My fascination for mountains has taken me to places like Annapurna in Nepal, the Everest Base Camp also in Nepal, and the imposing Sheela Pass-Tawang circuit of Arunachal Pradesh in North East of India. I have heard a lot about Sikkim, its mountains with Kanchenjunga as the guardian deity, the affable and easygoing hill people, the quintessential Sikkimese cuisine, its predominant Buddhist culture, and of course the world-famous Orchids. But, as luck would have it, I was unable to muster the time and the energy to embark on an exclusive mountain tour of Sikkim.
However, this time around in the month of March, I was offered an invitation by my Sikkimese friend – Lobzang, who runs a very successful hotel business in Gangtok, the picturesque capital of Sikkim, to come on a leisure trip to this marvelous mountainous state in the Eastern Himalayas.
Siliguri is the gateway city to the Eastern Himalayas and we arrived at Bagdogra Airport by an early morning Jet Airways flight from Kolkata. My friend Lobzang had sent his personal vehicle (4×4 Drive) and once we finished the airport rituals, we straightaway hopped into the sturdy Scorpio. Our friendly driver – Tenzing was of the opinion that there was the likelihood of a thunderstorm that was forecast by the Met office and so we zipped, zapped, and zoomed our way through the enchanting Dooars region.
We passed by Siliguri town, the gateway to the Eastern Himalayas, and were captivated by the magical blend of immaculately landscaped Tea Gardens and stunning wildlife. The Siliguri-Jalpaiguri tourist circuit, though not all that developed in terms of tourist infrastructure as compared to destinations like Darjeeling, Kalimpong, and Gangtok has over the years evoked a sense of mystery and awe with its three T’s – Tea, Timber, and Tourism.
The Climb Uphill
The ascent from the plains of Siliguri to the high mountain terrain of Sikkim via National Highway 31A is nothing short of a fairy tale mountain ride. The four-hour drive from Siliguri to Gangtok offers spectacular window views of the Sikkimese countryside nestling beside the turquoise-blue Teesta River, your companion throughout the journey. Rhododendrons and Orchids create a riot of pink, yellow, and mauve.
There are enough interesting mountain cafeterias and we savored some of the best “Momos” (Tibetan Dumplings) of India along with Sikkimese wine, every time we needed a break in our Himalayan ascent.
I always had this opinion that being a predominantly mountainous state, traveling within Sikkim would be an arduous and grueling affair. But all my preconceived notions were swept aside once I found myself in Gangtok – the breathtakingly beautiful capital of Sikkim.
We checked in at the classy Sonam Delek hotel, which is located strategically in Tibet Road and my friend Lobzang was absolutely delirious with joy as we meet after three long years. Instead of dining at his hotel, Lobzang invited us to have a traditional Sikkimese dinner at his quaint residence, which was a brisk 20 minutes drive from the hotel.
Gangtok – Picture Perfect
Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim is a mystical land and is steeped in history. The tumultuous history of the land finds echoes in the peaks and valleys that rise and fall. Directly overlooking the city is the hill – Lukshyma, the “mother of pearl” citadel of the magic mountains, Khang – Chen – Dzongda.
The sight of the impressive Rumtek Monastery, renowned the world over as an important seat of Tibetan Buddhism and the world’s second-largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery is awesome.
If history is anything to go by, Sikkim used to be an independent country till the year 1897 and was ruled by the powerful Chougyal dynasty. The majestic palace of the Chougyal dynasty at Gangtok bears ample testimony to Sikkim’s rich virile past.
As a mountain city (1,547 meters) and with a population in access of 50,000, Gangtok has developed primarily along its arterial roads with the NH 31A being the most prominent. Most roads in Gangtok are two-laned driveways and some roads have very precipitous gradients.
In Gangtok East meets West at the crossroads, with youths sporting designer jeans and Ray-Ban goggles brushing shoulders with wizened “Baku” clad old-timers carrying prayer wheels and chanting “Om Mani Padma Om”.
The liquor scenario in Gangtok and the rest of Sikkim is absolutely fabulous and highly subsidized. You can very well step into any roadside stall and just ask for your favorite tipple, guzzle your quota, mop your mouth with your handkerchief and say Bye! Bye!
Gangtok’s rustic facilities and its warm-hearted folks offer visitors a fascinating experience of life in the Eastern Himalayas, a Himalaya you never knew existed.
Onward To Nathula Pass – The Last Frontier
Having spent three eventful days at Gangtok, my hotelier friend Lobzang, true to his indomitable Himalayan spirit came up with an outlandish suggestion that we visit Nathula Pass, the border town and India’s last Army post.
