If I were to play a game of word associations starting with the term "North-East", I wouldn't get too far. "Assam", "Cherrapunji", "rainfall", "Nagaland" and "tribes" would be some of the associations I would make. But beyond that, I would, it's likely, draw a blank. As would most of us Indians.
I would probably fare better on a quiz about the United States than on one about any of India's North-Eastern states - definitely not something to be proud of. But the upside is, when you do visit this place, which you have so few preconceived notions about, you are ready to soak up the experience like a sponge.
|Getting there by air: The nearest airport is Bagdogra (124 km), which connects with flights from Delhi and Kolkata. Private taxis to Gangtok are available from the airport for Rs 1,800. For a little adventure, there's also a daily helicopter service (fare Rs 1,500 per person) between Bagdogra and Gangtok. |
By rail: The nearest railhead is New Jalpaiguri (NJP), 125 km away. There are several trains available from Kolkata. Book well in advance though. Hire a private taxi from NJP (Rs 1,500) to get to Gangtok.
Sikkim Tourist Department, M. G. Marg, Gangtok. Call on 03592223425
Must Visit: Hire a vehicle for the day for a trip to Tsomgo lake and the Nathu La pass that has an Indo-China borderpost. You need the Indian army's permission to travel there though, so make sure you go via a registered travel agent who will get the necessary paperwork done for you first.
Which is why, despite the rainy season not being the best time to visit, a stay in Sikkim left me with memories to cherish.
Bursting with life
Once we left the sun-scorched plains of Siliguri in a taxi and took to the hills on the NH 31A, the temperature dropped sharply and a cool wood-scented breeze whipped against our faces.
‘Be careful on my curves' read a cheeky sign by the Border Roads Organisation. As our vehicle snaked through the steep and narrow mountain bends and over countless bridges, the angry, brown river Teesta kept us constant company right through our journey to Gangtok, Sikkim's capital.
It was the end of June when we made the trip so the rains had well and truly arrived in Sikkim by then. Life had blossomed in every nook and cranny on the landscape around us. Soft, green, velvety folds covered the gentle, rolling hills. Fed by torrents of rain and snow, the Teesta was already gushing madly at this time of the year.
Most of Sikkim's periphery in the west, north and the east is lined with Himalayan ranges, with only the south lead ing to the plains of West Bengal. This strange horseshoe shape of the state is what helps traps all the rain clouds in. The state is one of the smallest in the country too, a mere 100 km in length and about 65 km in breadth. But even this tiny area packs in a variety of climates from the tropical to the temperate. A drive through the clouds For a while on the road to Sikkim, it felt like a chunk of the Konkan had been transplanted to the foot of the Eastern Himalayas. Wayside villages were crowded with betelnut, banana and rice plantations. Ten km away from Gangtok, the scenery turned hazy. We had climbed up to an altitude of over a 1,000 metres by now and were literally driving through the clouds.
Dark rain clouds as well as fluffy cotton candy ones had slid into the valley and packed themselves smugly against the mountains. By the time we reached Gangtok, a light drizzle had begun, the clouds had enveloped the city completely and we could barely see the valley below. An ideal capital But the one thing I learned after a day or two in Gangtok was that the weather changes by the minute. It could rain for 15 minutes and then be dry all day long. Or you could you wake up to warm sunshine and a clear blue sky only to have an army of rain clouds appear out of nowhere and keep you indoors the whole day. These hide-andseek games of the clouds in the valley though, could keep you engrossed by your window for hours on end.
Exploring Sikkim in the "offseason" is a unique experience. The place is free of annoying crowds of tourists and it's so much more peaceful. It's best to have Gangtok as your home base and explore different places around it for the few days that you spend here.
Gangtok is everything that a state capital should be. It's neat, orderly and a model for other developing towns to emulate. Being situated over 1,000 metres above sea level in a narrow valley means space is at a premium here. Roads are steep and narrow. Houses seem to be crammed together. But the authorities have made the most of this problem of infrastructure. No vehicle can park on a road or even make a quick halt as a passenger gets off. All taxis can only park at designated taxi stands. Your hotel is too far off from the nearest taxi stand? Too bad, just take a walk.
But I had no idea of how seriously the authorities take keeping order in the city until I dashed over a granite divider on M G Road, the city's main artery , to get to a shop on the other side of the road. Three policemen came running behind me, their shrill whistles blaring. "You can't walk over the divider, ma'am," said one. "There are special breaks along the divider at specific points. Use those to cross the road please," said another. Several passers-by stopped to stare at the law-breaker. I mumbled an apology .
Spitting and littering are also no-nos. It's a rule that almost everyone follows. M G Road, which is open only to pedestrians, is a spit-free and litter-free zone. Shops, cafés and pubs line this pretty stretch. All buildings are painted in a dark and pale green combination, giving the street an even more orderly appearance. All around the road's long divider are wrought iron benches for passersby to relax. M G Road is the widest road in Gangtok (and therefore, a luxury) and is protected zealously. A team of policemen patrols it at all times. Trade talk A day or two is sufficient to see the sights in and around Gangtok city . What you absolutely shouldn't miss though is a drive out of Gangtok, further north east, to Tsomgo lake and the Nathu La pass, which is an Indo-China border post. The region has a strong military presence and you need to get a special entry permit from the Indian army to get up to Nathu La pass, but it's well worth the effort.
You'll find a flourishing Chinese market close to the Nathu La pass, on the Indian side of the border. Several small traders from China cross the border into India every day and set up stalls selling clothes, shoes, bags and fashion accessories. Their Indian counterparts set up a similar market on the Chinese side of the border. The opening of the Nathu La pass for trade has gladdened many in Sikkim.
But for me, the most poignant memory of my stay in Sikkim is its pristine beauty.
Part of the HT Pullouts team, Sai, who anchors Body & Soul, is as adept with the camera as with the pen