Friday 13 September 2019

Trip to North and East Sikkim

We had not gone anywhere for more than a year. As the summer was ending, we were thinking of going to a place to beat the summer. I pulled out the map and two states stuck my eyes. Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim. I had heard a lot about places in HP from friends and relatives. However, Sikkim seems to be less heard at least from my close circle. This tiny state bordering three other nations Nepal, China, and Bhutan always created interest. I started researching every place in Sikkim and finally we decided for a 8-days trip covering North and East Sikkim including Gangtok.

Preview of Gurudongmar lake

We didn’t had time to do all the planning and execution on our own. So we decided to get in touch with a tour operator. I contacted a couple of “well known” tour operators in Bengaluru for a packaged tour. Their packages had included some of the places which we were not interested. So we decided to go for a customized tour package. Surprisingly, none of these “well known” tour operators showed any better customer service. Even after multiple follow ups, they didn’t even care to respond! With an initial disappointment, I started searching for a tour operator in Sikkim. I got a hold of a few tour operators in Gangtok who were “recognized” by Sikkim government. Only one of them was responding quickly for our queries. That was Blue Sky Tours and Travels. I’ll share my experience with this tour operator towards the end of the post. However, just want to highlight that I had multiple email communication with this tour operator to customize the itinerary to our likes and comfort. At the end everything was set. Reaching to Bagdogra airport from Bengaluru and return was our headache. From picking us up from Bagdogra airport to finally dropping us at the Bagdogra airport was the responsibility of the tour operator.

Also want to highlight here that there is an airport in Gangtok. However, the airfare to Gangtok was more than double compared to Bagdogra. Hence we decided to go to Bagdogra. If you are okay to shell out extra bucks to Gangtok airport, it will save you approximately 10 hours of travel to and fro.

Day 1: Bengaluru to Gagntok and an evening visit to MG Marg

Our SpiceJet flight schedule got advanced from 12PM to 6AM! So we had to leave home at 3AM. After 2 hours 40 mins journey, we landed in Bagdogra airport. The cab driver picked us at the scheduled time and we started our journey to Gangtok. After a few pit stops for food and refreshments, we reached Gangtok hotel post noon. We had our first surprise at the hotel. The room booked was at 3rd floor and there was no lift! We got to know from the hotel guys that, in Sikkim barring a few hotels, all the hotels do not have lifts. Though he didn’t give a convincing reply as to why is it so. If you are going with elders, do keep this point in mind. You may have to enquire the availability of lift, and if not check for rooms at lower levels.

After lunch and quick rest, in the evening, we went out to MG Marg for an evening stroll. We also met Mr. Wongchuk Bhutia from Blue Sky Tours and Travels, with whom we were interacting to finalize the itinerary. I’ll talk about this gentleman later. We gave him the copies of our ID cards and 3 sets of passport photos. These are required to get us a permit for some of the places in North and East Sikkim.

The MG Marg is a street where people come for shopping. This street also has a lot of restaurants including “pure vegetarian” restaurants so this street is always buzzing with crowd. The day we came here was Saturday. It seems on Saturdays half of the shops will be closed. We bought Tea powders and had dinner at Ananda Bhavan and went back to the hotel for the rest.

Day 2: Gangtok sight-seeing

As informed by the tour operator, we were ready in the morning and a car came to the hotel for pick-up. It was a Maruti Wagon R. You can see a lot of Altos and Wagon Rs in Gangtok used as cabs.

Our first destination was Jhakri water fall. More than the falls, the atmosphere in this place is awesome. It’s green everywhere! We spent 30 mins in this place.

Then we went to Institute of Tibetology. It is a museum to get a glance of Tibetian antics and history of Lamas.

Near to that museum, we went to Chorten Gonpa Monastery.There is a stupa here and also you can see rotating wheels.

After that, we went to Orchid house where you can see a collection of Himalayan Orchids. Frankly, if you have seen Lalbagh in Bengaluru, you can skip this place unless you really want to see these Orchids.

We then went to Enchay Monastery, another Buddhist monastery in Gangtok. We saw monks chanting and praying to God. It was interesting to see people visiting this place were offering different kinds of eatables to the monks including fruits, chips, biscuits, chocolates etc. This place was very peaceful and we spent some time enjoying the atmosphere.

