In the land of the Chogyals – part 2

Part 1

We were very close to the territory of Mt Kanchenjunga, but we couldn’t see any of the members of its family from Okhrey because they were hidden behind the hills around us. It was as if they were calling us to say “just a bit more and we’re waiting for you round the corner!”. That was how we felt as we moved closer to Hilley. The road to Hilley went through dense forests of Rhododendron trees (known as Guras in local language). How beautiful must be these rides during the months of March and April when flowers are in full bloom. As Hilley came closer, members of the KanchenJunga family started peeping out in the backdrop of the crystal blue sky.

Mt Pandim – Okhrey

We got down at the gate of Varsey Rhododendron sanctuary. The guard at the gate checked our identities and after paying the nominal fees, we were allowed to enter the sanctuary. The trail was an easy slope that went up gradually from Hilley right up to Varsey through dense forests of bamboo, Rhododendron and other trees. This sanctuary is the home of the rare species of Himalayan Red Panda, but one has to be extremely lucky to get glimpse of these creatures and we were certainly not so. Though one gets to see glimpses of the Kanchenjunga range at Hilley, but they don’t make an appearance during the entire walk of 4.5 kms till one reaches Varsey.

Varsey Rhododendron sanctuary

On our way, we met the caretaker of Guras Kunj (our place of stay at Varsey), who was coming down the trail to go to the local markets of Hilley to get some raw materials, spices and other items for cooking. He asked whether we were okay to have egg curry for the lunch and chicken for dinner. A question to which we answered in the affirmative gladly. Then came the disclaimer “It will take about 2-3 hours for me to get back and I hope you won’t mind helping me with the cooking as I’m a loner in the huts of Guras Kunj!”. As he asked the same question repeatedly, a strong odour of alcohol explained the drooling accent and the frequency. We already knew that facilities were merely basic at the tourist hut at Varsey, but actually it would turn out to be much worse. But we didn’t care much at that moment and moved on. Finally, the forests yielded to an open grassland and we saw the tourist hut. It was located beautifully, but wore a deserted look. Once we turned our heads to the left, we were awestruck with a wide panoramic view of the Kanchenjunga range (“The sleeping Buddha” as it is called in its entirety).

The Sleeping Budhha – the Kanchenjunga range, Varsey

Camera shutters went on a spree. The sky was crystal clear with mild traces of cloud floating way above the huge Kanchenjunga massif. Though it was still afternoon and the sun was high up in the sky, the chill around was quite strong, but the warmth was pleasant, which made it comfortable. We realized that this to go soon after the sun goes down. We went inside the tourist hut to have a look at the rooms, but were disappointed. There was no arrangement of hot water, so bathing was out of question. Even the blankets were not enough to keep us warm even if we went to sleep with all our warm clothes on. But that’s something to worry at night when the time comes. The caretaker returned with the raw materials and cooking ensued. We were already starving and finally, some of our family members had to lend their hands to have the food ready. By the time we were at the dining table, we were starving and the warm egg curry & rice vanished in no time! Once the hunger was satiated, the entire evening was at our disposal and we went out to venture the nearby pastures and slopes. Lines of hills covered by dense forests gradually went down the valley till they rose again on the other side of it and ultimately merged into the thick layer of snow and glacier coming down the slopes of majestic Himalayan peaks.

Mt Kanchenjunga at sunset – Varsey

Evening sun started to turn yellow as the sun started its journey to the west. It was the time of the day when colors add to the drama that gets played out on the snow-clad peaks. Every moment appears like a unfolding scene. Successive shots of camera gives a different shade of color.

The Kanchenjunga range at sunset – Varsey

In front of our eyes, the peaks started to turn gold and then red. Sunlight disappeared from everywhere in the nearby hills and the forests posed nothing more than a dark outline but red sunlight still washed the slopes of the Himalayan peaks. Mt Kanchenjunga truly appeared as the leader of all wearing the crown.

Mt Kanchenjunga at sunset – Varsey

As the sun went down, the wind chill forced us inside the tourist hut. There wasn’t anything to do in the darkness except to wait for dinner and after that, we reclined into our blankets. We all shivered throughout the night and sleep was a distant dream. It was instantly decided that we were to go down to Okhrey, the next morning as opposed to staying at this place for another night, given that Kanchenjunga obliged us with the views on the first day itself.


