Tuesday, June 4, 2019


A tour of Kashmir has been a pipe dream, which has been postponed time and again. Whenever we'd be on the brink of booking a tour in April / May or during October, some stray incidence of violence would erupt to make us reconsider. We chose to do a trip to Amritsar, Delhi instead last October. We then went ahead and booked for a tour of Kashmir for 6 days, beginning 14 April 2019. And then Pulwama had to happen and we promptly went ahead and canceled our trip - rather, chose another instead. Summer time, it was, so a hill station should be the right choice. Another constraint for me was minimum travel on the ghat section. Well, hill station without ghat section roads? I know it's unthinkable. Still .... Out of the choices of Dehradun, Mussorie, Nainital, Nepal, and Sikkim-Darjeeling, we chose the last sector. Visit one, and you've sort of visited all. That way, we had already been to Kullu, Manali.

I remembered my father owed me a trip to Gangtok. Let me tell you how. The incident dates back to the early 60's. My father was posted in Calcutta, as Superintending Engineer, CPWD, in 1963-64. Sikkim was under his jurisdiction and he had tours to Gangtok every other month. He had tagged along my younger brother during one of his tours and promised me that it would be my turn next. Unfortunately, he was transferred to Port Blair and I lost out on my chance. Perhaps my father up there in heaven would be all smiles to learn that I finally did make it to Gangtok.  

That was it - we decided on a 9 day tour of Gangtok and Pelling (Sikkim) and Darjeeling, starting on 30 April 2019. We were a group of 13 from Pune. We were to be joined by another similar group from Mumbai, but due to Jet airways reservations, their tour was in the dumps along with the fate of Jet airways. So we remained a teeny weeny group for this tour - a family of 5, a family of 4 and two families of 2 each - compact, along with two tour managers.

On every group tour, our sleep goes for a toss on the first day, as we are always booked for red-eye flights by the tour company for obvious reasons, but we are game for it - you can't have it all. After the 2 1/2 hour flight from Pune to Kolkata, we spent some five hours, freshening up and then exploring every nook of the airport, buying a latte here, a snack pack there, and some breakfast before we boarded our flight at 11 to Bagdogra. We landed before noon and were welcomed by our tour managers.

Our group boarded 3 separate Innova vehicles and first went to Marina's restaurant located nearby for a sumptuous lunch. 

Around 1.30 we started our 5 hour drive to Gangtok. It was an adventurous drive on NH 13 Asian Highway. 
En-route, we saw signs for 'Elephant crossing', but thankfully not elephants. Then started the series of steep climbs, hairpin bends, narrow roads. Thankfully the vehicles were in great shape, the drivers cautious, other vehicle drivers too cooperative and patient, 

and the drive scenic, with Teestha river flowing alongside. But the roads were narrow and really bad in stretches, due to landslides. Scary drive, if you choose to keep yourself alert all through it. The only consolation was that no buses were allowed to ply on these roads. Some relief!

We checked in at Keepsa Residency, Gangtok, and 
were happy to stretch our legs in our sprawling room. After dinner at our hotel, we were glad to call it a day.

Breakfast in our hotel was more than a sumptuous fare - they seemed to want to satisfy guests from every part of India. So if you had puri / paratha - chana, you had poha / upma, dosa  /idli -sambar-chutney, as well as cutlet, cereal, sandwich, egg, fruits ....

Our city tour started at 8 am as we got in our cars for our sight-seeing in Gangtok.

Gangtok, located in the eastern Himalayan range, at an elevation of 5,410 ft, is the capital and the largest town of the Indian state of Sikkim. The town's population of 100,000 are from different ethnicity such as Nepalis, Lepchas and Bhutia. The hills are nestled within higher peaks of the snow-clad Himalayan ranges towering over the town from the distance. Mount Kanchenjunga (28,208 ft), the world's third-highest peak, is visible to the west of the city. 

In the early 20th century, Gangtok became a major stopover on the trade route between Lhasa in Tibet and cities such as Calcutta in British India. After India won its independence in 1947, Sikkim chose to remain an independent monarchy, with Gangtok as its capital. In 1975, after the integration with the union of India, Gangtok was made India's 22nd state capital.

Gangtok is a major tourist attraction, though steep slopes, narrow roads, vulnerability to landslides, large forest cover and inadequate access to most areas have been a major impediment to the natural and balanced growth of the city.

