Unlike everywhere else, we were hounded by agents the moment we alighted from the bus. One of them suggested a travel office. That fellow not just got us a Tata Sumo, but also booked a hotel in Gangtok. What seemed like an ill-thought plan turned out just all right. The Sumo reached Gangtok, again around 100 km away, in four hours. The hotel was on the main road and it was fine for Rs. 600.
The only thing that greets you in Gangtok is heaps and piles of hotels. They are all over the place. There must be more hotels than homes in Gangtok. I counted 17 in a 50 metre stretch. Kasturi Residency, the hotel we were staying in, had a funny looking manager, Sen-da. He walked gingerly and never missed an opportunity for a smoke outside the premises. We booked a trip to Yumthang for the next day. It is the hotspot in Sikkim with every tour operator worth his salt working a package. It would cost us Rs.1200 per head including the stay and food. There was a Gujarati family who had worked out a deal for Rs. 1000 /head. We might have been taken for a ride, but there was very little we could do given the crowd of organized tourism.
On the first day, we went to the Enchey Monastery, stationed high on a mountain, next to a TV tower. It was quite a climb, through narrow pathways, in front of houses and crossing proper roads. There is a direct road to the monastery, but it is a roundabout route for walkers. The monastery was closed and outside it a few youngsters were attempting a game of cricket with a stone and a thin stick. The ball won mostly.
However, it isn’t cricket which is the primary sport. Baichung Bhutia, local boy, has made sure football has at least one bastion in the north-east. There is a beautiful stadium in the city and everywhere kids can be seen playing the sport.
We then went to the MG Road. In the evening, vehicles are banned on the road and it is a terrific place to walk on. There are plenty of restaurants catering to varied tastes.
Rumtek Monastery and Tashi Viewpoint
In the morning, we went to the Rumtek Monastery, some 24 km from Gangtok. This has a tremendous amount of army presence, because of the fact that when the young Karmapa fled from the Chinese, he took refuge here. There were a few young monks attending their daily schooling and an old monk was feeding pigeons. The monastery was opened for a few moments for some Bhutanese. We were lucky to sneak in when they were in. The gates closed right after that. The Ani Gonpa was not accessible to us but we did see the Tara Devi temple inside the monastery.
After returning, we were ready for Yumthang. But so were hundreds of other people and there was a serious paucity of Sumos. We, bored by waiting, opted out for that day and postponed it for the next morning. Sen-da, who had been pilloried by raging passengers, was delighted that we had done so.
To kill time, we walked to Tashi Viewpoint, a place 8 km from the hotel. It was overcast and some road-repairs were being done. It soon began drizzling. But the walk was worth the effort. On a narrow road, through small towns and army bases, it was a fun experience.
Going back to the hotel, we saw a movie called Bhagam Bhag at the Vajra movie hall. Nothing to be proud of, we came out after 45 minutes. Come to think of it, the one cinema hall that we found in the entire Arunachal Pradesh was in Naharlagun. Gangtok had at least one more.
Lachung, Yumthang and Zero-point
The Yumthang package, it has to be said, is a collective con-act. In December, there is nothing to see there. The Valley of Flowers is bare. But for a narrow stream in a valley and a couple of uninhabited huts, you’d wonder if staring at your freezer was a better option.
We had luckily got a Mahindra Jeep this time around and a strict driver in Chewang Bhutia. The distance to Yumthang from Gangtok is 149 km. One has to go through Lachung (which is 118 km away) to Yumthang. We stayed for the night in Lachung at a place called Dabla Inn. We had for company two Bengali families. One of them was to provide great entertainment at Yumthang.
We were already a little envied by the others thanks to our friendship with the driver. He not only spoke to us freely (while he generally barked orders to the others), but when he came to know that we were vegetarians, he took special care of us.
Lachung is a beautiful, small town. I cannot say much more than that as it was already dark when we reached it. We had walked for some time to see how other cottages were (Sen-da had promised our accommodation was better than what others could offer). He was almost right. Barring one very good looking place, Dabla Inn had better ambiance and was cleaner.
Yumthang, as it turned out, was a waste of time. There was an odd snow-covered area and that was that. One of our Bengali passengers asked me to take his photograph. I followed him to the small snow-laden area. For the first shot, he seemed fine. It was a normal sleeping pose with him on his back, in elation, looking straight at the camera. From then on, his poses became merrier and carefree. This was a not-to-be-missed event and I called Naga to watch the show. The guy would jump or twist suddenly, and that was a clue to click. There was one shot where he grabbed some snow and poured on his head. I was supposed to show the fascinating beauty of the falling of snow. Then, he turned awkwardly with his hind stuffed towards the camera and he, cajoling the snow. I began enjoying this bit of photography and suggested a few other improbable poses. After a round of 15 snaps, the roll rewound. I kicked myself for not taking a picture on my camera.
We had known earlier that Yumthang was a waste of time. But 32 km further up the hills, at an altitude of close to 14000 ft, was Zero Point. For this, we had to get everyone else in the Jeep to agree to pay Chewang, the driver, an additional Rs. 140 per head. It took quite some time to convince them, but convince we did.
Zero Point was astonishing. Covered all around by snow-capped mountains, this is a must-see during winter. What more, it began snowing in tiny molecules; just a little. There was a traffic jam given the number of vehicles that had come there. There was hardly anyone who missed Zero Point. That is why I felt it was a case of fleecing tourists. They know Yumthang is empty during winter, so why advertise it as the second Switzerland? Perhaps, the best way to travel in Sikkim and Meghalaya is in an own vehicle. But apparently, one doesn’t get the permit to travel to places like the Zero Point because of the heavily organized nature of tourism here.
On our way back, we found one reason why it might be wise to have someone else drive. It was dark and it was raining heavily when we were 20 km from Gangtok. Because of the mist, I, sitting in the front seat, could see nothing ahead. The vehicle’s light was diffused by the mist and rain splashed on the windscreen. Chewang then drove one hell of a drive. He would occasionally peep out of his window to get a clear view. Other vehicles with lesser drivers had stopped, but this guy just went on, and not once did he seem in less control.
When we went back to the hotel, Sen-da told us to shift to a different hotel as his was full. Again, something that wasn’t amusing and something that didn’t endear Sen-da to us. He asked his boy to take us to a hotel nearby and that guy was in a hurry. After some confusion, he lost one of our bags. It had the book on Tawang Monastery by Niranjan Sarkar. Sen-da was non-committal when I complained. “Sir, ab hum kahan dhoonde use?”
Next morning, at 4, the taxi driver returned the bag!
We went to the government-run crafts center and found it to be cheaper than a lot of handicrafts we had earlier seen.
We had to skip Nathula Pass and also the idea of river-rafting, which reminded us, cryptically, of the Manas opportunity. But we were off, to Darjeeling.