A Travelogue by Arko Banerjee who has just returned from his trip to Gangtok and north Sikkim. He shares his experience below.
I went to North Sikkim on last week of December’13 along with 3 of my friends. I would like to share my experience with all of you.
Gangtok – North Sikkim Trip Itinerary
25th Dec – Start from Sealdah at 22:55 in Padatik Express.
26th Dec – NJP to Gangtok. Overnight stay at Gangtok.
27th Dec – Start for North Sikkim. Reach Lachen by evening. Overnight stay at Lachen.
28th Dec – Start very early in the morning, visit Gurudongmar lake. Come back to Lachung. Overnight stay at Lachung.
29th Dec – Visit Yumthang, Zero-point. Come back to Gangtok. Overnight stay at Gangtok.
30th Dec – Back to NJP. Take Kanchakanya Express back to Sealdah
31st Dec – Reached Sealdah station
Detailed travelogue – Trip Experinece
Day 1 – 25th Dec: Anxious wait before the journey begins
I booked tickets on three different trains namely Kanchankanya Express (WL12,13,14,15), Uttarbanga Express (WL 15,16,17,18) and Padatik Express (WL21,22,23,24) as early as 13th November. However, as our journey date progressed, none of the tickets were getting confirmed. On the travel day itself, the situation was precarious as UttarBanga was stranded at WL8,9,10,11, while Kanchankanya and Padatik were tantalisingly close at WL2,3,4,5 and WL1,2,3,4. However, 2 hours before charting Padatik Express eventually sneaked into RAC9,10,11,12. So we boarded Padatik Express from Sealdah which departs at 22:55. Much to our delight, there were couple of berths with ‘No Show’ in our coup and hence all 4 of us got individual berths by requesting the TTE. We had a sumptuous dinner of chicken curry and roti brought from home (there’s no pantry in Padatik) and had a good night’s sleep.
Just in case you don’t have a reservation, the other option would be to take a bus from Esplanade. There are frequent buses from Esplanade to Siliguri (around 8 km from NJP). The best bus option is Royal Cruiser Volvo. However, the roads as per my knowledge is not in great shape, so train journey is heavily recommended over bus.
Day 2 – 26th Dec: Gangtok Style
The train was late by around 1 hour or so, and we reached NJP around 10:15. After reaching NJP we exited through the overbridge and walked around 100 metres or so to reach the Bengal Police Taxi booth to hire a car for Gangtok. However, the person sitting in the booth blatantly told us there are no cars available currently. Amazingly, though we were surrounded by numerous taxi owners asking us whether we need a car. Eventually after negotiating with few of them we settled for a TATA SUMO for INR 2800 exclusively (Smaller cars were quoting 2300, but we opted for SUV). The name of the driver is Bapi. He was a friendly guy.
We started for Gangtok around 11. The view initially was not so great, as we were going through city, but it became better as we moved ahead. We stopped for lunch midway around 2. It was a roadside eatery, with average food quality and average price (Chicken per plate was 100). Sometime after we started, river Teesta joined us on our way and would accompany us till we reach Gangtok. Road condition is decent for most of the journey.
The cab dropped us at the Gangtok taxi stand (WB cars are not allowed inside the city, at least commercial cars are definitely not allowed). And we had to take local taxi from there to our hotel. Gangtok taxi rates are pretty high if we compare to big cities in India, and prices between the same destination will vary based on your travel direction and time of the day you’re traveling. There is no meter system, and you’ll have to pay whatever they are asking. For a 3 k.m ride to the development area, we had to pay INR 200. We had already pre-booked Hotel Shivam (referred by Mr. Abhijit Gupta of TravelDias). The room rates were INR 1100 for a triple bed per night. We had also booked our entire North Sikkim package from Mr. Binoy De of Hotel Shivam only for INR 18,000. It was a 2night-3day package including fooding, lodging and sightseeing of North Sikkim. Sightseeing included Gurudongmar Lake, Yumthang. Zero point was not covered under the package. The package was close to a disaster, but I’ll come to that later.
Anyway, this Shivam hotel is located near the Development Area, which is around 15-20 minutes walking distance from the M.G Road (the mall). The room in the 2nd floor was decent, accommodating 4 people. It had a TV, geyser in bathroom and dining region in the front passage. The view from the room was pretty decent (although it was quite foggy and we couldn’t see much) and so was the food of the hotel. But most of all, the staffs in the hotel were really great. They were extremely courteous, and literally running around to serve you.
