Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Journeyed High through the Clouds

15th October, 2008

The mundane chores of every day life, tensions of office and the hot, humid weather of Kolkata were weighing us down for quite some time. And then, a wet, muddy Puja was promised, and we (meaning Mom, Ashish & I) decided to take immediate flight from this place!!! This October, therefore, we decided to explore the Himalayan terrains of
Sikkim, and so, a short tour plan was chalked out almost at the last moment, as per which we were to cover Gangtok, Pelling and Siliguri mainly, with a few other places thrown in during the course of the journey.

Getting to Gangtok is easy… The capital of Sikkim is well connected by roads to nearby cities like Siliguri, Bagdogra etc. Trains and flights do not go directly to Gangtok (or to any other city in Sikkim, for that matter), but the nearest railway station, i.e. Siliguri, and the nearest airport, i.e. Bagdogra are only hours away from the city of Gangtok. A number of trains touch the New Jalpaiguri (NJP) station in Siliguri, and there are regular flights to Bagdogra also. Both these cities have excellent roadways connectivity with Gangtok. You could also take a chopper service from Bagdogra to reach Gangtok, which would take you much less time and would also give you a great experience of cruising through the mountains. We however took a train to NJP, and from there a hired Indica carried us to Gangtok.

That, I think, is quite enough logistics – now let me get to business! The tour of Gangtok promised us a lot of scenic beauty and the major highlights of this trip were to be the closeness to the Himalayas, which is quite a majestic creation of Mother Nature. The scenic beauty that is so famed in this region was revealed to us quite early in the trip – the long winding road from Siliguri to Gangtok was spectacular! We drove through the foothills of the Himalayas, while River Teesta gushed by, as you can see from the picture below...

Pics Above: River Teesta enroute Gangtok from Siliguri

We took a little over five hours to reach Gangtok. It was cool and pleasant, and the sun shone quite brilliantly still when we reached Gangtok, but by the time the three of us had finished bathing, lunching and dressing up for the evening, the sun had set, and the temperature had dipped a little. Mom was too tired to take a walk outside, so Ashish & I took off, intending to explore the nearby places. We walked down to the famous market place, M. G. Marg, and also visited a Durga Puja pandal on the way. After exploring the shops for quite some time and purchasing some necessaries there, we promptly headed towards a restaurant to fill our aching stomachs. [Just for your information, there are quite a few good hotels with restaurants there –
Hotel Bayul, Hotel Dzong, Hotel Golden Pagoda & Hotel Hungry Jack are by far among the best ones.]

Once inside the restaurant, we were shocked beyond all expectations! I knew alcohol was cheap in Sikkim, but I didn’t know it was this cheap!! We could never imagine drinking wine for 35 bucks a peg / 135 bucks a bottle! Perhaps for the first time in our lives, we paid more for our food than what we paid for our drinks… and that too after drinking a lot more than we ate!!!

The next day found us chugging along in a Mahindra Maxx, along with seven others, for we were to visit the Nathu La Pass, Baba Mandir and Tsongo Lake. It was a cold, cloudy and wet day, and our breath misted as we spoke to each other, but we kept our fingers crossed and kept our spirits up! To keep the cold away, we had carried some chocolates and pistachios with us, but in my opinion, we would be much better off if we had carried some brandy or rum instead!!!

The road from Gangtok to Nathu La can only be described with one word – scary! In the beginning, the roads were good and wide, but as we climbed higher, the roads got rockier and narrower, and my heart skipped a beat every time the car took a steep turn… It was however a treat to watch the roads. Cut through the mountains, they winded and twisted and turned and seemed never-ending to us. On one side of us rose the hills, and on the other side the valley sloped down. The flora was strikingly bright & colorful, and at times, I felt as if I was watching a scene out of a framed painting rather than a real vista! Every now and then, some terms kept popping into my mind – ethereal, glorious, picturesque, breathtaking, exquisite… I could not stop admiring the work of Mother Nature! Through the pictures below (which, incidentally, I had taken from our running car) I hope to bring to you at least a fraction of the real beauty of the scenes.

