“If fate doesn’t make you laugh, you just don’t get the joke” – Karla, in Shantaram.
On a lazy afternoon, Ramprasad and I were strolling through the second floor corridor sipping hot coffee from the college canteen when we bumped into Gourav Sachdeva (Saddy) and Vaibhav Annam (Annam). I came to know that a group of six people were about to leave on a 4-day trip to Sikkim, in the next 45 minutes. Annam asked me if I were game to join them. With an extended weekend with only one class in the coming four days, the offer was too good to resist. I joined them as the seventh member in the trip.
Karla’s lines from Shantaram (mentioned above) struck me immediately. Had Ram and I gone to have coffee 10 minutes earlier or later, I would probably have missed out on the trip.
And so we began “The Sikkim Trip 2014” at 5 pm from IIM Shillong campus premises. A Maruti Ertiga carried us to Guwahati Railway Station, in time for us to catch the Kanchanjunga Express at 10 pm. En route to the railway station, we halted for dinner at Makhan Bhog Palace, which serves top-class authentic veg food at affordable prices. Highly recommended for people living in and around Guwahati.
Kanchanjunga Express reached Siliguri (New Jalpaiguri) early in the morning where a driver from Sunflower Tours and Travels was awaiting our arrival. The journey from Siliguri to Gangtok (113 km) takes around four and a half hours by road. After breaking for a tiffin at Hotel Hi-way, located an hour’s distance from Siliguri, we were well on our way to Gangtok, oblivious to what was coming up for us.
Mid-way through the Siliguri-Gangtok journey, we were caught in a traffic jam that Bangalore denizens could be proud of. Remember the Padayappa climax scene where tens of hundreds of vehicles are shown in an aerial shot when Thalaivar says, “Idhu chumma trailer dhaan ma!” ? Something similar to that. An army truck had collided head on with a lorry, causing the commotion and the jam. When Saddy and Annam went to the accident spot with their DSLR, the locals mistook them to be people from the press. One guy even gave a short interview to Annam. 😛
We reached the State Capital late in the afternoon. Gangtok paints a very good first impression on the visitor – neat litter-free roads, fresh cold air, breathtaking views and well maintained footpaths on either side of the road. We checked into Hotel Magnolia, a decent hotel with very ordinary service. The Hotel was located pretty close to MG Marg, the happening area of the city. After a quick bath in ice-cold water, it took us a 5 minute drive in the taxi to reach the Gangtok ropeway.
The ropeway was similar to the ones I had been to in Mussoorie and Dehradun, offering a good view of the roads and settlements beneath us.
A local monastery at walking distance from the ropeway was our next destination. We spent a good half hour there and then headed straight to MG Marg in search of good food. I noticed that the taxi wallahs in Gangtok (unlike in Shillong) do not accommodate more than 4 people. They also follow a fixed price. Here in Shillong, it is possible that there are already 6 people in a Maruti 800 and the driver still stops the car to accommodate more people.
MG Marg is easily the best area in Gangtok. Being the central market of the city, it has restaurants, shopping complexes and gift shops. It is a no vehicle zone, which makes it a walker’s paradise. The cool breeze and zero vehicle noise makes it an awesome hangout place.
Gangtok like most cities in this part of the world, sleeps very early.
View more pictures of MG Marg, Ropeway and the local monastery, here.
Day 2 marked the beginning of the two-days-one-night package to Lachung village – Yumthang Valley – Zero Point. We were gifted with an awesome driver, Laxmi bhaiyya from Sunflower Tours and Travels. He is a Sikkim local who speaks very good hindi and has an infectious smile. Rajiv bhaiyya, the cook, also accompanied us in the Bolero to Lachung.
The first leg of the journey from Gangtok to Lachung Village (110 km) took us six straight hours. In that stretch, we traveled through all kinds of roads – concrete, beach sand, gravel, huge stones, wooden bridges, etc. Most parts of the road were pathetic, thanks to the frequent landslides that occur there. BRO (Border Roads Organization) was courteous enough to keep “Inconvenience is regretted” boards every few hundreds of metres (sometimes adding “deeply regretted”, rightly). We could notice continuous road construction work going on at many places.
Our backs got a break when Laxmi halted at three different waterfalls during different phases of the journey. The first falls, named Seven sister falls, was a disappointment. I am still not sure how they actually made a tourist spot out of it. One could see tens of such falls during an evening walk here in Shillong. The second falls, called the Naga falls was better; much better.