Students playing football

The next stop was Hanuman Tok, a temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman. This place is situated at an altitude of 7,200 ft. This temple is maintained by Indian Army. One has to climb a few steps to reach the temple. It is accessible for wheelchairs as well. Since it is situated at a higher altitude, one can see beautiful landscapes of mountains. If the sky is clear, it seems one can see Kanchenjunga from this place. The sky was hazy and we could not see the mountain.

The next stop was Ganesh Tok, a temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh. One has to climb a few steps to reach the temple. This place is not accessible for wheelchair.

Our next stop was Tashi View Point. We had lunch at a nearby restaurant. Tashi View Point is a popular spot to view the mighty Kanchenjunga mountain. Unfortunately, by this time, it started raining and the sky was completely covered with clouds. We decided to skip this place as it was no point in visiting this if the sky is not clear. It seems, October is the best month to get a clear sky.

The last spot for today was a waterfall. The highlight of this waterfall spot is one can wear an ethnic dress for photos. They charge Rs.50 per dress. Apart from that, it is not really an impressive waterfall.

All these places are a typical tourist places in and around Gangtok. So you can expect quite a big crowd during tourist season. We returned to the hotel and signed off for the day. We knew that tomorrow it is going to be a long drive to North Sikkim.

Day 3: Drive to North Sikkim

Our tour operator asked us to get ready by 9AM. As per the plan, a small car would pick us at hotel and drop off at a taxi stand. Another vehicle (SUV) would pick us at taxi stand for the North Sikkim journey. This arrangement is done as vehicles bearing certain number series are only allowed in certain parts of Gangtok. Of course, this is applicable to yellow board cars only. A lady from the tour operator was with us from the hotel pickup till boarding the SUV vehicle. She coordinated with all the drivers and ensured we do not have to face any difficulty. I specifically wanted to mention this as it was really helpful for us as tourists.

Okay, the SUV vehicle which we got was Mahindra Maxx! I will talk about this vehicle later. But the moment we sat in this vehicle and started our journey, I sensed what we can expect in the journey ahead and hoped the roads should be good enough!

We left Gangtok at 10.30AM. The moment we come out of Gangtok city, the landscape completely changes and wherever you see it is all mountains, waterfalls, valleys and at a later part of the journey you will also get to see snow-capped Himalayan mountains. The scenes are jaw-dropping and you don’t feel like closing your eyes. It is untouched and undisturbed greenery and nature everywhere.

On the way to Lachen, there is a viewpoint to see Kanchenjunga. Again, it was cloudy when we reached this place and we didn’t get the sight of this mighty mountain. On the way, one can also see many waterfalls. Some are not reachable and few are at roadside so you can stop and spend some time.
The plastic water bottles are banned in North Sikkim region. At the checking point, one has to dispose any water bottles (Bisleri kind of bottles) you have. If you don’t dispose and at a later stage if you are caught with water bottles, you will be fined heavily. You can carry Tupperware kind of bottles.
It was 6.30PM when we reached Lachen. Lachen is a small town at an altitude of 9022 ft. In evening 6.30 in a peek summer, it was chilling cold. We had to wear jackets and gloves. Lachen is the base point to visit other places further North. After setting down in the hotel, we were served a hot tea. It was very much needed considering the cold. Surprisingly, there was no heater in the room. It seems heater is banned in North Sikkim as there is a shortage of electricity. Fortunately, geyser is available for washing and bathing. When the hotel people got to know that we are pure vegetarians, they asked us to give 30 mins to prepare food specifically for us. They were very accommodative and they asked what we would prefer and what not. We had a delicious and hot dinner and went to the room for sleep.

When our driver Kumar asked us to get ready by 4AM for tomorrow’s journey, our immediate response was “Are you sure we need to start at 4? Isn’t it too early?”. He smiled and said “Yes Sir, it’s going to be a long and tiring journey so we need to start as early as possible”. He knows better than us and there was absolutely no point in extending the talk further. We just returned to the room, but still wondering why would we need to start at 4?! Well, we got the answer the next day!

