Sikkim 101 for Backpackers

Sikkim 101 for Backpackers

- 16 mins

Host to Kanchenjunga, the world’s third-highest mountain peak and the endangered Red Panda, Sikkim is a state in northeastern India. Nestled between Nepal, Tibet (China), Bhutan and West Bengal (India), the state offers a smorgasbord of cultures and cuisines. That said, it’s hardly surprising that the old spice route meanders through western Sikkim, connecting Lhasa with the ports of Bengal. Although the latter could also be attributed to cardamom (kali elaichi), a perennial herb native to Sikkim, which the state is the second-largest producer of, globally. Lastly, having been to and lived in India, all my life, I can confidently say Sikkim is one of the cleanest & safest regions in India, making it ideal for first-time backpackers.

Brief History

  • 17th century: The Kingdom of Sikkim is founded by the Namgyal dynasty and ruled by Buddhist priest-kings known as the Chogyal.
  • 1890: Sikkim becomes a princely state of British India.
  • 1947: Sikkim continues its protectorate status with the Union of India, post-Indian-independence.
  • 1973: Anti-royalist riots take place in front of the Chogyal's palace, by Nepalis seeking greater representation.
  • 1975: Referendum leads to the deposition of the monarchy and Sikkim joins India as its 22nd state.

Languages

  • Official: English, Nepali, Sikkimese/Bhotia and Lepcha
  • Though Hindi and Nepali share the same script (Devanagari), they are not mutually intelligible. Yet, most people in Sikkim can understand and speak Hindi.

Ethnicity

  • Nepalis: Migrated in large numbers (from Nepal) and soon became the dominant community
  • Bhutias: People of Tibetan origin. Major inhabitants in Northern Sikkim.
  • Lepchas: Original inhabitants of Sikkim

Food

  • Tibetan/Nepali dishes (mostly consumed during winter)
    • Thukpa: Noodle soup, rich in spices and vegetables. Usually contains some form of meat. Common variations: Thenthuk and Gyathuk
    • Momos: Steamed or fried dumplings, usually with a meat filling.
    • Saadheko: Spicy marinated chicken salad.
    • Gundruk Soup: A soup made from Gundruk, a fermented leafy green vegetable.
    • Sinki : A fermented radish tap-root product, traditionally consumed as a base for soup and as a pickle. Eerily similar to Kimchi.
  • While pork and beef are pretty common, finding vegetarian dishes is equally easy.
  • Staple: Dal-Bhat with Subzi. Rice is a lot more common than wheat (rice) possibly due to greater carb content and proximity to West Bengal, India’s largest producer of Rice.
  • Good places to eat in Gangtok
    • Hamro Bhansa Ghar, Nimtho (Nepali)
    • Taste of Tibet
    • Dragon Wok (Chinese & Japanese)

Buddhism in Sikkim

  • Bayul Demojong (Sikkim), is the most sacred Land in the Himalayas as per the belief of the Northern Buddhists and various religious texts.
  • Sikkim was blessed by Guru Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist saint who visited Sikkim in the 8th century and consecrated the land.
  • However, Buddhism is said to have reached Sikkim only in the 17th century with the arrival of three Tibetan monks viz. Rigdzin Goedki Demthruchen, Mon Kathok Sonam Gyaltshen & Rigdzin Legden Je at Yuksom. Together, they established a Buddhist monastery.
  • In 1642 they crowned Phuntsog Namgyal as the first monarch of Sikkim and gave him the title of Chogyal, or Dharma Raja.
  • The faith became popular through its royal patronage and soon many villages had their own monastery.
  • Today Sikkim has over 200 monasteries.

