Going to Himalayas every year is a stress buster for both, me and my husband. Every year, we try our best to take atleast a week off from our hectic schedules to escape to the hill towns situated in the mountain ranges. February is the most preferred month for us, as it is an “OFF SEASON” for two reasons; one, climate is chilly, and two, it is a month when students across the country are busy preparing for their exams. The hill stations that time are not only less crowded but also, all the facilities including lodging, food and internal transport, are available at half the card rates.
For our impending holiday in February 2012, we started planning in the end of November 2011, just to make sure that we get best of deals in Airfares, hotels as well as Local Sightseeing. We had already visited Manali , Auli and Dalhousie in our previous trips, it was difficult to decide on the next destination. Although Sikkim was never a part of our plan (owing to the earthquake in September 2011, which had played havoc in the state), but somehow, it never left my mind. I had an amazing holiday in Sikkim a few years back, so somehow, i convinced my husband for the trip, and we finished all our bookings by mid December.
We took off for Bagdogra from Mumbai on 11th February 2012 via Delhi. The flight to Delhi was good enough, but what we saw in our second flight, ie, Delhi to Bagdogra was something out of the world. A few minutes after the take off from Delhi, our aircraft was running parallel to the snow laden Himalayan peaks, afternoon sun rays falling on them. So beautiful that it encompassed the beauty of anything i could imagine on this earth. This continued till half an hour before we landed at Bagdogra.
The 5 hour road travel to Gangtok from Bagdogra was like any other hilly terrain drives, serpentine roads with hair pin shaped turns, surrounded by trees on one side and deep gorges on the other side.
The next day, ie 12th February was the day, which was the foremost attraction of this trip, a visit to NatulaPass and TshanguLake enroute. We started from our hotel, Royal Demazong from Club Mahindra group, at around 9.15, an hour late from the time which was had given to our driver. After a bumpy and stressful drive of around 2.5 hours we took a halt at a place from where we could start having a view of snow. Not more than 3-4 kilometers from this place, we got stuck in a heavy traffic jam, because of an army truck, which had somehow got stuck in the slush on the Kuccha road created by melted snow. We had to wait for half an hour for the road to clear and proceed to NatulaPass. Onward journey was nothing but a dream for us.
The bad roads combined with our vehicle smelling of diesel was making us feel sick, but the condition vanished as we proceeded towards the Tshangu lake. What we discovered after reaching Tshangu lake was simply hard to ever imagine. Snow clad mountains all around, road covered in snow, and a lake frozen to snow!!! That meant, snow all around. The untouched white snow all around, with few dark trees and rocks protruding from under the blanket of snow reminded me of a Vanilla Ice cream sprinkled with Choco Chips!!!
As we proceeded further towards Natula, we came across a waterfall which was frozen!!! The streams of water falling down from the mountains were frozen as it was!!! The weather condition was beyond words. I could now understand why cold weather is sometimes called “Biting”.
By the time we reached NatulaPass, it was late afternoon and the temprature seemed to be below zero degree. NatulaPass is at a height of around 14,500 feet above sea level and is a trade border between India and China. Natula is the only International Border for India, which does not have a “No Man’s Land”. After climbing a few stairs, there is a memorial engraved with the names of the brave Indian soldiers who have lost their life in this region. After climbing few more stairs, we reached a concrete compound, which had two buildings, one opposite the other. There is a barbed wire, between two buildings, which is dividing the compound in two halves. One building, where we were standing belongs to India, and the other building, the one across the barbed wire belongs to China!!! That was awesome. The Chinese Territory was in front of us!!! We could actually touch China!!! We were told by the Indian Soldiers guarding the border that, in the normal course, Chinese Soldiers also guard their side and normally end up chatting with their Indian Counterparts. They also chat with the Indian Tourists and happily click photographs with them. But due to bad weather, they had all sneaked inside their building. We came to know, that the temperature at Natula at that time was around -12 Degrees. Salute to the Indian Army!!! A temperature of -12 degrees could not deter the soldiers’ will to guard their borders.
The air is thin because of lack of oxygen due to high altitude and it is recommended that one does not run or walk fast in the region. The two half sweaters, three full pullovers and a thick swiss jacket along with monkey caps and gloves, all woollens seemed to be useless as our limbs and nose got numb to being lifeless. A strand of my hair, which was peeking out of my Monkey Cap had snow on it. Although we had heard a lot about the beauty of this place, we could not enjoy it for two reasons. One. Due to bad weather, there was a heavy fog all around, and two, the cold weather, which had literally numbed our limbs, especially feet. Our bodies craved for a cup of Adrak ki Chai. We spotted a canteen run by the Indian Army. Tea was not available at that time. We bought two bars of Chocolates so that our body is warm enough to sustain the return journey.
