Though ‘tok’ means hill,I could not precisely find out what Gangtok means.may be just a hill top.Anyway Tashi Delek( a Tibetan greeting )
Catch an early cab from the town of Siliguri in north Bengal for Gangtok at the New Jalpiaguri Railway station for around 200/- for one seat and luggage.It takes around 3-3.5 hours to reach the hill station,situated at the foothills of the mighty Himalayan ranges.Siliguri is called the gateway to North East because it being the last major railway terminal before the geography changes into hilly terrains and you are at the mercy of four wheel drives.The plains gradually give way to rolling hills and the change is dramatically beautiful to watch by your cab window.Gangtok is around 90 odd kms from Siliguri and the route runs along the sparkling waters of river Teesta.As you leave behind Bengal and enter the enchanting state of Sikkim at Rangpo the Teesta Valley opens up to give gorgeous views of the mountains.
Midway to Gangtok,the road bifurcates at a small junction called Meli which leads another route to Darjeeling-Queen of Hills.Not just the landscape but the air itself changes as you gain height on the road to Sikkim.It should because you are at the foothills of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world.The route along NH-31A winds it’s way through small towns like Rangpo,Majhitar and Singtam before it reaches one of India’s most eye-catching hill stations-Gangtok.The town rises above you on the slopes of hills ,like a huge statue .A freshness hangs in the air,the smell of the hills as Ruskin Bond would say.
Gangtok is not only beautiful to look at but quite decently maintained by the authorities there and perhaps a tad better than many other hill stations in India.You will not find the usual chaos of other hill stations when it comes to traffic and roads( a case in point when compared to Darjeeling later on).It’s a town of around 80,000 people built on many levels and at the very top lies the main thoroughfare of the town i.e the MG Road.The best of accommodations and food courts are mostly nestled around the L-shaped MG Road and it’s a delight to walk around the area in evenings.Thanks to the administration,no vehicles are allowed on the road and they are not needed at all.The tourism office there arranges all permits and passes for foraying into remote routes of Sikkim and it’s there I learnt that ‘Tok’ means hill and Tashi Delek means a refined form of greeting in Tibetan.
The various levels of the town are inter connected through small criss-crossing staircases ,something I found while exploring on foot.Gangtok is an ideal place to spend some time,getting used to the rarified air of the mountains ,specially if you are planning to move higher into proper Himalayan territory for your travels.In short terms,the air becomes light and cold as you gain height geographically and also the amount of oxygen content reduces so going straight into high mountains can cause serious health problems because people who live in plain areas have adapted to different climatic conditions over the years.As our oxygen intake reduces ,we feel more exhausted in our physical efforts,so this is something to be taken care of.
It feels wonderful to live in a place without fans or ACs ,because you won’t ever need it here.Gangtok is home to Sikkimese,Nepalis,Lepchas,Bhutias,Gurkhas,Tiebtans and also Bengalis and the provide the town a quite cosmopolitan outlook.It also goes on to say that a place can be modern and vibrant and yet calm and serene when you wake up every morning and few days at Gangtok can be soothing on your body and soul.
Himalayan hill stations stand at the cross roads of two great and ancient civilizations ,that of India and China ,so the influence of these great cultures shows colorfully in towns like Gangtok.It’s a melting pot of Chinese,Tibetan,Nepali and Indian cultures on the roads of Gangtok.
After having a hot momo at one of the cafes in MG Road,just allow yourself to walk around the town and discover the place at your own pace and comfort.As evening descends on the hills,the air becomes even more chilly and lights starts to twinkle on the slopes.At night,you can see the entire town lighted up from some vantage points.And I suppose everybody makes it a point to come to MG Road in evening ,it’s a fare and you can watch the crowd just strolling around by sitting on one of the benches there.There are water fountains,flowers hanging from lamp posts and smiling faces of people hanging around the area.Though the crowd mostly consists of people from outside ,still you can never be sure.Couples,students,college goers,families in woolen clothes,elderly couples in shawls and strange travelers ,like us ,all gather at this junction when sun goes down in Gangtok.
Don’t let the vibrant atmosphere elude you,the town shuts down by 9:30 in the evening so better have your meals by that time.It’s a common point I have found in almost all hill-stations i.e people shut down quickly and open up late in the morning.The life is laidback and easy going and you instantly want to leave everything behind in the large cities and belong here for the time being.One small note of caution though is-don’t binge too much on momos and noodles,while here.
Once the charming town of Gangtok is explored ,we moved onto the areas nearby that are of interest.The most famous and grand of all monasteries in Sikkim perhaps is the Rumtek.The monastery stands on an adjacent hill top,around 24 kms from the town and one thing that you would notice on arrival is the huge number of security guards on duty. Small stupas that adorn the top of the main building are crested in gold and there are rumors of a mysterious hat hidden in the monastery,which should not be touched or found. Allegedly the hat holds the key to the enormous amount of wealth and treasures stashed away in the monastery and hence the high security.
Apart from these details,Rumtek is a place for peace and contemplation while here.Small and aged monks scurry around the hermitage and go on with their daily routine of work,study and prayers.The main prayer chamber is impressive and huge,with butter lamps glowing in large rows.
