North East India has always invoked beautiful landscapes in my mind, a perspective built from childhood that picturised sprawling green hills, winding roads, steppe farming, monasteries and Mt Kanchenchunga or as the locals call it, Kanchendzonga. One of the places I wanted to visit always has been Sikkim and to capture the beauty of Kanchendzonga.
I heard September/October will be ideal as the monsoon rains would have stopped and a short period of dry weather before it starts snowing again in Novemebr/December. I set myself a week to explore this enchanted land. Vinod was only too eager to join hoping to get a new experience and some more experiments with travel/landscape photography to enhance our portfolio. So it was late September we decided to go to Gangtok without much planning. (Nomads do not plan much eh !).
The early morning flight from Bangalore to Bagdogra(Siliguri), with a stop over in Kolkotta was a smooth one. The smoothness of the travel ended there. The rest was tailor made for some rugged and adventerous terrain that kept us engaged for the rest of our travel. We reached Bagdogra by midday and booked a taxi from the airport's 'pre-paid' booking counter to Gangtok. It costs around 2100INR to hire a small car and one has the option to share it with others, if you want to split the costs. The journey lasted for 4 to 5 hours to cover 130kms, including a brief stop for lunch. You get to pass through outskirts of Siliguri and by Rajaji National park. The national park, we were told, was closed due to heavy monsoon making the terrain difficult for a safari. In anycase we did not plan to visit so this did'nt disappoint us anyway. Bagdogra/Siliguri is in the West Bengal state of India and you cross into Sikkim at Rangpo, where the check post officials politely queried about our intent of entering Sikkim, before allowing us to pass through.
An hour later we found ourselves stretching our stiffened legs in a hotel room in the heart of Gangtok. The next morning I was awakend by a steady drizzle and a short walk towards a vantage point to see Mt.Kanzechonga was in vain, as there was just too much cloud cover. If the weather is good then you can see Mt Kanchendzonga from Gantok. A quick chit chat with the hotel reception gave us our iternary for the day. We were tired to go to far flung places and thought to explore around Gangtok.
Gangtok is a beautiful city nestled in the mountains. I wondered if this was indeed an Indian city and a capital of an Indian state, as you will find it is very very clean.
No garbage spills on roads, no platic bottles lying around and the roads actually have footpaths and most importantly pedestrains use it. Traffic rules and road manners does exist !! Cricket is a far away land game, I wondered as most vehicles carry stickers of EU football clubs( Manchester United, Arsenal etc.). Narrower roads means smaller cars (Alto and Wagon R's everywhere), more traffic discipline and indeed it is a pleasure to drive here from a traffic point of view if you dont mind the winding steepers and the potholes.
Gantok also is the gateway to North, East and North West Sikkim. Sikkim as a state is a tourists haven. Sikkim has wildlife, treks, mountaineering, parasailing, kayaking, cycling, wildlife etc etc. Almost in all directions you head to a place of tourist impaortance. One needs to only pick and choose what one wants to do based on interests and the time of the year. Yes, time of the year is very important as the terrain, weather and festivals will determine activities to undertake, comfort and mobility as a tourist.
So with the given time we had and our interest in culture of the place/landscapes, we decided to cover places around Gantok on the first day and North Sikkim for the rest.
So day one began with a ride in a taxi that took us to the all famous Rumtek Monastery. After neccessary checks by army personnel we were allowed into the Monastery. No photography allowed inside the main sanctum but we entered it to witness soft chants of praying monks.
After a prayer before Lord Buddha, we unpacked our gear to take some photos. Inside the main walls and outside the sanctum, photography was allowed, so we ended up capturing the brightly coloured architectures around in its spleadour and the monks going about their daily chores.
A 30min drive from here took us to a Pal Zurmang Kagyud Monastery, a classic example of a Tibetian Monastic Architecture. The whole place appeared deserted except for a 12year old monk who guided us in and out of the monastery. Photography is allowed inside the main premises and we ended up capturing some pictures of the main diety after offering a prayer.
Our next stop over was at Banjakhri water falls, a beautiful picnic spot well designed and maintained. There are few tea shops and small eateries that serve you veg Dimsims, rotis and other snacks. We refreshened ourselves with some rotis and tea and moved towards the falls. A light stroll from the parking area gets you to the falls and one does not have to trek or climb any steep inclinations as is normally associated with accessing waterfalls. It is a relatively smaller falls but beautiful and fun if you want to drench yourself in. A steady inflow of tourists meant we had to spend more time for clicking the photos of the waterfalls. After we had enough for the day we left and reached our hotel in Gantok at sunset.
An evening stroll on the Mahatma Ghandhi (MG) road gave us an opportunity to experience and indulge in some of the sikkim's urban culture and lifestyle.
The Sikkim tourism board at start of the MG road gave us the places to target for our next few days. We had about 4 days at our expense and we decided to head towards North Sikkim closer to the Chinese border, to visit two places. Lake Gurudongmar and Yumthang Valley. Hotels or the travel offices on MG road can arrange for a package tour to these places. One cannot go here without a permit from Indian Army and non-Indian tourists cannot get permits to visit these places. Also the accomodation and arrangements for food has to be pre-booked to get the permit. So this requires planning in advance. Ofcourse you can do this on your own by approaching the tourist office. Easier way is to take a package that the hotels or the travel offices offer you. We opted to take the 3 day -2night package from our hotel reception and submitted singed forms, photos and ID proofs for the permits to be issued.
