Sikkim is nestled in the Himalayas and is bordered by Bhutan, Tibet and Nepal. It has a dramatic landscape with many mountains and valleys including Mount Khangchendzonga, India’s highest mountain peak (28,169ft) and the world's third highest. Sikkim is also home to glaciers, alpine meadowsand thousands of varieties of wildflowers. Steep paths lead to hilltop Buddhist monasteries, some of which date back to the early 1700s.
Day 1: From Bagdogra Airport, West Bengal, to Gangtok, Sikkim
Distance: 130 km in about 5 hours // Terrain: Hilly for the most part // Road condition: Average // Food notes: We grab something to eat at Bagdogra, before we head out // Must do: The local cuisine at the hotel in Gangtok // Temperature: Warm to hot in Bagdogra, and cold as you approach Gangtok and the sun sets
Bagdogra, a bustling city in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal, is situated at the foothills of the Himalayas and is the gateway to the mountainous regions that lie to the north of the city — primarily Kurseong, Darjeeling, Kalimpong, Sikkim and the southern regions of Bhutan.
At the airport, we were met by our Sikkimese guide who accompanied us on the long journey to Gangtok — the capital of Sikkim. The Teesta river kept us company for a large part of the journey and, at one point, we drove across the river on the historic Coronation Bridge built in memory of the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937.
It was almost dark by the time we reached our hotel in Gangtok. Our hosts had put out a grand spread for dinner and we retired for the night, looking forward to exploring the quaint historical bungalow the next morning.
Day 2: To Lachen in North Sikkim
Distance: 130 km in about 5 hours // Terrain: Hilly throughout // Road condition: Average // Food notes: A good breakfast before leaving and lunch at Lachen // Must do: Go for a walk around Lachen town // Temperature: Warm during the day and cold as you climb higher towards Lachen and very cold after sunset
Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, is also its largest town. It sits at an altitude of approximately 5,500 feet and is a beautiful place to explore. However, we left this activity for the return trip as we had higher altitudes to get to!
As we exited Gangtok and started heading north, the hills got progressively higher, the landscape kept changing and the temperature kept dropping. A pleasant surprise along the route was a road side tea stop where we got a taste of Sikkimese tea grown in the far-away tea gardens of Temi. What is better than sipping hot tea to beat the nippy cold of the Himalayan air?
We were headed to the high-altitude Gurudongmar Lake, but we had to spend the night in Lachen at 9,000 feet to acclimatise. Lachen, we were told, is home predominantly to the Bhutias and has a unique system of self-governance called Dzumsa where a headman, known as the "Pipon", is elected to chair the community where all the disputes are settled in a democratic manner.
At the hotel, we eagerly awaited news from other groups who had gone up to Gurudongmar Lake earlier that day about the condition of the road, snowfall, landslides and the lake as these would impact our chances of making it to the high-altitude lake.
Day 3: Lachen to Gurudongmar Lake to Lachung
Distance: 65km in about 3 hours, and 50km in about 2.5 hours to Lachung // Terrain: Hilly all the way // Road condition: Average // Food notes: A good breakfast before leaving and lunch at Lachen once you return // Must do: Try and catch a glimpse of the sunrise hitting the snow-capped peaks around Lachen // Temperature: Cool during the day with strong sun, and very cold as you reach Gurudongmar, with high winds likely // Note: Kids under 10 and adults that look at risk are usually not permitted to go to Gurudongmar
• Foreigners require special permits from the Ministry of Home Affairs to visit Gurudongmar Lake. Additionally, on the journey, there is a checkpost manned by military personnel who check for people who they believe are not fit enough to go to the higher altitudes
• Wear waterproof shoes, a thick windproof jacket, layered clothing with thermals, gloves, a head cap and a scarf
•If you are prone to altitude sickness, we suggest carrying a small portable oxygen cylinder.
• It is going to be cold and windy, so be prepared for it
Daybreak in the mountains is a beautiful sight with light from the rising sun giving an ethereal glow to the snow-capped mountain peaks. We started the day with a short prayer and hoped for luck with the weather because bad weather would cut short the trip and prevent us from reaching the lake.
A quick check to ensure that we were carrying everything we needed: warm clothes, the right shoes, extra socks, camera, identity card, refreshments. Now we were ready to set off. It was a very early start from Lachen.
A brief pause to let you know what one would experience on this leg of the journey. From 9,000 feet we head up to 17,800 feet and then return to 9,000 feet. You should be prepared for a few moments of breathlessness, for packets of chips to explode in the car, and for the cold if it is a windy day up at the lake. To put things into perspective, we are going to make it to a level that is around 60 per cent the height of Mount Everest!
In the earlier stage of the drive, we saw vegetation and as we got closer to the lake, we drove through rugged terrain with moraines with rhododendron trees. Along the way, we stopped at Café 15,000. As the name suggests, it is a café at 15,000 feet. This is where they check the car for unauthorised personnel, check our permits and the general fitness level of every traveller to Gurudongmar Lake. If anyone is deemed to be unfit, they have to wait at this café while the rest of the group heads up and returns.
The air is thin and we breathe hard. And then, finally, what we had been waiting for. The lake. It was stunning. It is a freshwater lake fed by the glaciers and is one of the many streams feeding the Teesta River. The water used to be crystal clear earlier. The lake made all the hours on the road worth it. We had to head back to the hotel after about an hour.
