Sikkim Sojourn - Travelogue, North East India
As an avid hit-the-highway
enthusiast, in a profession that mandates extensive travel, &
as a loyal subscriber of 'Outlook Traveller' for close to its decade-run,
penning down a travelogue has been on the top of my 'to-do' list
for ages. So this time when my family planned to explore north-east
during my daughter's summer vacations, I made it a point to take
down copious notes of our travel experiences.
A family of three
with a young daughter, we have a penchant for exploring every corner
of the country which are offbeat, & offer lovely drives &
walks (where the journey itself is the destination). Nestled
between three countries, in the midst of
Himalayas, hosting the tallest peak in India,
a relatively new & unexplored state, and with a distinct
history & culture - Sikkim - was our eventual choice
this time both by default & design (accessibility, availability,
timelines & budget playing a role as well).
We set-off from Kolkata
to Siliguri on Friday evening in a Mercedes-Benz Volvo bus run
by Jai Dada travels. A long but comfortable overnite journey got
us to the bustling trade town of Siliguri
(which serves as a conduit for access to North-Eastern
our Innova from Siliguri, we were eager to set our wheels
on this part of the Himalayas. It was a scenic 4-hour drive
along the river 'Teesta'. The lower-hills though, have
a layer of brown soil which seem shallow & coarse. With
the imminent rains, we were given to understand that erosion
causes frequent landslides, thereby cutting off upcountry
from the urban centers. It is therefore
advisable to visit before mid-June.
After a surprisingly
lovely home-cooked North-Indian lunch enroute (before the
border town of Rangpo), we
hit the sweet sleepy town of Gangtok at 4pm. To straighten
our backs, we quickly hit the extremely gorgeous and well-manicured
MG Road (would you believe that the market had 'Bose' speakers
mounted on the streetlights). With the Tommy's & UCB's
lining the street, it was our first indication that the state
& its people were well-to-do and indulged too. Tit-bit
shopping with a 'butta' in hand, in an overcast sub-20 degree
weather, was just the evening my daughter had in mind.
Not the ones to be
confined to Malls & Markets, we quickly drew up our plan with
a Travel Agent to take the path less-travelled. Thanks to Outlook
and Google, we had researched that - West Sikkim (read 'Pelling')
is popular for views & some light adventure sports; South is
dotted with Monastries; and East primarily offers a 2-hour trip
from Gangtok to the popular Nathua La pass bordering China. So North
it was !! The attraction of a tough terrain, Leh-like plateaus,
a Sacred Lake (Gurudongmar) and enormous heights (17000+ ft)
A 2-night & 3-day
package for 25 grands (peak season time) included - a 4x4 Luxury
Scorpio, Stay & Food for 3 people (suggest to take it that way,
as good home-cooked food and comfortable stays are not easy to find
enroute). Each one of the 7 lakh Sikkimesse is involved in Tourism
from April-June (cabs, resturants, hotels, agents, homestays).
- our Scorpio's owner & driver - was the best thing that
happened to us. Knowledgeable, courteous, a thorough-bred
local 'Lepcha' (claimed to be the original inhabitants
of Sikkim who follow Buddhism), & a very adept driver
(you need one) - Tenzing provided us the true flavour &
Our 1st destination
was Lachen, 180 kms from Gangtok,
where we had to stopver for the night. The road
to north is replete with lush green landscape, and inumerable
waterfalls at each bend (stop enroute at '7-Sisters' fall).
The Border Roads Organization's (BRO) signages keep you company
and reminds of the immense scale of accessibility Project
underway. The meadows till early-June are carpeted with flowers.
Potato, Corn & Makki are grown aplenty.
Yaks graze along
the meandering streams. Tenzing would convey a 'Hello' to
every other Cabbie (dominated by Boleros) by a gentle-press
of the horn (its a religion amongst the fraternity).
the journey, we were engrossed in Tenzing's narratives - of
how Lepchas/Bhutias are the originals and not the Nepalis;
sensitivity building up on the border with the treaty/referendum
wrt Sikkim coming to an end in 2012; how the Guru (Rinpoche)
blessed the Lake which doesnt get frozen even in winters;
the unique local governance body for law & order in the
districts of Lachen & Lachung ('Zumsa') & much more.
We reached Lachen
by 5pm, & he put us up at his cousin's place in Lachen
(Bayul Inn). Lachen is a dreary little town at a height
and population which seemed to be similar (around 9k). Continued
drizzle kept the night temperatures below 10 degrees, and
the series of Liquor shops (all run by women) seemed handy.
A North-Indian veg dinner (though rice-based) was an awesome
end to the day. Tenzing took leave after reminding us of an
early morning start at 5am to the Sacred Lake.
It will be understatement to
say that there is a road to Gurudongmar. The coal & tar
strips appear in patches (though BRO is trying hard). Crossing
the terrain needs expert driving skills & a powerful 4x4
SUV on strong Goodyear tyres. After a brief 10-min stopver
at Thangu for breakfast (Maggi and boiled eggs), we
gained height of upto 15000ft at the last Army base/checkpoint
near Geagong (world's highest cafe - see pic 1). This is where
the topography changes and the plateau starts. Barren mountains
in several colours and a long, straight & bumpy stretch
was a sight to remember & capture (see pic2). We finally
reached Gurudongmar at 11am. Parked at 17300ft above sea-level
with the lake and snow-capped peaks in the background made
us giddy (literally !!....see pic3). Tenzing was quick to
advise us not to stroll down to the lake (some 100ft below
us) as ascending back might take its toll. After paying our
respect to nature and god (there is a small gurdwara), we
resumed our return - which always seems to get over in a jiffy.
Post lunch, we drove down to
Lachung, where we halted overnite, covered Yumthang the next
day (a touristy flower valley at 14000ft) and made a quick
return to Gangtok.
The next 3 days were bliss for
my daughter who indulged in shopping at the Mall, & relished
the stay & food at a lovely new hotel (Bella Casa, next
to Vajra Cinema).
Gangtok – replete with lovely
Monastries (there was a Buddhist festival with free goodies
for children), steep trek to Ganesh Tok, and a breathtakingly
beautiful Flower Museum – was a dessert-delight, completing
our seven-course holiday meal. Many Thanks Tenzing !!
* Have purposely missed sharing our
return journey to Kolkata as we got stuck in a landslide (enroute
Siliguri), and our train-reservation was'nt confirmed either (though
we secured a day-train subsequently, and had a great time on board)
Contributed By: Gokul Kaushik,