This beautiful little state, surrounded by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan in the north eastern part of India has not received much attention as it should have. It is home to the third largest mountain in the world - the Kanchenjunga (8,586m). From terraced tea estates to the majestic snow covered peaks of Kanchenjunga, from Rhododendrons to blessed flora and fauna, this place is definitely worth a visit. What's saddening is a lot of travelers believe this place to be unsafe. Read on and you'll know how safe it is!!
Planning an itenary wasn't easy, as the internet throws up monotonous options like Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Pelling etc. No doubt they are beautiful, but why not explore the unexplored. Luckily, I had a friend in Gangtok who helped me plan my trip.
Best time to visit - March to May (summer) or October to December (autumn)
How to get there - Flights to Bagdogra Airport, trains to New Jalpaiguri Railway Station
How to travel there - Hire a comfortable taxi for your entire trip with an experienced driver.
Other places to visit - Some of the other picture postcard places which can be visited include Gurudongmar Lake and Namchi.
Let's begin with my mad trip!!
Day 1 - We hired a share taxi from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok around 8 a.m. (lots of share taxis wait outside the airport for transfers to Gangtok and other places, please remember to bargain). The distance is nearly 135km which took us about 4.5 to 5 hours. We stopped by a local restaurant on the way for some hot momos and thukpa (noodle soup). We checked in to our hotel Sterling Holidays, a nice and cozy 3 star hotel, and then proceeded for a little surpirse I had for my friends. I asked our driver to drive us to the mountain top. There awaited the surprise which was - PARAGLIDING!! I had booked this adventure through Fly Sikkim Adventure. They have a range of options from High Flight (at 1900mts 20-30 minutes), Medium Flight (at 1420 mts 5-10 minutes), Alpine Flight (40-60 minutes). We chose the High Flight. After signing the declaration form, we were greeted by our pilots and given a short training on the do's and don'ts. My pilot was apparently the only female pilot who was approved to paraglide. We were then geared up and asked to run from a few feet away from the mountain tip. That was quite scary, as I was continuously imagining that, if we don't take flight, we are going to land up in the valley!! I remember having butterflies in my tummy, but once we took off, I got lost in the serenity. The experience was surreal, flying high among the clouds with breathtaking views of K2 and small villages in the valleys below. (For all the Bollywood junkies - Upon landing, the 3 of us did run and hug each other like the actors did in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara!!). After this thrilling experience, we went to the Banjhakri Falls and Energy Park. A Ban Jhakri (meaning a forest healer) is a mythical man, who exists only in folktales within the Nepali Community in Sikkim. Local people believe that Ban Jhakri dwells in the forest and live in rock caves worshiping sprits. The ethnic communities of Sikkim still believe in such mysteries as it is part of their tradition and culture. This park is spread across 2 acres and the main attraction are the falls which cascades from a rocky height of almost 40 feet and plunges down with intense force. The park also adorns several statues of old ancestors. After this, we went to Mall road, the lively part of Gangtok and the shopping area. If you are keen on buying some winter wear, there are shops which have some trendy jackets, which are imported from Tibet and are good in quality and cheap as well. We then had some yummy Indian food at Hotel Masala on M.G. Road and headed back to our hotel. The night had just begun folks!! We made our way to Mayfair Casino. A small yet classy casino, we tried our luck on a few games, watched a few dance performances, hogged on some food and quenched our thirsts with some amazing drinks. The best part is we ending up winning at the Casino! (If you want to experience a luxurious stay, I would definitely recommend staying here. But since its a very famous hotel, you need to make a reservation months in advance. Another thing to try here is the Spa at this Hotel). We finally got back to our hotel and ended our adventurous day!
