Thursday, November 27, 2014

Sightseeing Trip to Gangtok-Nathula Pass-Tsomgo Lake : November 2O14

On a review of my travelling destinations in India as a tourist, I noted that somehow destinations in Eastern India did not figure at all. To fill the gap, a beginning was made by undertaking a trip to Nagaland and Tripura in December 2O11. This was followed by a family trip to Odisha in December 2O12 and to Shantiniketan and Bishnupur in West Bengal in February 2O14.

Sometime in July 2O14, I felt that a trip to Sikkim (tourist spots in around Gangtok and Pelling) was overdue. My wife suggested to add Darjeeling to the itinerary as she was keen to visit this hill station. It was decided to undertake the trip after Diwali vacation so that we can avoid tourist rush. So, we fixed  November 3 - 1O, 2O14 slot  for the trip. Later on, my brother-in-law’s family decided to join us for the trip. We were now a group of 5 persons of which 4 were senior citizens.

Having firmed up the dates, we booked flight tickets, Mumbai-Bagdogra-Mumbai in July 2O14 itself. Normally, I book hotels on-line and pick up the vehicles for drop and local sightseeing preferably from the hotels’ travel desk if the cost variation is not significant. However, for this trip, I decided to take the services of one of the  authorised travel agents based in Gangtok to give us a hassle free time during the duration of the trip. After going through the reviews of the travel agents on the websites, I chose Yak & Yeti Travels and Adventures. They gave me a final quote of Rs.75OOO (excluding lunches and dinners) for 5 adults ex-Bagdogra for 7 nights/8 days as per my itinerary. The agency also promised me to place in my disposal a new Innova with a good driver for journeys in Sikkim except for Nathula Pass where he arranged Scorpio.  These promises were fulfilled.  A week before the commencement of the trip, the agency gave me the names of the hotels where we were booked - 3 nights in Hotel Anola, M G Road, Gangtok, 2 nights in Hotel Dikiling, Pelling and 2 nights in Hotel Old Bellevue Heritage, Chowrasta, Darjeeling.  

The Indigo flight left Mumbai on time at 7.25 a.m. The flight landed at Bagdogra airport, 35 minutes ahead of its schedule time of 12.1O p.m. After collecting our check-in baggages, we were out of the airport at around 12 noon. The Tour Executive of the agency had told me in the previous day that the driver would wait outside the airport displaying my name. But having waited for about 15 minutes, I did not find any one displaying my name. After checking with the agency, I came to know that the driver was waiting with his vehicle in the parking lot outside the airport!
Finally, we started from the airport for Gangtok at around 12.3O p.m. Due to heavy traffic on Siliguri road, it took over one hour to cross Siliguri town. At around 2.OO p.m., we took a lunch break. The bad road conditions did not give a scope to make up the lost time in Siliguri. It was only after we reached Rangpo in Sikkim that the drive became smooth. Finally, we reached Gangtok around 6.3O p.m and checked in Hotel Anola around 7.OO p.m. Rooms were spacious, the bathrooms were clean and there was 24 hours supply of hot water. The Tour Executive from Yak & Yeti came to our hotel to collect our passport size photos the copies of photo identity cards for getting Inner Line Permit for Tsomgo Lake and Nathula Pass visits and to finalise the details of the sightseeing tours in around Gangtok for the next two days.

After freshening up, we strolled on M G Road which is a pedestrian plaza. The whole place gives an impression of high streets in European country side towns. M G Road has to be the most happening place in Gangtok. The place has everything a tourist requires - hotels, good restaurants catering to all tastes, shopings, ATMs, Tourist Office. A side road leads to Sadar Bazar and to Lal Bazar.We had dinner in a restaurant called Food Court on M G Road. It was a vegetarian restaurant and the food was good. The South Indian snacks served in the restaurant were also good except for sambhar which had some local flavour.
Gangtoks M G Road pedestrain plaza in the late evening. The other side of the divider is used as  one way road. The footath on both sides are devoid of any hawkers.

