Saturday, March 31, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 7 - Gangtok - Bagdogra - Bangalore

We had to report at the Bagdogra airport by 10:30 am and considering the state  of affairs from the day before we decided to start by 5:45 am considering the journey time was about 4 hours. The driver we were assigned was very fast without being rash that he brought us to the airport by 9 am and Lo behold, the airport was actually closed. Considering I had never been to any part of the world where the public transport terminal was shut, it was quite a novelty for me. We entered the premises by 9:30 am and after check in, we had to wait an hour or so for security to open.

After a brunch in the airport and security check, we boarded our flight which started by 12:15. With another pit stop on the way to Kolkata, it was 6 pm by the time we reached Bangalore. After an early dinner in the airport, we finally reached Home sweet home.


PS: It is safe to say anytime you travel to Sikkim or anywhere for that matter ensure you always have the following :



  • A first aid kit with medicines for all minor health issues.
  • Food to snack on in case of emergencies
  • Use restroom whenever possible since you never know when you will find the next one
  • Always wear appropriate clothing (layers in case of colder locations) and footwear
  • Keep hand sanitizer and tissues always since the place we visit to might not always have clean running water

Friday, March 30, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 6 - Lachung - Gangtok

This day marked the beginning of the end of our Sikkim trip. And if anyone woke up to the view below, they would definitely never wish to come back from this paradise. But at the end of it, holiday is a holiday and we do begin missing our own home, our own food and lastly our own bed.   





Though knowing it was inevitable and looking forward to getting back home, nevertheless it was with a pang that we started our trip back to Gangtok at around 8:30 in the morning after our breakfast. Since it was about 5 hours to Gangtok without any major stops, the plan was to hopefully reach Gangtok by lunch time and have a few hours shopping time in Gangtok.

Smaller Boulders that were formed from larger one by use of explosives


Then we ran into a bit of bad luck at around 10. Thanks to some road work that was going on, one stretch of road had a huge boulder covering it there by blocking the movement of  vehicles from either side.The saddest part was that we were in the middle of nowhere with a huge line of vehicles blocking any chance of turning back. Additionally, the closest point for refreshments was at least 10 km away. Initially we got the bad news that it would take a couple of hours to fix it. But 2 turned into 4 and it was around 2 before we started from there. We could hear some blasts caused by explosives to split the large boulder into smaller ones before shifting them aside to clear the road.


There was a huge number of vehicles that were waiting for the road to clear. I would say it was easily a couple of kms long. Moral of the story - always have something to eat when on road. You never know when an emergency will arise. We reached the nearest refueling point at around 2.30 and had our lunch. We then continued our journey and reached Gangtok by 6. 

After refreshing ourselves, we went to MG Marg to enjoy our last day in Sikkim and getting as many souvenirs as our luggage had space for. We got a few china pieces that were really cheap pretty to look at. I would have loved to have gotten more but unfortunately being delicate, I was not sure how intact it will be till we return back, We also got a few wall hangings and small bells to be given as gifts. Also, from what we saw, souvenirs are cheapest in Gangtok MG Marg. Better to finish the shopping in Gangtok instead of getting them in any other part of the state since we get the same everywhere and MG Marg has many shops and variety of options. We finished most of our packing along with checking out that night itself since we had to have an early departure the next day. After an early dinner we went off to bed.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Trip To Sikkim - Day 5 - Yumthang Valley, Yumesamdong

Rhododendrons
Day 5 dawned bright and sunny and thankfully with no trace of our previous day's health concerns. We started from our resort by around 8:30 in the morning. Though the day was bright to begin with, by the time we started, there was dense clouds/mist moving along. Thankfully it reduced as we started our ascent to the Yumthang valley or the Valley of Flowers situated at 11,693 ft. There are multiple army camps on the way and we had to show our permits right at the start to get permission to enter.


Yumthang is supposed to be the home to the Rhododendron flowers of varying colors that flower in Spring between the end of March and May. Unfortunately, at the time of our visit, spring had not arrived yet with winter refused to leave. This worked perfectly for us since all my little one was interested in was snow. Also, having seen photos of the valley when the flowers were blooming and the valley with the snow, I personally felt the snow was better. Also considering we made this trip with the hopes of at least catching a glimpse of the snow we were lucky we got to see plenty of it. The only color of rhododendron we could see was red and that too at the lower altitudes of around 9000 feet where there was no snow.



Back to our ascent to the Yumthang valley - Do I have enough adjectives to describe what we experienced? Not really. But the pictures speak for themselves when I say the landscape was drool worthy. We could see the snow capped mountains right in front of our eyes slowly getting closer and closer as we climbed up. 