Day 4: Visit Gurudongmar lake situated at 17,143 ft altitude

It was freezing cold when we got up at 2.50AM. Without hot water from geyser, we probably couldn’t have even brushed the teeth! We couldn’t even walk barefoot in the room. We were ready by 4AM and so was our driver Kumar. He had started the vehicle engine 15 mins before! At 4AM, the light had started appearing in the sky. The majestic snow-capped mountains were visible from our hotel! Ofcourse, our camera didn’t do the justice, but our eyes had seen enough to be remembered forever! We started from Lachen at 4.30AM. The dawn brought more light to the majestic mountains and valleys and we were spellbound by the sight of the nature which was beyond our imagination and expectation! As our vehicles navigated further towards Gurudongmar lake, the road became more and more worse. We were in a dilemma - whether to enjoy the mesmerizing nature or watch out for bad roads in agony! We choose the former as we wanted to capture every bit of details nature offers in our brain. You will only get a few chances to experience these.

Sometime around 6AM, Kumar stopped at a place which is a small house and a dhabha for breakfast. When we got down from the vehicle, we could feel the chilling cold in spite of all the warm clothes we wore. We immediately rushed into the dhabha. This dhabha is run by a family where they serve maggie, bread butter jam, momos, coffee and tea. They had arranged a kind of fireplace and seats around it for customers to get relief from the cold.

We sat near that fireplace and started feeling better. We ate bread and jam and had hot tea. This dhabha also had restrooms which were neatly maintained. After the breakfast, we continued our journey towards Gurudongmar lake. One has to pass through Thangu valley to reach the lake. The road to Gurudongmar lake is in a terrible condition. As good as saying there is no road. This is where we felt the Mahindra Maxx was a bad choice. A lot of vehicles on this route were Xylos and Boleros. And a very few were Innovas. I’m not sure if suspension factor was better in other vehicles compared to Maxx (considering there was no road). But the journey in Maxx was really not something to even talk about especially on bad roads. As we pass through Thangu valley, one can see a lot of Army areas. We were thrilled to see Army tanks in running condition. Since they had put up boards not to take photographs, we obliged and didn’t get any photos. The Thangu valley offers a beautiful and scenic valleys en route. One can see more snow-capped Himalayan mountains. At the Army check post before the lake, one has to show the permit papers. We saw the Army soldiers and saluted and thanked them for their service. It is because of them, we are enjoying the trips like this. When we are around 3kms before the lake, the road is completely tarred. This 3km tarred stretch is a flat land and you get to see open lands as well as mountains. It was 9.10AM when we reached the lake.

I don’t know how to describe the Gurudongmar lake and surroundings. Should I say mesmerizing?, or enchanting? seductive? Well leave these adjectives. You got to see to experience and believe.

These were my words when I reached this place - "This is a heaven, however the road to heaven is hell !!!"

When I got excited seeing this place, I could feel that I’m finding it difficult to breathe! Then I remembered people saying that the oxygen level is low here due to the altitude of 17,143 ft! One should not get excited and remain calm so that you don’t have to take extra oxygen! I still could experience the effects of “low oxygen”. My 10 years old son was experiencing some kind of inconvenience (may be he couldn’t express it better). We asked him to stay in the vehicle and gave him popcorn to eat. Meanwhile, we were busy taking pictures as well as just feeling the atmosphere. Pictures cannot show you what our eyes can see! Still let me share a few snaps.

One side of the lake had water, and the other side was frozen. One has to descend to go near to the lake, but we didn’t go. We stayed here for 30 mins capturing the photos and also enjoying the scenery and atmosphere. We decided to leave at 9.45AM. My wife also started feeling a headache due to low oxygen. If you are planning a trip to Sikkim, do not miss this place. Yes, the road is not at all good, but all the pain/struggle is worth for this place.

On the return journey, the mind was already set for the bad roads ahead. Even though we were tired, we didn’t close our eyes. We were looking at every mountain, valley, stream and river on the way and trying to capture the nature in our minds. It was post noon when we reached Lachen. We informed our arrival to the hotel people so that they can start the lunch preparation. Meanwhile, we packed our luggage and took a short break. After the lunch, we left Lachen.

