30 Oct 2006

Sikkim, first time

Getting down from the Darjeeling Mail at New Jalpaiguri station, after a 569kM overnight journey from Calcutta, the head still hurts from the noise, heat and dust of the mega city. The journey from the platform to the street is a long walk on the overpass and includes a 2-storey staircase climb up & down. If your group has fewer strong hands than pieces of heavy luggage, immediately start haggling with the red shirted coolies (= porters). After coming out, it is best to take a bus (~Rs15 / head), a taxi or auto-rickshaw (~Rs80[i] for 2 with luggage) and escape hastily to Siliguri. Get down at SNT (Sikkim National Transport) bus stand. If you are going to Gangtok[ii], Rinchenpong, etc., better take the earliest possible next SNT bus. Otherwise, there are several Jeep Commanders, Mahindra Maxx, Tata Sumo, which ply to Gangtok, Pelling, Ravongla[iii] etc. If any driver of hired cars from West Bengal tries to persude you, that they will make the whole trip inside Sikkim for you, do not trust them. Unlike in WB, the Motor Vehicle Dept of Sikkim are quite strict. There will be no dearth of licenced taxis or hired cars at Gangtok etc., who are authorised to take tourists around Sikkim. If you are a repeat visitor, who knows the ropes and your destination is a little off the way, take a share taxi to Jorethang and then another to your destination. If there are several members in a group, it is worth hiring a whole car and fill up with fewer than the prescribed capacity, so that everybody has a few centimetres more space to stretch. Moving quickly is important, so that you reach your destination as early as possible and have the option of making photo-taking halts as and when desired.

You trundle out of Siliguri. Your have the first sight of Mahananda Wildlife Reserve. By and by you realise that the car in on a gentle upward slope. There is less pollution in the cooler air. The spirit rises on seeing the name of a roadside restaurant – Hotel Tista Rangit, names of 2 important rivers, both popular with white water rafters and kayakers. The curvy Sevok bridge passes by to the right. It looks like a smaller version of the parabolic Bremero bridge in the Autostrada, as one enters Italy from Austria and is nearly as old. The vehicle travels over bridges at Geil Khola, Tista and Lepcha Jhora (Jhora = small waterfall) one after the other and crosses from West Bengal (WB) into Melli Bazar, Sikkim. No, wait! Sikkim Police stops the car. Workmen in white coveralls approach with nozzles to spray the tyres and the inside of the car with disinfectants. All passengers have to walk a few paces, while a scented disinfectant washes the bottom of the shoes. You see, nobody has any faith on the slothful callousness of the Govt of WB, which keeps telling lies about culling of chicken, while bird flu rages[iv] in the state.

Those who suffer from motion sickness, even while driving in the gentle Swiss Alps, should now take an Avomine anti-vomit pill. For those who have successfully traveled without discomfort in the road climbing up to Darjeeling may sit back and relax. The roads of Sikkim are much better than those of WB. The hills rise, the valleys drop. You have glimpses of the gushing water far down there with a kayak or two bobbing down the river. At places, it is almost like standing at the edge of a green Grand Canyon, USA and looking down at a high speed Colorado river. If you had booked the vehicle exclusively for your own group, you can tell the driver to shut off that infernal noise of Hindi songs blaring out of the boom box. You breathe deeply in the clean jungle air.
 (Click on any photo to enlarge. Backspace on browser gets you back)

The driver will make a halt for refreshment at some market town. Depending on your destination, it could be Jorethang, Singtam etc. If you halt at Singtam, you can look up to see the Pippali Gir (= butterfly fall), where even a butterfly would fall down the 100M steep cliff. There is a very narrow bend on the road above, which turns around another sharp cliff jutting out like a Frenchman’s nose. A continuous trickle of water washes the asphalt away to keeps the stones permanently exposed and slippery. They say a car takes about 40 min to drive from Pippali Gir to Singtam. If the car wheels slip, it reaches in four seconds. The flowering trees and plants like hibiscus and bougainvillea really show off what they can do in the mountain soil. Their reds are of brilliance unseen in the plains. Mandars[v] bear ruby rings on the tip of every finger-like bare branch. The green terraced rice field on the opposite hillside looks like a staircase to heaven. There are some flowers like cherry blossom
Cherry tree (Click on any photo to enlarge. Backspace on browser gets you back)
Clusters of very straight and smooth, high quality bamboo. The green terraced rice field on the opposite hillside looks like a staircase to heaven. As the car climbs higher, feather like ferns sway in the breeze with long fingers, whispering – “Come hither! Come hither!!” The soul is at peace. Nope! I have spoken too soon. If the Alps is docile as a pet cat, the Himalay is a ferocious Bengal tiger. The car halts. The unpredictable mountain has chucked some rocks and stones.
You retrace a few steps to take pictures of one of the innumerable waterfalls you have passed by. By the time you are back and the driver has collected the co-passengers, the bulldozers have curved out a bumpy path for progress.

