I’ll never forget how Indian Geography was a nightmare in school. It was always a task to memorise the names of the seven sister states and to be honest, even today I struggle to name all of them with their correct capitals. Just to help us remember, our teacher called Sikkim the seven sisters’ brother.
And, I thought, “Yeah, that’s one big happy family in the North-East but such a big headache for us students.”
As the internet and social media grew in our generation, the North-East came out to be a very beautiful part of our country and I always wanted to visit it. You know how it’s like: life goes by and some things just do not happen.
Fast forward to February 2020, Pramod and I were gearing up for our first big India trip of the year. We were just glad that we were ticking off a part of India’s North-East before turning 30. It was my leap year birthday and we had to do something special.
Just a few hours before my ‘seventh birthday’ ( 😉 ) ended, it was around 3 or 4°C in Gangtok and we were standing in our hotel’s terrace, breathing probably the cleanest air ever. Like children, we were enjoying the foggy air breath. It was just two days into our trip but I could say this without any hesitation – it was my best birthday ever! (Sorry, Sri Lanka :/ )
A lot of people do not plan a trip to Sikkim because they think either it’s too much an effort to get access to the places that need a permit or they are put off with the idea that at present, there are no direct flights to Gangtok. If these are the reasons why more trips are planned to Ladakh and not to Sikkim, pick Sikkim the next time you want to travel.
There is hardly any comparison between the two as they are very different. But, if you must know, Ladakh is a high-altitude desert, barren and mostly, brown. On the other hand, Sikkim is forested, green and if you are lucky like we were, you will experience one of the snowiest places you’ll ever find in India. Yes, North Sikkim is among the top 5 places that get more snow than any other snowfall destinations in the country.
Here is a seven-day itinerary for Gangtok and North Sikkim (Lachung, Yumthang Valley and Mt Katao)
Day – 1
Reach Bagdogra from your base
If you take a flight, then you’ll land at the Bagdogra international airport, Siliguri. If you take a train, then you’ll arrive at Siliguri’s New Jalpaiguri Junction. If you must know, Siliguri is a city in West Bengal. We were lucky to get a direct flight from Bangalore to Bagdogra airport, which was around 130Kms away from Gangtok. The journey took around 5 hours because it was a hill/mountain area.
Chill at MG Marg
From Hyderabad, Madras to Bombay and Bangalore, we have lived only in metro cities. Our day to day experiences and sights mostly have been the disorganised traffic, pollution, super crowded places and buildings. Maybe, that’s why Gangtok was love at first sight.
The thrill of being chased by the majestic mountains throughout, the sight of the cute and colourful houses around you and the positive vibes from the prayer flags hung everywhere: Gangtok has special warmth to offer.
We spent our first evening in Gangtok at MG Marg. It’s a long stretch where people can take a leisure stroll or just sit, relax on the benches laid on both the sides and middle of the road and just soak in the atmosphere.
The entire stretch is free of litter, smoke and vehicle. It’s a pedestrian-only zone and vehicles are not allowed on this approximately 1 km stretch of the road. The evenings at MG Marg are no less than a carnival. There are so many glittering shops and small stalls for souvenir shopping along with several cute cafes and bars on both sides of the road.
In fact, the annual Gangtok Food and Culture Festival is held here at MG Marg in December. The street has been renovated so many times over the years and now, it gives you Europeans feels in the evening. No kidding!
Visiting Nathula Pass and Tsomgo Lake was scheduled for the second day. The pass is situated around 50kms away from Gangtok and you require a permit to visit these places. We were told that both the points had been shut for nearly a month because of various reasons, including snowfall. Luckily for us, Tsomgo Lake reopened for tourists on that very day. Our agent repeated a number of times that we were very lucky.
We started at 9 am from our hotel and due to the hairpin curves, all through the way, it took us close to three hours to reach the lake. The Tsomgo Lake trip included the visit to the famous Baba Harbhajan Singh temple as well, which was a few kilometres further ahead of the lake. When we started off from our hotel, we were followed by lush green-brown mountains. As we went further, the sight switched to a few glimpses of snow-capped mountains.
