A Once in a life time experience!! To see the huge snow covered mountains, see the river flow along with you and sometimes see the river, from the heights, meandering, sometimes gently, sometime gushing as though she wants to go somewhere very urgently, to see the still lakes and the rains falling gently and harshly.
That is Sikkim for you. Let me start at the very beginning. Fasten your seat belts because the roads are rough and winding. The roads are being maintained fairly well but nature decides otherwise when once in a while you have landslides and stone falling which of course roughen up the road. Of course, these rough roads are but tiny pin pricks in an otherwise wonderful journey.
Our road trip strips starts from Bagdogra airport where we land from Bangalore. Vikas is the assigned driver cum guide with an Innova for the entire trip. Our first stop is Pelling which is the capital of West Sikkim. By the way Sikkim is divided into four regions, north south east and west. (All info given by Vikas and not planning to verify. You may do so). It is here that we are travelling alongside the beautiful, majestic Teesta river which is the main river from the Sikkim Himalayas flowing through West Bengal and joins Brahmaputra in Bangladesh (wiki info). Lovely view and yes, we take some pics.
As we are reaching Pelling one thing strikes me, especially coming from Bangalore, where is the garbage, Nothing? Strange but true. I casually enquire and this is the astounding answer we get “Madam, here there is a penalty of Rs. 5000/- or and jail term if anybody litters. Hence we take whatever litter in our own vehicle and throw it at home”. Now my eyes are wide open and I start observing everything in detail. In front of every house there is a garbage basket. So any passer-by can put their garbage into it. There are no dust bins on the roads.
Being a vegetarian and liking momos, I hesitantly ask Vikas if there are places where we could get vegetable momos. He literally looks back and with a surprise says that momos here are veg only. And that too with fresh vegetables. He says in Sikkim there is only organic farming (yes I had heard about this, but not sure). I then ask him whether they use pesticides. The answer I get is even more astounding. Apparently, if one uses pesticides then there is a penalty of Rs 10,000/- and or/- jail term. Wow!! That’s news!!
Pelling is the place from where one can see the Kanchenjunga peaks and weren’t we lucky!! At 5 am in the morning we came to the balcony of Norbughang Hotel and what a sight ‘the sun rising on the Kangzhengzonga (as called in Sikkim) peaks. The golden light on the white mountain peaks.
I believe it is a rare sight, a truth which I vouch for, since the peaks are not visible the next morning. Apparently this was not visible the previous dawn also.
We resume our journey to see the other places in and around Pelling. We go through the winding roads of the mountains. Not once did Vikas honk!! To that he says that it has become a habit because honking is banned in the city of Gangtok and other towns. So much to learn from Sikkim. Wish other states could learn from Sikkim.
The beautiful Khachoedpatri lake (meaning mountain of blissful heaven and the locals worship this lake) and the Kanchenzonga falls are our next stops. The falls are so majestic and the water tasted so sweet.
Have you heard of Vajrayana or tantric form of Buddhism? I had not, and for me it was a first. We visit the 1647 built Pemeyangste monastery . This is rather surprising. I have always seen buddha in a serene posture, and here the buddha was in a totally different form, slightly violent. This was the Nyingma order-Padmasambhava revived Buddhism in Tibet and propagated the tantric form of Buddhism. Hey! Aren’t I digressing?? So much to learn.
The next day we leave for Namchi, the capital of South Sikkim. Here we see the Buddha park, a massive Buddha statue (the posture I have always seen)and inside, writings and paintings of Buddha. A huge statue of Padmasambhava is our next stop (this is the Buddha the locals worship (see the expression on his face).
We then proceed to Char Dham. This is quite recently constructed. Here we see the huge Shiva Statue surrounded by the 12 jyotirlingas and the four Dhams Rameshwaram / Puri Jagannath / Dwaraka / Badrinath, the temples are modelled on the lines of the original temples.
We reach Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim and halt here for the next 3 days. It is morning and we are waiting for Vikas. There is excitement in the air. He must bring the special permit which would allow us to go to the Nathulla Pass. We keep our fingers crossed and yes, he comes with the permit. We were again lucky because we could see many disappointed faced in the hotel lobby. We leave at around 9am. Behold the picturesque mountains with some white snow frosted (this was mid of April) on them . We have to halt at many places and the permit had to be shown at many places.
Finally, we reach the base of Nathulla Pass. It is very cold but we are prepared for that with enough winter clothing. The climb starts. It is ice, it is slippery, it is cold, it is scary, it is rough, gasping for breath we labour, do not give up and finally reach the top. Yay! We make it. We see the two giant gates opposite each other. One is the gate to China and the other is the gate to India. No tourists from the China border come, only Indians from the Indian Border. How do I explain the feeling: feeling proud of our brave jawans, sentimental and in awe of the great job being done by our army? I shake hands with the jawans, thank them for keeping us safe and even salute them. That is all I can do. My eyes become misty. Then the treacherous ordeal of going down. We get a certificate signed by the army that we have been to the pass. Great experience.
The Baba Mandir (read the details in the pic), the temple of the Jawan Baba Harbhajan is our next stop where the jawans give us prasad. The army is taking care of this mandir. It struck me then how spiritual the jawans are. Yes, it is not surprising, given the place they are in: between the hostile humans and the hostile nature.
The next stop is the beautiful serene Tsango lake with many yaks. Rain??? Oh!! But I have to get a Yak ride. We get down. The rain just stopped. I get on to a yak and go for a short ride.
