Jani Jermans – Travel Diaries

June 10, 2022

Sikkim – The Mystic Beauty

Filed under: India — jani @ 11:17 pm

About Sikkim: Sikkim is a state in Northeast India, bordered by Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal. A part of the Eastern Himalaya, Sikkim is notable for its biodiversity, including alpine and subtropical climates, as well as being a host to Kangchenjunga, the highest peak in India and third highest on Earth. Sikkim’s capital and largest city is Gangtok. Sikkim is also home to glaciers and thousands of varieties of wildflowers.

It was time for another break after our exams and time to check out another north-eastern state and this time it was Sikkim. We were supposed to start on a Saturday, however as usual my exam got postponed to Sunday so had to miss those two days and we joined the group on the third day.

Day 1: Due to exam schedules, we couldn’t get any sleep and we did the last minute packing and we rushed to the airport early morning. It was unusually crowded in Bangalore before we boarded the flight and then finally we reached Bagdogra. The driver picked us up and we were on the way to Simtang, before we started to Dzongu as the remaining group members had reached there after they spent 2 days of the trip in Gangtok and they had indulged in shopping and cable car rides. It took 3-4 hours since it was raining as well. Since we were too tired and didn’t sleep for the last two 2 nights, we just dozed off. Driver took a short tea break as we didn’t want to step out and once he was back we were almost closer to Simtang.

Then we switched cabs which had permit to go to Dzongu. In the meantime, the other group members also were travelling from Gangtok to Dzongu in a different route. On the way it started raining heavily and had few landslides on the way. So we had a jam, had to wait for almost 45 minutes to clear one by one before we could continue our journey. This seems to be their daily situation for the people who live there, huge respect to them for the patience and discipline. No one tried to overtake, they all waited in line and once the debris were cleared from landslides, we continued our journey. Sometimes travelling to such places makes you introspect the luxuries that we take for granted which is available in the cities. My respect and love for these people grew and also it also makes you think that how much grateful that we need to be for all the luxuries that we enjoy in the city rather than complaining for little things.

Then we had to stop at Mangan checkpost to collect our ILPs (Inner Line Permit), this seems to be required in every region, so we had to pick up multiple ILPs throughout our journey while we travelled to different places in Sikkim. When we reached the Mangan checkpost, the cops said, our group had already picked up for us so we proceeded towards Dzongu. The paths were too narrow, it was too scary to drive on these roads due to rain as there were landslides, some of the roads had disappeared due to rain, sometimes we had to get out of the car as the road was too narrow and it could topple to Teesta river due to our weight which was flowing in full strength due to continuous rain. It also gave way for lot of rainfalls which we enjoyed on the way. We were also praying that we reach the destination at the earliest before it gets dark as these hilly terrains were very risky to drive in dark.

It was difficult to locate in google maps the Lepcha Home Stay which we were staying for the night as google map had no roads registered in the system so finally we called the homestay folks and they guided. Finally we found the homestay. Then when I had to pay the driver, I had offered few hundreds extra after seeing him drive through such hard terrains, that made him and myself happy. Then we reached the homestay and we met the other group members who had reached just half an hour before than us. Since it was still raining all that we could do was sit in the homestay. We were 8 of us plus the tour lead Santosh, so we were 9 of us who were part of this trip. We had Tasneem, her spouse Shabbir and her mother Rashida, then Chaitanya, Saniye, Neha, Santhosh, Sur and myself. We met each other and we introduced each other. It was nice to meet Tasneem whom we met earlier in Bhutan and of course Santosh, It’s always good to travel with him.

This homestay was run by a Lepcha family and we got served their authentic Lepcha cuisines. The Lepcha are among the indigenous peoples of the Indian state of Sikkim and Nepal, and number around 80,000. Many Lepcha are also found in western and southwestern Bhutan, Tibet, Darjeeling, the Province No. 1 of eastern Nepal, and in the hills of West Bengal.

We got the lunch which had cheese soup, it’s an acquired taste so I just took a sip and passed on to Sur who loves cheese and he seemed to enjoy that. We also had some fried rice which was good. After sometime they prepared tea and pakodas and then we also tasted the local Guava wine which was really good and then Santosh tried Tongba (Tongba is a Limbu millet-based alcoholic beverage found in the eastern mountainous region of Nepal and the neighbouring Darjeeling and Sikkim. It is the traditional and indigenous drink of the Limbu people as well as people of other Kirati communities and many other ethnic group of Nepal). It was served in a bamboo container and with a organic straw, you have to sip the drink and have to keep pouring hot water as the drink gets emptied. It was pretty interesting and we all tried a little.

