Kanchenjunga was being coy. The third highest mountain in the world, the “five treasures of the high snow”, was firmly hidden under a blanket of cloud. I sipped some sweet masala chai (spicy milk tea) by a crackling log fire and willed her to come out and say hello tomorrow.
Forget crampons, axes and helmets, though — the only ice for me was going in my gin and tonic. While the foothills of Everest might be categorised as proper trekking terrain (and they are still recovering from the devastating effects of the earthquake in April), the Indian state of Sikkim is a great place to start gently, with lodge-to-lodge hikes known as the “Shakti village walk” really taking off.
Sikkim is a small square of land, roughly 43 miles (70km) wide and 62 miles long, squeezed between Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, where cultural influences of the last two are strong. It was an independent monarchy, ruled by a Chogyal, until 1975, when it became part of India, an act that was only recognised by a sulking China nearly 30 years later.
Don’t be put off by the fact that you’ll be staying in outwardly humble-looking village houses; all have at least one bedroom that has been thoroughly spruced up for visitors. The interiors would not look at all out of place in a posh Cotswolds B&B and all have private bathrooms with flush loos and hot, strong showers.
I stayed in three villages: Sandyang Lee, Hee and Radhu Kandu. The first was owned by a local politician and festooned with Tibetan prayer flags that flapped furiously in the constant breeze. My second had a balcony that gave a panoramic 180-degree view of the mountains — when the weather played ball. My final night was spent in the home of a local teacher, with bees buzzing in a hive under the eaves outside my window.
My progress through valleys, up lush, forested hills and along terraced paddy fields was part Queen of Sheba and part Mr Benn, if you remember the cartoon where the shopkeeper would magically spring out of nowhere at the end of each episode.
My daily Mr Benn moment happened when one of my team would appear from behind a bus stop or round the bend of a forest path with a glass of iced rhododendron juice and a chilled towel when I was least expecting it. I say “one of” because accompanying me was my guide Pujan; another guide, Prabhat (why have just one?); Dik, our chef, and his wife Binita; Aman, our driver; and Sunam, Indramani and Bhuppi, the behind-the-scenes helpers.
A bit OTT? Well, on paper I was certainly being spoilt, but the team ensured a seamless progression from one village to the next, with a picnic blanket laid out here, a lunch pot bubbling away at just the right moment there, hot water when we arrived in the evening and a fire in the bedroom to take the chill off the night air.
If that sounds a bit too easy, bear in mind that some of the terrain can be quite steep. You’re walking for about seven hours each day and there’s a fair amount of up and down, but there’s always a plan B if you fancy something easier.
One reason Sikkim sees relatively few foreign tourists is that the nearest airport, Bagdogra, is 78 miles away and the roads through West Bengal to reach it are awful, especially around Darjeeling. Some of the largest potholes were on approach to the Glenburn tea estate, where I spent my first night to break up the journey from the airport. However, a relaxing soak in the vintage tub and a hearty meal made it easy to forget the bumps and ruts.
The weather plays a part too in managing visitor numbers here. The valleys and hills are lush because it rains, and those organising my walk say that the chance of viewing the highest Himalayan peaks is about 70 per cent. Like tiger- spotting in the jungles to the south; it’s a bonus if you see them, but there are still plenty of other things to experience if you don’t.
I met one Anglo-Swiss couple who had been rather wet and miserable the week before and were going home disappointed that they hadn’t seen the butterflies,orchids and birds they’d hoped to. Autumn is your best bet for those, I’m told.
Yet there was certainly a bonus when I was there in winter. Many locals who work elsewhere in India come back in January and February to see their families, and a large part of this walking holiday is about experiencing village life. Laughter and the sound of children playing echo across the valleys from home to home.
People would stop to chat on the paths during the day, on the way to market or a wedding, and at night I’d fall asleep to mooing, barking, singing and the chatter of the Lepcha-speaking villagers.
I could see the couple’s point about the weather, though, because a squelchy versus sunny trek can produce an entirely different experience. On my second day of walking, the clouds parted after a heavy lunchtime rainstorm. The haze of campfires in the valley was washed away, the clouds vanished and, wow, there she was — all 8,586m (28,169ft) of Kanchenjunga towering above us. I would have been disappointed if I hadn’t seen that view.
Perhaps my favourite day was when we stopped at a Buddhist monastery for morning prayers. We then continued along hilltops and through woods, past rhododendron trees, fishtail ferns, chestnuts, pines, figs and mugwort.
Farther along, after a tasty lunch, an important abbot from Nepal was blessing another monastery. We paused on the roadside as he greeted the villagers, lined up in their finest outfits, who were playing instruments and lighting bonfires.
That evening, as the sun set behind the courtyard of my temporary home, I watched as some residents sang and danced, and I drank Indian whisky around a spitting fire. Sparks flew up and Kanchenjunga wrapped herself in cloud for the night, pondering whether to show her face to the world the next morning.
Need to know
Will Hide travelled to Delhi as a guest of Qatar Airways (0333 3202454, qatarairways.com), which has return flights from £469.
Original Travel (020 3355 4714, originaltravel.co.uk) has an eight-night package from £2,966pp, including all transfers in India, return flights between Delhi and Bagdogra, full-board at Glenburn Tea Estate near Darjeeling en route to Sikkim, a fully inclusive five-night Shakti village walk and a night at the Lodhi Hotel, Delhi. The Shakti village walk in Sikkim is available from October to mid-April.