Heaven is not a place you go to when you die; it is that moment in life when you feel the most alive. I have found heavenly beauty in places I have visited.
Tibetan leader Dalai Lama once said, “Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.”
2018 has been a watershed year for the tiny Himalayan State in India, ensconced between Nepal and China. In early 2018, Academy® Award winning musician A R Rahman was appointed the State’s first brand ambassador. Sikkim became India’s first organic State by banning the supply of 30 non-organic food items especially vegetables from April 1. For this it won the UN Food and Agriculture Future Policy Gold Award. Later last year the State got its first airport – Pakyong Greenfield Airport on September 24. Located at a height of 4500 ft. from sea level, it is also India’s 100th airport.
“As Helen Keller rightly said, ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched.’ I feel this was said for Sikkim and Sikkim only,” A R Rahman said while assuming his role as brand ambassador. “The beauty of Sikkim doesn’t only lie in its hills and valleys but in its feelings and culture as well. I am highly impressed by the State’s development and mesmerising culture. I’m honoured to be the face of this beautiful State.”
Tourism is a mainstay for Sikkim’s economy. Tourist footfalls climbed 77 per cent in 2018 after a dip the year before due to the 73-day Doklam standoff with China and 104-day Gorkhaland statehood agitation. As per India Tourism Statistics, Sikkim attracted 14.27 lakh tourists in 2017 – 13.75 lakh domestic travellers and 0.49 lakh FTAs. The State government had set a target of receiving 20 lakh tourists in 2018 by showcasing its popular tourist destinations like Nathu La Pass bordering China, Changu Lake (also known as Tsomgo Lake) in East District, snowcapped areas like Lachung and Lachen in North District, among others. Official numbers for 2018 are yet to be published.
Tourism and Civil Aviation Minister Ugen T Gyatso has said that the government is giving major emphasis to growing tourism as it is a major contributor to the State’s economy. “With the new airport, over a period of time, we will be able to connect directly with Bhutan, Nepal and Thailand, allowing ease of travel to and fro. This will be a big boost to tourism in Sikkim.”
I had read a lot about the fascinating sights and sounds of North East India, and for years, wanted to experience the magic of this region. In November 2018, my wanderlust took me to Sikkim. Somehow, even before I had reached my destination, I knew it would be a surreal holiday! The trip lasted eight days – five days in Sikkim and three days in Darjeeling. But I will focus on Sikkim for now.
For me, the biggest attraction was Sikkim being home to the world’s third highest mountain – Kanchenjunga. What more can one ask for in the lap of the majestic Himalayas? And as India’s first organic State one could eat anything without being concerned about ingested pesticides. Sikkim has also banned the use of plastic bags and bottles.
On October 4, 2018, Sikkim’s new airport started commercial operations with flights connecting New Delhi, Guwahati and Kolkata. Since I was travelling from Mumbai, I took a flight to Bagdogra, the main airport in Siliguri (West Bengal). Bagdogra is 124 km away from Gangtok, which takes about 4 hours by car.
My travel partner, Siva, flew in from Bengaluru to accompany me on this adventurous trip. Since the vacation was my birthday treat, we decided to stay at one of the best resorts in Gangtok – Mayfair Spa Resort & Casino. Nestled amidst the exquisite Himalayan forests of Sikkim, it is one of the best spa resorts in India. The spa resort is also one of India’s few casino hotels. Interestingly, residents of Sikkim are not allowed to enter the State’s casinos. Only tourists with a valid passport/identity proof issued from outside the State of Sikkim are permitted entry. Goa and Sikkim are the only two states in India where gambling is legal.
We spent the day at the resort, enjoying the stunning views and serene ambience. We also tried our luck at the casino! Next morning, we left for sightseeing in Gangtok. It’s advisable to rent a taxi for the full day. We rented a Toyota Innova for our entire stay in Sikkim as the roads are incredibly bad, so driving on these roads is very tricky. Sometimes there is literally no road at all, and you need to figure out how to get past!
Since Gangtok is also known as the ‘Land of Monasteries’, we started our itinerary by visiting the renowned Rumtek Monastery. Located 23 km from the city centre, Rumtek Monastery is the largest in Sikkim – a must-see. Built in traditional Tibetan style architecture, the monastery is surrounded by lush green mountains. The atmosphere was one of tranquility and the chanting of mantras by monks seemed to reverberate through my soul. After a few peaceful hours, we left for Hanuman Tok.
Situated 10 km from the city centre, Hanuman Tok is the best point in Gangtok to get a surreal view of the Himalayan peaks. At the top, there is a beautiful temple dedicated to Lord Hanuman, which is maintained by the Indian Army.
Our next stop was the Gangtok Ropeway. Enroute, we stopped at Ganesh Tok, a quaint Ganesha temple perched on a hilltop. This spot is considered to be one of the finest viewing points of the Kanchenjunga peaks.
