Aflight to Kolkata, then by rail to New Jalpaiguri, and from there by ‘share taxi’ to Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim — that’s where we met our first Sikkimese friend Priya, who treated us to momos, steamed with a stuffing of chicken, fish or vegetable, and served with spicy red chilly chutney.
Little did we realise then, that the rest of our eight-day stay in Sikkim would be stuffed with momos!
The journey to Gangtok was a long but fascinating one as the landscape gradually transformed as we moved uphill. The road with hairpin bends took us along a silent river — the Teesta — and around mountain peaks and thick forests. We later realised that we had followed the Teesta all through Sikkim — right up to its source in North Sikkim.
Buzzing with activity
Gangtok is the archetypical Indian hill station, a buzzing town with rows of tightly-packed shops, chaotic traffic and crowds. As in most other Indian cities, Gangtok’s M.G. Road is where it’s all happening — antique shops, sweetmeat shops, pubs, ATMs, restaurants… Vehicular traffic is barred on this three-km stretch, which means a leisurely stroll, interrupted only by window shopping and stops at various shops mostly selling not-so-inexpensive Chinese goods.
Rajan, our taxi driver, from Parali in Palakkad and settled in Gangtok with his Buddhist wife, took us to Yemcheng Monastery.
The awe-inspiring architecture was embellished with intricately-carved structures and the walls were painted in colourful patterns. I was mesmerised by the sight of hundreds of slightly-built monks sitting in a large hall and chanting.
Our next trip was to the famous Nathu La Pass on the Indo-China border. The rough terrain and the pot-holed muddy roads did not matter as my eyes soaked in the sight of the Himalayan ranges.
After a nerve-wracking drive of two hours, we finally reached Changu Lake at an altitude of 12,000 ft. Frozen eight months in a year, the sight of snow and water is truly picture-postcard like.
We continued our journey to Nathu La, my first-ever Indo-China border sojourn! We were just a kilometre away from the pass when we were told that the roads were closed due to excessive snowfall.
We next headed to explore North Sikkim. We were lucky to get Karma Bhutia, a seasoned tour guide and driver, who took us to the less-visited areas of Sikkim. During the six-hour journey by jeep, we saw the seven waterfalls — ‘seven sisters’ — cascading down the mountain ranges, the Teesta winding its way down, tiny villages, and rows of cute kids walking to school.
Our first halt in North Sikkim was Lacheng, where we spent the night. The next morning, after soaking in the sunrise, we travelled three gruelling hours to Gurdong Mar Lake, easily the top must-visit spot in Sikkim. This is along the Indo-China border. We could only see Army bunkers, Shaktiman trucks, and, through binoculars, Chinese army trucks at a distance. The temperature was minus two!
Gurdong Mar Lake lies frozen at 18,000 feet above sea level, the highest point in Sikkim. The Army personnel there served us hot chai, and advised us to head back since heavy snowfall was expected. We had travelled three hours for a 10-minute visit! Nevertheless, it was worth it.
Back at Lacheng, while looking for a place to have dinner, we met Naomi, who manages a grocery shop-cum-bar-cum-home. While cooking for us, Naomi was fixing drinks for a few men. In Sikkim, every little shop doubles up as a bar. My North Sikkim journey continued to Katau, a place perpetually covered in snow.
However, there are several areas in Katau where civilians are not permitted to visit.
We went to Yungtham Valley, where we walked for miles along the Teesta and its hot springs. Several species of flowers, including the Rhododendron, bloomed all over — probably why this place earned the name ‘Valley of Flowers’.