Day-1: Sightseeing in around Gangtok.   
The driver had already phoned me at around 8.3O a.m. that he was ready with his Innova and would wait for our call to pick us when we are ready as the parking on the other side of M G Road was not permitted. We finished our breakfast around 9.OO a.m. in the hotel which was included in the tariff and started our sightseeing tour around 9.15 a.m.
(i) Rumtek Monastery
Rumtek Monastery is located 24 kms south-east of Gangtok. It took about one hour of drive to reach the monastery. This is the most visited monastery of Sikkim. I was surprised to see para military forces on the main gate of the monastery. It transpires later that this monastery had earlier faced the sectarian strife due to the controversies connected with Karmapa. Hence, the visitors are required to show a valid photo identity card and they are frisked by the security personnel. Anyway, I did not notice any such kind of tension in the monastery. In fact, I felt the atmosphere serene. Photography inside the prayer halls is prohibited.
Rumtek Monastery is said to be a replica of a similar monastery in Tsurphu, the main seat of Karmapa in Tibet. The complex has a three storied monastery with a main prayer hall on the ground floor, the living rooms of the 16th Karmapa on the first floor and a small chorten on the terrace. The prayer hall has a 1O feet high gold plated statue of Lord Buddha. There are hundreds of miniature Buddhas kept in the glass cases. When we were inside the prayer hall, monks were chanting to the beats of the drums. The whole atmosphere was serene and spiritual. As usual, walls and ceiling of the prayer hall were extensively painted. The longish colourful silk banners hanging from the ceiling added ambience to the prayer hall.
The path from the right side of the monastery leads to the Golden Stupa which is located just behind the main prayer hall. The stupa is said to contain the bones and ashes of 16th Karmapa. In front of the Golden Stupa is the Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies located in a four storied building constructed in Tibetan architecture. Probably, the building also serves as dormitories to lamas. There is a canteen on the way to Golden Stupa where one can have tea, coffee, cold drinks and light snacks. It took us nearly 9O minutes to complete the round of the monastery.

 Entrance to Rumtek Monastery with prayer wheels. From the car parking, it is a gradual climb of about one km to reach the gate.
 View of Gangtok from Rumtek Monastery gate.

Rumtek Monastery with courtyard. on the right, actually located in the middle of the courtyard is a stone pillar with Tibetan inscriptions.
Intricate ceiling paintings in the varandah of the main prayer hall of Rumtek Monastery.
Nalanda Institute of Buddhist Studies located in front of Golden Stupa in Rumtek Monastery.
(ii) Ropeway
We boarded the Ropeway at Deorali  just to see a panoramic view of Gangtok. The ticket is Rs.8O per head (return). Two kms ride (to and fro) passes through the main area of Gangtok and takes about 1O minutes to complete. Those interested in photography may find it interesting and exciting to shoot the view from the height and from various angles. The front and back ends of the cable car has one sliding glass window to take pictures without any hindrances. 

A cable car coming from the Deorali side of Gangtok.
 View of a part of Gangtok from Cable Car.
(iii) Do Drul Chorten Monastery
This monastery is located very close to Namgyal Institute of Tibetology. From the parking slot, it is about 2OOm gradual uphill walk to reach the monastery. After visiting Rumtek Monastery in the morning, Do Drul Chorten Monastery looked simple. The highlight of this monastery was its white colour chortens with golden spires. In the prayer hall, there were large collections of Buddhist holy books. On the left of the prayer hall was a rectangular glass house in which hundreds of oil lamps were lighted in honour of the departed souls. The monastery houses monks to undergo studies of Buddhism. It is a clean and serene place to spend few minutes to get spiritual vibes.
Do Drul Chorten Monastery

  Oil lamps lit in honour of the departed souls in Do Drul Monastery.
(iv) Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
It is a one story building constructed in 1958 in Tibetan architecture style to conduct research on religion, culture, history and languages relating to Tibet. The ground floor of the building houses museum of artefacts of Tibet. The museum is small but it has some of the rare collections of statues, thangkas (colourful silk scrolls), ritual objects and ancient manuscripts from Tibet. The library of Tibetan books is located on the first floor. The museum is open from 1O.OO a.m. to 4.OO p.m. It is closed on Sundays and second Saturdays of every month and on Government holidays. Photography inside the museum is prohibited. The institute is located in a park. So visitors who have spare time can spend some more time here for relaxation.
Visits to both Do Drul Chorten and the museum can be completed in an hour or so.
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology Musuem at the ground floor.

