Monday, May 26, 2014

Travel Again - Part 1 - Weekend getaway to Gangtok

I believe that sequels are not such a great phenomena. But travel is a issue which is simple and exhaustive enough to allow everyone to pen down his thoughts. So the reboot is destined to start with memoirs of a few recent travels.

Living in Siliguri in northern part of West Bengal has been a pleasant experience. Siliguri is the second largest city in West Bengal and now boasts of a wide array of facilities and amenities. But more importantly it is the gateway to Sikkim and rest of the North East Indian states. Be it road, train or air you have to pass through here to go further ahead, no wonder the whole area is known as Chicken Neck.

I have been to Gangtok a few times before, but thanks to an extended weekend a quick plan was worked out and one fine friday morning our group of four started from Siliguri early in the morning. It  was the beginning of the tourist season so we found the roads in Siliguri in our way all patched up and the Gangtok trip started with a nice drive. After leaving Sevoke behind we were driving on a beautiful road made through the centre of a reserve forest. The quickly passing signs of "Elephants have Right of Way. Do not Obstruct." made us focus out to spot some pachyderm. The dense, tall and varied hues of green trees interspread with colourful flowers mixing a tinge of bright yellow, wonderful violet and pleasant blue on the pastel of green foliage was soothing to the eyes, the cool & slightly moist air all around immediately elevated the mood and spirits from the basic conscious state that we daily wake up with and lives on in our normal day.

Soon the forest cover thinned out and on to one side the river Teesta with its large banks filled with sand and rocks gradually came into view. The sight of numerous trucks taking away the natural bounty of rocks and creating ugly craters all around was an unfortunate sight. Far away in the south the outline of huge barrage on the river could be made out where the river suddenly spreads out occupying all of its wide banks.

After passing a railway crossing we entered in the hills and started our gradual climb on the road. Before and after the railway crossing on both sides of the road were populated by shops catering for people going up and coming down. These shops were in minor ways different from their counterpart of the city and gave an early glimpse of the same which are dotting all along the roads in the mountain state of Sikkim. The drive continued effortlessly with the comforting sight of Teesta on to our right and hills all around covered evenly and extensively with local flora. Looking around we could only see either the road ahead, the greenery around, the sky on top and river below. It didn't took us long to arrive at the famous Coronation Bridge where the NH-31 on which we were travelling is divided into NH-31A & NH-31B. Wiki records says that this arch bridge is almost 75 yrs old. This yellow and pink coloured landmark presents a beautiful photoshoot opportunity for first timers going into Sikkim.  We pushed ahead keeping with our own pace. Another landmark in form of a huge concrete wall spanning from one side of the valley to another was totally out of place in the scenic surrounding and weather. As it turns out this is one of the many hydroelectric project which is harnessing the power of mountain rivers of Sikkim. Continuing ahead on the curving roads with the same scenery only with Teesta filled on the brim due to large amount of water being held back literally by thousands of hands who had worked on the dam. On the way to Rangpo we crossed junction going to Kalimpong thereafter Meli Bazar. Near Meli Bazar is the place where River Teesta coming rushing down south all the way from north most parts of Sikkim is joined by the holy River Rangit. The dark coloured waters of Rangit maintaining its identity for some time downstream and then playfully both the streams become one in appearance and name. This place has a reasonably large sand bank with the whole area considered holy by the local population. From here to Rangpo there are several sites suitable for a picnic spot, the road being near to the river stream and there being lots of space in the valley bottom filled with sand and rocks. This portion of Teesta is also used for providing river rafting facilities. Also slightly ahead an area comes which has a planned plantation of trees. The floor of this planted area was evenly covered with old, withered leaves. This setting presented a unique opportunity worth capturing in a camera. So while not on the way up but next day while returning we let out the shutterbugs and made brief halts at the river bank & in the woods. 
Right in the Woods
The sun was rising up in the horizon and the empty stomachs were wanting a refill of Wei-Wei. From Rangpo crossed over Teesta and after crossing through a check post we were in Sikkim. The road on way to Namchi was under construction at quite a few places, causing jolts and shocks. As we begin our drive up towards Namchi, the weather was hazy otherwise on the way the hill on which Darjeeling is situated is clearly visible and so is the towering icy covered mountain peaks around Mount Kanchenjunga.

Reaching Namchi, the first destination was Namchi Helipad also known as Assangthang. The helipad has an area atleast the size of a football field on a tabletop ridge. The view from this place is amazing, with a clear view of sacred Rangit river meandering around the Namchi hill after coming down from the north and in the east the giant statues of Padmasambhava (the world largest statue of the Buddhist guru) and Lord Shiva statue of Siddheshwar Dham. Enroute we paid our due in a Sai Baba temple. The Sai Baba temple was very nice with large halls and quite well made and neatly decorated with paintings and engravings. The main attraction for us was Siddheshwar Dham. This is a unique pilgrimage destination which has replica of all four Dhams of the country together in addition to the replica of twelve jyotirlinga of Lord Shiva along with a Giant Statue of Lord Shiv. The whole complex was very neatly and beautifully laid out. The beauty of the shrine enhancing its spirituality.  Even in todays world of quick, easy and rapid connectivity it is not easy to travel to the famous temples of India and it was a satisfying experience to pay my sincere prayers to the replica of these sacred shrines. With a bit of spiritual peace and contentment, I had already achieved the satisfaction of this trip. With a quick lunch at the Dham itself our drive continued. 

