There is always a sense of undiluted enthusiasm when a long-awaited trip begins, an eagerness to experience the places which had captured your imagination while planning for the trip in the first place. We, therefore had woken up with loads of anticipation on our first morning in Gangtok which was beautiful, quiet and serene. Since we were in the eastern part of the country sun had already fooled us with its timing. Our room had a beautiful view of the surrounding hills. Beyond them we got a peek of the snow laden Kanchenjunga, glowing in the first rays of the morning sun. Just below our hotel, in front of the hills, was the Paljor Stadium with its colourful stands. Kids, even at such an early hour, played football and some locals were having their routine morning walk. We could not resist the temptation of a stroll outside which set us up perfectly for the first day of our expedition in Sikkim.
Sikkim has an intriguing history and this 22nd state of our country has been the center of a continuous power struggle for the last few hundred years dating back to the time when local kings or Chogyals were first coronated. This erstwhile kingdom which was an Indian protectorate after independence formally joined our country in 1975. A full comprehension of the history of this small yet beautiful state would take some reading but it is probably because of this, rather interesting past, a fairly recent change of nationality and now the proximity to the Indo-China border that there is strict supervision across the state. Hence permits are needed for accessing quite a few areas here. In our first leg at Gangtok we were to visit Nathula Pass, Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir and all of them required permits. We had given our documents on arrival to our local travel agent who was helping us with the paperwork and hoped that we would strike luck, as getting a permit for Nathula Pass was not a guaranteed thing. There was a slight confusion to begin with because our driver came with permits of Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir but the permit of Nathula Pass was missing. A few phone calls with our local agent made the situation a little clear, our permit to Nathula was granted. We just had to board a different vehicle in which we had to club with other tourists for the last few kilometers to Nathula. This confusion plus an advisory on the permit that the 3rd Mile check-post ( where the permits are scrutinised) be crossed at 10:00 am in the morning and by 2.00 pm on the return journey to avoid any inclement weather heightened our anxiety. We had started late and then one of the short cuts which our driver tried did not work out, both of which didn’t help either. So our fingers were really crossed as to what may happen at the checkpoint. All this while the dilemma of a local Sikkimese resident came through the comments which our driver made. He made a very strong pitch for our current Prime Minister but somehow it seemed clear that he spoke as a Sikkimese and the very idea of India is quite delicate here. While these thoughts churned up we had driven for almost half an hour and now we were standing in a long queue at the check-post. We could see that the vehicles trickled through the barrier slowly but surely and in a matter of a minutes we also went through. Our anxiety gave way to a sense of relief and gradually to a feeling of awe as we looked at the terrain outside. It was a perfect day to be here with clear blue sky and scattered white clouds.
The ascent was steep, in about 50 km we were to go from roughly 5000 ft to 14000 ft. However the roads owing to the strategic importance of this route were very good barring a few stretches where BRO was doing its maintenance and repair work. The formidable Himalayas became more and more awe-inspiring with each turn we took, driving uphill. Midway through our drive snow laden mountains had appeared. Some of the snow had melted and accumulated on sides of the road. Around 20 km before Nathula we took a stop at a cluster of shops which sold snacks, meals and tea. The temperature had really dipped so we got ourselves some hot tea. We also rented boots at Rs 50 per pair which was required to walk in the snow.
The last 20 km to Nathula were breathtaking. We drove amidst snow laden mountains glowing in the bright sun and the clear canvas of blue above. We crossed the surreal Tsomgo Lake after a few kilometers . The huge mountains in the backdrop seem to rise up from the lake. A little ahead there was another lake called the Manju Lake, equally beautiful but does not have a mention in popular tourist speak. Perhaps the permit did not grant people to stop here as we did not see any vehicle which had done so. Finally we arrived at the point where we had to club with other tourists to travel the last few kilometers up to Nathula. We had been given the phone number of the driver and vehicle number. The phone number did not matter as the network was lost long ago so we waited for the White Bolero with the right number plate.
Somehow we had all fitted in that White Bolero, eight of us plus our daughter. This driver seemed a lot more jovial and willing to talk. There were two lakes which we were crossing, he jokingly told us that the locals have named them Madhubala and Madhuri. Wonder what the real name of these lakes were ? He also pointed out the reason why we were in this clubbed vehicle in the first place. The parking lot for the vehicles which visited Nathula was buried in snow and work was on to clear it. Hence to reduce the number of vehicles coming unto this point clubbing of tourists had been done. Very soon this short drive was over and we found ourselves at the Indo-China border checkpost at Nathula Pass. Not surprisingly it was heavily guarded and photographs were only allowed at the parking lot. I alone took the walk up to the post as we found the conditions too slippery to carry our daughter there. The climb up was only a few steps but the slushy conditions and breathlessness you feel at that altitude turned it into a quite a task. However the thrill of being there on the last piece of our country’s land was an obvious motivation for everyone around. It took me around 15-20 minutes to climb up and then there I was standing next to the fence on the other side of which was China. A building with bright red roof on the other side was actually a Chinese conference room.
Back in the parking lot we took the opportunity to take some photographs at this last frontier, an unforgettable experience. Our fellow passengers came back by 1.45 pm, a sense of urgency amongst the drivers was palpable as they pointed out to the changing sky, it had started becoming dark and overcast. They anticipated rains and were obviously in a hurry to get back. We got back to our individual cars in a few minutes and looking at the changing weather we dropped the plan of visiting Baba Mandir.
While going down we stopped for a few minutes at Tsomgo Lake. Although it had become reasonably darker now but the lake still had the reflection of the mountains in its backdrop. We were offered Yak rides and photo-op while sitting on them but the rapidly changing weather made us hurry back.
We stopped at the shop from where we had rented the boots. Since we were hungry and little cold by this time so we got ourselves some Maggi and Momos. As we were about to finish our meal it had started raining. The weather had now taken a full reversal, the clear blue sky which we had witnessed earlier was not even imaginable now as the rain got stronger. Outside the clouds descended down to the road, what was a bright and sunny day sometime back had now become wet and misty. And finally there was a hailstorm, making the drive truly perilous.
There was an obvious concern all this while but we made it safely to the 3rd Mile checkpost around 4.00 PM and now cruised on relatively easier terrain with wider roads. The rain at lower altitude had eased out and we made our way through the city traffic to reach our hotel by 5.30 pm. A truly exhilarating journey had come to an end with that thrilling twist thrown in by the changing mood of the weather.
After a much needed rest, the evening was spent taking a stroll at the beautiful MG Road of Gangtok, probably India’s only litter free and no smoking public thoroughfare. We explored this beautiful street for a while and ended the day with a Nepali meal at a restaurant called Thakali.
Before I retired for the day I noticed an SMS from my service provider inquiring whether I needed ISD to be activated in China 🙂
Things to Note:
- You need a permit to visit Nathula Pass for which you need to carry four passport size photos and id proofs
- It is advisable to carry your passports in case they are asked for. We had done the same.
- The permits for Nathula are not available on all the days so please check and plan accordingly.
- Advisable to leave early by 8.30 am so that the chances of getting get caught up in bad weather are minimised. Also keep a tab on weather forecasts.
- Permits are required for visiting Tsomgo Lake and Baba Mandir also