Sikkim – Paradise state of India
Nature casts its spell on everyone in this tiny Indian state. Imagine enjoying view of the magical green mountains under the canopy of clouds in blue sky. Yes, I am talking about Sikkim. It is one of the cleanest states of India. People here are calm and friendly to the tourists. And they are very proud of their culture. Many tribes have settled here since hundreds of years and have adapted themselves to the beautiful though unpredictable weather of this region.
Once you reach Sikkim, you might start falling in love with this place. Everywhere you see, Sikkim offers spectacular views. And if you are birding enthusiast like us, then Sikkim is a paradise for you. North – East of India is a home for some rare- endemic flora and fauna. If you have passion for flowers then, visit this place when Rhododendrons bloom. It generally blooms towards the last week of March and first half of April. And that’s what we did.
We chose April to visit Sikkim for our Oikoessence Nature camp and it turned out to be the best decision. Rhododendrons are woody shrubs and trees that bear beautiful flowers. Their name is derived from ancient Greek word – Rhodon – means Rose and Dendron – meaning Trees. April month also brings some rains to the state. Fortunately, rain used to take rest during day-time when we were on road and rained during night giving us pleasant mornings!
How to reach Sikkim – Travel tips in and around Sikkim
To reach here one can take a train to Jalpaiguri OR take a flight to Bagdogra (both are in West Bengal) and then the road journey. It can take up to 5 hours to reach from Bagdogra to Gangtok or other interesting parts in the state. So, keep aside one full day for travel no matter where you are coming from.
In October 2018, Sikkim has got its own Airport near Gangtok – the state capital. The airport is located at about 33 km from Gangtok so travel to Gangtok will come down from 5 hours to just one. Definitely a relief for travelers.
The roads in Sikkim are incredibly bad, and during monsoon landslides are a daily occurrence. Keep that in mind while planning anything – you might have to make adjustments in plans based on road conditions.
Also, hiring a cab is a better decision than using public transport (which is quite limited) and self-drive can be risky due to road conditions and hilly terrain.
Birder’s paradise in South Sikkim – Kitam and Sumbuk
One of the most unexplored destinations in Sikkim is Sumbuk located in southern district of Sikkim. It is about 2.5 hours’ drive north from Bagdogra airport. And it is about 2 hours from Gangtok airport.
Sumbuk is largely Greater Rangit, a beautiful sub-tropical belt. The highlights include Kitam bird Sanctuary which has more than 200 different species of birds, unique sal chir pine forest, panoramic views and of course the emerald green Rangit river. Kitam is the only bird sanctuary in low altitude Hence, it is a good destination open throughout the year and becomes pleasant during autumn and winter.
The Sumbuk village has two distinct divisions – Lower Sumbuk and Upper Sumbuk. Lower Sumbuk has an altitude of around 1500 feet and is covered in temperate forests rich in birdlife like peacocks, hornbills and others. Upper Sumbuk is at an altitude of 7000 feet and has a very different vegetation and bird life. You can see endless stretches of fir and pine forests in Upper Sumbuk.
Lower Sumbuk – Kitam Bird Sanctuary and Peacock Breeding Ground
We stayed at Sumbuk homestay in lower Sumbuk which is near Kitam Bird Sanctuary. The homestay itself attracts good amount of birds and we managed to see Asian barred owlet there. We spent lot of time in observing and photographing it. Later, realizing that we might get late to the Kitam Bird Sanctuary, we finally moved from there. Birds can be best observed in silence. However, there was some disturbance in the sanctuary due to road widening work. Still, we were able to spot quite few birds.
Next, we explored the dense forest at the Southern slope of Lower Sumbuk, which is famous as a Peacock Breeding forest. It is one of the prime attractions of Sumbuk. Indian Peafowl, Red Jungle Fowl, Kaleej pheasant, Himalayan Flameback, Scarlet Minivet, Green Magpie, Red vented Bulbul, spotted forktail are among the common birds. Some rare birds like Giant Hornbill can also be sighted here.
