“The mountains were calling and we had to go!”
It had been quite some time that we had gone to the Himalayas and we had been missing them bad. So, this time, we went on to discover the second smallest state of India – Sikkim!
Residing in the lap of Eastern Himalayas, Sikkim is no less than a dreamland. It might be challenging to trace this state on the map if you are not sure where to look for. Pinnacle of northeast India and sharing boundaries with the state of West Bengal, this land locked state is bounded by three other countries, China, Bhutan and Nepal.
Image Source: www.mapsofindia.com
One of the most picturesque states of the Indian Union, its size fails to give a true imprint of its assets. Bejewelled with snow-caped mountains, abundant forests, outlandish flora and fauna, virgin waterfalls, sacred lakes, divine caves, curative hot springs, flowing rivers and gentle streams, Sikkim is a destination for all seasons and for all reasons.
Sikkim mainly sustains on tourism and has taken efforts to lure all kinds of travelers – the solitude seekers, the adventure lovers and the luxury aspirants. Its most prized possession is the world’s third highest peak, Mt. Kanchenjunga.
Although a hilly region, Sikkim is well-connected with roads and a charming 4-5 hours’ drive from either Bagdogra Airport or the New Jaipaiguri Railway Station in West Bengal would take you to the trendy capital city of the state, Gangtok.
Note: Direct helicopter rides to Gangtok are also available from Bagdogra Airport.
We chose the ‘Great Indian Railways’ as it is an overnight journey from Kolkata till NJP and of course much cheaper than a flight. Both shared and private taxi services are easily available and the latter will set you back by Rs. 2500/- approx. We opted for the latter for a comfortable ride.
Note: While the Sikkim taxis will drop you till the hotel, West Bengal taxis are allowed only till specified taxi stands and you will have to hire a local taxi from there.
The border town of Sikkim is Rangpo, where a gate divides the state with West Bengal and vehicles are checked before entering.
Gangtok greets you open arms and clean heart. Tranquilly sitting at an elevation of 5,480 feet above sea level and overlooking the Ranikhola River in the valley below, Gangtok is a traveler’s paradise.
One can tick off the bucket list in the morning by visiting tourist spots, gaze at the mountains in the afternoons and stroll, shop and explore the amazing eateries at M.G. Marg in the late evenings.
Gangtok lies in the East Sikkim region and is the main centre for retreats to nearby towns, remote locations and less explored regions of the state. A number of tour and travel operators are available at M.G. Marg, who can conveniently plan your trip with full facilities as per your convenience.
After a lot of discussion with many tour operators, we zeroed upon Naremchu Travels for our entire trip. You can check full itinerary at the end of the blog.
Day 2: Gangtok in and around!
Our first day began with city tour in between the glorious monasteries, serene waterfalls and flower gardens. Let’s begin with the most famous first.
Rumtek Monastery – One of the oldest and most famous in the region, a trip to Gangtok will be incomplete without paying a visit to this monastery.
Also called as the Dharmachakra Centre, it is one of the renowned schools of Tibetan Buddhism.
Students are mostly from Sikkim, Ladakh, Nepal and Tibet and all the subjects taught are in Tibetan language. Lot of emphasis is laid on Tibetan calligraphy.
We came across a class of around 150 students taking up their Tibetan scripture semester exams.
We were always under the myth that children or adults who become monks give up their usual life, but this experience was an eye opener where we learnt that this is just another form of boarding school and the dress is more like a uniform for them. Once done with their schooling, they go back to their usual lives.
These schools offer graduation, post-graduation and diploma courses as well.
Gonjang Monastery – Gonjang is another monastery in Gangtok, much lesser known as compared to Rumtek. This monastery gives some breath-taking views of the region.
Tashi View Point – Although Kanchenjunga can be viewed from many points and hotel rooms, Tashi View Point is believed to give the best view. We were lucky to see the ‘Sleeping Buddha’ view.
Ganesh Tok and Hanuman Tok – These are two Hindu temples dedicated to Lord Ganesha and Lord Hanuman.
Waterfalls – Gangtok enjoys three natural waterfalls, Bakthang, Lhasa and Banjhakri, where the former two are roadside falls and the third one is in the interiors. The nearby areas have been well-developed with fun activities to engage the tourists.
Flower Show and Plant Conservatory – Abundance of flora, especially Rhododendrons in Sikkim is not unknown to anyone and all the efforts that the Government and the locals have taken to preserve the species is incredible.
While Flower Show displays the beautiful seasonal flowers, Plant conservatory preserves the extinct species with limited access to visitors.
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology – A famous Tibetan Museum and Library in Gangtok that opened its doors to the visitors in 1958, showcases a variety of Thangka paintings, ancient manuscripts and remains from the Tibetan culture.
