After hearing tons of stories about the untouched beauty of the eastern state of Sikkim and being final year students, the mid-semester recess seemed like the perfect opportunity to explore this part of India. We were a group of 16, with 5 (including me) going on 17th March and the rest on 18th March. February to May is generally considered one of the best times to visit the state.
Day 1: Journey from IIT-Kanpur to Jalpaiguri, West Bengal
We had booked tickets of the North-Eastern Express (12506) which leaves Kanpur at around 1pm in the afternoon and reaches the town of Jalpaiguri in West Bengal in the afternoon on the next day. There is no direct train to Gangtok but if it suits you, direct flights are available.
Day 2: Journey from Jalpaiguri to Darjeeling
The train was running a few hours late so we reached New Jalpaiguri Station at around 3-4 pm the next day. The 5 of us were 1 day ahead of the rest of the group and so decided to travel to Darjeeling before visiting Sikkim.We took a government cab (Rs.1960 for a car seating 6 people) from the counter outside the railway station after talking to multiple private operators who would try to fool you by demanding lower rates but in return ask you to the book the hotels they partner with. It takes nearly 4 hours to reach Darjeeling from Jalpaiguri and the route is beautiful as one leaves the plains and goes up the hills. Since we were on a budget trip, the driver took us to a cheap yet comfortable hotel (Timber Lodge) on the mall road itself and we booked 2 rooms for a total of Rs. 1500 i.e. Rs.300/person. The rates may vary drastically depending on the season. Drivers know of the best deals available (both in Darjeeling and Sikkim) which can help you negotiate better (in case you don't book in advance). We spent the night taking a walk on the streets, having dinner at a local restaurant and..ahem..remembering Lord Shiva :P
Day 3: Darjeeling Day Tour and Off to Gangtok
The same driver that led us to Darjeeling offered a package deal (Rs. 2200 for 5) covering an early morning visit to Tiger Hill to witness the sunrise and the majestic Himalayas (views of the Kanchenjunga), a visit to the famous tea gardens, a local zoo, mountaineering institute, Tenzing Rock (with an area for rock-climbing), a beautiful stupa-styled Indo-Japanese Buddhist temple known as the Peace Pagoda and boarding the famous 'Darjeeling Toy Train' which goes from Darjeeling to Ghum (one of the world's highest locomotive stations) with different types of hour-long joy rides (ranging from Rs.35/person for a local to around Rs. 1500/per person for a premium). We skipped the Tiger Hill as were too tired/trippy and went straight for the tea gardens buying some tea (prices vary drastically depending on the type of tea and vendor). The same driver then took us to Gangtok in the evening taking another 3-4 hours. There is no tax on liquor in Sikkim so booze was cheap and abundant. Smoking, however, is not allowed in many areas. We reached M.G. Road late in the evening which looked like some street in Europe, bustling with restaurants, karaoke bars and other food joints on the both sides of the paved road. We were really impressed by the fashion-consciousness of the crowd (both in Darjeeling and Gangtok). Another striking feature was that majority of the shops and restaurants we came across were run by women (even in Darjeeling and other villages of Sikkim). The rest of our group had arrived and we had a crazy late night party at the hotel that was booked (Hotel Soyang on the M.G. Road)
Day 4: Gangtok Day Tour
Similar to the one we had in Darjeeling, we booked a package tour of the attractions in and around the city taking us to a cable car ride, a plant conservatory, a beautiful flower display garden, a Sikkimese Lord Ganesh temple where we dressed up in the traditional Sikkimese attire, a picturesque waterfall garden on the outskirts of the city, 2 peaceful monasteries and certain other 'points'. After the tour, I and a friend visited a karaoke bar (Zomsa Bar & Kitchen) on the M.G. Road itself where we sang a couple of songs to the crowd and became friends with a local tour guide who gave interesting insights on the culture of the people in Gangtok and the rest of Sikkim along with tips for the journey ahead. We arranged permits through our tour operator in the hotel itself for travel to North Sikkim (separate permits for Lachung and Nathu La as the area is close to the Chinese border and controlled by the army). The permits cost around Rs. 1200-1300 per person for each and require 2 passport size photographs and an ID Card photocopy for verification. All other arrangements had been made according to a package.
Day 5: Off to Lachung and Caught in Landslides!
