May is one of the most challenging months of the year and the hot and humid weather of Mumbai makes my family members irritable and angry. A holiday in the hills, the brood demands. Sikkim and Darjeeling announces our older son, the family’s Tour Planner.
Since I have been dreaming about Belur Math and Ramakrishna Math, Kolkata is added on. Keeping in mind that the Nathu La Pass remains closed for public on Mondays and Tuesdays, we work out an itinerary accordingly. After spending three days in Kolkata’s heat and humidity, we more than look forward to escaping to Darjeeling, Queen of the hills, on the fourth day.
I have a fond memory of Bollywood star Rajesh Khanna serenading Sharmila Tagore in the song ‘Mere Sapnon ki Rani’ as he drives alongside Darjeeling’s heritage toy train and I want to see this train.
However, we reach New Jalpaiguri (NJP), the closest mainline station to Darjeeling, only in the evening. As a result, we drive up to Darjeeling in the dark and there’s no question of seeing the heritage train. There is a silver lining though – the cool mountain breeze.
Here is a look at what we did in the days after in Darjeeling and Sikkim –
Peace Pagoda, Darjeeling Zoo, Himalayan Mountaineering Institute
As our vehicle rounded the curve to the Japanese Peace Pagoda, we were greeted by showers. Prescient, one might say. Going up the stairs of the snow white monument, I saw a huge statute of Buddha in the meditative pose. A walk around the stupa revealed panels which depict stories from the life of Buddha. Four Buddha statues face each direction, all in different dhyan mudras. As I finished the ‘parikrama’ (perambulation), an unknown peace befell my mind.
Next to this monument is a Japanese temple. My younger one had already gone in and he pulled at my hand in excitement. I could hear prayer chants echoing to the beat of drums. A smiling, old Tibetan lady gestured to me to sit before a ‘dafli’ (tambourine) and a stick. The chanting is to be done to the beat of this drum – my recently taught son showed me how. The whole experience was fun and deeply calming.
The next stop was the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI). Why a zoo you might say but this is the only zoo where you’ll find the red panda, snow leopard, clouded leopard, Himalayan bear and yak in their natural environment. A fair amount of climbing is required so ensure you have sports shoes, warm clothes and umbrellas.
The HMI is in the same premises as the Zoo and here lies the tomb of Tenzing Norway and a statute of him climbing the Everest. There is a small museum which shows the different gear used in mountaineering from the olden days till now. If the sky is clear, you can get a clear view of the Kanchenjunga too!
After this little trip, we drove to Happy Tea Estate for a look at the tea garden and then to the Tibetan Refugee Centre to buy handicrafts. The trip ended with a drop to Chowrasta or Mall Road for some shopping.
Tiger Hill, Ghoom Monastery, Batasia Loop
We woke up at 4 am as it takes time to drive to Tiger Hill. By the time we reached the viewing point dawn was about to break, but the cloudy weather put a question mark on a spectacular sunrise. Sure enough, the sun managed to peep through but the clouds pulled the curtains down quickly. We beat a hasty retreat to avoid traffic on the way down.
The best time to visit is supposed to be October to December so there are no clouds. I personally feel this is just something locals say. You know how it is with tiger sightings in Corbett? You go in summer and you’re told to come in winter, you go in winter and it’s the other way around.
Anyway, we drove down to Ghoom Monastery which has amazing murals painted on its walls.
We then were taken to the Batasia Loop, where the Darjeeling Railway track takes a semi-circular loop. There’s also a Gorkha Regiment memorial for martyred soldiers. For shopoholics, there are street vendors selling woollens and trinkets.
Ah! I have to say this – I did see the toy train. All through the trip, we encountered the train and its tracks which run through much of Darjeeling.
After our return from Batasia Loop, we started for Pelling. Our tour guides tried to make us drop Pelling but I was adamant. Part of the drive was through scenic tea gardens but soon after the condition of roads took a turn for the worse.
As we neared the West Bengal-Sikkim state border, we had our first glimpse of a cantilever bridge across the mountains. It was decorated with dragons and motifs from the Tibetan culture. Enroute were the Rabdentse Ruins, the ancient capital of Sikkim – we should have stopped and seen that but hunger and fatigue ruled otherwise. Our hotel was on the hills, a little away from the main town.
The children settled in with their gadgets, but my husband and I decided to stroll down to a shop to buy biscuits. The owner turned out to be a man of many stories. Whipping out a smartphone, he showed us a presentation on the development of East Sikkim. ‘Technology in a remote village in Sikkim, Mera Bharat Mahan indeed’, I thought to myself.
