A final hurrah using his final LTC before his retirement. And so the plan was made for our Sikkim trip to celebrate my dad's retirement the next year (Darjeeling included but I didn't like it that much so I have no issue leaving it out of the title). This time my dad's friend GP Nagarajan and his wife Shashikala also decided to join us.
The planning phase started and we had a look at all the popular tourist attractions in Sikkim. Initially my mom was doubtful whether to choose Gurudongmar lake and Yumthang valley as Gurudongmar Lake is at 17,800 ft altitude and hence, it is generally warned that low oxygen levels might cause issues. I saw its pics and reviews and tried my best to convince her that it was not that dangerous. Finally she relented after hearing good reviews from some other folks too (Turned out to be an awesome decision). After searching for various travel agents, we finally decided on Sikkim tours and travels, an A grade government recognized agent (Slightly expensive but they organized our trip superbly). For our stay, we chose 3 star restaurants at all the places as we knew the temperatures would be
low at some locations and we would need good heating facilities there. Our final itinerary was as follows,
• Day 0 -> Drive from Bagdogra to Gangtok
• Day 1 -> Nathula Pass and Tsomogo Lake
• Day 2 -> Local sight seeing at Gangtok
• Day 3 -> Drive to Lachen
• Day 4 -> Visit to Gurudongmar Lake and further drive to Lachung
• Day 5 -> Visit Yumthang Valley and back to Gangtok
• Day 6 -> Drive to Darjeeling and some local sightseeing
• Day 7 -> Visit to Tiger hills and back to Bagdogra
Never ever take an Air India flight (sadly for my dad's LTA this was compulsory) to Bagdogra. We arrived at Kolkata early at around 0900 hrs and were waiting for our already delayed flight to Bagdogra at 1500 hrs. To wile away time, we went to visit Dakshineshwar Temple and Howrah bridge and returned by 1 pm so as to arrive early for our flight (sacrificing boating to the other side of Howrah bridge). Guess what, the flight had been further delayed. Finally after everyone screaming at the poor Air India chief stationed there (what could he possibly do, get a new flight ?)
for more than an hour, the flight left to Bagdogra at 1730 hrs. We reached there pretty late and our hotel at Gangtok further late as Bagdogra to Gangtok is about 120 kms or 4 hrs drive. We stayed in Gangtok at the Tamarind Residency was a pretty cool hotel with good facilities. They served us our late dinner at our room and we slept hoping that the weather would hold the next day for our visit to Nathula pass. Day 1
: I got up the next day at 0500 hrs to realize that the sun had already risen much earlier. We then had our breakfast and left for Nathula pass. Our operator had arranged all permits earlier and so we did not face any issues at the permit center. On our way up we could see military camps and also realized that photography was prohibited at a lot of places. Our vehicle suffered a type puncture and we stopped in the middle for a while where we got a few beautiful scenic images and then moved on. The Nathula pass was pretty crowded and the soldiers stationed there had to keep reminding the people that photography was not
allowed there as it was sharing a border with China. From there we also caught a very beautiful view of Kanchenjunga (would have got a lot of likes on fb but sadly as I said, photography was not allowed). We were exploring place when the soldiers started asking us to return quickly. We were not sure why they were so forceful in sending people away. We were told the weather was about to get bad but it actually seemed pretty good. As we did not have a choice, we went back and on the way passed Baba Mandir, which was a small shrine build in memory of a soldier. Then we came to Tsomogo Lake (12,400 ft) which glittered brilliantly from the reflection of the sun. There was a small market there with some other activities such as yak rides being offered. Only when we drove further did we realize how right the soldiers were. The weather all of a sudden lopsided and it started becoming very foggy. The fog was so thick that the visibility was barely 10 - 20 ft ahead. We found a vehicle which had broken down and the helped out the tourists in it by
giving them a ride back. Once back to our hotel, we rested a while and went for a walk to explore the city. There were handicraft stores with very beautiful artifacts, the secretariat building and a flower park nearby. We walked for a while enjoying the clean fresh air (unlike the polluted vehicle exhausts in our cities). With dinner, we ended our day 1. Day 2:
We had a long list of locations to visit on the second day and hence, we got ready quickly. Tashi, our driver picked us up and we first went to Hanuman Tok (Temple) which had a very peaceful place. The weather was slightly overcast with a cool breeze making it perfect to roam around. It also had a view point of Kanchenjunga but due to the clouds we barely got a glimpse of it. The stroll in its beautiful gardens had a very soothing effect on us. My mom then started urging us to move on and while we felt we did not need the urgency, in the end she was right as we had to miss a few locations after spending too much time at our initial tourist spots. Next came Tashi
