Sikkim- The lesser explored

Tripoto

Visiting North East was always on my wish-list, but knowing the distance and the time required, it always seemed unfeasible. Kartike had been to Sikkim with his family in 2008 and when we realized that we had a week long holidays in October, he became excited at the prospect. We booked our tickets in June to Bagdogra and got a really great deal (16K round trip for 2). We waited impatiently re iterating our plans for the 7 days over and over again. Various combinations were considered. I desperately wanted to visit North Sikkim so it had to be an integral part of the plan. So after coming back from Manali, the final plan stood at:

1st Oct- Arrival at Bagdogra- travel to Gangtok

2nd Oct- Spend time in Gangtok (Local Sightseeing)( It was Kartike s birthday so we didn’t want to waste the day travelling)

3rd Oct- Start to GuruDongmar- Stay over at Lachen

4th Oct- Visit Gurudongmar and Back to Gangtok

5th Oct- Gangtok to Yuksom

6th Oct- Yuksom

7th Oct- Yuksom to Bagdogra and back to Delhi

Sounded like a feasible plan to us. Little did we know that too much planning could be an anti-climax most of the times.

Temperatures on most of the days were shown on weather sites to be ranging from13-26 degrees so we packed light woolens. For Gurudongmar, we packed multi-layered woolens as the temperatures are very low and the area is always covered in snow.

We reached Bagdogra around 1 pm but had a hell of a time hunting for a taxi to Gangtok. This being festive season, we had already started feeling the affect, most drivers were on leave, those available were charging exorbitant rates. So we decided to split the journey with a halt and change at Siliguri. It took around 30 mins to reach Siliguri Taxi stand. It is a small congested city with shops hoarding with the local crowds. Women could be seen in beautiful colorful attires, looking their best ready to be the part of Poojo. There were Pooja Pandals after every few footsteps with elaborate 8 armed sculptures of Goddess Durga piercing the heart of Asura Mahisasura.

We met some kids on our way busy pelting stones at a tree. We found out they were hitting a walnut tree and collecting the fruits dropping here and there. We joined them and spent half an hr throwing stones and gathering walnuts. It was a lovely experience; I chatted with those kids and loved spending time with them. They gifted us all the walnuts and asked us to keep our stomachs filled with them during the trek. After bidding them adieu we moved ahead into the jungle. Houses became sparse and sighting people became rarer. We came across small households, each one greeting us lovingly, welcoming us, guiding us the way. I became too emotional at the hospitality and love that people we met showered on us. We were carrying toffees, chocolates etc which we distributed to the kids we came across our hike.

We were extremely tired and exhausted as most of the trek was uphill, so our halts became frequent. Soon we were in the middle of dense forest with no human in sight. Our bottles became empty and we had to fill them up from one of the numerous small fountains. They were amazingly refreshing, cold and water was sweet. Due to my asthma trouble our speeds had slowed considerably. We were totally relying on the gps of the mobile device. Around 3 o clock we were still left with 3-4 kms. But we didn’t lose our confidence and kept pushing ourselves.

We encountered the last house around 4:30 pm where the occupants told us tat the lake was still one hour walk away. We sat down and looked at the last golden rays of the sun shading and colouring the mountains in front of us. It was a beautiful sight.

Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Anupriya
Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Anupriya
Photo of Siliguri, West Bengal, India by Anupriya

It was very hot and humid in Siliguri and we were extremely tired desperate to reach the destination. From Siliguri after much difficulty and wait we got a reserve cab for Rs. 1900 to Gangtok. The evening set in and soon we were climbing the hills and driving along the Teesta. Teesta seemed to bask in tranquility and peace. And why would it not, it had just touched the plains. The driver told us that Teesta will accompany us for the rest of our journey across Sikkim and we would meet her time and again over the next week, in her different moods.

