By Brianna 14/December/16 India
A day-by-day recount of our experiences walking and camping, for those interested in visiting Sikkim independently.
When we first googled 'Camping in Sikkim' the results were swamped by tour operators, packages and references to the famous 'Goechala' trek, but featured nothing of much use to anyone looking to explore the area independently. We simply wanted to stretch our legs for a few days and experience a little bit of Sikkimese life, unfortunately not having the time or money for the expensive guided trips deeper into the Indian Himalaya. Through a mixture local knowledge picked up in Darjeeling and inspiration from the sacred script (Lonely Planet), we pieced together a 4 day 3 night walking circuit, taking in the gorgeous monasteries, quaint villages and frankly stunning scenery of this little visited region. The trail starts in the tourist centre of Pelling and concludes in 'the Heart of Sikkim,' Tashiding. It features pretty straightforward walking, boasting steep declines and windy, slow inclines. Depending on how much walking you want to do per day, the route is easily variable, although bear in mind time to visit the sights along the way. For example, if you would prefer to be based in one place and do day/overnight walks from there, Yuksom is a far better place to do this than Pelling. Yuksom offers a good selection of more authentic accommodation and food options and seems to have more camping potential than Pelling. As we didn't stay there however, we can't be 100% certain of this.
There is quite a lot of information about these online - the whole process is very simple and takes about an hour. We got ours in Darjeeling which entailed going to the Foreign Registration Office (opposite the SBI ATM vestibule) to fill out a form and then taking this to the magistrates court about 500m past the bus station towards Happy Valley Tea Estate. In contrast to our research, photos and passport copies were not required.
GETTING TO PELLING
If you are coming from Darjeeling, it is worth bearing in mind that even though Pelling is only 30km away, the road is frustratingly closed to foreigners - this means you need to transit through a bigger town such as Gangtok. There are also direct shared Jeeps that leave from Siliguri in the morning and take about 5 hours. We decided to take the 8am shared jeep from Darjeeling to Gangtok (4 hours). We arrived just in time to catch the 1:15pm jeep to Pelling (which sets off from another station 5km away), only to find out that it was already fully booked. Luckily, we found 4 Australian tourists to share the costs of a private hire (500 rupees per head is a good deal although double the price of the government sponsored jeeps). This journey also takes 5 hours. If you have onward travel booked it may be best to budget into your plans an extra 'transit' night wherever you decide to stop on your way to Yuksom/Pelling, although in high season you may be able to chance bumping into some fellow tourists heading in your direction. There are a lot of places to stay in Gangtok, but it's definitely not the nicest place to linger.
DAY 1: PELLING TO KHECHEOPALRI LAKE
There are a lot of hotels in Pelling, and not much else apart from epic views of Mount Kangchenjunga. See the mountain and move on. Like I said, Yuksom or Tashiding are far more suitable towns if you want to take a few days somewhere and enjoy your surroundings. After a night in the Hotel Garuda (a Pelling Lonely Planet recommendation that was fine for one night at 600 rupees but very cold and damp), we left at around 9am for Khecheopalri Lake. The lake is significant to several religions and offers far more in the way of spirituality than natural beauty.
The walk starts towards the lower end of town. About 200m down from 'Father Travels' take the path on the right. This takes you down steep steps through Cardamom fields to the bottom of the valley, where you cross the river via a bridge. If you miss the path you will follow the road, a much steadier decline but boring and full of switch backs. On the other side of the river, we followed the road up and around the valley; there are probably other more scenic shortcuts you can take if you ask the locals (the English in Sikkim is very good). We got to the lake around 2:00pm - at first it was quite busy with day-trippers but it was very quiet by about 2:30pm. There is a guesthouse on the hill overlooking the lake (follow the signs opposite the entrance to the prayer wheel pier) who let us camp in their grounds for free and helped us build a fire to keep off the wintry chill. They don't have too much available camping space at the moment, maybe enough for two two-man tents, but they are in the process of building a garden. Our Aussie compadres stayed in the guesthouse for 300 rupees per room and gave positive reports. The man in charge was a really great guy and full of information about local walks you could do to different viewpoints in the area. He also provided an excellent thali for 100 rupees and a hearty breakfast to get us going the next day.