Snow capped mountains en route to Yumthang


The more higher we got, the more prettier was the scenery.



Snow capped mountains en route to Yumthang


Before we knew it, we came across fresh snow on the sides of the roads. We stopped for a few minutes to make a snowman for my LO which was really fun (and not the least bit like I had pictured :D)

Snowman

Snow on the side of the road














Initially it seemed relatively warm, and by relatively I meant double digits instead of single digits, but once we came across this region with fresh snow, especially walking on the snow and snowflakes attached to the trees falling on tops of our heads, we sure were happy for the multiple layers we had (each of us had a thermal+tee+sweater+water proof snow jacket)



After spending 30-40 minutes playing and walking on the snow, we continued our journey. We finally reached Yumthang valley and the first thing we did was hire snow boots once more which were available for hire in plenty at the shops near the parking lot. Once we had comfortable, waterproof boots on, we walked to the Valley of Flowers which was actually the Valley of Snow having had fresh snow only the day before. It was winter wonderland straight out of a Hallmark Card.


Needless to say all of us were delighted. Word of advice - Do not forget to take your sunglasses. We seemed to have forgotten our experience at Mt.Titlis and did not take it. The brightness from the sun made it really difficult to open our eyes until thankfully the Sun was hidden behind the clouds.

Considering we were one of the early travelers to Yumthang and there was fresh snow, it was beauty at its best. Awe-struck, breathtaking, stunning, incredible....just a few adjectives to describe the feeling we had when we looked at the vision in front of us. Indians always feel only Switzerland has such beauty and it is both sad and gratifying to know we have Heaven on Earth closer to us than we imagined. Sad because people do not realize the beauty of our own country and gratifying because it is still pretty and almost untouched thanks to the relatively lower number of travelers.

Lachung Chu @ Yumthang Valley


Considering we did not have to return back to Gangtok the same day, we had quite a bit of time in our hands. So we spent quite sometime there playing with the snow having snow fights and just walking and enjoying the nature not wishing to return. We also spent sometime walking on the banks of the Lachung river flowing in the valley. The water was cold and crystal clear.



From Yumthang valley, the next stop was supposed to be to Yumesamdong or Zero Point which was at some 15000 feet. Unfortunately owing to the snow the day before, we could only reach the altitude of 12800 feet beyond which the army refused permission. There is also hot springs which seemed to have been collected in a pool inside a hut. We just saw it from outside since my LO lost all interest after the snow.



We started the journey back to our resort in Lachung at around 1 and reached Lachung in time for a late lunch. After lunch, we walked around the resort and then went to the Lachung Monastery which was around 15 minutes drive from our resort. Unfortunately, since we were not sure about the timings, it was closed and all we did was look at it from the outside.


Lachung Monastery
We returned back and spent some time in the resort enjoying the final few hours of our holiday. The next day was the beginning of our return journey so after dinner and packing we retired for the night.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 4 - North Sikkim

Phase I of the trip was done and we were about to begin Phase II of our trip. Day 4 dawned and we had a relaxed start having decided to start for our Lachung trip in North Sikkim at around 9:30 from our Hotel. From the very first day, the beauty of the mountains, rivers, valleys and vegetation was something which never ceased to amaze me but entering into the North Sikkim territory made me realize what we saw was just the tip of the iceberg.





There is only one road to travel from Gangtok to North Sikkim. Which on second thoughts sounded scary especially when our driver mentioned how a few years back, a portion of the road caved in and vehicles could not cross that small portion of road. The only way they could cross that particular path was by foot after getting off their vehicles and having another car to ferry them from that point.

Seven Sister waterfalls
Anyway back to our journey, as I had mentioned before, Sikkim is filled with Waterfalls especially the route to Lachung. We could frequently spot water falls of varying sizes on our way. One of the first waterfalls that we stopped at is called Seven Sister Waterfalls which is supposed to be one of the popular waterfalls which was around 30 kms from Gangtok. While we could only see one of them, the name is said to have come from seven different waterfalls falling off of the cliff next to each other. Unfortunately, the beauty of the falls is said to be visible only after the rains. When we had visited, it was beginning of spring and hence there was not much water. It was still a pretty sight.

We continued our journey for another 35 km and stopped somewhere before Mangan for a quick lunch at a road side hotel. Hotel might be a slight exaggeration. It was room with tables arranged and they had a buffet of 4-5 items. Food was not that great but it was not bad either.


