North Sikkim : An incomplete affair

Having familiarised myself a little with Himalayas in the north, I decided to head north east this winter. The winter of 2018-2019 had been different, with snowfall arriving much early and regularly. The previous 2-3 years had seen snow arriving late, attributed to the infamous ‘El Nino’ phenomena. But traditional winters arrived this year, with snowfall arriving in higher altitudes in October itself.

Enough preface. I was joined by my friend Manish on this journey, much like Uttarakhand trip last year. Henceforth, I will provide an account of my trip as well as some tips and information that might help when you are there. We booked our trip through Kiomoi . I would actually recommend them if you are planning a trip, since our trip was hassle free and well managed within budget.

Itinerary (day-wise):

1: Bagdogra to Gangtok. Local Sightseeing in evening.

 2: Tsomgo lake and Baba Mandir

 3: Lachen

 4: Gurudongmar lake and then to Lachung

 5: Yumthang Valley, Zero point and back to Gangtok

 6: Back to Home

 

Day 1:

My flight landed  around 11 am at Bagdogra airport.  We hopped on our pick up vehicle and made way to Gangtok. The road trip to Gangtok is one of the most beautiful roads you will take. The highway has trees on both sides and the snow clad Kanchenjunga looks over you throughout the journey. Throughout the way, River Teesta’s green water follows along .It takes around 3-4 hrs to reach Gangtok. We stayed at Gangtok Drift hotel . It’s a nice, quiet hotel around 3 kms from MG Marg, where we went for an evening stroll. For dinner, we had Chicken Momos at a nearby place and it was really good.

NOTE: Sikkim is very clean and littering is a punishable offence. So, please help maintain the sanctity of the place and save yourself some money.

Day 2:

It was techincally the first day our trip. In the morning, we had our breakfast in the hotel. Then we moved towards Changu/Tsomgo lake and Baba Mandir. We had heard news about snowfall a day before and routes for Nathula Pass being closed, so we decided not to visit.

It takes about 2-3 hrs to visit Baba Mandir and Tsomgo lake lies enroute. On our way we stopped for breakfast at a place called Kyongnosla. I was looking to rent snow boots for my feet size, which is rare by the way, and went to a store and what happened surprised me. The store lady refused service since our vehicle stopped in front of a different store. Unexpected and certainly not convincing. I was not sure how to react to that, and left. Probably that’s how the unwritten law has been laid there.

Then we moved ahead for our first destination. Baba Mandir is in essence a homage paid to a very brave soldier who sacrificed his life in service of the nation. Half a kilo meter to the left of mandir is a large and majestic statue of lord Shiv.

On our way to Baba Mandir, we saw 2 or 3 lakes. One of those lakes(Suheli lake, as per google) , our driver informed, allowed boating for Rs.100. So on returning from Baba Mandir, we decided to go for a boat ride and had great fun navigating around the broken ice. You can find the action in the video below.

Not part of our original plan, driver asked for Rs.500 to driver for this extra trip. This is something quite common here. The cabs run to a schedule and a pre defined agreement and any deviation will cost you extra.

After a tiring and refreshing boating session, we headed towards Tsomgo lake. It’s a beautiful lake and if there’s sunshine, the water sparkles. The surrounding view was awesome, with snow from few days back giving a white touch. Have a look at the video and Hyperlapse and the video and  you will love it, I am sure.

Checkout my hyperlapse at Changu lake:

Changu Lake video:

After our photo session, it was time to leave the beautiful lake. The start to the trip was fabulous and hopes were sky high for the rest of the trip.

Day 3:

Our next major destination was Gurudongmar lake. In order to go there, we first had to reach Lachen, a small hamlet in North Sikkim. It is around 6-7 hrs journey from Gangtok. From what I gathered, this is a very small settlement and very few people live there. There’s mostly hotels for people who stay overnight and pay early morning visit to Gurudongmar lake.

So, we left Gangtok around 10 am . Our Bolero was waiting for us at Vajra Stand. You especially need larger vehicles for visit to higher altitudes in Sikkim , and as far as I know its even government mandated. Hatchbacks don’t suffice and for good reason.