Mt Kanchenjunga at sunrise – Varsey


Stars still studded the sky when we woke up early in the next morning. Our endurance in the biting cold and patience was rewarded when the sun came out of the previous night’s sleep. After the morning sunset, we got ourselves fresh and headed down to Hilley and then a jeep took us to Okhrey where we spent the next night.

The next day we were headed for another picturesque town in West Sikkim, Bermiok. It is another town at the foothills of Kanchenjunga and we enjoyed our stay here at the comfortable hotel.


The next day, a short excursion took us to Singshore bridge, the highest suspension bridge in Asia.

Singshore bridge

From Bermiok, out next stop was Borong in South Sikkim. One the way, we went through Rabangla, which has a park with a huge ornate statue of Lord Budhha.


Borong was a cosy stay nestled in the hills of South Sikkim. The couple of days we stayed there were highlighted by morning and evening walks down the mountain roads. It was 31st December, 2015 and the year’s last evening ended with a wonderful sunset amidst the Himalayas.

Borong at sunset

Goodbye Sikkim, but its only a mater of time till we meet again!

Part 1

In the land of the Chogyals – part 1

Part 2

My stay in Delhi region meant proximity to the Western Himalayas. Hence, most of my Himalayan escapades has been to the regions of Garhwal, Kumaon and the state of Himachal Pradesh. My counterparts in Kolkata did the other way round as for them, visiting the mountains of North Bengal and Sikkim were easier. As a result, the likes of Kedarnath, Neelkanth, Chaukhamba, Trishul, Nanda Devi, Panchachuli and other Western Himalayan peaks were more familiar to me. Over the years, I’ve watched them with awe but one peak has stayed out of my views, Mt Kanchenjunga (or Mt KangchenDzonga, as some call it). It is the third highest peak in the world after Mt Everest and Mt K2 (Mt Godwin Austin). In my childhood and during my college days, I’ve had a brief view of it, but it was from a long distance from the hill station of Darjeeling. The state of Sikkim, in a way, lies at the footsteps of this great mountain.

Sikkim has been an independent kingdom since long, nestled between the neighboring kingdoms of Nepal and Bhutan in its western and eastern frontiers and India lying at its South and Tibet on its northern frontiers. It has been subject to invasions from these kingdoms. While they came to conquer or overrun its territories, they also left their influence in its culture and religion. The British also looked at it as a transit route to build trading relations with Tibet. An offshoot of the ancient silk route (a long trading route that originated in China, ran through the upper regions of the Himalayas into the markets of Central Asia) also passed through Eastern Sikkim. Over the years, the British had a sweet and sour relationship with the Chogyals (the kings) of Sikkim.  They protected the kingdom by entering into treaties and defending them from the Gorkha invasions from Nepal, but to the other extreme, they ended up arresting the Chogyal and his wife when they came to Kolkata for negotiation. Later on, the relations improved somewhat and during the reign of Sidkeong Tulku, Sikkim obtained sovereignty from the British Monarch King George. Guarantees of Sikkim’s independence were later transferred to the Indian government in 1947 with India’s independence from the British rule. India controlled its defense affairs. During the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, conflicts occurred at the Nathula pass (one of the passages to Tibet) and after the war, the route was closed. Later on, in 1975, Sikkim merged with the Indian union after a referendum.

First time we planned to visit Sikkim in 2008 but it was aborted at the last moment due to some emergency. After that, we visited many places in the Himalayas but Sikkim evaded us until the winters of 2015. As a part of our 2 week vacation towards the year-end, we planned to visit Sikkim for a week, followed by another week at my home town Kolkata. Two families (mine and my brother in law’s) embarked for Sikkim. They started a day earlier and stayed at Darjeeling for a couple of nights. We started a day later from Delhi by morning flight. Winter was starting to take its grip on Delhi. As we left our home for the airport, the air was chilling. Fortunately, there wasn’t any fog and that meant, our flight was on time. As soon as we reached heights, the Himalayas appeared on the northern horizon on a clear sky. We could easily identify the peaks of the Garhwal and Kumaon regions. they gradually gave way to the Nepal Himalayas. Somewhere, amidst these high peaks, Mt Everest must have made its appearance but I couldn’t identify it. Finally, Mt Kanchenjunga made its appearance with its siblings. The plane started its descent right after that and we touched Bagdogra airport at about 12 PM.