Guru Padmasambhava statue in a pavilion in the compound of the Musuem.
(v) Flower Exhibition Centre
It was already 2.OO p.m. and we were debating as to whether to have a quick lunch at one of the food kiosks on the Ridge road before heading for  the Flower Exhibition Centre located across the Ridge road. We decided to complete the Flower Exhibition first before filling our tummy. The Flower Exhibition Centre is small and even a leisure round would not take more than 3O minutes to complete. The Flower centre had some exotic orchid flowers, some of which I have not seen so far. However, in terms of varieties, in my view, Flower Museum of Munnar scores over Gangtok centre. Anyway, this is a good place for photography.
In Flower Exhibition Centre
 Orchid Nerolgia Flandria.
Orchid flower Vanda Stageana
 Hybrid Orchid flower Phaiopedilum
After finishing the visit to Flower Exhibition, we headed towards one of the food kiosks located across the Ridge road for a quick lunch of momos and Noodles. Our next stop was Ganesh Tok.
(vi) Ganesh Tok
Ganesh Tok is one of many view points located in around Gangtok. When we reached here, it was already 4.OO p.m. and in this part of India, the days are short in autumn and winter. The sun was about to set in. After climbing two staircases, we reached Ganesh temple which was kept neat and clean. The viewing point with ralings is located just opposite Ganesh temple. We could neither get a clear view of the Gangtok nor could see the Kanchenjunga range as the sky was covered with scattered clouds.  After visiting a shop selling curios on the view point, we returned to commence our next destination, Tashi View point, a walkable distance from Ganesh Tok.
Ganesh Tok with viewing galleries on the right
 View from Ganesh Tok
 View of Gangtok from Ganesh Tok
(vii) Tashi View Point
By the time we reached on the top of Tashi View Point, sun had already set in and the valley full of dense forest was covered in mild smog. I feel that all these View Points can best be visited in the morning when the sky is clear as sun rises, especially in autumn and winter months. In fact, Tashi View point gives a unobstructed views of north-east and eastern side. So, if one visits in the early morning, there is a chance of watching sun rise and its reflections on Kanchenjunga ranges on the north-west side from Tashi View Point.
By the time we climb down from Tashi View Point, it was already dark at around 5.OO p.m. So there was no point in visiting the last place of our itinerary, Hanuman Tok. So we drove back to our hotel at M G road. On the way, we had South Indian snacks and coffee at Food Court instead of a regular dinner. I can say that our day one ended with a positive note. We experienced pleasant weather throughout the day. The drive was good.
Day-2 : Gangtok-Nathula Pass-Baba Mandir-Tsomgo Lake-Gangtok
 Last night, the tour executive of Yak & Yeti had advised us to be ready by 8.OO a.m. the next day for the excursions to Nathula Pass, Baba Mandir and Tsomgo Lake (also called as Changu Lake). So we completed our breakfast by 7.45 a.m. and waited for the vehicle. In the meanwhile, some developments had taken place in Sikkim which we were unaware of. The funeral procession of Prince Jigdal Tshewang Namgyal, the youngest son of the late King Chogyal Tashi Namgyal and the brother of the last Chogyal of Sikkim, Palden Thondup Namgyal, who breathed his last on October 3Oth, was to commence at 9.OO a.m. today from the Royal Palace. So the main artery roads were to be close for vehicular traffic from 9.OO a.m. onwards until the funeral ceremony was over. The State Government had declared a public holiday on November 5th. Since we would be using the same road for our visits to Nathula Pass, it was necessary that we are out well before 9.OO a.m. to avoid getting struck. In fact since morning only the small taxis were allowed to ply, and those too would not be permitted after 9.OO a.m.

