Sikkim is a place which transcends your imagination of how majestically beautiful the Himalayas can be. Let`s dive into exploring the other side of Sikkim with me.
I went to Sikkim with my college in 2017 as a part of an architectural expedition but this time an offbeat Sikkim was calling me and I vehemently agreed to explore it with Our Guest Diary Travels.
Basically, the whole tour was planned around various exotic homestays located in offbeat places of North and East Sikkim with also an inclusion of experiencing some amazing destinations which you can also visit.
JOURNEY FROM DELHI TO SIKKIM (23RD AUGUST 2018)
I thought it of keeping it as a budget travel by reserving a sleeper seat in the train, but fate had some other plans. The train got cancelled 2 days before the date of onset, so the flight was the next option. (INR 3211)
One can also get down at New Jalpaiguri, near Siliguri, the nearest railway station which is 148 km away from Gangtok.
The first airport of Sikkim, PAKYONG AIRPORT (now functioning), wasn’t started by that month, so I had to get down at Bagdogra Airport. We were picked up by Our guest Diary team from there.
Day 1: REACHING GANGTOK
It took us 5 hours (124km) to reach Gangtok, where our first Homestay destination was Dorjeelee homestay. It is situated near the palace area where later we witnessed the Pang Lhabsol festival.
As soon as we reached the homestay we were welcomed by our host Pempho. I realized we were only 5-10 minutes away from the main market area of Gangtok but then the stillness of surroundings around us, because of the homestay being located a little in the corner, made our one day stay even more special.
How to reach Gangtok?
Shared cabs INR 120/person
Private cab INR 3000
Day 2: A JOURNEY FROM GANGTOK TO DZONGU
The next morning, after a scrumptious breakfast, we left for East SIKKIM with our happy-go-lucky driver Bijay Daju. Our ultimate destination was DZONGU VALLEY.
And I was almost unresponsive to the place when we reached there since I touched a heightened level of happiness as soon as we made our way to an untouched valley of magic.
Dzongu is a thickly forested area from an elevation of 1400 ft. to almost 20,000 ft, where there is a variety of flora in prolific numbers. The road journey from Gangtok to Dzongu gave us an idea of how amazing our coming two days would be. The road instantly gives you an idea of how close can you get to the green lush beauty of mountains. Picturise a scene of you piercing through mist-laden roads with waterfalls at irregular intervals and a deep valley on the other side.
Dzongu valley is a home to the Lepcha tribe of Sikkim along with sheltering more than hundreds of bird species, red panda and thousands of moths and butterflies.
And even during our journey towards it, we encountered this surreal BUTTERFLY WATERFALL.
On our way to our homestay, we kept discussing what a beauty Dzongu is and how it borders with the Khangchendzonga National Park and Biosphere Reserve which is the first one in the UNESCO WORLD HERITAGE SITE mixed category, declared in 2016.
We couldn’t make out how a journey of 3 hours passed and we reached upper Dzungo while the beauty of valley kept us engaged, with some back-breaking roads as well.
After a quick 20 minutes hike, we reached HEE GYATHANG MONASTERY which is about a 100-years old sanctified spot and follows the Nyingmapa Sect.
The Lepcha tribe makes sure not to cut the Bamboo plantations in excess for their own construction purposes because these plantations are what which hold the mountain soil together and help to preserve their valley. We encountered so many of them on our way.
The monastery was destroyed in September 2011 earthquake and had to be supported by steel sections which 20 men carried from the main road to this area, that too piece by piece. Another unification example of the Lepcha tribe is that they built a replica of the destroyed monastery by getting together, acting and preservation.
New monastery as seen from the passage adjacent to the old one.
Motifs, carving and paintings in the old monastery.
Day 3: EXPLORING CUT-OFF PARTS OF DZONGU
We walked a bit from our resort to the road because one cannot take vehicles up to the resort.
All set for another day of exploration, greeted by wide smiles and waves of kids along the way we felt the pride of local people of the valley.
We drove to the upper Dzongu area which was earlier cut off for 2 years due to a massive landslide.
Our first stop was natural hot Sulphur spring known for its medical benefits. There is a misconception that taking one dip will cure all your ailments. One needs to take a proper medication of about a month of taking dips every day.
This is the spot where we had to make a stop. Whole upper Dzongu was echoing the sound and misery of this gushing water which was coming from Kanaka river as a result of 2016 landslide which caused a natural vertical land mass formation and behaved liked a natural dam.
