Sikkim with its spectacular mountainous terrain offers opportunities for mountaineering, trekking, river rafting, yak safaris, mountain biking and gliding.
It is impossible to visualise Sikkim without seeing it in the broader context of the Himalayas. The unspoiled natural splendour and tranquility of the countryside has made certain regions in Sikkim ideal destination for holiday. These mountains, which form an intrinsic part of the lives of the Sikkimese, also offer adventure to the brave hearted. The scorching heat of Kolkata forced us to go to the mountains and my first choice was to explore Sikkim as it was at the back of mind since long. One can listen to the sound of the wind among the trees, feel the way of the rocks, watch the snow clad peaks as you trek up a mountain side, dwarfed by the ramparts of echoing cliffs.
We took 10 days off at our convenience and chose to go by train from Sealdah to New Jalpaiguri station and from NJP we hired a private car. The drive from Silliguri to Gangtok is simply breathtaking. The stretch from Silliguri to Sevoke is relatively smooth. Once you cross the famous Coronation Bridge, also called Baghphool; constructed in 1947 over the mighty Teesta River, the drive becomes even more exciting. The weather was pleasant and we could feel the difference in temperature from Kolkata at Siliguri itself. As we leave the plains behind and ascend the hilly road to Gangtok the air gets cooler.
Gangtok, capital and largest town of Sikkim is located in the Shivalik Hills of the eastern Himalayan range, at an altitude of 1,437 meters (4,715 ft). The town is populated by different ethnicities such as Nepalis, Lepchas and Bhutia. Nestled within higher peaks of the Himalaya and enjoying a year-round mild temperate climate. Today, Gangtok is a centre of Tibetan Buddhist culture and learning, with the presence of several monasteries, religious educational institutions, and centers for Tibetology.
We reached our final destination Tourist Inn Lodge, a hotel located at M.G.Marg. After a quick bite we decided to go for local sight-seeing. We went to see the Chorten Stupa, Jhakri Falls and Ropeway ride which was a new experience for me. Chorten Stupa - Encircled by 108 prayer wheels, this is one of the most important stupas of Sikkim, built by Truisi Rinpoche, head of the Nyingma order, containing rare mandalas, of Doli Phurpa (Bajra Kilaya), holy books and mantras. Late in the evening I preferred to have a leisure walk at M.G.Marg and do some window shopping. It started pouring later but we were enjoying and so was my 2 years old little daughter. One can get to buy good Chinese Silk, few soveniours and nice big umbrellas for family and friends.
Next morning we had planned to visit the Tsomgo Lake, located in the north eastern part of Sikkim. It is situated 35 km away from Gangtok on the Gangtok Nathula highway, which makes a role of the erstwhile trade route from India to China. The average depth of this lake is about 50 feet and 1 km long. The cool and tranquil water harmonies with the beautiful scenery around it attract so many visitors. I am sure during the winter season, the lake would be in frozen condition. In the month of mid April we got to see snow everywhere. We had to hire extra winter wears like gloves, jackets and boots as we reached there. There we enjoyed a Yak ride which was really enthralling. Since the roads beyond were blocked due to snow fall we could not go to Baba Mandir and Nathula Pass (14450 feet). It started raining hence we preferred to lcame back Gangtok.
Places of Interest in and around Gangtok • Namgyal Institute of Tibetology • Do - Dul Chorten (Stupa) •Directorate of Handicraft / handlooms • Enchey Monastery • Ridge Park & Flower Show (White Hall) •Saramsa Garden • Ban • Ranka monastery • Jhakri Falls • Ropeway Ride •Tashi View Point • Rumtek Monastery • Tsomgo Lake & Baba Mandir • Nathu La Pass (14450 feet)
Next morning we started off to discover North Sikkim hence we hired a vehicle and decided to go to Lachen, Gurudongmar, Lachung and Yumthang. We started with Lachen about 120 km from Gangtok at an altitude of 9800 ft. It's a scenic mountain village, home to the Lachenpas, a unique Sikkimese Bhutia community.