To reach Lachung from Lachen, one has to pass through Chungthang. At Chungthang, if you take left, you will head towards Lachung. If you take a right, that road leads to Gangtok. From Chungthang to Lachung, the road condition was much better compared to the one to Lachen. We reached Lachung in evening. Lachung is a mountain village. From the hotel we stayed, we could see a mountain at one side, and the Lachung river at the other side. It was a tiring day, so we had an early dinner and retired for the day.

Day 5: Beautiful Zero Point and Yumthang Valley

The Zero Point and Yumthang valley is close to India-China border, hence the entire area is maintained by Indian Army. It turns out one has to cross the Zero Point check post by 11AM. After the breakfast, we started our journey. The first checkpost is at the entrance of the valley. It turns out one has to cross this before 9.30AM. The Army will verify the permits, and then they will allow. Here also, one will get to see mountains, and valleys along the way. One has to pass through Yumthang valley to reach the Zero Point. As we wanted to cross the Zero Point check post before 11, we decided to spend time at Yumthang valley on the return journey. At Yumthang, there are some dozen shops selling clothes and other items. Here you will also get snow boots, gloves, and jackets for rent. We took boots and gloves and proceeded towards the point. It was 11.15AM when we reached the Zero Point. There was a considerable amount of snow considering it was a peak summer. It was our very first encounter with snow. It was ecstatic! It was slippery and one has to walk slowly. Temperature might have been 1-2 degrees celsius at an altitude of 15503 ft. We spent 1 and a half hour here. There was a guy who was making hot maggie. It was a great relief having hot maggie and hot tea at this freezing temperature. Took a lot of photos.

We left the place post noon. On the way back, we stopped at Yumthang valley. It offers a picturesque view of a valley with a lush greenery and a river in the foreground and mountains in the background. We could see many Yaks grazing in the green field.

We also visited a house where you can see Sulphur hot spring. In this cold temperature, the water was hot enough to take a bath. Of course, we didn’t take the bath considering the conditions of the place.

We returned the boots and gloves, had lunch and started the return journey. On the way back, we stopped at multiple places to take pictures and selfies. We returned to Lachung hotel in the evening. As per our driver, usually people return to Gangtok after visiting the Snow Point. Of course, it would be a very long journey. We had decided to stay back at Lachung so that we can have a relaxed journey. It was a very good decision considering the road conditions, the places and the toil it takes on our body. We relaxed for the rest of the day at Lachung.

Day 6: Back to Gangtok

After a much needed a half day break, we were ready to leave North Sikkim. We had initially planned a short drive to Mount Katao for today. However, the hotel Manager at Lachung suggested not to go to this place as it is not worth at this point of time and the Army would not allow after a certain point. The Mount Katao was not in the itinerary. So if we were going, we have to pay Rs.3000/- directly to the driver. We decided to skip this place.

We left Lachung at 9.30AM. Since there was no place planned, the driver was absolutely fine to stop anywhere we feel like stopping to take pictures! We stopped for a few minutes to get a view of Chungthang dam. We also stopped at Naga waterfall and we had a hot tea at a nearby tea stall. We also stopped at Kanchenjunga view point near Singhik. Unfortunately, it was cloudy and we couldn’t see the mighty Himalayan mountain. It was disappointing to miss this mountain, but I thought - let that be a reason to visit Nepal in future to get a glimpse of this mountain!

We reached Gangtok in evening. We thanked the driver Kumar wholeheartedly. He was soft spoken, always smiling, took a special interest to stop at the vegetarian hotels to accommodate us, and ensured we are feeling safe in the entire North Sikkim trip.

Day 7: India-China border (Nathula Pass)

Our car was ready to pick us from hotel at 8.30AM. It was a Wagon R. At the checkpost at the outskirts of Gangtok, our permit papers were checked. The road to Nathula Pass was in a much better condition. This road also offers a view of beautiful landscapes, valleys and mountains. At one point, there was a landslide, and due to that there was a very slow moving traffic and cars had piled up. It took a while to cross that hurdle. Somewhere before the Nathula Pass, you will get a few shops. We stopped at one such place and had maggie and tea. It was very cold. Here also we bought boots and gloves. We reached a place around 1km before Nathula Pass checkpost and we had to wait for the other party. What basically happens is - in a day only a specific number of vehicles are allowed to Nathula Pass. So multiple travel agencies club together and send tourists in 7-8 seater or TT kind of vehicles. So since we were three, we were clubbed with another family. Since we reached this point first, we had to wait for them. We had the permit papers, and they had the vehicle which is approved to enter. So that means we have to go together. With such arrangements, we had no option but to wait for almost 2 hours. It was very very cold, so we could not even get out of our car. We stayed inside the car and waited.

