Friday, 25 November 2016

Lachung ,Sikkim Diaries - 3



From Pelling we reached Gangtok. It was pretty late since our hired Bolero broke down in the middle of the road. In Gangtok there are localized taxi unions. The unions do not allow taxis from outside Gangtok to ply inside the city, so any taxi from west sikkim is allowed till the private bus stand.

We checked into hotel Hungry Jack, which is within 300 metres  from the private bus stand. So that saved us from again hopping into a city taxi. The minimum rate for city taxi is Rs 100. Hungry Jack is a pretty decent hotel with nice rooms and decent location. They have their own restaurant, and we regret trying their food. The quality of food is utterly pathetic. The length and breadth of Gangtok is full of  hotels of various budgets,so its absolutely okay not to do advance book except in peak season.

We booked a 2night/3 days north sikkim trip from Gangtok. You can either book one from your hotel or from the numerous tourist agencies or from North Sikkim taxi stand. But make sure to check out with two or three such sources, so that you exactly know if you are charged the standard rate. Also you will get to know if both Lachen and Lachung routes are open or not.

We enquired regarding North Sikkim package from our hotel. Though their price was standard they tried to hide the information from us that Lachen and Gurudongmar was closed because of a massive landslide a few weeks back. We got to know this information after we enquired about north sikkim package from some more tour operators. Also we checked their hotel room pictures and they are not good. So incase you plan for north sikkim package, avoid the package offered by hotel Hungry Jack. Also make sure that you check the pics and enquire about the rooms and amenities beforehand. Also if you are visiting north sikkim after September, check with your package provider if your package hotels provide room heaters.Also take a car such as xylo or scorpio, even if it comes for some extra 3/4 K since north sikkim roads are bumpy and not good all year round.

Before I move on, let me tell you that there are shared north sikkim packages also that can be booked from the tour agencies. There are packages like

1. 1 night Lachen with Gurudongmar
2.  1 night Lachung
3.  2 nights/ 3 days covering lachen, gurudongmar and lachung
4.  3 nights/ 4 days covering lachen, gurudongmar and lachung

Except the last one, all the other packages are hectic if roads are opened and the places can be visited.

Shared packages are pretty cheap compared to the exclusive ones. A 2 nights/3 days package will come to 3000-3500 per person including all food, stay( on twin share basis) and car. However bear in mind that you have to share the car with 10 fellow passengers excluding the driver. Though it will definitely be much light on the pocket but it will squeeze out the juice out of anyone. I have seen how people squeeze and sit. Also the cars will not be good ones and too much luggage will also not be allowed. So if you are a group of 3 or more and have good camera and equipment to carry, its better to take an exclusive car.

We insisted on a scorpio instead of bolero and it costed us 2K more.The car was good and comfortable. Since we knew that Lachen is closed so we took the 2 night/3 days Lachung tour. The cost is same as a 2 nights/ 3 days Lachen plus Lachung trip.Nowadays tour operators include either Zero point or Katao by default, so there is no need to pay extra to driver. If you ant to see both then only you have to pay for the other extra point.

Also if anyone wishes to arrange the entire north sikkim trip by himself/herself its very much possible though not worth the effort. Most hotels in north sikkim are not online, also you need to get a driver and arrange permits ( they are issued free of charge) but for that you have to stand in queue for long. However booking a package from an operator is totally tension free, but definitely costs some bucks more. You are assured to get the best deal money wise if you book it from the North Sikkim taxi stand.

The Indian Army issues permits for north sikkim. Indians have access till Gurudongmar (Lachen) and also Lachung. Foreign nationals have restricted access. To apply for permit we had to submit two passport size photos and id xerox for each one of us to the tour manager the day before. Next day before the tour starts he will make sure that the driver has the necessary permits. Children below a certain age are not issued permits. Although senior citizens are issued permits, but their entry into the north sikkim zone depends upon the discretion of the army.

