This is a trip that we planned in less than two weeks and surprised ourselves with the myriad experiences that we could explore across two states and four cities. It is not a laundry list of things that you must do. This blog is an idea of how best you can plan a trip to West Bengal and Sikkim based on what we got right and wrong. I’ve included local tips and information which I wish I knew before we went there. (The photos are raw & not colour corrected)
Duration- 10 days Month- February Weather- Winter
Darjeeling- Sterling Resorts- has been renovated recently and is a fantastic stay. It is located in Ghoom away from the center city and has a brilliant view of the mighty Kanchenjunga.
Pelling– Elgin Mount which I would highly recommend though it is expensive as Pelling doesn’t have too many comfortable hotels. You can have a closer view of Kanchenjunga from the rooms. The food here is excellent and the hot water bags they keep on your bed are very helpful. In the evenings, I sat by the fire in their lounge and enjoyed conversations with fellow travelers.
Gangtok– Sterling Resorts- this is an average property part owned by a government official.
Lachung– Etho Metho- this is new and a tastefully done place. While the standard rooms are decent, the suits and attic rooms are exceptional. Their dining/bar has a fire place and a pet pup joined the day we reached.
Budget for Two in INR
Air Travel (Chennai to Bagdogra) – 22,000 to 25,000 round trip
Cab Hire for Off-Season- 40,000-47,000 for ten days
White Water Rafting- 3,500 for one boat
Nathula Pass- 2,500 / ticket
Zero Point and Mt Katao- 2,500 entry for each point
Car Hire/Internal Transport- If you are visiting Sikkim, you have to hire a car because only locally registered vehicles are allowed inside military guarded areas which is predominantly most parts of the place. We used one cab agency to arrange our entire transport from airport pick-up, internal travel and drop back at the airport. Finding the right agent was a painstaking process as most travel companies had a set tourist itinerary and were not flexible to accommodate our changes. We didn’t compromise until we found an agent willing to take us to places where we wanted to go.
Except in the cities of Darjeeling and Gangtok, there will be a lot of off-roading throughout the trip. Particularly in Pelling, you will drive up and down over rocks and gravel. Initially a Wagon-R was suggested for us since we were a couple but after reading several reviews, I insisted on a big car. We got a Bolero, it was still bad. I would suggest hiring an Innova if you want to be comfortable. If this proves to be expensive, book the Innova just for Pelling and North Sikkim. The rest of the pot-holed roads are manageable. Ensure that these cars are ‘reserved’ and you have it in writing. You may still have people stopping your car for a lift. I was worried initially but it’s the way of life here since everybody knows everybody. They also have shared-cars similar to the concept of share autos which you can take locally and it will cost you between Rs 20 and Rs 50 even for long distances.
The road travel is truly a back-breaking drive but you will be soothed by the breathtaking beauty. You will just not be able to take your eyes away while driving past dense forests, postcard towns with cobbled streets, green rivers, innumerable water falls, lush monsoon greenery and of course if the view is clear-the mighty Himalayas.
I like to plan my own itinerary for my travels and I generally try to stay away from over-crowded tourist spots. We personalised our trip to be mix of adventure, hikes, sight-seeing, set foot outside the Indian border and just relax. If your fitness is on point, you can solely go for adventure and trekking. There is immense potential in West Bengal and Sikkim for that and I can assure you that the experience is unparalleled. Since we went during winter, we missed a lot of ‘views’ due to the mist. If you don’t want the experience of winter or snow, the best time to visit is between March and May.
Here is what we did-
Day 1- Bagdogra airport is the common point to go to Darjeeling and Sikkim. We wanted to progress our trip from a lower altitude so our first point was Darjeeling (3 hour drive).
We checked in at our hotel in Ghoom and went for a spa that evening and prepped ourselves for the long drives to come in the next ten days. Start your day as early as possible and aim to be back in your hotel by 5pm or 6pm as there is nothing to do here once it is dark. Early mornings and from late evenings onward, the temperature is the coldest while it is warm mid-day between 7-10 degree celsius.
Day 2- Enjoy the local city by going on a cable car, visit a tea estate and get used to the cold and altitude. We wanted to see Tenzing Norgay’s equipment so we went to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute (HMI) which is inside the city zoo. Both are maintained really well.
The Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre started in 1959, following the dramatic escape of the Dalai Lama. The products made here are not sold outside. It’s their only livelihood so you can buy souvenirs and gifts here.
Our last plan for the day was the Darjeeling-Himalayan Railway, a joy ride- the charm is obviously the steam engine. There will be tickets available online through the day but the trains run only thrice a day! We booked online and received a cancellation message from IRCTC that morning. We had to book it again through our cab operator and had to pay extra for the brokers. It’s a two hour round train journey from the quaint heritage Darjeeling station via- Batasia Loop where it stops for ten minutes to Ghoom.
We walked from the Ghoom station to the Ghoom monastery (the oldest in Darjeeling) compounding our hotel.
Day 3- Waking up at 3am and going to Tiger Hill to watch the sunrise over Kanchenjunga is on everybody’s itinerary so expect a massive crowd and to cater to those numbers-hawkers. It seems like an observation gallery is under construction here which would be helpful as people jostle for place to stand. To stand amidst the jabbering crowd in the shivering cold, it felt like the effort was not worth it, initially. But after a string of mist hidden sunrises that had disappointed people we were lucky that morning. We patiently watched the moon disappear, the dark blue sky gradually transforming into shades of pink and red. Suddenly the sun popped amidst snow-capped mountains. That moment was worth it all. The locals called it our ‘ache kismat’ (good fate).
We went back to the hotel and later drove to Rock Garden-which crowded, especially with families but they mostly stay at the lower levels. The drive to and from Rock Garden is steep, precarious but has extremely beautiful.
The crowds, especially families, stay at the lower levels. The drive to and from Rock Garden is steep, precarious but has extremely beautiful.
On our way back, we stopped at an orange garden which is deserted and we got to have tea from the first pluck of 2018 here.
Day 4– Singalila National Park- This was one of the best days of our trip though the weather played spoilsport. It was frightening, it was cold and it was an unforgettable experience. This is a trekking route covering the borders of India and Nepal and for the most part, you will truly be standing on no-man’s-land. Besides the flora and fauna, the trek offers a panoramic view of the eastern Himalayas and the ranges are said to resemble a ‘Sleeping Buddha’.
Since it is a restricted area, you will be allowed inside only with a registered guide. Also the extreme weather (at an altitude between 7,900ft and about 12,000ft above sea level) has been fatal for few trekkers. The cab agency booked an expert guide for us who got us permits. (I can share the guide’s contact details personally). The trek to Tonglu can be done in a day while you have to stay overnight to continue to Sandakphu and other places. Carry ID, first aid, medicines, water and chocolates with you. There are no hospitals here and only the army camps can help if there are any mishaps.
To get there, we took a shared cab along with our guide to Manebhanjan. We ate some steaming Thukpa from a one-room eatery here and experienced the homes of the locals of India and Nepal here. Though the tourism website says that these five-decade-old vintage Land Rovers used by the British have been suspended, they continue to function, so we took a Land Rover jeep to enter. Alternatively, you can choose to walk from here if you are an experienced trekker.
It is an exciting drive up the hill where you will be off-roading and taking high-speed bends along steep routes. To help us acclimatize to the cold and altitude, our guide made stops in Chitray and Meghma to have hot tea and to visit monasteries on the way. If you are a history buff, you will find every monastery interesting as it has a unique story, paintings and idols. With the help of his family, our guide helped us enter the first floor of the Meghma Monastrey which is restricted to monks. We had an opportunity to see sculptures of various forms of Buddha and the after-lives of people going to heaven and hell according to their literature.
As you make your way up, the price of food increases to commensurate the difficulties of local traders who are said to climb for days to sell their goods. The jeep stops at Trekker’s Hut which is a typical home of the Sherpas where you can have lunch. This is the only place for trekker’s to stay overnight. From here we walked up to the highest point in Tonglu and by then unfortunately there was a white out accompanied by winds and there was zero-visibility. We took a break on top of the ridge and hiked a short distance across the Nepal border through dry brown terrain and caught a fleeting glimpse of a solitary black horse too.