The 56 km journey towards Gangtok was nothing less than a horror. Due to fog, we could not even see the dashboard of our car, and the deep gorge on our left side. One inch here and there, and we could have met our end. I was chanting all the prayers I knew for our safety. Hats off to our experienced driver, who combated these adversities, drove very safely till we reaches our mid way, Tshangu Lake (the frozen lake mentioned before) where we decided to take a halt for few minutes. We were nearly dead due to cold. There were some shanties belonging to locals. We proceeded towards them in hope of buying tea. Although tea was not available, we were served hot soupy and spicy Maggi by a pretty girl. It is important to mention “Pretty” here because, the girl, a resident of a far flung village in Sikkim, was very well dressed in a Jeans and Smart Jacket with high heel shoes. A tinge of makeup complimented her looks and she could easily give our Miss Indias a run for their money. The Hot Maggi was like a fresh dose of life for us.
After a long and strenuous drive of 4.5 hours, we reached Gangtok at around 6.00 PM. It had taken us around 4.5 hours to reach Natula from Gangtok and same time to come back and we had spent only 20-25 minutes there. Still the 9 hour long drive seemed fruitful. We had experienced the most breathtaking sceneries and amazing views among all our Himalayan Holidays so far.
The next day, we visited the main market of Gangtok, M.G. Road. The market is pedestrian friendly, as no vehicles are allowed to ply on this road. Being at this place gave us a feeling of being somewhere in Singapore or Malaysia. The best of brands, right from Bata to Adidas and Lee Cooper to Louis Vitton dominated the signboards. The shops displayed not only the brands, but also the local stuff, especially, trendy woolens and shoes. The locals are well and fashionably dressed to the extent that the tourists from the metros appear to have outdated knowledge of fashion.
The street is thronged with restaurants eager to satisfy all types of appetites. But the local cuisine, especially the Momos and Thukpa should not be given a miss. The Chinese food served in Sikkim is closer to authenticity than what is served in other parts of India. This could be attributed to the State’s proximity to China.
Parallel to M G Road runs the Lal Bazaar, one level below the M G Road. The markets are separated by a fleet of stairs. However, both can also be distinguished by the two different cultures which they represent. While M G Road represents a contemporary and glamorous Gangtok, Lal Bazaar gives us a glimpse of the Sikkimese culture, with its lanes and bylanes selling everything ingredients required to prepare local delicacies, local attires, jackets & woolen wear, shoes, spices, vegetables n everything one can think about.
After 5 days in Gangtok, our next destination was the town of Pelling, which has shot to fame because of its fantabulous views of MountKanchenjunga.
Our drive from Gangtok to Pelling via Tadong, Singtam, Pabong, Legship and Geyzing helped us to have a closer look at the life of Sikkimese villages and small towns. These villages and small towns are far more developed than their counterparts in other states of India. The literacy rate is high with locals being fluent in English and Hindi and dispaying best of hospitability and etiquettes towards each other as well as tourists.
Pelling is a sleepy town in East Sikkim which is perhaps included in the itinerary of every tourist because of one single reason. Kanchenjunga!!! The view of the third highest peak in the world from Pelling is simply beyond the words. No moments could be more beautiful than enjoying a cup of hot tea and absorbing the sunrise over Kanchenjunga early in the morning.
There are a few local spots for sightseeing near Pelling like the ruins of Rebdantse, Kanchendzonga Waterfalls, KhecheopariLake, Rimbi Water Fall, Pemyangste Monastry, SingshoreBridgeetc. But none of them are less than 40 kilometers from Pelling town and are scattered in different directions. Visiting all these spots would have meant a hectic schedule for an entire day. So we decided to give these spots a miss and instead proceed to Darjeeling, which was not originally a part our itinerary.
But, our visit to Darjeeling was a disappointment. To our dismay, we found that the city is commercialsed to the core, heavily crowded and not maintained by the local bodies. The heaps of garbage along the streets and the stench emanating from them gave us a sick feeling. The people appear to be rude and not tourist friendly. The queen of hills seems to have lost its charm. Although it gives breathtaking views of the Tea Garden and Kanchenjunga, but still, the city is in dire need of a facelift in order to attract tourists. A visit to the Tea Garden by the Cable Car is a must if we are in Darjeeling. Batasia Loop and Botanical Garden can be visited once.
To conclude, I urge Indians to explore the “Small but Beautiful” state of Sikkim, before heading towards Switzerland. We intend to visit Sikkim again. Perhaps, again and again!!!