Planning And Route: Tightly sandwiched between Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan lies India’s mystical state of Sikkim. This little mountain kingdom with its green valleys, fluttering prayer flags and lofty snow-capped peaks is often referred to as the last Shangri-La. Sikkim’s location in the Himalayan foothills means that driving through this state always offers fascinating views of its step-cultivated mountainsides, its two mighty rivers the Rangeet and the Teesta, and its rosy-cheeked people. This drive across East and West Sikkim are filled with refreshing views and intoxicating crisp mountain air.
Sikkim is a pleasure to visit all year round. But roads tend to get blocked by landslides during the monsoons from June to September. The state also sees a lot of tourists during the Pooja vacation in October. We would recommend you visit Sikkim during April, May, November and December. Carry woollens all year round. While most places in East Sikkim (Gangtok) accept credit cards, the relatively smaller towns of West Sikkim do not.
Your car's clutch will see a lot of punishment. Ensure that it is strong as the inclines are steep - there are times when you will need to stop and start on inclines. Tyres which have seen a lot of wear should be replaced before you drive into Sikkim. Remember that the roads here are narrow and there are a few bad sections where stones will easily pierce the rubber of worn-out tyres. Check tyre pressure every two days while you are in Sikkim.
The National Highway from Kolkata to Siliguri is absolute torture immediately after the rains - during October and November. Drive very cautiously as there are huge craters that will spell doom for your car's rims if you hit them hard. Even the smooth sections are not to be trusted as potholes appear suddenly without a warning. If you are running tubeless tyres, be very careful as a dent in the rim will render the tyre useless. It is advisable to carry spare tubes. Even oncoming traffic swings onto the right of the road in a desperate measure to avoid huge potholes. Watch out for that. Break your journey in Siliguri for the night and then continue to Gangtok the next day. The road from here on is brilliant. Constructed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), it is adequately signposted and smooth for most of the 110km from Siliguri to Gangtok.
Driving in Sikkim
Traffic in Gangtok is very well organised. There are traffic police at every junction and they regulate traffic with clockwork-like precision. Hence though Gangtok is full of narrow slopes like Manali and Shimla, the traffic is always smooth-flowing. Traffic rules are religiously followed by the local populace. Cars need to be parked in the right direction. Lane breaking or dangerous overtaking attracts hefty fines. MG Marg in Gangtok is closed to traffic from 5pm to 9pm.
The state highways are quite narrow in places - always blow your horn when you go around corners and keep to the left. There are times when you'll need to back up so that an oncoming vehicle can pass within a hair's breadth of your car. In instances like this don't panic. Ask someone to get out of the car and guide you so that you don't put your tyre into a ditch or over the edge.
A PRISTINE STATE
The most striking part about Sikkim is its cleanliness and the sense of discipline and order that exists in the state.
The Public Works Department goes out of its way to keep Sikkim like that and they have a set of requests for locals and tourists:
Try to carry back all your litter to your hotel for proper disposal.
Request permission before photographing people.
Always walk around monasteries or chortens in clockwise direction.
Use of plastic is strictly prohibited.
Use water sparingly.
Discourage trade in wildlife products or religious artifacts.
The plucking of flowers anywhere in the state is absolutely prohibited.
Do not throw stones downhill as it could set off a landslide.
There are the regular 'to see' places. But there are so many nooks and corners that are meant to be discovered
East Sikkim - Gangtok and Around
Because Sikkim is so much about monasteries and monks, and the hype about it being the capital of the last Shangri La, you'd expect it to be a quaint little town like Dharamshala with robe-clad monks worrying their beads or spinning their hand-held prayer wheels. You are however in for a surprise. Gangtok is very happening, the traffic is orderly, the streets clean, and the youngsters in tune with the latest trends.
Food and shopping is very big here and you could easily while away an evening or two exploring the boutiques that line MG Marg or snacking at the delightful Bakers Café. Try the Venetian coffee here. For some lively evening entertainment try the Buzz at Glennarys. This restobar is done up with posters of old Hollywood movies and musicians of the '60s and '70s. You should try the sizzlers at this place. For authentic Tibetan goods, visit the Cottage Industries Emporium that is a little distance from MG Marg on the road to Mangan.