In Sikkim, the joy is more in traveling, than in reaching. Look carefully : every nook & cranny, every crack of stone, every long exposed root of tree, every sloped ray of sunshine has something to boast of. You keep turning your head back & forth, lest you miss something. After some time, you are lost in this fairy tale land.

The car reaches Gangtok and weaves towards the taxi stand through narrow zigzagging streets. You try in vain to make mental note of dozens of attractive spots, where you want to come back on foot. It is difficult to write down anything in the swaying car. Using the voice memo of the cellphone is better. It is not necessary to book hotel through travel agencies. Their commission will come out of your money. If like us, you have avoided the crowd of the peak tourist season, you can simply phone up hotels and haggle a good off-season discount. If there are several in your group, you can leave the luggage with one and the rest fan out to scout for price worthy hotels. Keeping communication with each other by cellphone is easy. Sikkim has an excellent cellular network except at border areas and almost very grown man has a phone. A few hotel :
1.  Hotel Mayur, Panchwati Holiday Resorts Ltd., very centrally located, good quality. About Rs1,100 + 10% tax / double bed room. Phone Mr Rupesh Kumar, 94342 57278 / 97334 46705, rupesh_panchwati@rediffmail.com, www.panchwati.com. Be sure to insist on rooms facing the hills and NOT the road.
2. Hotel The Yalung Retreat, Mr Tushar Ghosh, General Manager, phone (03592) 201066, 98320 59302, very centrally located, a 2 storey climb up, just behind the BSNL Telephone Exchange, a few paces to city centre. All rooms, except top floor look out to the walls of the next buildings about 2M (~ 6ft) away. The 3rd floor rooms facing the Telephone Exchange give clear view to Kanchenjungha. If you are carrying a BSNL cellphone, the signal strength is zero, though the tower in about 15M away from the window. Seasonal rates Rs1,500 to 2,700 + 10% tax depending on room & tariff plan per double bed. We paid Rs550 + taxes for the top floor double room at off-season rates. The room service food is presentable & priceworthy.
3. Hotel Hungry Jack, 50M from Private Bus Stand, a staircase climb to M G Marg (the central pedestrian’s plaza) About Rs600-1,100 + 10% tax / double bed room. Phone 94743 55699 /

97332 14039, hotelhungryjack@gmail.com, navinsukhani@gmail.com, www.hungryjack.com, www.sikkiminfo.net/hungryjack. Rooms facing the hills are better, those facing the road cheaper & noisy. If your memory is not razor sharp, in 5 min. you will think your hotel’s name is Hungry Horse – many do. Better ask for & carry the hotel’s card, lest you get lost. The restaurant at the ground floor offers good food, if you are stuck in rain or if you want European dishes only. Otherwise, take breakfast but eat out. Bang opposite the narrow road are several restaurants offering everything from South Indian to Bengali food.
4. New Orchid Hotel, Development Area, Opp Puspa garage, phone (03592) 204 998. Manager Pasang Sherpa alias Pasang Bhai 94341 17673 is a jovial man, who takes great enthusiasm in planning & arranging your site seeing trips, preferably before nightfall, thereafter it is better to let him enjoy his own time. The hotel is a little distant[vi] from the city centre in a quiet surrounding, up a short flight of stairs from street level. We stayed in the 3rd floor roadside room. At Rs600 + 10% tax / double bed, it was a large room with a very large bathroom and a view to Kanchenjungha. There is a large, well furnished empty dining room downstairs. The sound of a jhora, kept soothing company at night. Take breakfast, but eat out.

Almost all Sikkim hotels and even many modest lodges accept booking from different cities. Payment of an advance amount through your local branch of their designated banks seals the deal.

