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Far & away

Prayer flags fluttering in the wind, lush countrysides and scintillating vistas make for an exhilarating odyssey. Monideepa Banerjee drives through Sikkim...

Rumtek Monastery

You can wander up lush green mountain trails, in the very footsteps of those early travellers. Marvel at the stupas, monasteries and temples. Acquaint yourself with a culture that is at once bizarre and fascinating. Sikkim offers you a holiday that is more than a dream - a voyage of adventure and discovery. This description was enough to entice us to make a trip to this distant valley. We were ready to take off.

Day 1: Cosmopolitan Gangtok

Touts descend upon us like whorls of blue mist that advance suddenly from the mountains to blanket the verdant valley in a watery haze, the moment we step out of the New Jalpaiguri Railway Station. Each one quotes a separate price especially meant for us and offers special discounts. Glad to know that we are so special to so many people, but it is a tough choice. We politely decline and proceed to the Sikkim Bus Terminus, the most sensible option for those headed to Sikkim. Not only do you get a wider choice of transport options, but also cheaper rates. We hire a Maruti to drop us to Gangtok and set sail in the pleasant March morning. The journey is a revelation and for the next four hours we religiously adhere to the window screens, not wanting to miss any of the splendid visuals that unfold gradually before our bemused eyes. Straight away, we realise that the trip is going to be a blast. The serpentine road winds its way through genteel riversides, dangerous mountain bends, dense forests and manicured paddy fields. We glide along, at times reaching down to caress the flowing waters of Teesta and the next instant chasing the fleeting clouds. In between, we take refreshing breaks in the cozy nooks to sample pure Darjeeling tea and tasty momos.

Prayer flags with Mt Khangchendzonga

From Singtam begins the long, tedious journey from a mere 488-metres to a formidable 1,677 metres. The lime-green valley retreats behind the rugged mountains that look ominously from all sides for daring to venture onto them. The razor-edged Singalila on the western side forms boundaries with Nepal and the undulating Chola on the east shares frontiers with Tibet. The region owes its name to the tribal Limbu princess who lovingly called it her Sukh Him or ‘Happy Home In The Snow’, after her marriage to one of the kings. Sikkim is an obvious abbreviation of Sukh Him. Gangtok appears cool with its cosmopolitan gloss, but to our disappointment, is is slightly crowded. The city welcomes us with a huge hoarding of Tashi Delek (Welcome in Sikkimese). On entering, the first thing we notice is the snow-capped Khangchendzonga (Kanchenjunga) smiling benevolently in the background. In Gangtok on clear days, you never miss the sight of the third highest peak in the world and that, undoubtedly, enhances its attraction. The Mahatma Gandhi Marg (M G Marg) is the city’s lifeline dotted with numerous hotels, restaurants, curio shops and cyber cafes. But we opt for the Siniolchu lodge, a government-run hotel situated at a distance far from the maddening crowds.

Post-lunch, we visit Do Drul Chorten. Around this towering white edifice are 108 prayer wheels with the mystic Tibetan mantra Om Mani Padme Hun (Hail to the jewel in lotus). The Namgyal Research Institute of Tibetology fascinates me with its rare and beautiful collection of Thangkas. The Enchey Monastery features next on the agenda. This 200-year-old monastery was built by a Tantric Master and the setting is sure to evoke some eerie feelings. Exhausted from a hectic day, we book a car to visit Tsomgo Lake the following day and retire to an early night.

Day 2: Scintillating Vistas At Tsomgo Lake

Prayer Flags at Dzongri
The nerve-chilling, stomach-churning journey is well compensated by scintillating vistas
Tsomgo Lake

Dawn breaks early next morning with golden hues dancing on the white snow peaks against a spotless blue canopy. We took a quick tour six kms away to the Tashi viewpoint, to satisfy ourselves with a panoramic view of the entire Himalayan range. Back down, I quickly finish breakfast and proceed towards Tsomgo Lake, an aqua marine wonder stretching over one km at 12,310 feet! The nerve-chilling, stomach-churning journey is well compensated by scintillating vistas. Rhododendrons and primroses appear regularly to add a softer touch to the jagged landscape till the doorsteps of Tsomgo. The placid lake mirrors the snowlit summits of the surrounding peaks and the sight is truly amazing. Huge chunks of snow are seen floating. In the winter, the entire area gets frozen and, if you dare to bear the chilling temperature, Tsomgo would gift you the most expensive landscape painting. A 15-minute walk along the lake takes one to the opposite side where you can relive your childhood by playing in the snow. The lake is very sacred to the locals who believe that if the colour of the lake is tinged with darkness, it forecasts a year of trouble and unrest.

