You might have been on foreign shores, fancy cruises, world tours and many more glamorous destinations but India is one place where exploration always begins. It is a nest of ethnic diversities with many wonders and wonderful people. It is home to many ancient temples and tombs with resplendent architectural wonders where every sculpture has a story to tell, India is where the bells of many beliefs ring cascading the prayers of winds into the skies seeking bliss for every soul. It is like some divine artist’s easel who stroked it with picturesque backwaters and beaches, hills and snow-capped mountains, dense jungles where the tigers prowl and harsh deserts where camels race. It is the land where many sages and monks mediated and where many holy rivers and streams flow piously like a dream.
India is a land of dreams with many dream destinations.
I was fortunate to spend time in the holy Himalayas that spread its arms warmly in its chilling climates bordering the eastern parts of India as if to protect us, as if to absolve our sorrows in its serenity.
To me it was truly complete serendipity.
Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim was where my in laws lived, I joined them all the way from Bengaluru to spend some time amidst the snow-capped mountains as hubby dear was away on a short onsite project which unfortunately got extended leaving me with an exasperating wait.
Our home was located atop a steep hill and any connection with the city life required us to climb down the sharp bends. Although it was a picturesque sight and splendid experience walking down the hill, the very thought of climbing back the hill killed our desire to even venture out. The only entertainment was to have a hot cup of ginger tea gazing at the unexplainably calm view of the distant mountains in front of our house which had an open area that looked like a table top helipad.
As days passed the serenity became monotonous and l desperately longed for some buzz in life. That was when we decided to visit this place called Nathula Pass.
Nathula Pass connects Sikkim with Tibet and is under the control of the army, it was the ancient silk route between India and China, this pass has been reopened for trade now after 40years of closure. It is just 56kms away from Gangtok and at an altitude of 14200ft above sea level, only Indian nationals are allowed to visit Nathula , best time to visit is between March and October.
To visit Nathula you need to get a special permit from the armed forces which can be arranged by any local travel agent for which you need to submit a copy of your photo id card and 2 passport size photos but it is given only a day in advance.
We started our trip on a bright morning on May 2nd, I along with my 3year old son and my in-laws set off in a heroic jeep. The diesel vehicle shunted between the sharp hair pin bends leaving a nauseating black smoke and I quickly swallowed my Avil tablet to make my trip a memorable one. The road was steep and treacherous but the en route views were breath-taking and simply magical.
I dug into my bag of goodies to munch on something as if I was watching a live picturesque movie. I was warned to eat just right and drink lot of water.
Some smart tips for you:
It is better to put your child to sleep during the ascent. Make sure you go geared with enough woolens, jackets, caps, googles and if possible some biscuits, Vitamin C tablets and a flask full of hot tea as this will help you cope up with the freezing temperatures and falling oxygen levels. Also don’t forget to take enough batteries for your camera as there are no shops beyond Chhangu.
Snow White Snow White Here I Come:
As we climbed up the sharp bends the green view of the hills slowly transformed into brown barren mountains that stood there bare revealing themselves against the chill winds as if to appease the Gods with their harsh penance in such hostile climates.
Soon I saw patches of gleaming white snow! It was the first time I saw snow in my life. It was as if somebody had spilt vanilla ice cream all over.
We then touched upon Chhangu Lake which is at 12400feet. Here the entire range of mountains was dressed in white casting an enchanting reflection of itself in the pristine waters as if a bride was looking at herself in the mirror.
Chhangu is a glacial lake which freezes completely during winter. It is about 1 kilometer in length, formed by the melting of snow -mountains amidst which it gleams flawlessly as the sun rays fall like pearls on it. It is sometimes blue and sometimes green in color, it seems the Buddhist monks made predictions depending on the color of the lake.
At Chhangu you can also go for a Yak ride along the paths bordering the lake viewing the hypnotizing scenes for some Nirvana but we decided to stop there during the return trip and continued our journey.
There were few shops around the Chhangu lake selling warm clothing, local trinkets and also rented out gum boots. A couple of shops sold hot tea and momos for some snacks. I personally dislike momos and think they are absolutely pathetic, they are like a steamed version of samosas in which you get both veg and nonveg variety. Eating even a veg Momo feels like eating an eyeball soaked in soya sauce. If I were to find out who invented this awful dish I would slap a case of 420 on them for misleading and torturing innocent tourists.
