STRETCHING THE  RUPEE  AND GOING THE DISTANCE
Backpacking the N/East : 3 months / 4 States and a limited budget!!

NORTH EAST JOURNALS – PART 5 of 5
SIKKIM (17 days)
PLACES VISITED :
Gangtok – (Tashi View Point, Ganesh Tok, MG Marg, Lal Bazaar, Enchay monastery, Zoological Park, Do Drul Chorten, Institute of Tibetology, Handicraft museum, Ropeway
Rumtek Monastery
Lachung (Yumthang and Yumesamdong and Zero point – Singhba Rhododendron sanctuary)
Namchi (South Sikkim) – Statue of Padmasambhava and the culture centre housing statue of Shiv
Pelling (West Sikkim) – Pemayangtse monastery, Sanga Choling Monastery, Khechuperi (Khechopalri) lake, Rabdantse Ruins, Magnificient views of Khanchendzonga.
PLACES STAYED IN :
Gangtok : Maj. Vishal’s army camp behind Tashi View Point. Later moved to Tibet road and stayed in following two places: Travel Lodge (Rs.500/-. Good, clean rooms with Dish TV and linen provided. However too noisy from all the local tourist groups) and Modern Central lodge (Rs.300/- per day. Backpacker friendly, no frills type with big rooms)
Lachung : Apsara Guest House (Part of the 2 day/1 night package)
Namchi : Dungmali guest house (Rs. 400/-) (Basic room, Common bathroom and toilet)
Pelling : Garuda. THE place to stay (Rs.300/- per day. Room 19 and 15 are best for grand views of Khanchendzonga. Dish TV, hot water and linen. Managed by graceful and helpful hosts. They even do room service and the entire atmosphere is very amicable.
(Note : All rates are end of season/Off peak rates)
The journey from Siliguri to Gangtok in the shared Sumo (Rs.140/- per seat) was about four hours. We entered Sikkim through Rangpo. Entry to the state is still checked rigorously by the Sikkim Police.
The Sumo dropped us off at Deorali from where we had to hire another cab to Tashi View Point, where my friend Vishal Arora, a major in the army had arranged for my accommodation within the army cantonment area.
Day 1 – This was a recce day. Headed to town in the local bus. Booked ourselves for a packaged tour to Yumthang through a local operator, Transworld. The road to Lachen and Gurudongmar was closed due to landslides and so was the road to Nathu La. To go to these places you have to go through a travel agent who needs to arrange for permits. If you go in a packaged tour (groups of 10) then the costs are manageable. We paid Rs.1000/- per head for 2 days and one night to Yumthang, all-inclusive, ex. Gangtok.

We later went to the Sikkim Tourism Department to verify the credentials of the tour operator and double-check on the rates. The tourism office is well-managed and helpful. We got a lot of real-time information for the entire state that did help us a lot in our travel planning.

Later spent some time on MG Marg, the main commercial street in town which is beautifully maintained with cobbled paths, light music playing at all times and a central array of light posts, and gardens, whilst on the sides you have shops and restaurants catering to all pockets and tastes. This place is ideal for people watching, jus sitting in one of the benches and getting caught up in the lively yet unhurried mood of the place.
Gangtok would be easily one of the cleanest cities you would ever come across, highly organised and beautifully maintained it deserves to be called Switzerland of the east. What’s admirable is that the No Plastic, No smoking and No tobacco laws are strictly enforced and subsequently diligently adhered to. Wish all states had similar policies!!.
We stayed here for a good week, the longest time we stayed put in one place so far, which is just a small measure of how much we love it. Out here we again avoided the pre arranged cabs doing the 5-point
or 7-point sightseeing tours. In fact most of the local points were covered on foot, with the exception of Rumtek which is 24 kms away.

Day 2 – Walked it out to Ganesh Tok view point, 6 kms. away along the by-pass road from Tashi view point (got a lift  halfway). Situated about 7 kms out of Gangtok and straddling a ridge at altitude of 6500 feet) has good views of the town. The Himalayan Zoo situated across the street was closed being a weekly holiday on Thursdays.

Day 3 and 4 – Woke up around 4 am to catch the sunrise and possibly a glimpse of Kanchenjunga from Tashi view point. However at this time of the year, with the rain clouds moving in from all directions, couldn’t sight the mountains but did enjoy a beautiful solitary sunrise! Later in the day boarded the sumo (the 2 days trip to Lachung arranged earlier).  Being a package tour we were now a big group of 10 persons, the rest of the group comprising of two Bengali families.

