Monday, June 13, 2011

Sikkim- the paradise on Earth!!!

Being my second visit to Sikkim, the expectant enthusiasm was not as overpowering, little realizing the surprises this trip would throw in. Nonetheless, the mere prospect of being in the Himalayas propelled me. Unlike the last trip, a decade back, reaching Gangtok this time was not at all tedious. Having changed over to shorts and Ts, we (Srinivas and Raja Reddy with their families) soaked in the untainted air by going out for a late evening walk before settling in for dinner. Gangtok had changed in myriad ways- clean and neat walkways, big shopping areas, a sterile market place etc.,. A light drizzle cooled up the atmosphere and was ideal for a snug slumber.

Day 1:- Nathulla Pass and Tsango Lake. Our first destination was Nathulla Pass which I had visited earlier, but the excitement of being at the edge of India, was enticing. The roads were bumpy and nausea was a constant companion to many of our fellow travelers. Having been to the Himalayas to every possible and some impossible places from Shillong in the east to Mukteshwar in the west, I was more aware of the weather in these regions and therefore coaxed my friends to proceed straight to Nathulla without stop so that we can leave the pass before its starts getting windy and snowy. Nathulla meaning 'Nathu' for listening ears' and 'La' meaning pass in Tibetan language, is situated on the Old Silk Route and is the gateway to Lhasa in Tibet. This place was witness to a number of skirmishes between the Indian and Chinese soldiers in the past. Situated at 14,100 ft above sea level, there is constant snow and at times very cold and windy. Here too, much headway in terms of tourist comfort was evident on the ground. The vehicles would now drop you just below the steps, though climbing those 50 odd steep steps laden with slippery snow was enervating to say the least. One would wonder how could 50 steps be so tiresome, but 10 steps in that rarefied atmosphere with scant oxygen is not just tiring but can also prove to be perilous at times. At the top, a thrill of excitement ran through me on seeing the snow covered ground, the Chinese soldiers and the line of control dividing humanities just by a small wire barely visible in the snow. However, soldiers on both sides ensured that none stepped on to the Chinese snow! With the mirth of a child, I posed for photograph with a Chinese soldier and also did my bit for bonding peoples by cajoling soldiers on both sides to shake hands for a photograph, albeit each standing in their own territory. It is at these times that I ponder as to why have we created gulfs and divides estranging man from man. As prognosticated by me, it started snowing and the climb down was even more grueling. Bengali ladies who appeared to be very coyly poised initially, were now soliciting help from strangers! No wonder; I wouldn't blame them, the burgers and pizzas did them or undid them all. Once down the steps, the yearning to drink or eat something warm was unendurable and our roving eyes saw a Cafe- “Cafe 14,000” run by the Army Officers' Wives Welfare Association (apologies if I got the name wrong). We washed down a good deal of 'momos' and good helping of spicy chutneys with 'hot when poured into the cup, cold when it hits the lips' coffee. Surprise of surprise! They even gave me a certificate signed by the Station Commander for having reached the 'Pass'. I would treasure it for whatever it is worth.

The drivers of our jeeps had foreseen our pitiable plight and had warmed up our vehicles on their own volition- a touching gesture. Our next stop was the Tsango Lake also called as the Changu Lake. It was great treat for the eyes yet again as the snowy peaks reflected themselves on the placid waters. For most tourists, this is the place where they catch up some breath after the Nathulla fiasco. Nevertheless, just sitting on the banks of this unruffled lake is blissful, though of course, if you are not disturbed by the intermittent pleas of yak owners for a photograph on the yak. I took his photograph instead of mine and excused myself after doling out 50 bucks. I did buy peace for Rs.50! Back to our burrow by around seven, we had enough time to explore the city which we did on foot. Exhausted we hit the beds with a solemn promise to wake up by 5 and be on the road by 7 as we had to travel for more than eight hours to reach our next camp- Chumtang.

Day 2 Gangtok to Chumtang:- Wake up we did early, but squandered away the advantage by going for a morning walk followed by a long, lazy breakfast. Consequently our start off time was around 9. The journey to Chumtang was long and arduous. The most formidable part was of course between Gangtok- the state capital and Mangan- the district headquarters of North Sikkim district. No sooner had we left Gangtok's vicinity we seldom found black top and it was replaced by dusty and bumpy patches with no semblance of any road having existed there. We were told that BRO (the acronym for Border Roads Organization) is on the job and soon there would be wide roads there. Knowing and having experienced the efficiency and efficacy of BRO, I am sure that by the time I get to visit this place again, it would be much less painful for the gloutos. En-route we made a brief halt at Kabi-Lungchok where a blood treaty was signed by two warring tribes of lepchas and bhutias-nothing much to see except that one would get the feeling of having seen a place of historical significance. Tucked away in the mountains is the quaint Phodong monastery. We made a brief stop over there too and interacted with the monks aged between 8 and 80 and even offered our silent prayers at the altar. The 'Seven Sister' waterfalls which is between Phodong and Mangan Mangan is worth watching. It appears timid at times of peace, but its real ferocity is worth watching after a small bout of rain. We had the good opportunity of witnessing the roaring waterfalls after a brief rain on our return journey. 'Fast and furious' is the apt description for this waterfalls. Sikkim, and more particularly the northern part is dotted with waterfalls and one would get tired of counting them. Their numbers too swell with the increase in rainfall often washing away a portion and sometimes whole of roads. The road from Mangan to Chumtang was for most part well topped and the drive was smooth and we could manage an average of about 30 km/hr! The last leg of this journey of about 10 kms was enough to compensate whatever little patches of good roads we had earlier. The roads were not only bumpy, but we found that it was very narrow and precariously poised between the hill wall and the deep gorge. I am sure, many would have murmured silent prayers when they cross this patch. I was told that roads here were far more horrendous than what it is now and tourists would often alight and walk. It was dark by the time we were traversing this patch and perhaps this darkness shrouded the danger from us. We hit land ie., Chumtang by 8 pm and to put it succinctly we were much relieved to jump off the jeeps!

Chumtang is small sleepy village with a population of 800 and a migrant population of 3500. I did not sight any hotel or lodging houses worth its name in the village (may be my nocturnal outings were not able to locate). At this juncture I must confide to all teetotalers that in Sikkim, particularly in rural Sikkim, there are much more number of liquor outlets than tea outlets or eateries! In this village or town which consists of just one road which just keep going up and up, there are around 16 outlets where alcoholic liquors are vended whereas we couldn't fetch tea in this place after 8pm! And I, before anyone can vouchsafe that unlike in most part of India, there is absolutely no adulteration. So anyone planning to travel to Sikkim, please do not burden yourself by carrying your own liquor, for you can get the best at the most affordable rates. As our itinerary for the next day was for Yumtang Valley a very early morning wake-up wasn't envisaged and hence we indulged in the much lost out banter before dozing off to the lullabies of my friend's snore.

Day 3 Yumtang Valley:- After a good breakfast, we set off to the Yumtang Valley often extolled as the Switzerland of India. As we gained altitude, the vegetation too changed its hues. The whole of Sikkim is a bed of flowers, but with every gain of altitude the intensity changes and rocky surfaces with bare grasses are soon replaced by balmy green grass fields interspersed with tiny flowers of various shades. The sky gets clearer on mornings and due to a complete lack of pollution of any count, the rays of the sun hits you very blazingly. Despite the intense cold, there is every chance of getting sun burnt unless you are covered properly. The azure blue sky coupled with the thin air and light gurgle of the river below weaves a magic spell on all travelers. Often we see an aura around the moon, but I have never witnessed one around the sun. It was by chance I noticed one around the sun there but the oppressive glare fended off any attempt of viewing it again. Much later we were able to successfully capture the phenomenon with our lenses behind the silhouette of a tall tree.

The long jeep journey had not only fatigued but had famished many. Before setting out to explore the valley, we decided to help ourselves to some momos and black tea. These nibbles rejuvenated most souls and we slowly crept ourselves into the valley because any quick moves would deplete your lungs of oxygen which is scarce here and one can soon swoon. The sight around from the valley was to say the least- exhilarating. It is not without reason that people often place this valley in the same league as Switzerland. Green meadows, a meandering stream carrying crystal clear water, surrounded by snow covered peaks with poplars at the edges of the valley all blend together to make an ideal picture post card. We walked around soaking the beauty of the valley and then after another helping of tea decided to take the trekkers path to the hot spring. This brief trek through the rhododendron forest punctuated with small wooden bridges of which we have seen illustrations in the old time novels and small mounds of solid snow was invigorating. As the rays of the sun grapple with the canopy of pine leaves to peek in, there are intermittent regions of cold shade and sunny relief. Srinivas, my friend and me avowed to come back here for a longer trek through these virgin forests. Soon we reached the so-called hot spring. This was the only disillusionment in our entire Sikkim trip. We did not venture to see the place but from the accounts of the people who were returning from the spring we understood that the place boasted of a tap through which hot water trickled down. After a resuscitating drink of 'Bacardi Breezer' we latched on to our seats to return to our camp at Chumtang.

During supper, our driver Mr.Bhutia put forth a proposal to start at 3 in the morning which was opposed in unison. Mr.Bhutia was the owner driver of one of our jeeps and he was overtly obsessed with his new vehicle which he protected with the tenderness of a new bride. Though of course, this preoccupation was a blessing in disguise for the passengers for he never drew fast, but would monotonously grumble about bad roads and bad drivers. No wonder, Naimisha, the little daughter of my friend aptly named him 'Grumpy'. So when Grumpy proposed that we start so early, the idea was phoo-phooed and we opted to start at 5.00 instead.

Day 4 Gurudongmar Lake:- We were adequately warned by many that the journey to Gurudongmar is fraught with danger and unless we reach the military check post before 10 am, we wouldn't be allowed to proceed further. Though we had resolved to start at 5 am, it was almost 5.45 by the time we were on the roads, which soon gave way to rocky and muddy path on the edges of mammoth mountains. The road from Chumtang to Lachen was paved though for most part. To avoid nausea we had not had our breakfast and the ladies instead had anti-nausea tablets for breakfast. We had obtained the 'inner-line permit' from Mangan itself which we produced in the Police Outpost at Lachen. Coupled with the delayed start, we had to stop at several places for little Naimisha to vomit. She would be chirpy and talkative and then suddenly feel sick. The stoppage at Lachen was godsend, for we could get down from our aching seats and stretch ourselves. It was then that we realized how cold is it out in the open. Without wasting much time, we set out again in the rocky path with the jeep moaning with every climb. For most part it was running only in the first gear and rarely the second. Our average speed dipped to less that 7 kilometers per hour. By 9 we reached the last of human habitation- Thangu. Our driver purchased his supplies of diesel and pushed on further. The initial avidity of looking around and enjoying the milieu soon gave way and most of the occupants in the vehicles were lost in a sort of somnolent trance. May be my previous tours had hardened me out and so I was eagerly trying to capture some pictures but in vain as the jeep was shaking savagely. Naimisha who had regained her real self after a bout of vomiting was silent again. This appeared to be ominous. I saw her growing red and there were by now tell-tale signs of asphyxiation on her. Reaching Army check-post at Giogong appeared to be godsend. Soon we decided that Srinivas would stay back at the post along with Naimisha while others would proceed further to Gurudongmar Lake. Srinivas, more than anybody else in our group, was more enthusiastic about the trip and his loss was painful to all of us, but there was no other option. Leaving the army post one enters the barren valley- the cold desert where there are no roads and you have to pave your way. I had seen such places only in the National Geographical Channel and the urge to drive was growing in me. The 40 minute drive was memorable but the gradual climb to 17, 000 feet was noticed by our bodies which were struggling for oxygen. Gurudongmar Lake is on the fringes of the Kanchengunga Ranges and is one of the sources of river Teesta. The legend has it that the Sikh Guru Guru Nanak Dev traveled through the area on his way back from Tibet during his third Udasi (journey) in 1516. During the visit, yak grazers sought Guru Ji's help over the scarcity of fresh water in the region, because the lake remained frozen throughout the year. Guru Ji hit the frozen lake waters with his stick and the ice melted away in that part of the lake making its pristine water accessible. The blessed part of the lake hasn't frozen since. The sight offered by the lake and the surrounding snow clad peaks is much more than our eyes can absorb and assimilate. Bright blue skies with small patches of clouds as if the painter has used his brush just to increase the contrast, snow bound peaks with small patches of brown earth peeking out, the lake with its white, green and blue hues all combine to create a phantasmagorical (for lack of a more apt word) atmosphere. Labour hard you should, to even move here; even just crouching for a better shot of photography was painstaking. The army jawans posted there were again kind and affable. They offered hot tea and chocolates trying to resuscitate us. Though, I desired to sit there for eternity my limbs wouldn't permit and we decided to start back. Our driver, though a man from Sikkim too was not all fine and there were tell-tale signs of fatigue on him and consequently my feeble offer to drive was immediately accepted by him. For me this was bliss as you can't get a second chance to drive in this terrain. Grabbing the opportunity with both hands, literally, I did not give him a second chance to think and occupied the driver's seat. As I drove on the dust track I realized that it is easy to get lost and land in the Chinese army's net! Wise counsel of my friend asked me to follow a small line of telephone and we did reach Indian territory safe and sound. We bade good bye to the Officer in Charge of the post (CO) a young Captain from the Engineering Corps and a product of DAV, Chennai and the jawans there. Having grabbed driver's seat I was in no mood to give up and opted to drive down to Chumtang. On the way back, we halted at Thangu for our first solid food of the day- noodles 'yo-yo'. Over steaming hot noodles which now appeared tastier than any culinary delight fished out by five star souz chefs, we took another major decision. It was decided unanimously that the ladies and kids would proceed to Chumtang and we- Sreeni, Raja Reddy and me would stay back at Lachung and make another attempt of Gurudongmar.