The driver was a 18 year old lad who had left his studies and used to drive cabs to make ends meet. A nice guy he was and he became chatty with us the cheerful couple. Our stay arrangements were at Tadong -3 kms before Gangtok city, as we wanted to stay away from the city rush. We reached around 8 pm and were greeted by a very friendly Dorji family of the Tashi Tagey hotel on the highway 31A. The staff was minimal with the family members participating in the running of the place. We were extremely tired and it was dark s decided to dine there itself. We bought some Khukhri (Single Malt- Sikkimese) and while Kartik was busy selecting his booze, I quietly ordered a cake (chocolate pastries to be precise) as a surprise for him for his birthday later in the night. The owner’s son promised to bring the cake to the room precisely at 12 midnight. After making these stealth arrangements (from the next-door baker’s café- nice guy agreed to take the payment the next day).

For dinner we had a very tasty home-cooked chicken curry in local spices, lots of colorful peppers with rice. The best chicken I have ever tasted I must say. We retired to our beds early around 10 pm and at 12 the door knocked. The person was standing with the cake and lit candle. It was quite a surprise for Kartik and he loved it. Next morning we arranged a cab with the help of Dorji uncle and decided to take a trip to Gangtok’s famous points. It was not a very exciting idea but the next day was planned for Gurudongmar Lake trip. So we decided to keep today a little relaxed.

Photo of Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

We started at 9 am and the driver again seemed to be a young cheerful lad. He had a strange accent which we found very funny and we tried to strike a conversation with him and make him speak. He soon became friendly and started telling us about his family.

We started with the famous Rumtek Monastery which is a beautifully constructed place and made us spend quite some time in peace there

Photo of Rumtek, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

From Rumtek we moved to the Ranka Monsastery. We loved the place too much as it was not at all crowded and not a very popular tourist attraction. The tranquility and silence glued us to the place for quite some time. It was some kind of an institution for children who study to become monks when they grow up. Small kids in the maroon llama dresses were roaming around and looked a perfect picture of sweetness.

Photo of jawaharlal nehru botanical garden, East Sikkim, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

After the Ranka Monastery we headed to the Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Garden- a pretty and brightly colored park with waterfalls and flowers. Garden is an enchanting and soothing experience among the lush green stock of vegetation, rare plants and trees and certain species of Himalayan flowers and Orchids. But there is nothing much to do there apart from clicking a few pictures here and there. Soon we got bored and headed to the Tashi Point. The Kanchenjunga is visible from here early morning. But in the afternoon all we could see was a vast expanse of green mountains and clouds hiding the peak.

Photo of Tashi View Point, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Tashi View Point, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

By this time we were quite irritated and re thinking our decision of taking a full day trip to Gangtok. It was pretty normal and nothing out of the world. Gangtok was turning out to be a flop show. The driver still insisted on heading to the Ganesh Tok and the Hanuman Tok. Ganesh Tok was like a breath of fresh air. Though a very crowded multi floored Ganesh temple, the views of the entire city were mesmerizing. Hanuman Tok is a Hanuman Temple controlled by the NSG. Hence a very rare neat and clean Hindu Temple where one is not allowed to off flowers fruits milk etc. to the idols. It is perched high up on the hill and a very narrow road leads to it so it was not crowded at all. We spent amazing time there. These two places were the highlights of the day. We were extremely tired and retired to our room, ended the day with some old monk and pizza

Photo of Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Ganesh Tok, Gangtok, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

Another low point of the day was that our plan for Gurudongmar Lake busted as there were no cabs available. So we got stuck for another two days in Gangtok.

We didn’t know what to do and requested Mr. Dorji to shift our booking for 4th night to 3rd night which he promptly agreed to without any arguments or hassles. Amazing person he had been. So spending the next day exploring Gangtok on foot we pushed for Pelling on the 4th early morning

The way to Pelling (West Sikkim) is very beautiful and we crossed Teesta again, this time she being much younger, whiter and agile and forceful. We were dismayed thatwe couldn’t go to North Sikkim (due to exorbitantly high prices and non-availability of cabs in the Dussehra season.)