Amitabh Bachchan falls was the best of the lot, though. True to its name, it flowed majestically from hundreds of feet above. It wasn’t just about the falls; the view of the ice-capped mountains from that point was incredible.
View more pictures of Seven sister falls, Naga falls and Amitabh Bachchan falls, here.
It became dark by the time we reached Lachung village, our final destination for the day. Rajiv bhaiyya made soupy maggi for snacks, along with tea at our request. We had fun playing Boys vs Girls Dumb Charades in the time Rajiv bhaiyya took to prepare our dinner. Being the sole cook for all of us, Rajiv did a commendable job with the dinner – Roti, Rice, Dal, Aloo Gobi and Paneer.
Having to get up pretty early the next morning, we curled into our kambals soon after dinner.
Not all days do you get up to see the mighty Himalayas through your window. Lachung gave us that opportunity. The road from Lachung to Yumthang Valley was far superior compared to the Gangtok-Lachung one. Yumthang valley was about 25 km from the village, and took us about an hour to reach. We stopped at a mini-marketplace to have breakfast and also to equip ourselves with boots, gloves and coats which were available for rent. We needed them to brave the cold and to walk on ice.
View pictures of Lachung village and Yumthang valley, here.
Travelling on the road from Yumthang to Zero Point gave us a splendid view of the valley, with a turquoise blue stream of water flowing through it. Laxmi said that the valley looks best in March-April with a full bloom of flowers.
AR Rahman’s god-level BGM from the movie Baba started playing in my mind as soon as we reached Zero Point. There were ice-capped mountains on three sides and a small hillock in the centre. Though the boots helped a bit, the ice was still slippery. Laxmi gave us a maximum of 45 minutes at Zero Point, warning us that it might be difficult to breathe beyond that.
Saddy who was flaunting a mega sized ice-proof jacket, tried in vain to slide on the ice. Annam didn’t fail to play football even there, at 14,600 feet. There were some dudes who were posing with a bare body and cooling glass as a few of their friends rubbed ice on their bodies. Seriously?!?!?!
After spending close to an hour and clicking loads of pictures (both with the camera and mentally) at Zero point, we began our long journey back to Gangtok, with a halt at Lachung to have lunch and check out from our rooms. We bid adieu to Rajiv bhaiiyaa before we left Lachung.
This trip was more about the journey than the final destinations, I realized. Frozen streams, frozen water falls, bumpy roads and beautiful views – it was all there.
We reached Gangtok at 7 pm and went to sleep early, after having dinner at Apna Dhaba in MG Marg.
View more pictures of Zero Point, here.
“When you go home, tell them of us, and say, for your tomorrow, we gave our today”, read the war memorial at Nathula Pass, the Indo-Chinese border.
Nathula is located 60 km from Gangtok, at a height of 14000 odd feet. The place was very very calm and serene despite a number of people being there. We got a majestic view of the mountains of Tibet from up there. Someone told us that the closest civilization from Nathula on the Chinese side was some 570 km away. It was only mountains and forests and more mountains till then.
The cafeteria there was aptly named “14000 Cafe”. From Nathula, we could see the roads we had just traversed to reach there; it was as if a huge basilisk lay on the mountains, twisting and twirling.
View more pictures of Nathula Pass, here.
The driver (a new driver, not Laxmi bhaiyya) told us that a Baba Mandir located close by is very famous. He also added that not visiting the Mandir is like going to Agra and not visiting the Taj. I thought it was a temple for Mahavatar Babaji of “Baba” fame. The driver cleared my doubt by adding that it was a temple built for a Late Sepoy Harbhajan Singh, who lost his life at the age of 26, in the hostile conditions of Nathula while guarding the India-China border.
The Legend behind Baba Harbhajan Singh Ji is very interesting. Read this comprehensive piece on Baba Harbhajan Singh ji to know more about him and the samadhi.
A “Naya Baba Mandir” was constructed recently for the convenience of tourists who cannot visit the old and original one. We visited both.
We next halted at Changu Lake. a frozen lake, on the way from Nathula back to Gangtok. A cabinet of Yak stood there in front of the lake, dressed wonderfully. By the time we reached the lake, we were pressed for time, since we had a train to catch from NJP at 10 pm. Niveditya was disappointed that she wasn’t able to try out the Sikkimese costume which was available at the lake. We spent a maximum of ten minutes there.
Changu was the last place in our agenda for the 4-day trip.
A back of the envelope calculation showed that we had traveled 1840 km in total (920 km on the road). At the expense of two classes and not able to see my team win Kopda matches, this trip was totally worth it!