We were a little late in starting from Gangtok. We started around 10.Since north sikkim registered taxis are not allowed inside the city after 8 am ( i guess!!) so we had to take a city cab that dropped us to the place where our car was waiting. We reached Lachung at around 5 pm. On the way we passed by Singhik (from where excellent views of Mount Kanchenzunga can be seen), Mangam ( a small busy hilly town) and Chungthang where the road takes a fork. Continuing the left from this fork will take to Lachen and the right to Lachung. In Chungthang there is a lone coffee shop. We saw Amitabh Baachan falls ( previously called Bhim Nala falls, but now rechristened because of its height) and Naga falls on the way.The rest of the day was for rest.

North Sikkim route

Amitabh Baachan Falls

Amitabh Baachan Falls

One of the many check points

Amitabh Baachan Falls


Next day we started early at 8 am. We will be visiting Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. Though the distance is a mere 70 km each side, but there is hardly any road. Major chunks of the roads has either been washed by landslides or torrential rain. Border Road Organization  along with the army are very active in these areas and they try to repair the roads in the least possible time. Our driver told us that first he will take us to Zero Point as the weather is unpredictable. He wants to show Zero Point as long as the weather is favorable. The road even though is bad but makes that up a few hundred times with its amazing colour and scene. The mountains came closer as we drove further. The ones at the far has snow and the nearer ones have thousands of waterfalls. And interestingly maybe since it was the approach of Falls season, the mountains were covered in trees that have turned yellow,orange and red. After Yumthang Valley the mountains become exponentially beautiful. The water of the Teesta river rushing down by the side gets emerald green. An advice I share to all wannable north sikkim travellers is that zero point should not be missed.

Heavy Army Patrolling since these are border roads

The unforgiving damage roads

Winding roads


How beautiful can nature be


When we got down at Zero point, it was completely chilling. The temperature was sub-zero and on top of that very strong wind was blowing.The wind is also thin because of the altitude gain.I left my gloves in the car and so after some 3 to 4 minutes my fingers almost became numb. We could barely stay there for 15-20 minutes. The landscape is so very beautiful. It resembles more like Spiti or Ladakh. For anyone going to Zero Point its very important to be well cocooned in woolens. Also take lots of water on the way (don't worry there is a rudimentary toilet at Zero Point, but what more to expect at such high altitude), carry medicine like Diamox or homeopathy medicine Coca 6 for acute mountain sickness(AMS), some munchies and toffee.Also walk slowly, talk less and listen to your guide/driver. He is the only person who can help you there.

Beautiful Teesta

Zero Point

@Zero Point

Zero Point

Zero Point

Zero Point

Scenic road on the way to Zero Point

Scenic road on the way to Zero Point

Scenic road on the way to Zero Point

 @Zero Point

@Zero Point


While coming back we stopped at Yumthang Valley. Its a pristine valley with the Teesta flowing through the valley. The mountains can be seen at the back and a green meadow with herds of gazing hill bovine at the front. There is also a gompa opposite the meadow.

Yumthang Valley

Yumthang Valley

Yumthang Valley

On the way to Yumthang Valley


We returned back to our hotel for lunch. Katao was planned for the second half,but then the weather gods said that 'its enough for today, take rest....plan for Katao tomorrow'.So we decided let be it. We spend the evening chatting over hot pakodas and tea, enjoying the sights and sound of the gushing Teesta from our balcony.


PS : Never take picture of Army base camps or any such sensitive things. That can compromise our country's security.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Pelling , Sikkim Diaries - 2



On reaching Pelling, we checked into our hotel Simvo. I had already done the hotel booking online through Goibibo and got a good discount. After some crispy pakodas and tea we decided to check with them the sight seeing itinerary and charges for the next day. I already had my list of places, a list that I had meticulously prepared for the last 6 months.

We compared the sight seeing rate with others and found that our hotel was giving us the most competitive one. There was full day and half day sight seeing. half day was not much complete, so we decided for the full day. We requested for a Bolero. And also since my list and the hotel's list was matching quite well we decided to zero on to it.

