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  Travelogue - North East - Sikkim, Gangtok, Siliguri, Rangpo, Gurudongmar Lake, Lachen

 

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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 States).

   

Having pre-booked 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) seemed exciting.

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).

   

Tenzing Bhutia - 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 & amazing insights.

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).

Right through 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, gokulkaushik@gmail.com  

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