Saturday, May 23, 2015

The true Glory of Sikkim- Pelling

Amidst huge alpine forests and farmlands with the magnificent Kanchenjunga in the background lies the quiet and secluded town of Pelling, the true glory of Sikkim. Pelling is gateway to Yuksom and gets you closest to Kanchenjunga with all the creature comforts available by your side. This place is a trekkers paradise and is the starting point for all adventure trails serving as the base camp for treks to Kanchenjunga National Park. With hardly any tourists and functioning just as a pit stop , this place has a lot to offer. Waterfalls, lakes in the vicinity, rich history and the fantastic views of the snowy mountains. And it forms the perfect post card picture as it is covered in a thick blanket of snow in winters.

A walk around the lane, at the first glimpse of dawn and you breathe in the aroma of tea decoction, hot aloo parathas immersed in ghee and of course a lot of activity on the road outside every tour and travels office. There are numerous travel offices providing packages to Rabdentse Ruins, Pemayangtse Monastery, Singshore Bridge, Changey Waterfall, Kachepori Lake and a trip to Yuksom. This is where all tours start and end with every vehicle all set to warm up their engines for the long ride ahead. However, if you are an explorer and want some leisure time while travelling venture out to these places on your own.

Rabdentse Ruins, the ancient Second capital of Sikkim, is a good 20 min walk and the path is neatly paved, The rock cut stones and the tiny bit of sun rays piercing through the branches of these high standing trees can easily trick you in getting lost in the wilderness had it not been for the path. Also, since it is a pretty long walk, ASI has installed interesting, witty and motivating signboards every few hundred meters to boost your morale and keep the travelers tempo up and going. On reaching the ruins, we were greeted by a stone cut 17th Century Chorten. From here on, the ruins take you back in time to the 17th Century. The entire complex is divided into palace, place of worship and residential area. You can catch a glimpse of the Pemayangtse Monastery perched high up on the mountain from here.

Pemayangtse Monastery, this three storeyed monastery was built in 1705 AD. The first floor is the main Prayer hall where we saw a group of Monks of all ages offering their respects and prayers. The second floor is a hall dedicated exclusively to the Holy text and manuscripts. The artifacts are centuries old and the best of the lot are the wooden manuscripts. On the third floor, we found exquisite and intricate wooden structure depicting Guru Rimpoche's Heavenly Palace. Beautiful paintings adorned the monastery walls. We were quite surprised to see a few paintings covered by a cloth.

We were curious to unravel the mystery and saw erotic paintings of tantric sexual postures. It left us dumbfounded to see this piece of art not being appreciated in its true form and it was being portrayed in negative light by covering it. It is shocking to see that the mentality of the 18th Century people was liberal and people of 21st Century from the so called modern era are narrow minded. Indeed a shameful reality that expressing passion is being considered taboo.

Around 25 km from Pelling is Asia's Second Highest bridge 'Singshore Bridge.' This bridge connects Dentam village to Uttarey village. We had the joy and thrill of riding on this 198 meter long bridge that can accommodate only one vehicle at a time.

Enroute to Singshore Bridge is the Changey waterfall, this massive fall is a treat to the eyes. Not just the waterfall but the Dantem market nearby is also very popular and worth a visit.

Another reason to definitely take up this 25 km This ride is even more memorable as you are welcomed by the bright and beautiful flowers. No wonder this state is so beautiful. Every house has their own garden with colorful flowers adding more charm to their already beautiful homes. And of course the cherry blossom trees on the road make the journey pleasing to the eyes. A stop to admire this rainbow of flowers and you will see butterflies and birds hopping from one flower to another.

This town being a small place, it comes as no surprise that everyone knows everyone here but the kindhearted people in this secluded town is the reason why this place will forever remain special. They treat their guests as their family members worrying about them walking out in the dark and  even offer you a torchlight if  you need to step out. They stay up late in the night till you reach safely to your room and have the same concerned look that you would see on your parents face when you reach home late in the night. This place surely felt home.

We checked into hotel Pine Valley in upper Pelling, this budget hotel is secluded yet only 2 minutes walking distance from the main bazaar. The rooms are pretty spacious and clean and their service is good. They have parking facility which is difficult to find in Pelling. Also, there are plenty of tour operators in the vicinity to carter to your sightseeing needs.