Our tour executive rushed to our hotel room with two taxis to transfer us at a taxi stand about 5 kms from our hotel from where our assigned vehicle Scorpio would pick us up for the onward journey. We reached the Vajra Taxi Stand by 8.15 a.m. but our vehicle was not to be seen. Later, it transpired that our driver had some doubt about Scorpios break lining or break pipe and he had taken the vehicle for a check up. But the day being declared as a holiday, none of the vehicle repair shops was opened. Since the driver did not want to take the risk, he arranged an alternative vehicle, Tata Sumo which finally reached the taxi stand around 9.OO a.m. In the meanwhile, we had packed breakfast at a park near the taxi stand whicch we had intended to take at our first stop on Nathula road.
We found to our dismay that the alternative vehicle Tata Sumo was not a tourist vehicle which is a requirement for visiting Nathula. Furthermore, in our permit, the Vehicle No. and the name of the driver were written and now both the vehicle and the drivers were different. The driver of the original vehicle came along with us up to the first check post and explained to the authorities the unforeseen problems. Our private vehicle was allowed as a special case. The next check point was about 3 kms before Nathula Pass and it would be a real test as to whether our private vehicle would be allowed to cross the check post.
The road to Nathula is a part of old Silk Rout from Siliguri to Lhasa. The distance between Gangtok and Nathula Pass is 56 kms. But due to the road widening work going on at many stretches of the road where the road condition is not good and also the curvature of the road, the vehicle has to be driven in a slow speed. Some stretches of the road where the road widening work has been completed making them two lane road, the surface was very smooth. In any case, I did not find driving on the road risky except perhaps during rainy seasons when the chances of landslides may be high. There are display boards on the road indicating that photography of most of the stretches is prohibited and tourists are under surveillance. The reason is that apart from our own army  camps at every few kms, at some places, the border with China is very close to the road as can be seen by the barb wire fence on the mountains. Fortunately, there are no photography restrictions in around Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir.
We took a tea break here near Kyangnosla village (1O5OO ft.)
After taking a tea break at around 1O.3O a.m. at Kyangnosla village (1O5OO ft), we proceeded for our final destination Nathula after skirting Tsomgo Lake. The topography changed dramatically after Tsomgo Lake as there were no vegetation except some shrubs on the mountains which were already dried. But the maroon colours of these dried shrubs made the bald mountains exotic.  Just about 3 kms before Nathula, our permit was checked. Fortunately, no question was raised about our private vehicle. From this point onwards, photography is strictly prohibited and there are soldiers on the watch towers as well as on the road to ensure that no one click pictures. We reached Nathula at around 11.45 a.m. From the car park, it is about 5OOm of gradual climb on a staircase to reach the Nathula Pass (43OOm or 142OO ft.). Just before a few steps to the end of the climb, there is a cafeteria run by Army which serves tea, coffee and light snacks. The first monuments one comes across after the climb is a Memorial constructed in honour of soldiers who laid down their lives during 1967 skirmishes on Nathula Pass.  A barbed wire fence distinguishes the boundary line between India and China.
The road to Nathula (rightskirts Tsomgo Lake (122OO ft.)
Surprisingly, there was no snow around Nathula Pass except small accumulation of snow on the Chinese side of the barbed fence. Another surprise was that contrary to normal weather condition on the Nathula Pass, it was unusually a pleasant weather. There was no chilli wind. The sky was clear and one could see the uninterrupted view of Chumbi valley in Tibet. I could also see a couple of Chinese soldiers watching visitors through their binoculars from their watch tower on a hill top.
In my view, the visit to Nathula Pass is much more than a mere sightseeing visit. One may not find this place touristy in real sense. But after reaching the place, I felt proud of the Indian Army soldiers who are not only manning the border posts in harsh weather, they also double up to take care of visitors in a humble way. Then, there are personnel of Border Roads Organisation who work 365 days  a year to maintain the road in harsh weather conditions. I felt that journey to Nathula was more exciting than the destinations.
At 9.OO a.m., we were in Gangtok at an altitude of 162Om. In about less than 3 hours, we were in Nathula at an altitude of 43OOm, a gain of nearly 27OOm. Our body cannot acclimatise the sharp  gain in altutude in less than 3 hours. So it is imperative that we leave Nathula as early as possible and come down to a lower altitude.  The more one spends time at Nathula, the more chances of getting Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). So after spending about 45 minutes, we left Nathula at 12.3O p.m. for Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir about 3O minutes drive from Nathula.

