How to plan an epic trip to Sikkim & Darjeeling

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

 

Stay

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.

Sikkim- 

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).

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On our way from the airport up the hill, we stopped at Kurseong. The driver took us to a small road-side eatery where we had the best chicken momos we have had till date. It cost only Rs 120 for two plates.

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).

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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.

 

 

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If you muster the energy to climb all the way up, you get to be in isolation with nature and the mouth of a waterfall.

The crowds, especially families, stay at the lower levels. The drive to and from Rock Garden is steep, precarious but has extremely beautiful.

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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.

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Orange Garden has a cute sitting area- the setting makes for nice photos.

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.

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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.

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You will be welcomed with the paddlers splashing water all over you. If you want faster rapids, you will have to do this during summer (they don’t give helmets).
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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.

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Woke up here to the closest view of the Kanchenjunga from our room.

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.

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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).

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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!

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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).

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Tarey Bhir is a ridge is a geological formation that is 10000 feet long with an abrupt drop of 3500 feet. You can walk this ridge on the series of steps built over it.

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.

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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.

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In the evening, we walked across the city to MG Road- a pedestrian plaza with plenty of shopping and restaurants.

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).

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Mums the Word- The power of working mothers

It must have been six in the evening when I was shuttling between my older brother and my father asking, “When will mummy come home?” I wasn’t more than 10-years-old and it was a routine question before I would see my mother walking in, balancing her presentation kit of heavy books on one hand and groceries on the other. My brother and I would give her a tight squeeze and her familiar cotton saree fabric would rub against our skin. When she embraced us back, we could see deep impressions on her palms from carrying the loaded plastic bags. She had just walked a kilometer after boarding two buses and she would go straight to the kitchen to make our dinner, listen to our day’s stories, put us to sleep only to be the first person to wake up next morning. Her dual role took her closer everyday to what she believed was her purpose in life- to bring up two good citizens who would contribute to something in our social territory.

Studies always find themselves contradicted with other findings but there is no refuting a study which Harvard University had published last year about why working mothers have more successful daughters and compassionate sons. In our home, where our intimate rags to riches story unfolded, there were no gender defined roles. They were both out on work, did chores at home and nursed us. My brother and I had the same rules and were taught the same principles to live life. If my parents were away on work during the day, my brother would take care of me and the house, every bit like they would.

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My mother salvaged what working mothers are often accused of—guilt—because she was one fine time manager.

Work- life balance was ruder on her. When she boarded a train for the first time from her quaint town in Thrissur, Kerala to Madras she didn’t know Tamil or English. I have no idea how she managed at a top advertising company, Efficient Publications, when she was barely 19. But, she told me she almost got fired for mixing up a dead person’s soul to rest in peace with ‘sole’. It was the early 80s and she married my father whose family they knew as they lived in  multi-family tenancies. While my mother’s community was matrilineal, my father’s was not just paternal but also, patriarchal. An ordinary day in my mother’s life was to be up early morning, get my father to queue up for water, wash vessels and clothes, cook, get my brother ready for school and then wear a saree to catch the bus before her the attendance book was shut at 9am. The conductor would hold the bus if she were a few minutes late.

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While my father had fixed timings at the erstwhile city University, my mother shifted to flexible hours as an educational consultant to market books, after I was born. Everyone in the family had discouraged her from taking up the job but she proved all of them wrong. We had no fixed-line phone till 2000 and she made her cold calls from office and public booths. While most of her peers went to their appointments by mopeds and cars, she took the bus and walked for long distances to the city’s most posh residential hubs and schools as only those families could afford the Time Life books. My mother often recalls that as a child I would walk around carrying her presentation kit and introduce myself to the mirror just like she would to her clients. There is still a business card of hers where I’ve struck down ‘Syamala Babu’ with a sketch pen and written C Divya.

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As we were growing up, my parents worked hard, took up several shifts and simultaneous jobs,  but they never once missed sitting with us for homework, a craft project, the mundane school assemblies. They took turns to take me to chess classes every day after school and for tournaments on weekends while my brother older to me by eight years managed this bit for his table tennis on his own. Both of us were national players and my brother, now settled in the UK continues to play for his county. Life was too busy for the four of us that I don’t remember us watching a movie together. We never went on vacations as holidays meant more tournaments. But, we never once regretted any of this for what it has made us today.

They made us try every competition, be it speaking, painting, running or singing to find our passion aside studying. They never told us to work hard, we simply did that by observing them. Every parent aspires to give their children the best but what makes the difference is what they give importance to.

Not once in my upbringing was anything in me moulded for a marriage. Every lesson was to achieve something, to be someone and to be independent. When my peers began getting married straight after college, my father told me one sentence- to not to think of weddings until I made a mark for myself. My father doesn’t have conversations with us like my mother does. I was so glad and proud he told me that.

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I attended my first job interview at a newspaper when I was 19 just like my mother but certainly more equipped by knowledge, skills and a car. My test and interview went well and at the end of it, the lady editor told me that if I wanted to be a journalist, I need to cut my umbilical cord. Her assistant had told her that my mother had accompanied me to their office. She offered me the job but, told me to sleepover it and then make my choice. I did not take up their job. Few days later I got a call for an interview from NDTV’s metro edition while I was waiting in my car after I had driven my mother to her client. I told the editor I was wearing sneakers and an Addidas t-shirt and that I was with my mother. He said it wasn’t a problem, we met and on the same day, I was offered my first job.

From then on there was professional success, problems, I went away for a year to do my masters and I came back for a second job—all with my mother alongside. She would give me the best advice on how to deal with office issues, how to manage colleagues, pack half a dozen boxes everyday of food, fruits, snack and juice. She would contribute on how I should make life decisions but, she always gave me simple, protected options. I debunked them and went for the tougher decisions because I had learned from her, to be strong, to thrive in challenges and be wise. My model for all of life lessons was right at home for, the umbilical cord isn’t what cocoons you, it’s what soars you.

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