The road from Makibari into Sikkim was rocky to say the least. We initially descended the mountains, where the climate became warmer, before ascending back up the windy narrow roads which connected the small mountain towns towards Pelling.
All Indian border states require a special visa to access, and Sikkim is no different. It shares borders with Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet; the neighbouring culture of each is clearly injected into the lands. After obtaining visas in Kolkota, we passed through border control and were free to explore.
It’s hard to translate distance into time with Indian roads, as we probably average less than 20mph over the course of the whole ride. We were even briefly stopped by a tree that had toppled onto the road. Fortunately someone had brought an axe on their journey so they could hack through the bulk of wood until the path was clear. Much of the road was a rough dirt track, but every now and again tarmac appeared to the relief of our eyes and bums. After 8 hours of being slow-cooked in the car, we finally reached our destination.
There were no roads leading up to the homestay. Instead, you would need to trek for 20 minutes up the steeply sloped hillside to reach the top of the ridge. This would also mean all supplies (and beer!) would also need to be carried up to reach the house. Our homestay sat on a ridge overlooking Lake Khecheopalri, and in the other direction we looked onto the white capped peaks of the Himalayas.
5 days before I landed in India, a water crisis erupted in Bengal. The powerful river Ganges was reaching unprecedented low levels. Coal power stations use the river water to cool their systems, though the low water levels meant they would have to stop energy production for 10 days, causing intermittent blackouts in the surrounding areas. Water supplied to surrounding villages for drinking and cleaning were minimal too. Our homestay experienced regular power outages, which has been a recurring theme since arriving in India. In our tourist bubble we have been relatively unaffected by the growing crisis here, although the reports in the media suggest it will be a tough year for much of the region. Regardless, the family was still extremely welcoming with the resources available. The house was populated by a large extended family who would all share a few rooms on the bottom floor of the house. All would take care of the newest arrival, who was a small baby that would spend most of the day wrapped tightly in a shawl and worn like a backpack by various family members.
The days were pleasantly warm, and the nights were reassuringly cold. It was a good change from the exhausting heat we experienced further south. On the first morning, we planned a 4 hour trek to a famous cave with a great view over surrounding area. Part way through the walk, we passed through a small village where a local dog joined us and started leading us along the trek. We perceived our new canine friend as a walking revelation as we traded our biscuits for her trekking guidance and continued on our way. It was only after an hour when our path disappeared and we were stuck in thick undergrowth…maybe it wasn’t so wise to follow the dog. We backtracked our steps for almost an hour until we found our mistake…right where the dog had joined us. Instead of taking the correct steep route up the mountainside, she had chosen an easy path beneath! She was just after the biscuits in truth. It was still a great walk through the dense forest, and we promised to get to the cave another day.
The next morning we did indeed head up the mountain again (this time without our four-legged guide), negotiating the steep pathway up the mountain before reaching the peak. It was a hot and rocky route, and you could feel the air thinning as we approached 3000m altitude. Fortunately, it was all definitely worth the reward at the top. Multicoloured prayer flags fluttered in the wind, and we could see Lake Khecheopalri (famously shaped like a foot), with a queue of mountains behind disappearing into the distance. One of the best parts of a homestay is the three meals a day prepared for you. We returned from the trek around 1:30pm to freshly prepared soup, momos and tea.
Time ticked along slowly by the lake. The remaining of the days would be spent relaxing at the idyllic house and exploring the surrounding area. Evenings were spent with drinks around the campfire, where we would trade whisky and stories with other travellers. After the hurricane of intensity that Indian cities bring, Pelling was its own private bubble of bliss.