Naga Falls
Less than 20km from Mangan was the Naga Falls. This was without doubt my favourite falls. Not only was the view of the mountains and the valley awesome, the greenery surrounding us had a rugged beauty that had to be felt and difficult to describe. But more than the surrounding, I loved the falls by itself especially the small section where the water collected. The emerald color of the water was jaw dropping. If not for my little one, I would not have minded being a bit more adventurous by venturing into the water (as safely as possible of course).



Note: The Army is very strict about the use of disposable plastic bottles to avoid pollution hence it is better to throw away whatever disposable bottles you have. There is a checkpoint where one can find many discarded bottles. If caught with a disposable bottle, we are liable to pay a fine of 5000rs.


Chungthang
After spending 45 minutes or so, we started to a town called Chungthang which was about 13 km from Naga Falls. There was not much to stop there for except to look at a beautiful view of the confluence of the Lachung river and Lachun  river to give rise to the river Teesta. We did not stop at Chungthang. We just slowed down the car to get a good view and then continued with our journey.


Our final stop, 11 km further, was to the Bhim Nala waterfalls or the Amitabh Bachchan waterfalls (not sure if it was due to the sheer height or due to the fact that a scene from the movie 'Ankhen' was shot here). We could feel the temperature drop with every stop we made and the hot tea was extremely welcome. Unfortunately, tasting like hot water,  that was the worst tea we ever had.


The last 10 km was completed in an hour or so and we reached Yarlam Resort in Lachung by around 5:30 pm. I must say the introduction to Lachung was not the best. Thanks to irregular food, long cab journey and extreme cold weather (it was around 5 degree when we reached Lachung with the lowest temperature touching -3), hubby ended up having the severest of headaches with continuous vomiting. It only stopped after a few hours and even then only after having the ORS solution we had taken from Bangalore. Even I felt the chill to my bones almost feeling like I will never be warm ever again. The heater in the room of the Resort was useless and the only thing that stop us from getting a full blown fever was the bed warmers provided by the resort. They were definitely worth the premium we paid to get a room in the resort.

The whole day was exhausting and we just dozed off as soon as we hit the bed.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 3 - Tsomgo Lake/Tsongmo Lake/Changu Lake

Day 3 of our trip started off splendidly. After having given up completely the idea of viewing Mt.Kanchenjunga from our room, I was pleasantly surprised to get a glimpse of the majestic Mountain at quarter to 6 early in the morning. It was quite interesting how the snow clad mountain came into my view slowly so much so that I wondered if my eyes were deceiving me. I was so excited I rushed to wake up my hubby to show him the splendor as well. Just as well I did since the view was available only for around 30 minutes having completely vanished by quarter past 6. I would have assumed it was a mirage if not for the photographic proof.


Mt.Kanchenjunga

With such a start, we were all the more excited for our trip to Tsongmo Lake and Baba Harbhajan Mandir. Nathula Pass is usually clubbed together with this but we knew we would not be able to go since Nathula is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. We had provided our agent with the ID proof and photos required for the permit which we were told will be applied for and provided with the same day early in the morning.


Glimpse of the Snow clad mountains en route to Tsongmo Lake

After waiting 30 minutes past the schedule arrival of the driver, we got the bad news - Owing to heavy snow the previous night, the road leading to the Tsongmo Lake was blocked mid way by the army. So instead of  reaching 12400 feet which was the level of the Lake, we had to stop at around 11040 feet at this place called Rongchu Bridge. Although slightly disappointed for having to cut down 3 of the most important places to be visited, we nevertheless set off for the day.

Prayer Flags seen through out Sikkim

On a different note, we noticed multiple colored flags from the very first day of our trip. On inquiring with the drivers, we were told that these were Prayer Flags. The different colors of the flags each have some specific significance. Prayers are written on the flags which are hung all over to bless the land and its people.

View from Rongchu Bridge

Back to our journey - After showing our permit papers at the entrance to the Army Personnel, we began to further go up the mountains. As we ascended, at various points we could see various Army Camps and Army personnel training or generally going about their respective work. The harsh conditions even during spring gave us an idea of the difficulty endured by our armed forces to safeguard our borders. It made us appreciate and respect them even more seeing them up close than behind the comfort of our homes. 

Stream under the Rongchu Bridge

Special mention should be given to the Border Road Organization or BRO as they are known. It is unimaginable how roads were laid in those regions - Mountains everywhere with extreme weather conditions and steep deadly drops. The drivers driving the roads also were very skilled to drive through those roads.