The Gangtok Ropeway is a major tourist attraction, and one must try this cable ride to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the beautiful city. The ride starts from Deorali Market and takes you to Tashiling, the highest point of Gangtok. Purchasing a two-way ticket is mandatory even if you don’t choose to come back by the cable car and want to move on to explore other places from the other end. The last ropeway service is at 4.30 pm. The ticket price is Rs 125 and it takes 10 minutes to travel one way.
In the evening, we explored the famous MG Market, which is in the heart of the city. Being a hard-core vegetarian, I was thrilled to find multiple vegetarian restaurants here. We had dinner at Rasoi and their stuffed parathas were out of this world!
Day two of our itinerary featured visits to Nathu La Pass and Changu. To visit these places, one must obtain permits in advance. This is something that local car rental companies can help you with. You must carry passport size photos with you.
I recommend a trip to Nathu La in the first half of the day, when your energy levels are likely to be higher. That’s what we did. The paucity of oxygen at an altitude of 14,500 ft. can make you feel extremely weak. So be sure to eat a hearty breakfast (read plenty of carbs) and drink lots of water throughout the trip. Located 55 km from Gangtok, Nathu La is a historical mountain pass which was a part of the ancient Silk Route between China and India. Being an important military post of the Indian Army, special permission needs to be taken 24 hours in advance from Army authorities in Gangtok. Make sure you leave early in the morning for Nathu La, or you might get stuck in traffic. Nathu La is closed on Mondays, so plan the trip accordingly.
While coming back from Nathu La, we stopped by another popular tourist attraction, Baba Mandir. The Baba Harbhajan Singh memorial is dedicated to a brave sepoy of the Indian Army who lost his life in this region around 30 years back. It is believed that the soul of Baba still guards the international boundary between India and China. He is believed to warn fellow army men about dangers on the border by appearing in their dreams!
While coming back to Gangtok, we visited the enchanting Tsomgo or Changu Lake in East Sikkim. We took a walk around the lake and enjoyed the spectacular view of crystal clear waters with a mesmerising backdrop of the snow-covered Himalayas. The lake is associated with several myths and legends, and its sacred waters are revered by the people of Sikkim. It is believed that in olden times, Buddhist monks would study the colour of the lake’s waters to forecast the future.
We then came to the Tsongo Passenger Ropeway – a stupendous cable car ride that climbs up to 14,400 ft. on the snow-covered mountains, and is one of the most popular attractions for tourists. The ropeway gives a wonderful panoramic view of the lake and surrounding mountains. The upper station opens up to a hillock from where one can get a majestic view of the Kanchenjunga mountain. At its upper point, the Tsongo ropeway is the highest ropeway in Asia. The last ropeway service is at 3 pm. It costs Rs. 295 per person and travel duration one way is just 5 minutes. The ropeway stays at the top station for some time to allow passengers to enjoy the view.
Since the sun was to set by five in the evening, we rushed back to Gangtok and called it a day. We had to leave for North Sikkim early next day.
North Sikkim shares a sensitive border with the People’s Republic of China, and the Indian Army patrols the area heavily. Entry is therefore only possible through a guided tour that can be arranged in Gangtok. One needs to take multiple permits from military authorities to visit different parts of North Sikkim.
Lachen in North Sikkim, is about 103 km from Gangtok. The roads were far from smooth, and it took us almost seven hours to reach. From Gangtok to Lachen, the road passes through villages like Phondong and Mangan before reaching Chungthang. The road bifurcates at Chungthang. One part leads to Lachung and the other leads to Lachen, which is about 26 km from Chungthang.
With district headquarters in Mangan, North Sikkim is the seventh least populous district in the country. From Mangan (which is about halfway between Gangtok and Lachen), one can see the river Teesta, (Sikkim’s lifeline) flowing alongside, all the way up to Chungthang. Chungthang is a small town at the confluence of Lachen and Lachung rivers. Here, the river Teesta is formed. The two most picturesque and sought-after tourist destinations of North Sikkim, Lachen and Lachung can be reached only through Chungthang.
The government is in the process of building a dam over the Teesta River at Chungthang. From a popular viewpoint, one can see gorgeous views of this dam. We pulled over for a tea break and moved on to Lachen.
A small village in North Sikkim, Lachen is situated at an altitude of 9000 ft. It is home to about 250 families and a few hotels. This is the main point from where we started our trip to Gurudongmar Lake and Kala Patthar. Since there is no proper tourist accommodation beyond Lachen, we spent the night at a hotel there.
Next morning, we left at around 4 am for Gurudongmar Lake. One must leave early so as to cross the checkpost before 10 am and make it back by lunch time. Thankfully, the sun rises pretty early here, so making such an early start was not that difficult. However, it was extremely cold – the temperature outside was minus 4 degrees!
