Sikkim, the tiny state located in the North East of India has always appealed to me. My hobby of browsing through tons of travel based pictures to constantly update my bucket list led me to discover picture postcards of the virgin beauty of this land. Anish and I have been married for a year, and when we were considering a holiday to celebrate our first anniversary, it did not take us long to finalize on Sikkim. With a draft itinerary in place, we started the process of dealing with logistics – accommodation, transport, etc. After learning that it is mandatory to arrange all visits to North Sikkim via registered tour operators, we had no choice but to start with the hunt for the perfect travel organizer. Having always planned our holidays ourselves, we were very apprehensive of approaching travel agents who sell predesigned packages. Based on a few recommendations online we shortlisted a few travel operators, but upon contacting them, we were disappointed when none of them were willing to customize our itinerary for North Sikkim. Not long after, we came across Offbeat tracks, and to our delight, we were offered a complete holiday plan personalized to our preferences. With everything in place, we could not wait to start our much-awaited holiday!
Day 1: We arrived at Bagdogra airport and were greeted by the taxi driver with traditional Sikkimese scarves. A 4 to 5 hour drive lay ahead of us, and the warm welcome heightened the excitement and anticipation of what was to come for the remainder of our holiday.
Pro tip #1: Book a chopper early on during your planning. It is a 35-minute flight directly to Gangtok, and I am sure one will be treated to breathtaking views. Don’t worry about baggage limitations (10kg per person), Offbeat tracks can arrange a taxi to transport your bags!
We arrived at Gangtok around sunset, and proceeded to Netuk House to be welcomed by Mr. Bhutia, our local travel co-ordinator. Although we had arranged for accommodation at the Army mess ourselves, it was a nice opportunity to have a look at the lovely heritage property managed by him. We were informed that due to incremental bad weather, the road to Gurudongmar Lake had not opened this season. Being the eternal optimists that we are, we decided to carry on with our planned itinerary and hoped and prayed that the weather gods (and the BRO – responsible for the road maintenance in Sikkim), would smile on us.
Day 2: Our permits to North Sikkim were arranged early that morning, giving us the advantage of an early start for the 6-hour long drive to Lachen. Just a few minutes into our journey, stunning views of the mountains greeted our eyes, including one of the peaks of the Kanchenjunga. We were so enthralled by this unexpected play of peek-a-boo by the mountains, that our cameras lay untouched on the car seat.
Pro tip #2: Shutterbugs need to always be ready with your equipment. The view of the mountains is heavily dependent on weather and clear skies, you may never get another chance.
Our first stop was at Seven-Sisters’ waterfalls, named after the seven states in the North East of India. After a short 10-minute stop, we continued our journey.
The roads to North Sikkim are not for the faint hearted. Offering beautiful, uninterrupted landscapes of the mountains and the waterfalls, they also give you jaw-dropping views of the steep gorges directly below, especially from the patches of rugged roads. Having an enormous fear of winding roads, this was the greatest test of my mental fortitude, and I lay my trust and my life in the hands of the driver and vowed to keep my eyes open, not to miss out on the wonderful scenery!
Lunch was at a small joint, offering basic fare of momos, maggi and pakodas. Don’t go by the looks of the places, the food in these roadside eateries are delicious, and seems to be quite apt for the long tedious journeys.
Next stop was at Naga waterfalls, which frankly, was a bit more appealing to us. The gushing of the waterfalls on one side, and the ruggedness of the landscape on the other gave it a raw beauty like no other.
As we got closer to Lachen, we encountered a road block caused by the re-surfacing of the roads by the BRO. Again, we were told this was to be expected at these times since the season was just starting and the roads had just opened up following heavy snow and rainfall. Anish used this opportunity to chat with a BRO officer and surprise, surprise – he informed us that the road to the lake had just been opened to public from the previous day! The road conditions would continue to be monitored on a daily basis, and tourists were allowed at their own risk, which we were most definitely willing to take!