Some of the group members ventured in the rain to go to the closeby monastery but we remained indoors as we wanted to avoid the leeches and the stairs to the monastery were slippery too. Then we joined for a dinner which was authentic Lepcha cuisine. They had dal, roti, chicken, one of the local fern Ningro that was cooked. We enjoyed the meal and then we chatted with Santosh and Chaitanya for sometime as we were staying in different block and then we dozed off.

Day 2: Woke up to a rainy day and I had an encounter with leech when I went for shower which was outside, somehow my mini perfume bottle helped to give the leech the scented burial (in the words of Santosh) for the leech so I didn’t have to donate my blood. But it was a bit annoying and worrying about leeches as we had to step out every time since the rest rooms were away.

Then we headed to our breakfast with dumpling soup and millet parathas which was ok and then we started our journey to Lachung. On the way we stopped near Toong bridge as it was closed for few hours for repair work, had a tea and maggi break, while the drivers had their brunch. We also picked up some local wines and watermelon flavoured breezer since I never found this in Bangalore. On the way we crossed the Theng tunnel which was amazing. Even though it was raining, we enjoyed the scenery inspite of jams, landslides due to heavy pouring of rain. The one thing evey roadside that you see is hydrangea flowers all over and with the variety of colors. That was so beautiful to watch.

Then we reached our next stop Wonderhill Inn in Lepchang. We also realized we didn’t pack enough for the cold weather and we had no other option than to manage somehow. Here it was not just raining and more colder, we also didn’t have power in the entire area and that continued even for the next day. Once we reached and refreshed ourselves in the cold water, we went in for a nice lunch. We had the best and tastiest food here. Most of them were Bengalis, the thali had a bit of Bengali influence. We had rice, potato vegetable made in a Bengali way, chicken curry and vegetarians had paneer and egg curry etc. We enjoyed the lunch and had to stay indoors as it was still raining. Chaitanya and Saniye went to closeby monastery in the rain however we remained indoors.

In the late evening, rain had stopped a little so we walked around to pick up the neck warmer and hats as it was too cold here, so we walked further and also I found Shaphaley When I saw this on the board I asked the lady what was it and she said it’s a non-veg and I may not eat, so I asked her to tell me which meat is that and she said it was Yak meat. So I told her that I will come back in the evening with Santosh to taste as I went with all the vegetarians. So after some time Santosh and myself went back to enjoy the Shaphaley ((Shabhaley, also known as sha phaley, is a Tibetan dish of bread stuffed with seasoned meat and cabbage, which is then fashioned into semi-circular or circular shapes and which according to regional variations is either deep fried) which was done with Yak meat and it was so delicious, so we ordered more and enjoyed the lemon tea post that. We also found Sikkim Old Gold, which is an Indian single malt made at the foot of the Himalayas. This is presented in a khukri-shaped (traditional Nepalese sword) bottle. we only picked up because of the shape of the bottle which was fascinating. Then we headed back to the room. Since there was no power and were not sure when will it be back, we got a candle in the room and then dozed off as others went for dinner, chatted and then crashed for the night.

Day 3: Thankfully we woke up to a sunny day for a change and we were glad that finally we could step out and do some sightseeing. We rented boots and jacket which came in handy as we were heading to Yumthang Valley and Zero point. Thankfully the neckwarmer, hats and handgloves that we purchased a day before helped a bit and we headed towards Yumthang Valley. It was at a distance of about 26 kilometers from Lachung.

Yumthang valley is situated at an altitude of nearly 11800 feet with the river Lachung Chu flowing through the valley and where the tree line ends and the cold desert starts. On the way there was a hot spring but we didn’t step out and also we saw beautiful Rhododendron flowers all over enhancing the beauty of the place. Even though this was not the season but still few bloomed, for us to see and we were glad for the picturesome view of those flowers everywhere. Then we stopped at Yumthang Valley, this was one of the best picturesome location and the water was freezing cold as those are from glaciers. There were Yaks all over and some of us took the pictures and then we headed to zero point.

Since Neha was not feeling well, she waited in the valley itself as we headed to Zero Point. This is Located at an altitude of 15000 ft, the place where Zero Point lies is known as Yume Samdong and it would take you around 1.5 hours to reach from Yumthang. The place is called Zero Point because this is where civilian road ends and civilians are not allowed to go beyond this point. I had a mild symptom of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). This happens as a result of reduced oxygen content in the blood, owing to low atmospheric pressure at high-altitude areas. If you feel a bit dizzy and lethargic at times or experience a mild or severe headache, these are symptoms of AMS. The driver suggested that when you step out of the car, don’t get down immediately and also don’t walk fast. So that helped me as I sat in the car for some time and slowly walked to the roadside stalls for a coffee, maggi and Rhododendron flowers wine. It was too cold to be out for a longer time, so I quickly got into the car and then we came down to Yumthang valley, went for a quick lunch break, did a bit of shopping for some warm clothes and then Neha joined us back as we headed back to the place where we were staying. Still there was no luck on the power and Santosh and myself went to taste the Shaphaley again and this time they had beef instead of Yak. We enjoyed and as we came down we saw slowly power was getting restored in some places. Finally little late night we got the power just before we dozed off for the night.

