04 June 2011

sikkim


I was to be released from my last project (AXA Belgium Life Retail ULIS) on 28th March, 2011 where I had tirelessly and fruitlessly served for two years and presently had nothing much to do. A trip to Sikkim had been immediately planned after returning from the trip to Darjeeling in December, 2010. I was a bit disillusioned and low but nevertheless was firm on continuing with the tour. My partner was yet again Vivek Shrivastav at whose home I spent the night of 25th March, 2011. We got up early the next day and unlike the last time when we had to leave for New Jalpaiguri (NJP) where we had got a taxi even before day-break today was a bit different. We had to walk right till Belurmath but still no taxi was ready to go and the one which agreed wanted a month of our salary. We instead took a bus full of enthusiastic passengers. It was a Saturday morning and pilgrims would flock in huge numbers to the temple of Dakshineshwar from where we had to take our train. It was a ludicrous morning and with a jam-packed bus, reluctant to move and busy picking up passengers and the clock ticking fast we ultimately and nervously reached the station. Our train was quite on time and by the time we reached NJP it was already dark.

a general view of sikkim
We booked a hotel (Hilton) and decided to leave for Gangtok early the next day (26th March). The hotel was pretty good and the weather relatively pleasant. We altered between Set Max that was showing the first semi final match of 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup between Sri Lanka and New Zealand and Zoom where pretty and suave girls were being trained for the Miss India 2011 contest. Sri Lanka was comfortably placed to win and one of the girls Kanistha Dhankhar who made our hearts skip a beat actually went on to win the title a couple of weeks later when the actual contest was held. We had a nice dinner at a nearby restaurant and after some planning retired for a good night’s sleep.

going to sikkim
Early the next day we got up and started scouting for a shuttle that would take us to Gangtok but as fate would have it we unfortunately landed in a tour operator’s office (what was the name?). We had planned and executed bigger trips earlier and the entire itinerary was clear this time. We had both time and money and were averse to any idea of a tailor-made trip but for reasons unknown (maybe laziness) we went ahead with what the tour operator (Vivek Das) said. We told him everything we had in our mind. We wanted to go to Gurudongmar, Tso Lhamo, Tso Mgo and Nathu La besides Gangtok of course. Mr Das exclaimed with a sigh that Gurudongmar would be impossible and expensive considering we were just two and we instead plan for Yumthang Valley. He also said that shuttles don’t ply till Gurudongmar which I later found was absolutely false (fuck these rascal tour operators and their filthy owners).Though I had extensively read on places to visit in Sikkim but this being my first visit to the state and without any contact with a local I assumed the operator would know better and agreed to whatever he said. We were to pay close to Rs 9,000 for the two of us which included a drop till Gangtok, lodging at a hotel (Himalayan View) near M G Marg, local sightseeing for a day, a 2 day and 1 night trip to Yumthang valley via Lachung (fooding and lodging included) and a trip to Nathu La and finally, a drop till NJP on 31st March. The whole thing sounded good and after the payment was done we left for Gangtok.

teesta bazaar, darjeeling district
It was yet again a pleasant journey through NH 31 following Siliguri, Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary (MWS) and Sevoke and then through NH 31A following Teesta Bazaar (where we had our breakfast), Melli (they had a check post on the West Bengal-Sikkim border town to check the identity of tourists), Rangpo, Singtam, Ranipool, Upper Tadong and finally Gangtok. The river Teesta was amazing and accompanied us all throughout the journey. The area bypassing MWS and around Sevoke was the most stunning in the entire journey. The river was wide, the roads smooth and clean, the hills ever rising and thickly forested and giving way to the tiny yet beautiful state of Sikkim. We reached our hotel sometime in the noon. The room was quite ok but not like the tour operator had shown in the photographs (expectedly so). Gangtok was a nice little city with curvy roads going up and down. The journey of visiting hill towns started with Shillong in December, 2009 and since then I have been to so many including Bomdila, Tawang, Darjeeling and now Gangtok. Gangtok was the capital of Sikkim and comparatively larger than either of what I had visited earlier. It was also at a relatively lesser height except for Shillong. We had to submit our identity proves and some photographs for the passes to Yumthang Valley and Nathu La. Gangtok was quite expensive a city and everything except alcohol came for a dearer price.

mahatma gandhi marg
We decided to have a go-around of the area where we were staying. M G Marg was nearby and is often considered to be one of the melting points of tourists and localites in the city. It was a fascinating street with a rich colonial look. Buildings with architectural details reflecting both traditional and modern look lined the street on both sides and Victorian street lamps and a trail of flowering plants formed a boundary in the middle. The place had a cinema hall, numerous alcohol shops, restaurants, shopping centers, café outlets, book stores and almost everything one could imagine. It was a good place to hang out with friends and observe people of the town. We had our lunch at the hotel (good but definitely not worth the price) and decided to go for local sightseeing. Our car was pre-booked and the driver showed us a park which had a flower exhibition center nearby (which we didn’t not visit for obvious reasons).