The most popular monastery within the city is the Enchey gompa that is on the road to Siliguri. You can't miss the fierily done-up door of this place. The eighth Chogyal built it in 1840.
Cross your fingers before you go to bed the morning before you are going to visit the Tashi viewpoint. This place is around 8km from Gangtok and you have to be here by 5am to see the magnificent Kanchenjunga. This mountain, the third highest in the world, lies across Sikkim on its western border with Nepal and you have to be lucky enough that there is no fog across the state for you to have a view of the mountain.
This is a little ridge ('tok' means ridge) from where you can get some splendid views of Gangtok.
Tsogmo Lake and Nathu La
This lake, high in the mountains above Gangtok and 41km from the same city, is located in a windswept place surrounded by mountains and prayer flags.
Private vehicles aren't allowed up here, unless you have a permit from the police in Gangtok. A return taxi to the place costs around Rs 850. Nathu La is 17km away and is the border with China (Tibet). You can actually see the border post and on Thursdays view the ceremonial mail exchange between China and India.
This delightful little monastery is 25km from Gangtok and a 45-minute drive away. Try and visit it during the afternoon when there aren't many tourists around and the monks are having their afternoon break. Here too you have to park your car about 500 metres away and walk uphill to the main entrance of the Gompa. You can walk around the courtyard of the Gompa and take pictures but not in the prayer hall.
West Sikkim - Pelling and Around
A three-and-a-half hour drive to the west of Gangtok lies Pelling. Though it is not as lively or happening as Gangtok, Pelling is a quiet little town with a rustic feel, magnificent views and pleasant walks all around. The views of the Kanchenjunga from Pelling are simply magnificent and on a clear day you can see this peak and many others towering high above the town.
Founded in 1705 during the reign of the third Chogyal, Chador Namgyal, this Gompa has survived two devastating earthquakes in 1913 and 1960. Standing surrounded by mountain peaks on two sides, it is best visited in the morning when the sun is falling directly on its front door. While the main prayer hall is impressive with its paintings and ornamental statues, it is the second floor that is really worth visiting. Here there are splendid and vibrant paintings, which depict the life of various Buddhist saints, covering all the four walls.
Try and get here by 9am, which is quite possible if you have your own car and leave by 8am from Pelling. You'll have the lake all to yourself before other tourists arrive. The lake is like an oasis of colour in a valley of green. The colour of course is due to the abundance of prayer flags that surround this holy lake. If you feel like a short energetic trek, then follow the path to the left (when you are facing the lake) and you can walk through woods of sal to the far side of the lake. Remember that you need sturdy walking shoes for this as there is rock scree to be negotiated. The Khecheopari Gompa lies around 1.5km above the entrance to the lake. You can also club your visit to the lake with a visit to Yuksom, Sikkim's old capital. The state's earliest monastic community was founded here on the site on which the Dubdi Gompa was later erected.
There is lots of choice in Gangtok and digs to suit all budgets. Staying away from the town centre is more peaceful though. Pelling is a sleepy little town and within a few years it will be crammed with hotels, right now it is peaceful.
Tel: 03592-225637, 220064/65
Rates: Rs 4800 for a double room with all meals included.
This charming place was once a palace and now is an Elgin Hotels property. It is tastefully done up and as soon as you check in you are greeted in the traditional Sikkimese style and offered a glass of delicious cherry liqueur as a welcome drink. The rooms, bar, restaurant and lounge are done up very tastefully. All the rooms enjoy fabulous views of the mountains. The restaurant has a wonderful ambience and the lawns offer fantastic vistas.
Tel: 03592-222523, 223468
The restaurant in this hotel has an extensive menu. But confirm that all the items on the menu are available before you settle down for a meal.
Hotel Tashi Delek
Tel: 03592-224156, 22038
Hotel Newa Regency
Tel: 03593-258596, 258546, 250707
Rates: Rs 1400 to Rs 2400 for the European Plan.
This place has fantastic views of the mighty Kanchenjunga and serves authentic Nepalese cuisine. We recommend you to try the Chang (local millet beer) here served in a traditional bamboo mug complete with a bamboo straw.
Hotel View Point