Photo of Rimbi Water Falls, West Sikkim, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

It takes 5 hours or so to reach Pelling. The roads are extremely treacherous with very narrow roads susceptible to landslides. The vegetation is pretty different from HImanchal and western part of Himalayas. There were no abundant coniferous trees and I could see a lot of ferns, bamboo varieties, crotons, different variety of flowers etc. Maybe as the altitude would increase towards North Sikkim , conifers would dominate the scene.

We saw the Rimbi waterfalls on our way. Teesta kept playing hide and seek with us and after a beautiful 5 hour journey we halted at Ravangla which is one hour before Pelling. After treating ourselves to hot tea and momos we ogled at the serenity and quietness of Ravangla. After a half an hour halt we proceeded for Pelling. We reached around 12:30 pm and had run out of cash. None of the atms were working so we had to go down to Geyzing ( a bigger town) to withdraw money. A suggestion- Keep cash handy as once you reach Pelling, you wont find any atms ahead. We faced the same problem ahead too in Yuksom which is a small village.

There are not many tourist attractions in Pelling and the highlight of the stay was the view of Kunchenzonga from the balcony of our room.

Photo of Kanchenjunga by Anupriya
Photo of Kanchenjunga by Anupriya
Photo of Kanchenjunga by Anupriya
Photo of Kanchenjunga by Anupriya
Photo of Kanchenjunga by Anupriya

In the afternoon the Kangchenjunga range was hidden by clouds and we could manage to get a few glimpses. At night while having dinner at a small hotel we were told that the bst time was to view the range at 5 in the morning. At night the peaks reflected moonlight and gowed in the dark, which looked beautiful yet scary at the same time. I slept in the hope of getting up in the morning on time to get a clear view of the peak. At 5 am next morning the alarm went off and suddenly I heard lot of hush hush voices and murmurs outside the room. When I pulled the curtain, there it was, the magnificent peak glowering atr me in the first rays of sun, golden orange in color, in all its glory. I was mesmerized. People had gathered on their terraces to catch a view of the peak and hence the voices. I clicked a lot of pictures and we left Pelling for Yuksom in a shared cab around 11 am. I kept on peeing outside the window checking whether the peaks were still with us. And yes they were for quite a long way ahead before hiding behind the mountains closing on us.

Yuksom is around 30 kms from pelling and takes a little less than 2 hours. Yuksom was earlir the summer capital. It is a very small town and best explored on foot. Yuksom is known as the gateway of Kunchenjunga and also the Kunchenjunga National Park starts here. You need to obtain special permits beforehand from the tourist department of India to be able to enter the national park. Our plan was to just sit back, relax at this off beat destination and try some small treks.

We had pre booked our room at the Hotel Red Palace which was uphill on a narrow passage lined with pebbles cutting from the main road into a dense vegetation grown to took like a forest. The walk way is around a kilometer to the hotel and opens into a vast clearing where the hotel is situated.

We decided to explore the village as it was already afternoon by the time we freshened up and left the hotel. We planned to go on the Kochipalri hike on the next day i.e. 6th October.

The village is serene, sparsely populated and the entire town is situated on the two sides of a few kms long street. There were small shops which sold all sorts of things to be used daily m cigerettes to toothbrushes, biscuits, nail clippers, shaving razors etc. On the road there were colorful stalls of footwear which the Bhutias brought from China to sell here. Ou would find duplicates of most of the popular brands, styles and designs. Further moving uphill the houses became rare and vegetation became dense. We walked through the lush vegetation and rocky ground into the village area and met some local kids who were very cute and friendly. The way led us to a clearing from vhere gigantic mountains could be seen un obstructed view and a clear flat ground ahead. It looked like straight out of heaven. We also came across the Kathok lake which is a beautiful lake surrounded by dense trees and bushes and prayer flags all around. The water is surprisingly clear and we could see bright orange colored fishes in the water. The surrounding scenery was reflected clearly in the water.

Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya
Photo of Yuksom, Sikkim, India by Anupriya

We gathered a lot of kids on our way back to the hotel and distributed biscuits and chocolates to them. At night we sat at the terrace of the restaurant of our hotel near the bonfire and sipped beer with cheesy snacks. Later we went out to the market and had amazing chicken curry and rice at the Gupta restaurant (yes you heard it right :)). There are 3-4 restaurants in the market and Gupta Ji’s claims to be the best. Although nest night we dined at the Yak Restaurant and a simple dal fry and rice tasted amazing because the lady served the food to us so lovingly. What a perfect way it was to end the day. While having dinner we could see two white peaks reflecting moonlight, peeping behind the vegetation covered dark mountains. The waiter told us they were Kabru – North and South. I was already falling in love with the place. Small, cozy, quiet without any frills and simple. An ideal place to be when you wanted to relax.

Next morning we decided to push for Kochipalri lake, but due to other important chores like booking the cab for airport for the next morning, we started late. Kochipalri lake is a sacred lake worshipped by Sikkimese and Tibetans, The trek to the lake from Yuksom is around 11 kms, around 5-6 kms uphill. We were hoping to reach the lake by 4 pm and then after spending some time there, coming back to the hotel by a taxi. The initial walk was easy and enjoyable. We stopped and talked to the local people, passed through the neighborhood. We peeped in the small pretty wooden houses, and were amazed to see the simplicity of life. The locals are untouched by the luring accessories of the urban world

The houses are made of wood, with low roof, small mattresses and a small cooking area. Normal households have some poultry, goats, small pups and mountain dogs who guard the houses. Some elite ones have the privilege of owning cattle like cows. They grow corn, paddy and cut wood to sustain. They do not have frilly desires of fast food, branded clothes, cars etc. Mountains are their friends. As soon as the sun sets in (around 6 o clock), everyone rushes back to their houses and the mountains resonate with silence and darkness. For the initial few kilometers the trail was quite easy, with the way paved every few meters and paved with gravel and stones. The sun was bright and weather was very pleasant and we came across pretty colored flowers of exotic varieties on our way.

Soon we found some kids playing and were relieved to hear voices. We saw some monks rushing downhill. On asking him for the way ahead he tolfd us that the lake was closed for the day and he was coming from there only. It would take another 40 mins to reach and the darkness would prevail in another 20 minutes. On asking we were told that the main road was still 2 kms away. Without even discussing both of us took an about turn and ran downhill towards the mainroad abandoning the trek. We wanted to reach the road before dark. But the walk on way back was worse as it was getting dark and we wre accelerating downhill and slipping and falling again and again. I had never been scared so much and out of fear my feet were not moving at all. Kartik yelled at me that there was not time and we had to crawl to stop from falling. My hands were scratched and my shorts were soiled and I was almost on the verge of crying. Soon it became dark and we couldn’t figure out the way. It was 6 pm and pitch dark. All we could hear was the sound of gushing rivers and rivulets and the rattling sound of snakes and crickets. All we could see in the dark was a faint glow deep down which we couldn’t figure out was a river or the road. We took a leap of faith and kept descending towards that strip until we saw a pair of headlights crossing it. We were elated as it was confirmed that it was a road. After much difficulty we landed on the road with few scratches and shocked with fear. We had to wait for around 15 mins till we met a person on a bike who turned out to be from the border police force. He helped us by finding us a taxi who charged exorbitantly for going to yuksom which was around 6 kms from that point. Entering the village we breathed a sigh of relief and thanked heavens for keeping us safe. A beautiful mountain dog guided us in the dark to our hotel which was around a km walk from the main road in the dark.

We had our dinner at the Yak restaurant and had chhang and momos- the most amazing I have ever tasted in my life.

The trip which I found boring and mundane in Gangtok ended on such an exciting note that it turned out to be one of the best experiences of my lifetime. For many nights together I couldn’t sleep as I would dream of rivulets and falls in the dark and that I slipped on the mountain.

I met a lot of beautiful and helpful people who I might not be able to name here but I thank them from the bottom of my heart for being with us. I made a lot of furry friends who were our guardian angels and accompanied us in the moments of loneliness and skepticism. God bless each and everyone of them.

The Chhang seemed like life giving in the chilly night when we returned to the village

This blog was originally published on 'The dreamers travelogues'

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