Sikkim is the second smallest state of our country and arguably the most visited on the Eastern side of India.
From one of the highest mountain peaks in the world, the towering Kanchendzonga (Kanchenjunga), to virgin tropical forests and sanctuaries, from alpine meadows to rushing streams, rivers and waterfalls – Sikkim had me hooked at first sight.
Sikkim is a landlocked state sandwiched between Nepal, Bhutan, Tibet (TAR) and West Bengal. More than 60% of Sikkim is mountainous and the former Kingdom of Sikkim is one of the most prosperous states in India and has a very high literacy rate.
Sikkim remained an independent kingdom till 1975 and is widely regarded as one of the last Shangri Las. Orchid is the state flower of Sikkim & rhododendron is the state tree.
We were six of us from my family that headed to Sikkim for close to two weeks. The program was made hurriedly to coincide with my birthday in May. It was also to be an eye opener for me in terms of family travel. It was high tourist season and we had gone without booking any accommodation, for the famous places and even for North Sikkim.
Arriving in Pelling :
Bagdogra was a pretty little airport even though the air hung heavy and hardly a leaf moved. We had booked a Xylo for the entire duration of our vacation. We rushed higher toward the cool climes and arrived in Pelling shivering due to the sudden rain that had resulted in cold weather. I had found the contact details of a rest house adjacent to the Elgin Hotel in Pelling with framed views of Kanchenjunga.
Our first taste of the local favourite Tongba was a delightful affair at Hotel Kabur while listening to the guitar playing twin brothers. We helped the caretaker’s family in cooking food and our after dinner walk meant we strolled to the coffee shop at Elgin Mount Pandim enjoying the goodies. All the time we gawked wide-eyed at the beautiful interiors. Sunrise was a forgettable affair as the clouds hardly let us have a clear look at the revered 8598m high Kanchenjunga. We went hopping like little happy kids to the Pemangyatse Monastery & the ancient capital of Sikkim, the ruins at Rabdentse.
The pretty town of Yuksom was a delight, Danny Denzongpa’s brewery was apparently closeby and we tried Dansberg & Hit beer. There were prayers being held at Tashiding monastery located deep in the green mountains among tall darchor prayer flags. We were astounded with the man made beauty at the temples of Namchi & Samdruptse.
Lost in the clouds at Ravangala :
I was very keen on having a look at the Bon Monastery at Kewzing (The only Bon monastery I have heard of), but it started raining furiously and we also had to find accommodation in Ravangala (Pronounced : Rabongla). We were in South Sikkim and the winding roads were making me dizzy with happiness.
After roaming around the crowded streets we finally found a place to stay. Everything was overrun with tourists and it was very difficult to find rooms. The weather was fabulous in Ravangala and we were loving Sikkim even though it appeared to be very commercialised as a tourist destination.
Morning was pleasant and we were mesmerised to reach Tathagata Tsal (also known as Buddha Park) in the fog and a gigantic 41m statue of the Buddha set between perfectly manicured gardens appeared out of nowhere. The Rumtek monastery look-alike Ralang monastery was breathtakingly beautiful; the monks were small kids in bright red robes.
Crowded Gangtok :
We had a lovely packed lunch at the rolling tea gardens of Temi Tea Estate. I had no expectations from Gangtok and it later turned out my hunch was right. Cluttered with homes of concrete, traffic infested roads it became almost impossible to find a room in Gangtok to stay. We finally found one at 2200 hrs in the night! In that time we had roamed around the pedestrian only mall road and loved the local live music scene at one of the pubs selling Dansberg beer.
The toughest and most awaited part of our trip was about to begin. There is this tricky permit business in Sikkim to go to Nathu La pass, which is exploited to the hilt by local travel agents. The North Sikkim bit is even more crazier, if we are to believe the official word. We are supposed to take a pre-booked tour for the entirety of North Sikkim. We wait for the permit to Nathu La and receive the papers at 10 am. The drive passing through serene Tsomgo Lake (Changu Lake) was pretty adventurous. Some tourists were happy to ride a yak along the fringes of the lake.