Though our tour operators had religiously listed points of interest in Pelling, Sikkim – Rabdentse Ruins, Kanchenjunga Waterfalls, Darap Village and Khecheopalri for a half-day trip, our driver had other plans. He told us to skip Khecheopalri as there would be peak season traffic and we had to reach Gangtok that night.
We had a hurried conference and I said we’ll skip all else if there isn’t time, but let’s go to Khecheopalri first. The best decision it turned out to be.
Khecheopalri means ‘Oh Lady, sit there’. A holy lake surrounded by hills, this lake is considered to be abode of Green Tara, a female Boddhisatva. Pilgrims come and pray at the lake and offer food to the fishes. Birds clean the lake and ensure not a single leaf floats on it.
A small stupa with a Buddhist prayer wheel stands at the beginning of a path leading to the lake. A Tibetan nun invited us to turn the wheel – the Tibetans believe as you turn the wheel your karmas get wiped away and lead you to Moksha.
White, blue, red, green and yellow Tibetan flags with prayers written on them were fluttering in the wind as we walked down to the lake. To the left, planks led to the open-air altar of the Goddess where the faithful light lamps and make their wishes.
There is point from where one can see the foot shape of the lake but we skipped it due to paucity of time. On the walk back all of us, including my husband, turned the wheel at the stupa. Later my husband told me his knee was paining during the entire trip and suddenly after he walked away from the lake, the pain was gone.
I recollected how we had to pass over some wooden planks floating on water and vegetation to reach the altar. Our shoes were off and normally my husband doesn’t like getting feet dirty. What made him accompany us I don’t know, but sometimes there are higher powers which transcend reasoning I think.
As we headed towards Gangtok, our vehicle suddenly had some trouble and we reached Ravangla with great difficulty. The repair work needed welding and there was a power outage. The workshop was near Hotel Ravangla Star – the staff was kind enough to offer us tea and a place to sit. As the hours passed, the hotel staff tried to arrange for an alternate vehicle. The tour operator meanwhile had washed his hands off.
Around 7 pm, we got a taxi but in the hills a drive in the dark on bad roads, with the sound of waterfalls and the knowledge that you are driving between a mountain wall and a sheer drop on the other side is scary. I prayed to the Goddess Green Tara – this was her area after all! Tar, root of the word Tara, means protect and that was what we got. We reached Gangtok safe and sound.
Baba Harbhajan Mandir, Changu Lake
We had to wake up early for Changu Lake and Baba Mandir as both are near the Sikkim-China border and permits need to be obtained. The drive up was challenging as there were signs of old landslides all along the route.
Our driver told us if we want to go to the old Baba Mandir, we would have to pay extra. We hired extra jackets in case it snowed and set off. The temple is a shrine to Baba Harbhajan, a soldier who drowned in a stream while transporting goods on a horse. Legends say he appeared in his friend’s dream telling him where his body would be found and asking him to build a temple for him. When his body was recovered from the same spot, a temple was built. The soldiers believe the Baba informs them of any enemy movement. Even the Chinese believe in the legend and at joint meetings, a chair is kept for the Baba.
We then stopped at Changu Lake(Tsomgo), another holy lake. In the evening, we strolled on M.G. Marg where one can shop for woollens, clothing and trinkets.
Lachen and Lachung in North Sikkim are the jewels of the entire state, but you need to be prepared for bone-breaking roads and altitude sickness. Smelling camphor and chewing on popcorn during the journey is what the locals suggest.
Early morning we started for Lachen from Gangtok. As the vehicle rattled down the road, waterfalls and streams along the way made the journey bearable. Near Chungthang, we saw a Gurudwara and wondered how it came to be there. We were told that Guru Nanak is believed to have passed this way on his way to Tibet.
It was evening by the time we reached Lachen so we retired after an early dinner.
We woke up at 4.00 a.m. to leave for Gurudongmar Lake, one of the highest lakes in the world. The road is rough, and in most places in fact it just doesn’t exist. The area is under the army’s control so on the way we saw barracks with unique slogans.
In winter, just one part of the lake is not frozen. It’s believed to have been blessed by Tibetan Guru , Guru Rimpoche. Sikhs believe that Guru Nanak struck the lake with his stick and that portion remains unfrozen.
When we reached the top, we were at an arm’s length to snow-clad peaks of the Himalayas. It was truly exhilarating! At the lake, winds worthy of causing frostbite blew on our faces and the lack of oxygen made us uneasy. We took photos and left as our driver said the weather could turn for the worse very quickly in these parts.