Pics Above: En route Nathu La Pass

When we reached Nathu La, it was raining, and the weather was dark, murky & cloudy, and it was very, very cold. We however braved all of these, and stepped out into terrain that was about 14000 feet above sea level! Our teeth were very nearly chattering, and the rain soon drenched our woolen gloves. The oxygen levels there were pretty low, and it was difficult to walk and breathe at the same time. The clouds were all around us and had completely veiled the peaks and mountains all around us. Each time we walked through a particularly moisture-laden cloud, we felt wet & frozen to the core! There were times when we could not see the people walking right in front of us, as the clouds had obscured our vision…

Honestly, we were quite thankful to leave Nathu La about half an hour later – by that time we felt we were half dead already, from all the walking that we had done in that time! The moment we were back in the car, we started munching on the chocolates and pistachios, in a vain attempt to warm ourselves up. Soon the car had rolled out, and after driving through the clouds for about half an hour more, we reached Baba Mandir. There is a very strange story about this shrine, which has been built in the memory of Baba Harbhajan Singh, an erstwhile Major in the Indian Army. You can read the story

Pics Above: The Baba Mandir

Next, we descended to the Tsongo Lake, at an altitude of about 12000 feet above the sea level. While climbing up to Nathu La, we had crossed this lake in its full charisma, as it was slightly sunnier at that time. But the weather had deteriorated since then, and now it was cloudy and wet here too. However, Tsongo Lake still looked beautiful, and it really seemed worth having braved biting cold, freezing rains and so many other hardships just to reach and to set your eyes upon this gorgeous lake.

Pic Above: The Tsongo Lake

Soon however, the lake was completely obscured by the clouds, and we waded through them to descend further to the Tsongo Lake Shopping Complex. Thankfully, though, the clouds cleared after a little while, and we were able to enjoy the feeble sun for a quarter of an hour, and then it was time to head back to Gangtok.

Pic Above: The Tsongo Lake being obscured by the Clouds

On our way back, the clouds came back to haunt us, and visibility was reduced to such an extent that we could barely see the tail lamps of the car rolling ahead of us. We sat tight in our car, hearts in our mouths, hoping and praying with all our might that we get back from this trip alive and in one piece! We thanked God after about an hour and a half for granting our wish, and I, for one, thought that there could be no better moment to recite “Thank You God for the Life we Lead…”!!

Once in Gangtok, we headed to the Hungry Jack, where we drank wine and brandy most thankfully, and then proceeded to fill our empty stomachs with some amazing Chinese dishes!

The next day, we drove to Pelling from Gangtok, and saw quite a few places en route. It was slightly sad that we couldn’t do much of sightseeing in Gangtok itself, and though we did pass Hanuman Tok, Tashi Viewpoint & the famous Ropeway of Gangtok on our way, we did not have time to really enjoy them. We drove to Rumtek, which is famous for its monastery. En route, we passed the Rumtek Viewpoint, and the view of the valleys from there was truly breathtaking! We also noticed that there was a hotel,
Hotel Rumtek Dzong, bang opposite the viewpoint, which seemed much more inviting and charming for a stay than in the city of Gangtok, and we promptly decided to schedule our next stay there!

The Rumtek Monastery was striking in its vivacity and bright colors. The interiors of the monastery were rich, colorful and flamboyant, but at the same time emanated a strange serenity. After spending some time there, we slowly proceeded to our car and journeyed on.

En route Pelling, we must have crossed at least a hundred small springs and falls. I was quite fascinated by the thought of how each one of these springs finally find their way, very determinedly and doggedly, into either River Rangit or River Teesta! We also passed through many small sweet towns, among which Ravangla, Singtham, Geyzing & Legship were enticing. Ravangla and Geyzing were especially beautiful, and we arrived at Pelling shortly after noon. It was a cloudy and murky kind of weather here too, and was much colder than in Gangtok, so after lunch, we went out very shortly to arrange for the tours for the next two days, and then returned back to the comfortable warmth of our hotel.

Pics Above: (from top to bottom) Some Waterfalls en route Pelling, Terrace Farming in Ravangla, View from Geyzing

The next morning, when Mom woke me up, it was nearly 6am. In my barely conscious mind, the first thing that pervaded my sleep was the thought of seeing Kanchenjunga! The only reason why people rush to Pelling is because from this town, you can see this snow capped peak (which is the third highest peak in the world) so closely that you feel as if you can touch it… and my major reason for visiting Pelling was most definitely Mt. Kanchenjunga.

I very nearly jumped up from my bed, and rushed to open the windows. Before Mom & Ashish even understood why I was acting so weird, this captivating sight greeted me (picture below), and I called out to Mom & Ashish to come and share my joy! My Mom gasped, and Ashish jumped off his bed too so that we could go up onto the terrace and take some more pictures of the enthralling Mt. Kanchenjunga – such was the impact of “Mt. Kanchendzonga” on us!