The 6 hour drive to Lachung, a distance of about 130 Kms. is treacherous ordeal on single lane roads bordering narrow gorges, gushing waterfalls, whose discharges occasionally fall directly onto the roads with ferocious intent. The edges of the roads are bordered at times with prayer flags, seldom by small colorful hamlets but almost always with steep precipitous falls. Driving during monsoons is extremely challenging and is also fraught with fear of landslides (As we experienced twice; however we were lucky enough not to get stranded).

En route we saw a couple of waterfalls, the Seven sisters fall being one of the grandest where we had a brief halt. Passed through Mangan (65 kms from Gangtok and at elevation of 3950 feet), the self-proclaimed large cardamom capital of the world, Toong is the main checkpoint at which point permits are checked. There is also a notice board here which indicates the latest status (if open or closed due to landslides) of all the roads beyond.

Final coffee stop was at Chungthang, a small town that straddles the confluence of Lachen and Lachung rivers and is the starting point of river Teesta. Presently work is underway to dam this portion of the river. From here the road bifurcateS for the Lachen and Lachung valleys. Continuing north-east we finally reached Lachung valley (elev. – 8638 feet) at 6pm and checked into a very small and basic hotel named Apsara. As it was already dark couldn’t explore the place. Instead, having befriended our driver and his collegues, we ended up having chhaang (the local drink) with them in the roadside stall. Chhaang is a relative of the more universally known beer. Semi-fermented seeds of millet are served, stuffed in a barrel of bamboo called the Dhungro. Then boiling water is poured and sipped through a narrow bore bamboo pipe called the Pipsing.

Early the next day we headed for Yumthang (elev. – 11,800 feet), where the treeline ends and high plateau begins. This is also known as the valley of flowers of Sikkim, being situated within the Singhba rhodendron sanctuary which is home to 40 species of rhodendrons and 108 types of orchids. This place comes alive in a riot of colors during April/May. We however did not get to see many flowers except at the upper reaches at Yumesamdong (Zero Point)43 kms. beyond. The package tour includes visit only to Yumthang valley and to get to Zero point we had to pay an additional 2000/- which we split amongst the group. The entire stretch to Zero point is a series of hair pin bends and S-shaped curves which gives one the view of massive black

cliffs at one turn , and on the very next turn, the broad expanse of the valley with the snow-capped mountains in the distance, rolling meadows and a few of the flowering rhododendrons sprinkled generously adding hues of orange and yellow to the landscape. The bridge to Zero point being washed away during recent rains, we could not go any further. At an elevation of 15,300 feet and very close to the border with China,

Yumesamdong is a place where time stands still and the quietude of the place and crisp fresh mountain air enhances the pristine beauty of the area.

Within the sanctuary there are a number of well-marked trails and some cozy tourist lodges. It sure seems worth exploring during the flowering season. Further information regarding stay and trekking can be obtained from the tourism department.
On the way back we stopped for a good 1 hour in the Yumthang valley, a scheduled stop of the package for some breakfast. We also got some time to explore the vast valley and river bank.
Later we stopped to have lunch and collect our bags from the hotel we stayed in the previous night. Finally reached back Gangtok late in the evening and were dropped off at Tashi view-point.
Day 5 – Moved out of Vishal’s accommodation and checked into Travel Lodge on Tibet road, one of the main streets where most of the hotels and restaurants are situated. Had lunch at Arthur’s, a nice cozy restaurant, run by a friendly guy named Arthur (Who else??). This place offers Wi-Fi and a large TV. Good place to meet other backpackers.

Day 6 – We did a lot of sight-seeing and all of it was on foot. Started off by visiting the Flower Show Complex. Walked along the scenic and beautifully landscaped Ridge Road, a stretch of road between White Hall and the beautiful palace of erstwhile Chogyals.

Then walked up via a shortcut to Enchay Monastery, perched on a ridge above the city. It is a small Nyingmapa gompa built in the nineteenth century on a place blessed by a tantric master Druptob Karpo who was renowned for his ability to fly.

Later hiked up via a small pathway hugging the futuristic looking TV tower to the
Zoological Park (Thursdays closed). Spread across 205 hectares this is the first zoo in India to use the ‘immersion exhibit technique’ in India, It is a good 2-3 kms of up hill climb and is best explored in a vehicle. Some of the endangered animals housed here are the Snow Leopard, the Tibetan Wolf and the cute and cuddly Red Panda who also happens to be the State animal. There is an observatory nearing completion which gives a grand view of the entire town and the Kanchenjunga range. We had covered a circuit of nearly 20 Kms, which, taking into account the shortcuts would be about 12 kms on foot and did not pay a single dime for travel.