What more can one ask for! But the rains start again and I feel the rains had stopped just to help me get a ride on the yak. We rush back into the car. My friend who visited this place a week later found this place full of snow and they could play in the snow. We, of course, see the lake in a different form, with water. But I am happy..I got a yak ride.
The car stops. A long traffic jam with around 30 vehicles waiting patiently. Some road repair is on. It takes nearly 2 hours to get out of the jam. Not a single honk!!
The next day we spend at Gangtok seeing their handicrafts showroom, the flower show, the Tibetology museum and a monastery. Nothing spectacular neither ordinary. It is good.
We leave for North Sikkim the next day. On the way get down to see the ‘seven sisters’ water falls. From down we could see only 2 falls. We climb a bit and could see only three of them. We have to climb further to see the other 4. The climb is quite steep and we decide not to go ahead. This itself is so beautiful.
Our lunch is at Mongon which is the capital of North Sikkim. Now we have seen all the capitals. On the way one more falls called the Naga falls. Here we walk on a bamboo bridge. A lovely roadside tea and we are on our way.
We are entering Lachan and I see a board and I ask Vikas to stop there. Were my eyes deceiving me !! See the pic to see what is written . That is Sikkim for you. No plastic bottles allowed. Hot water would be provided.
We check in at a hotel. We have a good tea with some snacks and both of us just walk around seeing the small town. But darkness sets in and we get back to the hotel. Dinner was chappathi and dal and subzi. An early night because we have to leave very early next morning. It is quite cold and sleep eludes, maybe the excitement for the next day programme.
I am a bit worried. We are going to one of world’s highest lake, Gurudongmar, around 17000 ft above sea level. Vikas has scared me enough, very low oxygen and temperatures at around -3 °C. Next day we start around 5 am. I am more than fully clothed, thermals, 3 sweaters, jacket. People with breathing problems are not allowed to go up there and getting permit to go there is difficult but of course we are lucky. To be frank, right through our trip we have been very lucky.
With the Buddhist chant reverberating in the car and the picturesque scenic beauty, it is sheer bliss. Yes, the roads are not great but who thinks of that. As expected there are a lot of checks. This area is controlled by the army. So many army camps we pass through. So many army trucks we see taking the provisions for our jawans. I dread to think what would be the situation in very cold season with the snow. How would our Jawans get their provisions, how long would they have to do with whatever food stale or otherwise till the next truck comes.
Let me not think of all that, let me enjoy the beautiful moment, the huge mountains with streaks of white, the white clouds floating around them and the sheer drop when we look out of the window. We then come across a curving beautiful tarred road, with shallow hills on either side but with not a single plant, a cold desert. The road would lead us to that spiritual lake. I thought I would see the lake at the end of the road. But Vikas says that we have a rocky climb ahead. Oh no!! I have to climb. But I am wrong, the car climbs the rocky hillock and lo behold!! The Lake. Words fail me.
I am mesmerised by the sheer stillness of the lake, the pristine beauty of the lake and the surroundings. The lake is surrounded by snow covered white mountains. This was an ice lake. The ice is reflecting the light which is falling on it and it shines like diamonds. No. it is not fully ice, on the sides, near the shore, there is water. The belief is that Lord Padmasambhava visited this lake and declared it as a sacred lake. To help the local people get water, he placed his hand on the iced lake and that part of the lake never freezes into ice even in the coldest of coldest winter.
Again luck favour us. Normally the icy cold winds would not allow anyone to be there for more than 2 to 3 min or may be 10 minutes max. We are there for more than half hour walking and taking pics. It is one of the rather rare days when there is not much wind. This lake is very sacred for the Buddhists and there is a Buddhist temple. We did not feel like coming from there, but good things also have to come to end.
The return journey, otherwise uneventful, is very peaceful, each one of us in our own world, still reliving the moments at the lake.
We come back to the hotel, have lunch and proceed for Lachung where we stay overnight.
Next day morning we proceed to Yamthung which is the ‘valley of flowers’. As we climb the mountain we see flowers of various beautiful shades red/pink/yellow/white even violet on the mountain side. It looks like nature is playing with colours. Could I pluck one? No No there is ban from plucking flowers.
The car jerks. I look outside. Big boulders strewn everywhere, trees uprooted, electric poles fallen. This was the place where in 2014 a major landslide had happened. Big big rocks had fallen on the road, only the stumps of the trees remained, the electric poles had crashed. It is nearly three years and the work is still going on to bring some order there.
It is cold and it is raining. I am literally shivering, I am not prepared for this cold, no proper clothing. Though we are aware, we still feel a little let down to see that there are no flowers in the valley of flowers. Only the river was flowing. The flowers bloom only in May/June and we are early. However, we have glimpses of the flowers, which would bloom in the valley, on our journey from and to Yumthang. Beyond this, there was a place much higher called the Zero point, where there would be snow. We decide not to go there since we are not properly clothed. Anyway, we hear from people coming from there that there is not much snow (sour grapes ha ha).
While returning we did not forget to take the pictures of the beautiful flowers. The sight of the red rhododendron flowers against the grey and white mountains, the pink carpet of flowers, the white and orange flowers is still fresh in my mind.
Back to Lachung and our return journey to Gangtok begins. Yes, our wonderful journey is coming to an end. Yes, it is a bit sad, but it is very self-satisfying, we have with us lovely precious memories of nature at her best at the various places. It is a wonderful, beautiful journey across Sikkim , through the Himalayas and as I say A Once in a lifetime experience.
Next day we leave Gangtok for Bagdogra from where we fly back to Bangalore taking with us the beautiful pictures and the pleasant memories.