For those who love nature but don’t relish sweating across long treks, the Barsai Rhododendron Sanctuary provides an ideal excursion. Located in the south-west corner of West Sikkim and spreading over 104 sq km across the ridge of the Singalila Range, it forms part of India’s natural international border with Nepal. The protected forest is home to silver fir, hemlock, magnolia and the rhododendron. During March and April, the trail is ablaze with rhododendron blossoms and is a delightful day walk with stunning views of the high Himalayas. There’s plenty of action for keen birdwatchers as well.
◆ Entry permits Can be obtained from the Wildlife Check-Post at Hilley Park entry fee Indians Rs 25 per day, foreigners Rs 50 per day Local guide/ porter Rs 10 per day Tent pitching charges Rs 25 per tent per day Still camera Rs 10 per day Video Rs 500 per day.
DISTANCE 4 KM TIME 11/2 HOURS
The bridle path from Hilley to Barsai heads due north along the Singalila Ridge, with views of the great Kangchendzonga. Being a gradual climb, the approx 4-km distance should take about 11/2 hrs. While it is possible to leave Hilley early in the morning and be back by lunchtime, it is certainly more fun to stay at Barsai for a night to catch the views and enjoy the rhododendron forests. Stay at the Guras Kunj (Mob: +91-97330-65937; Tariff: ~INR 2,200 with meals) in Barsai amidst the rhododendron forests.
DISTANCE 10 KM TIME 2-3 HOURS
From Barsai, take the easy trail due north-east to Dentam. Check out the Alpine Cheese Factory here. Stay overnight at the Trekkers’ Hut or at Alpine Guest House. Or proceed to visit Pemayangtse monastery, or Rabangla (69 km), or return to Sombaria or Namchi. Irregular bus service, but shared taxis freely available.
This is truly rhododendron country. This flower is the breathtaking glory of Sikkim and the land boasts of some 30 species, from the gigantic rhododendron grande — a tree that towers at 40 ft, to the diminutive nivale that rises barely 2 inches from the ground! Some, like the Dalhousie, are epiphytes growing on top of tall trees, barely visible from below. Others are painted prima donnas: like the conspicuous falconeri, with its large fleshy leaves covered with rust-coloured filaments on their underside. The rhododendron literally lives off its looks to attract bees and butterflies, as none of the species are fragrant. These trails were also the favourite stamping ground of the man who systematically explored the land and documented the flora and fauna of the Eastern Himalayas.
After Joseph Dalton Hooker obtained his MD from Glasgow University in 1839, young Hooker travelled extensively for most of his life, going off on botanical expeditions to all corners of the world. He came to Sikkim for the first time in 1848, and his year-long travels resulted in an amazing record of the numerous species of animal and plant life, many of which turned out to be new discoveries. Numerous species of rhododendrons, ferns and orchids (like the spectacular golden yellow Dendobrium hookeriana with its deeply fringed lips and rich purple spots) are named after Hooker. He published Rhododendrons of Sikkim in 1849 (considered even today to be the authoritative text on the subject); while his Himalayan Journals, a travelogue, is a classic treasured by naturalists, historians and sociologists.
Written by Sujoy Das
About the Author: Sujoy Das has trekked and photographed in the Himalayas for the last 25 years. He is the co-author of Sikkim – a Traveller’s Guide, nominated in the Banff Mountain Book Festival Awards, and is represented by the international photo agency, Stock Boston, USA. His photographs have been widely published in books and magazines worldwide.