drodul gompa
He also showed us the Drodul gompa, the White Memorial Hall, the State Legislative Assembly and within a matter of an hour or so dropped us near the ropeway. Since it was a Sunday the ropeway was closed and moreover it was unoperational for quite a few days owing to repair. We couldn’t go to the zoo since it was higher up in the city so we decided to have a decent view of the city from Suicide Point near the ropeway. It was quite a walk up and down the place but worth every bit. It started raining by the time we reached M G Marg again and halted at a bakery and couldn’t stop indulging in some sinful pastries (fresh and aromatic) and then moved on to spend some quality adda time at Café Cacao, a brilliant place with a view of the street bustling with activity and good-looking girls serving Cappuccino and Mocha. We had countless pegs of alcohol later in the night and after a couple of stints on M G Marg where we met a tourists from Netherlands (Hugo de Vries) we were off to sleep.

a park in gangtok
The next morning (28th March) we waited for a while before we could take our shuttle for Yumthang Valley. It was already noon by the time we were ready to leave. We were accompanied by a couple of Bengali families in our car. One was a group of five (mom, dad, a minor son and grandparents) from Asansol and another of three (mom, dad and a minor daughter) from Kolkata. The gentleman from Asansol was seemingly pleased with us making a trip in a group of two. He was quite the age of my dad but much more enthusiastic. His wife and parents were somber as were the other family and their daughter but this gentleman was apparently on cloud nine. Vivek and I took the front seat beside the driver.

white memorial hall
We halted at the outskirts of Gangtok to buy some packaged food because the place we would halt for the night, the small town of Lachung, had precious nothing. Our driver was a young man and not before long we became friends for the entire journey. It was getting colder as we went higher and higher. My heart skipped another beat when we finally entered the district of North Sikkim, often called the Switzerland of India by local tour operators (though I am strictly against such comparisons). The district was markedly beautiful with numerous streams, waterfalls, valleys, cliffs and precarious road at every turn. On one hand we had our driver who constantly kept us telling stories of tourists from India and the world across and on the other we had Mr Ganguly of Asansol who kept us asking questions ranging from tourism in India to how it was working in an IT firm. It was definitely engrossing and enriching.

at a park in gangtok
The driver said that the bulk of tourists come from West Bengali and that Bengalis in general were good but terribly cribbing. He disliked Marathis and Gujaratis who he thought were too shrewd for the people of the hills. Amongst the foreigners he held people from Brazil, USA, Netherlands and UK in high esteem while the very mention of Israel or South Africa made him angry. The constant gibber continued but I still managed to sneak a view out of the window and admire nature at its best. It was a thrilling experience driving in the mountains and they never fail to charm.

view of gangtok from suicide point
Not before long we came across our first halt at the Seven Sisters Falls. It was exotic but terribly crowded with tourists and to add to the agony it was raining. We got some shots and had tea and pakora. It was a sinful delight to be amidst such lustful greenery and heavenly beauty. We continued towards Lachung but sections of bad road and a faulty engine made our journey not with its share of hiccups. We had our lunch at a small eatery in Namako where the Ganguly family got into a fight of sorts with the owner for not serving him properly and adequately and asked if he looked like a beggar to be deserving such a treatment. After the drama got over we continued on our journey but the driver soon stopped beside a huge terraced hill to fill the tank with petrol (or was it diesel?)

seven sisters falls
Finally we reached Mangan, the district headquarter of North Sikkim where our permits to enter the place beyond was scanned. The place is commonly known as the Large Cardamom Capital of the World but that was of little joy for hapless tourists whose vehicle kept crashing every second hour. This time the driver decided to fix the car for good because beyond that place there was no town worth the name where things could get fixed and moreover it was getting dark and we were pathetically behind schedule. We had tea, fruit cakes, peanuts and biscuits to kill time but the driver kept on doing what not with the engine. Finally after an hour or so we again set for Lachung, our destination for the day. We soon crossed a bridge which the driver told was the third highest in Asia (perhaps true on later research) and reached Tung.

a turn on the road
The driver told that beyond this place the state government didn’t have much of jurisdiction since the locals were terribly autonomous. I didn’t know how much of that was true but the place certainly looked deserted, surreal and ghostly. There were a couple of check posts maintained by ITBP personnel and except that there was no sign of habitation for miles to come. It was one of the most fascinating places in the entire journey. The place had huge vertical cliffs dropping into the valley where the mighty Teesta flew with all its glamour and turbulence. I could see mighty waterfalls dropping into the valley but the car was speeding more than ever. We passed across some more enormously huge falls but nowhere could we stop and take photographs and inquire further. It was quite dark by the time we reached Chungthang, the place from where another road leads to Lachen and finally the much sought after destination of Lake Gurudongmar but we had to head straight for Lachung.

