Mention you’re going to Sikkim and questions of geography and ontology arise: where exactly is it? And what is it? While Sikkim is in India, it’s not of India. It thumbs into Tibet to the north, borders Bhutan to the east and Nepal to the west. Cultures, people and languages have bled into it for centuries: before its annexation by India in 1975, it was an independent Buddhist kingdom, a utopian Shangri-La ruled by a king, Thondup Namgyal, descended from a royal family of Tibetan origin, and his American queen, Hope Cooke.
All of which is to say, Sikkim is a highly singular spot, a place of steep-sided hills, valleys threaded with rivers, monasteries, tumbling waterfalls and one of the Himalayas’ most storied peaks, Kanchenjunga. The way to do it is with Shakti, Jamshyd Sethna’s superb travel outfit, which offers intimate, low-impact, high-charm walking tours of some of India’s most spectacular locations. Converted village houses are linked by foot trails (and sometimes by car, but wherever possible the company avoids road travel). Each day’s walk is measured to your own abilities, encompassing a long up-and-down hike, or a more relaxed meander. The emphasis is on immersion and a spoiling simplicity and authenticity in all things, from food to accommodation.
Sikkim is hill country by definition. The drive to Hatti Dunga, our first village sojourn, leads upward, the car making endless switchbacks, lights twinkling from far slopes. Our guide for the week, Pujan Rai, throws out Sikkim factlets as we drive: this is the first state in India labelled “organic”, since no one uses fertilisers on their soil. Almost 50 per cent is forest. Its residents include wild boar, black bears, clouded leopards and red pandas. The former queen, Hope Cooke, now lives in Brooklyn.
Our base for the next few nights is a traditional tin-roof house set in a terraced garden of banana palms and marigolds, from which the steeply folded hills undulate all the way to where Kanchenjunga’s peaks crumple the horizon. Walls are painted green-blue, and wood beams picked out in grey. Our room – my husband and I are the only people staying – is cosy and comfortable, the work of British interior designer Eleanor Stanton. With an enormous bed, rattan lightshades, a marriage chest for a coffee table, original floorboards and a wood burner, everything is stylish yet appropriate to the setting.
Breakfast the next morning – fruit, granola, vegetable curry and flatbreads – is taken on the lawn, clouds snagging on the peaks above, the noise of birdsong, a radio, dogs barking. Afterwards we walk with Pujan through the village as he points out beehives fashioned from hollow tree trunks and ginger and cardamom plantations. We enter a forest of chestnut, alder and fig trees, following paths that botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker trod in the 1840s while making cuttings of herbs, tree ferns and wild orchids to transport back to Kew.
This is an inhabited landscape. We tramp through small settlements, each house built on shelves of terrain a few metres wide. The terraces are neat, the livestock plentiful: cows beneath tin shelters, chickens scratching the dirt. Men and women in gold wellies (a distinctly Sikkim trend) tend the crops. In spotlessly swept yards, kittens pounce at butterflies while little boys play cricket with a ball attached to a string (a precaution against its bouncing off forever down the near-vertical slopes). There are no roads, no cars, no other tourists. Each step delivers us deeper into ways of life untouched by modernity.
At a lookout above flapping prayer flags, a table has been set out for lunch: caramelised onion tart, roast pumpkin and breaded chicken. (Lunch on the hoof comprises western fare, while dinner is delicious Indian-Nepali dishes of chicken curry served with green-pea chapatis, mustard-leaf rolls and carrots with pine nuts – ingredients picked that day and cooked by Nepali chef Tikkabadur Gurung, who travels with guests, along with a staff of four, between the houses.) Through the drifting mist, we spy a river, cataract-grey, and in the valley below, a distant road like a postcard from a different world. At the house, a yoga teacher awaits to stretch out our tight limbs.
I wake at 2.30am to hear chanting and a horn blowing outside the house. “It’s a man who comes around the village at night to ward off evil spirits,” Rai explains the following morning. This is the sort of magic Shakti seems to conjure at will. “Did you hear the horn? It’s made of the thigh bone of a young girl.” Poor girl, I say. “No, Ma’am,” Rai deadpans. “They don’t go out killing young women for their thigh bones.”
Culturally, Sikkim leans Buddhist, its rulers were Tibetan; historical links point northwards rather than to the south. Consequently, quite a few Tibetan monasteries nest in these hills. In an effort to further our understanding of the area, Shakti has asked a Tibetan monk to accompany us over the next couple of days. Pempa Sherpa, a monk from Sikkim’s capital, Gangtok, tags along when we visit nearby Rinchenpong monastery, where novice monks, musty with sleep, conduct morning prayers, the deep baritone of their chanting vibrating through our bodies. It’s a strange cacophony of chanting, crashing cymbals, drums and horns – what I imagine a mountain would sound like if it had to conjure itself into noise.
