Old Silk Route in East Sikkim counts among one of offbeat destinations in Eastern India. It is only a couple of years that it has become a tourist destination. The circuit consists of tiny villages with minimum inhabitants and with difficulty in accessing the basic necessities of life. The region being devoid of vegetation, the only source of livelihood for the natives is tourism. A few points need to be noted:-
1) Accommodations consist of only basic homestays.
2) Electricity is an elusive guest throughout the Old Silk Route circuit
3) Hot water is provided in buckets on request
4) Harsh weather
5) Not suitable for people in search of a luxurious and comfortable holiday.
16.12.2015 (Day 1)
The speedometer of Topgay Lepcha’s Bolero read 120kmph as it raced past the Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. I rolled down the window to feed my city street-miasma engulfed-lungs, with some fresh mountain air.
Topgay drove us to our first destination ‘Sillery Gaon’ (6000 ft) via Sevoke and Algarah. Sillery is a quaint little village with exquisite view of Mt.Kanchejungha and hence popularly known as the New Darjeeling.
At night the temperature fell to 3 Degrees. A quick dinner sent our tired bodies to sleep and I silently prayed to God for a glimpse of Mt. Kanchenjungha the next morning.
17.12.2015 (Day 2)
At 6 a.m. I reached out for the window pane hoping my prayers to be answered. Luck always seems that it belonged to someone else. We set out for a trek to Ramitey View Point. The 3km long trek through dense green forest leads to the vantage point which provides a view of both Mt. Kanchenjungha and River Teesta. Although none showed up due to fog, the stone cobbled path shrouded by bountiful greenery and rustic silence made the morning beautiful.
Sillery Gaon is a sedately place for us city-scalded souls to sit and contemplate. I wish time was pliable in nature. Post breakfast we set off with Mr. Palden Tamang in his Xylo for Zuluk, our stop for that night and the starting point of the Old Silk Route.
Keukhola Falls on our way to Zuluk being paltry in form during winter did not fascinate me much. Before crossing border and entering into the state of Sikkim necessary verifications were made at the check post. Meanwhile with every kilometre we were ascending in altitude the chill in the air kept increasing in a crescendo.
We stopped next at Rongli (5200 ft.) to get vehicle permits done. Local momos acted as intermediary fillers. Rongli is also the last point in the silk route with a market place.
At 4 p.m. we checked in to Dilmaya Retreat homestay to find that our hosts have been waiting for us with warm cooked lunch. At such a remote village like Zuluk, it seemed a luxury to be served with such warm food at such hour of the day. With sundown, the temperature started dropping rapidly.
Survival is a challenge for the people of these remote villages. The region being devoid of vegetation, tourism is their sole source of livelihood and the ‘one man’ who is their messiah is Mr. Gopal Pradhan. A man of short stature with an infectious smile started as a driver taking a handful of tourists around this Indo-China border village. In 2006 he started his own homestay and is now responsible for the livelihood of hundreds of villagers. A visit to Zuluk is incomplete without interacting with him, as was ours sadly.
We skipped the morning trip to sunrise point Lungthung because of the extreme cold and fog. Yet I braved out of the cottage at 6a.m. with my new gun Canon D1200. There being no body around at that early hour provided me with the tranquility I was looking for. It was then that I had my first tryst with snow. I was overwhelmed with joy.
With no tourist to create noise, I kept clicking to my heart’s content and then we took a leisurely stroll around the village. I did not feel like going anywhere else leaving this ‘piece of heaven’. But Mr. Tamang had already arrived to take us to our next stop- Lungthung. Bidding Pushpak and others at Dilmaya goodbye, we finally set off to ride the much talked about ‘Zigzag Road’ of the Old Silk Route.
The journey from Zuluk to Lungthung (11500 ft.) was perhaps the most scenic of my life till date. Thin serpentile roads winding through the lap of the Himalayas painted with golden-brown grass underneath azure sky. Being a military area one can expect excellent road conditions all through.
We stopped at Thambi View Point before reaching Lungthung. Located at an altitude of 12300 feet Thambi View Point on a clear day offers exotic views of Mount Kanchenjungha. The odds were against us this time as well. The beauty had covered itself in a thick blanket of clouds and refused to give us a show.