Lachen, which literally means [Big Pass], clings to grassy mountain slopes in a magnificent natural setting against a backdrop of imposing snow capped peaks, glaciers and rock cliffs. The village is in a picturesque valley amidst mixed conifer and Rhododendron forests. Nearby villages of Rabom, Chaten, Talem, Yakthang, Kalep, Samdong and Thangu form a larger part of Lachen. Foot trails to the country's highest mountain peak Mt. Khangchendzonga and Mt. Sinolchu the most beautiful peak begin at your doorstep in Lachen.
Wonders never come to an end in Lachen, all valley painted with flowers during monsoon, followed by afterglow of autumn and snowfall greeting the village in winter. The valley has almost everything a traveler could wish for: a land of fairs and festivals, snow-clad mountains, lakes, valley of flora, fauna and a vibrant local culture. For those, who have not traveled yet to Sikkim, it would be pleasant surprise to know that Lachen has been made accessible to the tourists just a few years back.
Chopta Valley and Gurudongmar Lake are also accessible from Lachen by trek. The tourists can visit both Chopta Valley and Green Lake (Choihamu), but foreigners are not allowed to visit Gurudongmar Lake. Next morning we started for Gurudongmar. Gurudongmar is the land of Yaks, sheeps and other high altitude animals of Sikkim and Tibet. To visit Gurudongmar tourists has to stay overnight at Lachen. Gurudongmar is a day tour from Lachen. It is also possible to stay at Thangu which is much closer to the lake, but choice of accommodation at Thangu is quite limited. The road to Gurudongmar from Thangu passes through the high alpine pastures carpeted with thick rhododendron bushes. One can get a prized view of rare Bramhakamal peeping through the bushes in inaccessible terrain or of a herd of mountain sheep grazing in the distant valley.
At an attitude of 17800 ft, Gurudongmar is one of the highest lakes in the world. It lies in the North side of the Khangchenga Range and is encircled all around by snow-covered mountains, the sacred lake freezes during the winters except at one spot, which the devout believe has been specially blessed. The Chinese Tibetan boarder is just a few kilometers away from the lake. Near the lake, on the way one can see the famous Raja and Rani Mountain covered by snow. The blessed water of Gurudongmar is believed to posses the miraculous power of granting children to issueless couples. Interestingly, the myth of Gurudongmar is believed as reverentially by the Hindus as by the local Buddhists.
The terrain leading to Gurudongmar is very hostile and yet very beautiful. The land resembles Tibetan plateau, vegetation is very limited and the road is through stony moraine like unpaved path. Due to proximity to the Chinese Boarder presence of Indian Army is ubiquitous. Due to high altitude and dust breathing problems are also not uncommon. Even I was having breathing problem and was feeling giddy. Hence, one has to be careful. Despite the hardship and difficulty associated with visiting Gurudongmar Lake, a visit to this lake may last as an experience of a lifetime. We reached our hotel around 3 pm where we had our lunch and left for Lachung.
Lachung is a divine abode sited in the northern district of Sikkim. Perched at an elevation of 8,800 ft, Lachung is an ideal place to spent beautiful moments in solitude. The way to Lachung passes through quaint villages, scenic spots, and waterfalls. In recent times, Lachung has been made available to the tourists in an organized manner. It would not be embroidered to say that Lachung is actually a Shangri-La on the earth. A visit to Lachung is certainly a rare opportunity to comprehend Sikkim in the best possible manner. The term 'Lachung' literally means 'Small Mountain".
On the way to Yumthang, Lachung is the last village in the northern part of Sikkim. One can also go to Katao and Zero point from Lachung. It was evening by the time we reached Lachung hence we thought of giving rest to our tired limbs and start for Yumthang and Katao the next day.
Next day early in the morning we left for Yumthang (about 25 kms from Lachung and 140 km north of Gangtok) and the neighboring regions. The picturesque road from Lachung and Yumthang is lined with rhododendrons on both sides that bloom during the months of April and May giving the valley its name “valley of flowers”.
Lachung provides the base for exploration of Yumthang. Situated at an altitude of 11800 ft (3564m) with a close proximity of Tibet, Yumthang is a unique place where the tree line ends. It also offers view of a stunning array of peaks with Pauhunri and Shundu Tsenpa. A number of hot springs are scattered in the valley providing an unexpected opportunity to feel the warmth of the water even in freezing temperature. Rich in sulphur these springs are believed to have miraculous healing power. The region has been opened to tourists during the recent years although trekking is still not allowed. Tourism infrastructure in the area is still very basic but fast improving.