The first stop of this journey is at Thangu, a checkpost and large army base. One can halt here and savour tea and hot noodles for breakfast. It took us around four hours to reach Gurudongmar from Lachen because of the rough road. Only 4×4 vehicles like the Scorpio or MPVs like Innova can survive this stretch. Thangu is the last civilian settlement on the route to Gurudongmar.
Gurudongmar Lake is located at an altitude of 17,800 ft., one of the highest alpine lakes in the world. It covers an area of 290 acres, making it Sikkim’s largest lake. Surrounded by snow clad mountains, the site is stunningly picturesque.
During winter, the lake freezes over, except for one small area. Buddhists and Hindus believe that this specific area is blessed. In fact, the whole lake is considered to be holy and believed to have healing powers. Buddhist prayer flags flutter proudly on the sides of the lake.
The view of the emerald blue waters surrounded by the snow-covered Himalayas was breathtaking. It was a surreal experience that cannot be described in words.
Since Gurudongmar Lake lies very close to the Indo-China border, the stretch has a lot of army camps. It is located in close proximity to the China border and foreign tourists are not allowed to visit the area.
On our way back from Gurudongmar, we stopped at Chopta Valley, which is located at 13,200 ft. The scenic Chopta Valley is known for its alpine orchards, enthralling lakes, and snow-capped Himalayan peaks. We didn’t stay here for long and soon moved on to Kala Patthar.
A relatively new tourist destination, Kala Patthar is also called Muguthang Valley. It is located at an elevation of 14,850 ft. This sight is not included in most tour packages and taxi drivers charge extra to stop here. In my opinion though, the awesome view was totally worth the extra spend! The motorable road ends at Kala Patthar – it’s a dead end.
During our visit, Kala Patthar was completely covered in snow. I have never seen so much snow before! You can even get hot tea/coffee or brandy shots to keep yourself warm. We spent about an hour here, playing in the snow, and came back to our hotel in Lachen feeling rejuvenated. After a quick lunch at the hotel, we headed to Lachung.
Located approximately 120 km from Gangtok, Lachung is a gorgeous town in North Sikkim known for its dense slopes, snowy peaks and beautiful streams, Lachung is a perfect destination to relax and reconnect with nature.
Lachung serves as a base for tourists visiting the famous ‘Valley of Flowers’ and ‘Zero Point’. The town is located 9800 ft. above sea level. The drive from Lachen to Lachung took us about 2.5 hours. At around 6 pm, we reached Lachung and checked into a hotel.
From my room, I could see multiple tiny, cozy looking hotels and lodges surrounded by lush mountains. The weather was extremely cold, so we had an early dinner and retired around 9 pm.
Next morning, by 6 am, we left for Yumthang Valley. The journey was quite a roller coaster ride because of the rough roads. One travels past landslides at multiple locations. The winding road from Lachung to Yumthang Valley takes you through the enchanting vistas of snow-covered mountains. Nearby, streams were frozen.
Yumthang Valley, also known as Valley of Flowers, is a picturesque landscape approx. 12,000 ft. above sea level. The valley is famous for its endearing rhododendrons. In the spring season, the valley is a blanket of colour. This is how the name Valley of Flowers came about. The best time to visit Yumthang is in April/May, when rhododendrons are in full bloom. I missed this beautiful sight.
The vibrant flags in the valley are considered to be symbols of divine power. It is believed that as the wind blows, the prayers written on these flags start taking effect.
After spending 20 minutes at Yumthang, we left for Zero Point, which is about 30 km ahead of Yumthang. Zero Point is another snowcapped Himalayan peak in North Sikkim. The last outpost of civilisation, the road ends here. The exciting drive from Yumthang Valley to Zero Point, through curving roads, amidst rugged terrain is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. There is hardly any vegetation at Zero Point as it remains covered in snow for most of the year. One can see yaks trying to graze through the snow. I was surprised to see a long line of SUVs as we reached there. But due to extremely harsh winds and cold weather, we came back to the hotel. Soon after having lunch, we left for Gangtok, which we hit at around 7 pm.
I was also keen to visit Pelling in West Sikkim, but due to the paucity of time, I had to drop the plan. Pelling, a tiny, hilly hamlet, is the closest motorable spot from where Mt. Kanchenjunga can be seen.
Next morning, I flew back to Mumbai, carrying with me countless memories of this mystic paradise. I felt like I had left a piece of me in Sikkim! North Sikkim had made a deep impact, the experience staying alive in me for days. Even now, as I pen this feature, I can feel the tranquility and awe that I was fortunate enough to experience in Sikkim.
In January 2019, the Himalayan State’s progressive track record received yet another boost after it announced its ambitious plan of implementing a universal basic income for all of its 6,10,577 citizens. Sikkim, you continue to impress me and how.
