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Archive for May, 2011

4/19/2011

We had planned an overnight trip to Northern Sikkim. My friend’s family dropped out because of fatigue and concerns about kids tolerance for the journey and the altitude. The first day’s agenda was to just drive to LaChung and stay there overnight. The second day we were to visit Yumthang Valley.

We had a leisurely morning. We went for a refreshing morning walk for about 40 minutes or so. We left after breakfast around 9.30 am. LaChung is about 120 km from Gangtok but it takes over 5 hours to cover that distance. It is a mountainous terrain with narrow roads and quite a bit of road construction work going on. 30 km from Gangtok, we stopped at the Seven sisters waterfalls (took us about 90 minutes to get here!). This is a serene waterfall and we could see three distinct tiers. There was a footbridge which we walked over. There was also a view-point which could be reached after climbing about 50 steps or so. Here we could see a 4th drop at the top. So, my guess there is probably three more drops hidden somewhere behind the rocks, and hence the name.

 The drive continues alongside the mountain with the Teesta river constantly in sight. Each passing minute the scenery was getting more and more beautiful. I couldn’t take any good pictures though because of the constant bounce of the jeep. There was a Naga falls along the way and we crossed a couple of beautiful bridges. We stopped in the town of ChungTang at about 3 pm. We had a few sweets and tea for lunch. The kids starved as expected. From here it was another hour to Lachung. But before that we saw more water falls and I don’t quite believe the names our driver had for them (Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek Bachchan!). It also got quite cold in that last hour.

 We checked into Modern Residency at around 4 pm. It’s a cute, quaint hotel with about fifteen rooms or so and common areas in every floor. The TV is only in the common areas. They served yummy hot pakodas and awesome masala tea. There was a nice fireplace too in the TV area. We headed out for a short walk after that. A winding path led upto a viewpoint from where we could see the whole town of LaChung nestled in the valley and surrounded by beautiful mountains, some snow-capped. We couldn’t quite go up all the way to the viewpoint since there were some dogs (not sure if they were stray or belonged to someone) barking hard, which sounded even more vicious because of the silence in the valley. By now, we were freezing cold. We headed back to the hotel and warmed ourselves at the fireplace, watching an IPL match. Simple vegetarian dinner was served in the dining hall in the basement. After that, the host at the hotel was generally conversing with the guests and he described this exotic home-brew called Tongba, which is a beer made out of millet. PK ordered one of those and while it did look exotic, I couldn’t quite stand the smell, so I didn’t even taste it.

4/20/2011

We left the hotel at 6.30 am for Yumthang Valley. Saw lots of wild Rhododendrons along the way. It was still early in the season and they were not all in full bloom yet. When we reached Yumthang, at first sight I was extremely disappointed by the rows of tea shacks on either side of the road. They had the usual maggi, bread/butter sandwiches and other snacks. I couldn’t believe we came all the way to see this. But once we got past that ½ km stretch, it was awesome! We first drove on to zero point. The views of Yumthang Valley from here are just breathtaking. We played in the snow, took lots of pictures and watched the Indian army choppers flying overhead. Then we came back again to the valley. Here we saw the helicopters take off and land few times. Not sure if some new pilots were practicing! In April, this whole valley was supposed to be carpeted with wild flowers, but apparently the pattern is shifting and now its towards early May. So, there were some sparse flowers here and there. We walked along the Teesta river. There were thick pine forests on either side, surrounded by snow-capped mountains.  Really amazing sight …

We started back around 10.30 am and were back in the hotel before noon. Had to wait for a bit before lunch was ready. This was simply one of the most delicious meals we had in a very long time. Every item on the menu was so good. Had a hearty lunch and left this beautiful place around 1 pm. Drive back was fun. We played word building games, some geography variants, anthaakshari (first time with the kids but they don’t really know a whole lot of film songs). We were also treated to a brief hail storm. We were back in Gangtok at the same hotel by 6.30 pm. There was some confusion about dinner plans and we ended up having to eat puliyogare and curd rice in the room. Thanks to my friend for lugging the rice cooker and some rice for his little one!

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4/18/2011

Nathu La Pass is around 56 km from Gangtok and takes about 3 hours to reach. We had an early breakfast and left just after 8 am. After picking up the required permits, we were on our way. The roads are mostly bad and there is a lot of construction going on all through the way. Add to this the complications of fallen boulders, landslides etc and it was a slow journey. Also since the roads are narrow, if jeeps/trucks come in the opposite direction, it is a class act, how they maneuver past each other. The trucks are mostly army vehicles. If I was in the army I would probably be really annoyed with the hordes of tourist jeeps visiting there everyday, which probably makes their daily job difficult. We saw lots of beautiful lakes on the way, some of which were frozen.

When we reached the pass, weather was very good. It is at 14,500 ft altitude. Some of us had slight headache and the kids were feeling a bit nauseous, due to altitude sickness. Gangtok is about 4500 ft, so just in 50 kms we end up climbing almost 10,000 ft and some people cannot handle that. To reach the top, you have to climb steps which are completely covered in snow and the climb is slightly exhausting because of the low oxygen. Some people were slipping and falling in the snow. It was a thrilling and humbling experience for me to see the border posts and the flag flying. Also felt deep appreciation for the army and the soldiers who not only face the enemy but also have to brave the weather and the terrain every single day to keep us all safe. We walked around, took a few pictures and made a quick stop at the café. By now, clouds were everywhere. It was very windy and the wind was kicking up the snow all around, making visibility very poor. Apparently this is what happens around noon everyday and the rest of the day is downhill weather wise. That’s why the guides insist on early departures from the hotel so that we can visit at a good time.