Take a quick bath, shove a light woollen, camera, batteries etc. into a handbag and venture out. The place to go first is The Mall). First stop, preferably for lunch : Taste of Tibet phone 98620 74326, a 2nd floor[vii] restaurant at the other end of the plaza from the Tourist Office. If you are lucky, you get window seats. Two of you can order 1 plate (8 pieces, Rs30) of steamed pork momo (like dumplings) & a cup of Thhukpa (comes with momo) and 1 bowl (Rs45) of Gyathuk (like mixed chow mien in soup) split for 2. If you are still hungry, there are other delicacies like chow mien of different mixtures. By this time, watching other customers, you will be able to guess, how much each dish contains. Based on your experience in other Indian restaurants, you will not rightly guess the generous quantities just by looking at the prices in the menu. If you want to buy Chinese 'White Rabbit' toffees, better buy in Gangtok, as they cost more everywhere else. Price varies widely from shop to shop. Those near the Kanchenjonga Supermarket charge the lowest price. The bigger the packet, the more economic is it.

ATMs are not yet so common around Sikkim. In Gangtok there are several. Axis Bank has a good presence, there are 2 ATMs at this end of M G Marg, 1 more at the other end, near the Tourist Office. You can replenish, if funds are low. On the same footpath as you come out of Taste of Tibet, slightly to the right is a hall, where a large number of tailors busily ply their treadle machines. We have never seen such concentration of tailors. A similar shed for cobblers is
there in front of Kanchenjungha Super Market, a short walk away. Opposite the tailors hall is a series of shops, where you should try to prevent the ladies & girls from entering. Usually you will not succeed. Eventually you will come out with an armful of junk, including some, which you bought, telling yourself, that these are for gifts back home. One shop has good collection and it is the only one that accepts credit card – naturally the prices are touristy. They also have a high altitude ATM (Axis was then called UTI) at the cantonment on the way to Nathu La / Baba Mandir.

The turn to left and a short walk leads to the State Assembly House. Bang opposite is the Cable Car Nothing so big like the Kriens – Fräkmüntegg – Pilatus Kulm funicular near Lucerne, Switzerland but small and nice all the same. They stop the car at mid-path without notice. Don’t panic. It is your photo-op. The view competes with that from the Swiss ropeway. At the Deorali end station, there is a restaurant, where you can sip a nice cup of tea or coffee and look out at the very Swiss looking houses nearby with gabled roofs. Better keep this for the next day.

Next stop : Tourist Information Centre to collect information, brochures giving maps & lists of travel agencies and hotels. About 10M away from it stands a large farechart showing the approved taxi rates. It looks like this.

Ambling around shop to shop with your woollen on your arm will allow the stink of mothballs to evaporate by dusk, when you may need to put it on.

A must buy, especially for Bangal Bengalis is the fiery hot 'dollé khorsani' ( = round chili). It is available fresh, as well as in bottle, appropriately branded 'Fireballs'. Also, have a view of the 'tree tomato'. (underlined cololoued texts are links to more photos. To see pictures, lick on them keeping [Cntrl]-button pressed).

A Rs200 taxi ride will take you to the zoo, where you can see the rare
Snow Leopard (panthera uncia), though a little aged. A Rs200 taxi ride will take you to the zoo. It is nowhere close to the Singapore Zoo or the Hagenbeck Tierpark of Hamburg, but you find a few novelties like the red panda or the rare snow leopard (panthera uncia), though a little aged. The zookeepers love their wards and are loved back in return. Raja, the Himalayan bear comes ambling out of the bush on hearing his keepers voice. On his command Raja stands up and twitches his lips to the delight of visiting kids.

