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A road-trip adventure through Sikkim

The state and its people seem to be heading in the right direction as far as tourism is concerned

Iftekhar Ahsan | Published 20.04.22, 01:59 PM
 Our trusty steed, the Tata Nexon, slogged through the terrain without a hitch

Our trusty steed, the Tata Nexon, slogged through the terrain without a hitch

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A small hint was all it took, and it came from my daughter. Enough for me to start planning this escapade just before the heat unleashed its ferocity on us.

We packed our bags, loaded into the car and off we went on our epic journey — by road from Kolkata to Sikkim. The hills were on our minds so bad that we didn’t even take a night’s break and drove a straight 18 hours to Gangtok. This is definitely not recommended for most people, especially because the moment one enters the hills, the terrain changes into something totally unfamiliar. My wife and I have quite a few years of driving experience behind us, so we took the risk, taking turns at the wheel, pushing ourselves, while the kids slept in the back. 

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It was worth the strain. The moment the hills arrive, all your stress, worries and fatigue disappear as the magic of the Himalayas takes over.

At Gangtok, we found a lovely Sikkimese-style hotel behind the famous pedestrian plaza of Mahatma Gandhi Marg and hit the bed straightaway. But the kids had had a good night’s sleep in the car and were now wide awake, too excited to stay indoors. Which meant my wife and I barely got any rest as we stepped out to indulge the restless little souls. 

The lovely room of the Yangthang Heritage Hotel in Gangtok

The lovely room of the Yangthang Heritage Hotel in Gangtok

A large statue of a red panda, the state animal of Sikkim, greets visitors as soon as they enter M.G. Marg. The entire promenade has been done up for tourists and has the choicest eateries and shops. It was an especially festive atmosphere as our visit coincided with events Sikkim Police had lined up to celebrate World Happiness Day. We enjoyed the show from the window while tucking into the most amazing momos we have ever had at Shuffle Momos. So good was the stuff that we ended up inviting them to come and open an outlet in Kolkata. Let’s hope they do. 

Over the next couple of days we waited for the permit to visit Nathu La, a mountain pass between Tibet and India on the border with China and a major attraction of the tourist circuit in eastern Sikkim. While waiting for the permit we got an extensive tour of state capital Gangtok and the many amazing sights it harbours.

The twins at the Flower Exhibition Centre in Gangtok

The twins at the Flower Exhibition Centre in Gangtok

Off to Nathu La

The next morning, we were driven to Nathu La. Getting permission to visit the spot can be a little complicated, but was simplified by calling up some friends at Fort William. Otherwise, a local travel agent can organise it without a hassle, only it takes some time. We stopped midway at an eatery to binge on some thukpa and for some sartorial reinforcements like boots and jackets.

Nathu La is a surreal experience, with the army, the snow, the Chinese on the other side and the slippery steps, all contributing to the breathtaking ambience. 

Snowball moments at Nathu La

Snowball moments at Nathu La

But the more fun part was the Tsomgo Lake afterwards. The yak ride, playing in the snow with the kids, chatting with the local people and watching the sky dance of the snowbirds — everything comes together to make it a magical experience. 

Isa, the yak-ky rodeo at Tsomgo Lake

Isa, the yak-ky rodeo at Tsomgo Lake

While we were enjoying the sights of east Sikkim, an agent was helping us and our car get a permit to visit north Sikkim. As we collected our passes and ventured out towards the north, the kids saw a zipline station at the Bakthang Waterfalls and made sure that they got a few rides before we moved on. It was their first zipline experience and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Ziplining at Bakthang Waterfalls

Ziplining at Bakthang Waterfalls

Gurudongmar Lake: Limited time, sacred aura

We spent the rest of the day travelling to the town of Lachen from where we headed early the next morning to the majestic Gurudongmar Lake. It takes long to reach this lake and the tragedy is that you can spend only a few minutes there since lack of oxygen makes it unbearable to stay longer. Thankfully, we managed to borrow oxygen kits from other travellers for the kids who were feeling a little under. 

One of the many beautiful waterfalls on the way to Gurudongmar Lake

One of the many beautiful waterfalls on the way to Gurudongmar Lake

What the lake visit lacks in duration, it makes up for in majestic views. At 18,000ft, there aren’t many lakes in the world at that height and the views of the surrounding mountains, the sacred aura of the place and the pristine environment all add up to an experience worth striving for. We got the kids checked at the army check post first aid centre and then got the green signal to go ahead. 

 The whole gang at the frozen Gurudongmar Tso. (Tso is the Tibetan word for lake)

The whole gang at the frozen Gurudongmar Tso. (Tso is the Tibetan word for lake)

On the right path

Sikkim and its people seem to be heading in the right direction as far as tourism is concerned. They’ve declared themselves the first organic state of India, which is a bold move. Some of the attractions are world class, like the Buddha Park in Ravangla. Impeccably constructed with a museum inside and a statue of the Buddha as its centrepiece, the park has a truly international feel to it.

The Planters’ Home in Mangan, north Sikkim, is just the kind of hotel one needs to recover from the long and tiring drive

The Planters’ Home in Mangan, north Sikkim, is just the kind of hotel one needs to recover from the long and tiring drive

In Sikkim, hotels don’t serve water in plastic bottles because of a statewide ban on such bottles. As an alternative they are happy to refill glass water bottles as many times as you like. Their roads are improving fast and seem to be heading the Bhutan way. Focused on augmenting their culture for themselves as well as visitors, the people of Sikkim are deeply rooted in their Buddhist spirituality. 

Fresh organic fruits and friendly locals are what great road trips are made of

Fresh organic fruits and friendly locals are what great road trips are made of

Their aesthetic understanding and an existence in harmony with nature have ensured a far better quality of life than ours, the people of the plains. A trip to Sikkim is one of the best holiday experiences one can have and I wish all Kolkatans would visit the state, soak in the ambience and come back wiser to enrich our city.

Fooling around at the Kanchenjunga Waterfall. Our last attraction in Sikkim before we headed back home

Fooling around at the Kanchenjunga Waterfall. Our last attraction in Sikkim before we headed back home

Must-visit spots

  • Sikkim Zoo: It has limited animals but the hike is rewarding. One gets to see the snow leopard, red panda, golden pheasant, yaks and gorals, small ungulates with an appearance like that of a goat or antelope, among other animals 
  • Enchey Monastery: It’s the closest monastery to Gangtok and the kids had a blast, turning the prayer wheels and learning about their importance
  • Flower Exhibition Centre: A place to feast one’s eyes on the widest variety of orchids
  • Banjhakri Waterfall Park: Although it was closed, we managed to trespass and had the most amazing experience 
  • Gangtok Ropeway: An unforgettable experience as one glides over the picture-perfect city 
  • Lingdum or Ranka Monastery: A massive monastery surrounded by hills and away from the hustle and bustle of the city
Escapades like these make me love and miss Kolkata even more

Escapades like these make me love and miss Kolkata even more

Last updated on 20.04.22, 01:59 PM
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