The places that we covered are :

Kanchendzonga Falls
Rimbi Waterfall
Darap Village
Khecheopalri Lake
Pemayangtse Monastery
Rabdanse Ruins
Changey Waterfall
Dentam Valley
Singshore Bridge

We started at 8 am after breakfast. Our driver was ready. We first went to the Kanchendzonga Falls. It is towards the north of Pelling on the way to Yuksam. This was probably one of the best waterfalls in Sikkim. There is entry ticket of Rs 10 per head, even though a part of the falls is visible from the road.

Kanchendzonga Falls

Kanchendzonga Falls

With a local beauty at Kanchendzonga Falls

Kanchendzonga Falls

Kanchendzonga Falls


Next we saw the Rimbi waterfalls on the way towards Khecheopalri Lake. Darap village was somewhere on the way but we did not stop. There are plenty of orange orchards in Darap. Rimbi waterfalls is nothing so great, just a waterfall on the way.

Next we went to Khecheopalri Lake. There is entrance fee of Rs 10 per head and Rs 30 for vehicles. This lake is considered holy by the Sikkimese people. In fact almost all lakes in Sikkim are considered holy and so littering is absolutely not okay. From the entrance we had to walk a little through dense greenery, the brick lined path full with moss and pine cones, There was colorful flags fluttering all the way.The lake remains hidden in the rich forest cover. It is believed that birds do not permit even a single leaf to float on the lake surface. Also there are fishes in the lake but visitors are not permitted to feed them as that may cause littering.There is also a monastery and while getting out of the lake premise we visited it.

There is also toilet and restaurant just outside the ticket counter of Khecheopalri Lake.


Road leading to Khecheopalri Lake

Khecheopalri Lake

Khecheopalri Lake

At Khecheopalri Lake

Next was Pemayangtse Monastery.  This is one of the oldest and most important monasteries of Sikkim founded in the year 1705. There is entry fee of Rs 10 per person. The 3-storied building of the monastery houses a good collection of wall paintings and sculptures.The monastery is mostly made of wood and also serves a school for the little monks.

Pemayangtse Monastery

Pemayangtse Monastery

Pemayangtse Monastery

Wild orchids

Orchids



By now we were hungry and tired to climb to the Rabdanse Ruins. The ruins are near to Pemayangtse Monastery but one needs to walk for about 45 minutes to reach the ruins from the entrance gate. So we decided to let it go. Instead we saw the ruins from a distance and headed to our hotel for lunch.
On a clear day the Kanchendonza ranges can be seen very clearly against the ruins back drop.

Rabdanse Ruins

Rabdanse Ruins

Violet hibiscus

After a light and hearty bengali lunch we took some 30 minutes rest. We refilled our bottles and put on our woolens and started our second half of the sightseeing tour.

On our way to Singshore Bridge, we saw Changey Falls. This is a multi layered falls and I must say a very beautiful one.This falls gushes on the road and falls down the hill. One can see both the parts by standing on a bridge created next to the road. This is another beautiful falls maybe after Kanchendonza Falls.



Changey Falls

Our driver also stopped at a place from where Dentam Valley was visible from a distance. Like all other drivers he also tried to convince us that the valley resembles India's map.

Dentam Valley

Dentam Valley

We reached Singshore Bridge. Here also there is entry fee of Rs 10 per person. I must say this bridge looks so very awesome and spectacular. This suspension bridge is the highest bridge in Sikkim and the second highest in Asia, but putting aside the statistics, this bridge is so amazingly beautiful.

Singshore Bridge
Us

Singshore Bridge


There is the beautiful Sangachoeling Monastery in Pelling, but to include that in your itinerary, one must have one more extra day in Pelling. Also the way to this monastery is by a steep 45 minutes through the jungle with no facilities on the way. So from beforehand I had decided to skip it, in case if you are interested all hotels can arrange a trip to Sangachoeling Monastery.

Returned back to hotel. Next day we will be going to Gangtok.