some parts of the road was real bad
Chungthang was enveloped in darkness except for a huge expanse of land where a 1200 MW hydroelectric power plant (Teesta stage III) was coming up. We had some tea and cookies at a small tea stall and headed for Lachung before it grew any colder. The roads were assumingly more dangerous because we crossed 2000 m moments later and in a matter of half an hour or so would cross 3000 m but nothing seemed to bother us in the darkness of the night. The Ganguly family kept on reminding the driver to drive slow. They didn’t mind reaching late for dinner but wanted to reach safe. We did surely reach safe and the hotel where we stayed (what was the name?) was much like a cottage with tiny little rooms without locks. Lachung is a place where none of the homes, even hotels, have locks from outside and this was particularly amazing to discover. India is truly incredible!

an unnamed fall enroute
We discussed the plan for the next day with the families accompanying us and the driver and bid him a bye. Our trip was supposed to be till Yumthang Valley but the driver insisted on showing Zero Point, a few miles further north which was at a height greater than 4000 m and full of snow (as if that would excite me even a bit more). I knew we were getting duped but still thought of paying him some extra bucks to take us till the point. We had a talk with other fellow tourists from faraway places including Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, had our dinner (where again the Ganguly family cried hoarse on not being served adequate and properly) and retired to bed but not before gulping a few shots of white wine, locally made in the vineyards of Sikkim.

morning view form our cottage at lachung
We had a comfortable sleep and woke up the next day with Vivek exclaiming in utter disbelief and excitement, “Vivek, look outside.” And it was indeed a beautiful view. I didn’t have my contact lenses on so I hurried up, washed my face and went out in just a vest and my specs. It was one of the most beautiful days I had woken up to. The comfortable chill in the air, the tiny little town with a winding road, exotic and towering peaks covered with snow all around. It couldn’t get any better. We dressed ourselves up and headed for Yumthang Valley with our gum boots on (they are bloody uncomfortable). We crossed an army camp (beautiful, clean and neatly maintained as always) and crossing a road moving upwards along rhododendrons eager to bloom and with snow-capped peaks wherever we saw up we came to Yumthang Valley. We had some tea but prior to that an encounter with knee-deep snow left me (or for that matter my legs) totally numb.

snow fields, yumthang
We decided to see Zero Point first and then Yumthang Valley. The driver had told the place was some 25 km north of the valley and the actual source of river Lachung, one of Teesta’s headwaters but we couldn’t reach the place owing to heavy snowfall the previous night which had blocked the road. We nevertheless halted where the road was blocked, walked a few miles and came back when our quench for snow, Himalayan peaks, trees laden with snow and unparalleled beauty was filled to the brim. We had Magi cooked in snow picked from the road and headed for Yumthang Valley. The roads were bad and we had to halt at a couple of places.

view from zero point, north sikkim
The valley was awesome. On one side we had the mighty Himalayas with glaciers flowing down them and on the other river Lachung. We hurried our steps and reached the river. You feel amazed that a river so big and turbulent down in the plains was so quiet and tiny here. The water was crystal clear and the bed rocks pleasantly visible and despite being biting cold we thought of crossing it with our gum boots on. Mr Ganguly and family (minus the grandparents) were with us and they looked mighty excited particularly the gentleman. He shouted at the top of his voice and told his son to imagine the fact that they had crossed river Teesta on foot. He played with the water while his stupid son threw stones at us. We stayed there for a while mostly sitting on rocks in the middle of the river and when the quota of fun was over (or maybe not) we decided to head for the restaurant where our car was parked.

yumthang valley
Enroute we met a wealthy Guajarati family (good that our driver was not with us) full of doctors with expensive DSLR cameras hanging down their necks. The elderly in the group were climbing huge monoliths and posing for photographs. We reached our restaurant, had some tea, fried chickpea and left for our hotel in Lachung. We had our lunch and finally left for Gangtok. It was already noon and we had to reach the capital by night fall. Except for the relatively major traffic jam near Mangan our return journey was pleasantly hiccup free but we did halt at the mighty Bhim Nala falls, also called the Bachchan falls (owing to it's height perhaps) and at Mangan for some refreshment. But our mood had already been spoiled when Vivek got a call from his home saying that his dad had been hospitalized owing to immense pain in his ears. Vivek was expectedly sad for quite a long and we both kept quiet but bounced back to normal when later we came to know that his daddy would be discharged the day itself and was doing fine.