After freshening up, we went for a walk to the famous M.G Road. It’s a really nice place beaming with lights and shops, very spic-and-span. There are numerous shops with multiple things like apparels, winter garments, traditional Tibetian stuffs, restaurants etc. Overall, it’s a very nice place to spend a leisurely evening. We had some soup and snacks from a restaurant ( and bar) called Taste of Tibet.
Coming back to hotel, we had dinner from Shivam only, which we previously ordered and we were done for the day. The food was quite good and the pricing was also reasonable.
Just to mention, it was pretty cold in Gangtok, with temperature in the night being around 5-6C. However, it was nothing compared to what we would experience the next two days.
Day 3 – 27th Dec: Destination Lachen
On day 3, we woke up around 8 and got ready for our North Sikkim trip. The car was supposed to start around 10:30. We got ready and headed for the taxi stand taking a taxi for INR 100 (The car didn’t pick us from the hotel, rather we had to go to the taxi stand paying 100 bucks). Anyway, after reaching the stand we found our car. The driver who would accompany us was a young chap. He looked a nice fellow, but would not turn out as nice as we thought later. Anyway, we started from Gangtok around 11:30 for Lachen , a very small town around 120 kms from Gangtok. Lachen is at an altitude of 9000 ft. We bought some raw chicken enroute, although we were supposed to get food as part of our package. (Thank God we did that!)
We were told earlier that there will be 3-4 view points covered during our journey from Gangtok to Lachen, however the only place the driver stopped for sightseeing was the Seven Sister’s fall. It was a decent place by the side of the road with a stream of water coming down from a hillock. The driver kept hurrying us everytime we stopped, saying that we would be late to reach Lachen. We brought the driver couple of breezers in the hope that he’ll be happy and will co-operate with us better in the tour, but to no use.
We stopped for lunch(within package) around 2. It was absolutely horrible. We were served rice (we could have used a single rice grain as side pillow, such was the quality), stale daal which resembled water more than daal, an equally inedible potato subzi and a single piece of egg. We requested if there were any other food items available for which we were willing to pay, but we were refused.
Anyway, we kept on moving ahead and as we kept on gaining altitude and the sun rays were getting weaker and weaker, the temperature dipped rapidly. After sunset it was intensely cold. Around 6, we reached a place(I forgot the name)where our permits werechecked. These are military areas, and permits need to be obtained to visit. You should carry your photo id card, both photocopy and original along with two passport size photo. You don’t have to worry about permits as the travel agents usually do those stuff for you from Gangtok.
We reached Chungthang(around 90 km from Gangtok) around 7 P.M. From Chungthang the road for Lachen and Lachung bifurcates. Lachen is approx 30 kms from Chungthang and Lachung is around 23km. There is a military base around here, and we had a cup of hot coffee from a resting place where a jawaan was in charge. Here we met a group of tourist including a number of women and children, who were coming back from Lachen after visiting Gurudongmar Lake and were going towards Lachung. They told us that they were able to go right up to Gurudongmar and the view was magnificent. One of the ladies had severe breathing problem and had to be rested in the army camps there. Such incidences are common in Gurudongmar due to lack of oxygen at the height of 17,000+ ft. However, hearing that they were able to reach Gurudongmar soared our hopes as we apprehending that roads may be closed due to snow. Little did we know then how disappointed we will be.
Finally, we reached Lachen around 8:30 P.M. The chill in the air is beyond description. We were wearing two thermals, a t-shirt, a full sweater, jacket, woollen head gear, 2 socks and still were shivering. It was well below zero degree. We could hear the icy winds roaring across the mountains.
Our staying arrangement was basically a home-stay. We were given a couple of rooms in the ground floor of a house and the hostess provided us with much needed warm coffee. We told her to cook the chicken we bought, as the chicken that was provided with the package was way too little( it was hardly 100gms of chicken for 4 of us). She cooked rice, daal, one subzee and chicken curry (to our disappointment, as we told her to roast it). Anyway, the food was decent. After dinner we chatted for a bit and it was around 12 in the night. The driver told us that we would have to leave as early as 3 A.M in the morning so as to reach Gurudongmar early, as, with rising sun, the snow begins to melt and it becomes difficult to move(It takes around 5-6 hours to reach Gurudongmar from Lachen). We complied withhis instruction and went to bed hoping to catch a short nap of around 2 hours.
