When you wish to express a romantic thought – you present a bouquet of roses. But how about a romantic trip to a valley full of rich, red flowers instead? The Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary in north Sikkim is just the perfect place, nestled among the icy mountains and the pine forests of the Himalaya.
Rhododendrons are a group of flowers that grow in cold climates. The Shingba sanctuary – located in the picturesque valley of the Yumthang river – has about 32 species, some of them so rare that they are found nowhere else (like the beautiful violet Rhododendron sikkimensis). These species flower together in late April – early May, covering the valley in shades of reds and violets. The Sikkim Forest and Tourism departments organise the Rhododendron Festival at that time – a celebration of Mother Nature at her best. That’s when I went there.
It is, honestly, among the most beautiful vacations I have had. There are trails, named after the flowers you see on them, that you can walk along, either alone or with your partner. Just experience the crisp mountain air and the fragrance of the flowers, while looking at the vast mountains. (For those with an interest in the names of the flowers, there are boards placed helpfully along the trails.) Walk over the pebbles to the riverbed, and splash the cold water over your face – it is amazingly refreshing. Although at nearly 4 degrees celcius or lower, not ideal for a dip!
I am very fond of bird-watching, and Shingba gave me enormous returns. I caught more than a glimpse of the ibis-bill, a rare and pretty bird to look at. Yumthang valley is among the last of its refuges. If you have a camera, you will go wild taking pictures of everything. Our group was led by Mr. Ganden Lachungpa, a Sikkimese businessman and naturalist. If you need help with local guides and so on, you can contact him.
And there was a final surprise for me. On my way back to Gangtok, the sky was quite clear (Sikkim is quite rainy through the summer), I caught sight of Kanchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world. From ephemeral flowers to eternal mountains, Sikkim was the romance of my soul.
To get to Shingba, you get to Siliguri by train or plane, and then take a taxi to Gangtok. From there another taxi will get you to Lachung, which is the last civilian settlement. From here Shingba is just an hour’s drive away. There are excellent hotels there; I stayed at Season House, run by the affable Tashi Lachungpa. They specialise in Sikkimese cuisine, which has a wide range of dishes for both vegetarians and non-vegetarians. A little ahead of Shingba is Yumthang, which is very popular among tourists and hence very crowded. I strongly recommend avoiding the place; although you could drive down there for a hot lunch.
It is important to get an inner-line permit to enter Sikkim, but if you have a photo, ID proof and address proof ready, you’ll get one easily at the West Bengal-Sikkim border crossing. At Gangtok, you’ll need a further permit to enter Shingba; this is easily obtained. Sikkim is best visited between April and October. Do pack lots of woollens (or buy them at Gangtok), for even in summer, temperatures in Shingba are rarely above 20 degrees Celcius.