Major monasteries

  • Rumtek Monastery, 20Km from Gangtok
  • Lingdum/Ranka Monastery, 17Km from Gangtok
  • Phodong Monastery, 28Km from Gangtok
  • Ralang Monastery, 10Km from Ravangla
  • Tsuklakhang Monastery, Royal Palace, Gangtok
  • Enchey Monastery, Gangtok
  • Tashiding Monastery, 35Km from Ravangla


Reaching Sikkim


Gangtok

Getting Around

Exploring Gangtok on an MTB


North Sikkim

3D/2N Shared-cab Package Itinerary

  • Day 1
    • Gangtok (10am) - Chungthang - Lachung (stay)
  • Day 2
    • Pre-lunch : Lachung (6am) - Yumthang Valley [12,139ft] - Zero Point - Lachung [15,300ft]
    • Post-lunch : Lachung - Chungthang - Lachen (stay)
  • Day 3
    • Pre-lunch : Lachen (5am) - Kala Patthar - Gurdongmer Lake [16,910ft] - Lachen
    • Post-lunch : Lachen - Chungthang - Gangtok (7pm)
  • This itinerary is idealistic and depends on the level of snowfall.
  • Some drivers might switch up Day 2 and 3 itineraries by visiting Lachen and then Lachung, depending upon the weather.
  • Areas beyond Lachen & Lachung are heavily militarized since the Indo-China border is only a few miles away.


East Sikkim

Zuluk and Silk Route

Tsomgo Lake and Nathula

  • Time Needed : 1D
  • A Protected Area Permit is required to visit these places, due to their proximity to the Chinese border
  • Tsomgo/Chhangu Lake [12,313ft]
    • Glacial lake, 40 km from Gangtok.
    • Remains frozen during the winter season.
    • You can also ride on the back of a Yak for INR 300
  • Baba Mandir
    • An old temple dedicated to Baba Harbhajan Singh, a Sepoy in the 23rd Regiment, who died in 1962 near the Nathu La during Indo – China war.
  • Nathula Pass [14,450ft]
    • Located on the Indo-Tibetan border crossing of the Old Silk Route, it is one of the three open trading posts between India and China.
    • Plays a key role in the Sino-Indian Trade and also serves as an official Border Personnel Meeting(BPM) Point.
    • May get cordoned off by the Indian Army in event of heavy snowfall or for other security reasons.


West Sikkim

Itinerary

Day 1: Gangtok - Ravangla - Pelling

Day 2: Pelling sightseeing

Day 3: Pelling - Gangtok/Siliguri


Darjeeling

Itinerary

Day 1 :

Day 2:

  • Wake up early to catch the sunrise and a glimpse of Kanchenjunga at Tiger Hill. Since Tiger Hill is 10km from Darjeeling and requires a permit, book your taxi in advance.
  • Alternatively, if you don’t want to get up at 4am or shell out INR1500 on the cab to Tiger Hill, walk to the Kanchenjunga View Point down Mall Road
  • Next, queue up outside Keventers for breakfast with a view in a century-old cafe
  • Get a cab at Gandhi Road and visit a tea garden (Happy Valley is the closest) and the Ropeway. I was lucky to meet 6 other backpackers at my hostel and we ended up pooling the cab at INR 200 per person, with INR 1400 being on the expensive side, but you could bargain.
  • Get lunch, buy some tea at Golden Tips, pack your bags and hop on a shared-cab back to Siliguri. It took us about 4hrs to reach Siliguri, with an hour to spare before my train.
  • If you’ve still got time on your hands, then check out the Peace Pagoda and the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway (Toy Train). At INR 1500, I found the latter to be too expensive and skipped it.


Tips and hacks

Carry…

Shared-cab hacks

Cost


Souvenirs and things you should buy

Buddhist souvenirs :

  • Colourful Prayer Flags (great for tying on bikes or behind car windshields)
  • Miniature Prayer/Mani Wheels
  • Lucky Charms, Pendants and Key Chains
  • Cham Dance masks and robes
  • Singing Bowls
  • Common symbols: Om mani padme hum, Ashtamangala, Zodiac signs

Handicrafts & Handlooms

  • Tibetan Yak Wool shawls, scarfs and carpets
  • Sikkimese Ceramic cups
  • Thangka Paintings

Edibles

  • Darjeeling Tea (usually brewed and not boiled)
  • Wine (Arucha Peach & Rhododendron)
  • Dalle Khursani (Chilli) Paste and Pickle

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