A sole tea shop at Thambi View Point is run by a lady who makes her living out of it. She climbs up and down on feet to this place from Zuluk everyday to run this stall beating all odds of the harsh weather. We started off once again. The weather had turned a sombre mood.
On reaching Lunchthung (12,500 ft) Mr. Thandoop Bhutia welcomed us. A fleet of steps going down from the road to a tiny little cottage wherein stood his homestay. The air was heavy and speedy, the sun had bid us goodbye to make way for grey clouds and fog. Lungthung offers ecstatic views with Mt.Kanchenjungha on one side and zigzag road on the other.
Lunch was served in their canteen beside a fireplace. Nothing seemed sweeter than warmth of fire in such cold weather. Post lunch we stood at the edge of the hill watching the dusk fall clandestinely behind the endless ranges of mountains stretching beyond eyesight and the clouds playing their hide and seek games…when to all our surprise and awe, snow flakes started falling. I was living my dream. I was experiencing the ‘First Snow Fall’ of my life.
Perhaps it was truely said –
“The moments of happiness we enjoy takes us by surprise.
It is not that we seize them, but that they seize us.” – Ashley Montagu
The next morning I open my eyes to this….
Luck seemed to be all mine. Mt. Kanchenjungha was shining in golden hue with all its might and glory. It was a heavenly sight.
The entire zigzag road was blocked with snow. We were the only souls from far off plain lands stuck in the midst of old silk route, completely disconnected from the outside world and covered in a thick blanket of snow. Our journey to Gnathang Valley was cancelled. But what we witnessed was much more than what we had wanted and could ask for no more.
By mid morning the sun was there no more, temperature had started dipping once again and weather was getting worse. Thandoop warned us of a heavy snowfall ahead. He was kind enough to arrange for his brother’s car which was carrying two passengers down from Gnathang and was braving its way through the snow to Zuluk.
As we stepped out of the car at Zuluk, Mr. Gopal Pradhan came right there to receive us. Our Zuluk trip was now complete. Zuluk was packed with guests that evening. I missed my ‘piece of heaven’ which I was in love with.
Mr. Pradhan attended all his guests at dinner table and made us feel at home. He shared with us his experiences, the ebb and flow of his life. That evening we also met Topgay Lepcha once again and spent a lovely time with him.
In the morning we decided to visit Mr. Pradhan’s trout fishing site. A hundred or so steps down from Dilmaya Retreat, the Himalayan Trout fishing site is a small little artificial pond with a constant source of running water to prevent it from freezing. We spent some lovely time feeding the fish fodder which we had carried down from Dilmaya.
Old silk route trip actually ends here. However, Zuluk to NJP being a long way, one needs to make a night’s hault midway. A guy by the name Namgyl was our driver for the trip. We stopped at his house on the way. He requested us for tea, but time was running short.
The way to Dara Gaon, our last stop was truely pleasing to the eyes. Thin serpentile road with cinchona plantations on one side and a riot of various colours making frequent shows from shrubs and bushes.
Dara Gaon is an exotic location on the Himalayas. Located in the state of West Bengal. it is a sleepy little village with a handful of cottages providing excellent views of river Teesta.
Our host at Dara Gaon was Yogesh Ji. Such a nice and soft person. We were provided with a private cottage with king sized rooms, a drawing room and a kitchen where guests could even cook themselves. In the evening Yogesh made local chicken ‘Sekwa’ for us. Time always seems to be scarce when travelling in the Himalayas.
The next afternoon Yogesh Ji dropped us to NJP and we finally bid him goodbye. Midway we had revisited the good old ‘Cafe Refuel’, at Kalimpong and relished their lovely carrot cakes and soaked in nostalgia remembering the 2014 trip to this same place.
Old Silk Route is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful offbeat destinations in India. Amenities are the most basic, resources are the most scarce, weather is most extreme. However, what one gets in abundance here is natural beauty and hospitality. Someone has rightly said that travelling is the only thing you buy that makes you richer. Back from the tour I was a transformed person in more than one way.
N.B. : Readers can check out the history of the Old Silk Route from the link