Day 2 started with a smaller taxi ride to a bigger 'Taxi' stand on the suburbs. We had our driver, Cheung, waiting for us in a Bolero Max. He dumped our gear in the back of the vechile and and set off at a steady pace over the ever winding roads of Sikkim. Journeys are never easy and fast here as the road conditions are tested by mother nature. Landslides and soil erosions are a standard package.
Enroute we stopped at a few waterfalls you encounter waterfalls along the road side. We drove through Mangan-Singhik, small towns a few kilometers apart, from where one can have a good views of Kanchendzonga if there were clear skies. Near Singhik, a lunch-home served us rice, cabbage and some papads(crackles) for lunch. An hour later we reached a fork in the road at a place called Chungthang. A stop for tea and we took the left towards Lachen and we made it by sunset.
Lachen (pronounced as Laa-chen) is like a base camp for folks travelling to Gurudonmar. A few hotels/homestays make up this town. A sumptuous dinner and a good night sleep renergised us to wake up early and leave for Gurudongmar lake at 5am in the morning. Infact the entire convoy of jeeps and SUV's carrying tourists left around 5 am. After an hours drive' we stopped at an army check post where our permits were checked. As we moved on we realised the landscape around started changing. The yonder snow capped hills started to reveal themselves in the morning golden sun. Further few minutes of driving, landscapes changed to very dry and coloured rocky terrain with smaller streams flowing through them. The only other man made objects here are a few army baracks and trucks peppered on the vast mountainous landscape.
We reached Gurudongmar lake, walked down a slope from the parking area to get to the level of the water.
A beautiful sight with blue skies above and blue water of the lake below and sandwiched inbetween were the snow capped mountains. There were buddist prayer flags fluttering in line along the banks adding a human touch to the God's painting that presented before us.
Slowly I realised breathing was difficult here, infact whenever I got up after kneeling on the ground to take a picture, I felt my head spin. The oxygen levels are low so one needs to take neccessary precautions. Infact waiting arrangements are made at the army checkposts for people who have breathing trouble or do not want to visit this place. A couple of tourists had collapsed due to the low oxygen levels. The entire place had a barren landscape, almost like a hilly desert. After marinating ourselves in the beatuty around our next destination was Lachung towards Yumthang valley. So we had to travel all the way back to Lachen for lunch, then Chungthang for tea, where we took the right bend in the fork towards Lachung.
Lachung (Laa-choong) is a slightly bigger town than Lachen and serves similar function for tourists. One can treat it as a base camp for Yumthang valley. We were welcomed by a sign post that read "No bottled water available, we provide alternate methods of safe drinking water". No surprises with lot of streams and rivulets flowing downhill, there was pleanty of options for clean drinking water anywhere in Sikkim for that matter. A night halt at the homestay was needed so to recharge ourselves and our camera batteries.
Day 3 destination was Yumthang valley for which we left at 3am to reach the valley quickly. Yumthang valley is very beautiful place with the river Teesta flowing down alongside. The enitre valley has views of hills all around with varying vegetation, coniferous trees and sometimes pretty plain white rocks. There umpteen number of streams flowing that had to crossed while driving. The valley is supposed to have a lot of rhodendrons bloom in spring. Its a pity that once in a while we came across sections where lot of trees were felled to make way for a bridge or a better road to facilitate army trucks. An instance of human activity slowly destroying nature.
We reached and rested for a few minites at Yumthang hamlet that consisted of a small buddist temple and a group of huts sell handmade craft items like wollen caps, mufflers, gloves etc. We had breakfast that consisted of hot soupy noodles and bread.
As with other towns there are very colourful prayer flags fluttering in and around the valley. I could only feel it looked like a garnish of man made colour to the larger picture by nature.
An hours drive from Yumthang through sections of coiled and airpin bends roads took us to Yumesamdong. This placed is commonly called 'Zero Point' for its close proximity to the Chinese Border.
Yumesamdong has some breathtaking scenery all around with different coloured rocks, snow capped mountains, green grass, dried grass, flowers etc. Every type of compositions one could imagine was set out in front of me. I immersed myself into the beauty around me unmindfull of the chill wind or the icy water at my feet, while I went on shooting pictures to take home the feeling of being there.
After two hours of clicking photos, a lone tea shop served us some tea and we left unwillingly back to Yumthang Valley for a brief stop. We spent a few hours in this hamlet shopping some handmade souvenirs and continued the journey towards Gangtok. On the way back we passed through Mangan-Singhik stretch and again my hope of seeing Mt. Kanchendzonga was a disappointed one.
Day 4 was to find our way slowly back to Bagdogra and fly back to Bangalore while our heart was still fighting hard to sleep in lap of nature that we had now used to so much. To sum it all I had a very elated and enjoyed every bit of the amazing hospitality of the sikkim people and finally was mesmerised at the Creator's magic. A message reiterated that we are only a speck in the lap of Nature.
Yes, that left me yearning a another visit....still in search of the Kanchendzonga !!