The Sikkim Story!!!
God must be kind to me. In last eight months or so, I've been to two places I always wanted to visit - europe and North Eastern part of India especially Sikkim.
And if you were to ask me to compare the two, for me Sikkim wins hands down.
To all its clutter and chaos, which is inevitable considering it is in India, the quality of natural beauty NE provides surely supersedes the mundane nature of Europe.
While Europe is surely much more structured, well planned and managed, there is certain artificiality and repetitiveness which makes it boring after certain point of time. Closest I can compare to Sikkim is Swiss but it cannot beat it in variety. No way. Forget everything else, I would always be an alien to Swiss whereas as far as Sikkim is concerned, it would always be part of my own country. Well, till China loses its mind.
To all its glitter and glamour of Swiss, it isn't mine. Sikkim is. And that's one quality of something that belongs to you - to all its shortcomings, to all the cribs you make about it, to all its incompleteness, it belongs to YOU. And that wins over everything else.
To me, the most striking feature about Sikkim was the road trip. Oh yes, roads were pathetic. But the adventure they provide, the thrill of being ever so close to falling down in the valley yet the beauty it provides, the rawness of it charms you over.
I consider myself a very skilled driver but after seeing the drive there, I wouldn't even sit behind the wheel forget driving. It is risky. It can be lethal. It needs special kinds of skill and expertise.
My driver told me a story about his accident ten years back when his car fell in the valley. 9 people died. Only he survived.
“How did it happen”, I asked him.
“Some stone fell down from the top and hit the car”
“Landslide?” I wondered.
“No it wasn't landslide for sure. I think some monkey pushed it from the top” he said in such a matter of fact voice that I felt a shrill through my spine.
We just witnessed a truck on which a tree had fallen and the driver had died on the spot.
“How can this happen”
“Weather here can do anything” again the reply in cold voice.
Talking about driving, I've never seen any Indian city which has such better managed and disciplined traffic. And I've seen some Indian cities.
People don't break lanes. Think of Ahmadabad. They barely honk. Think of Bangalore. You don't see many cars with dents. Think of Pune. I didn't see a single road rage incident in my stay of 4 days. Can you imagine it in Delhi?
And yes, one cannot bribe a policeman. You have to pay the fines which are hefty. Think of any Indian city.
Every time I praised this in front of the drivers who drove me around, I got the same answer - it has been ingrained in our minds that following traffic rules is for our own good.
With the inch close distance at which everyone is supposed to drive because of narrow lanes and up & down roads, the patience of people is really impressive.
Although it is a tourist place, tourists aren't seen as cash cows. Every time they spot a tourist, they don't jump on to loot him. Think about temples in Banaras.
People are friendly and warm. They are of helping nature. They don't really over price stuff based on location. A water bottle is sold as 20 a piece be it in the city or outskirts. Ever bought a water bottle on the highways elsewhere?
Oh yes, there are a few tips to make sure your trip is enjoyable. Do a good research on the hotels you are going to stay in. Do not rely on online sellers selling you rated hotels. Stay in well known hotel chains only.
Do book your cabs in advance. You shall not only save money but also get better cabs. Cabs are high in demand and can be a bottleneck in your travel. Especially given the road conditions, you would need a good car for comfort and safety both.
Although you cannot do much about it but do a weather check. Weather is totally unreliable. My first day was almost washed off due to bad weather. By the time we reached back to our hotel, the sun was shining again in its full glory.
Make sure you carry enough cash everywhere. The digital India is yet to make an entry in the pockets of most needy. I was lucky to carry sufficient cash with me. Without which I wouldn't have been able to do water rafting in Teesta. Teesta is one of the most beautiful and cleanest rivers I have seen. On one side you have West Bengal and on the other, there is Sikkim. Between these two contrasting states flows the river Teesta in its full glory and beauty. With turbulent water every now and then, it makes water rafting real fun.
Tsomgo Lake is a beautiful place. Yak ride is an amazing experience. Do wear your bargaining hat and wear the best one. It is the only source of income for most there and they try to make the most of it. The mountain range behind the lake makes it one of the most picturesque locations. If you ever wanted a family portrait with blessings of nature, this is the place.
I had heard a lot about Nathula pass. The biggest attraction was to see the China border. Alas, you have to be lucky with weather to get permit. I wasn’t hence missed it. Still, I was quite close to the China border and who knows, for Chinese I might well have ventured in their territory. The situation there is well known.
In case your luck is as bad as mine, do make sure you do not stop at the Tsomgo lake and do visit the temple of Baba Harbhajan Singh. There are wonderful stories around the temple. Yes, ghost stories. Even if you do not get to the temple, quite possible due to long queues, you would get to see plenty of something which is rare in India - snow. The road on both sides is surrounded by snowy mountains and sometimes it is even covered by it. Make sure your cabbie is carrying a shovel and chains else he might be denied entry in the region. Permit is anyways needed to enter the region. And you need right kind of permit. So book that in advance. Or get hold of a reliable travel agent to do so for you. How to get hold of a reliable travel agent? Well, you aren't paying me to read this. Hence go figure that out yourself.
West Sikkim is quite different to these parts. Government has been making efforts to build tourist attractions in this part of the state. While Buddha Park is still in WIP state, Char Dham is absolutely stunning. For a shutterbug, nothing could be better to capture lord Shiva’s grand statue with sun setting behind it. Lord Shiva’s silhouette with crimson red sky in the background makes a stunning picture.
Our car did break down and we had to kill couple of hours on the road. Luckily the place it broke down was itself so picturesque that we didn't regret the incident. It was some guy who had put everything he had in acquiring a piece of land and was had ambitions of building a resort there. If he manages to do so, its just the location which shall make it worth the effort.
While some other states are famous for its tea gardens, I can safely claim that I haven’t seen more beautiful tea gardens than the ones I saw in Sikkim. They are less crowded, not meant for tourist attractions hence purer in nature. The Himalayan range surrounding them gives them a totally different look.
Food could be a problem if you aren’t a momo lover. But what could rescue you is something that has been rescuing us for generations - Maggie. You get it everywhere. Just everywhere.
Finally we were back from the land of momos to the land of modaks.
It was a wonderful trip which made me realize something important.
Yes India is vast. Yes India is chaotic. Yes India is in a mess.
Yes there is JNU. Yes there is Kashmir. Yes Mumbai is submerged in water during every monsoon. Yes there is extreme poverty in naxal ridden areas. We have bad infrastructure. We are always in rush. We lack civic sense. We have riots. We have all those bad things.
But beyond all this, there is another India. Like the one I witnessed in Sikkim. And that India is not all that bad.