North Sikkim Tour
When we first researched on Sikkim, we had learnt that the northern hills of Sikkim are most untouched and have some beautifully, pristine areas that must be visited. So it was diligently added to our itinerary as a ‘must-visit’ place. However, after facing the wintery weather of Darjeeling and Pelling, Madhu and I were sure that we would not be able to handle anything colder, which was how we had assumed North Sikkim to be. We also assumed that the roads would be snowed in and inaccessible at this time of the year. But when we got to Gangtok we learnt that not only were the roads accessible but that a lot of tourists were heading in that direction. So we decided to brave the weather and give it a try as well. But no way were we going to share this trip with others! A day prior to departure, we supplied the travel agent with passport-sized photos and copies of our driver’s licenses required for the permit and booked a jeep for ourselves for a 1night-2day tour of North Sikkim – all for Rs.6,500!
On Fri, Dec 17th, with a warm winter sun shining on us, we started out from Gangtok at 10am and headed north on National Highway 31A. The roads just outside the city limits were in terrible condition and the not-so-comfy jeep provided no cushioning. So the first couple of hours were brutal and tiring. Then we stopped by the Seven Sisters’ Waterfall so named because of its 7-tiered fall. It was not a very spectacular waterfall but it gave us an opportunity to get out of the jeep and stretch. A narrow, wooden, pedestrian bridge has been built over the water near the falls but it was too cold for us to go that close to it. A state run tea stall across the street provided us with hot tea and pakoras and a (relatively clean) bathroom facility. We spent about half an hour out there, enjoying the scenery and trying to stay warm.
At Phodong, which is about 40 kms from Gangtok, we stopped to pay our respects at the two famous monasteries that sit on a small hillock overlooking the village. Our first stop was at Phodong Monastery, which was about a kilometer off the highway. It is set in a lovely, grassy compound with a view of the surrounding snow-clad mountains. Established in 1740, it is a beautiful, 2-storey structure with Pagoda-style roofs. A young, bald, smiling Lamaji rushed forward to open the monastery’s grilled doors for us and then proceeded to cheerfully show us around the main prayer hall and the Mahakala room at the back. They were both exquisite! The Lamaji mentioned that the Labrang Monastery, which was just another kilometer up the same hillock, was nicer than this one. Up until then we hadn’t made up our minds whether we wanted to visit that monastery as well or not – were kinda getting tired of seeing so many Gompas. Lamaji’s words helped us decide; we made our reluctant jeep driver take us there. And I’m so glad we did! It turned out to be a unique, octagonal structure with unbelievably beautiful interiors. We found a few people, including a couple of monks, sitting on the monastery’s lawns cleaning a bunch of brass lamps – it was in preparation for the Dalai Lama’s visit. In spite of being busy, one of the monks kindly showed us inside the monastery and we loved his passionate explanation of some of the murals – it was a fabulous visit!
For lunch we stopped at a small way-side, family-run eatery where the family lived right next door. Since all meals were included in the tour package, the driver had arranged for the meal to be available and ready for us by the time we got there. We fed the bones of the chicken curry we were served to the family dogs who were hanging around expectantly.
After this there were no more sights to stop at, so we were driven along continuously until suddenly all traffic stopped before a mighty landslide that had completely destroyed the road ahead! The place was swarming with army personnel who were busy building a temporary dirt track out of the hillside above the original road. We were amazed at the speed and efficiency with which things got done. Within half an hour our side of the traffic was let through on the new road to the other side and we were able to continue on, while the army men labored on; hats off to them and their work!
At Changthang, where the road into Northern Sikkim forks out to two directions and where a huge Hydro-electricity project is underway, we stopped for a quick tea break. It took us another hour from there to get to the village of
Lachung, which sits on the right fork of the road, at the confluence of two tributaries of the Teesta River. It was a trading post between Sikkim and Tibet but is today gaining importance as a base for tourists to explore this part of northern Sikkim. We were deposited in a small guesthouse called Rocky Mountain Lodge where the rooms were quite basic but with an attached bath that had a hot-water geyser. Dinner was provided at the guesthouse’s dining room, which was small and attached to the kitchen – it was a very nice vegetarian meal! We slept early that night ‘coz we were told to be ready by 4:30 AM the following morning for a full day of sight-seeing and the return journey to Gangtok.