We then spent some time looking at the naturally formed Mantam riverside beach, just beneath this long red bridge. My eyes were filled with a fascination to see how nature can surprise us. The lake appeared after 2016 hill avalanche and due to heavy sedimentation beach side gradually got formed.
Next stop was by a riverside where our lunch was being prepared by The Munlom resort team and of course more discussions on Lepcha tribe.
As the communities like Bhutias and Nepalese started intermingling with Lepcha one, a special area was carved out in the 1960s, i.e. Dzongu valley, to preserve their primitive culture in its original form.
Happy Lunching by the riverside
After exploring Dzongu, by the lake when we sat eating our meal, I realized how easily I could connect to the Lepcha community and their belief of worshipping the creator as well as its creation. A dearth of this particular thought to pay respect and homage to nature is what that has made our life on this planet a survival now.
How to reach Dzongu?
· By rail- Siliguri station which is 150km away
· Protected area permit-required (INR 150 per person)
· By Road-3 hours’ drive
· Shared taxis also ply from Gangtok
Best time to visit Dzongu
If you really want to view Mount Khangchendzonga, then visit during summers. And if you want to witness the magic of monsoons and mist, then early September to mid-October is a good time. If between December-January, then do target the Namsoong Festival.
Day 4: THE DAY OF PANG LHABSOL
It was the morning of the festival of Pang Lhabsol and we felt it to the core.
Because getting woken up by the sound of drums and longhorns was a complete spiritual experience. As I looked out of my room, a scenery of misty mountains exchanging vibrations of sounds produced from the instruments looked nothing less than heavenly.
I absorbed all I could of the valley in front of me. It was time to take a journey back from Dzongu to Gangtok.
Before I take you through the most vibrant scenario I ever saw, know this that Mount Khangchendzonga (8,585m) is the third highest summit in the world. It is the protective and guardian deity of Sikkim and is specially worshipped on the festival of Pang Lhabsol.
We couldn’t witness to see the Mount Khangchendzonga, but definitely witnessed the sacredness it holds for the people of Sikkim.
The Pangtoed Cham festival ceremony that we had to witness in Gangtok was taking place in TSUKLAKHANG ROYAL CHAPEL, a palatial monastery where its history is as interesting and glorious as the festival.
As the sound of drums and horns got louder, my heartbeat and excitement paced in unison with it. We were waiting in front of the monastery for the celebration to start.
And there entered the first batch of mighty masked warrior dancers with swords as long as their arms. A powerful set of men entered but with much-poised body movements, getting swayed with the thumping music played by younger monks.
All covered up in various layers of traditional Sikkimese dresses and a heavy handcrafted warrior mask, the dancers kept moving as if the music and their spirit to celebrate and worship controlled them and not their bodies.
Wait until I show the air of excitement from inside the monastery.
Apart from worshipping the mighty mountain gods, this festival marks the blood oath sworn between the Bhutias and the Lepchas during the 15th century.
Whatever aspects the festivals talk about and is celebrated for, you will get to see that in the crowd witnessing it as well. The rapt attention with patience to watch the dancers for almost half a day, the true spirit of celebration by getting dressed up in Sikkimese dresses and indulging in almost everything that keeps up with the spirit of Pang Lhabsol.
After some group warrior dances, there enters someone representing the guardian deities of Dzonga and Yeshe Gonpo. One in the red mask was the representation of Mount Khangchendzonga. From photographers to a common audience, from monks to the chief guests; no one wanted to miss the glimpses of an auspicious and once-a-year occasion. No place single corner of the palace complex was left unoccupied by the audience. All eyes were on the patch of grass where after every 20 minutes something new was happening.
A week before the third and final day of the festival which marks the day of the masked dances, the lamas start praying at this monastery in order to invoke Mount Khangchendzonga and other guardian deities which are Dzongu, Gonpo (Skt. Mahakala), and the Dragpo Deshi (the guardians of the four directions).
Important things to note
• The festival is celebrated on the 15th day of the 7th month of the Tibetan calendar corresponding to late August/early September. This year it came on 27th August 2018.
• The weather was comparatively hot, so light clothes and hats/umbrellas are advised. (Imagine the dilemma of the masked dancers)
• The celebration starts at about 9 am.
• Special and prior permission is required to photograph the dancers from up close.
We being explorers, also took a dip into the shoulder to shoulder stuffed local vegetable market.
And after an adventurous and culturally enriching day, we went to our beds at The Mazong resort, a quint homestay away from the hustle bustle of the main Gangtok.
