Sikkim – The mountain kingdom. The Land of the mighty Kangchendzonga.
Tucked away in a corner of India on the borders of Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal, this is a gateway to the Himalayas.
Here the birdsongs begin much before dawn and go on until after dusk frenetically, in contrast to the sense of timelessness that emanates in these mountains.
When the mountains call, you drop everything and go. I did just that recently and here are my notes from the road from the Art of Bicycle Trips mission to Bike Sikkim – from Gangtok to Darjeeling – over the course of ten days with ten impressive women.
On arrival at Bagdogra, the greenery of the plains that surrounds is striking. We were getting tantalisingly close to some of the world’s tallest mountain peaks and the air was charged with energy and anticipation. The drive to Gangtok took us from the plains through to the hills where the valleys towered all around as the River Teesta snaked its way through. The jade of the forests and the emeralds of the waters enroute were mesmerising.
Soon enough, we were in Gangtok, walking on the highway to Tibet, under the cool shade of the poplars and oaks. Shortly after, we got on our Giant mountain bikes and went riding around Gangtok. The traffic was concentrated around the town’s main thoroughfares. The roads were an assortment of inclines; switchbacks started making their appearances right from the start.
The mountainous terrain brought with it dramatic weather – as always, and the peaks were truant at first – they remained hidden under a veil of mist initially. Then, slowly, as we went about organising the final details for this epic cycling trip of Sikkim, we were treated to majestic views of Mt. Siniolchu and Mt. Kangchendzonga. Breathtaking!
There is nothing that compares to cycling along on a seldom used forest road, only to be greeted, out of the blue, by the tranquil melancholy of these magnificent Himalayan peaks. The people of Sikkim consider Kangchendzonga as a guardian deity. The mountain provides everything they need and is worshipped – in line with their ancestral belief that all of nature is holy.
In Gangtok, the Enchey Monastery, the Do-Drul Chorten, the Institute of Tibetology and Directorate of Handicrafts and Handloom are well worth a visit. Having biked to Enchey Gompa, Ganesh Tok and Hanuman Tok, we left from Gangtok to Rumtek satisfied in the knowledge that we had conquered Gangtok’s highest point by bike. The ride was on!
The route from Gangtok to Rumtek is all downhill with potholes more apparent than the road in several places. The landscape slowly transformed from that of the hustle and bustle of Gangtok to that of evergreen forests studded with gushing streams interspersed along which where splendid terraces of paddy fields – vivid in both appearance and hue.
Prayers flags fluttered in the breeze as we cycled on to the hotel where we our friendly hosts greeted us on arrival with glasses of delicious ‘lassi’ i.e., sweet yoghurt smoothies. The best day of riding so far!
At Rumtek, a visit to the Rumtek Monastery is highly recommended. The colourful prayer flags contrast the backdrop of the hills splendidly here.
The next morning, clear skies greeted us with the season’s first snow on the mountain peaks in front of us. Pumped, we set out early on towards Temi Tea Gardens. It was smooth going on the roads in this section and the downhill that followed was speedy and exhilarating.
We had the first flat tyre of the trip here in this section of the ride. It was patched up real quick as everyone took the opportunity to click away and before we knew it, we were on the uphill to Tarku.
Almost everyone’s’ appetite for riding was fully satiated by the time we stopped for lunch at Tarku. Three ladies from the group however were ready for more. So with them free-wheeling it up behind us from Tarku to Temi, we went on to visit the organic Temi Tea Garden.
Shortly after the end of our tour at the tea plantation, the three remaining ladies accomplished their Peak to Peak ride having ridden all the way from their hotel at Rumtek to the hotel at Temi. The best day of riding, again!
We got another early start to ride from Temi to Yuksom. With the lower part of the valley now far below us, we were surrounded by endless slopes of the tea gardens. The carpet of tea soon gave way to tropical and then alpine forests. The roads were woven through it all with vertical mountain faces hanging over us and dropping off below us at some points.
As we pedalled through, clouds rolled in around us over the peaks and valleys, parting time and again as the sun burned through the haze of morning. The route repeatedly climbed gently uphill after which it dipped nicely taking us through the lush countryside almost as if it were a joyride.
Rain almost spoiled the whole show but it cleared up quickly and we got back on our bikes to zoom through quaint little towns where the children and the adults stopped to smile, shout even, and wave goodbye. The going got serious as we started the climb to Tashiding, the steep inclines challenging even the best. The best day of riding, yet again!
After a well-earned snack break, we visited the Tashiding monastery before driving over to our hotel at Yuksom. The next day being a rest day, we went out for a walk around Yuksom, up to Dubdi Monastery and also to the Coronation Throne and the Bazaar street before calling it a day and kicking back with some beers.
Not riding all day felt strange however and the next day we were all itching to go. With another early start we bid goodbye to Yuksom and headed on to Pelling wondering what lay in store for us there. Mt. Kabru gave us a glorious farewell although the other mountain peaks were hidden behind the clouds. The peaks made show-stopping appearances as we started gaining speed and heading downhill. The roads stretched on endlessly below our feet.
The mountain sides gave way to rivers and waterfalls that poured down from the higher slopes along the way. Those heading from Yuksom to Pelling should keep an eye out for Kangchendzonga Falls, it is an absolute treat.
The valleys gradually opened up as we cycled through on smooth terrain. As we approached Pelling it looked as if we had left the mountains behind. We finished our ride at the hotel and went on to visit Pemayangtse Monastery and Rabdentse Ruins, both of which are worth visiting if you happen to visit.
The next morning Mt. Kangchendzonga stood right ahead as we prepared for the final ride to Jorethang feeling incredulous that the mountain had been there all along and we had not been able to see any of it earlier due to the clouds.
Kangchendzonga – The World’s third highest mountain at 8,586 m/28,169 ft.
Kangchendzonga – The hidden land – From the snows of which the first(Lepcha) man and woman of Sikkim are believed to have been created.
In this ‘happy homeland’ in ‘Sikkim’ where snow leopards and even yetis are said to roam, we were happy and content just to be biking for days on end in great weather conditions on country roads.
The anticipation, the excitement, the effort, the camaraderie, the sense of accomplishment during and after such a mission is unparalleled and one can only hope that there’s more of this in store for us in the future.