Suddenly dark clouds hover over us like a great-winged albatross blocking the vision. Soon it begins to pour heavily, the condition worsened by the chilling wind. We take shelter in the polythene sheeted tea stalls, but alas, they hardly offer any resistance. Half an hour later, when we resume our return journey, there is no trace of a cloud or rain in the clear sky. We spent the afternoon exploring the local markets. I buy some wood-painted wall hangings from the state’s handicraft emporium. In the evening, we were treated to chaang, a local beer which is made by fermenting millet using yeast. It is sipped from a bamboo receptacle using a bamboo pipe. The receptacle, which has millet in it, is topped with warm water a couple of times until the millet loses its flavour. It looks mild, but can be very intoxicating, indeed.

Day 3: Sonorous Chants Of Buddhist Mantras

We check out from Gangtok for Pemayangtse in the western side. En route, we take a detour to visit the Rumtek Monastery. The monastery fills you with a sense of peace as you listen to the sonorous chants of Buddhist mantras. It is the headquarters of Kargyuapa sect of Buddhism and the most revered monastery in Sikkim. Legend says that the first Karmapa spent many years meditating in a cave. Ten thousand fairies offered him a strand each from their hair, which was then woven into a black hat.

This hat is kept in a sacred box in the monastery and is worn by the Karmapas on ceremonial occasions. The three-storied building awash in gold and red is a perfect example of Tibetan architecture. The prayer hall is richly decorated with silk thangkas, scrolls and frescos depicting the numerous legends associated with Buddha. A massive statue of His Holiness Guru Rimpoche dominates the central arena holding a thunderbolt in his right hand. In the adjacent Nalanda Institute, burgundy-robed lamas chant the mystique quotations from the holy books with stern concentration. But once the head priest is out, the throwing of paper planes resembles the classrooms back home. For plant lovers, the nearby Botanical garden has some rare orchids. Up to Singtum, there is a steady descent and then the roads rises up again on the other side of Rangit that acts as a great divider between east and west. We take lunch at Singtum before proceeding further. The ascent is pretty steep and mostly through thick forests of cardamom. Geyzing offers the much-needed tea break and we relax our weary muscles. We reach Peling, one km away from Pemayangtse, quite late and decide to spend the night here.

Do Drul Chroten

Day 4: Picturesque Peling & Pemayangtse

The morning at Peling is lovely. The picturesque village overlooks a rich swathe of mint green meadows that merges gently with the azure sky, while the stately Khangchendzonga silently looks on. After the hectic schedule of the past three days, we laze around in the valley simply watching the colourful cameos created by an indulgent sun on the unblemished white peaks. The lavender-tinged crowning glory turns into a dazzling 1,000-carat diamond at midday and as the evening approaches it changes again into gold-laced amber. The silvery moon casts mysterious shadows and the mountains glisten like a wet pearl just out of its shell.

In between, we take a trip to the Pemayangtse monastery. The interior has a mystique ancient flavour and houses some priceless antiquity. On the top floor is a wooden pagoda-like structure - Xandhopelri or the celestial abode of Guru Rimpoche.

Exterior view of the Rumtek Monastery
The three-storied Rumtek monastery is a perfect example of Tibetan architecture

The drive to Khechopalri Lake is memorable for its numerous waterfalls and magical gorges. The crystal clear water of the lake is surprisingly devoid of any fallen leaf though it is deep inside a dense forest. Legend says that it is the lake of wish fulfillment so the water has to remain free flowing. If a leaf drops on the surface, the birds of heaven immediately pick it up. That night from the balcony of my room, I take one last look at the breathtaking views that surround us. Surely this is the closest that you could get to Shangri-La.

Yet before long, to our deep regret, the city of Gangtok looms in the distance, as we begin our return journey from a part of our country that not many know, and even fewer get to read about. A jewel embedded in snow-clad mountains, Sikkim is a primeval land that is unlike anywhere else. This land of myths casts an enchanted spell that is sure to entice you. But before we leave Gangtok, we are busy planning our next trip.

Accommodation

Chumbi Residency
Tel: (03592) 26618/ 26619
Located in the heart of Gangtok, the Residency strives to bring about a harmonious blend of old world regality and charm with all the comforts of modern-day living.
Price Range: Rs 800-Rs 3,300

Hotel Tashi Delek
Tel: (03592) 22038/ 22991
A four-star hotel, the Tashi Delek means Good Fortune in Sikkimese and it is in this same spirit that the hotel welcomes you. The rooms are spacious and richly decorated in traditional Sikkimese style.
Price Range: Rs 3,000-Rs 4,000