To go to Nathu La, you have to hire a car or get into a shared car. Many tour & travel parties, mostly crowded around M G Marg will be happy to arrange your trip. To get a permit, you need to submit original of a proof with address & photo (like passport or voter id card). The tour party will arrange photocopy, permit etc., but it usually takes a day's time. The road goes via Tsomgo (Changu / ছাঙ্গু) Lake, divides after the army cantonment, one branch leads down to Baba Mandir, the other goes up to Nathu La  ( La = pass). Even if the road is open, enquire first, if there is anything worth seeing in Nathu La, as the border trading post has lost its popularity. A Bangladeshi Facebook friend informed in 2013, that Sikkim does not allow their entry. I don't know, if that rule is still valid. If you are Indian, but have any foreigner accompanying you, better check before the journey.
Tsomgo and the painted hill. If you are the kind of tourist, who must do all what is listed, take a ½ day ride of 7 points. Otherwise, travel East to visit Chhangu Lake - Chhangu / ছাঙ্গু (in touristspeak), Tsomgo (= source of the lake in Bhutia). Altitude 3.7kM, depth about 15M. Home of Brahmini ducks & other migratory birds. Rhododendrons bloom in summer
Baba Mandir Visit, only if you are particularly religious. Be prepared for a crowd. Since it is in a valley, the smell of stale urine from innumerable visitors is quite penetrating. If you are religious, leave a sealed bottle of mineral water for 'prasad'. Come back 7 days later to get your 'prasad' back. The Baba was an Indian soldier, who valiantly fought flood & calamities. Baba Mandir may turn out to be a bit of disappointment for those who are not too keen on long queues, or on building up their credit balance of virtues.
highest ATM / Baba Mandir
Baba Mandir may turn out to be a bit of disappointment for those who are not too keen on long queues, or on building up their credit balance of virtues.

Chorten Stupa Jhan-Chub Chorten built in memory of Late Reverend Trul Shik Rinpoche, who died in 1960. The upward turned ¼ moon is called Nima, the roundel called Daowa.


Preparations were going on for prayer at at Do-Drul Chorten. The chanting started. The sense of solemnity & tranquillity permeates the soul. The deep religiosity fills you with awe. Prayer at Do-Drul Chorten. The chants started. The sense of solemnity & tranquillity permeates the soul. The deep religiosity fills you with awe.
Research Institute of Tibetology has an exceptional collection of artifacts
Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology
Padmasambhava at Samdrupste trip in the general direction of Namchi is a must. A 41M tall statue of Vajra Guru Thangdrup - Rinpoche Padmasambhava, sits upon a Lotus throne on 2.15kM high hill at Samdrupste (= wish fulfilling hill in Bhutia), 8 kM from Namchi. The seat is shaped like a huge copper coloured lotus. Deeply religious Sikkimeseare seen performing ritual perambulation around the statue. The foundation stone gives the details of the statue.

Returning from Samdrupste, you drive on that slippery Pippali Gir road. If you are sitting on the gorge side of the car, don’t look down. The entry fee to the nearly empty “Namchi Rock Garden” is Rs5 per head. It lets you into a long, lily lined, steep, zigzagging path leading far downhill to the rock garden. The path is pretty enough, but you soon loose nerve, thinking of the time & effort to climb back. In North Cal accented Bengali Namchi / নামছি means “I am descending”. We wondered, if this was the reason, why this place is called Namchi.

Rumtek Monastery
Rumtek Monastery & front door

Rumtek Monastry is the largest in Sikkim. There is a very large number of Lamas of different age groups, the youngest ones running around merrily. It was the teenage Lamas’ time of prayer. It is as deep, melodious and reverential as any. We were allowed to enter & attend the prayer. We stood with folded hands at one side. Obviously our behavior is quite proper. A grown up, English speaking Lama camse forward and gives us a guided tour about the premises.

Ravongla has also undergone a very pleasant change in the last 2 years. At

Returning from a holiday is sad. Sadder still is returning from Sikkim. In a pensive mood you enter the large Mahanada Wildlife Reserve, but where is the wildlife? There they are – several domestic cows & dogs loitering around near cottages in large paddy fields. There are sporadic & loose stands of trees with substantial undergrowth. In dry seasons, there is controlled burning of the undergrowth to prevent large forest fires.. You find locals coming out of the woods carrying large logs on their shoulders. The excellent furniture business of Siliguri thrives on stolen wood. There is a huge military cantonment and then you slam into the noise heat and dust of the plains at Siliguri.

It is difficult to stop visiting Sikkim. Try my blog Sikkim, second time covering a visit to North Sikkim (Lake Gurudongmar, Yumthang via Chumthang, Lachung, Lachen) & West Sikkim (Kaluk, Rinchenpong & 2nd time Ravongla)

Some notes :

In Bhutia

Cho = lake, e.g. Gurudongmar Cho

Chu = river, e.g. Rangpo Chu

Chung = nice

La = mountain pass, e.g. Nathu La

Phukki = cave

Tashi Delek / তাশি দেলেক =  all encompassing greeting : welcome, how are you, best wishes, greetings etc.