Day 4: Woke up to a beautiful Sunny morning, had a quick breakfast of aloo parathas, they were really good and then we headed to Gangtok. We had to hurry as we didn’t want to get stuck when the bridge closes for repair work for few hours, so we rushed and we made it just on time before the bridge closes. Then we checked in to Griffon’s Nest in Gangtok. By then we were hungry, since the chef was away for shopping, we had to step out for lunch. Neha had suggested we try Nimtho Restaurant for lunch as we were looking for authentic Sikkimese Thali. So we went to Mahatma Gandhi Marg Road and went to Nimtho. We ordered for Sikkimese Thali and Thakkali Thali (Thakkali is one of the ethnic communities of Nepal, so this is one of the Nepalese Thalis). Both of them were almost similar. It had rice, dal, vegetables, fermented soya vegetable and spicy chutneys.

Then we wanted to do some shopping in Lal Bazaar, which was closeby. Then we got to know Thursday is a holiday and none of the shops were open. So we did the shopping in Mahatma Gandhi Marg itself as they did have shopping places. After an hour of shopping, we went to a Baker’s Café which Saniye has been raving about which had the best Pancakes so we went for a coffee and pancakes. Their banana pancakes were good, I wanted to try the Kashmiri Kahwa as I heard this name very often. To my surprise it was almost like a green tea with dried rose petals, honey and saffron. Even though it was good but I would have skipped this for a nice coffee instead when I had pancakes for the side. Then we headed back to the room. We tried the local wines that we picked up in Lachung and tried the Sikkimese Whiskey and the watermelon flavoured breezer and then we headed back to sleep.

Day 5: We woke up, had a bread toast and omelette and headed to Zuluk to explore the Eastern Sikkim. We waited for the permit to be picked up and then headed to Zuluk. On the way we stopped for a nice view and for a cup of coffee, however it was very foggy. So we took a coffee break and headed to Tsomgo Lake, also known as Tsongmo Lake or Changgu Lake, is a glacial lake in the East Sikkim at an elevation of 3,753 m. Apparently this lake remains frozen during the winter season. It was too cold and some of us felt slight dizzy due to AMS so we didn’t climb all the way for the view. We strolled around the lake, walking very slowly, that kind of helped to get acclaimed since the oxygen is less in these regions. Then we also wore a Sikkimese traditional costume for the photos, there were lot of Yak rides which I avoid as I don’t like to ride on animals.

Then we headed to Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple Memorial & temple honoring Indian army soldier, folk hero saint Baba Harbhajan Singh. Located between Nathula and Jelepla pass at an altitude of 13,123 ft, Baba Harbhajan Singh Temple is a unique destination mainly due to the legacy attached with it. It is believed that his spirit protects every soldier in the inhospitable high-altitude terrain of the Eastern Himalayas. He was a soldier of an Indian army. On October 4, 1968, while he was escorting a mule column from Tuku La, his battalion headquarters to Donguchui La, Harbhajan Singh suddenly slipped and fell and drowned in the glacier. Strong water current carried his body for about 2 kms from the site of the accident. He was searched with all efforts, but his body went missing. On the fifth day of his missing, his fellow roommate Pritam Singh had a dream, where Harbhajan Singh himself informed him of his tragic death and he also mentioned that his body is lying underneath the heap of snows. Harbhajan Singh also expressed the strong desire to have a samadhi made after him. However, Pritam Singh did not pay much importance to his dream. But later, when Harbhajan Singh’s body was discovered at the very place, which he had mentioned in the dream, all were taken aback. And, to honor his wish, a samadhi was built near Chhokya Chho at an elevation of around 4,000 meters, which gained popularity as the Old Baba Mandir. This samadhi is less visited by tourists. Visitors need to climb 50 stairs to reach the bunker, the site where the samadhi has been built. This was the place where Baba was posted during his service period in Indian army. It is further believed that during the event of a war between India and China, Baba would warn the Indian soldiers of any impending attack atleast three days in advance. It is said that he did continue to serve the nation even after his death. This folklore has been very popular not only among the Indian soldiers but also to the Chinese side as well. In fact during flag meetings between the two nations at Nathu La, the Chinese would set a chair aside in honour of Harbhajan Singh who has since come to be known as “Saint Baba”.