We reached Lachen at 5pm, and were greeted by our host at the homestay. Having read a lot on the bare minimum conditions in Lachen, we were not expecting too much with the accommodation. We were in for a pleasant surprise. The room with a separate lounge area was charming and was perfect for our needs.
For dinner, we were delighted when we were served Chaang (or Tongba) – the traditional Sikkimese warm millet beer, followed by a sumptuous home cooked meal. We had planned to set off early next morning at 3:30 am towards the lake and turned in early for the night.
Day 3: Since this was supposed to be the highlight of our holiday, we had planned to spend 2 nights in Lachen, to cater to any unforeseen circumstances that are typical of such mountainous regions. Our fears came true, when we were informed that the road to the lake was inaccessible due to a landslide. Although disheartened and disappointed, we tried to make the most of the day by exploring the tiny hamlet of Lachen, and surrounding areas. People usually visit Lachen only as a stopover for the lake, it is a shame that they do not get to enjoy the beauty and simplicity of this quaint village.
By noon, we were informed that the landslide was cleared and the road was open once more. With new found hope, we spent the evening hiking towards the local monastery, and stopping by for coffee at the delightful Apple Orchard Resort. On sunny days one can imagine the joy of sipping a cuppa enjoying the great views from the resort.
Following a traditional home-cooked Sikkimese meal, and yet another type of home-made rice beer (we could get used to this!), we were about to call it a day, when news spread that there was yet another bigger landslide that evening, and this time they were unsure when this would be cleared. We were advised to start later in the morning, after 6 am by which time the roads would be cleared and we could get a few extra winks. Since we were determined to make it to the lake, we decided to take a chance and start as planned at 4 am. We would rather wait on the road, than lay in bed sleepless with the suspense.
Day 4: This day was special to us as this marked our first anniversary. We hoped that our day would be made extra special by getting to see the lake. Luckily, our gamble favored us, and we managed to cross over the landslide prone area, albeit with special warnings to be aware of the extremely treacherous road conditions.
Pro tip #3: North Sikkim is an area that is best traversed in SUV’s or similar four-wheel drives. The roads can be terrible, slippery, or sometimes be totally absent!
As we drove further, we could feel the effects of the altitude. Our hosts at the homestay had packed popcorn for us which is believed to help relieve the symptoms of altitude sickness. Not sure if it worked or not, but we did consume it at regular intervals and did not face any issues. After a brief stop at the check-point near Chopta valley where our permits were checked, we decided to skip breakfast at the local joint and proceeded to the last check point very close to the lake. Seeing our car break the frozen puddles, we guessed that we were the first vehicle for the day, which was confirmed by the Army personnel at the check point. I had the chance to interact with the men posted at the check-point and learnt of the extreme conditions that they have to face and their methods of survival. We were warned not to exert ourselves at the lake, due to the low oxygen levels (2.5% we were told, although I suspect it might be somewhere closer to 5-7%). The lake is best visited as early as possible to get the best sunlight, as well as to escape the roaring winds that tend to encapsulate the region as the day progresses. Past the check-point, the landscape changed dramatically. We could see barren flat lands surrounded by mountains, and yaks grazing in certain areas. The roads are paved by the Army and perfectly maintained, making it a thoroughly enjoyable route.
At an altitude of 17,800 ft., Gurudongmar lake is considered to be a holy lake for the Sikkimese and the Sikhs alike. It remains frozen for major part of the year. Legend has it that Guru Padmasambhava visited the lake on his way back from Tibet, and on learning of the villagers’ plight of lack of water in winter, he blessed the lake by touching a part of it. Till date, this portion of the lake remains non-frozen even in extreme winters. Visitors to the lake collect some of its water as it is believed to be holy. As we were the first visitors to the lake for the day, we got to enjoy it all for ourselves. The pristine lake looked so surreal, the entire duress of lack of sleep and tedious travel seemed totally worth it. Visitors are advised not to spend more than 30 minutes at the lake, owing to the low oxygen levels. Since we felt completely fine, and were comfortable with the chill, we took our time enjoying the natural beauty.