DAY 2: KHECHEOPALRI LAKE TO HOONGRI GOMPA
We packed up the tent early to get stated on what was supposed to be our longest day. From the Lake to Yuksom takes about 3.5 hours and is fairly similar to the day before: lots of quick downhill paths followed by long uphill roads. When you reach the sign for Yuksom, bear in mind that it's still 3km to the town. Yuksom is really worth a stop with some great temples and monasteries - if you have time to spare you might want to spend an extra night here. We had lunch (much better food options than Pelling), bought some provisions and continued. We planned to start the walk described in Lonely Planet from Yuksom to Tashiding and camp mid-way. We first made the short, sharp ascent to Dubdi Gompa, a monastery half an hour's climb out the other side of Yuksom by the health centre. We walked through the monastery and came down a path forking off to the right as you enter the forested area - just after a make-shift football pitch. If you're not sure about directions at any time, just ask somebody - everybody is happy to help. Once you get down to the road, follow it round to Tsong, a very small village. At the end of the village there are some stone steps which lead to a path up the hill. You might distinguish the path from the surrounding farmers tracts as it looks very typical of monastery routes and almost always climbs upwards. This part of the walk was particularly stunning, allowing us to enjoy the remarkable Sikkimese countryside as the sun dropped behind the hills. We reached Hoongri Gompa at dusk and set up or tent with the permission of the residents. There is also a homestay there if camping is not your thing. The family there would not accept any money and even made us tea to warm ourselves up in the morning, however a small donation to the development of the monastery would be appreciated. It is also comes highly recommended as one of the most stunning places we have ever camped. We were permitted to light a fire here also.
DAY 3: HOONGRI GOMPA TO TASHIDING
If you follow the instructions in Lonely Planet, this section of the walk should be very straight forward, predominantly downhill and take about 4-5 hours with a stop at Sinon monastery. Then, you could have an afternoon to explore Tashiding monastery and the surrounding area. This is not what we did. A charming local lad took us on a more interesting path, which lead to where his Grandfather was tending sheep. He was very happy to chat to us and we had tea and breakfast with his family before trying and failing to milk their sheep. He then took us to the road and we parted: him to his home and us to Tashiding, which he said was half an hour away. It was not. The locals are awfully helpful, however, it's always best to take timings and distances with a pince of salt, keeping an eye on life saving apps like maps.me. Walking time to the same place could be 1, 2 or 5 hours depending on who you ask. It turned out that we were on the wrong road and still 9 km away when we got back in sync with the Lonely Planet suggested route. We stopped for tea and a chat with some volunteer schoolgirls at Sinon monastery, another potential camping spot recommended to us, before heading downhill through more jaw-dropping viewpoints to Tashiding. If you don't like steep declines, you can follow the road all the way to the village. For a more 'trekky' feel, however, navigate your way through the multiple local shortcuts through the houses and trees.
Tashiding is a wonderful place, the monastery especially peaceful and inspiring. It was a great end to the multi-day walk and a highlight of Sikkim for us. As we arrived much later than planned into Tashiding, we opted to stay in the Bluebird guesthouse in town for 300 rupees. This was hosted by a lovely family who helped us sort out transportation back to Pelling, as well as cooking us great food and supplying us with local beer. On the way up to the monastery there were a few places where camping seemed possible as well, but we don't have first-hand experience of this.
DAY 4:TASHIDING BACK TO PELLING
Unfortunately there is no way of doing a complete circle back to Pelling. You can either go back a similar route to the one you came or take to the very uninteresting 37km road. We opted for the shared government jeep to Geyzing which departs between 7 and 8am, carrying us through the sharp valleys until we faced a road closure. This is quite common in these parts, as are breakdowns, road blockages, etc. so factoring in a bit of extra time, especially if you have flights to catch is sensible. Geyzing is about 8km from Pelling which we walked, using local's knowledge of shortcuts to help us along the way. As long as you stick to a path in the correct general direction of your destination you will most likely end up where you want to be. This is a great rule of thumb when tackling the route in general!
So, there are definitely ways you can enjoy Sikkim if you are strapped for time/cash, this just being one of multiple options. Camping was well-known and received positively, with walking being the primary form of transportation between villages for many people. We hope you enjoy Sikkim as much as we did!