While the rest of the country is seething under the mid-summer sun, we were looking for a pleasant retreat to the hills; and what better way to do that than to embrace the mighty Himalayas. Therefore, we, a family of three sought after Group Outing to plan the trip. They provided promptly, a nifty plan to visit Gangtok and Pelling situated in East and West Sikkim respectively, followed by Darjeeling in the Northernmost part of Bengal. According to the package, our trip would span over 8 days through mid-June. This would evidently mean that the monsoon winds would ride along with us. However, the thought of getting drenched in the rains did not hinder our enthusiasm for the trip; and owing to our undeterred spirit and the most efficient planning by Group Outing, we found that the rains in turn bring an unfound beauty and sense of adventure to the hills that would remain unexplored otherwise. Having packed our bags, we embarked on the journey that would be etched in our minds for a long time.
12th June, 2018_Tuesday: We boarded the weekly Howrah-New Jalpaiguri AC Express from Howrah Station at 11:05pm. There was a long reservation queue, but timely act on the part of the good people at GO ensured that we get confirmed tickets in the Third-AC Compartment. We reached New Jalpaiguri Jn. the next morning at 9:30am.
13th June, 2018_Wednesday: We de-boarded the train and took an auto stationed outside, to the Sikkim National Transport (SNT) Bus Terminus located 5km from the station in the town of Siliguri. Buses ply to and fro Gangtok, Pelling, Darjeeling, Ravangla, Jorethang, etc. daily. We were booked on the deluxe bus to Gangtok at 1:00pm. Having had a light brunch, we embarked on the road-trip as we left Siliguri along Sevoke Road and entered the majestic state of Sikkim hugging the edge of the hills and riding along the banks of the ebbing Teesta river. We reached Gangtok after 4 hours, where we were booked into OYO Hotel Deorali. They welcomed us into their Valley View room with a majestic view of the hills affront. Feasting on a homely dinner with the amicable evening view at a cool 17°C, was a bliss.
14th June, 2018_Thursday: Typical sightseeing in Gangtok included 7-point (₹1500) and 10-point (₹1800-₹2000) local packages. A local cab showed us around some flower gardens and greenhouses, a couple waterfalls, the famous Tashi Viewpoint, monasteries and the city ropeway; one of which is the GaneshTok: A temple of Lord Ganesh where tourists could embrace the local culture by getting into traditional Sikkimese wear, available on hire.
15th June, 2018_Friday: Group Outing had already booked us a car to the NathuLa Pass, for which we had to leave at 7:00am. We were instructed to provide 2 sets of passport sized photos and Aadhar cards per person to their agent, who had promptly contacted us last evening. We left on schedule with our permits at hand, in a 4X4 vehicle (Tata Sumo) manned by Mr. Ajit Gurung. NathuLa Pass is the highly sensitive and protected Indo-China Border in Sikkim at 14140ft. above mean sea level; 56.3km from the capital city of Gangtok; with temperatures dipping down to 1-2°C during summer mornings; subject to heavy snowfall during the winters. Kerbside of the roads and the chicanes contained patches of snow, even this late into the summer. This factors make visiting NathuLa, a rather complicated task; simplified by timely preparations made by GO.
Our permits were verified at the Lower Checkpost and we drove through the foggy, enthralling serpentine roads, as it started to pour. The 52km long stretch is manned by the Indian Army which have many outposts at regular intervals. We were driven to the NathuLa gate, 4km from the Pass where 7 more people boarded our vehicle. According to army protocols, a total of 150 civilian vehicles with 10 passengers each are allowed to visit the pass, per day; with the exception of Monday and Tuesday, when the pass is closed. The permits and ID proofs (Aadhar card) were scrutinized at the gate and we drove the remaining 4km. Depleted of oxygen, the freezing cold is not for the faint hearted; but there are roadside stalls that provide warm food and jackets on hire for a meagre ₹100 per. The view at the top is no short of being heavenly; however, photography is forbidden. The borders are manned by both Indian and Chinese soldiers out on constant recon. A mine field sits on the no man’s land and the sight of the Indian Flag filled our hearts with pride.
We also visited The Baba Harbhajan Singh Mandir (Baba Mandir) at 13000ft. and the Tsongmo Lake (Changu Lake), a little lower, on our descent to Gangtok. Yak rides were a tourist’s favourite.
16th June, 2018_Saturday: After having a warm breakfast, we checked out as a car was there at 10:00am for our transit, 117km west to Pelling. The road traverses Jorethang and Ravangla and is prone to landslides during this season. We reached Pelling at 3:30pm having stopped for a lunch break at Ravangla. We were checked into Hotel Sonamchen, situated on the Helipad Road, Higher Pelling. The balcony form the room gave a clear view of the Kanchenjunga, sadly hidden then from the dense monsoon fog and clouds. Nevertheless, the view was breathtaking.
17th June, 2018_Sunday: A reserved car took us on some local sightseeing at 10:00am. We visited the Orange Garden, Kanchenjunga waterfalls, Rimbi riverbanks and waterfalls, Khecheopalri Lake and monastery (Khecheperi Lake) which is a shrine devoted to Maa Tara, 21km from the town. We also trekked the breadth of Singshore Bridge which is Asia’s second highest gorge bridge. This took most of the better part of the day and we returned at 4:30pm to some warm tea and thukpa, at the hotel.
18th June, 2018_Monday: We checked out early at 9:30am for our transit to Darjeeling. Traversing Geyzing, Dentam Valley and Legship, the 72km stretch is rugged during this season and requires an SUV. We reached Darjeeling at 2:30pm. We were checked into Sinclair’s Darjeeling, situated at the heart where we were greeted with fresh Darjeeling tea. We spent the evening walking the mall, feasting over a cup of warm coffee at Keventer’s and dinner at the famous Glenary’s. It was heard that these experiences were not to be missed and rightly so.
19th June, 2019_Tuesday: We were provided tickets to the Steam Train ride on the Darjeeling-Himalayan-Railways, famously known as the Toy Trains. The ascent to Ghum Station encircling Batasia Loop on the narrow gauge track is a spectacle. The Ghum Museum showcasing the history of the DHR and olden equipments is one for the curious mind. The entire ride lasts 2.5 hours and costs ₹1310 per person. There are tickets on the diesel trains available at ₹805 per, at regular intervals. Local sightseeing to some nearby waterfalls, tea gardens and Tiger Hill is also a favourite however we did not embark on the show.
20th June, 2019_Wednesday: After a sumptuous brunch, we started on the 72.4km descent to NJP station along some beautiful, green roads through Goodricke and Macaibari Tea Estates. The ride is very comfortable and takes around 4 hours. We reached the station, late evening and boarded the 9 o’clock daily Padatik Express, where we were booked into the AC-First Class compartment; to reach Sealdah Station, Kolkata the next morning at 7:00am.
This trip had not only given us a very welcome retreat away from the scorching heat but also enriched our minds with the diverse culture of the hills and their customs. Our minds were refreshed and our hearts enriched with joy, looking forward to the next trip we would be on, soon!