Day 2 - We started with some breakfast at the hotel and proceeded to Tsomgo lake and Baba Mandir (nearly 40kms). Our friend from Gangtok who helped us with our trip also joined us today. A winding road through rugged mountain terrains and sharp cliffs takes you to one of the highest altitude Himalayan lake - Tsomgo (aka Changu Lake). This bewitching glacial lake is frozen for most parts of the year. You could take a walk around the lake or ON the lake. (Gum boots and jackets can be rented from the entrance point). You could also take a yak ride along the lake. On the banks of the lake is a temple of Lord Shiva, which is worth a visit. (Indian nationals are permitted here; however, foreign nationals have to be in a group of two or more and have to apply for a visitors permit through a travel agency before hand). On a further drive up is Baba Mandir (nearly 15km, 30minutes). It is named after an army man Baba Harbhajan Singh, who sacrificed his life for the nation. Hailed as "Hero of Nathula", the sikh is treated as a deity. We then drove to our final destination - Nathula Pass (nearly 20kms). This mountain pass is amongst the highest passes accessible by tourists via motorable road and serves as a trade link between India and China. Marked by gates of India and China and military bunkers on both sides, this is definitely a must see tourist attraction in Sikkim. Try to catch a glimpse of the "Mera Bharat Mahan" font written on a mountain on the way to Nathula. Again, a permit is required to enter this place, which can be obtained in a similar manner as for Tsomgo lake. Sadly, foreign tourists are not allowed to enter the Nathula Pass. This pass is accessible for tourists only from Wednesdays to Sundays. Feeling patriotic, we headed to M.G. road to grab dinner and hit our beds.
Day 3 - Our next destination was Lachung (nearly 102kms, 5hrs to 6 hrs). It took us longer time than usual to get there due to bad road conditions. The views throughout our journey were outstanding; Lush green mountains, hanging bridges and river streams. Weather here can be unpredictable, you could be welcomed with snow anytime. But most importantly, these places were pollution free!! After a roller coaster ride we finally reached Lachung, to realize that most of the town had vacated and moved to the valleys due to bad weather. Thanks to that, we were left with only our driver, 2 of our hotel staff and a few army men in the vicinity (ALL MALES!!). Driving through, our driver took us to a mountain top temple, from where we could see the entire village of Lachung. We did have to do a small trek to get there, but it was worth it. Hungry, tired, cold and scared we proceeded to our hotel room only to find some scrumptious home cooked food. There was dal chawal and paneer (Lentils, Rice and cottage cheese). We feared eating it thinking there would be something mixed in it to intoxicate us!! Sensing our fear, the hotel staff very sweetly told us not to worry and we are like their sisters!! They would dare not cause any harm to us. We never knew a night we were fearing would turn out to be so mesmerizing. After dinner, they set up a bonfire for us!! The cherry on the cake was one of the staff was singing and playing his guitar on some hit bollywood songs!! We could have sung all night until it started snowing. Call it a coincidence or fate, it was first time for the 3 of us to experience snow fall!! It felt like a dream!! Guitar, songs, bonfire and snowfall!! But, all good things have to come to an end, and so did that night. We finally hit the bed, snug and warm.
Day 4 - This morning we drove to Yumthang valley and zero point (nearly 25km, 1 hr). We requested our new friends (the hotel staff) to lock up the hotel and join us!! And so they did!! Yumthang Valley, popularly known as "Valley of Flowers", is extremely picturesque, with green slopes, hot springs, yaks grazing in the flower-spangled grassy plains below, and a river flowing right through the valley (all snow covered during our visit). What makes this valley unique is that, it is situated at what is called "the tree-line", an altitude above which there are no trees, yet it has Rhododendrons and low growing Himalayan flowers. We then continued our drive to Zero Point (nearly 23kms). Zero point stands at an altitude of 15,300ft above sea level and is also known to be the last outpost of civilization. Due to high altitude, oxygen in the air is low and can get difficult for a few to breathe. A drive to this point is a lifetime experience. Rugged, curvy and steep roads and the view that you get at the end of it is just unexplainable. Yes the roads end here at this point!! While trying to digest all the beauty around us, we headed back to Gangtok ending our trip with cherished memories and stronger bonding among us.
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