At 5 am, Kanchenjunga wakes under a blanket of saffron clouds. The sky is an unnatural shade of pink, but the air tastes cold and clean, and is a welcome change from the grey stuff back in Delhi. Admittedly, I’m hungover and sore from having lost three games of Mahjong. My hosts in Gangtok, in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, have me on a diet of momos and Mahjong – a combination which inevitably leads to beer, midnight conversations, and more beer.
Kanchenjunga, with its white-blue snow-capped peak, is a sight I can’t imagine taking for granted. I’ve seen it for close to a fortnight from my balcony, yet every day it seems new. When I ask my hosts whether they’ve grown bored of it (or rather, become immune to its daily charm), they admit they have, but stress that it is a pretty sight nonetheless.
Gangtok, unlike most state capitals, is quietly vibrant. And Sikkimese people are equally matched to their environment. They appear to have their lives in perfect balance: their work, their willingness to do more for their community, their sense of identity – everything looks and feels ‘zen’, without being stunted by the woes of modernization. It isn’t that the city of 170,000 isn’t modernized, mind you – on the contrary: there are cable cars, a newly-constructed airport that has been called an engineering marvel, and all the hole-in-the-wall eateries and bars that come with a youth best described as ‘hipster.’ To my understanding, this sense of serenity is an outlook thing: being boastful and loud and conceited just isn’t something that one does here.
Even the mall road MG Marg – typically chaotic in all Indian hill stations – is quiet, owing to the fact the road is pedestrian only. It still hosts the usual suspects – the handicraft and souvenir shops, restaurants and cafes – but it is clean and comfortably walkable (which is to say, when it rains, its slate paths glisten). As one shops for local Temi teas, and baku dresses, the smell of steamed momos fills the air as the sound from busy kitchens where they’re made echoes softly in the background.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sikkim is that it is India’s only ‘all-organic’ state. Since it is completely landlocked (until six months ago there were no trains or planes to Sikkim) the government took the decision to farm without chemical pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, it now boasts the sweetest, freshest vegetables. So much so that when I tasted sauteed bamboo, I thought I was eating mushrooms – they tasted nothing like the bamboo shoots I was used to fishing out in my takeaway.
By the time the sun sets in Gangtok, and shops prepare to close their doors, and children come home from their afternoon football practice (a favourite sport in these parts), evening kitchens are in full swing, bars are (loosely) packed, and casinos are alive with optimists.
Gangtok is idyllic. Not just because the clouds descend here, or because of the way the neon lights in MG Marg shine off the wet ground, or because it’s a non-smoking, non-littering city. Rather because it has somehow managed to carve out a niche for itself in being both true to its roots and being Indian. When Sikkim became part of India in 1975, who would have thought that people would be drinking Dansberg beer alongside tongba and eating momos along with dosas? Today, Sikkim is being promoted as a must-visit state in the northeast, and there’s never been a better time to visit.
Gangtok is full of things to do. Here are a few must-do and must-see activities and attractions:
Cable cars, mountain bikes, and hikes
If you do nothing else in Gangtok, be sure to take in its vast expanses of forests and of waterfalls, especially the Seven Sisters Falls. This can be done through biking and hiking trails carved throughout the outskirts of the city, or via the network of cable cars that zig-zags its way through the city.
Tsuk La Khang Monastery
Formerly part of the royal family’s estate, this palatial monastery is less than five kilometres from the city. It dates from the late 1800s and, apart from being home to a wealth of artwork, it also hosts Buddhist festivals throughout the year.
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The NIT was founded in 1958 by the Dalai Lama. Apart from being a research institution, the NIT hosts a one-of-a-kind Tibetan Buddhist museum. The curated collection contains everything from thangkas (painted scrolls) to an 11th-century holy manuscript written on a palm leaf.
Built in the 1700s, this monastery is home to the 17th Karmapa – the head of the Kyagu School of Buddhism. It is also Sikkim’s largest monastery and has a golden stupa, a college, and ceremonial halls within its walls.
Top image: Ankur P/Flickr
Article by Akanksha Singh