By this time the temperature had plunged and snow fall began so we took the Land Rover to go back down. After a physically strenuous afternoon, we relaxed in one of the isolated homes where we tasted their locally brewed alcohol using millet, barley and also their wine made from plants. A blizzard was approaching, so we had to make our way back quickly. From Manebhanjan, we took another shared cab to Sukhia and then to Ghoom. The whole route had no visibility and there were rains elsewhere in Darjeeling and Sikkim. If the weather is good, you will be lucky to be here. Do not miss it.
Day 5- Check out from Darjeeling and drive towards Sikkim (5 hours). On the way, we did White Water Rafting on the river Teesta (originating from a glacier of more than 12k ft, mouth is at the Brahmaputra river). They take you down to the river on a jeep which is a great drive by itself. Once you reach the turquoise water flowing between pebble stones, you will witness something supremely picturesque.
They took us on a longer route since there weren’t too many rapids and let us swim in the ice-cold water. The only bad experience is that there is one place available to change clothes and it is a rickety dirty shack. Some improvement should be done for that.
We stopped over at Jorethang, south Sikkim for lunch and continued our drive to Pelling and checked-in.
Day 6- Pelling- an ancient capital of the former Kingdom of Sikkim, is a postcard town, which is not yet intruded by commercialization.
First stop, Khecheopalri lake (above), even though it is tourist bound, it was insisted by our earlier guide for an arduous uphill trek which is not frequented by public. I sat it out, while my husband did this killer climb to see the lake from atop which appears like a foot (photo below). Buddhists believe this to be the footprint of their deity Goddess Tara.
Next stop Kanchenzunga waterfalls-don’t be fooled by how it looks from outside. Take a few steps inside to see its magnitude. We skipped the short zip-line (my personal opinion is that the best ones are at the Mehrangarh fort in Jodhpur, Rajasthan).
This little boy helped us hop on rocks to get to the waterfall. He charges Rs 25 for his service 🙂
Last stop for the day are the ruins of Rabdentse palace that was invaded by the Nepalese.
The ruins are maintained excellently by the Calcutta Circle of the Archaeological Survey of India.
To reach the ruins, you will have to take a long walk through a dense forest. Closer to the ruins, as you get tired, watch out for the ASI boards communicating with you to cheer you up!
Day 7- We visited the Pemayangtse Monastery, one of the oldest in Sikkim and is akin to being the Big Daddy for all red cap monasteries. We began our drive from Pelling to Gangtok (6 hours) and went to Tarey Bhir via Namchi (south Sikkim).
Stay overnight at Gangtok. (According to Gangtok city rules, only local cabs are allowed on specific roads, so you will have to meet and get dropped off by your hired car driver at a common point)
Day 8- Drive from Gangtok to North Sikkim (5 hours). Through the drive, you will pass several waterfalls and bridges.
The prominent places to visit in North Sikkim (which borders Tibet) are Gurudongmar Lake from Lachen and Yumthang Valley, Zero Point and Mount Katao from Lachung. You need a minimum of two nights if you are visiting both towns. Since there was heavy snow during our visit, several locations were off-limits so we went only to Lachung. Soon after we reached, it began to snow and the temperature plunged to -4 degree celcius.
Day 9- The places we planned to see were cordoned so could go only up to Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. The snow-capped mountains and pine forests that you can see up close and the Switzerland-like small fields and villages downhill doesn’t disappoint. We enjoyed virgin snow against a spectacular background of the Himalayas.
You will also witness army personnel training here, their camps, offices and you can eat at the army mess. Since the Dokhlam stand-off, the place is heavily militarized and photography is prohibited. The army has erected boards all along the way with quotes like, ‘I will either pitch the Indian flag there or I will return wrapped in it’ and ‘Only our best of friends and worst of enemies visit us.’ This probably explains why some youngsters were indulging in ‘Vande Matram’ slogans on the snow.
Return to Gangtok.
Day 10- Due to bad weather we cancelled Paragliding and went to Tsongmo Lake instead. This place was my least favourite as it is not just overcrowded but pitifully maintained. Some patience lent itself for the mist to make way for beautiful contrasting colours of the mountains, lake, snow and clear blue skies.
We wrapped up our travel at the Mayfair Casino. Most casinos here will drop you back at your hotel for free.
Day 11- Gangtok to Bagdogra airport (5 hours).