Day 7 – Checked into Modern Central Lodge located nearby, a more backpacker friendly, no frills and low cost hotel with large rooms and better views. Then walked to the Directorate of Handlooms and Handicrafts, a place that preserves and promotes the fine traditional arts and crafts of Sikkim. Caught a cab to the Chorten area at Deorali, where set in a shady grove of oak, birch and ash trees, lies the Namgyal Institute of Tibetology and a few hundred meters beyond is the Do Drul Chorten.
The Institute of Tibetologyhouses a well-appointed museum which displays Buddhist artefacts, paintings and texts. The second floor houses one of the world’s largest collections of rare books and manuscripts on Mahayana Buddhism, many of them originally from Tibet.

The Do Drul (Duddul) Chorten, built in the memory of Trulshig Rinpoche, the chorten is capped by a gilded tower, whose rising steps signify the thirteen steps to nirvana; the sun and the moon symbol at the top stands for the union of opposites and elements of ether and air. The 108 prayer wheels that surround it – each with the universal prayer “Om Mani Padme Hum” (Hail to the jewel in the lotus)- are rotated clockwise by devotees as they circle the stupa. Nearby, a prayer hall houses a large image of Guru Rinpoche (venerated as the second Buddha). Curiously, a part of the head of the image projects into the ceiling, protected by a raised section of the roof; belief has it that the image is growing slowly.

After this boarded the Ropeway (Rs.60/- return ticket) for an aerial view of Gangtok town. The cable car goes all the way to the Tashiling Secreteriat via the middle station where we got down. Wrapped up the evening with watching ‘The Karate Kid’ in the local movie hall (Denzong Cinema).
Day 8 –
Visited the famed monastery of Rumtek, 24kms southwest of Gangtok (Shared sumo, Rs.30/- per seat).This place can be covered in a day trip by reserving a taxi (Around 500/- return, including waiting). However if going by shared Sumos, it is advisable to start early so that you can get the return sumos which are only available from Rumtek till around 1 PM.
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The large gompa of Rumtek, is the main seat of the Karma Kagyu (Black Hat) sect. This new monastery was built by the sixteenth Karmapa who fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion. Within the walls lies a heavily guarded (foreigners need to register and submit documents prior entering) sprawling township housing the main temple, the golden stupa, the Karma Shri Nalanda Institute of Buddhist studies, a few smaller shrines, guesthouses and living quarters. Within the main temple there is a giant golden throne awaiting the arrival of the 17th Karmapa, who is presently in Dharamsala. However this does not seem likely in the near future due to political reasons. The Institute is the most ornate of all the buildings. Resident monks spend a minimum of nine years studying here followed by optional three years of isolated meditation. The ashes of the sixteenth Karmapa are contained in a gilded four meter stupa, studded with turquoise and coral, which sits in the Golden stupa hall, opposite the Institute. 
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Half a kilometer beyond the new monastery, a path leads to the simple original Rumtek gompa, founded in 1740 in an attractive wooded clearing in traditional Sikkimese alpine style. Inside is a small shrine dedicated to the Karma Kagyu protector Mahakala, an image so fierce that it is kept veiled.
Day 9 –As it was our final day in Gangtok we just took it easy today and relaxed throughout the day. Booked ticket for Namchi in shared Sumo for the next day (Rs.90/- per seat).
Day 10 – SOUTH SIKKIM – Namchi

Namchi, the district headquarters of South Sikkim lies 78 kms from Gangtok. The three hour drive is past lush green mountainsides and we pass through Temi, the only place in Sikkim which has large tracts of tea gardens. As we were headed to the other side of town from the famed Samdruptse statue and shuttling back and forth would be time consuming and expensive, we got off at the base of the Samdruptse hill and trekked uphill, backpacks and all, for a good 2 kms. The main tourist attraction in Namchi, the Padmasambhava statue is 135 feet (45 meters) high and covered in shimmering bronze paint. He is the patron saint of Sikkim and is regarded as being the second Buddha.

There is a ropeway under construction that will lead to the Rock Garden at the base of the mountain. After spending some time here we got a cab heading to town. Stayed at a family run place, Dungmali guest house which is at the base of Solophok road. After checking in and resting for a bit, we headed to the other main attraction of this town, the Pilgrimage-cum-Cultural centrewhich is just 1 Km up hill from the guest house.