Drul-Chen Monastery & Namgyal Institute of Tibetology-this compound lies inside the town,near the area called as Deorali.Monks and nuns move around the central complex and turn the “wheel of dharma” clockwise to symbolize the turning of life-cycle.Buddhist prayer flags adorn the paths all the way to these monasteries ,fluttering in the cool mountain breeze.The study of Buddhist prayer flags would take another time and day but the simple thing to remember is-The 5 colours on the flag are-blue, white, red, green, and yellow in that particular order. Blue symbolizes the sky and space, white symbolizes the air and wind, red symbolizes fire, green symbolizes water, and yellow symbolizes earth.These flags are gifted and donated during various occasions as birth,death and marriage in the society.
At the Museum of Tibetology-we glimpsed into the mythical world of Tibetan Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism.All the folklores and mythology associated with Buddhism over the centuries have been chronicled for study by scholars and it gives detailed descriptions on various tantric rituals that pervaded Buddhism in early centuries and how an entire mythology has been created out of Buddhist traditions,exactly the kind of thing Buddha preached against in his time.Like every religion elsewhere,Buddhism in it’s crude form has been given a official structure and one of the world’s 1st atheists has been turned into an idol to be worshipped.Most of the manuscripts,relics,documents and other artefacts have been brought along from Lhasa/Tibet during the exile of Tibetan refugees to India in 1960s.
The Drul Chen Monastery and the Museum lie on either side of the road near Deorali.
The Ropeway near Deorali square is an excellent way to view the town from up above and it’s a must to be done.You will see a pretty little town perched on the slopes of lush green hills and the main street of Deorali-MG Road cutting through the upper ridge of Gangtok like a backbone on a reptile.Nearby is the Ridge Park and a small and exotic place for viewing Himalayan orchids and rhododendrons,the kind of flowers that one can see in the wild after trekking for several days in the mountains.
Some of the sights worth seeing lie just outside Gangtok town,once you get away from the streets.Like the Bakhtang and Lhasa falls on the outskirts just along the Gangtok-Nathula road.The road further moves on to Tashi View Point-a watch tower from which,if you are lucky,you ‘ll see the most breathtaking views of Mt.Kanchenzunga-India’s highest and world’s 3rd highest peak,that stands at the border between India and Nepal.I say lucky because most of the time,a thick cloud of mist and fog obstructs the view from the point.Tashi view point lies high above the town and hence the entire place can easily be observed from here.
Near by a small hillock is named “Bulbuley” and it houses two treasures.One of them will require your time and patience if you have an appetite for wildlife-the Himalayan Red Panda and the highly elusive snow leopard are some indigenous animals found at the Himalayan Zoological Park and it’s a delight to just lazily stroll around the park and eat at a small cafeteria thereafter.Climbing down from the hill that houses the Zoo,you can enter the hill on the other side which houses Ganesh Tok-a temple of Ganesh stands on a small hillock.The tourists can dress up in traditional Sikkimese costumes and pose for photos there.Most of them look rather silly in them.
Travels to outer lying areas like Changu Lake/Baba Harbhajan mandir and Nathula will take up entirely a day from Gangtok,i.e from dawn to dusk.These are the nearest places to Gangtok where you can get some icy terrain and behave like tourists who roll balls of ice and throw on each other.If you are short on time,go on a day trip to these areas but if you have the belly for adventure and thirst to experience the essence of high Himalayas-move to North Sikkim,a world within a world…..and yet North Sikkim is breathtakingly out of the world in all senses.We visited North Sikkim almost a year later,read on at https://thelosthermit.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/making-inroads-into-north-sikkim-2/
The second time around we came back to Gangtok was during the month of March which is spring time in the hills and weather is clear and soothing by all means.Before moving on to an adventurous trip to North Sikkim few days later,we had a day or two on our hands and we strolled around the town once again.A place of sublime beauty that we missed last time was a Hanuman Temple located high up on a hill above Gangtok town,and obviously called as –Hanuman Tok.As the afternoon light faded slowly over the hills surrounding the temple ,the mist cleared and huge mountains of snow appeared over the horizon….the icy peaks playing hide and seek among clouds of fog.Just standing there among those peaks,gives you an ethereal feeling of being protected from everything in life ,like sitting in the lap of mother earth herself.
The day we were about to proceed on the tour to North Sikkim from Gangtok,we saw a pretty extraordinary sight ever from the balcony of Nirvana Residency on MG Road.
When we got up at around 5 in the morning ,we stood speechless in the hotel balcony for around 3-4 minutes ……such was the frame in front of us.Mt. Kanchenjunga stood crystal clear and turning a golden hue in the 1st rays of the sun.India’s highest peak and world’s 3rd highest is visible from Gangtok on very rare occasions when the weather is clear and so it was that very morning.Kanchenjunga stands on the borders of Nepal and Sikkim and the massif consists of five peaks clustered together which literally translates to “Five treasures of snow” or Kanchenjunga.The mountain is worshipped by Tibetans,Nepalis and people of Sikkim as a living god and through an ancient pact made to the Namgyal(King) of Sikkim ,no climber violates the summit of Kanchenjunga.They always stop short of it.
There are some sights that make your treacherous travels seem worthwhile and the view of India’s highest peak in the golden rays of morning sun will certainly count as one of them.