Lord Shiva at Siddheshwar Dham
Panoramic View of Siddheshwar Dham 

We expected a paucity of time, having departed from Namchi past 2 o'clock in the afternoon we were aiming to hit Gangtok before dark. So the idea of Guru Rinpoche( Padmasambhava) as well as a stop at rock garden was dropped. Our route being to reach Singtam after crossing Damthang. Before long the weather started turning cloudy and almost simultaneously we uncovered large tea garden spanning up and down the sloping mountain sides on which the road was constructed. This made us do a pit stop at a road side tea cafe for a sip of the local organic tea. While the tea brewed in the kettle we ventured through the tea plantation all the while electronically preserving the memories. The tea was fine but the place and the environment was more refreshing than the variety of caffeine served in the cups. These tea gardens are the lone ones in Sikkim producing their own variety of Temi Tea.  

Sikkimese Tea Garden at Temi
Initially we continued our climb up to cross a ridge that separated Teesta valley from the Samdruptse Hill of Namchi, thereafter we gradually descended along the Teesta valley and reached the town of Singtam after crossing  Teesta over a bridge. Now we were deeply inside Sikkim and every aspect of landscape outside reflected a bit of Sikkimese culture- the people, clothes, buildings etc. The way to Gangtok was not much far away now and just by sun-down we were in the limits of Gangtok city. It was an altogether different affair that it took us almost an hour to locate our resting place for the night.


Once we were done resting for sometime, the guys in the group came down straight to business. Well none of us had really visited Sikkim or Gangtok or any such place. But when the whole plan was being worked out there was one point aim of this getaway and that was The Casino. My friends had not been to Casino before and I guess they were too much influenced by the images of swanky, modern casino floors which are huge and offer all kinds of games and options to play and definitely a world class luxurious environment. But the reality was different. Anyways not to break the excitement I let the hopes and dreams be what they were intended to be. So at around 8 in the night we set course to the epicentre of all our hopes. I did try to quietly level the expectations with the reality. But the Hollywood images of Las Vegas Casinos were too deeply engraved. But the reality had to hit and it did. In India only two places have  casinos - Goa and Sikkim. The Casino Mahjong co-located with Mayfair resort is the place for people who believe in their luck working for them. Everything that has a start has an ending and after couple of hours and testing our luck at Slot machine, Black-Jack but mostly Roulette, we were back in our place of accommodation late in the night.Finally the itch of casino was dealt with.

The restful night in Gangtok gave way to a beautiful and lazy morning with clouds slowly drifting in and out of the valley and added with a bit of drizzle now and then. Again it was time for the second most important agenda of the trip, MG road. After navigating through the clean city road which were thoughtfully provided with fenced pedestrian lane. I would describe the feeling of Gangtok city as smart. Definitely not crowded or giving a vibe of confusion or overpowering. It seemed to be quite welcoming though being intriguing. The shops and building being decently constructed and maintained. The people all of which were nicely dressed and seemed fashionable to an extent. The traffic was well controlled and it took us some time to figure out how to go around the place without inviting the wrath of traffic cops. Managed to find a parking spot a wee bit away from MG road. Just in front over there was the ropeway. The ropeway in located around south east side of the city with its ride offering a bird eye view of the city around and below. Again due to early rains in the morning the air was hazy and the view was not at its best. 
Bird's Eye View from Cable Car

A morning View of M G Marg
Next we quickly reached MG road and walked up and down the no-vehicle shopping area. This road is a beauty in itself, encompassing and a reflection of the smartness of city of Gangtok. It is a ritual to have a few clicks and we promptly obliged in earnest. For sometime we checked out a few shops and brought a few souvenirs each. Then we settled comfortable on few of the numerous seats uniformly spread through the road. It was a liberating feeling to be just sitting on a street chair, no worldly worries on mind, breathing cool, refreshing mountain air, just calmly looking at people passing by- some rushing for work, some tourists like us, kids in school dress, shopkeepers, people of all ages, size and gender. The last though equally important thing for us was to satisfy our complaining tummies. Baker's Cafe is a shop which I prefer to have at least one meal while in Gangtok. No question about the nice food, the decor and ambience of this shop is truly global. The shop is aptly decorated with souvenirs from several corners of the globe like a reminder of a bit of flavour of each of these places present in the cuisine of the place. With this our last item on the to-do list got ticked off and a bit after noon we started our return leg of the journey.

This post has been an epic write for a small journey. But probably it was the journey and experiences that was worth penning in every detail. Finally managed to complete a worthwhile post on this blog, with more to follow. 

The end result was an amazing outing with close buddies and we logged Namchi and Gangtok from our to-do list. North Sikkim coming up next. 


1 comment:

  1. It was lovely reading your blog post. Siliguri. Siliguri serves as a pit-stop of immense variety when heading to hill stations like Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. Click here to explore more about Siliguri tourism.