Dutifully, Madhu and I awoke at the insane hour of 3:45 AM and despite the cold, were dressed and ready at the agreed hour. But to our dismay, when we went out to where the jeep was parked, the driver was nowhere to be seen. We waited for about 15 minutes in the freezing cold for him to show up, and then Madhu lost patience and knocked loudly on the door of the room that he was sleeping in. It took another 15 minutes of intermittent knocking to finally wake the fellow up! By the time he dressed and we left Lachung it was 5:30 AM! We should have known: as usual the driver had told us to be ready by 4:30 AM but from past experiences with other Indian tourists, hadn’t expected it to really happen !
The drive to Zero Point, the highest point within Northern Sikkim where the road ends, was unbelievably gorgeous but a little eerie as the sun was not up yet. We could only see the outlines of the landscape, which was all gray and blue. From Lachung, which is at about 9500ft, we climbed about 5000ft and soon were surrounded by snow everywhere. The temperature dropped drastically and Madhu and I realized that we were just not dressed for this extreme weather. But the scenery kept us engrossed and our minds off the chill. When we finally got to Zero Point, some 40kms later, we were almost afraid to get out of the jeep. But, of course, we did! And it was like we had stepped out into a freezer in fact, worse, if you count the wind in the air. I hurried down to the Lachung River, which had frozen over completely and took a few pictures of the fantastic landscape in very dim light. But I couldn’t stay out for more than 5 minutes. My toes and fingers, which were well-protected, stung with pain because of the cold and I immediately hurried back to the jeep. Madhu followed suit within a few minutes. And then we both shivered and shook all the way downhill to Yumthang Valley. We have never known so much cold in our lives before! It almost took away our pleasure of being at the road’s end of Northern Sikkim. The pain in our toes was most unbearable and took a good hour to subside; don’t ever want to go through that again!
The drive down to Yumthang valley was even more beautiful as by now the sun was up and the whole place was lit in a beautiful morning glow. Along the way, we met a stranded jeep and its passengers; the jeep had run out of fuel and was now trying to roll down the hill towards the army barracks. En route they were flagging down other vehicles to check if anyone was carrying any spare. But it turned out that even we were low on gas. We stopped at the check post where our permits had been collected (not inspected, though) and our driver managed to buy a few gallons of diesel (illegally of course) from the security personnel.
Our next stop was at beautiful Yumthang Valley, which had now sprung to life (there was no one around when we had passed by in the early hours of the morning) with many tea stalls lining the street. We had breakfast (just bread and butter; coffee cost us extra!) in one of them and then set out to explore the area. We realized that we were the only ones who had already visited Zero Point and were on our way back. The rest of the folks were only on their way there. In a way I was happy to have missed all this crowd at the top. But in a way, I also wished we had gotten there after sunrise when the weather would have been relatively warmer and we could have stood around longer!
At an elevation of about 12,000 ft, Yumthang Valley is a large meadow-like valley floor through which the Lachung River flows furiously. The surrounding snow-clad mountains give this place an idyllic setting taking our breath away by its beauty! The valley is home to a Rhododendron sanctuary, which is in full bloom during the months of April and May. Apparently, even the surrounding mountains, which looked dry and dead at the moment, burst alive with various colors of Rhododendron flowers; what a sight that must make! As seen at almost all other Sikkim attractions, here too the area was nicely maintained with a stone-paved pathway winding through the valley floor, by the rhododendron bushes. The walk (approximately 1 km) through here gave us lovely views of the valley and the mountains around and brought some sensation back into our aching toes. We came upon a suspension bridge across the river, which we climbed onto tentatively. The bridge swayed and shivered under the combined strain of our weight and the vicious winds over the fast-flowing river. Hundreds of colorful prayer flags fluttered over the ropes of the bridge and added to the dramatic atmosphere of the place!
Later we drove back to Lachung, had an early lunch at the guesthouse and then started back for Gangtok at around 12:30 PM. The village of Lachung looked delightful in the morning and we wished we had some time to walk around it and get a closer look. But I’m glad we didn’t ‘coz about a couple of hours later we got stuck at the same landslide that had destroyed a part of the road the previous day. This time around we were stuck for almost an hour and a half before we were allowed to cross over using the newly laid track. By the time we were dropped off at the private jeep stand in Gangtok it was about 7:30 PM – it had taken us 7 hours to traverse 150kms¦
Overall, we have mixed feelings about our tour of Northern Sikkim; although, we enjoyed the monasteries and Yumthang Valley a lot, it felt like a half-hearted visit! I wish we had stayed 2 nights in Lachung so that we could have visited Zero Point at a more pleasant time of the day and then picnicked in Yumthang Valley until late afternoon before coming back to Lachung for rest. By rushing through all of this in one day we hadn’t done full justice to it. Moreover, I wish we were here when the flowers were in bloom. I guess, this just gives us a reason to return someday, doesn’t it?