The snow-capped mountains, valleys and sacred lakes of the Indian state make it feel like the Shangri-la of the Himalayas
If there is such a thing as a Himalayan Shangri-la, Sikkim is it.
Snow-dusted mountains loom over the sacred lakes, abysses and rice-terraced valleys of India's Sikkim, a former Buddhist kingdom lost in time.
I am at one such sacred lake, Tsomgo, perched at an altitude of 3,750m along an old Silk Road trading route between India and China's Tibet.
So hallowed is the lake that lamas in the past would forecast the future by studying its changing colours.
To be at this remote lake is to appreciate the peculiar circumstances of Sikkim, once an independent monarchy until it was brought into India's fold in 1975.
Surrounded by China, Nepal and Bhutan and previously ruled by chogyals (kings) since it was founded in the 17th century, the topography of Sikkim has long isolated it from the rest of the world yet bestowed upon it stunning physical assets.
It is a land defined by monumental mountains and lush valleys. From these mountains, melting snow from glaciers gush downwards, turning into crystal-clear rivers and lakes, carving out gorges and watering slopes and plains dotted with rich farmland.
Serrated peaks over 6,500m, many capped with eternal snow, soar into the sky.
This is the home of the majestic Kanchenjunga, the world's third highest peak at 8,586m, revered by the Sikkimese who call it Khangchendzonga (House of Five Treasures) and believe it contains holy relics. For this reason, climbing expeditions to Kanchenjunga stop short of its summit.
ROOF OF THE WORLD
On our three-hour drive to Tsomgo from Gangtok, Sikkim's capital, the jagged snowy mantle of Kanchenjunga is constantly within sight, its jagged snowy mantle a contrast to the brown and bare rugged rockface rising vertically on one side of the road and dropping down to a sheer ravine on the other.
The distance is only 40km but, as with much of Sikkim, our journey today and our travels over the next eight days will be slow because of the challenging terrain.
The road zig-zags over the mountain tops, so we enjoy superb vistas of high-alpine scenery above the treeline.
It is easy to feel on top of the world as we look out to mist-shrouded inky-blue mountains and valleys.
And despite the presence of numerous Indian army camps in the area, there is something magical about these high places.
It is early December and snow has yet to dust the mountain tops.
The air is cool and crisp as I walk around the kilometre-long sacred lake, festooned with prayer flags at one end, to enjoy the reflections of mountains and a temple on its mirror-like surface.
In a few weeks, the lake will freeze over but visitors will still keep coming to see it in its winter splendour.
Meanwhile, some of my travel companions decide to hop onto a gaily adorned yak for a bumpy ride around its perimeter.
Beyond the lake, towards the east, the road climbs tantalisingly up another 18km to the mountain pass of Nathu La, which marks the border between India and China.
For centuries, before the road was built, mules were deployed to carry goods between Sikkim and Tibet over the 4,267m-high pass.
After the 1962 Sino-Indian War, the pass was sealed off and army bases established to bolster security. It would be another 44 years before the pass was reopened to trade between the two sides again.
Trade apart, the opening of the pass in 2006 is a boon to Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims visiting shrines on either side of the border.
Driving to the border for a peep into Tibet is also alluring for tourists but, alas, this is for Indian nationals only.
Foreigners are barred and Lake Tsomgo is the furthest we can go in Eastern Sikkim.
CULTURE AND HIKING
There are no restrictions on where we can go inWest Sikkim, the state's cultural heartland and the hub for most of its hiking trails, thanks to its higher altitude.
It is here at historic Yoksum that the first king of Sikkim was crowned and the royal palace, now in ruins, established in Pelling.
The story goes that in the 17th century, three Red Hat lamas fled Tibet due to sectarian conflict to seek a safe haven in neighbouring Denzong or Valley of Rice, the original name for Sikkim.
Gathering in what is now Yoksum, which means "meeting place of the three holy ones", the lamas felt it was their mission to establish a Buddhist monarchy, which they did in 1642 when they installed as chogyal a descendant of a former Tibetan prince, Guru Tashi.
The site where the first chogyal was crowned at Norbugang Park in Yoksum is amazingly intact.
We walk in a vast woodland garden, adorned by numerous prayer flags, to a chorten or shrine.
Facing it is an outdoor stone platform - the Norbugang throne - backed by an ancient pine tree said to be from the time of the coronation.
The chorten is of special significance as it was built from materials collected from Sikkim and houses gifts from the indigenous Lepcha and Bhutia tribal people presented to their new king.
It is also in West Sikkim that we can view Kanchenjunga and the entire Himalayan mountain range that it shares with Nepal.
