We left Gangtok (the time is early March) in a Mahindra MaxX. (The tour operator had arranged the trip and the permits. You need to carry a Photo ID and two passport sized photos for the permits. This process takes at least one full day when done through a tour operator.) Sikkim tours are arranged in 10-seater Sumos, MaxXs. These are “shared” cabs as they are called. So the five of us took one of these and luckily, were the only 5 in the back two rows which was very comfortable. Just as we left Gangtok, we entered the rural Sikkim which is very picturesque.
Spice forms the major cash crop and can be seen along the hills. Waterfalls can be seen trickling down the slopes every few kms. (In early March, they are trickles but there are tell-tale signs of rocks on the sides bearing the brunt of these dancing waterfalls after the rains)
The valley with the fast flowing Teesta deep below you looks daunting (almost freaky at times, spl if ur driver is too confident :P) on the left side of the cab for a large part of the trip upto the border checkpost (which is arnd 20 kms from Chungthang).
Naga falls come enroute. The sight of white water flowing down the mountain, bouncing on the rocks along the sides is actually very beautiful. If the flow is not very fast, you might be able to convince the driver to drive right through the falls. Beware – the water is really chilly; Enter at your own risk.
Chungthang is the dam-site for the Upper Teesta Hydro Power project and is a sight to savour for any engineer. The sight of the fast-flowing Teesta being channelled into the foot of the hill while huge trucks work on the construction of the dam is something you don’t see often.
Beyond Chungthang, you reach Lachung where most tours stay on for the night. The road to Lachung is quite narrow and travelling in fog can be treacherous with visibility reduced to a few metres. In winter this place is covered in snow but in early March – the only sign of snow was the driver talking of it. Nevertheless, the feeling of staying in a wooden cottage at night was different and fun. (Be informed that searching for a lodge or restaurant in this place is extremely difficult and though he might charge a premium, let the tour operator book both for you before starting from Gangtok) It creaked at times giving the eerie feeling of being watched (OK I’m no chicken but yeah, creaking wood in a desolate hill location does give birth to those eerie feelings) We had a simple dinner (Rice Dal Roti Aaloo) and retired to bed under two layers of quilts.
Early morning (around 5:30 am), I decided to venture outside in the chilly morning breeze and was greeted with the first sights of snow on distant hills – the ones we were destined for further in the day.
We had steaming tea (which cooled down before we could finish it) and decided to hv breakfast later. After renting the snow gear (Boots @ Rs. 30, Jackets @ Rs. 40 and skull caps @ Rs. 20) from the cottage owner, we set out for Yumthang Valley. The driver kept telling us that he’d rather take us to Katao but with a deep-rooted mistrust we ignored his suggestions. Going to Zero Point cost us Rs. 1750 for the whole cab. (We were 7 of us, so Rs. 250/- per head)
The sight of the Yumthang Valley is one of pure bliss – pure peace. Set amidst tall snow-capped hills, the valley is an absolute must-see for a tourist. A dry valley with a river (Teesta) running right at the centre... In peak winter, it is covered in snow and during rains, the river is a lot wider.
Close-by, there are few shacks where we got our breakfast (consisting of bread and butter) made. The pine forest around was covered in snow (at some places about 6 inches deep). It had rained the previous night and as such there was not a sign of any cloud and the early-morning warm sun helped in the winter. Being a valley, there was not much wind though the slight breeze was enough to send shivers through you if your ears or feet were exposed to it. The water in the river, expectedly, was chilling (almost untouchable).
The valley offer panoramic view of beautiful snow on the hills. There is hardly any flora-fauna other than the expected conifers and lichens in this region though the driver did mention that in February, herds of Yak do visit this region. During the rainy season, the route apparently has beautiful rhododendrons. From here we decided to go to Zero Point - the end of the well-maintained NH 31A. (apparently the Tibet Border is visible from there but it is often closed due to security or safety reasons) That climb is indeed on of the more steep climbs of the trip. Within a span of 20 Kms we climbed around 2500 ft. The air feels light and few of my friends felt the first effects of light-headedness due to the altitude. After going on through winding roads for around an hour, we reached a sharp bend in the road beyond which no vehicle was allowed. (Apparently Zero Point is 500 mtrs from there.) The first sounds that greet you is calling for having hot brandy and hot coffee...!!! There is snow is every direction you look.
The sun glares into your eyes even if you are not looking directly. This glare can indeed be unnerving and very uncomfortable for some (One of my friends had to sit with his head bowed for the entire time). But the fun of playing is the snow is something tourists come here for – and we were not disappointed. Snowmen, throwing snowballs at each other – carving texts in snow – we did it all.
The locals (selling brandy and coffee) told us that there were snow animals including snow leopards (I hope not mythical) in the region. However, the only form of fauna we saw was a crow that kept hovering over us. After a stay of around half an hour, we decided to come back. The altitude sickness was slowly getting to us all. Breathing had fastened though no cause for any alarm was raised by anyone. On our way back, we visited the hot water springs. Now these are pretty petty to the tourists who have visited Manikaran or Badrinath but a tourist destination nevertheless. Just outside Lachung are the Amitabh Bachchan Falls (No kidding!!!) Water falling of a tall steep ridge into a small pool below. A word of caution – it is situated at a high-speed righter and hence beware of speeding vehicles.
The journey back to Gangtok is fast and covered in around 7 hours. The whole trip cost us 4K for a group of 5 people. This included the travelling, staying at Lachung (in two 3-bed rooms), all food and visiting. The rented winterwear was separate.