On our way, we had a few stops. First of, we stopped at Seven Sisters waterfall, but unlike the name, there is only a single stream falling down. Nothing like the actual one in Meghalaya. Then we stopped at Mangan for lunch around 1 pm. Kanchenjunga view is spectacular from Mangan.

 

Next up was another waterfall, Naga Falls. Along the way, we were fed with great view of valleys, running side by side with us. We reached Chungthang at around 4 pm, which was late as per the estimates. The temperature had fallen severely by then. Already feeling cold, another thing awaited us at Lachen, which we finally reached around 5.30 pm. It was already dark and it got so chilly that not a soul was out on the streets and hotel staff who came to receive seemed in too much hurry to get back in his warm quarters. Interestingly, I had the same feeling.

We stayed at Delight Lachen Heritage.  It’s a nice place, food is the best part along with the hospitality. Heat management inside the rooms isn’t upto the mark although they do provide heaters for additional charge of Rs. 200.

After a nice dinner, we went to sleep with high hopes to see the much acclaimed Gurudongmar lake.

Day 4:

I woke up around 3.30 am since we had to leave early. As soon as I opened the curtains, I saw raindrops falling which within minutes turned into snowfall and then back to rain. I instantly understood that there is heavy snowfall higher up, on exactly the path that we were supposed to take.

Witnessing snowfall is bliss, but when you have to climb 4000 ft on your car on a snowy track, it is no fun. Our driver sounded upbeat about our chances initially, but as soon as I felt the first loss of car control on the road, I realised it wasn’t going to get any better. And for all my shortcomings as a psychic, I was right this time. We had to stop round 4 kms from our hotel. Not a good feeling.

Army trucks were stuck and behind them was a huge train of tourist cabs, all ruing their decision to visit in December. We were no different. After some life threatening slides on snow, we decided to turn back. The snowfall was so heavy, felt like Mumbai’s monsoon rain. They settled like cotton on leaves and everything they touched became pretty, but our trip.

Sadly we had to turn back, but not before our share of fun in the snowfall. We went out, saw the hazy white scenery and clicked some photos. It was crazy cold. Soon we had to get inside the car and leave.

Super chilly

We went back to the hotel, slept for a while with a heavy heart. When we woke up, it was still snowing in Lachen. This was a real threat to next day. We decided to leave for Lachung soon afterwards, we only had faint hopes to see Yumthang valley the next day.

Sadly, Lachung was also under the same spell of snowfall. That very well confirmed our disappointment. We checked into another branch of the same hotel we stayed in Lachen. Snowfall pretty much ensured that we couldn’t go anywhere we stayed put in our rooms.

Just like us, other tourists we disappointed although we enjoyed the snowfall. We only had faint hopes for the next day.

Day 5:

Looking through the glass window in the morning, we saw perfectly clear, shining weather. This raised our hopes as well as of other tourists. We wishfully thought that all the snow would have melt by now, leaving clear roads. With that hope, we left  again.

For a while, we did not stop. Yumthang Valley is around 28 kms from Lachung. I checked every milestone we crossed, km by km. 26, 25, …, 20. My friend got very optimistic and it really looked good for once. 19…18……..17…….. . That was it. 17 kms before the valley, our caravan stopped and that quashed our hopes. No more going forward. We even walked a few kms but it would have taken way too long to make a round trip.

For a while if you thought this story had a happy ending, I apologise.  Now even though we couldn’t make it to the valley, there was no hiding the fact that Lachung was nothing less than a wonderland. Have a look:

Panorama
Snow Dog, our failed attempt at creating a snow man.

 

The story is incomplete and it’s not the one I will settle for. I will be back, albeit in different weather conditions.

For the story of the day of our departure, read this.

Please feel free to address me in the comments section. If you need contact information for any trip related services, let me know  .

 

Day tour of South Sikkim

In my recent trip to Sikkim, on the final day of the trip we took a tour of South Sikkim.

