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Escape to paradise

The prospect of another crowded Christmas party was too much for me. I decided to give it all a miss and hit the road last year to a short retreat into the mighty Himalayas in West Sikkim. It was bitterly cold, but I did not care. West Sikkim is a little explored place and doesn’t draw hordes of travellers like Central or East Sikkim. Even most of the people living there come down into the valley to celebrate a warmer Christmas. It was just what I was looking for.

I drove down from New Jalpaiguri to Jorethang and then onward to Kaluk District through endless stretches of twisting mountain roads. The blue sky, the green hills and the pure air held the promise of a refreshing holiday. Kaluk, at 5,500ft above sea level, is the place to head for if you want to enjoy a breathtaking view of Kanchendzonga and the hospitality of the Lepcha people. From Kaluk I made my way to Rinchenpong, a small town about five minutes away.

I was staying in the very comfortable Rinchenpong Village Resort and was welcomed in the traditional Sikkimese style. The temperature had dipped below two degrees and I was told that the sky had been overcast for a week — very unusual weather during this time. My heart sank as I sipped on a cup of steaming tea, wondering whether we’d be unlucky enough not to get a glimpse of Kanchendzonga. I wouldn’t leave without seeing it, I promised to myself.

It looked like it would rain any minute. So after a quick lunch, we set out for a walk. We came across a few farmhouses and poultry farms and saw people busy in their vegetable gardens. Some even had fruit orchards. The region is seeing a growth in floriculture also. People have been encouraged to plant trees and the forest cover has increased considerably over the last few years. Soon evening descended and we retired for the day.

The next morning I was up by four. White fog swirled around as I planted myself in the resort’s balcony, hoping to catch a glimpse of Kanchendzonga. Lights from houses in the mountains glittered in the distance like rice bulbs and daylight slowly filtered through the clouds. I waited with eight with cups of coffee for company, but in vain. The mountain remained hidden.

After breakfast we set out to explore the town. Not far from the Kaluk bazaar is the 200-year-old Rinchenpong Monastery set amidst a web of fluttering colourful prayer flags. It’s famous for the unique statue of Ati Buddha — which depicts Buddha in a meditative posture with a lady embracing him, symbolising the union of male and female powers.

Next on my itinerary was Poison Pokhri or the poison lake. This lake, apparently the only source of water in Rinchenpong, was once poisoned with toxic herbs by the locals to stop an advancing British force. Almost half the army was killed and the rest beat a hasty retreat. But all that is left of it now is an unimpressive dry pond.

The Rinchenpong Village Resort

Next we drove to Rabindra Smriti Van — a small forest set up in memory of Rabindranath Tagore who spent a few days there. A plaque on the gateway welcomes the visitor with a verse from Tagore’s Gitajanli. We strolled along the forest trails and spent some time on a clearing gazing at the green mountains all around. The view and the silence were simply mesmerising.

In the afternoon we explored the Kaluk bazaar — a complete experience in itself. It’s an open market that does business only on Thursdays. People sat on both sides of the road selling everything from vegetables, fruits and fish to shoes, clothes and electronic gadgets. Some sold their stuff on the balconies of their homes while feeding their children. There was a general air of festivity. Everyone seemed to know each other and went about their business in a leisurely fashion, weaving their way through dogs, chicken and pigeons.

The next day I’d almost given up hope when Kanchendzonga peeped out from behind the clouds. The fog broke a little and we could see the gold-tinged peak. As always it was glorious to see the mighty ice-capped mountain. And that was my only sighting during the entire tour.

After breakfast, we set out to visit the Alpine Cheese factory at Dentam, 19km away. En route we stopped to see the Changey Falls cascading down from a hill. The monsoons brought a heavier flow, we were told. When we looked at the pool however, we simply froze. The water was teeming with thousands of leaping black tadpoles, obviously having a gala time.

The Alpine Cheese factory is famous for its Gouda cheese, available as Alpine Cheese in Sikkim and as Amul Gouda Cheese, marketed by Amul, outside Sikkim. We saw cheese being weighed on huge machines, while milk was being processed in another section.

We then drove to the Sinshore Bridge. It’s the second highest suspension bridge in Asia and a big draw for tourists visiting West Sikkim. I felt a little apprehensive as I climbed the bridge, which was not in great shape. A river flew like a ribbon right below and the bed was full of boulders and shrubs. Definitely scary.

The next day was spent in the futile hope of another glimpse of Kanchendzonga, and soon it was time to head back to the rigours of city life. But I was content. The tranquility and the warmth of the people had soothed my jaded soul and would stay with me for a long time to come.

Ready reckoner

Getting there: The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri. Bagdogra is the nearest airport. It’s a four-hour-journey to Rinchenpong via Jorethang.

Staying there: Rinchenpong Village Resort. Contact 9434126837/ 03595 245209. Tariff ranges from Rs 1,600 for a single bed room to Rs 3,460 for a double bed room.

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