A few kms from the point we were supposed to stop at, there were multiple shops catering to tourists. We stopped at one of the shops to hire boots (50 per pair - These are a must since regular shoes get wet when walking on the snow. Not to mention it is very slippery). There were also jackets for hire/buying, gloves or anything that we missed from home. They also provided with yummy hot tea/maggi which is a blessing in that cold. They had basic but clean restrooms that are also a must especially with a 6 year old.

Creating a Snowman on the side of the road


After wearing our hired boots, we went further up till we reached 11040 feet to a point called Rongchu Bridge. With snow on either side of the road, my son was in paradise. His parents were as well :D. After spending quite sometime building Snowman, we walked as far as we were allowed to for an hour or so enjoying the beauty and then started back. Even as we started, the visibility was slowly reducing with dense mist slowly popping up. We were told the route usually gets closed by 2 with only return trip being allowed.



Since we had to cut down most of places we were supposed to, we reached Gangtok back by around 1 pm. Instead of having lunch in our Hotel, we decided to walk down to the MG Marg which was about 5 minutes from our Hotel and went to a restaurant there. We came back to the Hotel and after a couple of hours again walked back to MG Marg.



MG Marg was a pretty market area that was well maintained and reminded us of Europe. In addition, since vehicles were off limits, it was a good place to walk and spend a leisurely time. A couple of hours of walking up and down the streets was followed by a quiet dinner in our hotel. We tried a local dish called Tukpa which is a noodle soup. It was tasty and filled with flavors so we really loved it. We returned back to pack our bags for our North Sikkim trip the next day.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 2 - Gangtok Tour

I do not recall a time when I had woken up fresh at 5 in the morning after a full night rest without the aide of an alarm. But it happened every day during my Sikkim trip. Every single day that we stayed there, we early to bed sleeping no later than 9 pm and early to rise raring to start the new day.

We had taken a Valley view room in our Hotel. I read many tripadvisor reviews on the gorgeous view of the Mt.Kanchenjunga (The highest Mountain in India and the 3rd highest in the world) from our rooms. What the reviews had failed to mention was Kanchenjunga was so far away that to get a view of it during March, one has to be really lucky with a clear sky or come during the winter months when the cloud/fog factor is less. So unfortunately the first day dawned with no view of the mountain.

As I had mentioned previously, we wanted this trip to be relaxed. We also wanted to give one day to acclimatize with the altitude since we had heard of many cases of altitude sickness spoiling the whole trip. As mentioned in the previous blog, we had a choice of going with the 3/5/7 point tour as given by various tour operators. This had fixed prices based on which tour was chosen. Originally, we had planned on doing nothing but then we changed our mind to do a day trip with our own itinerary - The Himalayan Zoological Park and Rumtek Monastery. The Zoo we wanted to go since we knew our 6 year old will enjoy it and Rumtek because going to Sikkim and not visiting one of the oldest monasteries is just not done.

Ours ended up as a 6 hour tour inspite of including only 2 places since the Rumtek was around 24 km from Gangtok.

Our first stop was to the zoo. We reached the zoo at 9:00 am but unfortunately though the opening time was mentioned as 8:30, the driver informed us that it will not be open until 10 am. The Ganesh Tok was just opposite to the zoo so we went there. This is a simple Temple with a big Idol of Lord Ganesh which also has a good view point. Outside the temple, you have various hawkers renting out traditional Bhutia costumes for photo shoot. The best part about this was that it cost only 50 rs and the costume was available for us to take photos to our hearts content.

Ganesh Tok

The next stop was to the zoo. It was obvious the zoo was one of the least visited places as seen from the fact that it was missing from most tours. What most travelers thought to be negative in this zoo was the very thing which made me love it. There were not many tourists in the zoo thereby making it peaceful. It is basically a forest converted into a zoo with spacious enclosures for the animals so that they don't feel like they are in a zoo. The animals were free to roam about in their natural habitat.


Red Panda at the Zoo 

The walk inside the zoo was awesome with really good views all around. My son especially enjoyed seeing Shifu (Red Panda) and Tai Lung  (Snow Leopard) since he is a big fan of Kung Fu Panda. We saw all the animals that were in the zoo - Red Panda, Snow Leopard, Common Leopard, Leopard Cat, Yak, Barking Deer, Thar, Civet, Himalayan Tahr. But I also understood why most people would avoid it - It involved walking long distances especially on slopes, the proportion of animals to the zoo size less was unlike any zoo seen in India and the number of species of animals was less.

Black Bear



We had finished with the zoo by around 11:30 and we had a choice between going to the hotel for lunch and then starting for Rumtek or finishing a short lunch then and continuing to Rumtek. We did the latter eating in a small restaurant that was there inside the zoo itself and proceeded to Rumtek.


