Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sikkim – A heaven beyond Imagination!!

30th May, 3:30am, @ Lachen, a knock on the door by my driver to remind us that we were getting late to see Gurudonmarg Lake:  “I usually sleep at that time in Mumbai”, that was a wakeup call not just for the day, but also to realize that we were now in Sikkim! 

The idea was to combine business with pleasure and Sikkim was the first choice due to its rising popularity amongst our customers. What better way than to experience the place first hand, this thought brought us on a 10 day road trip starting from 29th May covering Kalimpong, Pelling, Lachen, Lachung, Gangtok & Darjelling. What followed was an experience that could not be captured in photographs or mere superlatives, hence this blog. 

To appreciate Sikkim, one needs to first understand its geography: “I kept saying I’m in Sikkim while sightseeing in Kalimpong!!. I will never make that mistake again”. Sikkim is divided into four districts, East, North, West and South. You practically jump from one mountain to the other while travelling from one district to the other. Sikkim is bounded by Tibet on the north, Nepal on the west, Bhutan on the east, and West Bengal in the south. The state has a mix of Nepalese, lepchas (mostly settled in North Sikkim) Sikkimese, Bhutanese and Tibetans all having their own specific dialect, traditions and mannerisms. They also have their own hats as displayed by one of the hotels were we stopped for lunch.  If you eat what the locals ate, then you would be relishing on Maggi, Thukpa, Wai Wai Noodles, Momos and many more mouth watering preparations. 

Call it the effect of the mountains and monasteries, or preaching of the lamas, almost all locals (read drivers in our case) exhibited lots of love and care within and outside its community and this was more than evident in many stories that we heard on the way and the simple things they did like 1) following road rules and giving way to fellow drivers going uphill 2) stopping and asking if help was required to any stalled vehicle 3) Providing whatever food that was available at hand, biscuits, water, mint for drivers that were stranded 4) Protecting environment by instructing us not to throw water bottles 5) Giving a quick tap on the horn which was there way of saying “thank you” whenever they were allowed to pass by the oncoming vehicles 5) showing stamina and patience while driving on one of the most excruciating roads I have ever seen in India.
Sikkim is also unique in its own way, while the locals respect law and order and maintain decorum, they do not follow nationwide strikes or bandh as they feel such things affect progress and their well being. This uniqueness was displayed when Sikkim did not follow the 31st May’ 2012 nationwide strike against petrol prices, life went on as usual while we were transferred from Pelling to Gangtok, a state oblivious to negative fall outs of a nationwide crisis. 

While Kalimpong: “Which is in West Bengal and not Sikkim” gave us river rafting in River Testha which is the lifeline of Sikkim flowing for almost the entire length of the state , Pelling in East Sikkim gave us breathtaking views of Mt Kangchenjunga. 

Mt Kangchenjunga. View from my room in Pelling
Moving towards North of Sikkim brought us to a junction called Chungthan from where we could either go to Lachen or Lachung. In lepcha dialect “la” means mountain “chen” means big and “chung” means small. This clearly suggested that “Lachen” was on a higher mountain compared to lachung and so it was.  It took us a good 6 hrs from Gangtok to Lachen which covered only 120 Kms. All of Sikkim is a hilly terrain but what makes it more agonizing is the road. Handling the dizziness of the heights was one thing, negotiating bumpy roads and back breaking drives made the entire stretch of 120 Kms extremely exhausting. “Please wake up BRO (Border Roads Organization, the company that makes roads in this part of the country) and smell the beans, you need to start making roads and not pathways that crumble like a cookie.  

Roads constructed by BRO (Border Roads Organization)
30th May, 3:30am, @ Lachen, a knock on the door by my driver to remind us that we were getting late to see Gurudonmarg Lake:  60 Kms in 4 hrs, but it was all worth it when we finally reached the lake. At a dizzy height of 17000 ft, and barely 7-8 Kms from the Tibet border, this lake is open only for 2-3 months in a year and we were one of the lucky few to witness one of the most breathtaking views of snow capped mountains and its reflection in the calm waters of Gurudonmarg lake. 

Gurudonmarg Lake 17700 ft

The younger brother of Lachen was no less; Lachung was much more spread out and had spectacular views to offer. We travelled to Yumthang valley of flowers as well as Zero point which were spectacular. Yumthang valley has huge open spaces naturally created by surrounding mountains and you can walk parallel to the Lachung River.  Zero Point is practically where the road ends and you can walk across the many streams and play in snow. The weather can get very chilly and sub zero even before you say snow. 

Zero Point at Lachung
 While Gangtok came and went with monasteries and stupa, Darjeeling was one place which gave me mixed feelings. Darjeeling is almost at the border of Bengal and Sikkim and is a place which has not been able to accommodate the growing tourism. Half day sightseeing takes away your full day because the other half gets eaten by the never ending serpentine vehicles. The Mall and Chowrasta (hub of Darjeeling tourist and shops) were good to see and the climate was one which could make traffic forgettable. Tiger Hill, which is famous for its sun rise can be dropped in the monsoon months because of the cloudy weather conditions. Apart from the fact that you take almost 5hrs travel (covering only 30 Kms both ways because of traffic) for a 10 min spectacular which is nonexistent most of the times.  The best way to make use of this place is to check in for 3 nights, do selected sightseeing on one day and spend rest of the time soaking in the climate, enjoying the mountain views and walking to the mall and chowrasta for a hot cuppa. 

Experiences help translate dreams into reality and that’s what we hope to achieve as this tour gave us a lot of local knowledge of the state as well as what to suggest to our customers. Based on which we have revised our Sikkim & West Bengal travel itinerary. Call me on +91 800 777 4124 or mail me on info@samsantravels.com for any information you require for this region including best time to travel, minimum days to be spent, what to carry, do’s and don’ts of travel. 

Happy Holidays!!