Sikkim is a tiny state just north of West Bengal. It is sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet, and Bhutan, and very much feels like its own country, which it used to be up until 1975. In fact, tourists need official permits to visit Sikkim, and some parts near the borders with other countries are completely off limits to travelers. The small towns in the area are connected by narrow mountain roads that find their way in and out of valleys via hairpin bends, and the only way to get around the area is via shared Jeeps. Travel can be quite time consuming (they can't go much faster than ~10-20 km/hour), so we decided to visit a few towns by hiking between them instead of spending all our time in Jeeps.
We spent our first day hiking to two monasteries near Pelling, which were small but quite interesting. The first, Sanga Choling, one of the region's oldest, was not necessarily impressive itself, but its location perched atop a ridge with 360-degree views of the Himalayas above and valleys below made it worth the climb. The second, Pemayangtse, is one of the most important in Sikkim. The gompa (Tibetan monastery) housed a gorgeous, intricate wooden sculpture on the top floor depicting birds, dragons, Buddhas, demons, and lots of other creatures, and measuring about 3-4 meters high. Unfortunately, it is forbidden to take photos inside the gompas, but we relaly enjoyed taking photos of the colorful exteriors.
We took off the next morning, after being treated to a beautiful panorama of the Himalayas at sunrise from our hotel's window (Pelling wasn't having the same disappointing fog we had in Darjeeling). Armed with a hand-drawn map of our route, we negotiated the terraced terrain down the steep valley, walking through families' properties and using the same small paths that they use to get around the area. It is still low season, so we did not encounter any other hikers, and in fact, at one point an overly protective dog tried to attack us! Luckily, the only damage he caused was to leave a few bite marks in my day pack (yes, I turned my back to an aggressive dog running in my direction, and I have no regrets!). After crossing a river, we climbed back up the other side of the valley, got lost in the woods for a bit trying to find a shortcut, and arrived at Khecheopalri Lake in the early afternoon.
The lake is said to be the footprint of a goddess, and legend has it that if a leaf falls on this sacred lake's surface, a bird will swoop down and pick it up, keeping the lake clean and pure; indeed, there were no leaves on the surface. While there is not much of a town there, save for a few stalls selling chai and momos, the lake is quite peaceful, and you can hear the chanting of Buddhist monks from nearby monasteries. We needed a place to stay for the night, so we climbed a little further up to Sonam's Homestay, recommended to us by someone in Pelling. Sonam's extended family lives up on this ridge, right next to a monastery and with views of the mountains, and they welcome travelers into their simple but cosy home to spend the night. We were given our own room and loved watching Sonam's wife cook us a huge meal over a wood fire in their rustic but extremely organized kitchen. We went to bed full and happy, and awoke before sunrise the next morning to make our way to the town of Yoksum.
Our hike to Yoksum, which again took us down and up valleys, was comparatively uneventful: no dog attacks or wrong turns into the woods. At one point we stopped at a chai stall, and found ourselves chatting with a family while drinking Tibetan butter tea and eating the Nepalese cookies they had baked for a child's birthday party that was about to begin. They wouldn't let us pay and insisted we eat more. This is just one example of how warm and friendly we found the Sikkimese to be. Not a single stranger passed by with whom we did not exchange a "Namaste" greeting. We arrived in Yoksum, visited a few very colorful monasteries, and then took a Jeep to Tashiding monastery, which is considered the holiest in Sikkim.
Most of the monastery complexes we had seen so far contained one or two gompas (monastery temples) and a couple chortens. However, this complex contained an area with dozens of large, bright white and gold chortens, not situated in any particular pattern. The chorten area was surrounded by a short wall which was lined on the outside with colorful inscribed mani stones (plaques inscribed with images of the Buddha or other figures, or mantras in Hindi script). The whole complex sat on top of a ridge (the Buddhists knew how to pick prime property!) and hundreds of prayer flags lined the steep hills on every side. The area was incredibly beautiful, colorful and peaceful, and we're glad we made the extra effort to see it.
After Tashiding it was back to Pelling for our final night in Sikkim, and our final Tibetan meal for a while!