                                    Something like the Indian namaskar / ননস্কার

Thang = place (বাংলায় ঠাকুরের থান যেমন?), e.g. Chunthang (chung = nice, thang = place)

Wadhah = water fall

In Nepalese
Jhora = minor water fall

Same place, different spellings,
Keozing / Sosing / Kewzing
Rabong / Rabangla / Ravongla / Ravangla

This blog is based on our trips in October 2006 and March 2008. Rates, hotels, telephone nos. etc. need recheck, if indeed they are valid. To give an idea, here is the analysis of the costs for 2 adults that we incurred during our visit in 2006.


New Orchid, Gangtok 5-8 Oct

NaamSaaling Res, 11-14 Oct


Ravongla Star, 9-10 Oct


Train : Sealdah to NJP 2nd A/c

Simvo Tour & Travels

Train : NJP to Sealdah 3rd A/c

Tea, cheese


Cook's Inn


Print films

Pelling to Siliguri 3 seats

Print films

Sikkim Nationalised Transport

Gangtok Zoo

Ravongla to Pelling

Taste of Tibet


Tibetan chanting CD

Orthodox, 2nd flr


Bread, cheese, passion flower juice


Local trips at Siliguri

Taxi to Sealdah

Damodar Ropeways

Taxi to residence

Passion flower juice


Rickshaw NJP to Siliguri

Rock Garden, near Namchi

Flower Exihibition Cetre, Whitehall


For preparation, refer to Official  Website of Sikkim Tourism

[i] India has 6 seasons, each about 2 months long : grishshwa = summer (starts mid April), borsha = monsoon (mid June), sharat = 1st autumn (mid Aug), hemanta = 2nd autumn (mid Oct), sheet = winter (mid Dec) & basanta = spring (mid Feb). The intensity and duration varies from place to place and year to year.
[ii] Unit of local self government.


[i] All rates are those we paid in October 2006 and March 2008.
[ii] SNT bus @ Rs110 / head Siliguri to Gangtok. Try to get seats in front like nos. 1, 2 etc.
[iii] Siliguri to Ravongla by share taxi run by Ravangla Motor Transport Driver’s Union @ Rs110 / head. Information at Ravangla end by Jeetu, the bubbly lad, who sometimes mans the ticket counter. He is at phone 97330 21887 until he gets a better cellphone service provider. While at Ravongla, if you find the ticket booking counter empty, spread words amongst the passers-by and nearby shopkeepers, that you are waiting for him. Shouted calls will be relayed to him. Meanwhile try Ugen driver, phone 98325 11830, who usually runs a share taxi in this route these days. Advance booking possible both ways. Sitting : 2 with driver, 4 in middle row, 4 in back row. If you think it is too cramped, 3 of you can reserve the middle seat by paying for 4 and so on.
[iv] This travelogue is a mixture of 2 visits, 4–16 Oct 2006 & 14–26 Mar 2008. Climate varied widely with different seasons. Both were slightly off peak tourist season. As veteran tourists, we hate crowds. The bird flu was raging in 2008.
[v] Erythrina variegata or E. indica Lam., E. variegata var. orientalis, Tiger's Claw, Indian Coral Tree, Sunshine Tree. "We saw and heard old people saying that continuous crying of dogs and turning of leaves of Mandar tree upside down bring flood." - Indegeneuos Early Warning
[vi] After roaming around in city centre or after getting down from a long distant bus / taxi, if you are too tired to walk to New Orchid Hotel, you can take a taxi. All taxi rides within city limits in Gangtok, irrespective of distance costs Rs50. Similar rate applies for other towns, Rs40 or 30 depending on the size of the town. Unlike unmetered taxis in “cow belt” Indian towns, Sikkim taxi drivers normally do not overcharge tourists.
[vii] To keep the place from degenerating like Goa or becoming a filthy slum like Darjeeling, Sikkim Govt. does not allow lifts, to discourage too tall builds.
[viii] India has 6 seasons, each about 2 months long : grishshwa = summer (starts mid April), borsha = monsoon (mid June), sharat = 1st autumn (mid Aug), hemanta = 2nd autumn (mid Oct), sheet = winter (mid Dec) & basanta = spring (mid Feb). The intensity and duration varies from place to place and year to year.
[ix] Unit of local self government.

(to be continued, when I have time)

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