On the way back, we stopped to play in the snow for a while. As we drove back, I began feeling very queasy. It took a strong cup of tea and refreshments for us to gain our energy.
After breakfast we started for Lachung for which we had to pass Chungthang again. Since this was a shorter trip, we reached by 4 pm albeit exhausted by travel. Looking at snow-clad peaks through our hotel windows, we drifted off to sleep.
Yumthang Valley, Gangtok
Post a leisurely breakfast, we left for Yumthang Valley. As we neared Yumthang, the roads turned into boulder-strewn paths. A fear of boulders coming hurtling down gripped us. At a few places, streams ate into the road. It was one jumpy ride!
After this stretch we passed by patches of rhododendron bushes. It was the end of the flowering season and a few surviving flowers – pink, red, white, lemon yellow, orange and lavender – clung on for tourists like us. Their splendour made us resolve to see them in their full glory.
Just before Yumthang Valley are hot springs on a narrow road to the right. We moved on to the picturesque valley which has a clear stream gurgling through it. A small chorten (Buddhist shrine) with flags completed the picture. Yaks and their young ones were grazing nearby. Children were enjoying pony rides.
I put my feet into the freezing water of the stream and looked around feeling blessed. After spending an hour taking in the beauty of the place, we headed back.
The drive back to Gangtok was back-breaking and our driver took a shortcut at one point where the road was really bad, but it cut the travel time by an hour. We reached our hotel tired and happy. Later we went for a stroll on Mall Road for a short while before retiring for the day.
We started early for a flight back to Mumbai from Sikkim. The Baghdogra airport doesn’t have too many food facilities so be sure to eat on the way. Our driver took us to a place called Laddoo Gopal where we bought some sweets. The drive down gave us a lovely view of the Teesta River, adding to the lovely memories of Sikkim – a land we plan to visit again.
Feel like a trip to another hill station? Check out this post on Manali in Uttaranchal
15 TRAVEL TIPS FOR SIKKIM AND DARJEELING
- Nathu La Pass remains closed for public on Mondays and Tuesdays so factor this while planning your trip. Send ID copies and photographs to the tour operators well in advance, insist to be taken to places you want to visit and confirm that the operator has taken relevant permits
- You need to go through a travel agency in Sikkim so permits, hotel bookings and vehicle are taken care of. Please shell out extra money and ask for a bigger and comfortable car. Sikkim roads are very bad so paying the extra money is worth it.
- Gurudongmar – The roads to Gurudongmar Lake are in a bad condition. Little children or very old people should not be taken there. Permits will be needed and your tour operator should take care of this. Strict rules for acclimatization should be followed. In worst cases of altitude sickness oxygen has to be administered.
- Lachen and Lachung – Smelling camphor and chewing on popcorn is the local antidote so stock on them and keep plastic covers in case someone feels nauseous. Altitude sickness tablets can be taken on the advise of your doctor.
- You need at least a day in Pelling to do it justice – don’t be in a rush
- The roads are narrow in the hills so start your day very early (around 4-5 am) and be prepared for traffic.
- For a sunrise view at Tiger Hills, wake up around 4.30 am. The best time to visit is supposed to be October to December
- Darjeeling Zoo and Himalayan Mountaineering Institute – Please check the day this is closed. It will take you 3 to 4 hours minimum after which you will be too exhausted to do anything
9. Tea Estates in Darjeeling – If you have seen tea estates elsewhere, this can be avoided. Darjeeling tea is meant to be drunk black
10. Ghoom Monastery – tea and snacks are available before this monastery. At the monastery, trinkets sold outside
11. Darjeeling toy train – the tickets are exorbitantly priced and in season you have to pre-book them
12. Rhododendron blooms in April and the flowers last till May.
13. If it’s your second trip to Darjeeling you can visit the picturesque Mirik Lake or stay on a tea estate property
14. Keep warm clothes, raincoats/windcheaters/umbrellas and all weather sport shoes
15. Darjeeling doesn’t have good hospitals though medical shops are there – carry all your medicines with you.
ABOUT THE GUEST AUTHOR
Latha Sridar, a banker by profession, would ideally love to be perpetually lost in a world of books. Apart from reading, she takes time out of family life to indulge in spiritual pursuits and occasional childhood musings on Facebook.
She is on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/people/Latha-Sridar/100008443426869
Note from Vibha Ravi (blog owner and editor): Thanks Latha for giving us a glimpse of this trip to Darjeeling and Sikkim. Thanks to Sharanya Ravi, budding artist, for the pinnable infographics.