Making inroads into North Sikkim

The mysteriously tucked away locales in North Sikkim were opened up for travelers quite recently because of the international border frictions between India and China. More so ever because a geo-political hotspot named Tibet lies between the two huge nations.But when visiting the small Himalayan state of Sikkim,a trip to North cannot be missed.It will be like being in Agra and missing the Taj Mahal itself.While the capital Gangtok lies in East Sikkim,much of the unexplored and exotic Himalayan landscapes lie in the Northern district,almost head-plunging into the Chinese Autonomous Region of Tibet.And so,we needed IDs and permits to get on with our journey,which could be easily done at the Tourism office at Gangtok itself.

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Himalayan peaks looming over the horizon on the road to Lachung
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The seven sister falls on the entrance to North Sikkim
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The beautiful village of Lachung early in the morning
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Getting up from the lodge to the majestic views outside the window

The road from Gangtok to Lachung in North Sikkim runs for around 150 kms but a highly tasking four wheel drive takes around 6-7 hours to complete the route and believe me when I say that all the discomfort and trouble on the road is worthwhile to get to this paradise of a place.One of my friends on the route aptly described us as the Fellowship of the Ring,moving towards the ethereal lands of Rivendall where elves dwell.

We left Gangtok at around 7 in the morning after a light breakfast(always take light food before embarking on grinding mountain roads,because your stomach churns) and went past lovely Sikkimese hamlets where children were on their way to school.The road rose higher and once we gained enough height,the snow capped mountains loomed grandly on the horizons.The twisting roads are just another character in the larger story.They were muddy,treacherous ,scary and not quite wide at points but if one thing kept us away from the rugged jerking on the roads ,it was the view all around us.Sublime and grand.

The roads looked as threads wrapped around hills from a distance and once or twice we had reservations as to if we could get through this,but we did.And then we would look behind us and stare at the driver with amazement as to how could we cross that narrow stretch.We learnt that on conditions like these,you have to trust your driver completely.We would introduce our effervescent and charming driver Parsu later on in the course of the journey.
Villages,schools,markets pass your view but the population getting thinner as you move further up the mountains.You look down in the valley and see the river running like a small thread,because of the height and then you look up and see the huge ,dominating mountains who always seem a bit far away.It’s the view above on the horizon that keeps you enthralled all along the way.It takes your mind away from the mind-numbing physical strain the road is putting you into.

At the entrance to the district of North Sikkim lies the Seven Sister Falls a small gorge like structure where the waterfalls trickles down from higher hills.It must be named after 7 falls but we could not count all of them.It is the last crowded area after which both men and vehicles gradually decreased till upto Lachung.We reached the town of Mangan at lunchtime,the district head quarters of North Sikkim and the permits were checked by police check posts on the way.It is always advisable to check into these kind of local police check points because in case of landslides(that happen very frequently) and other natural calamities,the authorities always have an estimate of how much people to rescue on the road and that makes everybody’s task easier.
Many small hamlets beyond we reached the little town of Chungthang late in the afternoon.The sunlight had disappeared over the high mountains and the air had gone quite cold.We stopped over for a hot cup of tea at a road side stall.Further inroads the gorgeous white peaks loomed above and wild horses grazed on the lush grasslands below.Rivendall was near.
Before the road moves higher upto Lachung town,it divides itself to go on a different route to Lachen and the famed Gurudongmar Lake,something we skipped for a later trip someday.

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the first rays of the sun hitting the peaks in the morning
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Lachung-Sikkim’s most beautiful hamlet

While the twilight fog had descended on the heavenly Lachung Valley,the place seemed akin to some paradise…a kind of Last Shangri-La.While we entered Lachung proper the light had faded out completely and the only thing we could listen was the lyrical sound of waterfalls and streams running by the town.Another noticeable thing in the dark was the bitter cold…it was quite some time before we got used to the harsh and bone-chilling temperature.In the Himalayan Journal of 1855,the British explorer Joseph Dalton Hooker described Lachung as the most picturesque village of Sikkim.The name means a small pass and lies near the border with Tibet,that explains the presence of a forward military base of Indian Army.The town is situated at about 9500 feet above sea level and you get the essence of the grand Himalayan landscape.