When the other family came in Innova, we got into that vehicle and moved towards Nathula Pass. Nathula Pass is a trade route between India and China at an altitude of 12,000 ft. Photography is strictly prohibited. If Army jawans see anyone taking photos, the camera or mobile phones will be confiscated. We saw a soldier confiscating mobile phones from many people. I want to highlight something here. When an Army says you are not supposed to take photos, there should be some reason. If we are not obeying that, you are basically not respecting our Jawans. Because of them, we are enjoying our lives and trips like this. If you don’t respect them, you don’t deserve any respect either. My humble request to all the tourists - please respect the rules. It is more important than showing off your photos in social media (sorry if it sounds blunt).

One can see the border gates of India and China. At our side of the border, we can see the tricolor, and the other side the flag of China. At such a cold temperature, our jawans are patrolling and guarding our nation. We saluted them wholeheartedly. We thanked them for all their sacrifices. They were the real heroes, our brave jawans. We’ll always be indebted to them. This place gave us goosebumps! A big salute to the Indian defense force!

There is a designated place away from the border where tourists can take photos. We took a couple of photos.

We came to a place where our driver had parked our car. We were shifted to our car. That clubbing was only for Nathula Pass.

We proceeded towards Harbhajan Singh Mandir (baba mandir). This temple is dedicated to a soldier and is maintained by Indian Army. Considering it will be very cold here as well, one can enter the temple with shoes. We paid our respects to the soldier. Opposite to this temple at a distance, there is a big statue of Lord Shiva in meditation posture besides a waterfall. People can go near to that place. But we didn’t go as we were tired of very cold weather and journey. The restrooms at Baba mandir is in a pathetic state. Wish these restrooms are maintained so that it greatly helps the tourists visiting this place.

We started our return journey. We returned the boots and gloves and had maggie and hot tea (again!). If you are wondering why we are only eating maggie, this is one of the very few options available for Vegetarians! We also visited Tsomgo lake, one of the highest altitude Himalayan lakes at 12,4000 ft. There is a Yak ride available here and our son took a small ride. We just had some photoshoots and then returned to our car.

As we were heading towards Gangtok, we were just enjoying the landscapes once again as today is going to be the last leg of our trip.

We reached Gangtok in evening. We went to MG Marg to meet Wongchuk Bhutia from Blue Sky Tours and Travels. We gave our feedback about Maxx. He understood that he should have informed us earlier and he assured he will consider this point for future travelers. He is a very nice person and was very patient with all our queries. Would I recommend this travels for Sikkim trip? Yes, absolutely! In spite of inconvenience with Maxx vehicle, everything was arranged and taken care, ensuring we don’t face any issues. The drivers provided to us were cordial and more importantly smiling and promptly responding to our queries.

We had dinner at MG Marg and then went to the hotel.

Day 8: Home sweet home!

We started Gangtok early around 7AM. We stopped at a Dosa Point which is run by ex-Army wife. We didn’t have Dosa for a week, so we wanted to have Dosa at this place.

However, Dosa was not that good. We cannot compare it with the dosa prepared in Karnataka and Tamilnadu. The same applies for a filter coffee!

At a couple of places, there were landslides causing a slow moving traffic. For the first time, we saw rocks sliding down to the road. A JCB was in action at the place. My suggestion here: if you are returning to Bagdogra airport, do keep 2-3 hours buffer as you cannot predict the landslides and the delay it causes.

We had lunch just before the airport at a vegetarian restaurant. We said thanks and goodbye to the driver. As the flight took off, our minds started rolling back a week before and how this trip unfolded! The Sikkim which we had only read in blogs, heard from other people, we had just explored ourselves!

If you ask me what stands out in this state, I would say two things: The natural beauty and the people. You have to visit to experience yourself!

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