PS: Word of caution, there are bad roads, then there are worse roads, and then there are the roads from Pelling to Siliguri. Words cannot describe how awful the roads can get. The roads are rugged, dusty and tarmac appears in brief patches. In our opinion, majority of Sikkim is totally not accessible but for Gangtok. However, the amazing landscapes, valleys and the pristine natural beauty around you makes these challenges worthwhile.

Next Stop Bhutan.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Namchi A Picturesque Destination.

Namchi, famous for it's Temi organic tea estate is a very beautiful, compact and lesser known town tucked away in South Sikkim. The approach to Namchi from Gangtok was phenomenal as the highway winds through the tea estate that is spread across hundreds of acres. The road decorated with pink flowers from the cherry blossom trees on either sides added more charm to the abundant natural beauty. It looked like a scene from a painting. Temi is the only Tea estate in entire state of Sikkim and is run by the Government, it is indeed the pride of Namchi. The co-operative society en-route is a perfect place to buy tea dust.

We stopped at one of the tea stalls to treat ourselves - and it was simply one of the best cups of tea we've had. A cup of tea in our hands with breathtaking views of the magnificent tea estate and the cherry blossom trees made us reconnect with Nature. November turned out to be the perfect time to visit Namchi when the government organizes the annual Cherry Festival to witness the cherry blossoms in full bloom.Various cultural events are organised and this festival is celebrated by the locals for four days. It is one of the best times to visit Sikkim to see how locals celebrate and be thankful to Mother Nature. The locals were very friendly and kind enough to provide us some snippets about the places that we must check out.

Samdruptse Hill: Samdruptse means "Wish fulfilling hill" in Bhutia language and on this hill stands the world's largest statue of Guru Padmasambhava. It is said that the Samdruptse hill is a dormant volcano and the myth is that monks offer prayers to keep it calm.

Chardham, the brain child of the chief Minister of Sikkim to promote tourism has replicas of the four dhams- Jagannath, Dwarika, Rameshwaram and Badrinath, replicas of the twelve Jyotirlingas along with a massive statue of Lord Shiva. Chardham is 5 km away from Namchi and hardly a kilometer from Chardham is a beautiful temple dedicated to Sai Baba which is worth a visit.

The central park at the heart of Namchi is a perfect place to unwind. Right after sunset you see the young and the old gather at central park and take a stroll. This area too like the MG Marg in Gangtok is a no vehicle zone and the entire town seems to gather here at the end of the day to socialize and shop.

At the end of the day, we were in our room jotting down our travel journal and heard an extremely loud boom and felt the window panes in our hotel room shake vigorously. With no clue of what had happened, we rushed out to the street only to witness a ghastly fire accident and the loud boom was due to a LPG cylinder blast. We stood there in disbelief as fire engulfed a series of stalls that were up and running mere hours ago. It was scary to imagine that we were standing at the very same spot an hour ago having chaat and now there was no sign of the stalls that existed there. We had a lump in our throat and this just reminded us of one thing that we never know which day will be our last, so live it to the fullest. Live life the way you want and not for the society.

It was really commendable to see the fire brigade reach in no time and firefighters put their lives in line to save lives and property. We were glad to hear the next day that there were no casualties.

We checked into Kava Suites, the best property in Namchi. They offer huge rooms with 24 hour running hot water, a clean and hygienic place, WiFi at lobby, very good service and their restaurant is the best in Namchi. They also have Karaoke nights.

We would highly recommend this place for the sheer beauty that it has to offer apart from the peace and calmness. A complete stress free environment with trees, hills, mountains and beautiful people, this place is a perfect vacation destination.

Next stop Pelling

Friday, May 1, 2015

On Top Of The World - Gurudongmar Lake!

North Sikkim, the uncharted territory, has one of most beautiful views of the Himalayas and is home to the third highest mountain peak in the world- Mt. Kanchenjunga.

Almost all of North Sikkim is under the Restricted Area and requires Inner Line Permit to visit which can be easily obtained at the Tourism office in Gangtok. Since this part of Sikkim is highly inaccessible, we decided to go for a Travel Package and chose a two day-one night package to Gurudongmar lake. Though the journey is perilous, Mother Nature makes it enthralling with the views of the surrounding valleys. The magnificent Teesta river graciously making her way down crisscrossing the mountains is breathtaking from all angles and is by far the most beautiful white water river that we have seen. While visiting the lake as a thumb rule you are required to stay overnight at Lachen to get acclimatized to the high altitude.