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The road from Yumthang Valley to Zero Point in North Sikkim
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The local shops near Yumthang Valley

There are basic accommodation facilities in the town and you won’t get much fancy stuff around here.No television, no mobile network,no internet….most people would cringe at the very idea but spend a few days here,and you realize that they are not as necessary as they once seemed to you.After deciding that even touching water was a horrendous task in itself we gathered at the dining area of the lodge to have a night of social gathering where everybody in the lodge joined in,including our driver Parsu and the resident cook-Raj.The group sang songs,danced and talked late into the night.These kind of get-togethers are one of the positive side-effects of not having a television around you to keep you stupidly glued.When all forms of modern entertainment are absent from your sight,socializing is the only and healthy option left luckily.The climax of the small party came when the locally brewed ‘Dokhi’ or ‘Chhang’ was passed around for everybody to taste in a bamboo container ,along with a wooden straw.Parsu-our driver informed us that the local people are called LachungPa and have no proper idea whether they live in India,or Nepal or Tibet.He also said that a local king is elected for governing and his writ runs over and above the government’s,adding that the king has disallowed buying land by outsiders in the area.Many of us were disappointed by the last statement as our retirement plans vanished straight into air.
Late into the night,the Fellowship was tired and we went to sleep….each of us wearing shoes,two jackets,mufflers and two blankets to bed.

Sleep was hard to come by and we were up at 4 in the morning.Fighting hard the numbing cold outside ,we opened the door of the lodge to get a feel of Lachung outside.It was still dark.
A small group of us,decided to stroll around the town and see the sun rise over the beautiful town.
That particular moment when the 1st rays of suns hits the icy tips of mountains is so beautiful,we stood watching it for several minutes. The white peaks turning violet in the first light, then a bit pinkish and finally a shade of golden with sunrays. Joseph Hooker ,the British explorer who came here 160 years and and everybody else who said about this place were making an understatement when they said it was the most beautiful hamlet in Sikkim…it was so much more. It was something words cannot do justice to, so we leave something unsaid here.The bulb-lit rooms of the few lodges seem perfect with the snow hills behind as the backdrop…perfectly out of the world.

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Prayer flags in Yumthang Valley
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The snow clad Yumthang Valley in spring(March),North Sikkim

After having a light breakfast and arranging knee length boots we were off to the dazzling Yumthang Valley,20 kms up into the mountains from the town of Lachung.Yumthang is closed around 7-8 months a year due to heavy snowfall that block the access routes ,so your timing has to be precise.The white Himalayan peaks that played hide and seek with throughout your journey to North Sikkim,welcomes you to it’s lap and once you enter the Rhododendron sanctuary road in Yumthang,you are literally in fairyland.All vehicles stop at the valley where eateries and other shops are located and you can see tourists and families throwing ice on each other and walking cautiously over the slippery ice bed in the valley.The amateur ones often fall over their first walk on ice but it takes just a few minutes to learn the trick of walking over snowy slopes.Hot maggies,eggs and coffee to add to the flavor.The bright sunlight ,being reflected on the huge expanse of icy landscape can hurt your eyes.Spending an entire day here,just exploring the stunning place is a child’s joy.We simply wandered off on our own-huge meadows if ice,a small stream of icy cold water ,then a pine forest beyond on the slopes of a hill and there’s a stupa there too.

While in Yumthang Valley,take a 20 km drive right upto Zero Point which is also known as Yumesamdong Valley ….a place that is straight out from the book definitions of being exotic.This is as far as in North Sikkim you would be allowed,because what lies ahead is the Chinese-Tibetan territory.A strikingly beautiful and easy trekking route connects Yumthang to the Lachen/Gurudongmar circuit which we could not visit on this trip.As spring ends and summer approaches here in high hills,yaks are taken upto the meadows to graze by local herdsmen.And here we learnt that yaks would become sick and uncomfortable if you take them below 8000 feet altitude,and off course the plain holy cows would feel the same up here.But we were disappointed when the herdsmen said that even here,cattle give milk only…not ice-cream directly.

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The road from Lachung to Yumthang Valley through the Rhododendron sanctuary
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A small stream originates from the molten ice near Yumthang Valley

After having the last lunch at the lodge in Lachung,we made the journey back to Gangtok the same day,a 150 km drive through wild and exhilarating country side in North Sikkim.

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Hills near Lachung
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The landscape spread out near Yumthang Valley

The district of North Sikkim is one of the least populated in the country and most of the remote areas here remain unexplored as the area was opened up quite late for travelers.This is the place to experience the glories of Eastern Himalayas before the gigantic mountains taper off in to smaller hill ranges in India’s North-East. Unlike the Leh-Manali-Himachal circuit which have been invaded by tourists and backpackers recently,Sikkim retains a peaceful and calm atmosphere……a place akin to what James Hilton described in the Lost Horizon as the Shangri-la,a mythical ,utopian and immortal place in the Himalayas where people come to find peace and happiness.

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