Day 4 – 28th Dec: The disaster day
We woke up around 2 A.M. It was extremely difficult to leave the bed as the cold was biting. We were literally shaking even after all our protective gears. To add to the woes, the geyser in the washroom was not working. It felt like someone is pricking you with thousands of needles every time you touched the water. Anyway, we dragged ourselves out of bed and got ready, the only thing inspiring us is the fabled beauty of Gurudongmar lake, the 2nd highest lake in India, at an altitude of 17,200 ft. We started off for Gurudongmar around 3 A.M in the pitch dark venturing the narrow and steep mountain roads. Immediately we started gaining altitude. It started to get colder as we moved up, and in spite of wearing 3 socks, the feet felt numb.
As sun began to appear around 5:30, we could appreciate the beauty that was around us. We reached Thangu around 6(this is a military base, and our permits were checked once again here). The view here is magnificent with range of mountains barricading us everywhere covered with snow. But unfortunately, that’s all the beauty that we would get to enjoy, as, in Thangu our driver meet a couple of other drivers. He spoke for some time with them in their language and eventually returned to us saying that we can’t go any further due to road blockade. There were no sign of snow anywhere close to where we were. We pleaded, begged him to take us a little further so that we can see for ourselves whether the road is blocked or not. We also requested him to wait there for some time to see if some other cars were going. But he was adamant. He refused all our requests, and broken hearted we started our descend back.
Our original itinerary for the day was to go back to Lachen, have lunch and then move towards Lachung. But we decided we’ll go to Lachung skipping lunch at Lachen. Accordingly we picked up our luggage from Lachen and started for Lachung. We had breakfast at Chungthang. Here mobile signal was back (mobile signal is available from Gangtok to Chungthang for all operators. Only BSNL towers are available in Lachen and Lachung) and I spoke to Mr. Binoy telling him the situation. But he didn’t give much importance to what I said.
The road from Chungthang to Lachung is beautiful. There’s mountain on both sides and a wide valley(almost a gorge) in between. A river (probably Teesta)flows along that valley. The scenic beauty is far better than the road to Lachen.
We reached Lachung around 1 P.M. The staying arrangement here was once again house-stay. But it was the lowest point of the trip. We were given a room with a thin wooden ply as wall, with multiple holes in it. The window glass was broken, allowing ice-cold wind gushing in to the room. There were not enough blankets for 4 of us. The geyser was again not working. The hostess was a mean lady who refused to give us even drinking water. And to cap it all, dining place was 1 k.m away from the staying place!
We skipped lunch that day, and in the afternoon went for some snacks(maggi) and coffee at a nearby place. We requested the driver to take us to the dining place so that we can give them the remaining chicken to cook. But he kept us waiting in front of his car for 40 minutes before he took us to the place. Our dinner time was 8 P.M, and we again had to plead with the driver to take us for dinner. He initially told us that he won’t be taking us, and we dreaded that we’ll have to walk down 1 k.m of mountainous road under sub-zero temperature. However, after much pleading he had some pity on us and took us for dinner. The dinner was decent in Lachung with rice, dal, sabzee, chicken and papad. The lady who did the cooking was nice in her behaviour. After dinner, we went under our blankets (shared as there were not enough blankets for us) braving the chilly wind that was coming from the broken window and the holes in the wall.
The plan for next morning was to visit Yumthang. The driver told us if we want to visit Zero-point we’ll have to pay another INR 3000. We were really pissed off with the entire day’s happenings and told him that we don’t want to go to Zero-point(eventually we did go). He told us that even for Yumthang only we need to leave by 6:30 in the morning. We tried to reason with him what is the need to leave so early, but once again he was adamant in his stand(Basically he wanted us to start early so that he can drop us back at Gangtok early and be free).
Day 5 – 29th Dec: Yumthang, Zero-point saves the day
This time we didn’t give up to his tricks and we started around 8 in the morning. Although he was on top our head from 6:30 urging us to hurry up.
The road from Lachung to Yumthang again is very beautiful with number of snow-capped peaks being seen in the vicinity. It took us around 1:30 hours to reach Yumthang. Yumthang is a wonderful place. It’s basically a wide valley surrounded by icy mountains on all sides. A river flows along the valley. It’s really a stunning view. We roamed around the river bed for an hour or so.
Then we had breakfast there only. Breakfast included in the package was steamed bread (yes…steamed. They don’t use fire to warm breads, they keep it inside containers like momo) and jam. We had coffee and maggi with our own money. While eating breakfast we had a change of mind and asked the driver if he will take us to Zero point. He agreed for 3000. We hired some snow boots(INR 50 a pair) from the breakfast place and started off our journey for Zero-point.