Background:

Honestly, my friend and I were left a tad bit disappointed after snowfall ruined our trips to Gurudongmar lake and Yumthang valley. The trip still feels incomplete. But our cab driver suggested that we visit South Sikkim. So to salvage something more out of this edition of Sikkim, we decided to go.

Sikkim, as small as it is on the map, has one of the largest spread of natural beauty. Be it in the North or in the other three directions, you can be rest assured that you are going to be awestruck by the raw beauty of the place. Tea gardens, monasteries, flowers, forests, mountains, you name it, Sikkim has it. It has one of the best roads, with tress covering most of the trail. South Sikkim was no different.

Plan was to reach Namchi and visit Char Dham, Shirdi Sai Mandir, Samudruptse, Temi Tea Garden. So we left Gangtok early around 8. We also had a return train at night from NJP, which was about 4 hrs from Namchi. The roads until Namchi isn’t in all that good condition and a lot of it is under construction currently.

Temi Tea Garden:

First on our way lied this tea garden. The landscape view from the garden was awesome. There was only one small eating place which was very costly( double maggi for Rs.100 kind of costly).

Temi Tea Garden Temi Tea Garden

 

A short video: View from Tea Garden

We stopped for a short while, had breakfast and left.

Samudruptse Monastery:

Big Buddha

One of the bigger and more beautiful monasteries, after about 2 hrs from Tea Garden.  It also has a good collection of flower and shurbs in its garden. The view is amazing and you can also see the huge Lord Shiva statue of Char Dham from its balcony. The huge statue of Buddha, will leave you in awe.

CharDham:

I have to say that I underestimated this place when I heard its name. This place made it worth our while to explore south Sikkim. The beauty of art at this place will blow you away. The sculptures, the miniature temples of Char Dham and other important mythological temples of Hindu lore all at a single place gives you an opportunity to admire and revere them, if you are yet to actually visit them in person. The statue of Lord Shiv will humble you with its grandiosity.

Lord Shiv

Lord Shiv
High and Mighty

If memory serves me right, the entry to this place costs Rs.50/head and shoes have to left outside free of cost. After spending close to an hour here, it was time to leave for our final post Sai Mandir.

Saibaba Temple:

I have not been to Shirdi, so this was my chance to visit Sai temple. It is a beautiful golden temple where you feel peace around you as soon as you step in. It was around 15-20 min drive from Char Dham.

Sai Temple

We had our lunch  across the road from the temple and then went on our way towards NJP station to return to our homes.

At the end of the day, it was a refreshing experience. Surely recommend a 1 day tour to South Sikkim.

Let me know in the comments how you felt and if you have any suggestions or a place you want me to visit and write about.

For other stories, refer my blog.

 

North Sikkim trip planner

This North Sikkim trip planner aims to help you design your trip so you don’t miss anything.

Sikkim is one of the most beautiful year round destinations in India. From snowfalls, waterfalls, beautiful roads, highest Indian mountain Kanchenjunga, this place has it all. As a photographer or videographer, it will be a delightful trip.

Video of my visit to Changu Lake/Baba Mandir:

So let’s help you plan a trip around this small state of India.

How to get there:

There are two prominent ways to reach Sikkim. One is to take a flight for Bagdogra airport.

Another is two take a flight to Kolkata and the train to New Jalpaiguri station.

Both the airport and the train station are about the same distance from Gangtok(capital city of Sikkim), so it costs the same.

So now you can take a shared taxi(Rs.150-250) or a booked taxi (Rs. 2000-2500) to Gangtok.

How to get around:

If you have a pre planned trip via any travel agency, they will arrange the transportation.

If not, then some leg work is required. But most of the hotels offer those services so you don’t have to worry too much. The rates are government approved so genuineness isn’t an issue.

Places to visit:

Baba Mandir/ Tsomgo lake/ Nathula pass:

Start early around 7 in the morning from your hotel in Gangtok. All the above 3 places are on the same route and take around 3 hrs to reach.

