A woman in Sikkim. Picture: John Borthwick

A yak looks like a rug with horns designed by a committee of camels. Yaks are not happy about this indignity or much else in their burdened lives. The only improvement on the gnarly, disgruntled yak is its more docile offspring, a half-cow, half-shag rug arrangement called a dzo.

Neither creature probably noticed that Lonely Planet recently dubbed their home turf, the small north-east India state of Sikkim, as the best region in the world to visit this year. (Sikkim edged the magnificent Kimberley into second place.) Seen as India's cleanest State and one of its least densely populated, Sikkim is on the "visit now" map for all the right reasons.

Gangtok sits in the Himalayan foothills at 1577m and looks more like a Raj-era hill station than a State capital. Its jumbled collection of buildings and bazaars cascades from a ridge that is crowned by the former Chogyal's (Maharaja's) modest palace and its Tibetan-style gompha temple. The friendly town of just over 30,000 people - the size of a large village elsewhere in India - has a cat's-cradle of switchback streets and public stairways.

Sikkim's crowning glory - quite literally - is 8586m Mt Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest peak. Not surprisingly, many visitors come to Sikkim to trek high enough for a close-up view of the great mountain, which sits on the border with Nepal.

We hike ever upwards on sunny trails through the green crush of Himalayan swells, past rhododendron forests and across clattering streams. Up here the only transport other than foot is the cantankerous yak and dozy dzo. The little wood-smoke and prayer-flag village of Tsokha, at 3000m, could be the capital of Yakteria. All day the burdened beasts trudge up the main "street" of this hamlet of ethnic Tibetans. Bedecked with neck bells, they file past like a procession of walking wind chimes. I dodge their horns, baleful looks and whopping droppings, grateful nevertheless that they've humped the rice and fuel that will provide tonight's dinner for the village.

Morning breaks crystal clear and frosty-breathed below a sapphire sky. After porridge, omelette and chai, we're off, walking again, and soon see mind-lifting glimpses of the peaks. Next day, at a 4030m pass near Dzongri comes the real panorama, a Himalayan heart-stopper. The five summits of Kanchenjunga ("The Five Treasures of the High Snow") loom across the sky like a cloud-break of stone, fire and ice. And all of it photogenically framed by wind-whipped Buddhist prayer flags.

Due to the world's longest- running backyard fence spat - 67 years and counting - between India and Pakistan, travel for Australians in the region was overshadowed in recent decades by a DFAT travel caution.

Kashmir expert and Lonely Planet author Garry Weare reports these restrictions have now been downgraded. It is again possible to visit Srinagar's Mogul Gardens and handicraft centres, and to stay in its famous Dal Lake houseboats, before travelling on to Ladakh.


Arrange your Indian tourist visa and Sikkim trekking permit well before departure, preferably through an agent. October to December and March to May are the best trekking months. worldexpeditions.com.

The West Australian

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