Pempa Sherpa is twinkly-eyed, with an appealing high giggle. Rai calls him Champola, an honorary term that he shortens to Champo. We are as nervous of him as he is of us. There is a kind of ambient spiritual atmosphere that monks seem to carry about them like personal weather. It can be hard to get your head around: or at least, to know how to communicate with it. Are we speaking to a monk, a higher spiritual being or a man?
Turns out it’s a little of all three. Champola tells us that he meditated in isolation for three years, three months, three weeks, three days, three hours, three minutes and three seconds to attain his current status. The mind boggles. How does time function in isolation? How does the mind adapt? (His answers are lovely: the first three or four months were really boring. He missed his family. But soon he settled into the rhythm of the days and when it was time to go, he was heartbroken to leave. “Three years is nothing,” he says.) I peek at the screensaver on his iPhone. It’s a picture of Champola bare-chested, in a swimming cap, sitting at the edge of a pool. His wife, he tells me, is training in hotel management.
The next village house at Hee has a spectacular view of Kangchenjunga, Rai promises. We have to take his word for it since the mountains are hiding behind thick cloud. No matter. The way to Hee is another spectacular trek along forested paths once used by Tibetan traders guiding tinkling mule trains. It leads us up to an ancient monastery, the prayer wheel broken open to expose the palimpsest of prayers tightly packed within. “Dragonflies were our helicopters as kids,” says Rai. “We would tie a string around their tails and run with them.”
The house at Hee is a traditional, two-roomed Bhutia construction of brick, wood and tin roof, surrounded by a cardamom crop, with views (so I’m told) directly onto Kangchenjunga. We’re greeted with ginger tea and hot towels and homemade cookies. More cosiness awaits in our room, which is wood-panelled, with a window seat, olive-green walls, Bhutia textiles in muted hues, a log burner and a work of contemporary art in complementary, muddy tones. From the window it’s as if a white cloth has been raised into the sky and pinned there, against which each green leaf glows with otherworldly brightness. A wraparound verandah leads to a dusky family altar where we have an evening meditation with Champola. “Think only of your awareness, of the present moment,” he instructs. “If your mind wanders, send in the police to bring it back to awareness.” I like this benevolent version of the thought police.
We cross into a red-panda sanctuary, following paths maintained by Shakti. (Sightings are rare, however; they prefer the sanctuary’s higher reaches.) It’s a day before Diwali festivities commence, and the families in the Hindu villages are busy painting their houses. There are flycatchers on a telephone wire, whistling thrushes and Himalayan bulbuls chattering in the trees. We cross a river in torrent, leeches clinging to our ankles, and lope through outrageously lush jungle, everything green and dripping, clouds webbing the ridge overhead. All around us is the high buzz of cicadas and frogs and the noise of rushing water. India, Rai informs us, has 1,400 species of butterfly, of which almost 700 can be found in Sikkim. They rise with our footfall like confetti in reverse.
Our last village accommodation is Radhu Kandu, all bleached Farrow & Ball hues, and very pleasing to the eye. Our room is in a tin-roofed bungalow perched above a dining room and covered drinks terrace, which are suspended at the edge of a cliff above the tree canopy. We forgo the afternoon walk (according to my phone we’ve already taken 18,163 steps, which seems more than enough) to stay reading beside the log burner in our room, while the mist drifts outside, muffling the noises of dogs and children returning from school. This might be my favourite house – the bedroom has a separate living area with rattan sofas, rugs woven with silver thread and an enormous bathroom.
Supper that night in the panelled dining room is Sikkimese: butterbeans, bottleneck fern, a chicken thali, rain tapping overhead on the corrugated roof. While neighbouring Bhutan might have stolen the limelight, and the patronage of luxury hotel brands, Shakti’s proposal in Sikkim seems to offer something unique: a slower, more humble experience that chimes with the Buddhist values of this jewel of a kingdom; a generosity of place and space and time. And a vivid awareness of the present moment. In other words, a form of rare enlightenment.
Charlotte Sinclair travelled as guest of Shakti, which offers five nights at Shakti Sikkim (season runs from 1 October-20 April) from $4,636 per person, based on two travelling and including private accommodation in village houses, all meals and beverages, activities, an English-speaking guide, private chef, support guide and porters, car at disposal and return transfers between Bagdogra and village houses. Flights not included