As you drive up, the view of the Chhangu lake is spectacular, don’t forget to capture it on your camera from this point.
We headed straight to Nathula, one of the highest motorable roads in the world, as we neared the pass heaps of snow lay on the roads, the army men braved it all clearing and paving the way for us.
The drive now was slippery and slow the weather was sunny but the chill factor persisted, it had freshly snowed. I could see my breath condense in the cold air like smoke from a cigarette, I looked at others and it appeared as if the whole family was smoking. It was freezing cold but my stay at Gangtok had probably acclimatized me for this.
We were now at 14000ft. Wow!!
The sun glare on the snow was blinding us as we had gone without any sunglasses. It took a while to even open our eyes and appreciate it. With the sun smiling brightly the peak shimmered like a crown studded with white diamonds that came alive embedded with emerald green jewels who roamed in their uniforms guarding our borders. Just then my eyes caught sight of a board that read “GO HOME AND TELL THEM THAT FOR YOUR TOMMORROW WE GAVE OUR TODAY”
as I read this I had goose bumps all over and tears rolled down my eyes involuntarily, this is one place where every Indian becomes emotional.
We had to climb up a fleet of steps to reach the top most point, at the beginning of the steps we were offered vitamin C tablets as the antioxidants in it helps counter altitude sickness, we were then led by a brisk young officer who instructed us to climb slowly but carried my 3year old son like an AK-47 on his shoulder and galloped to the highest point in a jiffy.
On reaching the top I could see white blankets of snow spread all around us, at a distance I could see the Indian tricolor dancing merrily at 14000feet. It was a very proud moment.
Usually when you go to a snow clad place the atmosphere is of fun and romance but Nathula is one place where it is all about serenity, patriotic pride and glory. It is not crowded like the usual tourist spots and apt for some wonderful photography. I picked up little mountains of snow in my hands but could not throw at anybody, feeling little weird I simply posed for some pictures.
I then saw the Chinese soldiers at a distance I waved and extended my hand indicating a hand shake, he walked up to me and shook hands and also agreed to pose for the photo at zero point. You can also exchange some currency if you wish.
This is India-China border at Natula separated by a thin fence.
I walked around and took some shots,
at that time I neither had a digital camera nor a good sense for photography, I believed that every shot had to have my face sticking in it else it was a national, international and universal waste.
The weather now was dipping, hill station weathers are like politicians that keep changing every minute.
We then headed to the Baba Harbhajan Mandir which is 15kms from Nathula.
Mandir at 14000feet!! Yes it happens only in India but it is not a mandir for the Gods it is a mandir in memory of a brave soldier called Harbhajan Singh who gave his life during the 1965 Sino-Indian war. He died here in this no man’s land, the Indian army was unable to find his body until he appeared in the dream of a fellow soldier and told him how he had died it seems, the dead soul even guided the search party to recover his own body and vowed to guard the Indian borders, which the soldiers on both sides believe is true.
At the shrine a langer was being hosted and we were more than happy to break for lunch at 13000feet. Whatever little adventure we had had trekking the steep snow peak made us very hungry and dizzy, we were craving for some hot food and were ready to eat anything as long as they were not Momos. The steaming hot roti subzi and the kheer looked overwhelming delicious that made me go weak in my knees, I remembered the initial warnings to eat just right but also remembered somebody’s sayings
“Yesterday is history
Tomorrow is mystery
But today is a gift
That is why it is called ‘present’”
Taking inspiration from these quotes I ate like a lion and regained some life. I was too full after that sumptuous eat and now worried about getting back into the smelly diesel vehicle.
We then drove down to Kupup Lake.
An isolated valley where only a few Bhutia and Lacha families live, it was yet another unruffled untouched beautiful place. Here I saw a few local ladies who had kept empty buckets under their slanting roofs waiting for some snow-flakes to melt into water for their daily use. I just realized how lucky we were. The solace extended in the freshness of that air, the unbelievable calmness in that atmosphere is something that I long to experience again.
