Monday, November 09, 2009
After the searing heat and chaos of India's turbulent cities, the mountain-high state of Sikkim is a breath of very fresh air.
Once an independent Buddhist kingdom tucked high in the Himalayas, it remains a remote, otherworldly place even though India annexed it decades ago.
Gold-and-vermillion-decorated Buddhist monasteries perch on ridgetops, prayer flags snapping in the wind. Burgundy-robed monks amble through village markets and walk arm-in-arm in the warm rain along country roads.
Where roads dead end, trails take off into the towering Himalayas, winding through forests of 30-foot-tall rhododendrons, blazing red, white and pink, and past stone huts blackened by cooking fires. A wizened Hindu holy man, in tattered clothes and flip-flops, trots up a rocky trail, collecting herbs. Shaggy yaks graze in alpine meadows, emerald-green at 13,000 feet in the mild autumn sun.
For trekking tourists, this vertical world is breathtaking.
A local guide rouses trekkers from their sleeping bags before dawn to catch the sunrise burnishing the snowy ramparts of 28,110-foot Kanchenjunga, the world's third-tallest mountain and, in Sikkim lore, home of an all-powerful deity.
The trekkers sweat and pant up a 14,100-foot ridge for the best view. The guide walks effortlessly, softly chanting a Buddhist mantra. For a local, this is a walk in the gods' park.