Hotel Himalchuli
Tel: (03592) 24643
Enchantingly placed at an elevated location of Gangtok, viz Zero point, the most fascinating attraction is its terrace viewpoint Garden, fitted with a telescope. It draws huge crowd to its coffee shop and shopping arcade, which is inbuilt in the hotel.
Price Range: Rs 675-Rs 1,495

Hotel Tibet
Tel: (03592) 22523
An accredited three-star hotel, this hotel has won many awards for its friendly service and the facilities that it offers. Its Snow Lion Restaurant is acclaimed to be the best in Gangtok.
Price Range: Rs 1,000-Rs 2,500

Norbu Ghang Resort
Tel: (03592) 22237/ 23537
Situated on the western face of a mountain-side, the Norbu Ghang Resort is barely a minute’s walk away from the quaint little hamlet of Peling in west Sikkim. The resort offers 11 aesthetically designed cottages set amidst landscaped greenery.
Price Range: Rs 1,600-Rs 2,800

Netuk House
Tel: (03592) 22374
Netuk House is the house of the Denjongpas, a Sikkimese family long rooted in Sikkim. At Netuk House, guests can experience the traditional and cordial hospitality of the Denjong family. The hotel is a short stroll from the town.
Price Range: Rs 1,800-Rs 3,000

Hotel Norkhill
Tel: (03592) 25637
A four-star hotel in Gangtok,
it is the royal guesthouse of the former ruler of Sikkim. It boasts traditional Sikkimese decor and cuisine with every room facing the Khangchendzonga range of mountains.
Price Range: Rs 3,500-Rs 4,500

Hotel Mt Pandim
Tel: (03593) 50756
It is probably the best located place to stay and is run by Sikkim Tourism. This hotel is two kms away from Peling, at the foot of the road leading upto the Pemayangtse Monastery.


Basics

Capital: Gangtok
Principal Languages: Hindi, English, Nepali, Bhutia, Lepcha, Tibetan
Climate: Summer 20-13øC, Winter 13-6øC
Clothing: During summers, light woollens are advisable, but for winters, be prepared with heavy woollens.
Best Season: March to late May
Telephone Area Code: 03592

Getting There: Sikkim’s nearest airport is Bagdogra, 124 kms away linking Kolkata, Guwahati and Delhi. For the more discerning traveller, Sikkim Tourism provides the Sikkim Helicopter Service from Gangtok to Bagdogra Airport and back. The nearest railhead is Siliguri (114 kms) and New Jalpaiguri. Buses are available in plenty from the Sikkim bus terminus at Siliguri, but it is advisable to hire a car. Shared vehicles are also available outside the terminus.

Getting Around: If travelling in your own vehicle, permission must be obtained from the Tourism Department at M G Marg, Gangtok. There are taxis (Maruti Van and Ambassador) to move around the city. Auto-rickshaws do not ply in Gangtok. Carrying a road map and water are essential.

Entry Formalities: Indian tourists require no entry permits into Sikkim, except for the restricted areas. Foreign tourists require a special permit, which is easily available at all Indian missions abroad who are authorised to issue a 15-day permit.

Contacts: A number of trekking facilities are available in Sikkim. For details please contact, the Sikkim Tourist Information Centre on M G Road (Tel: (03592) 23425) or Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation, MG Marg, Gangtok (Tel: (03592) 22634). The Sikkim Tourist Information counters are also located at Kolkata (Tel: (033) 2815328).

Shopping: The main places selling clothes, woollen garments, curio items and decoratives are Old Bazar, Naya Bazar, Lall Market and Super Market. The Cottage Industries Emporium and the Sikkim Handicrafts Emporium has a variety of handwoven carpets, shawls, patterned decorative paper and thangkas. It is open daily from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm, except Sundays and the second Saturday of every month.


Restaurants

Dragon Restaurant
Located at the Green Hotel, it runs a popular restaurant that serves Tibetan, Chinese and Indian food. A meal for two would cost Rs 200-Rs 225.
Tel: (03592) 25057/ 24439

Oyster Restaurant
This restaurant at Sonam Delek serves good Continental food. The French Toast and Banana Pancake are very popular. A Continental meal for two would cost around Rs 300.
Tel: (03592) 22566/ 28906

The Blue Poppy Restaurant
Situated at Tashi Delek, this is good option if you want to savour Sikkimese cuisine (on order). They serve vegetarian dishes starting from Rs 50 and non-vegetarian starts from
Rs 100.
Tel: (03592) 22038/ 22991

Snow Lion Restaurant
Located in Hotel Tibet, it is a bit expensive by regular standards, but serves good quality Japanese cuisine as well as Indian delicacies. A meal for two costs about
Rs 400.
Tel: (03592) 22523/ 23468

Metro Fast Food
Located opposite Gangtok Lodge, it serves affordable South Indian food.
Tel: (03592) 23245