Ahem! After a lot of avoidable delay caused due to laziness, here’s the 3rd part of my East Himalayan sojourn. Evidently the sodden wet Islamia dinner wasnt exactly nutritious food, as, 3 vomitings and an equal no. of trips to the lavatory later, I found out. However it was nothing to worry about for the intrepid traveller and with a stomach still groaning, I set out for Gangtok. The road is the same till Ghoom from where another road branches out to the forbidden land of Sikkim. It was raining as badly as it can (again!). The curving road and the jawdropping cliff on one side of the road did nothing to assuage our troubled hearts. Thick forests of sal and bamboo covered the hill slopes with the trunks of the trees easily a few feet wide. The altitude slowly decreased and thankfully so did the rain. We came to a damp and humid stretch covered by tea gardens on one side and forests on the other. We also saw a few vehicles like ours that had decided to go off-road and now lay in trenches 20-30 metres deep. Heaven help us. Far to the south the high hills surrounding D’ling were still shrouded in clouds, mist and rain. Soon we reached something called a view-point where one could see the raging Teesta battle its way past the mountains, its noise sounding something like a million serpents hissing. The climate was progressively getting warmer. Sometime later we crossed the Teesta via a bridge built by BRO which maintains all the roads in these parts. We were now barely 800 m above sea level (for comparison, Bangalore is 900 m). The sign of the plains were all around. Heavy trucks with signs like “Horn. OK. PLEASE”, dust, heat and lowland flora. We crossed into Sikkim through the town of Rangpo, which looked like a typical Indian town. About an hour or so later and after climbing steadily we were finally in Gangtok.
Gangtok is very pretty. A relatively small city, 1800 m above sea level, it has a quaint charm. We stayed at the State Circuit House near the Rajbhawan and the view from there was enchanting. Outside vehicles arent allowed to ply in Gangtok and one has to take a local taxi. Our driver Bhutia was an amazing guy, very talkative, friendly and always cracking jokes. That is the way most of the Sikkimese are. They are all fiercely patriotic, something very surprising in a land which was till 1975, an independent monarchy. The Gangtok bazaar was our destination that evening. It’s paradise for the shopaholics. You find items from God-knows-where. I sought out my favourite Momos and found that the Sikkimese version is even tastier than the Darjiling one! The climate is much more congenial to sight-seeing than the somewhat oppressive Darjiling cold. The people here speak excellent Hindi, proof of the popularity enjoyed by Hindi films here. Sikkim has made tremendous progress under its CM, Pawan Chamling. Today it is a power-surplus state and enjoys a high literacy rate. The social-welfare program too has been a success here and beggars who are a common sight in other Indian cities are virtually non-existent.
We were in Sikkim for only one day and hence decided to make the best of it. Setting out early, we visited the 200 years old, Enchey Monastery, next door to the Circuit house. The whole pathway is flanked by prayer wheels, the hallmark of Tibetan Buddhism. The main monastery itself is a beautiful building with bright murals and a serene atmosphere. Maroon clad monks were engaged in a chanting session in the main hall. Our next stop was the Tashi Viewpoint, which offers fabulous views of the surrounding mountains and you guessed it, Kanchenjunga! The high power telescope there is a real boon for tourists. En route we also came across a pretty waterfall that had the road passing beside it with a thoughtfully added viewing platform. Next stop was the Ganesh temple and the water supply station some distance away on the road leading to Nathu La. Both are lovely places with panoramic views of the countryside. Army trucks abound on this route as men of the Jat regiment proceed to their posts on the China border. From the Ganesh temple one can also see the famous Rumtek Monastery about 10 kms away. This is the seat of the Karmapa Lama, the second highest ranking lama in Tibetan Buddhism after the Dalai Lama. What pleasantly surprised me here was that the Circuit House was barely 300 m away, on the hill slope. We had travelled 7 curvaceous km to climb 300 odd metres. The Orchid Museum with almost 300 varieties of orchids was a sight to behold. Sikkim has also adopted the Orchid as its state flower. Finally to cap up the Gangtok sojourn we took a ride in the ropeway that rises above the Hurhure darra, a steep cliff that looks down on a river near the main market place. The ropeway in my opinion is the best way to see Gangtok. It also pauses for one agonising minute midway to allow tourists to take photographs.
The Hurhure darra in olden days was used as the place where convicts were tied up in sacks and thrown to their death several hundred metres below. A short journey to the taxi stand and a delicious meal in a Marwari restaurant there (they really are Pan-Indian!) we set out on the road back to New Jalpaiguri. For those with more time (and warm clothes!) I would suggest a trip to the 4600 m high Nathu La where the Indo China trade takes place and also to the nearby Tsomgo lake, a gem really. The more adventurous can go to Guru Dongmar Lake in the far north. At 5200 m, its the highest lake in the world and you need to acclimatise to the rarified atmosphere. But with views like this, I guess it’ll be worth it!
En route we came to Melli where one can have the ride of a lifetime on a bobbing raft down the white waters of the Teesta. Some distance ahead we see the Teesta Hydroelectric Project in full swing, proof that “development” has finally reached here. It is sad to think that this gorgeously magnificent beast of a river will now have an ugly concrete structure in its midst! We reached NJP at about 5 30 PM after a journey of 120 kms that took close to 5 hours. I looked at the hills from the guesthouse rooftop. The sky was slowly darkening and the hills appeared like a vast black monolith with lights twinkling in them here and there. I knew I would be back. I surely will be. Someday!