We had decided to head back to Gangtok on the same day, and it was finally time to leave. As we drove back to Lachen, the memory of the first glimpse of the lake and the serenity of it remains imprinted in my memory for years to come.
Post lunch, we started our long drive back to Gangtok. We reached at 8pm, sleepy and exhausted, but happily content as if a mission had been accomplished!
Day 5: We had planned on spending this day exploring Gangtok, but to my surprise, I was informed in the morning that plans had changed. Turned out that A had booked a paragliding session over Gangtok as my anniversary gift! Owing to the exhaustion from the previous day, this seemed like a perfect way to start the day. Gliding over the mountains, enjoying the serene beauty was an incredible feeling and I only wished it had been longer. Next, we headed to Rumtek Monastery, the largest monastery in Sikkim. Set atop a hill, this sacred institution has splendid architecture, and views over the city of Gangtok. We arrived a little over 2pm, which gave us the opportunity to see the monks chanting their prayers. We ended up staying longer than planned, watching the monks go about their daily chores with fascination. Upon returning to Gangtok, we spent the evening at the charming Baker’s café, watching the sun descend slowly behind the mountains. Walking down MG Marg after dark, absorbing the lively atmosphere, abuzz with tourists and locals alike, and dinner at Taste of Tibet was a perfect way to end the evening. A glass of local liquor on the side definitely helped!
Day 6: Pouring rains and loud thunderstorms all night only meant that we woke up to a misty, gloomy morning. This day was our journey to West Sikkim, via a part of the South. Not to be let down by the weather, we drove towards our first destination, Ravangla. The added benefit of the misty gloomy weather was that the momos and soup tasted twice as good! We reached Ravangla to be awestruck by a gigantic statue of the Buddha, which was a truly a sight! A sunny day with blue skies might have given better views (and pictures!), but catching glimpses of the Buddha partially through the mist added an eerie mystique to the entire setting.
The mist engulfed us throughout our journey, giving some hair-raising moments on the road. We had decided to skip the famous man-made tourist attractions at Namchi and instead chose to visit the Temi Tea Garden. After a brief stop, which included savoring the local tea at the estate, we finally reached the long-awaited luxurious leg of our journey. Accommodation was booked at Biksthang Heritage Farmhouse – a gorgeous family run heritage property. We were upgraded to the glass “honeymoon” cottage directly overlooking the Kanchenjunga range. Our initial plan was to visit Pelling the next day, but were won over by the charm and beauty of the place and unanimously decided to skip it, if we would be lucky enough to see the mountains early in the morning directly from our bedroom. After dinner in the lovely dining room, we tucked in, praying for better weather the next day and for the clouds to clear.
Day 7: Excited to see the much talked-about and photographed Kanchenjunga range, we woke up well before sunrise and were mighty pleased to see a clear sky. We watched in silence, mesmerized by the first rays of sunshine falling on the mountains and lo behold, the majestic Kanchenjunga was right in front of us, the five peaks, in all its glory. So engrossed were we, that we watched this beautiful scene unfold before us for an entire hour.
Post breakfast, with our appetites hungry for more of the view, we decided to drive to Rinchenpong, a few kilometers higher up from Biksthang. We reached the top, just in time to see the clouds slowly encompassing the peaks. Back at the homestay, the rest of the day was spent chatting with the owners, lounging on the day beds, and of course playing with the resident dog, a majestic St. Bernard named Bolt.
Day 8: With our flight scheduled at 3pm, we had a 5-hour journey ahead of us. After breakfast, we said our goodbyes to our lovely hosts and spent the rest of the journey reflecting on the incredible week spent in the lovely state of Sikkim. Having skipped a few “must-see” places due to our flexible schedule as well as spur of the moment decisions, we knew we would come back to Sikkim someday. Until then, the hope remains that the natural beauty of this place will remain untouched and unspoiled, to give everyone a chance to experience the land that is Sikkim.