Upper Sumbuk – Kolomple Rocky Mountains and Phool Dhara
In addition to these places, Sumbuk has other two places of tourist interest – Kolomple Rocky Mountains and Phool Dhara. The Kolomple Rocky Mountain has a nice viewpoint overlooking parts of Sikkim and Bengal. On the way to Kolomple Rocky Mountain is the Sumbuk Shivalaya Mandir. It is dedicated to Lord Shiva and is revered highly by locals and mass prayers are often organized during auspicious occasions. The Kolomple Rocky Mountain also has a nice viewpoint overlooking parts of Sikkim and Bengal. The area is also rich in flora, fauna and wild animals.
It takes about an hour to reach Upper Sumbuk from lower Sumbuk and road is steep. On the way to Upper Sumbuk is Phool Dhara, located at the hill top of Sumbuk village.
Phool Dhara, meaning hills of flower, is enriched with rhododendrons, wild orchids and other many flowering plants. Tamley Chaur, located just above Phooldara in Upper Sumbuk is covered in pines, rhododendrons, ferns, cinnamon and wild strawberries. From Tamley Chaur, you can enjoy a glorious view of the Himalayan ranges. There is also a beautiful lake located at the Tamley Chaur called Tamley Pokhri. The natural viewpoints of Upper Sumbuk offer panoramic views of Mt. Kanchenjungha, Darjeeling, Kalimpong and other parts of Bengal.
Barsey Rhododendron sanctuary of Sikkim
Next, we headed towards Okhrey in our pursuit of bird-watching. Okhrey is about 4 hours (85 kms) from Kitam. It is located at about 19 Kilometers from Barsey Rhododendron sanctuary. Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary lies in the south west corner of the West Sikkim district. Roughly shaped like a butterfly, the 104-sq-km area was declared a sanctuary in 1996 and spans across the razor sharp Singalila Range. It has wet and cold climate favoring the spread of the dominant genus Rhododendron. Rhododendrons bloom alternately, bright red one year and white the next. Rarely, the whole lot blooms together transforming the canopy into a chequered masterpiece. Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary fauna boasts of Leopard cat, Himalayan Yellow Throated Marten, Himalayan Palm Civet, Himalayan Langur, Crimson Horned Pheasant, Monal Pheasant, Kaleej and many diverse species of birds.
People of Sikkim revere their natural surroundings. Accordingly, there is certain code of conduct framed to maintain the sustainability of these parks and sanctuaries. Our organization Oikoessence is also based on similar principles and we were glad to find synergy at the most unlikely region – far away from ‘literate’ civilizations where we reside.
Exploring Barsey Sanctuary
Our stay was at Kyilkhor home stay. It is a Sherpa home. They had small chubby baby boy there who kept all of entertained. That day evening we went for a short walk till entrance of Barsey sanctuary. This area supports many birds and also a home for State animal of Sikkim – the Red Panda. There were many birds that we saw on the way. We spotted a rare bird Satyr Tragopan crossing the road. The pair of Green tailed sunbird kept us occupied for a very long time followed by a group of Gold naped finches.
Next day early morning we went for a trek in the sanctuary entering through Hilley gate. Rhododendron plants are maximum in numbers on the top of the mountain. It is a simple trek of 4 kms that takes you to the top and then if you are in the right season you will be able to witness mass flowering of Rhododendrons. We found Buddhist chortens and shrines in the middle of the trail and trekkers are required walk past respectfully keeping them on their right. Only few of us went till the top and rest were busy in birding on the way. This patch is dense and we also spotted many shrub loving birds. Those of us who went to the top were mesmerized with the beauty of the flowers.
So far, over 3 days we had just covered few parts of southern Sikkim and were completely enchanted by its beauty. Our next destination was Pelling in West Sikkim which is also a famous tourist destination.