Rumtek Monastery

Rumtek Monastery is one of the oldest monasteries that is worth a visit provided you have ample time. There was quite heavy security around the Monastery. The building was beautiful and the Prayer Hall inside the Main Temple is very peaceful. We can spend quite some time there with no one to interupt us. There was a Golden Stupa which contains the ashes of the 16th Karmapa. The road to the monastery was undergoing work and hence it was quite bad in some places. Frankly speaking, although it is a very pretty monastery with a lot of history, it was slightly disappointing due to back breaking 24 km ride. I would not go to the extent of saying it was bad, on the contrary I actually liked it but I would have loved it more if it was in a closer location.

We returned back in time for a coffee and snacks and once again decided to stay put in our rooms due to rains. We retired for the night after an early dinner.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Trip to Sikkim - Day 1 - Bangalore - Bagdogra - Gangtok

Going to Gangtok from Bangalore is a full trip by itself. Considering we booked our flight tickets late, just a month before the actual trip, we did not get a direct flight to Bagdogra. Instead our onward journey involved a stop at Guwahati Airport.

Note: To get really cheap and direct tickets, best to book at least 2-3 months in advance. The ticket prices almost double when booked under a month before the trip.

We started quite early around 4:15 am from home to catch the flight at 6:50 to Guwahati. It was a good thing our flight was so early in the morning since we would otherwise have had to add another hour just to reach the airport from our home during day time due to traffic (Bangalore Airport is about 55 km from our place). After an early breakfast, we boarded the flight and reached Guwahati by 9:30 am. We had to recheck in at the Guwahati airport and took the 10:50 flight to reach Bagdogra at 11:50 am.

We were met by our driver sent by our Tour Operator (Norbula tours and travels) at the airport. It is generally advisable to get a Tour operator before we begin the trip although Gangtok is filled with many such tour operators. Our Tour Operator was recommended to us by the Yarlam Resort and we went ahead with them and were happy with their service. Since many places in Sikkim are under the control of the Indian Army, they require permits. Therefore it is better to know in advance the documents required (photocopy of ID proof - Aadhar is good and 4 or more passport size photos based on the number of permits required). Also, it is safer to go with a Tour operator approved by the Sikkim Government whose list is given in their website. We enquired with a couple of them and the prices were relatively similar.

It takes about 126km/4 hours to go from Bagdogra Airport to Gangtok with majority of the distance covered by climbing the mountains with multiple hair pin bends. We had lunch on the way at a restaurant called Laddoo Gopal in Siluguri (10 km from the Airport) which was provided us with a decent Thali. We then started our trip to Gangtok.

The route from Siliguri to Gangtok itself is scenic first passing through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary with forest on either side. After a few KM we began the climb up the Mountain and from then on till our return, it is Mountains all over. We got an Awe-inspiring (that is an adjective I felt and used quite a bit through out our Trip) view of the Teesta River which flows along side the road with view of it for most part of our journey. This was just the introduction to Sikkim's Beauty and we couldn't wait to get started for the rest of it.

We reached Gangtok around 4:30 pm and after checking into our hotel Summit Denzong near MG Marg, we rested a bit after calling room service for Tea and snacks. We had a brief glimpse of the Cold weather then. Gangtok city was unlike any we had seen before. the roads were extremely narrow. In many parts, there were buildings only on one side of the road since the other side was a steep drop. In other parts where there were houses on both sides, houses had a mountain view with a steep drop. It must have been a really pain trying to build houses and roads there. Our driver mentioned that it was quite expensive to lay foundation there. I must also say people in Gangtok must be extremely fit. We saw ladies as old as 80 walk up and down steep and narrow slopes/steps to get to the roads from their houses. All in all, the first glimpse of Gangtok was enough to give an idea of how different the people and their living was in comparison to ours.

We did not venture out much since it soon started raining. After checking with our Tour Operator about our next day itinerary and an early dinner, it was time to hit the sack.



Journey to Gangtok


Piece of advice to travelers going to Gangtok in March - Unlike the rest of India, North East has an early Sunrise by around 5-5:15 therefore it gets dark quite early. So it is always better to ensure we reach Gangtok latest by 6 pm.


There was quite a contrast in the temperature from Bangalore to Gangtok with the temperature of around 14 C. I was freezing while checking in at the reception area which the hotel staff kindly pointed out was quite normal and relative warm.  It was a good thing we ended up taking multiple layers since we knew if Gangtok felt this cold at 5400 ft, the other places we were planning to visit which included the North Sikkim at 10000+ ft would be really cold.