Places of Interest
Yumthang Valley of Flowers; Zero Point; Gurudongmar Lake; Kanchenjunga National Park (KNP); Lachung; Lachen
Samdruptse; Temi Tea Garden; Buddha Park Ravangla; Solophok Chardham
Gangtok; Lake Tsomgo; Nathu La Pass; Namgyal Institute of Tibetology; Rumtek Monastery
Pemayangtse Monastery; Khecheopalri Lake; Goecha La; Pelling
The Buddha Park
The Buddha Park of Ravangla, otherwise called Tathagata Tsal, was developed from 2006 and has a 130 ft. tall statue of the Buddha as its centre of attraction. The statue was consecrated by the Dalai Lama and has become a major stop by on the ‘Himalayan Buddhist Circuit’. The Park has beautifully laid out walkways and gardens for visitors to appreciate the quiet environment. The site also has a museum and a meditation centre for Buddhists. The biggest draw is the views that it offers of the mountains and the Cho Djo Lake. It is, indeed, a spiritual experience for every visitor from all walks of life.
Kailash Manasarovar Yatra
Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) organises Kailash Manasarovar Yatra (KMY) from June to September each year through two different routes – Lipulekh Pass (Uttarakhand), and Nathu La Pass (Sikkim). Indian citizens aged between 18 and 70 years are eligible to apply. Foreign nationalities, including OCI card holders, are ineligible. No private agencies conduct the Yatra on these two routes. It will require four days to be spent in New Delhi for completing various formalities. Depending upon the route opted it takes about 23-25 days for the whole Yatra.
The most happening place in Gangtok, MG Road is the best way to begin the experience called Sikkim. The central shopping hub laid out in the form of a boulevard square with shops and restaurants offers the visitor a sneak peek into the culture and cuisine of Gangtok. The entire place is spit and litter-free and pedestrian-only. Victorian lamps and benches laid out along the stretch add to the charm, especially after sunset when the lights come on. MG Road is also popular for its local food and culture festival held in December every year.
Chardham is a huge pilgrim centre cum cultural complex developed by the Sikkim Government to promote religious, eco and village tourism in the State. It is spread over 29 hectares atop a hill known as the Solophok Hill in Namchi of South Sikkim. This temple complex is also known as Siddheswar Dham.
For the mobility-impaired, the complex offers battery-operated carts. Also, a Yatri Niwas with 96 rooms and a budget hotel serving exclusively vegetarian food have been set up at the complex. The rooms are clean and spacious and the environment quiet. An 87 ft. statue of Lord Shiva is the cynosure of the complex and a sight worth seeing. It sits in a most commanding position on the Solophok Hill facing East. Wall murals depicting the tales of Shiva have been painted all around.
Replicas of twelve jyotirlingas, the four dhams, Rameswara temple and the Badrinath, Jagannath, Dwaraka shrines dedicated to Lord Vishnu have been created here for pilgrims of different beliefs.
Pakyong Greenfield Airport
Pakyong Greenfield Airport is a small facility 30 km from Gangtok. Spread over 900 acres and built at a cost of more than Rs. 600 crore, it can accommodate two 80-seater aircraft. Pakyong Airport is part of the Union Government’s UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik) scheme that aims to provide low-cost connectivity to remote areas. SpiceJet operates its 78-seater Bombardier Q400 flights daily to and from Delhi, Guwahati and Kolkata.
- Plan the entire trip in advance.
- Engage a reputed local tour operator
- Rent a cab. Do not try driving as the roads here are extremely bad and plans are subject to change based on Mother Nature.
- Sikkim is a no-smoking State. Be careful before lighting up in public.
- Carry about 10 passport size photographs and a few photocopies of your identity proof as most tourist places in Sikkim require permits.
- Walk slowly and take deep breaths when in higher altitudes. Sip water often. Eating popcorn is recommended for preventing nose bleeds from altitude sickness. Carry dry fruits, energy bars and chocolates.
- You will need 5-6 layers of woollens (thermals/thick sweaters/jackets/caps/scarves) to wear throughout the trip.
- Keep a first aid box handy. Be sure to carry altitude sickness medicines in it.
- Do carry cash as you will not find any ATMs in Lachung and Lachen.
Development of North East Tourist Circuit I in Sikkim
Theme of the circuit: North East
Sanctioned Cost: Rs. 9804.54 lakh
Date of Sanction: 30-06-2015
Duration of Project (In Months): 24
Project Status: Completed; Inaugurated in January 2019
Development of North East Circuit II in Sikkim
Theme of the circuit: North East
Sanctioned Cost: Rs. 9532 lakh
Date of Sanction: 16-09-2016
Duration of Project (In Months): 36
Project Status: On-going; 75 per cent completed