Bagdogra is a small airport. We went towards a counter where passengers were being allotted pre-paid cabs for different destinations into the Himalayan towns. We had to go towards Teesta Bazar and onward to a place called Bara Mangwa, a quiet place nestled in the hills around Kalimpong. However, we weren’t lucky and ultimately, we had to take cab for Siliguri and from there, we boarded another and by the time we were on our way towards Bara Mangwa, the sun was already bidding goodbye. After Teesta bazar, we turned left to move upwards. By that time, it was pitch dark and the cab was climbing the narrow roads with just its headlights on. We reached the lodge at around 7 PM. After dinner, we quickly resigned to our blankets and immediately sleep took control of us.

The next morning, we woke up to bright sunshine with clear skies.

Bara Mangwa

The home stay at Bara Mangwa was cosy, but we didn’t have enough time to enjoy, given the late hours we reached yesterday. Today, we had to leave early for Jorthang, an important junction in Sikkim. My brother-in-law’s family would meet us there and together, we were to start for Okhrey, a quiet town in West Sikkim. That was to be our destination for the day. After breakfast, we took a stroll nearby as we waited for our vehicle to arrive.

Bara Mangwa

I hoped to visit an orange orchard, but I was told that the fruits were already plucked from the trees for the season. The chill of the morning breeze reminded us of our proximity to the Himalayas. Finally, we started off for Okhrey. On our way down, we visited an orange orchard, where, luckily, some of the trees still bore the fruits.


The plush green trees were dotted with oranges all around us. It was the first time in my life, I was seeing oranges in the trees. Like apple in the Western Himalayas, orange is a distinctive fruit in its Eastern flanks. The whole region consisting of Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and the neighboring kingdom of Bhutan is famous for oranges and its derivative products. We then moved along till we reached Teesta Bazaar. From there, we had to turn left, but we went towards right to reach the confluence of the rivers Teesta and Rangeet, the two main rivers of Sikkim.

Confluence of Teesta and Rangeet rivers

Teesta originates from the glaciers of Tibet in the regions north of Sikkim, then it flows down towards Darjeeling. Rangeet has its origin in West Sikkim and flows till it merges with Teesta near Teesta Bazaar, which then flows down the slopes to reach the plains of West Bengal before entering Bangladesh. It was a picturesque place with crystal clear waters of both the rivers flowing through the gorges of the mountains which are covered with dense green forests on their slopes. After spending sometime at the confluence, we continued our journey to Melli, which is a town on the border between the states of West Bengal and Sikkim. It is one of the towns that exist in both the states. The Jawaharlal Nehru bridge connects the two parts of it that lie along the two banks of Teesta. After crossing the bridge, we formally entered the state of Sikkim and as soon as we entered, we were greeted with horrendous roads. This was a surprise to me as roads in Sikkim are normally good (except its Northern part which was ravaged by a strong earthquake a couple of years ago and was still recovering from it). Apparently, the road was being widened by blasting the rocks in the adjoining slopes. These are causes of environmental concern as the Himalayas in general, are a fragile ecosystem. Especially, in these Eastern parts of it, rainfall is abundant and every monsoon wrecks havoc in the hills. Blasting in these areas will make the rocks even more unstable. We finally reached the town of Jorthang at around 1 PM and met with my brother-in-law’s family.

Jorthang is an important junction in this region which roads leading to different parts of Sikkim from here. I found it to be a bustling town. We were at the bus stand. The market nearby was flooded with oranges. We didn’t wait long and boarded a jeep for Okhrey. After Jorthang, as the jeep climbed the serpentine mountain roads, the wind chill increased. We reached our stay at Okhrey by the evening. The sun was still out. This was our base, from where we would be ascending to Varsey the next day. We were nearing the reaches of Mt Kanchenjunga. It was just another night and we’d at her doorsteps. Our plan was to stay at Varsey for two nights, but the owner of the lodge at Okhrey advised us not to stay there for more than a night as the facilities weren’t very good. But, who cares, we don’t luxury in the mountains as long as basic amenities like warm water and blankets are provided. But later on we realized that his words were correct to their letters. As darkness wore on, the mountain slopes on the left lit up with innumerable lights and we were told, that these were the lights of Darjeeling. When I woke up the next day, darkness was giving its way to soft daylight, which was spreading its arms gradually, but the sun was yet to rise. The sky was illuminated with soft daylight beyond the dark outlines of hills in front. Gradually, the soft blue started to acquire a tinge of red as if someone sprayed a patch of vermilion and sun started peeping out.


The shutters kept clicking on as the sun made its appearance in the sky. After sometime, we were ready after our morning duties to head towards Hilley, a town that is a few kilometers ahead of Okhrey. It was the place from where our short trek to Varsey was to begin.

Part 2