We knew our destination was closer when crystal clear snow began to appear on the road and the snow-capped mountains remained with us for the next few hours. Even though the lake came first, we went to the temple first because it shuts for visitors by 1 pm. It’s not like a regular temple. IT’S A TEMPLE WITH A VIEW!
Since it had snowed until two days back, the Tsomgo Lake was frozen. The sight was mesmerizing. Neither of us had seen anything like that before. There is a cable car ride as well that takes you further top on the mountain. It’ll cost you around INR 350 per person, but trust us, it’ll be worth it. The experience cannot be described in words.
We returned to our Gangtok hotel by 4.30 PM. Instead of heading to MG Marg once again, we chose to just chill in the garden terrace that gave us a picturesque view.
Gangtok to Lachung
The next day, we embarked on the leg second of our trip – North Sikkim and we chose a small town, Lachung as our base. It’s around 115km away from Gangtok and is surely a must-visit place. It won’t be a simple road trip. But, it will be a journey comprising of waterfalls, a river following you, charming small towns, several viewpoints with tea stalls and some scary roads. With the experience of driving there for 10 years, our driver ensured we didn’t worry about that last bit.
Here’s a list of waterfalls on the way to Lachung: Butterfly waterfalls, Naga waterfalls and Bhim Nala waterfalls.
TIP: Ask your driver to take the route that includes Seven Sister Falls. During our time, that was not the best route because of the weather. We visited the waterfalls later in the trip when we hired a cab to explore Gangtok for a day.
List of small towns on the way to Lachung: Singik, Mangan, Chungthang and Kabi Lungchuk (if you take the seven sisters route), it’s a tiny town with a lot of history.
Lachung is a laidback small town, with hardly any mobile network and if you must know, Jio does not work there. It’s an ideal location to disconnect with the outside world and just live in those moments. There are small shops that sell snacks (maggi, variety of eggs, chips, etc), alcohol and warm clothes to name a few. Since there are no restaurants, you can ask your hotel for their buffet deals for lunch/dinner.
We spent the evening just strolling around Lachung’s lanes and admiring nature’s magical beauty.
Lachung to Yumthang and Mt Katao
Because of a landslide, the army did not allow tourists to go till Yumthang so we could go only till Yaksha Gate, which was just a few kilometres before the valley. After spending an hour or so there, we headed to Mt Katao. While Nathula Pass is famous for being the Indo-China border but not many are aware that Mt Katao also borders the two countries.
Because of the snow, we had to stop a few kilometres before Katao but what we witnessed was good enough for us. Let these pictures speak for the place.
It even snowed just before we left. That was the ultimate experience we could have asked for.
You also need permits for Lachung, Yumthang and Katao. You have to take a package deal from a tour operator. We got a reasonable deal from Royal Sikkim. Since our trip went so smooth, we surely recommend them. While the first two permits are included in the deal, you need to pay INR 3,000 to the driver for the Katao trip. Also, we couldn’t visit the Zero Point because of the snow. A North Sikkim trip is incomplete without Zero Point. (Sobs)
Whenever you get some free time in Lachung, don’t waste it in the hotel. We walked around as much as we could. You don’t get such views on a daily basis unless you live in Lachung 😉
We started for Gangtok at around 9 am. On the way, we made a few pit stops for tea and food. We even stopped at the famous Tashi View Point, which is just before Gangtok. While a lot of tourists rave about it, we did not think it was great, especially after our visits to Katao, Yumthang, Lachung and Tsomgo Lake. There are a few stalls at the point and a few restaurants around it, so if you are hungry you’ll know where to look.
We booked a cab for the whole day to explore Gangtok more. Don’t just go by the list of places you are given in a half/full-day tour. In our day’s time, we chose to see these places in Gangtok: Rumtek Monastery, Banjhakri waterfalls, Ganesh Tok and dinner at MG Marg. All the places are quite far away from each other so the travel time will be more.
Our final hotel was in Tadong, a town near Gangtok. Since it was a bit away, we chose to start for Bagdogra airport early in the morning for a 2.30 PM flight. When you get closer to Siliguri, you’ll encounter traffic jams.
It was a near-perfect trip as it was planned well. We were happy about covering a lot of places in a week’s time. Not just the northern part but West and South Sikkim are equally interesting. One such place that is on our list is Pelling, which falls in the West district of Sikkim.