Kanchendonza from Pelling

Kanchendonza from Pelling


Information Bits:

Full day sight seeing cost for Bolero: 2500 INR
For smaller cars the cost will be less. Also the cost will vary based on season.

Make sure to stress on the fact that the car must be good, else one full day sight seeing can be tiresome.

Full day Sightseeing points:

Kanchendzonga Falls
Rimbi Waterfall
Darap Village
Khecheopalri Lake
Pemayangtse Monastery
Rabdanse Ruins
Changey Waterfall
Dentam Valley
Singshore Bridge

Cost : 2500 INR

Half day sightseeing points

Kanchendzonga Falls
Rimbi Waterfall
Darap Village
Khecheopalri Lake
Pemayangtse Monastery ( some packages have, some don't)

Cost : 1500 INR

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Prologue , Sikkim Diaries - 1



A small little dazzling ruby firmly placed in a crown...well the ruby is Sikkim and the crown is the Himalayas.

Sikkim has long been in my to-visit list but because of some reason or other, it kept on delaying. Now finally this time I decided that its now or never. There are so many places and so much to see in India that if I do not religiously fulfill and tick off my bucket list I will never be able to cover all.

So I bought tickets from Bangalore to Kolkata. You must be wondering why not from Bangalore to Bagdogra? Well this time my full family wanted to join us, so we went to Kolkata, stayed there for a day while our family joined us there. I got confirmed train tickets in Darjeeling Mail some four months back from Sealdah(SDAH) to New Jalpaiguri(NJP). I bought 3 -tier confirmed tickets the day train ticket booking opened since I had to be very sure that the entire journey is hassle free. This time its not just me and Ankur, but the full family gang. There are several trains between Sealdah and NJP, but for me Darjeeling Mail timing seems to be perfect . You board the train at night and the next day early morning you are at NJP.

Waiting at airport

All Smiles...too excited to start our trip

Coffee anyone?

Finally wait seems like over!

Get set go ...From bangalore to Kolkata

We took a Ola at 8:30 pm and it came sharp on time. While midway towards the train station suddenly I thought I left my passport at home. Without the photo id, north sikkim permit will not be given, so I got very tensed and started frantically searching my bag. I was about to tell our Ola driver to take a U turn when suddenly my finger touched some smooth edge. It was my passport! < sigh of relief :)  :) >

 While we waited at the station waiting room, we all got bored, so the best thing we did was buy the Puja edition of the Bhraman Travel magazine so that we can dream,plan and think of the next vacation even before starting the current one. Ankur had already swallowed a few cups of lemon tea and coffee and giving him competition was my sister. Both are tea and coffee addicts! My mother had fondly made and packed rotis, aloo dum and dried chicken for this train journey although much against our wishes. So we did not buy any dinner as dinner was already with us.

In Darjeeling Mail

I don't know why but for me train journeys are more awesome than plane journeys. Each train journey is unique and beautiful.Even though it was night train, a lot of vendors got on the train. Each of us took jhalmuri( masala mixed puffed rice), tea, fried peanuts from different vendors...it was not that we were hungry, the food that my mom packed was super awesome, but we wanted to have some train fun. Soon we were sleeping, me and mom in the lower two berths while the others occupied the higher berths. I just can't explain how the gentle swaying of the berths at night automatically sings a silent lullaby.

Next day we reached NJP at 9 am. train was an hour late, but that is okay, we have no deadlines to meet.It was raining in NJP. At NJP station there are taxis going to Darjeeling, Gangtok and some other places. However we already had a pre-booked car from our hotel that will take us to our hotel in Pelling. But since that was a Sikkim registered car, so that will not be allowed to enter the station by the local taxi association. So we took a cab for 300 bucks from the station till Gurudwara(Siliguri) where our driver with his car will be waiting for us.

