And yet Sikkim is not Nepal: even the style of building displays Tibetan affinities, while the large number of Buddhist monasteries, including the seat of the Karmapa sect at the magnificent Rumtek monastery, are far more prominent than Hindu temples. The capital, Gangtok, has expanded quickly in recent years but Sikkim is traditionally not aN urban society. Small villages are scattered along its great river valleys and through the hills that are cloaked in jungles.
Entering the state across the Teesta River Bridge you find yourself sweltering in tropical heat but the road to Gangtok (which means ‘top of the ridge’) leads you up to the cooler climes of a relaxed town spread over the hillside facing Khangchendzonga Renowned for its variety of orchids and butterflies, Sikkim’s traditional livelihoods also include cultivating cardamom and other spices in alder groves.It is now also well known for its tea, handicrafts, and for its spirits which are taxed at a much lower rate than in other states - an attraction for some visitors!
Many visitors head for Rumtek monastery, a short drive from Gangtok, or the Tibetology Research Institute just out of town. The institute is famous for its collection of priceless manuscripts and artifacts from both Sikkim itself and across Tibet. However, the greatest attraction of Sikkim probably lies in the splendor of its landscapes - from Yumthang in the north to the Dzongri highlands, surrounded by snowy mountains, and even hot springs hidden in the central hills.
Yet Darjeeling is famous for much more than tea. Its location on a 7,000 ft ridge with clear views of Khangchendzonga make it a perfect place to escape the pre-monsoon heat of the plains. The earliest British settlers here reveled in its cool temperatures, fresh breezes and crisp mornings and evening. Wandering around the promenades of Chowrasta and The Mall today you are surrounded by echoes of Darjeeling’s past.
The solid stone British-style houses are also complemented by more fanciful wooden-fronted buildings that are more like idealized Swiss chalets with their steep roofs and carved eaves and gables. Hotels old and new crowd the center of town but can still hardly accommodate the rush of visitors in the peak seasons at the start and end of summer.
The remarkable ‘toy train’, or Darjeeling Himalayan Railway to give it its proper name, chugs up from the plains in an eight hour journey that involves more than 7,000 feet of ascent - hard work for the little steam engines that pull the miniature carriages on their winding route up the hills. Faster, but less unusual, transport around the Darjeeling hills is provided by jeeps which can take you on breathtakingly beautiful trips along the tortuous narrow roads of the district.
Just a short drive from Darjeeling is Tiger Hill, famous for the superb views of sunrise over the Khangchendzonga Himalaya that it affords. On the way you also pass the famous Ghoom monastery, one of many Tibetan Buddhist centers in the Darjeeling area. Some tea gardens are open to visitors who want to find out how the beverage makes its way from hillside to teapot (and perhaps stock up on some high-grade leaves at factory prices). The Tibetan refugee community also produces handicrafts and welcomes visitors.
But the special charm of Darjeeling remains in the town itself with its mix of cultures - the population is overwhelmingly Nepali in origin but also colored with settlers from the Indian plains, Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet - and sense of history. The pearl of the British Raj is still shining today and attracting visitors from across the subcontinent and across the world.
A strategic point in both military and economic terms, it was seized by British India from Bhutan in 1865. From the earliest days of its imperial administration it was decided to reserve almost all of the forest land surrounding the small town and to this day the wooded slopes are a carefully conserved environment sheltering countless varieties of flora and fauna.
At a lower altitude than Darjeeling and with much less rainfall, Kalimpong has a different climate, one which has proved particularly suited to flower-growing. Indeed, the Kalimpong plant nurseries are famous throughout the world, while the hillsides in springtime are a vibrant testament to the rich natural environment of orchids and rhododendrons.
Beyond the perimeter of the bazaar lie several idyllic villages and
settlements set in tranquil environs of hills and valleys that slumber
in timeless beauty bestowed by the wonders of nature. Here there are
pleasant spots for day hikes, or even much longer ones for bird watchers
and nature buffs.