We then drove to Baba Mandir which is apparently famous (I don’t know the whole story or the significance of the temple but read somewhere that it was built in memory of an Indian soldier). There was a humongous line to get in. We took one look and just turned around. The kids were too tired for this. We then drove to Tsomgo Lake, which is at 10,500 ft. Yaks were available for riding here. The lake is quite scenic. I was hoping to walk along the shore a bit but it was drizzling. So, after some more photos, we went down to the very tiny town of Tsomgo to see what the lunch options were. More maggi! We also tried Chowmein but it was too salty.  Ride back was uneventful and we were back in the hotel by 4.30 pm.

In the evening, we took a taxi to M.G.Marg which is the most famous street in Gangtok. It is lined with shops and restaurants. A portion of the road is pedestrian-only and this portion is cobblestoned with lots of fountains and benches in the middle. Nice place to spend the evening. We bought some souvenirs (prayer wheel) here.

The place we stayed in Gangtok, the Hidden Forest, was just awesome. We found it through the Lonely Planet and we greatly enjoyed our stay there. The rooms are clean and spacious, food is delicious and they offer service with a smile. We had 4 kids (a 3 yearr old too) and they gladly accommodated our every request. They organically grow their own vegetables, a cow on-site meets the dairy needs and they have beautiful orchids all over the property. They are very reasonably priced too.

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4/15/2011

We arrived in Bagdogra airport at about 1.30 pm. We were kinda hungry, but we were eager to get going on the long drive to Pelling (~4.5 hrs, the driver said) and we anyway didn’t find any proper restaurants around. It took about 20 minutes to load our luggage on the roof rack and we hit the road. My friend wanted to stop to buy yogurt and juices, and the only place we could find it was in Shopper’s stop mall. That turned out to be more than ½ hr stop. While he was shopping, PK went and bought some snacks and tea. The tea was really good. The driver was getting impatient (rightfully, so) and we started again. The first 2 hrs of the drive was pretty ordinary. We took one more tea break. At this point it was drizzling and we were enjoying the cool mountain air. Tea was very good here too. And we drove on. The drive got more mountainous and scenic, but it was also getting dark and rainy. The temperature was also dropping by the minute. The last one hr was really breathtaking. We passed through the town of Legship and then climbed a whole lot, before we reached Upper Pelling. We checked into De Regency around 7.30 pm.

 Everyone was cold. We changed into our warmest clothes and then ordered dinner. While at the dining table, I asked the server when and where we should go to watch sunrise over Kanchenjunga. He showed us right outside the windows, we could see the white peaks in the dark night!! It was truly a gorgeous sight. One said 6 am would be good, the other was telling us even 7 am is fine. I kept my alarm for 5.45 and we went to bed. At about 5 am the next day, bright light was streaming in through a small crack in the window curtains. I saw the watch and it was 5 am. I ran to the window and could already see the tip of Kanchenjunga awash in golden color. It was an awesome sight. My movements woke PK up and he witnessed the whole thing too. So much for local wisdom! May be since it is a daily show for them, they don’t pay attention. But how can they be off by a whole hour? Even in Bangalore it is daylight by 5.50 am, Sikkim being further east, it had to be earlier.

 4/16/2011

After breakfast, we loaded the luggage back on the jeep and set out on a tour of Pelling. The first stop was the Helipad. Great 360 degree views – Kanchenjunga

Khecheopalri lake is a short walk from the jeep parking lot. The lake itself is very serene. The boardwalk to the lake is lined by prayer wheels on both sides. There were plenty of huge fish in the lake. The Sikkimese consider this a very holy lake and there are requests to maintain silence and not throwing anything in the lake. But there were loud tourists who were throwing kurkure, chips etc into the water in an attempt to feed the fish. Some of these guys were also wearing shoes standing at the lake shore, while there were explicit signs to take off footwear right at the beginning of the boardwalk. I don’t see much hope for cultural sensitivity or eco sensitivity in tourism in India. This is one thing that really brings my spirit down during vacations. There was a short hike up to a viewpoint from where we a got an aerial view of the lake. It is sort of in the shape of a footprint and locals believe it is the foot of Buddha. The trail up was very scenic and seemed to pass through private property. Many people were playing or doing there daily chores in their cliff-top homes. The views were beautiful – greenery everywhere. Some construction was going on to make the trail and the viewpoint more official and prominent. 

 After this we had a couple of plates of momos and few bowls of Maggi noodles for lunch. Maggi noodles are ubiquitous all over Sikkim. My friend declared it the state food. It was probably about 2 pm when we set out from here. Next stop was at Kanchenjunga falls. It was a quick one though. The two little girls in the group (SK was one) were fast asleep. The falls were not visible from the roadside and we had to climb a few steps and cross over a few rocks in order to see it. But there was lot more water here, again it was pretty cold. The locals seemed pretty keen on helping us navigate the rocks but I was getting irritated and just wanted some privacy. Looking back, they were just being very friendly and probably couldn’t communicate due to language issues. But the city-bred people are always cautious of strangers, especially in tourist places.

Then we drove towards Gangtok. It was probably a five or six hour drive with one tea break in between. We finally reached Gangtok around 8.30 pm and everyone was very hungry. The lady at the property where we were supposed to stay had been trying to reach me all afternoon but my phone was not reachable and she was not sure whether we were arriving at all. I should have called her. Luckily they had delicious, hot dinner ready for us, for which we were all very grateful. The tour operator had called and left a message that he would be picking us up at 7.30 am the next day. I called him back to negotiate a later time but he explained that 9 would be too late and we settled for 8 am pick up.

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