Sunday, 5 January 2014

Journey to the mystical land of Sikkim - Part 1

 Some journeys are forever etched in your memories for various reasons…this was one of them. Everything was planned in haste or rather you can say the tour organizer planned it for us and we didn’t even get the time to properly read about the places before we started our journey. This is definitely not the way I usually plan my trips. Every trip is meticulously planned, reviews of hotels are re-read and finalized, spreadsheets are created to tally the cost and so on. None of that happened this time and yet it became one of the most memorable trips. It’s true that sometimes unplanned surprises are more special and leave lingering memories. The fascinating and mystical land of Sikkim beckoned us with open arms.
Beauteous Teesta

Day 1: Sealdah (Kolkata)  to New Jalpaiguri
The Uttar Banga express was to leave Sealdah at 7:30 PM. We took the 5:30 PM local train from Dum Dum cantonment to Sealdah. This was a faster option than taking a cab which had risk of getting stuck in traffic for hours especially since it was a weekday. We reached Sealdah in 20 minutes flat. Deliberately we had kept our luggage to necessary minimum so that our mobility increases. Still walking down to platform no 9A was a tedious task. We did what everyone does, ask the wheelers on which platform the train usually arrives and went there. It was almost a 2 hours wait and this part of the Sealdah station didn’t have anything unlike Howrah station for passing our time. Neither were there enough sitting benches. For the first time in my life I placed newspaper on the platform and sat down comfortably on the platform and that set the mood for the adventure that we were about to embark on.

The cold was slowly creeping in as the sun went down. We bought steaming tea from a chaiwalla which complimented our chit chat perfectly. Soon it was time for the train and as luck would have it the train was coming on a different platform. Everyone started to scurry and there was a lot of commotion all around. Also on that day swarms of Mohammedans had gathered on the platform, we heard that they had come to attend a Party meeting and now returning. They added to the sea of passengers and made things more difficult.


Finally we reached the designated platform huffing and puffing just as the train chugged into the station. Usually the doors are kept ajar once the train is in but due to the huge party people crowd that day doors of reserved compartments were opened only when they settled down. Finally we found our seats and settled down. Most of the passengers were going small distances; there was one girl in the compartment who was traveling overnight like us. Both of us got along as a house on fire and as time progressed we found we had many common interests. We talked on photography, nature, paintings, story writing, pets, food and what not. She even made me read one of her ghost short stories. It was a perfect Bengali adda. All in all there was never a dull moment. We had got roti, baigan bharta and nolen gurer sondesh for dinner. The combo was finger-licking good – ghar ka khana on train, a good company and excitement of what lay ahead. We wanted to chat the night away but other passengers wanted to sleep so unwillingly we called it a day.

Day 2: NJP to Gangtok
I was awake at dawn break somewhat due to excitement and more because it was getting very cold in the compartment as we neared NJP. It was a foggy sleepy morning outside. The landscape looking like a freshly painted canvas; the grass was still wet from the dew. Slowly everyone got up on by one. We freshened up, had a cup of coffee and got ready for our arrival. After exchanging contact details, we bade goodbye to our train friend who was supposed to get down at Dhupguri, which was an hour’s distance from NJP.

It was only when we got down on platform 1A and greeted by the biting cold winds which made our bones rattle literally, we realized our journey has begun! We immediately called our pick up cab and headed towards the exit. The NJP station was a relatively clean station with modernization like escalators at the entry/exit points. The taxi stand has a lot of cabs/shuttles for the tourists.

Teesta on Way

For going to Gangtok from West Bengal one requires a vehicle having Sikkim registration. It took us some time to locate the cab driver, mainly because he was speaking broken Hindi/English, and it was difficult to make him understand our location. Quite a few hiccups later finally I managed to locate him. By then I was feeling a bit frustrated thinking if this was a start then we would have to face a lot of language problem throughout our trip which would really be a damper. But soon Amit Chetri, our driver proved us wrong and played a patient guide all throughout the journey. He even cracked a few jokes at times.
Tapri Near Road block

On Way
We had started from NJP at around 7.30 AM and it was going to take almost 4.5 hours to reach Gangtok. As time progressed slowly we left behind the concrete jungle and entered a dense jungle of Shal. It was a military area and Bison reserve, reminded us of the Jaldapara trip few years back. Soon we saw what we were eagerly waiting for – the beauteous and magnificent Teesta. The majestic river kept us company for the major part of our journey. The deep turquoise waters were painting an ethereal landscape; sometimes flowing silent and sometimes creating milky rapids along its way. We saw a few boards proclaiming about river rafting and a few rafts by the roadside but no one was actually seen rafting, maybe because it was too cold for water sports at this time of the year. We saw roads being broadened at many places on the way. The best thing we observed during our entire Gangtok trip was that the drivers of this part of the world maintained lane and driving discipline to the T.  Through there were no traffic signals to tell them who should get the priority, always the downward moving traffic was given the way. There was a point before Melli bazaar, where we were stuck for an hour due to roadwork. Amit informed us that everyday for a couple of hours they close this stretch for roadwork. We got down from the cab and soaked in the view outside, some tourist were taking snaps of the Teesta, a vendor was selling “poori- aloo dum” to the waiting tourists. Once cleared we continued our journey and crossed Melli, a small hilly hamlet. There are a number of small bridges connecting adjacent mountains on way. We also saw the newly painted fuchsia Coronation Bridge, a sharp contrast to the dark green backdrop of the mountains.

