Enchanting Gangtok

by Chandan Sen, The Statesman, May 23, 2009

A profusion of lofty peaks, holy lakes, ancient monastries, orchid nurseries, heli-tours and stunning trekking routes make for an amazing destination for tourists. And the happy faces all around make for better trade

Gangtok, Sikkim (India) -- THE Nepalese call it Sukhim, “The New Place”; for the Bhutias it is “The Valley of Rice”; and the Lepchas simply call it Nye-mae-el Lang, meaning “Abode of the Gods”.

A land of immense natural beauty, Sikkim is imbued with a mystic aura steeped in legend and history. The profusion of lofty peaks, holy lakes, ancient monastries, orchid nurseries, heli-tours and stunning trekking routes make Gangtok, its capital, an amazing destination for tourists. And the happy faces all around make for better trade.

Gangtok aptly means “hill top” and it is perched at 5,500 feet above sea level, on the ridge of a valley. It lies snuggled between the borders of Nepal and Bhutan at an altitude of 1,547 metres and is famous for its numerous important monasteries and picturesque Himalayan views. Beautiful town houses share space with some of the most important Buddhist religious sites in India. The road to Gangtok from Siliguri, with the Teesta river for company, is a traveller’s delight. The locals worship the mountain range as a deity. Flower-filled meadows and hot springs, splendid vistas supplemented with tribal colours lure travellers to this place. You don’t feel like you’re living in India for a moment.

It is a quaint mix of the old and the new, of modern structures and ancient Buddhist monuments, of bustling commercial centres and quiet monasteries emanating an aura of spirituality. Gangtok is also famed for its wonderful orchids and, every spring, an orchid festival and flower show is held to celebrate this exotic bloom. Mount Kanchendzonga, considered Sikkim’s guardian, is visible from many parts of the town. Long walks, especially in the morning, and the ropeway complete a memorable experience.

Chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling has been instrumental in highlighting Sikkim’s beauty and with a record fourth win, things can only get better.
Khangchendzonga viewing: Tashi view point (eight kilometres) is a popular picnic spot that offers grandstand views of Kanchendzonga. The Enchey monastery, too, has one of the best views in the entire mountain range.

Excursions: Tsomgo Lake and Nathu-la Pass. One can drive into the glacial oval-shaped Tsomgo Lake (3,780 metres) just 38 km from Gangtok to enjoy its mystical environs and yak rides. Going further, the historic Nathu-la Pass generally gets enveloped in mist later in the afternoon. The Baba Mandir is a special attraction.

Rumtek Monastery: About 24 km from Gangtok along meandering roads through emerald green rice terraces, this is the main monastery of the Kagyud or “Black Hat” sect of Tibetan Buddhism. Spending time at the venue will leave you feeling ecstatic.

Namgyal Institute of Tibetology: A world renowned centre for Buddhist philosophy and religion, it is an amazing library of old Tibetian books and manuscripts. The centre also has a wide range of Lepcha and Sanskrit manuscripts and scrolls of ancient vintage.

Bakkhim: The base of Dzongri is a feast for the senses, with more than 20 varieties of rhododendron. Dzongri, at 3,962 metres, offers a mesmerising view of Kanchendzonga and is a trekkers’ delight.

Pemayangtse: Sikkim’s second oldest monastery. This is an ideal base for trekking to Yuksam. Other places of interest include Tashiding Monastery,
Yuksam, Botanical Garden, Zoological Park, Enchey Monastery, etc.

Shopping: Warm clothing, Lepcha weave bags, purses and woodworks,
Sikkimise apparel, tea, large cardamoms, liquor, silver dragon rings and “Choktse”, collapsible wooden hand-carved tables etc.

Best time to visit: All through the year except the monsoons. (Don’t forget to carry an umbrella.)

How to get there: By air — Bagdogra is the nearest airport, 124 km from Gangtok. A helicopter service is also available. By rail — New Jalpaiguri is the nearest railway station (148 km). By road — Regular bus services between Gangtok and Siliguri and within Sikkim proper. Private buses, jeeps and taxis are also available from Siliguri.