Monday, December 8, 2014

An Adventure into the Sikkim Himalayas

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted any photos.  I’ve been very busy with work and it’s left very little time for my photography.  The greatest compromise of my time has been in processing and posting.  While my finger has not been on the shutter button as much as usual, I have still been shooting, but sadly not sharing.  And so, I hope to correct that with this post and a few catch-up posts.

My most recent travel took me to the Sikkim region of India.  This would be my third trip to India and on this occasion I brought both Barb and Julia for a mountain adventure!  This was a very unique opportunity to join my good friend Sahil Arora and his family for their vacation.  You might remember from previous posts that my friend Sahil is the executive chef at the Marriott hotel in Jaipur, India.  Sahil and I met three years ago during my first visit, and quickly became friends, sharing a passion for photography.  We have stayed in touch over the past three years and on my visit 1yr ago, he suggested we travel together to Sikkim.  A year later, the trip came to be and here we are...

Attached to this post, you’ll find some of my favourite photos from the trip.  I shot over 1600 images including a portrait shoot for Sahil’s sister-in-law and husband (Suman and Gopal) which have now also become part of our family of friends.

After nearly 3 days of travel from Canada and a five hour ride into the mountains in darkness, we arrived at our first stop, Gangtok.  The steep windy roads and dark valleys of twinkling lights hinted at a spectacular view but without daylight we were unable to appreciate the scenery that was developing around us.  The morning came early and the village of Gangtok appeared before us.  A rising sun cast a soft glow over the steep mountains and asian rooftops.

The Sikkim region is a special place in India.  An area hotly disputed with the Chinese, this is a small finger of India set into the Himalayan mountains. As such, we required special permits to visit, all of which was cared for by our new found friend, Suman.  

On our first day, Gangtok served as home base for a visit to several Buddhist monasteries. 

Long lines of prayer wheels can be found down both sides of the  monastery entryway.  A gently spin of the wheels puts in motion the engraved prayer; a ritual said to be the same as uttering the prayer itself.

Nearby, small shops sell convenience items

Passing through the monastery, I noticed that all of the monks were men. Our driver, Saunak who is also Buddhist, tells us that there are women monks but the sexes are separated into different monasteries.  Later on our trip, we witness a woman monk visiting with a young boy.

To proceed higher into the mountains, more permits are required and so a visit to the local permit office is in order. This affords us some time to take in the local shops.

A day out creates some hungry travellers and Sahil is excited to introduce us to Nepali Momos.  These are unique to the region; steamed dumpling with herbs, chicken or pork.  They are made fresh by hand and can be found in many local restaurants and street food stands.

A trip down a steep back alley and we have found a tiny shop where an older gentleman makes momos by hand.

We are also introduced to Millet beer; this was definitely a first.  Fermented millets are placed into a large mug and boiling water poured over them.  The result is a hot alcoholic beer like beverage.  Definitely an acquired taste. True beer lovers would love this because you just keep pouring boiling water over it and you have more beer!  For me though...I'll stick to the frosty cold one.  Lunch for 5 people including beer...approx $2 CDN.

Lachung was our next stop.  A tiny village at an elevation of 9,600ft.  This would also take us across some of the most treacherous and terrifying roads that I have ever experienced! 

Spectacular views around every hair-pin corner as you hold your breath, half expecting to plunge to your death.  

There are no guardrails .. well with exceptions!  My guess is that they consider guardrails inefficient because they can only really be used once.  Notice the "already used" guardrails in the next image.

Lachung is a peaceful village, surrounded by an Indian military base.  The military is everywhere and when passing through, photography is strictly prohibited.  

The temperature here is noticeably colder, with evenings between 5 and 10c, and daytimes around 15c. For us, it's starting to become like home.  For Sahil, it's time to put the "monkey cap" on.

After a restful night and a warm meal, we continue on to Yumthang Valley where we will top out our vertical ascent at almost 12K feet.

The journey up treats us to views of spectacular waterfalls and wandering valleys.

The scenery is gorgeous.  Snow covered mountain caps, brisk cool air with warm sun, and glacial green waters. I am taken back to my trip into the Rockies with Jim Lamont, only one year earlier and realize how much I miss the mountains.

The journey back down is again a nail-biting trip.  I asked myself, "how can I convince Sahil that we MUST get a helicopter to take us back!".  We notice a passing vehicle where the person in the front seat looks terrified with bulging eyes and fingers digging into the dash.  Sahil is laughs when I tell him that since I am sitting in the front seat, the passing vehicle is getting the same view.  

A roadside tea stand offers weary travellers a hot cup of masala tea.

Arriving in Pelling, we take our room and rest for a few glorius days!  The idea of not travelling for a day was wonderful. The rugged roads definitely take their toll on you.

At 5AM, Sahil and I grab our cameras and get out into the brisk morning air for some great light over the Himalayas.

The mountain side is covered with prayer flags.  It is believed that the wind takes the prayers, written on the flags, and carries them to the heavens.

From Pelling, our next stop is one of the highlights of the journey.  We visit something called a "homestay."  The Sikkim government, in an effort to offer foreigners an opportunity to experience the real Sikkim culture, has created a program whereby travellers can stay in a tiny village, with the locals in their homes.  When I say tiny, I mean six or so houses perched on the side of the mountain in a self-sufficient micro community.  The homestay we visited was called Maniram.  Believe it or not, they have a Facebook page!!  While here, we made dinner with the family and learned to make momos, which we have now become quite fond of (and craving). If you're ever wanting to experience the Sikkim, Nepali type culture, this is a must do.  The families were friendly, kind, wonderful people and we experience some of the very best food here.

Next up: Darjeeling, producer of many of the famous green teas sold around the world.  Our journey there involves more anxiety inducing roads, but not without some wonderful stops.

mmm..more roadside momos!  :)

Finally in Darjeeling, we get the best view of the mountains!  This is mount Kangchenjunga, 3rd highest mountain in the world at 28,169ft .. just short of Everest.  Best of all, this is the view from our hotel room!!

A day of exploring takes us to the fabulous Darjeeling tea gardens where we learn about tea production and view the gardens up close.

A big descent from Darjeeling, back down to mainland India.  During the descend, we were driving above the clouds!  Fortunately, we had good roads for this part of the trip.

Finally our visit to Guwahati where we get to spend some time with Suman and Gopal and see the local sights, make new friends, and enjoy the India that I have come to love. 

Since Julia had never seen an elephant up close, Suman arranged for us to visit with and ride an elephant! A real thrill for Julia!

We had the added bonus of being there during the Diwali festival of light and had the pleasure of sharing in this with our friends.

A special thank you to my friend Sahil and his beautiful wife Manisha for inviting us to join them on their vacation.  Also big thanks to Suman and Gopal for their incredible care and hospitality.  A thank you to Saunak, our driver, for not getting us killed! :)

Also, big regrets that I was unable to spend more time in India.  I wish that I could have visited with my friends in Japiur (you know who you are!).  I was very lucky to have an overnight layover in Delhi and got to visit with my friend, Qadir who is now chef at Gurgaon Westin Hotel.  Qadir fed us until we could barely walk!  He wanted to ensure we were full until we landed again in Canada! :)
Next time, we will visit with you longer!!


  1. Beautiful, Kevin. Also, I noticed your friend Sahil, uses a really good camera. I'm surprised you haven't talked him into getting a Nikon. LOL

    1. Thanks Joe! Yes, I'm working on Sahil! He has lens lust now... only a matter of time and he'll make the jump :)

  2. Kevin, thank you for sharing your beautiful photos. It looks magnificent.

  3. Thanks Sandra! Appreciate your kind words and support! :)