 

This centre is a very large project which is nearing completion. It is a representation of Chaar Dhaams (the four major Hindu shrines – Meenakshi temple (Rameshwaram), Varanasi, Badrinath and Jaggannath temple (Puri). The main feature of this centre is the intricately carved and imposing 108 feet statue of Lord Shiva, with a large prayer hall at the base and the twelve jyotirlings around the main statue.
Day 11 – WEST SIKKIM – Pelling
We were given a lift by Mr. Dungmali to the Namchi bus stand from where we boarded a shared sumo going to Jorethang (45 mins, Rs.30/-). At Jorethang booked seats in another shared Sumo heading for Pelling and departing at 1pm. Reached Pelling in 2.5 hours and checked into Hotel Garuda (The back packer friendly restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and Rough Guides). This is a great place and rates are very reasonable. The owner Mr. Tsering Wangde (is this the right spelling?) and his family stay in the same block and are always available for any assistance. They also provide with a guide map of the area.
Day 12 –
Just lazed around and familiarized ourselves with the surrounding environs. Pelling by itself is a very small town and is divided into Upper and Lower Pelling. Apart from Pemyangtse and Sangachoeling monastery, the Rabdantse ruins and Khechuperi lake, the main attraction is the view of Khanchenjunga range and for this alone it would definitely be well worth the visit. We could see the mountain range from our hotel room itself, although being monsoon season, it was only brief views early in the morning at sunrise. We bumped into Grit, our German friend whom we had befriended in Gangtok and decided to do our local sightseeing together.
Day 13 –

Walked uphill to Sangacholing monastery, which lies 2 kms beyong Pelling. This is the second oldest monastery in Sikkim and is perched high above a ridge and offers a magnificent view. When we were here we got to witness a funeral procession of one of the local monks. We stayed back for the entire cremation process. One of the most striking things was that they bring the body in a sitting position and place it above the funeral pyre.

On the way back we met an Australian couple, Nigel and Theresa, who have travelled extensively in India. We decided to pool in and rent a cab for Khechuperi lake the next day. Did the booking via local agent (Rs.800/- including return and waiting). Areas to be covered were Rimbi waterfall, Rock Garden and Khechuperi lake.
Day 14 –

Our drive to Khechuperi lake happened to be an eventful one. Due to heavy rainfalls the previous day we encountered two small landslides on the way, which we managed to clear on our own. The Rimbi Waterfalls and Rock Garden are on the main road itself and we stopped at each point for some time. The final stop was  the serene and holy Khechuperi lake, which is said to have wish fulfilling powers. The lake and the surrounding areas are very calm and peaceful and well worth the visit. From here one can also trek to a nearby cave and onwards to Yuksom. Accommodation is available in nearby Trekkers Hut.

On the way back we encountered a major landslide and got stranded for over 3 hours until the earth-movers could come along and clear the section of the road.
Visited the Pemayangtse monastery situated 5 kms away. At an altitude of 6840 feet and perched on a wooden hilltop, this monastery whose name means ‘Perfect Sublime Lotus’ offers a stupendous view of Khanchenjunga and the foothills below. You can also see the Rabdantse ruins from here. Built in the seventeenth century, it is one of the oldest and most important Nyingma monasteries in Sikkim. It displays a wealth of Buddhist statues, traditional paintings, ritual texts and wooden masks spread across the three floors of the main temple. On the top floor is the wooden replica of “Zangdong Palri’, the celestial abode of Guru Padmasambhava. All of seven stories, complete with intricately carved rainbows, dragons and the whole panoply of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, it was single-handedly carved by Serdup Lhundrup Dorje Rinpoche in 1971.
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Rabdantse, which lies just below Pemayangtse are the well-preserved ruins of a fort of the ancient capital of Sikkim from 1670 to 1814. Beautifully preserved by the Archeological Society of India, in a very atmospheric setting and looking out in all directions, with sacred chortens nearby, it is a wonderful place to visit.
Day 16 –
Last day in Pelling. Woke up at 4am to catch the dawn and play of light on the breathtaking Khanchenjunga range. Was on the terrace for a good two hours, just soaking in the sights and reveling in the magnificent beauty of these mountains.  It was truly a memorable ending to a memorable trip.

Boarded the state bus for Siliguri (140/- per seat, 7 hours). Stayed overnight at my friend’s hotel on Sevoke road (Hotel Tiara) again. Finally boarded the train to Mumbai in the wee hours of the morning on 26th June. (Guwahati express// Travel time 50 hours// Rs.2100/- + additional 350/- for Second A/C)

 


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Sikkim 1

NOTE (BACKPACKING NORTH EAST INDIA AND BASIC MOUNTAINEERING COURSE) (06.APR.2010 TO 26.JUN.2010):

 

MY SEQUENCE OF TRAVEL WAS AS FOLLOWS : DARJEELING – HMI BASIC MOUNTAINEERING COURSE – DARJEELING – ARUNACHAL PRADESH – MEGHALAYA – SIKKIM

ALSO CHECK OUT FOLLOWING POSTS AS A CONTINUATION OF MY ENTIRE N.EAST TRAVEL EXPERIENCE  –

1) PROLOGUE TO NORTH EAST JOURNALS

2) DARJEELING

3) ARUNACHAL PRADESH

4) MEGHALAYA

5) HMI, BASIC COURSE

 

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