How to reach there - The road to Yumthang from Gangtok follows the Teesta River, crossing a spectacular gorge over the Rang Rang suspension bridge. The last major town is Chungthang about from where Lachung is an hour's drive where tourists stay overnight. Due to its proximity to the Chinese boarder the region was inaccessible to common tourists, both Indian and foreign. Even now Yumthang is reached mostly as part of a tour group. Individual and independent travel can be organised on demand.
We come back to Gangtok and next day morning we decided to go to visit the monasteries and hence started with Rumtek Monastery, it is 24 kms from Gangtok is the seat of his holiness, the XVIth Gyawla Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu order of Tibetan Buddhism. The monastery Pemagyantse is 140 kms. West of Gangtok, Rumtek is a famous monastery, all over the world, especially among the Tibetan Buddhists. Originally called the Dharma Chakra Centre, it includes a beautiful shrine temple and a monastery for the monks. Rumtek Monastery consists of numerous sacred things; one of the most glorious things is the Golden Stupa that holds the treasured relics of His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa.
A fifteen minute downhill walk from Dharma Chakra Center takes one of the Old Rumtek Monastery which was originally build in 1730 by nineteenth Karmapa who was destroyed by fire and had to be reconstructed to the present state. His holiness late Gyalwa Karmapa lived in this monastery till the completion of the Rumtek Dharma Chakra Center. Then we headed to Ling Dum Monastery closer to Rumthek. It is a beautiful place and colourful, they allow photography inside the shrine whose walls are covered with beautiful paintings of the life of the Buddha. The large idol of the Buddha dominates the shrine. Outside there is a small garden and an eatery that makes nice veg Momos. From here we went to Enchey Monastery, a beautiful place festooned with prayer flags and located at the top of a hill opposite the TV tower. Photography is allowed outside the temple but not inside.
Tashi View Point - Situated 8 kms from Gangtok, this place offers a breathtaking view of the majestic Mount Khangchendzonga and Mount Siniolchu. Phodong Monastery - 38 kms from Gangtok, one of the six major monasteries of Sikkim. About 4 kms. from Phodong is the uniquely architectured Labrang Monastery. After visiting these monasteries we returned to Gangtok and stopped at Lal Bazaar to buy few woolens. The bazaar has some good bargains.
Tucked away in the foothills of the Himalayas, Sikkim is a wonderland with its lovely views and exotic orchids, and its forest trails. A virtual Shangrila overlooked by Mt.Kanchenjunga, the world's third largest peak, Sikkim is attractive equally for the sightseer, the adventure sports enthusiast and those interested in Buddhism and Tibetology. Buddhism is the prominent religion here, with many fine old monasteries rich with frescoes, religious paintings on silk and statues of the Buddha's various incarnations.
We returned back to the plains with an experience that had the right blend of refresh, rejuvenate and adventure. To wrap up, it could be said that Sikkim is definitely worth a visit to experience the heavenly bliss on the earth.
How to Reach Gangtok - Gangtok is well connected to all the tourist spot of Sikkim by Road. Ravangla, Pelling, Lachung, Lachen, Yuksom can be visited from here. Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang, Baba Mandir, Tsomgo Lake are assessable from Gangtok.
Airways - Bagdogra is approximately 120 kilometers from Gangtok. Bagdogra airport is served by regular Indian Airlines, Kingfisher, Spice Jet, and Jet Airways. There are daily flights from Kolkata, Guwahati and Delhi. There is a regular Chopper / Helicopter service to Gangtok and back.
Railways - Sikkim has no railway system in the state. New Jalpaiguri (NJP) is approximately 120 kilometers away and is the nearest railway station for Gangtok. NJP is well connected to the rest of India. There are over two dozens of train plying in daily basis to New Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Guwahati, etc. From NJP to Rangpo Toy Train is coming up by Year 2011.
Roadways - It is well connected with NH 31A and is 120 kilometers away from Siliguri, 85 kilometers from Kalimpong and 115 kilometers from Darjeeling. The road is beautiful and is accompanied by river Teesta. Sikkim Nationalized Transport ply regular bus service and private vehicle ply at regular interval.
Article by - Moushumi Chandra Pics by Dr. Sudipta Chandra