There are densely forested regions around Gangtok, consisting of temperate, deciduous forests of poplar, birch, oak, and elm (in the lower reaches), as well as evergreen, coniferous trees at higher ranges. Orchids are common, including rare varieties. Bamboos are also abundant. 

We first stopped at Shanti Viewpoint to get a good view of Gangtok.

Our next destination was Rumtek Monastery. We had to possess our original ids and submit the xerox copies. Only the three senior citizens in our group were allowed to go up by car. The rest of the group had to walk up the steep climb. Some advantage to be listed as 'senior citizen'!
We were met by our local guide there, who shared valuable information about the sites.

Rumtek Monastery, located 24 km from Gangtok, at an altitude of about 4,900 ft, was originally built under the direction of Wangchuk Dorje, 9th Karmapa Lama in the mid-1700's. But when Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, 16th Karmapa, arrived in Sikkim in 1959 after fleeing Tibet, the monastery was in ruins. Though other sites were offered, the Karmapa decided to rebuild Rumtek as the site possessed many auspicious qualities and was surrounded by the most favorable attributes such as flowing streams, mountains behind, a snow range in front, and a river below. With the generosity and help of the Sikkim royal family and the local folks of Sikkim, it was built.
The monastery which is currently the largest in Sikkim, was officially inaugurated in 1966 and called 'The Dharmachakra Centre'. It is home to the community of monks where they perform rituals and practices. 

We were lucky to see the rehearsal for the upcoming annual show there.

No photography is allowed inside; we had a group picture taken in front of it.

We also admired the beauty around the place.

Next we went up to the Golden Stupa nearby, 
admiring the innovative garden lined along the steps.

Opposite that building is a college, Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies, which we saw from outside.

The building was really imposing and we felt proud to pose in front of it.

There was a small yet clean 'use & pay' toilet (Rs 5) nearby, if you really really needed to go .

Coffee and chips revived our slipping energies.

Next we were ready to take our Rope-way Ride booked for 12.45 pm - ours was the last ride before lunch break (1-2 pm). 

We had a fabulous view of Gangtok during the 8 minute ride -

the never-ending stream of cars moving on the roads, 
greenery with 
patches of buildings at different levels,

clouds resting on mountains ......

We then drove to Do-Drul Chorten Stupa located on a hillock. The vehicle dropped us at the base from where we took a short but steep uphill pathway to reach the stupa. One of the most important chortens of Sikkim, it is marked by a golden top dome, which can be seen from various places in Gangtok. 
The name board looked pathetic and was crying for a fresh coat of paint.

But the stupa was dazzling snow white and golden and looked absolutely stunning. 

It is believed that this entire place was once haunted by evil spirits and many people who wandered around this place became victims and died. Later a very respected and celebrated lama of Tibet Trulshig Rinpoche who followed Nyingma Order of Buddhism came to this place for hermitage. He built this stupa in 1946 to drive away the spirits. 

The stupa is surrounded by 108 prayer wheels all of which have mantras inscribed on them in Tibetan. All of us took turns to rotate the array of prayer wheels. Many had to be reminded to use their right hand to rotate them, and in the clockwise direction! Inside the Chorten Stupa are Kanjur holy books, relics, complete mantras and several other religious objects.

There are several other small stupas around the main one.

The building can accommodate about 700 monks. You too can enter and offer your prayers there. There is no admission fee but donations are welcome. 

There are numerous lighted lamps too.

Within a short walking distance is Namgyal Institute of Tibetology, a Tibet museum inaugurated in 1958. 

There are several statues around. Photography is not allowed inside.

All these places are located within 10 km of one another, but the steep, narrow roads and holiday tourist traffic, added to the minutes.

We had to drive for an hour to get back to our hotel for lunch.

At 3 pm, we started our afternoon session. The morning had been sunny. 

But in the afternoon, fog and clouds descended, accompanied by a drizzle. Our first halt was Flower Exhibition Center, which has a display of flowers from the different parts of Sikkim under one roof. The flowers are on display throughout the year but the best time is during the annual flower show which is held during the months of April and May, when the management gathers and showcases fresh varieties of orchids and other flowers from around the state as well as neighboring states. We were lucky to be visiting in May.

Sikkim is blessed by nature with beautiful landscapes as well varieties of flora and fauna, some of which belong to rare species. In fact Sikkim is a home for different kinds of flowering plants, specially orchids which are often exported throughout the world.  