After seeing off the ladies and kids, we set out looking for an accommodation for the night's stay at Lachung. We settled for the first lodge in the vicinity and judging by the pricing of Rs.500/- per day, the room was very competitively priced. It was a big room with two large beds and a deewan. Most importantly, it had very neat bathrooms. There was no power and we were told that it would come soon, though of course it never made an appearance till we left the place next day afternoon. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our stay and the candle light dinner of roti, dal and some strange vegetable curry. Our driver 'grumpy' had very reluctantly conceded for another trip up Gurudongmar on the assurance that I would be driving. But strangely I could not get even a wink of sleep in the night and added to that my body was showing all signs of high altitude sickness. Moreover, we had to drive back all the way to Gangtok immediately on return from Gurudongmar. Weighing all the options, we decided that I catch up some sleep so that I could take over the wheels from Grumpy from Lachung to Chumtang at least and give him some rest. My friends left at 3 am and I did get some sleep from 3 am to 7 am which was very refreshing. After a cold shower, I had my breakfast of omelet and bread and then set out exploring this limpid habitation. I met people, talked to them so that I could get a feel of the place. I was told that for most part of the year, this place remains cold and snow covered and the maximum temperature here did not cross 10 degree centigrade. The people led a pastoral life and few survived on some bold tourists like us. Of course, there were number of shops selling noodles, momos and liquor serving the army men. There were only 8 graduates in the whole village and only one knew and understood English. The break thus was educative and rejuvenating. My friends returned at around 12 and immediately thereafter we set out for Chumtang with me at the wheels. The drive down to Chumtang was not very challenging as the roads though winding were almost paved. Reaching Chumtang by around 1.30, we finished our lunch and set out immediately targeting to reach Gangtok by 7 in the evening, a difficult proposition considering the unpredictable roads. Sreenivas, who is an accomplished driver himself, had been my navigator on many of our earlier trips and was very adept in his job. He would warn me if I am too fast or even too slow and would always be in the lookout for clear roads so that we could accelerate. Driving in these roads was challenging but with two more vigilant eyes made the task much easier. Chumtang to Mangan was arduous with the jeep often swaying sideways. The light drizzle which had set by now made the task even more parlous. To be candid, I was enjoying the challenge, and by their expressions my friends were more at ease when I was at the wheels. As we progressed, rain intensified and we realized how treacherous these roads could be. Many a times, Sreeni had to alight and see which portion of the road was intact and which portion had been washed away. We had a brief stop over at Seven Sisters waterfalls and saw its might after the brief spell of rain. It was gorging down with all ferocity now and the timidity which we saw on our way up had vanished. After a small helping of chana with very delicious masala tea we set out again. It was slowly getting dark and the perils of mountain driving were increasing. However, without much delay we reached Mangan. As we crossed Mangan town, the clouds descended and visibility was reduced to less than 50 meters. Our vexation was compounded by the slushy roads where the jeep just wouldn't roll straight. Sha-shaying from one end of the road to the other we somehow managed to precariously hold on to the road. The drive for the next 20 kilometers was both spine-chilling and nerve-racking. Despite all the impediments thrown in by the nature, we were able to hold on to our pre-determined timings and reached Gangtok safe and sound by 7.15 pm. I had gone on long drives and through some very tough terrains and nothing was more daunting and intimidating as this one. As we got down, Raja Reddy heaved sigh of relief and stated with affirmation that he had a drive of a day and that he couldn't have been in safer hands. This was more than a thousand accolades to me.

