Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Sikkim Travelogue: Flowers, mountains and snow - a trip to remember

Planning a trip and checking boxes while travelling has never been my forte. What I do like is stuffing a few T-shirts in a backpack and taking off whenever I can get some days off. Alas! Growing up has its disadvantages – you cannot just up and leave as you want. And if you are planning to go to Sikkim – that is not an option anyway.

Travelling with my recently travel bug-bitten husband, Sikkim required an advance planning by a few weeks. Not only because it is far from Delhi, which is my home, but you also have to take special permissions to go to the places near the border areas.

After speaking to a couple of friends who had been there before, we decided
on a home-stay in Gangtok. The guy who arranged it all was a local, Jigme, who arranged for everything once we were in the state. Food throughout the stay, a car to take us for local sightseeing, a more experienced driver and a stronger car to take us to the more remote parts of the state--this young lad took care of it all.

We had heard that all-vegetarian meals would be difficult to get in Sikkim, especially in the far north as vegetation is sparse and locals are all meat-eaters. But to my total surprise there was not only vegetarian food available all over the state, even Jain food (no onions and garlic) is not very hard to find--thanks to a boom in tourism for the state. Though the menu lacked variety, but the food was decent and no one took it for granted that their visitors were meat-eaters.

After driving up to Gangtok from the New Jalpaiguri Station in West Bengal, we rested for the first night. The next day was spent around the capital city - the monasteries and the local market where you can walk about. The Rumtek monastery, largest in Sikkim, is tucked away near the city in a very peaceful location surrounded by mountains. The quiet of the hills added to the beautiful sound of gongs from the monastery, takes you on an inward spiritual trip. The mind gets cleared of its tensions and you can just sit and enjoy the serenity.

Only regret is that the mighty Kanchenjunga decided not to show her face to us even though our hotel provided a panoramic view of where the peak is supposed to be. So, instead we decided to entertain ourselves with the rock-and-roll culture of the city. We visited several popular hangouts, most of which featured English music and live bands.

Next on the list was a visit to Lachung and Zero Point. Unfortunately, Zero Point was inaccessible as the roads were snowed in, but the drive to Lachung was an adventure in itself. The roads are treacherous since they are damaged by snow in the winter every year and it takes a lot of effort by the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) to mend the entire state's highways. However, the views are breathtaking. Snow capped peaks, sharp slopes, small and big waterfalls spattered along the way.

Lachung is placed at an elevation of about 9,600 ft at the confluence of the Lachen River and Lachung River, tributaries of the River Teesta. The sunrise at Lachung is awe-inspiring. The snow capped peaks reflect the golden rays of the sun onto the river which in turn looks like a golden piece of cloth lying on the valley. It was so bright that we had to wear our sunglasses to keep off the glare at 7 in the morning in February.

We drove up to the Yumthang Valley – which in spring is a riot of colours. Although, when we went, it was covered with heavy snow. There are lots of trekking routes around Yumthang since we did not have proper permissions, taking up that challenge was not possible.

The highlight of the trip was our drive to Tsongmo Lake (popularly known as Changu Lake) and the Baba Temple near the Nathu La pass.

The temple is not dedicated to a local deity or a known god or goddess, but Sikkimese people hold this temple in great reverence. This temple is dedicated to a ghost army officer – Baba Harbhajan Singh, who died in 1967 and it is believed that he still protects people from threats in the area. Indian army personnel testify to the fact that Baba helps protect them from getting lost in the inhospitable terrain and also slaps anyone who sleeps off during duty. The temple is surrounded by snow, and there is no human habitation for miles and miles. I was just awed by the dedication of the soldiers who are posted at this border during the harsh winter months, when temperatures drop much below the freezing point.

The visit to Tsongmo Lake is a prayer in itself – to mother nature. The beautiful lake is situated in the rift between two peaks. The water is crystal clear and you can almost see the bottom. The bluest of skies reflects on the surface like a giant mirror placed on the ground. One of the slopes of the mountain had fresh snow while the other lay bare – giving the feeling that we were right at the centre of the Chinese energy balance symbol - Yin Yang. There are yak rides available to go around the lake, but walking along the lake's side is also quite peaceful.

Sikkimese people are very friendly and many have a lot of folklore to share, along with some delicious food. The Sikkimese cuisine has heavy Tibetan influences. Thukpa, momo, Saelroti, Phagshapa and Dal Bhat (Dal and rice) are the most popular, but no Sikkim visit is complete without tasting Chang – the local alcoholic beverage made out of cereals and traditionally sipped through a narrow-bore bamboo tube called a pipsing.

This little state of India boasts of grandeur of the mighty Himalayas and the peace of various monasteries. There are so many other places to visit in Sikkim including Guru Dongmar Lake and the tea gardens. Sikkim beckons us again. God willing another trip shall be soon!

No comments: