Thursday, July 5, 2018

The Old Silk Route, Sikkim

There is a lot to explore in Sikkim than a few popular tourist destinations that are always spoken about. I recently did a road trip from Siliguri to Gangtok via Rongli and Zuluk that turned out to be one of my best road trips in India. Zigzag road snaking up the hill with a spectacular view of Kanchenjunga peak, beautiful waterfalls, serene mountain lakes, quaint monasteries and temples – I was amazed to see the beauty of this little state. This route is a part of the Old Silk Route. The great explorers in the ancient times had set up this silk route that connected Tibet to some important Indian towns for trading purpose. The route passed through Lhasa, Nathu La and Jelep La and through the port of Tamluk in West Bengal from where through the sea it reached Far East. Travelling on this route exposed me to the unmatched beauty of unexplored Sikkim.

The trail I followed is: Siliguri - Aritar – Zuluk - Nathang valley – Gangtok. Below are the points of interest on this route.

This whole circuit can be done in 8-10 days. Best time to explore this region is October - November and Feb – March. Since it passes from near the sensitive border areas, you need permit that can be obtained either from Gangtok or from Rongli.

#1. Zuluk Loops

Driving up the Zuluk loops

Driving on the old silk route from Rongli towards Nathula there is a beautifully located small village Zuluk. It was a transit point on the old silk route that connected Lhasa to Kalimpong and was in use even a few decades ago until the Chinese invaded Tibet. It was an overnight base for traders travelling to Tibet through Jelep-la. Now Nathula is the official corridor between India and China.
Located at an altitude of 10,100ft in lower Himalayas in east Sikkim, the village has a population of just around 700 people who are primarily the immigrants from Nepal who settled here in the hope of a better future. The main source of livelihood till recent times for these people was construction and maintenance of border roads, but now with the tourism boom along the silk route Sikkim circuit they are prospering. In addition to the mesmerising sunrise that can be witnessed from sunrise point (10,600ft), there is a Nag Temple at Lungthung (13000 ft.) which is the habitat of rare species of like Monal, Blood Pheasant, Snow Pheasant and The Great Red Panda.
August and September are good months to visit Zuluk for during these months the whole region is covered in wild flowers. Accommodation options at Zuluk are limited to a few home-stays.

#2. Rongli 
River Rangpo

Rongli is a quaint little town situated on the banks of river Rangpo in the Himalayan foot hills in East Sikkim. It is a beautiful drive of 4-5 hrs along the river Teesta from the New Jalpaiguri railway station or the Bagdogra airport. Lush greenery, smiling people and colorful flowers welcome you to this little heaven. Take a stroll along the river or the lush green hilly pathways, chat with locals over a cup of tea to get an insight into the life of people in the foothills of Himalayas, gorge on amazingly yummy momos in a small town market or just sit back and enjoy the nature. Rongli is the place to relax specially for city tired people. It’s the trade hub of the east Sikkim region and the market is worth a visit. At night, request your hotel people to arrange for a bonfire by the banks of Rongpo. Nothing can beat sitting by the river side listening to the thunderous sound of water and watching star studded sky. I had the best time sitting by the river side at night listening to local songs sung by our guide, Sunil. There are not many options to stay. It’s advisable to pre-book your stay here.

#3. Lampokhari 
Lampokhari, Aritar

My second visit to Sikkim was in April during Lampokhari tourism festival. It is held in Aritar during March end or early April around Ramnavmi. The main attractions of the festival are horse riding around the lake, traditional archery competition, flower shows and cultural evenings. Locals from surrounding villages visit the place during this time to participate in the festival. You can also enjoy local cuisine and shop for some amazing local stuff here.
Lampokhri is one of the oldest natural lakes of Sikkim located at an altitude of 4600 feet. The lake is 1120 feet long and 240 feet wide and is surrounded by dense pine forest. A path is constructed around the lake where you can take a walk. Boating can also be done here. To get the bird’s eye view of this beautiful emerald green lake, drive further to Mankhim also called Aritar view point and climb up to the temple. You can trek down from here till the lake through the forest. It’s a beautiful downhill walk of around 2kms through pines. Many rare birds can be spotted here during morning and evening hours and therefore this trail is very popular amongst the birders. There are many options to stay in Aritar from hotels to homestays.

#4. Aritar Gumpa 
Quaint Monastery in the middle of Pine Forest at Aritar

While we were strolling in the pine forest around Mankhim top, the sound of ringing bells and drum beats attracted us to the Gumpa. The main prayer hall was locked. We followed the sound that was coming from the first floor. It led us a to a small prayer room where 3 lamas were performing their evening prayers. The elder one could easily ignore our presence while 2 younger ones smiled at us and continued chanting. We spent some time there totally engrossed in the prayer hymns. In the outside room were some carved & painted murals, treasure of rare manuscripts and artifacts. It is worth a visit while visiting Aritar especially for the monastic art that is reflected in its traditional architecture and the artifacts. The monastery nestled in the dense pine forest is often missed by tourists on their visit to Aritar. The Gumpa lies at a small diversion on the left while on the way to Mankhim Top from Lampokhari on road. The monastery is of the Kagyuapa order and is considered as one of the holiest and oldest in Sikkim.

#5. Mankhim Dara 
Mankim Dara beautifully located on top of a hill with an amazing view of Lampokhri

A little ahead of Aritar Gompa is Mankhim Dara. It’s an uphill climb of around ten minutes from the parking. The walk takes you to the hilltop from where you get an amazing view of the lake Lampokhri and the panoramic view of the valley covered in forest. You can also trek up to Mankhim Dara from Lampokhri. It is a lovely trek of around an hour through pine forest.
On the hill top there’s a temple of Rai community. I was amazed to hear the singing from a modest Nepalese family staying in the temple. Their melodious voice along with simple instrument that looked like iktara created magic in the temple and the surroundings.
The Rai is one of Nepal's ancient ethno-linguistic groups who worship nature. Twice every year, usually in the months of April/ May, they assemble here for celebration of Sakewa puja. This puja is performed when the seeds sown by the tribes bloom and the wild-life start moving up to the high hills. The colorful dance called silli is performed in the temple premises as a part of celebration. The dance mimics the movements of birds and animals during their migration. After Sakewa Puja, the community is barred from playing musical instruments until after August/ September when they have performed the harvest festival, udhowli. At this time the birds and the animals return from the high hills to the low lands and puja is completed.

#6. Thambi Viewpoint 
Beautiful view of Mt Kanchenjunga from Thambi

While driving on the the loops of Zuluk and the view, all of sudden I found myself above the clouds. My driver, a local guy informs me we are at Thambi view point. To my surprise I could see the range of sparkling mountain ranges beyond the clouds that seemed to be at my eye level. This is the best vintage point on the silk route to view the whole range of Mt Kanchenjunga as well as the Zuluk loops. This was when I visited the region in November. The beauty of the place was altogether different when I visited it again in April. The whole valley was covered in snow and we had to drive cutting through the dense fog. Thambi again was a highlight of the trip for the excellent view it offers of the Zuluk loops and Mt Kanchajunga.
It is 14 kms from Zuluk towards Nathang valley located at an altitude of 11,200ft above sea level. It can be reached through the zig zag road known as bhulbhulaiya that has more than 30 hairpin bends. Visit Thambi view point early morning for the mesmerizing sunrise. You can do that by staying either at Zuluk (14kms) or at Nathang (10kms).

#7. Nathang Valley 
Gorgeous view from Nathang

A picturesque drive from Zuluk will bring you to this small valley. Located at an altitude of 13,500 feet, Nathang is the highest place to stay in the Indian part of the Old Silk Route. Nathang was the home to traditional yak herders who came from Tibet and now is the most remote Tibetan habitations in Himalayas. Once you go into the village and interact with locals you get to know the simplicity in living and thoughts of people here. Not noticing any hospital in the area, I asked a girl how they manage when they get ill. “We do not get ill like you city people who survive on bad food like chips and burgers” she replies. Life is tough no doubt in high Himalayas, but she was right - the pure air and the pure food keeps them going.
The best time to visit Nathang is Sept –Oct just after monsoons when the valley looks gorgeous and is covered in wild flowers and the migratory birds visit the valley just before the onset of winters. During winter months, November – mid April, it’s covered in more than 5ft snow, and is extremely cold. There are a few home-stays and guest houses that offer comfortable stay and homemade delicious meals. And do not miss on experiencing the sunrise from Eagle's nest bunker, just a 20min drive from Nathang

#8. Eagle's Nest Bunker 

It is an abandoned army bunker just 5 kilometres away from Nathang valley. Located on a strategic point at an altitude of 13700ft., it gives a 360 degree view of eastern Himalayas. You need to walk uphill for around 10 min to reach the bunker to get the view. Whole range of the Mt. Kanchenjunga and some other peaks of Tibetan plateau and China, western Bhutan, plains of Bengal and River Brahmaputra can be viewed from here. The best time of the day to visit is morning hours when the sun rises. It’s very tempting to just keep cuddling inside your blanket in the chilling cold of morning at Nathang but watching the sunrise over the Mt Kanchenjunga is an out-of-the-world experience that you should not miss for anything. The sun rises from the horizon over Tsangpo River (as Brahmaputra is called in China) illuminating the horizon and spreading its golden magic over region and the snow covered Kanchenjunga peaks.
If you are getting your trip planned through an operator, make sure they take you to this point. They might charge a nominal extra amount for this but it’s totally worth it.

#9. Old Baba Mandir 

The baba mandir is built in the memory of an Indian soldier, Major Harbhajan Singh, who died in 1967 at the age of 26yrs while posted at Nathu la pass. It is said that Harbhajan Singh lost his life while carrying supplies to some remote post during wartime when he slipped on the difficult terrain he was walking on. His body went missing and was found after one of his fellow soldiers dreamt about the whereabouts of the body. Later he has said to have helped the army also by warning in advance about the enemy attacks in dreams of fellow soldiers. A shrine was then built near the place where his body was found. It looks like a replica of the bunker the soldier lived in. Many of his personal belongings have been preserved in the shrine. Another shrine was built at a lower altitude for the convenience of the devotees and is called new baba mandir. Today army men from across regiments come here to visit the shrine and pay homage to the holy soul and he is treated as an active soldier. His family gets his salary and a seat is booked every year in train to his home town that goes empty. It is located near the site where his body was found and looks like a replica of the bunker the soldier lived in. Many of his personal belongings have been preserved in the shrine. Another shrine was built at a lower altitude for the convenience of the devotees and is called new baba mandir.

#10. Memencho Lake 

As you go further ahead on the silk route, around 25kms from Zuluk is this gorgeous lake embraced by the dense pine forest. It is situated at an altitude of 12,500ft and stays frozen from January to August. It can be viewed from the road side while on the way from Zuluk to Gangtok. A picturesque trek of 4 kms through pine forest and mountain stream takes you to the lake. This high altitude lake is fed by the glacial water and is the source of the river Rangpo chu, a tributary of the Teesta River. The lake is also known for its trout cultivation center. Fishing can be done in the lake with prior permission. Though the lake can be visited while staying at Zuluk or Nathang, I would recommend staying in the forest department dak Bungalow near the lake and experience staying in the heart of jungle that inhabits rare Himalayan birds, bears and fox. You can also spot some migratory birds around November. The banks of the lake are covered in white sand and the lake changes colours with the changing time of the day. No wonder it is considered to be the second most beautiful lake in Sikkim after Gurudongmar.

#11. Kupup Lake 

Little ahead of Nathang valley on the old silk route is Kupup Lake locally known as Hathipokhari owing to its shape like an elephant. This sparkling blue lake has crystal clear water that remains frozen from January to April. It can be visited any time of the year except July to Sept due to monsoons. From April to July the valley surrounding the lake covers with colourful flowers and looks mesmerizingly beautiful. October to December is very cold. A thin layer of ice covers the lake. Very near to the lake is “Yak golf course” a challenging 18 hole course managed by the Indian Army. It is located at an altitude of 13,025ft above sea level and is apparently world’s highest golf course. It was started in 1972 and was redesigned in 1979. During winters, Ice Hockey, Ice Skating and Skiing can be done at the golf course. To visit Kupup you need to stay either at Zuluk or at Nathang. The local drivers and tour agents have the tendency to just show you the lake and golf course from distance, but take some time to spend at the lake and observe little birds that visit the lake. I visited in April and got to meet a beautiful pair of the ruddy shelduck also known as the Brahminy duck.

#12. Tsangmo Lake 
The Sparkling Tsongmo                                          Pic downloaded from net

Tsangmo is a glacial lake situated at an altitude of around 12,400ft. It is located around 40kms from the capital city Gangtok. Tsongmo means source of the water in Bhutia language. It can be visited from either side - Gangtok or Zuluk. Tsomgo lake is open for both Indian and foreign nationals and a visitors permit through a registered travel agency is required to visit the lake and Nathu La pass.
A picturesque drive on rough hilly terrain with mountain streams and waterfalls on the way takes you to this beautiful lake that is positioned in the rift between two peaks and has crystal clear water. A hike up the hill gives a better view of the lake. It is said that the lake changes colour every season. You can enjoy the yak ride and Tibetan food here apart from the natural beauty. The lake is associated with many legends and is considered sacred by the locals. It is believed that Buddhist monks could forecast the future by studying the colour of the water of the lake. The lake also holds special significance for the Jhakris who gather here annually from all over the state to offer prayers on Guru Purnima.
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