Our driver was there with his Bolero when we arrived at Gurudwara. He started the car and soon within an hour we were on Sevoke Road with Teesta by our side. The rains has been good this monsoon and so Teesta was in her full attire and glory. We saw the famous Coronation bridge, Sevoke Kalibari and passed through Mahananda Wildlife Sanctuary. Midway our driver stopped his car for a late breakfast/early lunch. We took two thalis, two plate aloo parathas and four plate momos and distributed the food among us. I do not remember the name of the roadside shop,but if I find its picture I will post it here. We had the best chicken momos ever.

Had the best momos ever!

Beautiful Teesta


The scenic way....crossing Teesta

A short tea break at Siliguri

The waiters were simple and very friendly, not like the suited ones that we generally find in fine dining restaurants. They were a little eager about us since we were having some high end camera equipments and was documenting almost everything. They showed some some local chilly which is small and round in shape and told us that the spiciness of one such chilli exceeds that of 20 normal red chillies. To check I took a small nibble from one such chilly and Oh God, my mouth was burned for half a day,such was the height of hotness.

Those deadly hot chillies

The normal route from NJP to Pelling was disrupted because of landslides, the rains has been plentiful this time, so we had to took a slightly longer route.We took the detour before Jorethang, went through Namchi, Ravangla and then Pelling. In between we stopped for tea and maggi breaks.
We reached our hotel Simvo in the evening.Because of the detour it took some 3 hours more, but that is okay. In hills there can be sudden slides for which a road might become unusable for a few days, so then alternative routes needs to be taken.

The hotel rooms are good and cozy and on top of that we got rooms with balcony facing the Himalayas. What more can we ask for. We made sight seeing arrangements from the hotel reception for the next day and requested for an early dinner. Next day is going to be our Pelling exploration day...ah..we all are so happy.

A small stop on the way

pokaras with onion rings

Finally at Pelling

The roads so beautiful

What lovely flowers on the way!


Information Bits:

Kolkata and NJP are very well connected through bus, train and flight.
From Esplanade in Kolkata there are regular buses that go to Siliguri (Tenzing Norgay BS)
There are regular flights between Kolkata and Bagdogra. From Bagdogra one needs to book a can for Pelling or Gangtok
There are several trains that can be booked through irctc that ply between Kolkata and NJP.
From NJP to Pelling its a 6 hour journey.

For train use the following station codes:
Sealdah(SDAH) , New Jalpaiguri (NJP)

In New Jalpaiguri station there are regular shuttles both shared and exclusive that goes to Gangtok.For better deals one can take a auto/shuttle from New Jalpaiguri till Tenzing Norgay Bus Stand. There are buses,shuttles,exclusive cars to Gangtok.

For Pelling, there are very less taxis, its good to pre-book a taxi through your hotel. Insist on a Sikkim registered car because West Bengal registered commercial vehicles will not be allowed till Pelling by the West Sikkim Taxi Unions.West Bengal registered commercial vehicles are allowed only till Jorethang and from there again one need to take another car for Pelling. The cost might be less but the hassle will be more. So if a few thousand bucks is not a very big issue, its better to take a pre-booked car.

Ideally an exclusive SUV from NJP to Pelling will cost between 3500 - 4000 INR

We stayed at hotel Simvo in Pelling booked through goibibo . Location wise the hotel is good,its near to SBI atm. However keep in mind the entrance of the hotel is a few metres below the road, so one has to climb up and down. If there are people who have problem walking its better to avoid the hotel. Their food is good and tastes homely but they charge extra for any extra serving even in thali.

Any hotel in Pelling can arrange for sight seeing tours, so there is no need for any pre-booking.On the spot booking will always save you a few extra bucks.

There is no permit required for Pelling, Ravangla or Namchi, but for most other places permit needs to be done specially for North and East Sikkim. You must carry around 6 copies of passport size photos and a proper photo ID card and its xerox. Any hotel/driver in Sikkim can arrange for the permit provided you give them these documents.

In Pelling there are studios that can give instant photos, but its better to have things ready in place.

Like all other tourist places, there is the season and off season concept also in Sikkim. Top Season is March to May, followed by Bengali season during Oct-Nov and off season is June- mid Sep. Price of hotels, transport will vary greatly between Top season and off season.








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