It is believed that Baba Harbhajan Singh guards the international boundary between India and China, over the last three decades and he is accomplishing this task alone. Even the Chinese army also confirms that they have noticed a human figure, guarding the border at night, riding on a horse. It is also said that Baba Harbhajan Singh foretells any dangerous activity on the border through the dreams of the fellow army men and safeguards the force.

The personal room of Baba is on the right side which harbours different essential articles for day to day use and a clean properly arranged bed. Even the tidy uniform and well-polished shoes are kept, according to the legend the boots became muddy by evening and the bed sheets were crumbled in the morning.

Baba Mandir The old one has been built at the site of the bunker, where Baba Harbhajan was posted during his tenure in the Indian Army. The new one has been built at close proximity from Changu Lake. The salary of Major Harbhajan Singh has not been stopped and he is also granted his annual leave.

I had read about this story when Indo-China tension started a year or two back. I had no clue that this was the place where the memorial was. I was so glad to have visited this place and my respect and love to all the army men who is guarding our borders at such difficult terrain.

There is canteen close to the mandir where Army runs the café, we chatted a bit with the soldiers. they come down here to do voluntary service in the café etc. They had served prasad (kesari) and that was delicious. Then we went to the café and enjoyed the maggi. They didn’t have power and still they were making our maggi and coffees in the stove. Also they informed they serve food like langar on Sundays, so he asked us to come. Unfortunately we were leaving that day. All our love and respect to soldiers for their sacrifice to guard the borders at such altitude and it was not at all a pleasant place to be there because of that altitude. I had to stay down due to AMS, slowly my body got used as I didn’t climb the stairs for the mandir upstairs. Looking at every soldier coming and giving a solute to Harbhajan Singh, you can’t explain that love and respect in words. Please go ahead and experience this place in person. Be prepared to carry enough warm clothes, including hand gloves, neck warmer and a really good jacket.

This was the most enriching experience in the entire trip. If you are in Sikkim please don’t miss out. This is not just his memorial, this is also a reminder to show gratitude to all the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in protecting the borders, not just the front line but every support staff involved in this.

Then we headed further close to Dolchem Pass which also had lot of flowers on the way, enjoyed the view and the cold weather which was not so pleasant and then we headed towards Zuluk. Zuluk was once a transit point to the historic Silk Route from Tibet to India. We wanted to stop near Thambi View point however it was so foggy so we didn’t. We were lucky we had couple of view points before that just before the fog started covering up. Then we headed to the homestay in Phadamchen. We were hungry so got nice tea and pakodas and then the group was playing cards while I got busy with work calls. We also were served the dinner early since we missed the lunch and it was delicious. We also had few leeches visiting Sur and Santosh while they stepped out as it had rained a bit. Sur escaped but Santosh was donating blood to leeches every time. Then Santosh, Chaitanya, Sur and myself chatted over a drink and then we hit our bed.

Day 6: We woke up to a foggy day, and then we headed to Siliguri. On the way we had the view of lot of birds like Asian barred Owlet, Himalayan Bluetail, Buff barred Warbler, Golden Bush Robin, Small Niltava, Pheasant and Oriental Turtle Dove. We didn’t stop much on the way and we reached Hotel Swatik Residency in Pradhan Nagar, Siliguri. We freshened up and came for lunch at their restaurant. Since it was little late, they had limited options. Santosh and myself enjoyed the chicken biryani and others had ordered their veg dishes and it was good. Then we headed out for a quick shopping. First we went to Hong Kong Market, it’s a good place for shopping and be prepared to bargain before you buy it. Then it looked like it was going to rain so we headed to Planet Mall but it had very few shops, we found Worth the Hype Café and we thought we will try something there. The food and Sangria were good and then we headed to Baisakhi Mela as we happened to notice this on the way. Even though Sur was not keen, since all others were excited to see what was there, he also joined us. They had lot of shopping stalls and food. We straight away went to Pani Puri stall, then tried chaat, then Sur, Chaitanya and Saniye went to almost all the rides. Neha and myself did a bit of shopping and then we enjoyed the Bombay Falooda. After that we all of us did little more shopping and then headed back to hotel. We went and crashed after having so much food at the mela.

Day 7: Woke up little early, It was time to leave for Bagdogra airport and then we were worried as we had a little extra baggage, somehow that got ignored and we were glad. We reached the airport, it was crowded as well, had a sandwich at the airport which was not very great and then it was time for boarding and we boarded the flight back to Bangalore. It was another great experience with Exotic Expeditions and all the credit goes to Santosh for all his efforts.

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