There are way too many options to explore en-route Lachen such as Phodong Monastery, Enchey Monastery, Seven sister waterfalls. Some lesser known but equally enchanting falls such as Naga falls surpass even the most famous Seven Sister Waterfalls. The Teesta is not just a sight to behold but the music she composes when she kisses the rocks touches your soul.

The dense forests, steep mountains and valleys, waterfalls, wooden bridges connecting the hills make the journey a very scenic one. Lachen is a beautiful town and most of the villagers have converted their homes into home stays. This village is striving hard to protect the environment and has banned the usage of plastic bottles to make their village a plastic free one. They ensure that they provide boiling hot water to their guests to beat the cold in an eco-friendly manner.

Our home stay in Lachen was beautiful. We were treated like a part of their family, having conversations at their table while having lunch and were treated to a huge variety of home made pickles. We also learnt how important and sacred the Gurdongmar Lake is for them. The lake does not freeze completely even in extreme cold temperatures as it was touched and blessed by Guru Padmasambhava and this part of the lake never freezes during peak winter.

Like the saying goes "No Pain No Gain," the following day we started our journey to Gurudongmar lake even before dawn could break and the biting cold hits you as soon as you leave Lachen. The journey was adventurous as it was pitch dark and we could not see the roads apart from catching a glimpse of tail lights at a far distance. Our car's headlight gave us a good understanding of how steep, narrow and dangerous the roads were. The roads were pretty damaged to say the least. It would take the experience of a highly skilled driver to be able to reach the lake in one piece.

On the way you will come across a couple of villages and you are left with awe and admiration at their ability to withstand and survive such extreme climatic conditions. At that hour in the night, the chill breeze and winds freeze the flowing river and there comes a point where you can see the complete river frozen with water flowing only at the ends of the bank. The water on the road also seems to be frozen and the driver had to maneuver with extreme caution.

Once you approach closer to the lake, you can catch glimpses of the snowy mountains that looked like a distant dream earlier and now they are so close to you that it is unimaginable. This is a sight to behold. Once, you enter the Army zone, you need to show your permit papers to the Army personnel and then continue your journey to the lake.

As the sun rose, we reached  Gurudongmar lake to see the suns rays kissing the icy blue water. It is a beautiful lake surrounded by icy mountains. The lake also serves as a pilgrimage site for the locals and is believed to be holy and grants all our wishes. It is tough to spend more than 10 minutes here as the cold breeze makes your body shiver and teeth chatter. The climate here is inhospitable to say the least.

Like all our other journeys this too would have been incomplete without any drama unfolding. The car that we had hired to take us all the way up to 17000 feet broke down a couple of km from the lake. It was just the two of us and the driver on that deserted road contemplating on how to reach the lake. Our only hope was another tourist vehicle that had room to accommodate us. After waiting for some fifteen minutes at near zero temperature another car pulled over and they were kind enough to allow us to hitch a ride. Luckily by the time we got back from the lake our car was fixed and thus began the journey back to Gangtok.

We got back into the comforts of our car and our eyes were moist with tears and hearts filled with even more respect for the awesome Men and Women of the Indian Army. Imagine them guarding our Borders, far away from their families at unimaginable altitudes and hostile conditions, keeping our enemies off our Mother Land. We were also lucky enough to see ten of Indian Army's Tanks. We were told that the Army was on a routine exercise and we could feel the vibration as the tanks rolled by. However tempting it might be please refrain from clicking pictures of the Army installations or camps as it is considered as a serious offence.

A good breakfast of piping hot maggi and chai was the best way to end this trip at one of the villages on our way back. The frozen ice on the engine and tyres gave us a chilling idea of how extreme the climate was.

We were thanking our stars that we did not do this trip on our motorcycle. Any Bullet lover would not want to put their bike through this treacherous route. It would be best to go with a skilled driver who is well versed with these roads as they are subject to constant landslides, potholes and broken bridges. Please note that when you hire a vehicle you choose a comfortable SUV. The Mahindra Maxx which is very commonly used is not a comfortable option. 

Things to consider before doing this trip:
  • Terrible roads.
  • Extreme cold weather.
  • High altitude/ AMS.
  • Distance from Gangtok.
  • Steep slopes.
  • No bike workshops.
  • Layers of good Woolen clothes.
  • In case you are particular about bottled water, it is a good idea to stock up from Gangtok.
All this put together makes it advisable to go with a packaged tour rather than doing this particular trip on your bike. However, if one can battle their way thru all of the hardships it is one hell of a place to visit. 

Next stop Namchi