Of the 5000 species of orchids known in the world, 600 can be found in Sikkim alone, along with 30 species of rhododendron, its national flower. The climatic condition is favorable for horticulture and it has been flourishing. 
The center is a modest looking tropical greenhouse full of exotic plants, including several species of orchids.
Exotic flowers of various hues and fragrance beckon visitors who keep lingering there, just gazing at the flowers and 
enjoying the ambiance of the place..... 
and not to forget - click pic after pic 
after pic .....

During our drive, we could notice the poor visibility due to the engulfing fog.

We then reached Hanuman Tok, a Hindu temple complex, located in the upper reaches of Gangtok, dedicated to lord Hanuman, and maintained by the Indian army. According to the local legends, when Hanuman was flying with Dronagiri Parvat (mountain) which had the life saving herb 'Sanjeevani' to save Lord Rama's brother Lakshmana, he rested in the spot for some time - where his temple now lies.

We were tired climbing the steps and hillocks, the chilly winds adding to our discomfort. You won't believe it but both of us got special coffee - just the both of us. My better half started making small talk with an army personnel (apparently the caretaker there), who happened to be with four young army officers from Pune. And we were served piping hot coffee, which was most welcome at that point and sure enough we conveyed our heartfelt thanks to him. 
Next we drove some 6 - 7 km steep ascent and steep hairpin bends to reach Ganesh Tok. Gangtok is sprawled over steep slopes and hills. We can get a whole picture of the town from Ganesh Tok, which is the highest point around Gangtok (6500 ft). 
We were told that on a clear day one can see most of Gangtok from the observatory tower there. Mornings are probably the best time to visit Ganesh Tok as they are sunny. 
Afternoons bring fog and clouds, so we were not lucky. The Ganesh temple is small and can accommodate only a dozen people at a time. 

The priest there artistically and patiently applied 'tikka' (in multiple colors) on everybody's (especially on ladies') forehead. Little shops and dress rentals dotted the area, where tourists could shop for souvenirs, and also dress up in Sikkimese dresses and get their photos clicked. 

We were glad to drive back to our hotel, have dinner and go to bed.

Day 2

The highlight of the day was the visit to Baba Harbhajan Singh shrine, located at an altitude of more than 13,000 ft. It was going to be a long drive, ascending to higher altitude, along hairpin bends, with a lot of snow en-route.

We left our hotel around 8 am. After 3 km, we reached the check point and submitted our papers with our photos and ids for permission to visit the shrine.

We then halted for coffee and also to hire gum boots and jackets required to beat the cold.

The roads were decent, considering the fact that they were ravaged by frequent landslides and  
maintained by the Border Roads Organisation, working round the clock in hostile weather conditions. 
However there were patches of bad road due to recent landslides.
As we climbed higher, snow-covered peaks beckoned to us.

There was a traffic jam, and the ongoing cars were stopped, as vehicles returning from the shrine were allowed to pass. The tourists bagged the opportunity to hop out of their cars and play on the snow settled on the slopes close to the road.

Finally we reached the shrine, covering a distance of 80 km in 2 1/2 hours.

The parking lot was full and tourists spilled out and walked to the shrine.

As we walked in, we could sense an aura of 
patriotic fervor at such a high altitude, with our tricolor flying high, army men moving around briskly ..... As we walked in, we brought to our mind, what our guide had informed us about Baba.

Captain 'Baba' Harbhajan Singh (30 August 1946 – 4 October 1968), an Indian army soldier, is revered as the 'Hero of Nathula' by soldiers of the Indian army, who built a shrine in his honor. He has been accorded the status of saint by his faithful followers, chiefly Indian army personnel posted in and around the Nathu La Pass on the Indo-China border, and they believe his spirit protects every soldier in the inhospitable high-altitude terrain of the Eastern Himalayas even after death.

He was martyred in 1968 near the Nathu La in eastern Sikkim. Harbhajan Singh's early death at the age of 22  has become popular folklore among Indian Army soldiers, the people of his village, and apparently soldiers of the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) across the border guarding the Indo-Chinese border between Sikkim and Tibet.

The official version of his death is that he was a victim of battle at the 14,500 feet Nathu La, a mountain pass between Tibet and Sikkim where many battles took place between the Indian Army and the PLA during the 1965 Sino-Indian war.