Our cab driver was pretty pleased with us and decided to take us to more sightseeing places popularly known as Baba Harbhajan Mandir & Tukla Viewpoint. We were pretty exhausted by the time we got back to Gangtok. I was hell bent on not buying a pre-planned package for North Sikkim. As it turned out later, it was perfectly ok for us to just take the permit and visit North Sikkim on our own.
Happy in Lachung :
We left Gangtok and the immediate destination to reach was Lachung. I was flabbergasted when I was told we were taking a detour due to some road issue and would skip the monasteries of Phensang, Phodong, Labrang & also the Seven Sisters Waterfalls. After passing Chungthang & the cardamom growing village of Mangan, the scenery changes dramatically and houses are few and far between.
Somewhere on our way we saw Tashi Viewpoint, Kabi Lungstok, Naga Waterfalls, the confluence of Lachen chu and Lachung Chu and many other famous places. I loved Lachung (3000m) for its away-from-it-all feel and the sound of the monastery bells and a Tibetan Buddhist feel. We merrily get drunk on Tongba with our taxi guy and find some delicious momos at a home run café.
The drive to Yumthang at 3560m, an absolute heavenly hamlet passed through Singba Rhododendron Reserve. It was turning out to be a happy holiday with the views and places becoming better. It reinforced my belief that we have to go higher altitude wise, to get away from civilisation and in the midst of natural landscapes. We reached the chilly zero point at 4650m high Yumesamdong. There is a gaggle of stalls selling maggi, tea and momos and the chilly wind howls and hisses. This is the farthest we are allowed before the Tibetan border.
We marvelled at the bounty of nature and decided to skip Mt. Katao. Snow covered the mountains and icy cold winds blew, flowers of various colours bloomed wherever nature allowed them to. Zero point at Yumesamdong was barren and lifeless. Although technically, Gurudongmar Lake could be accessed by a small trek from this side, yet due to proximity to the border we had to backtrack and go via road from Lachen. Also we were not allowed to go to Tso-Lamu Lake and Donkia La pass that connects India with Tibet.
Since we don’t have a set itinerary and all members of my family seem to have properly acclimatised to the high altitude, we decide to go to Thangu that is even further than Lachen (2750m).
Read : Frozen in Markha Valley
Thangu feels like home :
At 4200m, staying in Thanggu can be a daunting experience. Yet, even though I don’t know if there is any proper accommodation for families I ask the driver to take us to this little Sikkimese village. There is an army camp located just before the stream where the wooden houses of the village start to make an appearance. It is already evening, local intervention helps us find a basic homestay. We are lucky to have made some army friends who offer to have dinner sent to us.
There are small shops for breakfast and Thangu is majorly a stopover on the way to the star attraction of Gurudongmar Lake. It is frigid. There are wooden drinking dens in Thangu, locals consume this barley based alcohol in unbelievable quantities. We have saved the best for the last. It starts snowing in the middle of the night. My dad is awake, unable to sleep due to a little bit of altitude sickness. We wake up to see a white landscape, I am shouted at by everyone for making this crazy decision of staying in Thangu. Everyone has struggled with the cold and breathing at this high altitude.
The sun is out and we decide to leave early for the 30 km drive to Gurudongmar Lake. Tsopta valley, Muguthang & Zemu Glacier are all near but the driver is unrelenting and will only take us to this sacred lake. There are no roads, we are on the Tibetan plateau. There is an army check post with a small café at 4500m. After a series of switchbacks, we finally arrive to see the pristine waters surrounded by jagged peaks that are covered with clouds at Gurudongmar.
There are very few tourists that make it this far. None of us has a problem even at 5140m, the great altitude at which Gurudongmar Lake is located. Prayer flags flutter in the undisturbed wind, the cameras are working furiously. We pay our respects at the small temple near the lake. The army instructs us to not stay there for long as the wind picks up and might carry small pebbles with it!
My mind is in a state of zen calmness. I can hear the voice of my inner calling. The remote area that is North Sikkim has been my favourite part of this family vacation. We drink tongba in Thangu (that rhymes nicely) and go on for our homeward journey.
My family has a new name for me; ‘The Himalayan Boy’, they call me. Sick with asthma at the business home and a mountain goat in the high altitude areas. It would later define what I do with my life.