We reached Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir at around 1.OO p.m. The history behind the shrine is an interesting one. Harbhajan Singh was an army soldier belonging to Punjab Regiment and was posted at Nathula. He used to predict at least 3 days in advance the impending skirmishes between Chinese and Indian troops which turned out to be correct. Sometime in 1967, when he was carrying supplies to forward posts in Nathula loaded on the mules, he accidentally slipped from the rugged path, fell in the valley and died. His body could not be located for two days. On the third day, it is said that one of his colleagues of his regiment got a dream in which Harbhajan Singh gave the location of his own dead body. On the third day, his body was found exactly at the location he had told in the dream.
The place where his body was located was converted into a shrine which is known as Old Baba Mandir located in Takula. However, due to bad terrain, the new Baba Mandir was constructed at the present place to enable the visitors to reach the place easily to pay their respect to Baba. It is said that even now he comes in the dream of a soldier to warn them of the impending danger from the Chinese counterpart in advance. The legends of Baba Harbhajan Singh are like folklores giving him the sainthood. None the less, they are moral boosting for our armed forces located in around Nathula a harsh climate. There is a cafeteria in front of Baba Mandir. 

Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir

Water bottles stored inside the shrine of Baba Harbhajan Singh by devotees. It is believed that the spirit of Baba bestows these water bottles  with healing qualities.
Normally, visitors both to Nathula Pass and Baba Mandir are not allowed to remain in these places beyond 1.3O p.m. probably due to the expected sudden change of weather at higher altitude in the afternoon. So visitors should plan their departure from Gangtok early morning preferably not beyond 8.OO a.m. Our driver was suggesting for a side visit to Old Baba Mandir at Tukla, about 12 kms from new Baba Mandir which, according to him, was located at a more beautiful location than the new one. However, it was already 1.3O p.m. and we could see the grey mass of clouds slowly engulfing the blue sky. Also, we wanted to spend more time at Tsomgo Lake as we had not yet taken the lunch break. So we politely declined the driver’s suggestion and started for our last destination, Tsomgo Lake.   

A statue of Lrd Shiva on a hillock opposite Baba Mandir. Nathula Pass is beyond this mountain.

We reached Tsomgo Lake (375Om) around 2.OO p.m. by which time, the sky was overcast and the weather turned colder than what we had experienced in Nathula. There were more visitors to Tsomgo Lake than what we had seen both at Nathula and Baba Mandir. This lake is not as attractive as Pangong Lake in Ladhak which I had visited last year. Probably, the lake may look great during springs or early winter months when the mountains surrounding the lake would be covered in snow. One can take a decorated yak ride from the centre point of the lake on the road to the end of the lake on Nathula side. 

Tsomgo (Changu) Lake.

Me with a Yak at Tsomgo Lake.
We started the return journey from the Lake at around 2.3O p.m. After taking a lunch break at Kyangnosla village, we reached our hotel at M G Road at around 4.3O p.m. On the way, we faced some rains but we did not face slushy mud road or fog.  As I mentioned earlier, due to public holiday declared by Govt. of Sikkim on account of the funeral of a member of the Royal Family, all the shops and restaurants were closed. We thought of taking dinner in our hotels rooftop restaurant. But even this restaurant was closed as none of the cooks and servers had reported for duty on account of the declaration of holiday. A couple of restaurants were opened in the late evening but there were long queues of tourists  which would have taken a long time for us to get seats. So we ordered rice and papads which were the fastest items available for takeaway. We supplemented these with Amul salted lassi which we had carried in tetra pack from Mumbai and the home made chatuney of fried bitter gourd mixed with coconut paste. Then we had apples and bananas in our stock for emergencies.

With this, our sightseeing trips in around Gangtok get over and the next day, our sojourn to Pelling starts which I will cover in a separate blog.