The road from Yumthang to zero-point is awesome. We gained altitude continuously and could see a lot of ice on our way. We could even see part of the river being frozen as well as waterfalls along the mountains being completely frozen. It was an amazing sight. Looked like some magician has cast a spell on the water and stopped it from flowing!!
Finally we reached zero-point around 11:45 or so. I must say, this was the highlight of our trip. This place is amazing. Full of ice. It would have been a great mistake if we left it out of our itinerary. We could see ice everywhere around us. It was a land of white. We enjoyed ourselves immensely there for an hour or so.
We started our journey back to Gangtok from there. On our way down, we had lunch from the same place in Lachung where we had dinner last night. The food was again decent, although we were given veg food. It was a long journey back to Gangtok, and we reached our hotel (Shivam again as we had it booked) around 9 P.M in the night. Even though Gangtok was pretty cold with temperature around 5-6 C, it seemed to us we have come to some tropical beach in summers, such was the cold in Lachen and Lachung. We had a refreshing bath with the warm water (we were without bath for last 2 days and wearing the same clothes), a good dinner in Shivam and went for a good night’s sleep.
Day 6 – 30th Dec: Long road to home
We were to depart from Gangtok for NJP today, as we had our train from NJP to Sealdah at 8:30 P.M (Kanchankanya). Again there was uncertainty as our return tickets were also not confirmed. We had WL4,5,6,7 in 2nd AC. Our plan was to keep a track of the PNR status the entire day, and if it was not confirmed by the end of the day, then we’ll go to Siliguri rather than NJP and take a bus from there. We spoke to one of the managers in Shivam to arrange a car for us, which will take us to Rumtek monastery, a casino in Gangtok (Sikkim is the only other state in India apart from Goa which has casino) and finally drop us in NJP (or Siliguri). An indica was arranged for us at INR 4000. Mr. Binoy visibly tried to avoid us all this while, and in spite of me repeatedly calling him to meet us, hedidn’t show up.
We had our breakfast and started from Gangtok around 10 A.M. We went to Rumtek first. It was an hour’s drive from Gangtok. The monastery is nice. We fed pigeons there from our hands (they are not at all afraid of humans, and will in fact sit on your hand!!) and did some shopping there. After we were done in Rumtek, there was not enough time for us to visit the casino. So we decided to skip it. But again our ill-fate had a cruel irony in store for us, as halfway to NJP we came to know that due to some terrorist activity in the NJP line, all trains were running massively late. Kanchankanya was already delayed to 1 A.M from it’s scheduled time of 8:30 P.M.
By 6 P.M we were close to Siliguri, and our tickets were still not confirmed. So we decided to get down and Siliguri and take bus. The last irony was kept for this moment, as, the moment we let the cab go at Siliguri, we came to know that charting has been done and our seats are now confirmed!!! We decided to ditch bus, as the road condition is very poor. We took another taxi for INR 200 to drop us from Siliguri to NJP. We reached NJP around 7:30 P.M. After that it was an endless wait for the train to arrive.
We sat in the floor of upper class retiring room (the platforms and the retiring rooms were swamped with people as all the trains were running obscenely late) checking the running status of our much awaited train (Kanchankanya starts from AlipurDuar Junction).
Day 7 – 31st Dec: Back home
The train finally came at 3 A.M in the morning (already late by 6:30 hours). We were exhausted by that time. We boarded the train, found our seats and slept like a log well in to the morning. The train eventually reached Sealdah at around 5 P.M (another 2:30 hours delay) and our journey came to an end!
I would like to thank Mr. Abhijit Gupta for his advice and suggestions in framing the itinerary of the trip. I asked him multiple questions on his blog/email before the trip and he was always prompt to reply. He only suggested me to get in touch with Mr. Binoy for Shivam hotel. It’s true, the package tour did not work out the way we would have liked it to, but that does not take away anything from the efforts he put in for helping us.
As for Shivam hotel is concerned, I was pretty happy with the service and food they provided. It was good value for money. We were particularly impressed with the service boys’ behaviour. But please don’t go for the package deals from here. It was really really bad. In fact wherever you take package trips from, (you have to opt for package, as this is the only option to visit North Sikkim) have a clear discussion with the tour provider about accommodation, food and driver.
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Note from TravelDias:
Thanks Arko for such a beautiful and helpful travelogue. It will surely help others to plan a trip to Gangtok and north Sikkim. If you want to share your experience with other travelers, do let me know and drop me a mail at “firstname.lastname@example.org”. I will surely publish the article or travelogue on Travel Updates section to share with all across the Globe.