The views are especially magnificent in Pelling, an otherwise non-descript town strung along a lovely woodland ridge overlooking the peaks. Indeed, even our simple homestay, Norbulingka Retreat (firstname.lastname@example.org), has million-dollar views of Kanchenjunga from its rooms.
Apart from the Himalayas, the other pull in Pelling is the monastery at Pemayangtse or the Perfect Sublime Lotus, the second oldest in Sikkim.
Located at an altitude of 2,085m, the monastery is hemmed in by snow-capped peaks and is renowned for its carved tower representing life after death, painted by two lamas 170 years ago.
We arrive at dusk when a puja (religious ceremony) is about to wind down. Monks and novices, seated in rows facing each other, are chanting prayers, accompanied by cymbals and drums.
A WEALTH OF TEMPLES
From Pelling, we travel via the dramatic Kanchenjunga Falls, created from the melt waters of the mountain's glaciers and easily viewed by the roadside, to the wishing lake of Khecheopalri, another of Sikkim's high-altitude and holy lakes.
We hike up a hill through dense forest for a bird's eye view of the lake shaped, according to legend, like the footprint of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism and Sikkim's patron saint.
He had spent much time meditating in the area, bestowing the lake with sacred properties.
How widely revered Padmasambhava is among the Sikkimese is best witnessed at Samdruptse in South Sikkim.
Here, perched atop a dormant volcano that is the 2,134m Samdruptse Hill, also called a "wish fulfilling hill", is an enormous glittering 45m-high image of Padmasambhava sitting on a lotus plinth, visible for miles around (he was believed to have been born out of a lotus flower).
The statue draws a steady flow of pilgrims and it being Sunday when we visit, many of them are in traditional dress.
If, by now, you have the impression that life in Sikkim revolves around religion, it does.
Much of it centres around its 200 monasteries - no surprise as they are at the very root of Sikkim's cultural heritage.
At the same time, mega Hindu temples, such as the Siddeshwara Dham in South Sikkim, dot the landscape, due to the presence of a Nepalese community that makes up the majority of the population.
There is a side to Sikkim that may surprise visitors. It prides itself in being a green state with a ban on plastic carrier bags and foam packaging.
It is the only state in India to practise organic farming, first carried out by the sprawling Temi tea estate in Ravangla (www.sikkimtemitea.com) in the south.
Naturally, Sikkim is also big on eco-tourism.
Apart from trekking amid serene landscapes, there is, during the right season, white-water rafting, mountain biking, hang-gliding and nature walks in its national parks to seek out the endangered red panda, an unusual cat-like animal with a bear's face and a racoon's tail.
Adding to all this action is the vibrant nightlife in its capital Gangtok.
The city gives the impression of a hill station that is bursting at the seams. Rapid development took place after the state became part of India.
The capital enjoys a dramatic setting on a ridge leading down to the Ranipul river. On clear days, Kanchenjunga is visible.
Most of Gangtok's places of interest lie outside the city.
One of these is the Research Institute of Tibetology, a repository of Tibetan Buddhist culture, with a priceless collection of antiques, thangkas (paintings of deities) and rare books on Buddhism.
Just 500m downhill from here is a golden-tipped chorten that is thronged with worshippers spinning prayer wheels around its base.
Also nearby is the colourful Rumtek monastery, the largest in Sikkim.
Streets in Gangtok are steep and places of interest are spread out.
The main street is MG (Mahatma Gandhi) Marg, a promenade lined with hotels, banks, book stores, pharmacies and shops selling spices, sweets and souvenirs.
It is a great place to pick up well-crafted silver jewellery.
I remember the first time I visited Gangtok 15 years ago and how chaotic MG Marg was. Now, it is still the main road but it has been pedestrianised.
Today, it is a favourite among locals who come for a stroll to take in the cool evening air.
And along this promenade and around it are trendy pubs and clubs such as Cafe Live & Loud and Lounge 31A that are popular hangouts for the younger crowd who gather to drink, watch sports games or listen to live music.
But one of the greatest changes in Sikkim that have become a fillip for tourism are homestays that have popped up in many parts of the state, all with views of the soaring Himalayan range.
Examples are the cluster of eight homestays in Yakten Village (www.yaktenvillage.com) and the Waterfall Resort (www.rumtekhomestay.com), both in east Sikkim.
Geared towards giving visitors a taste of traditional Sikkimese hospitality and a glimpse of their way of life, the mostly Lepcha and Bhutia home owners also organise hikes and excursions to appreciate the beauty and serenity that are the essence of Sikkim.
• Tan Chung Lee is a freelance travel writer.
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.