One significant aspect which I noticed in Sikkim has left an indelible imprint on my conscience. I was crestfallen at the loss of my father but with the hope that Baba (Bhagawan Sri Satya Sai Baba) would be there for me to lend his shoulders at times of crisis. His demise just before my departure for this tour had saddened me deeply. But I consoled myself that his presence in physical form was immaterial and that he would continue to reside in our hearts and souls. Despite the self reassurance, I was already missing him, but when I saw the long candle light procession at Gangtok in his memory by scores of men, women and children braving the inclement weather, my spirits brightened up. I was surprised at the throng of devotees and even passerby population that this remote place too is blessed by His presence. One evening as we were taking a lazy walk through the main road of Chumtang, we could hear some sort of prayers up above from a small temple. The steps leading to the temple were steep and we had to halt twice in between to catch our breath. On reaching the top, we found that around 50 devotees of Baba had assembled and were singing bhajans. It was as if we were drawn up by some strange force to be a part of this bhajan. We stood there muted, offered our prayers and left after the aarati. I felt his presence everywhere.

Our tryst with Sikkim was coming to an end. The last four days were frenetic, tiring but most gratifying to the soul. I exited Sikkim after a brief visit to the Rumtek Monastery the next day offering my silent prayers that may this land of tranquility and serenity be preserved this way for the future generations to come and not ravaged by ravenous politicians in the name of development and modernity.

For photographs click these links.

PS:- We were often at loss to determine the distance to each destination and the time taken. We have endeavored to log the distances and time taken for each of the destinations so that it could be of use to anyone who might like to travel to these places.


Distance in KM

Aprrox. Travel Time in hrs.

Lake Gurudongmar



Giogong – Army Check Post





Yakthang Valley














Yumthang Valley






Sighik Viewpoint






Phodong Monastery



Seven Sister Waterfall









Rumtek Monastery
























1. Rumtek Monastery is 12km away from main Gangtok-Siliguri highway. But people who

want to visit the Monastery on the way to Siliguri can travel via Rumtek between Gangtok & Singtam.

2. Without touching Gangtok, people can travel directly from Siliguri to Mangan. This will

be shorter by about 42 km.




1450 m

Changu Lake

3660 m

Nathu la

4410 m


1790 m


3000 m


3660 m


2750 m


5220 m

Chopta Valley

4030 m


2050 m

1 comment:

  1. Dear Venu,

    I just would love to go to Sikkim once again. Your account of the visit has propped me up.