2 Kms from Melli we stopped for breakfast at a roadside restaurant named “Chetri’s Hotel”. We were very hungry and cold from all this traveling. As we stepped down from the cab we realized the mercury had dipped a good 3-4 degrees from NJP, the wind was freezing us. We ambled into the farthest corner of the restaurant hoping for a warm corner which was not to be. I was on the lookout to try chicken momo but maximum restaurants in Sikkim only serve veg stuffs, rarely you would chance upon a place serving non-veg. The Steamed vegetable momos and coffee, that we ordered was served in a jiffy. A sip of the creamy coffee and we found back some life in our freezing bodies. I was a bit apprehensive about how the veg momos would be but they were the bestest veg momos I have ever tasted in the world. The perfectly boiled and seasoned vegetables with a subtle hint of ginger and lemongrass was finger-licking good. We easily gorged on 8 momos each (Rs. 30/plate).

Well fed and happy we continued on our journey crossing Sevok bridge, Singtam, and small towns on way. We crossed Rongpo checkpost where they simple asked from where we were coming. As we made our entry into Sikkim leaving behind Bengal border the terrain became more and more beautiful. Verdant meadows, wildflowers here and there, remnants of mountain falls, passing clouds, quaint cottages and beautiful local people dotted the entire landscape. Teesta gurgled along with us all through. We sighted the picturesque Manipal Institute in the valley below encircled by Teesta river. The place was so heavenly I wonder how students manage to study and not just stare out of the window! The numerous curves and bends were making me a bit dizzy (I have motion sickness) and I don’t know when I had dozed off; when I woke we were almost nearing the city of Gangtok. Numerous houses and hotels adorned the slope of the mountain. Gangtok city looks very pretty even though there are many buildings and hotels on both side of the road. Pretty fenced sidewalks, glitzy branded retail outlets, serpentine main road through the heart of the city, gorgeous ladies and handsome guys enjoying afternoon walks – it would suddenly feel like you are in any American downtown, only more beautiful that it.

We had to take a local cab from market as the designated cab was big to go into the town. The cabbie quoted Rs.150 for a 2 km journey. We had to oblige as we were tired and wanted to reach the hotel as soon as possible. We had a bit of trouble locating the hotel Green Park. Direction says its in front of Tamang Gumpha, but we didn’t see nay hoarding of the hotel name in front of it. After asking a few finally a boy came out from a green coloured building and said that was the hotel. The cabbie started scolding him for not putting a board outside for which he said the storm a couple of days ago had blown away the board which they didn’t fix yet. Interesting start of the stay indeed!

Rangpo Check Post  & Manipal University

The reception was deserted. Two teenaged nepali boys came and took our luggage while a portly man came up from basement and politely informed us about the stay and food options. We were the only boarders in the hotel at that time which was why we could get a nice view room without any hassle. The room had a window opening towards the valley and a small verandah. The bathroom was pretty neat and clean which made me happy. Carpeted flooring and enough blankets were provided. All the three people manning the hotel were very amicable and looked to our needs. We ordered fish curry, rice, dal and fried potato for lunch. By the time we bathed and got ready lunch was ready which was served in the room. The mountain air had made up super hungry. Post lunch we took a short nap and then decided to visit M.G.Marg as we didn’t have any more planned outings that day.

View from Hotel Balcony
We took a shared cab from outside the hotel (Rs. 10/per person). In Gangtok, there is no auto running in the city, cabs run on sharing basis. The people all over Sikkim are very friendly and polite. A passenger inside the cab gave us details of how to reach M.G Marg.

M.G.Marg at the heart of Gnagtok is the most happening place of the city. The 1 KM stretch of road is completely vehicle free. It has bar, shops and hotels on either side of the road. It’s the best place to hang out in the evening with your friends and loved ones. Beautiful flower garden, statues, wooden benches and
hanging flower pots adore along the center of the road. The day we visited, Aids awareness week was being celebrated and a function was held on one side of the road. The rendering of the young artists were very melodious and a huge young crowd was enjoying the function without any commotion. Evening was stepping in slowly, glittering lights all around and the soulful music mixing with the chilly air was so relaxing. We kept walking along the street occasionally stopping at a shop or two to look at the Tibetian and Sikkimese goodies or fancy woolens. I cannot help mentioning that the young ladies were very pretty with an amazing dressing sense. You would feel like you are watching a rampwalk all around. We entered into on of the Memento shop and it was like we were inside a curio shop. Cute Chinese dolls, Dragon wall hangings, Japanese hand fans, replica prayer wheels, Tibetian soup bowls, Thangkas and what not. We bought a lot of gifts for our friends and families. It was almost 6 PM by the time we finished shopping. But it was pitch dark outside like it was 9 PM. The mercury had dipped further and we were shivering instead of the heavy winterwear we had. We decided to buy a small bottle of Brandy just in case it’s required at night. Gangtok is a tax free place for alcohol. We got a musk flavoured small bottle of Brandy and decided to head home. As we walked towards the shared taxi stand we noticed that the roads were almost deserted, it was feeling like midnight of any metropolitan city.

M.G. Marg in Evening

Fortunately we found a cab soon which dropped us in front of our hotel. We ordered for some Coffee and onion fritters and retired to our rooms. The coffee and fritters were so good. After this we went to the balcony and saw Gangtok city glitter like thousand fireflies below though we couldn’t stand there for more than 2 minutes due to the icy winds. It was terribly cold by then and we had to keep triple layering of winterwear and still cover ourselves with the quilts and sit in the room. The people in this part of the world had a very early end of the day and rose early. So we had dinner by 8:30 PM which was still late by their standard. Fish curry never tasted so good. After a while we also called it a day. Sightseeing was going to being next day onwards.

To Be Continued...
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