playful mr ganguly
Meanwhile our driver kept on chatting with us and asked if we had girlfriends, which sports we liked and if we ever had a plan to visit Sikkim again. He told us everything about himself and life in the hills in particular. About the various tribes of Sikkim, about his passion for football and English music and films and how he loved partying, dancing and spending time with hot girls. He said many girls in Gangtok were ready to date him but he preferred showing attitude. He also complained about a local girl who had taken money from him but was reluctant to return it back. He considered the people from plains to be highly intelligent. He expressed his dislike for Bhaichung Bhutia and said that may localites played better football. He talked of the various championships he had played and won and how he was a nasty little boy at one time but had now grown to be a responsible and earning member of the family. He told us about the various discos where we would get girls at good bargain (did our faces say that?) and told us that the next time if we come to Sikkim for a trip to Gurudongmar or a walk across the Rhododendron Trail in Yumthang Valley he would arrange it at a relatively cheaper price (Rs 14,000 for a group of two which I later came to know shouldn’t cost more than Rs 4,500).

yaks at lachung
We had been duped by the tour operator we were sure but by such a huge and monstrous margin we got to know a couple of months later when a friend, Souvik Roy, told me that the entire journey shouldn’t have costed us more than Rs 4,000 each. We finally reached Gangtok and what a sight it was when our driver showed us the night view of the entire city. It looked as if the Gods above had dropped countless shining jewels in the darkness of night. We were quite tired when we reached our hotel and decided to sleep early but not before a couple of trips to M G Marg for dinner and yet again a countless pegs of alcohol.

bhim nala falls
The next day (30th March) we had to leave for Nathu La but we were told that because of excessive snowfall, bad weather and the collapse of a section of the road it would be impossible to go there. We were heart-broken but then there is always a next time. It was the day of the second 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup semi final and between arch rivals India and Pakistan so at least something good was in store for the day. We decided to go to the Himalayan Zoological Gardens and Ganesh Tok, one of the highest view points in the city. We hired a car for Rs 400 and our driver was a native of Bihar but had been raised up in the state. The view of the city from Ganesh Tok was amazing and I could clearly see the entire TV tower and most of the city.

entrance of the zoo near ganesh tok
Our driver was a good man who doubled up as our guide inside the peculiar zoo. It was a small one with not many animals and very much unlike the one we had seen at Darjeeling. We encountered some nasty tourists who kept on shouting, singing, calling names and disturbing the animals. I did reprimand them but why would they listen to me? We saw the Red Panda, Golden Pheasant, Indian leopard, Snow leopard, a couple of civets and had some momos and tea before moving out. It was already noon and we decided to have our lunch before the match would begin. The city was slowly gearing up for the big day. It was fascinating to see huge Indian flags everywhere and people excited about cricket at a place where people hardly talk of the game. Some of the shops had arranged for window TVs where the match could be enjoyed by people on the streets. We got our faces painted with the colors of our national flag and joined the people on the street. There was music, cheering and applause whenever there was a run, a boundary or a catch missed since India was batting first. I had never been to a stadium, nor enjoyed cricket with a huge group of friends. In fact, I am quite indifferent to cricket but today was different and I was enjoying every bit of it

an indian leopard at the zoo
India didn’t bat to the best of their potential and the target for Pakistan was pretty much achievable so we left for our hotel a little disappointed and decided to drown it in pegs of liquor. It was an amazing night, we drank like fish and were again out on the streets, highly intoxicated and to add to it India was amazingly placed for a win. I was particularly out of my mind and didn’t know what all I was doing. We entered a bar, ordered some beer and roll, cheered for India with a gang of localites and came back on the road shouting, “India! India!” Looking at my condition Vivek thought it would be wise to return to the hotel and when I woke up the next day neither did I know that India had won the semi final and was on course for their second world cup win nor what all nonsense I had done on the streets the last night, but then it was Gangtok and a priceless match at that.

a young sikkimese cricket enthusiast
We had a minor scuffle that morning (31st March) with our hotel manager and the tour operator when it came to returning our money back since our trip to Nathu La stood canceled but then who would argue with fraudsters. We left the hotel, took a shuttle and before bidding good bye to Gangtok with a bagful of pleasant memories decided to have one last round of M G Marg. We reached NJP quite early and waited at the station where we encountered a group of college girls from Indore who had also returned from a trip of the city. One of them was particularly beautiful but then all stories of love-at-first sight come to tragic halt. So busy we were loitering around the girls that we almost missed our train to Dakshineshwar. We had a good night’s sleep and early the next morning back to our normal dal-chawal routine. But with a promise to visit the state yet again and this time Gurudongmar for sure.

1 comment:

  1. looking good now :) beautiful memories always plays a important role in bringing smile to our face whenever we feel low and sad


    with best wishes and regards,
    anu

    ReplyDelete