view point (yes, our driver was named after the same) which proved disappointing as it was a Kanchenjunga view point and due to the overcast conditions, we could not see it clearly. We then went to see Banjhakri waterfalls. We started to notice a pattern as here too the gardens and waterfall gave the place an air of tranquility. A plethora of flora and fauna also made it an awesome place for me to improve my photography skills. Then we went to a place even calmer than the previous two which was the Rumtek Monastery. The building stood out with its brilliant colours and architecture. We went in and met some children practicing writing (I was ashamed seeing their handwriting which was as good as Calligraphy. Don't even bother to ask me mine). The interiors of the monastery glittered with gold being the dominant colour. Time was running out now as everything closed there by 1600 hrs. So we then went to check out the ropeway. The ropeway was a bit crowded but we still got a pretty good view of the whole city. By then it was almost 1500 hrs and we were all hungry. We realized we would
miss out the flower show and handicrafts emporium but we did not have a choice. Thus, with an air of disappointment, we did our lunch and then roamed around MG road which was the happening road in Gangtok. It was filled with shops and people but did not have anything spectacular (when you have been to Bangalore MG road, this is practically nothing). We headed back to Tamarid Residency by 2100 hrs. Day 3:
We initially met the Sikkim Tour and Travels head for our payment. He was a pretty nice guy and he immediately took a liking to me (Though I want to say it was because of my charm, sadly its mostly because he viewed me as a continued potential customer again compared to my dad). We discussed about his other travel itineraries and treks where I got some information on Kanchenjunga treks and butterfly trails. The rest of the day was spent mostly in travel to Lachen. It was about 110 km ride on the mountains through meandering roads. The shock absorbers of our vehicle was our saviour all the way through. In the car, we mostly spent our time listening to songs, Hindi and Kannada
and discussing movies and other random stuff. The scenery along our route was out of the world throughout with lush green trees on the mountains with sights of rivers and streams in between. There were a lot of small waterfalls formed due to the rain in between which added to the charm of the place. By the evening, fog started increasing and so, Tashi hurried to ensure we reached our hotel, Apple Orachard as quickly as possible. We finally reached there by 2000 hrs and found ourselves shivering. The temperature was pretty low around 5 deg Celsius, with rain adding to our misery. But the hotel was at some height and we had an amazing view from our rooms. We got a grandiose dinner thanks to the cooks there which we consumed speedily before it got cold. Day 4:
The morning began with us getting wind that it had snowed near Gurudongmar lake (we could even see a snow covered peak). I was super excited considering that it would be the first time I would be seeing snow (disregarding movies). The weather was as pleasant as it could be at that height.
We encountered a number of military camps
on our way and even stopped at one for breakfast. We had sandwiches packed and apples which we ate there and some hot tea (though the heat was mostly used to warm our hands). The snow was whiter and brighter than what I had in mind and I had to wear sunglasses to escape the glare. The rest of the way was filled with stunning landscapes. Bridge over snowy river, red shrubs with snow on their leaves, green trees with hint of white on them, brown mountain base with snow capped peaks all made us feel like we were in a dream. We also passed a plain flat terrain where Yaks were grazing. Here too photography was limited and not allowed near military bases. At the end, the road was closed due to snow and to see the lake, we had to walk about a km on snow. My mom decided to stay near the vehicle and rest of us started walking. At 17800 ft (well maybe 17500 as we technically weren't at the top), the low oxygen levels was taking a toll on our speed. We had to take deep breaths every few steps and GP uncle and Shashikala
aunty slowly drifted back. I and my dad reached the top paving our way through the slippery snow to a breathtaking view of Gurudongmar lake. Deep blue water gleaming from the sun's rays with a cover of white mountains with black spots in between was one view I shall never ever forget (Its etched in my memory though the photo I took helps). I forgot how cold it was on top and took photos removing my gloves. About the time my hands started becoming numb, we decided to head back. We drove back through the same spectacular landscapes and took a detour to go to Lachung. We reached the Yarlam Resort which was our place of stay for the night. This was a four star hotel and while we had had great one to one service at the rest of the stays (they did not have many bookings), here with more crowd we felt the attention given to us was lesser. Still it was very well situated and all the facilities were great. The dinner was a pretty generic buffet which again had not been the case with the rest of our hotels. Day 5:
The passage on our