Pics Above: Kanchenjunga from our Hotel Room and from the Terrace Top

Soon, it was time to drive out in our hired Alto for sightseeing in and around Pelling. Our driver cum guide introduced himself as Philip Tamang, and from that moment on, we had the best and most memorable trip in the entire tour programme! Philip was not just a driver who took us around to the various tourist spots and left it to us to see them. He took it upon himself to narrate to us the importance of the various places, and also to take us to places to which the normal driver would not bother to take tourists.

Philip took us first to the Kanchenjunga Falls. But the Kanchenjunga Falls that the normal tourist visits is just the tip of the iceberg. Philip took us to the real falls that remain hidden behind the rocks, and which are quite difficult to access. He took Ashish across the rocks, through the falls to the very base of the falls and, though scared, Ashish enjoyed the experience to the hilt!

Pics Above: The Kanchenjunga Falls and the Real Kachenjunga Falls

Philip took us to the Khecheopalri Lake from the Kanchenjunga Falls. The lake, also known as the Wishing Lake, has a religious significance among the local people – they believe that any wish made to the lake is always fulfilled, and there is much offering done to this lake and it is ardently worshipped by them. It is also said that although the lake is surrounded by trees all around, yet no leaf floats on its waters, as every single of the fallen leaves are scooped up by the birds. It is indeed quite remarkable how the surface of the lake is absolutely clear, and no debris floats on it!!!
Pic Above: The Khecheopalri Lake

Next we went to the Rimbi Rock Gardens, where a garden has been cultivated along the River Rangit. The effect and the milieu were truly picturesque, and neither Ashish nor I felt like leaving! We walked through the gardens a bit, and then headed to the Rangit Hydel Power Plant and the Rimbi Waterfalls. After that, it was time to break for lunch and we headed back to our hotel for refuelling ourselves!
Pic Above: The Rimbi Rock Gardens

Post lunch, Philip took us first to the Rabdentse Ruins. Rabdentse happens to be the ancient capital of Sikkim, and is ideally situated on top of a hill, from where the monarch could actually see the whole of Sikkim. The Namgyals, who are the royal family of Sikkim (the King is known as the “Chogyal”) abandoned Rabdentse later on, but the ruins are now protected by the Archaeological Survey of India as a national monument. The view from various points of the ruins were truly spectacular, and though one has to trek for about a kilometer through the hills and dense forest to reach the ruins, it is truly worth every painful step taken to reach it!

From the ruins, we went to visit the Pemayangtse Monastery, which is not as big as the Rumtek Monastery, but is famous because of a petite, beautiful but massive structure made of wood. It is said that the structure has been carved out of the trunk of one single tree, and is truly exquisite and looks like a riot of colours.
Pic Above: The Vibrant and Petite Wood-Carved Structure at Pemayangtse Monastery

The last place we visited was the helipad ground. We were informed that since these regions are very prone to landslides, and at times they remain cut off from the main land for months, the Sikkim Government keeps a few helicopters handy, which are used to deliver necessaries and relief items to the local people in such an event, or to ferry stranded tourists. When we finished the trip at the end of the day, we were riotously happy and satisfied to the hilt! We decided on the spot that we would carry some souvenirs of the trip back to Kolkata for our friends and family, and we did some rather impromptu shopping outside the hotel. A sumptuous dinner and some pegs of wine later, the warm hotel beds seemed to hold a magnetic power over us, and we snuggled into them with wonderful thoughts of the day.

The next day, we left Pelling early in the morning for Siliguri. Philip drove us out and took us to a place near Siliguri, where we went rafting on River Teesta for about 8 kms (from Malli to 29th Mile). We crossed the point where Rivers Rangit & Teesta converge, and were treated to some interesting folklore about the two rivers (you can read the story
here, this is the best version that I could get online). Soon however, the fun day was over, and we had to resume our journey to Siliguri.

Once we reached our hotel in Siliguri, it felt as if the tour was over already. Although we did have plans of visiting the famous Hong Kong Market there, we felt quite lazy and drained, and the very thought of traversing the hot, humid plains nauseated us – so, we stay put in the hotel, watched television and finally went to sleep after an early dinner. The next morning dawned upon us a bit too soon, and before long we found ourselves on the train that was to bring us back to Kolkata.

Thus ended one more tour of mine. Our glorious days of walking through the clouds and reaching out to the paradise are over, and it is now time for all three of us to get back to our mundane daily chores… Sigh… How I wish these tours of mine never ended!!!

P.S.: If you want to see more pictures of the places I’ve just described, this is the place to go to!