even mid-tragedy, we are made welcome. We spend hours sipping flowery yellow Darjeeling tea on a threadbare hotel sofa, gazing at the mountains.
Eight hours east, along the wormy roads is Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok with an altogether different personality. The drive is educational. Outside the car window, endless mountain-sides and alpine forests pass, while inside, our guide explains Sikkim’s inner-workings: how monks (or lamas), spend three years, three months and three days in solitary confinement before they are fully-fledged holymen; how a young boy’s greatest honour is to be packed off to a monastery for life.
As we near Gangtok, crowds thicken. A woman collects grass in a basket strapped to her head. Gaggles of Tibetan monks in burnt orange robes and shaved heads stare. I am blonde, white and a rare sight, visiting at this time of year.
The monastery we visit is atop a long, steep hill covered with stalls selling plastic necklaces, topaz rings and packets of prayer flags. At this altitude, the path leaves us breathless.
At the top is the enormous, fort-like Rumtek monastery, built in the 16th century by an exiled Karmapa, or head of a Tibetan Buddhist school. We remove our sandals to enter, then take care not to point our toes at the Buddha – the ultimate affront.
No one notices us. They are hanging paper lanterns, dusting off masks and fabric. Tomorrow is a senior lama’s 27th birthday but he’s stuck in Delhi and can’t return for ‘political reasons,’ a monk explains vaguely. We later learn two other lamas are challenging him to the role of chief.
Rumtek has historically been known for its sectarian violence. Soldiers are said to patrol, but we don’t see any. The party preparations continue regardless.
Our guide ushers us to a corrugated- roofed shack outside. We stop for dhal and momos (suety dumplings), washed down with syrupy orangeade that tastes of aniseed.
Then it’s off again, this time to Namgyal, an institute of Tibetology with display cabinets of weapons made from human thigh bones and century-old skulls.
Darjeeling – our third and final stop, in neighbouring West Bengal, is the most famous. It’s best known for its blue toy train with an intricately-painted ceiling and a track that slugs at trotting pace from Darjeeling to Ghum, India’s highest station, on its way back down to the hot plains below.
But I can’t help but feel spoiled by Pelling. Darjeeling’s views are stupendous yet, unlike Pelling, it is also blotted by electricity pylons, cluttered buildings and creams of smog that hang over the town during our visit. Cars hoot and jostle. It lacks Pelling’s grace and Gangtok’s quiet welcome.
It’s a rude shove back into ‘Indian India’. In its raw, obtrusive, but nonetheless breath-snatching glory.