fifth day was through the Rhododenron sanctuary of Yumthang valley. We got up early and were in a sleepy mood when my dad started playing Suprabhatam which livened us. Unfortunately as we had arrived there in October, we could just see the plants and not the flowers which only blossom during summer (May - July). Even without them again, the drive was through a very scenic route where we saw a lot of colourful plants and mountains and streams. Here too the roads had been blocked at the top due to snow. We stopped midway and walked as far as we could. We also played with the snow and saw people creating snowmen on roadsides. The valley was spectacular with mountain ranges at the sides and a river flowing in between with icing (snow) on top of the mountains (I know you feel that I am using too many adjectives for all the places but they really were so awesome. The images should clarify your doubts). On our way back, we again stopped on the banks of the river where we had fun with the cold water. We reached Yarlam Resort, packed and were about to leave, when the hotel
manager gave us a shawl as a souvenir. We then made our trip back to Tamarind Residency for our final night in Sikkim. Day 6:
We were sad to leave Tamarind Residency after having had such great food and services there. We bid farewell to everyone there and proceeded to Darjeeling. We stopped at a spot where we could see tributaries join and form the Testa river. There we also had some churmuri (Bhel puri which was pretty unique). Further on our way, we luckily got a view of Kanchenjunga. It dazzled brightly over the clouds. We could see large tea estates on our way and my mom and Shashikala aunty even tried out some tea harvester attires there. Up until here, the place was pretty picturesque and scenic. As soon as we stepped into the city, I started hating our decision to include Darjeeling in our itinerary. Sikkim overall was extremely clean, peaceful place while Darjeeling was as any other metro city with small roads. We did not even have a place to park near our hotel, Yash Shree and had to remove our luggage with the police guy screaming at our driver. The hotel at least was
good thankfully. We then had our lunch and asked the driver to pick us up for some sightseeing. We first visited a Japanese temple and even participated in some chanting. It also had a lovely golden Buddha statue. Then to appease my dad (who had been chanting "Red Panda" from Day 1), we went to the zoo. The zoo wasen't very big but was delightful. Ranging from birds like peacock, parrots to animals like panther, leopard, tiger were all housed there. The plants there even had names (botanical too) written on them which got my mom (MSc Botany) animated. I was badly searching for an orchid as the place was supposed to be famous for it but found none of the marked plants flowering it. We reached the red panda on the way which brought a huge smile on my dad's face. There were two extremely cute ones and they were playing and eating grass. Finally when we were about to leave, I found a lone orchid plant flowering which got me happy too. By then it was evening and we exited the zoo back to our hotel. After some rest, it was shopping time and the ladies took charge
when we went to the market. We bough tea from a famous vendor and crafts from a craftsman who dazzled us with his special yak bone carvings (We later realized there were many such shops). It was then back to our hotel for a good night's rest. Day 7:
We got up early very excited to watch the sunrise at the famed Tiger Hills. Imagine our shock when we got caught in a traffic jam at 0400 hrs in the morning. People are so crazy to watch it that they flock there like sheep (Us included though we did not know it would be so crowded). At the top there were even luxury rooms for watching the sunrise (you obviously had to get a more expensive ticket). The people there were pushing each other (a fish market is much better) all over the place and we somehow waded forward and rooted ourselves there. The sunrise began and thankfully it was well worth the effort. Though we were unfortunate that we could not see the hue fall over Kanchenjunga because of the clouds, the sunrise itself made our day. It felt like Midas was slowly touching every cloud there until
the whole horizon glittered. We waited a bit in hope of seeing Kanchenjunga but to no avail. On our way back we went to Ghoom monastery which felt more like a commercialized market with vendors selling clothes and stuff. We also went to Batista Loop which was basically a memorial to a war hero. It was a nice place but was again very crowded. By then we had had enough and decided to head back and pack up. We finally got back to Bagdogra and back to Bangalore.
This was easily the best trip I have been on within India. Sikkim is a lovely place which has fortunately not yet been spoilt by locals and tourists. The locals too are very friendly and helpful. The weather was a bit cold and you would need jackets and thermals. So add Sikkim to your checklist if you haven't been there yet as it is a place you need to visit at least once in your lifetime. You would know of my sentiments about Darjeeling by now. Except for the sunrise at Tiger Hill, there is nothing else which you would dearly miss and you can actually remove it from
the itinerary and maybe cover Pelling in Sikkim itself. It is surely not worth the hype. As far as Sikkim tours and travels is concerned, they orgranized the whole trip in a smooth and hassle free manner. The head being a local has good contacts and ensured that we did not face any problems. Do try Yumthang valley in May time frame too as it is supposed to be spectacular with rhododendrons blossoming and covering the whole valley.
Hope you enjoyed the read, Ciao.
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