That afternoon we were the heroes who got to share stories of our experiences with other travellers eagerly waiting for their visit to Gurudongmar Lake. We continued onwards to Lachen for the night.
Day 4: Lachung to Yumthang and then onwards to Zero Point, ending at Gangtok
Distance: 25km to Yumthang in 1.5 hours and 25km to Zero Point in 1.5 hours, 110km to Gangtok in 4.5 hours // Terrain: Hilly all the way // Road condition: Average // Food notes: A good breakfast before leaving and lunch at Lachung on the way back // Must do: Pray hard for the weather to be good! // Temperature: Cool during the day with strong sun, and very cold as you reach Yumthang Valley and climb higher, with high winds likely
After a quick bite, we headed towards the Yumthang Valley — called the Valley of Flowers. The snow-capped, rugged Himalayan mountains presented a stunning sight. The valley is the start of the Tibetan Plateau. At an elevation of approximately 11,700ft, Yumthang Valley is home to hot springs, yaks, and over 20 different species of Rhododendron trees. We would be able to drive towards Zero Point only if the weather held and we had the time. Zero Point is named so because it is the last post civilians are allowed to access, as the India-China border is close by and there are no motorable roads after this point. Although the road was only just about motorable, the scenery, the rivers, the mountains, the flowers and the snow more than made up for it! Luckily for us, we made it to Zero Point!
On the drive back to Gangtok, almost everyone was beginning to show signs of exhaustion. It seemed as if we had been on the road for a long time. The ride back, though a little rough, was spent planning all the things we would do in Gangtok the following day. Perhaps because of the excitement of planning the evening, the return journey seemed shorter than the climb! A fabulous dinner was ready for us when we reached—locally prepared khuri (buckwheat roll) and pork with a side of greens.
Day 5: Exploring Gangtok
Must do: Try local Sikkimese cuisine at MG Marg // Temperature: Cool during the day with strong sun, a little cooler closer to sunset // Advisory: All through your trip, wear waterproof shoes, a thick windproof jacket, layered clothing with thermals, gloves, a head cap and a scarf. If you are prone to altitude sickness, we suggest carrying a small portable oxygen cylinder. It is going to be cold and windy, so be prepared for it
A day of rest after a hectic schedule! There is a lot one can do in Gangtok. You can take a ride in the cable car, and if you are lucky and the skies are clear, you might get to see Mount Khangchendzonga. Or, perhaps a short paragliding session?
It was a day to unwind, relax and rest. We walked down to MG Marg for some local cuisine and drinks and picked up some locally handcrafted souvenirs. The 16th Century Rumtek Monastery is about 25km from Gangtok, however we opted for a visit to The Himalayan Zoological Park, about 3km from Gangtok. It is a large park set in the mountains and animals such as the red panda and snow leopard and many other creatures found in the Himalayas are kept in their natural habitat.
Day 6: To Nathu La and Tsongmo Lake
Distance: 50 km in 2 hours // Terrain: Hilly all the way // Road condition: Average
After the hectic travel agenda of the past few days, this was a relatively light day. We drove to Nathu La, the pass through which Chinese monks came on pilgrimage to Buddhist holy sites. The drive was a memorable experience. There were some tense moments when we had to drive through and even negotiate oncoming traffic on very narrow roads through high cliffs where one side seemed to drop into a bottomless chasm. As if this was not sufficient excitement, parts of the road were engulfed in dense fog for most of the day, and the thought of the sharp cliffs just metres away had us clutching at our seats for quite some time.
Looking back, this ‘once in life time’ experience made the trip unforgettable! We stopped at the huge glacial Tsongmo Lake amid craggy mountains and immersed ourselves in its serene beauty with steaming cups of local tea. We noticed others going on yak rides. We returned to the hotel and prepared for the journey back home the next day.
Gurudongmar Lake (~17,800ft above sea level): A high altitude lake, that is frozen for much of the year, it is said to have been visited by Guru Padmasambhava in the 8th century. The area is sacred to Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists. A lama, stationed at the lake, is entrusted with the unenviable job of living there and watching over the place. At this altitude, the air pressure is approximately 55 per cent of what you will be used to, and by early evening, the winds pick up to very strong speeds
Yumthang Valley (~11,700ft above sea level): Called the Valley of Flowers because of its rich diversity of flora. When in bloom, it resembles a carpet of flowers. With over 20 varieties of rhododendrons, it is a popular destination for serious botanists and photographers
Zero Point (~15,300ft above sea level): This is where the road ends, which is why it is called Zero Point — Yumesamdong. This is the area with the second highest altitude on the trip. Weather is the biggest hurdle to get here — quite often, the road is fogged out or it is snowing and the area remains inaccessible
Nathu La (~14,140ft above sea level): From the 2nd century BC, the Silk Route has been used to connect the far east with Indian and western traders. The Nathu La was for centuries a critical pass on this route that linked India with Tibet
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
1. You would require an Inner Line Permit
2. You will be on the road for hours on many days, so make sure you carry comfortable clothes to wear in the car, a small bag to carry your warm clothes and things you need to access regularly in the car
3. While the car might be comfortable, the road surface for much of the journey is not very good and therefore, you should expect a rough ride. The destinations more than make up for it
4. You must carry all your toiletries, cosmetics, medicines and other specific personal effects with you
5. You must carry layered warm clothes. It will be warm and sunny during the day and bitterly cold in the higher altitudes
6. We recommend doing this road trip in March or April
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