It was late afternoon by now and the temperature was dropping drastically my encounter with Snow White and her likes had ended and it was time to say goodbye.
We got into our jeep that was now stuffed with a few more army personal tucked in their thick heavy jackets.
We descended to Chhangu and parked our vehicle, it started snowing and was becoming unbearably cold we had to skip Chhangu and move on. I tried to take some pictures of the Yaks but alas like the weather even they turned their back on me.
Maybe our parking was not vaasthu compliant, saying so I consoled myself and promised to come back here with my hubby. Since then I have been dreaming to visit this place yet again.
We had almost descended and our home was probably 40 minutes away, the smell of the diesel, a loaded tummy, the hair pin bends, tightly packed jeep with many jacketed men simply negated the avil effects by now, I was feeling a terrible nausea, unable to speak I plucked at one of the jackets to hint I wanted to get out but the jacket was thick as a Rhino and got no response, time had run out for me, I pulled out my child’s monkey cap and threw it all up. Since I had tugged the cap out of the blue my little one was petrified in his sleep and gave out a big cry which alerted everyone who finally paved way for me to get out. Oh what a relief it was! Now you know why I called this jeep heroic initially.
In spite of all this I still dream of romancing this Himalayan beauty and visiting this dream destination once again along with my hubby and kids. And yes this time I shall go geared with a proper travel itinerary and surely fulfill my wish
- of throwing heaps of snow at each other,
- going on a yak ride around the Chhangu and experiencing Nirvana
- do some classic photography without my head sticking in it.
Some important smart tips I will follow:
First and foremost I shall read enough about all the places in North Sikkim and make a detailed itinerary plan and also allocate ample time for every place because when you visit a hill station you are at the mercy of the weather conditions, dates and schedules don’t work sometimes.
Secondly I will carry vitamin C tablets, medicines, mosquito repellents, cold creams, hooded jackets, googles, a good camera with lots of battery backup and of course some vomit bags.
Thirdly always start early and get back early in hill stations.
More smart tips for you and me:
On visiting a new place I will head straight to the Government Tourism Office and collect all brochures, maps and local travel info like good restaurants, shopping places, medical shops, hospitals, important phone numbers.
I will read enough books, blogs and trip reviews with every single detail like early bird booking, discounts, weather, clothing, food, stay, cleanliness of the rooms, places of interest, cost comparison for the above aspects with other options, take a print out of the info that I Google as internet does not work in many places.
Make my own travel guide book, understand the must see places and en route places that can be covered, sometimes the local guides are not so informed.
Will carry light luggage as I am bound to do some shopping, even though I had carried lots of warm clothing I did purchase some woolens and leather jackets along with gloves, purses, footwear, watches, toys as all these were really cheap there. It cumbersomely increased my luggage while returning hence will travel light and travel smart.
Understand the historical importance and major attractions of the place thoroughly.
If you are traveling by train to Siliguri make sure you are safe as these trains are very vulnerable to thugs and thieves, sometimes even the railway policemen rob you in the name of security checks so beware!
If you are taking a flight you can fly up to Bagdogra near Siliguri after which you have to take a taxi to reach Gangtok.
I will try to reach Bagdogra before noon so that I could reach Gangtok before it gets too cold in the evening, this will also help me to settle down early in my room and wake up early next morning.
I will try not to pay anything upfront for hotel bookings, I will only make partial payment or simply confirm my arrival by phone and email unless I verify it is really genuine because in Sikkim and Nepal they sell a lot of colorful velvet spreads and carpets that come handy to impress upon the online customers. If you simply believe the flamboyant internet pictures you might be in for some crude reality checks only when you check in, this may not be the case if you are going for some star hotels.
Hotel touts and taxi drivers are a menace, you will be hounded by them so it is better to have prior information about which area you want to stay in by researching on some smart travel apps.
Also negotiate everywhere, you may not believe but I have even bargained the hotel room tariffs, this is the most important tip when you go shopping, hire taxis, yaks, costumes. You can bargain for everything even momos(maybe).
This post has been written for Skyscanner Contest in association with Indiblogger.