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To Okhray and Varsey in search of Rhododendrons

Rhododendron is a seasonal flower that blooms from late winter to early summer. It is the national flower of Nepal. But you don't have to visit Nepal to see Rhododendrons. There are plenty of rhododendrons trees in North Bengal and different parts of Sikkim. When rhododendrons bloom together it is a treat to the eyes. The Sikkimese part of Sigalila national park is mostly covered with rhododendrons. The Rhododendron sanctuary in Barsey is the place to go during this time of the year. The sanctuary is spread across 104 sqkm. There are three points of entry into the sanctuary from Hiley, Dentam and Soresh. Tourists generally prefer Hilley because it is approachable by road. From Hilley it is a 4km hike inside the sanctuary which offers an extraordinary view of different rhododendrons. If you are lucky enough you will see a red carpet and even the forest covered with red Himalayan roses.

The plan for west Sikkim was going on for a very long time. And when you are making a plan in April there is no place better to go other than to the land of rhododendrons. Okhray/Varsey is the western most part of Sikkim and is bordered by a river with West Bengal. To reach Varsey it is advised to stay in Okhray. Okhray can be reached via road from Siliguri. If you are driving take the route shown by google maps, which goes via Jorethang. The condition is okay considering it is in west Sikkim where there are frequent landslides. The Sikkim government continuously works to improve the road condition here. It takes close to 4 hours from Siliguri to reach Okhray. There are plenty of homestays in Okhray. You might not get a luxury homestay but remember where you are, and how far from a city. People here work very hard to get basic things right. We stayed in Sonamchen Homestay which was just outside the little village. We were 22 people (including kids) and 9 cars this time, hence the convoy was moving slowly. We took 5 hours to reach Okhray.

We reached Okhray around lunchtime. Despite google showing that the temperature would be moderate it was pretty cold in Okhray. We didn't bring enough jackets this time. It was also raining when we reached. Lunch and dinner are very simple in any homestay. You either get chicken or egg, accompanied by rice, dal and a vegetable. This simple food tastes like heaven when you are hungry and in the mountains. The rest of the day was spent chit-chatting.

Hilley is only 10 km from Varsey. The Rhododendron sanctuary stars from Hilley and ends up in Varsey. This is a 4km trail. This trail is very famous among tourists and hikers from different parts of the world visits this place. Once you reach Hilley and park your car you have to buy tickets with small amount of money to enter the sanctuary. There is a small beautiful gate at the entry point that states "Welcome to Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary". The 4 km hike starts from here and will take you through the forest. For the first few kms, the trail is covered with bamboo and another different kind of Himalayan plants. Though I didn't walk the entire stretch rest of the group did and the hike is worth it. We came at the right time of the year but unfortunately, there was a storm a few days back. Most of the flowers are gone due to the storm. We didn't see any red carpet of the red forest but whatever was left was still beautiful. At the end of the walk when you reach Barsey there is a homestay for trekkers.

Pic courtesy Iman Bhattacharjee

Pic courtesy Iman Bhattacharjee
Pic courtesy Iman Bhattacharjee

Pic courtesy Iman Bhattacharjee
Pic courtesy Iman Bhattacharjee

The hike takes approximately 3-4 hours. There are small eateries beside the Hilley entrance. The hike will make you hungry and these shops provide tasty momos, maggi and wai wai. They even sell different kinds of locally produced wine. You will find ginger wine, apple wine, and the most famous rhododendron wines. The rhododendron wine is sweet in taste and has very less quantity of alcohol. Each bottle is 400 INR which is on the costlier side. You will get the same wine in the Okhray market at a cheaper rate. Nonetheless, don't miss the wine, if you like sweet wine this is one of the best. Barsey sanctuary visit is a half day plan, we came back to our homestay at lunchtime.

There are a few other things to see in Okhray. A small old monastery is one of them. The Urgen Thong Monline Monastery is not very old or huge but there was an essence of peace at the place. To me the best thing about a monastery is you get to see young monks.

I think 2 days is okay in Okhray unless you want a laid-back holiday. We usually have very limited time hence we had to come back. The last night we stayed at Bara Mangwa which is close to Sevoke in North Bengal. We deliberately chose this place so that we can reach Siliguri quickly while returning home. We stayed at Orange homestay and the entire house was booked for us. This part of north Bengal is famous for oranges. Most of the houses have their own orange tree/farm and few of them even sell orange squash. This place is close to Tinchuley (read my article on Tinchuley here) and has similarities. Spending a night in Bara Mangwa was a good idea. The host was very helpful. It was my 5th marriage anniversary and they arranged for a cake and barbecue that night.

Thus our 3 days weekend trip to West Sikkim ended happily. Sikkim has always been special to me for some unknown reasons. And every visit and every new place gives me more reasons to come back.


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