A lot of legends prevail about Baba. He is believed to have drowned in a glacier while leading a column of mules carrying supplies to a remote outpost. It is said, he came in the dreams of the search party to help in locating his remains after a three-day search. His body was subsequently cremated with full military honors. 

He has come to be known as 'Saint Baba'. Every year on 11 September, a jeep departs with his personal belongings to the nearest railway station, New Jalpaiguri, from where it is then sent by train to the village of Kuka, in the Kapurthala district of the Indian state of Punjab. Every year a seat is left empty for the journey to his hometown and 3 soldiers chaperone the Baba to his home. It is said that soldiers posted in Nathula contribute a small amount to be sent to his mother each month. Another version is that the Army even promoted him to an Honorary Captain and a paycheck was sent to his family. He was also granted an annual leave on 14 September every year. His belongings were packed and accompanied by soldiers, and sent to Kapurthala by train and brought back the same way. This was done annually till he was retired a few years ago.

We entered the shrine premises, 

went inside Baba's office, which had his garlanded portrait , flowers, and a lighted lamp. 

His living room looked spic and span, with the neat bed, uniforms, shoes, chair - all waiting in readiness.

It is believed that any army official not maintaining a clean and disciplined attire is punished with a slap by Baba himself. His own attire which hangs in display need not be cleaned by anyone as it gets cleaned by his own soul.

We also had a peep into the store room 

and the room with spiritual water, which had several water bottles. It is also widely believed that water from there became capable of curing ailing persons. Devotees therefore buy and leave bottles of water in the name of ailing people for specific hours and then collect and give this blessed water to the sick.

Some Indian soldiers believe that in the event of a war between India and China, Baba would warn the Indian soldiers of an impending attack at least three days in advance. So revered is he, that even the Chinese on the other side of the border leave a seat is left vacant for Baba as a sign of respect at flag meetings. People and soldiers passing through make it a point to pay their respects at the shrine. Clearly faith is stronger than anything else here. 

We did not fail to notice at a distance, the beautiful statue of Shiva, with a waterfall close to it. Some people were seen trekking to the spot, but we had to start our return drive at noon.

As we started driving away, we kept staring at the shrine which made such a pretty picture, nestled among the snow-laden mountains. If we have one complaint about the place, it is the pathetic state of the half a dozen toilets, half of which were not functioning. And just imagine the plight of the thronging tourists driving so far in the cold ....
We were eagerly waiting to reach the snowy slopes. We halted at a vantage spot, where we could climb up the slopes and play in the snow. This brought back memories of the snow slopes of Manali.

The place was so picturesque, we seemed to be resting on the lap of heaven. As we drove further, we passed by Lake Manju.

Another waterfall on the way was really picturesque.

Driving further, we could see Tsomgo lake, shaped like the map of India. 
Tsomgo Lake, also known as Changu Lake, is a glacial lake, some 40 km from Gangtok on the Gangtok-Nathula highway. The Chinese border crossing is only some 5 km east-northeast in a straight line, but some 18 km by road. As the lake is located in a restricted area it is essential for all Indians visiting the area to obtain permits. In case of foreign nationals special permit is essential. Indian Postal Service released a commemorative stamp on the lake on 6 November 2006.

Located at an elevation of 12,313 ft, the lake surrounded by steep snow-covered mountains, remains frozen during the winter season. During summer the snow melts and forms the source for the lake. The lake surface is said to reflect different colors with change of seasons. This lake is held in great reverence by the local Sikkimese people. 
We were disappointed to see the lake in a dull grey color, but the snow-splattered mountains around more than compensated......
Tourist attractions at the revered lake site include joy rides on decorated yaks and mules. 

There is also a small Shiva temple  - Changu Baba Mandir - on the bank of the lake.

We started our drive back and reached our jacket-rental place, where our lunch was awaiting us - simple and tasty - 
Maggie soup, khichdi-kadi, pav-bhaji, momos, and sweet dalia.

The drive in the afternoon again had poor visibility due to fog and we sat on the edge of our seats, looking out for confrontation with vehicles suddenly at hairpin bends. We couldn't help saluting the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), for their services to the nation in the maintenance of roads in the distant border areas. 

We were glad to be back at our hotel at 3.30. We had been advised against going for a hot bath immediately as we had come back from a high altitude.

A good rest did us good. We packed our bags, all ready to leave Gangtok for Pelling the next day.


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