The next day we were off to a village known as Lachung situated roughly 120 Km away from Gangtok in North Sikkim. The road is beautiful, passing in front of multiple waterfalls, lush forest areas, bridges and villages but it is highly risky with good chances of broken roads and landslides during rainfall. Mid-way in our journey, it started raining heavily and water started overflowing on the roads, almost destroying them. It was highly thrilling and scary to make it through the path. But, the excitement faded when we realised that the road ahead had been blocked by a landslide that even crushed a tourist vehicle (the people survived though). Also, the road back to Gangtok was also blocked by a similar incident. We were left with no choice but to try and find accommodation in the nearby village of Chungthang. But thousands of other travelers (including dozens of others from our college who came in separate groups) shared the same fate and there was no hotel availability in the tiny village. Our last resort was a gurudwara which became overcrowded with tourists with people securing space and blankets for their groups (remember the scene in AIRLIFT? :P ). We managed to secure space and blankets for all of us while some of us slept in the car. Meanwhile, some food was prepared by the gurudwara people for the tourists. Maggi and other eatables were available in nearby joints. Though it was cold outside, we somehow managed to sleep on the ground.
Taking shelter in a Gurudwaara in Chungthang to pass the night due to the road ahead and behind being blocked by landslides
Day 6: Strolling Around in Chungthang and Off to Lachung
I woke up at 5am in the morning as the cold ground beneath became intolerable and went for a stroll with a few friends, having tea and much required Old Monk nearby. The driver came and took us to his sister's place in the village and the family greeted us warmly, serving delicious breakfast (Aloo Puris and tea FTW!). In the house we saw 1 guy but 6 females (including 3 adorable little girls doing their homework whom we could not help but disturb especially the youngest one). We then did a little trekking to the site of the landslide seeing the army use their machinery to remove it. Some of us even offered to help (what use is engineering otherwise :P ). While it was being cleared, we did a little trekking to the river flowing below and spent some quality time observing nature and clicking pictures. In the afternoon, it started raining again and we were losing hope of continuing our trip any further when suddenly the driver announced that the road had been cleared. It was a risk to go ahead and most of the other groups from our college went back. But we took the risk anyway and I swear, it was totally worth it! The views of the landscape and waterfalls en route to Lachung with a mild fear in our hearts were beyond words. We reached Lachung at around 6:30pm and the weather was really, really cold, especially due to the rainfall. But the views from the lodge that we were staying in were too good to miss. We had 5 rooms in total (with 3 in the basement).Throughout the trip, I loved the hospitality of the people who provided us accommodation especially the woman in Lachung who treated us like an extended family in her lodge, singing us and dancing with us, preparing delicious food and offering the traditional Sikkimese wine known as 'Chhang'.
Chhaang, local Sikkimese wine
Day 7: Katao, Yumthang Valley and Back to Gangtok
After getting loaded with the gear for tackling snow (available in the lodge itself), we headed towards the Katao Sikkim-China Border at around 3:30 am in the morning. It was crucial to follow the schedule to safely return to Gangtok on time. It took nearly an hour or so through the snow-clad mountains, alpine forests, bridges offering mesmerising views. Katao, 'The Switzerland of Sikkim', as it is called, truly lives up to its name. We returned at around 8:30 am, had a quick breakfast in Lachung and left again for Yumthang Valley encountering a really rugged terrain, with views of the majestic snow-clad peaks, yaks grazing along the roads and even an area blocked by an avalanche. We reached the beautiful Yumthang Valley which is a huge snowy grassland, flooded with a narrow canal, strong winds blowing and awe-inspiring views of snow-clad peaks. Some of us visited the hot springs nearby, having a quick Maggi and tea session. We then left for Gangtok, saying goodbye to the majestic peaks and freezing weather. It was definitely #HoliWithSnow ;) . Our car broke down on the way (20-25 Km from Gangtok) and we took a lift to the city (the other car was filled with students of IIT-Guwahati by chance and we shared good stories). M.G. Road was all pink and red with the Holi celebration (which happens in a very dramatic/filmy way in the city with a DJ and thousands of people on the streets throwing colour at each other) and we had to struggle to find food after 9pm (most shops close after 9pm in Gangtok). We had gathered enough memories and it was time to lay dead on the bed.
Katao, Sikkim-China Border
En route to Yumthang Valley (road was earlier blocked by avalanche shown)
The mighty Yumthang Valley
Day 8: Back to Jalpaiguri
After a wonderful journey, it was finally time to leave the place, which we really didnt want to. Some of us went for river rafting in Melli (on the Teesta river which lies on the way to Jalpaiguri). We took a shared cab to Jalpaiguri and wished the spectacular place, goodbye.