Day 4: The ROAD TO NATHANG VALLEY
On the morning of 27th August 2018, we were off to a place with which history has got close encounters with. A geographically prominent location, Nathang valley lies in the most north-eastern part of Sikkim where some breathtakingly picturesque locations lead one to their destination.
One such spot which is never to be missed was TSAMGO LAKE. The last time I came here, it was all frozen and white in the month of February. I was equally elated to see its hues and shades of green and aqua laden colours in the misty mountains. It took us 2.5 hours of a pleasant windy drive to reach here.
20km away from Tsamgo lake, lay a paradise of lush forest and scenic lake waiting for us.
The OG team specially instructed us not to reveal the name of this place as we were driving our way down to a lake. We were oblivious to what was coming our way because even the drive down was scenic and kept us engaged from making any speculations.
At every foot, the cluster of flowering bushes changed as if someone planted them that way. It was like this huge garden but actually untouched by anyone. The thin trail led us to what was the next unimaginable and unforgettable view of my life.
And there it was! The sparkling green lake sat like a big hole midst the enlarged version of an already huge garden we saw on our way down. And instantly we realized why we were being told not to reveal the name of this place.
We also had the most scenic lunch in Sikkim at this hidden lake, prepared by Eat your Heart Out. And yes, that is veg Sushi.
This was captured on our way to Nathang Valley when we stopped at a point unknown in hope for some phone signals to magically appear in our gadgets since none of us had informed our dear ones that for the next few days we would be staying at a remote location.
Nathang valley sure looks nothing like normal mountainous areas. There is an unusual eerie feeling about this area which fills you with one of these two extreme feelings; either you feel extremely homesick or you will start feeling like at home, the way you did never before. Mine was a bitter mix of the two. Also, because we were 13000 ft above sea level.
We stayed at Gnathang residency for a night and the moments and joyful memories from the same still leaves me smiling sweetly till today.
In the absence of any kind of network connectivity, except dish signals, socializing with fellow travellers, homestay hosts and even nature became crucial. Well at this point I can say, it wasn’t a thing of survival but of the actual living.
Baby Hissey with her mother. Aunty makes some amazing Yak butter Tea which is a speciality in these cold regions. I could only take a sip and felt the warmth in my body and the heaviness of the butter in my mouth.
A night and a morning to remember
The next morning, we chose to go to Nathang Gaden Choeling Gompa which is the first Gelug monastery in whole Sikkim.
The valley is dotted with 200-yr old British structures which include their bungalows, bunkers, custom house jails etc.
Our quest in search of blue pines started from the hidden lake when we first saw it far from the road but couldn’t pluck it; and it ended here in Nathang where we casually spotted it by the monastery side.
In between we stopped at various viewpoints to try our luck in having a clear of the 9 Km long Zuluk loops, located on the Old Silk Route, takes you from about 11,000 ft to 8000 ft through various pin-bend turns. And for a few minutes, we just got lucky.
As per the border lines, Nathu La shares borders with Tibet and Gnathang lies close to the Bhutan region, where its common for headers of Nanthang valley to go to and fro from Bhutan and Tibet border area for the purpose of yak grazing.
The way to Zuluk Loops and Zuluk village, while coming from Gantok and covering Nathang in between.
How to reach Nathang (Gnathang) Valley from Gangtok
· Personal taxis ply, one can also take their personal bikes
· Special prior permit required
· Seasons to visit
October-February: winter, cold and snow.
March-May: pleasant winds with sunshine (best time to spot blooming rhododendron)
June-September: the monsoon season, cold and misty
· Eagle’s Nest Bunker – The Sunrise and Sunset point of Nathang
· Acclimatization advised
· Faint of signals of Jio network are available in some spots.
Day 5: THE LESSER EXPLORED LINGTHAM
After 2 hours of amazing misty drive, we reached Rongli in Lingtham village where Dhungkar Homestay was our next authentic Bhutia homestay for the night.
We were so lucky to have our stay place near to a gushing Rangpo river.
Followed by a short hike, we stepped into this richly forested area and we knew we shouldn’t have expected even faintest of the phone signals.
Nonetheless, the connection was much better, if you know what I mean.
We immediately made our way to the kitchen and were greeted by some authentic momos which we learnt to cook as well from the mother of our host. The kind lady kept her calm even seeing a noisy batch together in her kitchen. Thank you, if you are reading this.
For the rest of the day, we knew it would be a feeling of ultimate solitude.
Agamlok Gumba was on our must-visit list, so we left for that.
Monastery was located near this beautiful view point, glad we made it till here before it got dark.