The capital of this erstwhile Himalayan kingdom is spic, span, spotless & impeccably stylish! As we sit sipping a cup of Temi organic tea on MG Marg, the December cold trumpeting welcome notes upon our face, we cannot help but wonder how these rosé-cheeked women negotiate the uneven gradient on such high heels! Dresses teemed with fishnets, knee-high boots worn over skinny jeans, quilted jackets, traditional Kira, pullovers and trench coats in the cutest of pastels, bright lips, quirky piercings and an occasional pop of neon blue and fuchsia rule the roost. The men aren't far behind either - gelled mohawks, ear studs, biker jackets, plaid blazers, converse, high boots all come together to give you the complex of being the most ill-dressed person around. Schoolgirls in crisp white shirts and pleated blue skirts with blue stockings descend in small bunches, giggling and gossiping. As the hours darken, orange Chinese lamps light up the glass facades of the many boutiques and restaurants that line the stretch, shops with aisles weighed down by the prettiest winter collection open their doors, and the air is rife with an overwhelming crescendo of momos, meat and music.
In winter, Gangtok is devoid of ubiquitous droves of tourists. Most of the by-roads are silent and deserted, presenting excellent opportunities to those who love walking. The hillside is redolent with conifers; their barks carpeted with fungi. The last of autumn's flowers are nearing demise, and hordes of yellow-green squashes with the most indescribable geometry hang like fat lightless lanterns all along the slopes. My aunt laments on how expensive squashes are in the plains. "Such waste!" she says pointing at few shrunken fruits. Our first morning dawns unexpectedly glossy. After a brief halt on a still sleepy MG Marg, we start hiking towards Sonam Gyatso Marg. We make our way past rows of precariously parked cars to the traffic crossing. An unassuming staircase hewn in the mountainside immediately catches our fancy. A few steps and the sight and smell of hung goat and pig carcasses punch us in the gut: we have walked into one of Gangtok’s local bazaars! Bloodied chunks of cleaved meat and discarded offal lay in careless heaps. Relentless cries of bound chicken puncture the ferric drawl of traffic from the roads below. A little up, there are shops lined with sacks of rice, lentils, fresh vegetable and other goods. We huff and puff up precipitous hairpin bends to reach Ridge Road. On our right is the impressive Chogyal Palace. Once the sight of a fairytale romance between the last Chogyal and an American socialite, Hope Cooke, that turned sour after the King surrendered his kingdom to India without a fight, the palace today is a gloomy, dusty testimony to old days of opulence. (We had to be content with views from outside the tall gates as the palace is out of bounds for tourists now.)
The Ridge Road has a jaw-dropping fall on the right. Once complete, the long walkway along the edge will offer spectacular views. This being the bleak season, we skip the Flower Exhibition Centre and instead, cut across the grounds of White Hall and take the Raj Bhawan Road that bifurcates at Tashi Namgyal Academy. Enchey Monastery is a little over half an hour of walking from here. This section of the town is completely empty except for two housing colonies and a couple of police kiosks. An occasional car carrying tourists zips past. Even birdsong is rare. With the Telecom tower as our bearing, we continue walking till colourful prayer flags welcome us at the gates of the monastery. Founded in 1909 on the site blessed by Lama Druptub Karbo, the Enchey Monastery with its ornate windows and brightly painted panels is one of the most revered in the state. According to a legend, Guru Padmasambhava had subdued the spirits of Khangchendzonga, Yabdean and Mahākāla here. The spirits of the protecting deities still reside here and always fulfil the wishes of the devotees.
From here, the main road turns northeast around the TV tower to a collection of prayer flags, where a footpath clambers up the mountainside in around 15 minutes to Ganesh Tok viewpoint. Panting, we plop ourselves on a bench and dig into a plate of steaming momos slathered with sepen, a hot chilli dipping sauce, and a bowl of soup. On the slopes below, Gangtok is a mesh of multicolored cubes. 4 km uphill is Hanuman Tok. The momo lady points us a shortcut and we scramble up the hillside, through fragrant woods and wild hibiscus bushes. Clear views are rare in winter- the fog swirls over dark, mysterious swathes of forests. The wind is biting. When the clouds decide to step back and sunrays dissolve the deliquescent mist, the valley below lights up unabashedly - the view is one you will remember forever. We reach MG Marg late in the afternoon and dig into a sumptuous Sikkimese spread and more hot chilli sauce!
Because we are always on the lookout for a deal, we skip the over-priced shops of MG Marg and head to Lal Bazaar instead. One of Gangtok’s beautiful women leads us down a narrow stairway near the State Bank of Sikkim, past a tiny bakery and voilà! We are on the terrace of Lal Bazaar! “This four storied market stocks about everything you can ask for. By the way, the women’s section is on the third floor,” she smiles. Soon we are lusting at mindboggling collections of apparels and jackets and heels and scarves and everything that screams à la mode. After what seemed like minutes (but were in fact, over two hours), we find our way through meticulously arranged mounds of colourful fruits and vegetables to the main exit on the ground floor and take the flight of stairs winding up through another bustling market to reach MG Marg.
If you’re wondering if Gangtok is the town of secret shortcuts, I strongly suppose it is!
Gorgeous views of the mountainside