While speaking to the librarian, we got to see a hundred-year-old block printed Tibetan copy of Prajnaparamita and he also enlightened us on the various forms of Buddha. They also have a gift shop in the premises that stocks artistic gift items and some incredible books on Buddhism.
Do Drul Chorten – Located inside the Tibetology Institute campus and a five-minute walk from the museum, stands a stupa famously known as Do Drul Chorten. The stupa is surrounded by 108 prayer wheels and is a place of worship for the followers.
We made our way to the in-house shop that resources the study books for the monks and got hold of these astonishing Buddhist posters.
Ropeway – Ropeway is another way to pull travelers where a cable car offers a ride from the top, giving an aerial view of Gangtok. Other exciting adventures are Paragliding and Helicopter rides, but their dependency on the weather is a drawback.
Once done with the touristy sightseeing, our driver Sangya dropped us to the hotel and we retired to our leisure evening, eating and shopping at the New Market, Lal Bazaar and M.G. Marg.
Next morning, we were heading for the most awaited part of our trip, North Sikkim.
Note: Almost all other places apart from Gangtok, requires a special permit to visit, which is issued by the Government officials based on the weather conditions of that area. These permits are done by the travel agent who makes it hassle free for the visitors. Passport size photographs and ID card copies are needed for the permit. In case you are not carrying along, there are many shops are M.G.Marg for photos and photocopies.
Day 3: Gangtok to Lachen!
January is not a very preferred time to visit Sikkim as the weather is spine chilling cold and an unpredictable snowfall might just interrupt your trip in between by closing down the remote regions. We were totally trying our luck and came out with flying colors 🙂
We started from Gangtok at around 10 a.m. with our companion for next three days Chewang and his luxury Scorpio. The roads are pretty good with a few rough patches in between. A few kilometers into the journey and a board greets you saying ‘Welcome to North Sikkim’, thus filling up heart with joy.
Lush green mountains and a peaceful musical drive, what else can one ask for? Before reaching Lachen, there are four check posts where one needs to get the permits checked. After crossing the first outpost at Kabi, we reached the mesmerizing seven sister waterfalls. It was a splendid view and they say it looks even better during the monsoons.
The next two outposts were Rangrang and Tung respectively. A point to keep in mind is that bottled water is banned in Lachen and one cannot carry mineral water bottles after Tung. Fine for defaulters is Rs. 1500/-. Last check post is the Lachen Police Station. Unfortunately, we got stuck in a road block and had to wait one and half hours before we could reach our abode for the night.
Lachen is a very small village with a few hotels and serves as the base for Chopta Valley and Gurudongmar Lake. The temperature had already fallen to – 8 degrees Celsius and our bones were crushing with pain. With no electricity and nothing much to look out for, we retired to sleep after dinner and a chat with our new friend, Lucky, a 10-year-old sweet little boy.
Day 4: Gurudongmar Lake and Lachung!
Waking up before sunrise in such a temperature is not a matter of joke. We had to leave for Gurudongmar Lake at 4:30 am and no matter how many layers we wore, we continued to shiver.
A four-and-a-half-hour drive, reducing temperature, increasing snow, frozen waterfalls and rivers and rugged roads took us to the altitude of 17,800 feet and a beauty we would vouch for a lifetime, Gurudongmar Lake! It is one of the highest lakes in the world.
The lake is considered sacred and is entitled after Guru Padmasambhava, the founder of Tibetan Buddhism. A legend related to the frozen condition of the lake is linked to the visit of Guru Padmasambhava to the lake, on his way back from Tibet when he agreed to help the locals to facilitate drinking water. He placed his hands on a tiny part of the lake area which stopped freezing during winters.
There are two checkpoints on the way Thangu and Gangong. Gangong checkpoint is the final one where Indian army keeps the original permits and counts the number of cars going upwards as Tibetan China border is only 5 kms away.
If the snow caped mountains and frozen lake doesn’t take your breath away, reducing oxygen levels surely will, thus making it difficult to stay for long at the sight. We could stay for 15 minutes only and started our journey back and on the way, encountered a rare species, called Musk Deer which is found in forested and alpine scrub habitats in the mountains, mainly Himalayas. What drew our attention was their ‘heart shaped’ backs.
While returning, one is supposed to stop at all the check posts to inform about the exit and keep the paper work intact.
After bidding goodbye to our new friends in Lachen, we left for Lachung and on the way stopped to see the great ‘Amitabh Bachchan’ falls at Bhim Nala. Why that name? Because the fall is really tall 🙂
A two and half hour drive through the mountains and valleys, and we reached Lachung. Lachung is much bigger a village as compared to Lachen and after quickly checking in to our hotel, we moved out for a walk to the river side surrounded by sky scraping mountains. The atmosphere took all our tiredness away and we sat on a rock singing songs and enjoying the peace.
Day 5: Yumthang Valley!