Nathula Pass remained out of bounds since the year 1961 due to the bitter acrimony between India and China. But with the friendly overtures in the Indo-Chinese bilateral relationship in recent times, the Pass has been opened to tourists since the year 2006. A special permit is required to visit Nathula Pass.
Nathula Pass, which is all of 14,450 feet above sea level, is located at a distance of 56 km. from Gangtok on the Indo-Chinese border. In the days of yore, it used to be referred to as the famed “Silk Route” that facilitated trade with Tibet.
Traveling to Nathula pass is an adventure in itself. As we embarked on our journey to the high mountains from Gangtok, the serpentine roads, turbulent waterfalls, and mist-laden Himalayan peaks were our companions. The presence of the Indian Army is very palpable with Army settlements spread across the Nathula Pass and its surroundings.
The ultimate high for us was the once in lifetime’s opportunity to be photographed in the company of soldiers from the Indian Army.
Already, the Ministry of Tourism is predicting a Tourism boom at Nathula Pass. While it is still early days as far as package tours and Mass Tourism is concerned, the few who make it to the Pass are having a whale of a time pitching tents at this rarefied Himalayan zone, appreciating the hardships of border postings (Armymen), mixing up with the hardy locals and bargaining with the few shopkeepers for that prized souvenir, be it shawls, sweaters or scarves.
If you are driven by the spirit of adventure and wish to stay overnight at Nathula Pass, you should carry the logistical stuff like tents, cooking utensils, and other high altitude paraphernalia, all of which were adequately provided by Hotel Sonam Delek. Take the help of the Indian Army when it comes to the selection of sites for pitching tents as they know the topography best.
The dramatic landscape, stunning Alpine panorama, and icy wilderness of Nathula Pass are unparalleled. From those dizzy and rarefied heights, you can’t help marveling at the rugged beauty of the Eastern Himalayas.
List Of Logistics
(1) A weatherproof Swiss Tent is an absolute must since there are no accommodations like hotels and resorts at Nathula Pass.
(2) The freezing sub-zero temperature means that you need heavy woolens, jackets with cover-up cap, snow goggles, gloves, spare woolen socks, and a hardy pair of shoes with good grip to see you through the harsh weather conditions and landscape.
(3) Carry an inflammable stove for cooking purposes.
(4) At least one among the touring party must know elementary cooking.
(5) Carry foodstuffs like noodles and fresh vegetables/meat/fish etc… according to one’s preference.
(6) A pair of torchlights with good visibility.
(7) First aid box with enough remedies for mountain sickness.
8) A pair of binoculars for distant mountain viewing across the Chinese border.
(9) Non-narcotic pain relievers (acetaminophen or paracetamol, ibuprofen).
(10) Throat Lozenges.
Traveler’s Fact File
The nearest airport from Gangtok is Bagdogra, 124 Kms. away in North Bengal. Scheduled flights arrive at Bagdogra from Calcutta, New Delhi, and Guwahati. Major airlines like Indian Airlines, Jet Airways, Spice Jet, etc. offer regular flights to and fro Bagdogra.
Those who do not want to take the trouble of embarking on a road journey to Gangtok can avail of the Helicopter ride to Sikkim conducted by the Department of Tourism, Government of Sikkim from Bagdogra to Gangtok and vice versa. The flight timings have also been kept flexible so as to suit the requirements of passengers arriving or departing Bagdogra and vice versa.
Hired taxis and cabs are easily available at Bagdogra airport.
Gangtok is a choc-a-bloc with hotels to suit every budget. Hotel Mayfair, Hotel Norkhil, Hotel Tashi Delek, Hotel Tibet, The Chumbi Residency, Hotel Sonam Delek are some of the up-market hotels of Gangtok. They are centrally located and offer impeccable mountain hospitality. Most have a predominant Tibetan ambiance. Hotel Tibet in particular is famed for its no-holds-barred Tibetan appeal.
The in-house restaurants offer Chinese, Continental, and Indian cuisines but try out the local Sikkimese delicacies prepared to perfection by the resident chef.
For those interested in government-run accommodation, Hotel Mount Jopuno is a great place to stay and is centrally located at P.S.Road.
In addition to an Indian visa, foreign travelers must possess an Inner Line Permit, issued by the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs or New Sikkim House, both in Delhi. The permit is valid for 15 days. A visit to the interiors of Sikkim requires a Protected Area Permit, which may be obtained in Gangtok from the Department of Tourism