We, the city dwellers, have always been awe-struck by the mind-boggling confusion that has come to define us. And then we hear the voice that echoes from the hills and the mountains to find respite in nature’s lap. There’s absolutely no scarcity of escapes if you are considering the hills to call your home, even for a few days.
Among all, one of the top most destinations for me to keep going back to has been Sikkim. Although the smallest state of India, Sikkim’s beauty is an endless pursuit with each part holding a completely different experience altogether.
If you are someone who is always up for snow, North Sikkim is where you would want to be. A trip to North Sikkim might be regarded as one of the most beaten path, but it’s also one of the most beautiful yet unblemished one. And if you wish to experience it in its full glory with relatively less crowd, try to hit the roads at the end of February or in the beginning of March.
Now Sikkim being a border state which shares its borders with China, Nepal and Bhutan, security gets very tight at places which are closer to China. In order to get to North Sikkim (i.e. Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point) and some parts of East Sikkim (i.e. Tsomgo Lake (Changu Lake), Nathula and Zuluk), you need to have mandatory permits. One can travel to these places mostly through shared taxis but permits for individual 2-wheelers and 4-wheelers can also be arranged. However that requires extra steps. I will only cover the process of travelling to these places by shared taxis which are a part and parcel of Sikkim’s life.
To get your permits, unfortunately, you cannot skip travel agents here. In Sikkim, especially in Gangtok, every individual would look like a travel agent in himself as the state is very much involved in the tourism business. I would suggest finding a reputed travel agent for a comfortable journey. They would take care of your food, transport, accommodation and permits. If you are thinking to arrange your own food on the way, it won’t be possible in North Sikkim as there are hardly any food joints. As for documents, you need to submit a photocopy of your identity card (approved by Indian government) and a few passport size photos.
Permits can be obtained either from Gangtok (Central Sikkim) or from Rongli (East Sikkim). If you wish to visit the very famous Gangtok, you can get a shared taxi from NJP Station or Bagdogra. If you are ready to share the car with 9 other people, you need to pay a meager 150-200 rupees per person. Private taxis can range somewhere between 2500-3000 rupees. On the way to Gangtok, you can make a stop at Rongpo which is very famous for its momos and at the junction where river rafting is arranged. River rafting, here, is a thrilling experience which I would very much recommend. The long river rafting route will cost you around 900 rupees per person including photos and videos. NJP to Gangtok will take somewhere around 4-5 hours.
Once you reach Gangtok, you can stroll around the very famous MG Market which houses specialties of Sikkim. Get your permits done by the same day if you are planning a visit to North Sikkim or East Sikkim (i.e. Changu Lake or Zuluk) the next day. You can also skip a day in between and go spot hopping in and around Gangtok. Some of these amazing places include Rumtek Monastery, Pemyangtse Monastery, Hanuman Tok, Banjhakri Waterfalls, Enchey Monastery and Gangtok Ropeway.
If you are going to North Sikkim, it will take you a complete 3 days. Leave Gangtok early in the morning to reach Lachen through many check posts that will come in between. You will also come across several waterfalls including Seven Sisters Waterfalls. Don’t miss out on them and the delicious tea and maggi served at joints nearby. The roads are not that great, so it can take up to 8 hours to reach Lachen, a small village sitting relentlessly at 9000 feet. Plastic bottles are absolutely banned in Lachen. So get ready to dump your mineral water bottles at one of the check posts. Lachen serves as a transit stay to reach Gurudongmar Lake.
Next day, early in the morning, leave for Gurudongmar Lake which will take approximately 4 hours from Lachen. If you are an adventure seeker and is always up for trekking, Chopta Valley, which lies on the way to Gurudongmar Lake, is an ideal place for you to wear your adventure boots.
Gurudongmar Lake is open only for Indian nationals and foreigners can’t get here as it is very close to China. Now, with roads so bad and the altitude so high, health might deteriorate to another level. Keep medicines handy. Woolens are a must here and try not to skip anything. Here’s a checklist – Jackets (as many as possible :p), socks, cap, gloves, muffler. The journey may be tedious but the views that you will get throughout will be saved in your mind forever. The lake lies at a stunning 17100 feet and remains frozen for most part of the year. Sounds exciting, right? After appreciating the mind-boggling beauty and feeling good about yourself for having made so high, it’s time to make your way for yet another beauty, Lachung, waiting to be unlocked. When you are in Lachung, one thing that you must not miss is strolling around in the village. Amidst snow-clad mountains and gushing streams, this is one experience which you will never forget. Lachung serves as a transit village to reach Yumthang Valley.
Since today is the day when you will be reaching Gangtok, leave early morning for Yumthang Valley, covered with pine trees and rhododendrons. One of the best things about Sikkim is that people are very disciplined on roads and cars mostly don’t overtake each other, especially in this part. So you can just leave your hairs open, peek through your window and let the wind touch your skin. Trust me, you would think of all possible means to stay back. From Yumthang Valley, you can go uphill towards Zero Point, 15000 feet above sea level. For this, you need to pay extra 300 rupees per person to your driver. It’s definitely worth going, so don’t give it a second thought. After clicking all the good photographs that you possibly can and getting dead tired, it’s time again to submit your life to the hands of your skilled driver. The roads, in North Sikkim are so dangerous that you won’t be able to come back home without acknowledging your driver for his driving skills. Yes!
After you reach Gangtok, you need to take another permit for visiting East Sikkim. Changu Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula are the hot spots that are worth visiting. One needs to be an early bird when it’s about visiting this route. So, don’t be a couch potato and get up early. In the hills, nobody can take a guarantee of the weather. When we were returning back, ours was the last car and the hills were so badly enveloped with fog that even the biggest atheist in the car reached out to the gods!
Another gentle warning here! There are many drivers who will not stop at Changu Lake to help you rent jackets and will take you straight to Nathula. Firstly, don’t allow that. Secondly, on the way to Nathula, there are numerous lakes with each having a specialty. If the driver doesn’t tell you, it’s time to ask. And the biggest problem along this route is that many drivers will lie to you about Changu Lake and will show you the lake only from the road. But there is an option to go near the lake through a different route, the way through which you rent your jackets. So, be careful and don’t get tricked. The view of the lake from the road and from its proximity is completely different and you would definitely not like to miss it!
While being arduous and beguiling, this is one of the most beautiful road journeys that I have ever had in my life. And sure, the delicacies of Sikkim when served hot at the chilling weather that North Sikkim experiences, will look a bit more mouth-watering and will taste a bit more delicious. When are you taking your days off and hitting the roads?
Here are few things to keep in mind while visiting Sikkim:
- Carry a lot of woolen and warm clothes as you get chills in Sikkim all round the year
- Don’t forget to carry an identity card (government approved) and passport size photos. You may not like to get your photos issued in Gangtok since you are a tourist and hence, they are costlier than usual.
- Weather can get worse at any point of time and roads for tourists are immediately closed. Either have a day or two extra in hand or be mentally prepared for a change in plan.
- One thing that you must not miss out on while in Sikkim is trying their delicacies. Sikkimese momos, thukpas, chowmein, maggi and masala tea are all you can really ask for at the end of the day.
- Road journeys in Sikkim are arduous. Not just the altitude keeps changing; it’s also the sharp turns that will test your body. Keep medicines handy and take one in the morning before setting for your journey.
- If you are planning to visit North Sikkim, carry your own water bottle as mineral water bottles (plastic water bottles) are absolutely banned in Lachen.