Another day of waking up early on a holiday, but there are few things that cannot be missed and one such place is the gorgeous Yumthang Valley. As we started at 5:30 a.m., we could see a girl waving hand for a lift and we stopped to give her a ride till the valley. She was Pema, who lives in Lachung, and travels to Zero point every day to put up a tea stall for visitors. With no public conveyance available, taking lift from visitors is the only way out. She told us stories of how she sits on top of the cars for rides to and fro in freezing temperatures and how life is a bit difficult.
The only check point towards Yumthang valley is Dokra. Famous as the Valley of Flowers, the peak season to visit is during March and April when colourful rhododendrons bloom on each and every branch. But we experienced the raw mountains, snow patches, bright sunshine, flowing river and a beauty to behold in eyes forever.
There are quite a few street side shops in the valley for the visitors to rent woolens and have breakfast. Warm and welcoming locals let the tourists use their ovens to warm up a bit.
Note: Few kilometres after the valley is Zero point which is famous for its borders with China. Every car is charged a sum of Rs. 2500/- to visit the spot.
Our trip to North Sikkim came to an end as we headed towards Gangtok enjoying the view. Army movements made us stop for half an hour on the way and we took full opportunity to interact with a few army men on how they are surviving such odd temperatures. They said we were lucky to have visited the northern belt in January, as snow falls are delayed this year.
As we started, we could sense the change in weather and Gangtok welcomed us with heavy mountain rains, a steaming hot cup of tea and a view of Mt. Kanchenjunga from the hotel room balcony.
Day 6: Leisure day at Gangtok!
It was our day of sleeping, eating and gazing at the mountains.
Day 7: Day Trip to Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir!
A day trip to surrounding regions in the East Sikkim area again requires permits which are issued to limited number of visitors only.
Tsomgo is a glacial lake located at an elevation of 3,755 m approx. The lake surface reflects different colours in each season and is held in great devotion by the locals.
Seasonal snow and rains are the source of water to the lake and it is mostly frozen during the winters. Yak ride is a major attraction and many yak herders with their well decorated yaks offer rides to the tourists.
Meet Mingma and Aasman, our new friends. Aasman is four-year-old and a very well-behaved Yak. Female yaks are not allowed for rides.
Near Tsomgo Lake, lies another man-made lake called as Hangu Lake which facilitates boating to tourist.
A few kilometers further, we reached Baba Mandir which is made in the name of a deceased army officer Harbhajan Singh. Luckily, we visited the place on 26th January, Indian Republic Day and attended the national anthem along with the army amidst the mountains. It’s a special feeling of pride, not to be put in words.
On our way back, we stopped at Tsomgo Lake again for a few pictures and something on our wish list came true. It started snowing, our first snowfall 🙂
The roads were getting slippery and the cars started skidding. It was a dangerous ride back, but thanks to out driver Karma, we made it safe and sound.
Nathula Pass was closed due to heavy snowfall.
Day 8: Time to head back home!
All good things come to an end for better things to start. We headed back to NJP blissfully enjoying our last mountain ride of the trip.
Day 1 – Kolkata – NJP – Gangtok
Day 2 – Gangtok
Day 3 – Gangtok – Lachen
Day 4 – Lachen – Gurudongmar Lake – Lachen – Lachung
Day 5 – Lachung – Yumthang Valley – Gangtok
Day 6 – Gangtok
Day 7 – Gangtok – Tsomgo Lake – Baba Mandir – Nathula Pass – Gangtok
Day 8 – Gangtok – NJP – Kolkata
1. Almost all the tourist spots charge an entry fee and extra parking fee. Take that into consideration while budgeting and keep change always to avoid delays.
2: Shared trips are available for all regions at cheaper rates but we preferred a private one for comfort.
3. Although the roads are mostly good, do not forget to carry pillows or buy there, as longer journeys might take a toll on your back.
4. Keep your water and food stock full in the car, the prices keep increasing as you go up.
5. Toilets might be a problem for women, please carry your Pee-buddy along.
6. Most of the restaurants serve alcohol along with a variety of local food. Don’t miss on that.
7. Pack as less as you can, clothes can easily be repeated.
8. Wear comfortable shoes and layers of clothes. Cold weather might take a toll on your body.
9. Book your hotels well in advance if you are visiting in peak seasons. Since ours was not in a peak season, we booked it on same days to avail heavenly discounts.
10. Smoking is not allowed publicly, so be careful to avoid paying fines.
11. Carry basic medicines and Coca 30 (homeopathic medicine) to combat breathing issues.
12. Extreme winters could lead to diarrhoea, so carry ORS or anything similar.
13. Umbrellas are a must as weather is unpredictable.
Full of woollens and local gift items, there is so much to buy in Sikkim. New market and Lal Bazaar are the preferred places to shop and bargaining depends on your capabilities. Happy Shopping 🙂
And the mandatory artwork from the trip by Aniket.