Tsomgo lake is beautiful lake around 3 kms in size .
Baba Mandir is in remembrance of a very brave soldier Harbhajan Singh who died fighting for India.
Nathula pass lies very close to China border.
You can also check out Silk route, an ancient trade route between India and China.

All this can be done in a day and return back to your hotel in Gangtok.

Always carry your id proof with you.

Gurudongmar Lake:

Its one of highest altitude lakes in India with very less oxygen content in the air. Lake remains frozen in winter months. So preferred time of visit will be April to early November.

You need to take a taxi from Gangtok to Lachen(135kms). The journey is around 6 hrs. Along the way you will find many beautiful places and flowers along the way.

Overnight stay at a hotel and start early morning for the lake.

Carry your high altitude medicine if you need.

From there you can go to Katao, Kala patthar, Chopta Valley and then move on the next main location Lachung.

Yumthang Valley and zero point:

From the beautiful hamlet of Lachung, after an overnight stay begins the journey to the beautiful Yumthang Valley(28 kms). Best time to visit is during the non winter months.

Zero point is further ahead and is only allowed to Indian nationals because of its proximity to China border.

From there on you can move back to Gangtok the same day and plan your return to hometown.

From my personal experience, I can tell you to not visit these places during winters because in case it snows, the roads get blocked and very dangerous to drive on.

Note: Plastic bottles are banned in Lachen and Lachung. Make sure you don’t even have it imside your bags else if found, you stand a chance to attract heavy penalties.

One of the dependable holiday experts that I came across is Kiomoi. Do check out their quote for estimating your travel expenses. I found them quite reasonable.

So,let me know if this helps and also if you have more questions.

If you need local contact details, please drop me a message or connect with me on social media.

You can also follow my Uttarakhand trip and ask questions related to it.

Happy travelling.

Things to consider before planning for North Sikkim

I just completed a trip to North Sikkim in mid December with a friend. Now as good as the trip was, we didn’t get our money’s worth. I will detail my trip in a next series of blogs. For now let’s focus on the things to consider before planning for North Sikkim. It is absolutely coming from my recent experience and I hope it will be helpful in your planning.

Here are a few points you need to consider:

Major Attractions in North Sikkim:

Lachen, Gurudongmar Lake, Nathula Pass, Changu(Tsomgo lake), Katao, Kala Patthar, Chopta Valley, Lachung, Yumthang Valley, Zero point.

Travel agencies mostly only cover the ones marked in bold in their package. Other points are marked optional and usually cab drivers will be the one whom you will end up dealing with for visiting those points. Additional points will cost you Rs. 3000 each. These are government approved rates so there isn’t much scope of negotiation.

Objective: 

You need to be clear about your main goal of visit. By this I mean, are you going to experience cold, snowy winters or for visiting all the major tourist places. For sure, you can do both together if weather gods smile on you. But if it snows, then all the major attractions become nearly impossible to reach. Planning needs to be in accordance to this.

Time of Visit: 

With your objective in place, I will make it easier for you to decide the time to visit. Mid December (from around 20th), till Feb(mid or last) for those who aren’t looking forward to long travel. Now nobody can put a finger on the exact day when snow will fall, but Dec-Feb has the highest probability.

However, if you are going there for work (photographers, bloggers) or are just someone who wants to explore, you would do well to avoid winters altogether, so Late March – Early November will be a good time . The weather ranges from moderately cold to chilly almost throughout the year, so it provides a escape from the heat of cities at lower altitudes anyway.

No of Days: 

Visiting in non-winter months, you can cover these points in 2 days if you stretch a bit or easily in 3 days. Winters are a different deal. Ideally you should keep extra days as buffer. But after heavy snowfall, it usually takes days to clear the roads. So even buffer days may not be enough.

Clothes: 

It goes without saying that you need to pack warm clothes heavily for winter visit. Nights are especially treacherous. It takes ample amount of courage to leave warm blankets.

Sidenote: Plastic bottles are banned in Lachen and Lachung, so avoid them.

I found these points worth sharing as some of them could result in a late surprise. If you have more questions then please leave them below in the comments section.

Hope it helps.