Sikkim Episode (S01E02): Reaching Sikkim

From Delhi, we had a flight to Bagdogara airport on 18th May. We decided to reach Delhi couple of days earlier and roam around some nearby places (which can be accommodated in different post). So let us fast-forward to the Delhi airport.

There we were, one hour early, sitting idle. You can’t be creative on Indian airports, even a chips could cost you 300 INR, so I thought of suppressing my shopping steak and sit somewhere quietly with a cup of coffee (which also did cost 60 INR, but when you are at airport its good to flaunt – parsimoniously). Finally, it was the time. We were very excited. Well, the itinerary was: New Delhi – Gangtok –  Lachung – Gangtok – Darjeeling – New Delhi.

The flight was of GoAir and fortunately it was on time, so we reached Bagdogra on time – at around 2:45 PM. In-flight services were decent enough, with GoAir girls walking through aisle. One can see Himalayan Ranges, with snow covered peaks visible from your windows. Himalayas have always excited me (I even plan to settle there after my retirement). After reaching Bagdogra, which is the nearest airport to Sikkim, we went towards exit trying to call our tour manager. But to our surprise, I saw my name board, and we approached him.

“Good Afternoon, sir. We will wait for your fellow passengers and then we will leave for Gangtok via Siliguri”, he told us.

In another 10 minutes, there were five more people standing near MakeMyTrip board. Two couples and a single soul. As soon as they were settled with all their after flight nature’s call, all of us went to the parking area. There were three cars, so we were given our personal car – it was Mahindra Xylo (Aha, one of my favorite SUVs). Bagdogara airport has its gate as a bottleneck to the process, which creates traffic in and around the airport. The exit gate is very narrow, that only one car can pass at a time and they take toll from each and every car at the gate, so it was a hell of a traffic and we got stuck into the airport for one hour.

Once we passed this gate, we speeded towards our restaurant which was in Siliguri. Road was good with scenic views of distant mountains and plain woods surrounding the roads. Restaurant was nice; after completing our lunch, we all gathered in a hall area where our tour guide Sunny came in and gave an introductory speech.

“So first of all, welcome everybody. There are two separate teams for hereon, as one is of Lachen and other is of Lachung. Let us start with some paperwork which is required to enter these two places”

We went forward one-by-one and gave our Id proofs (Lachung has Army check post at Nathu La Pass as well as for Baba Mandir, where we need to have permit for entering these places). After this brief discussion, we were assigned our respective cars (I had the same Mahindra Xylo, thank god).

Before leaving Siliguri, its better idea to buy bananas and litchi. Litchis are awesome here. Time to reach Gangtok from Siliguri is around four to five hours (sunny day scenario), so its always better to have some snacks with you.

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Mountains guarding you all the way

Best part of any voyage is always the path we follow, not the destination. Road consists of dozens of hairpin bends, and steep roads with lot of traffic as a topping. Gaining the height gradually, the road runs along Teesta river. Crossing a bridge on the river Teesta, we enter Sikkim with Kalimpong is the first city. Mountains guard you on one side and Teesta watches for you on the other. It feels like you are going in the lap of mother nature. Cold breeze adds the diamond on the golden ring, as if welcoming you to its land with both the hands open. God, I can still feel that scene; till the time I was already in love with Sikkim.

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Bridge Crossing Near Siliguri

We stopped at Rangpo village. There was a small bazaar where we had a tea and attended nature’s call. It was still one and half hour journey from there. Finally, we were at the foothills of Gangtok and what’s that – A casino (that will be a spot to visit – Indians always search for casino even in the country, whether it is Sikkim or Goa). I had learnt and practiced Blackjack, Roulette wheel and poker during my MBA classes (everything happens for a good reason, I thought). By the time these thoughts flew, we were into the city – Gangtok.

Sikkim Episode (S01E01): Pre-Sikkim Drama

                              “Family that travels together, stays together”. Travelling is an integrated part of any family, especially when you are born in a Gujarati family (and I am not telling just because I am affiliated to one, but it is universal fact that in whichever corner of the world you travel, you will find some Gujarati family shouting. Actually that’s their regular tone of talking, so don’t worry).

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               When I was a child, we used to travel around India during most of the vacations. Finally, as I had completed my MBA and there was a quiet a long vacation between joining date, we decided to go somewhere. It was a month of April; so we decided on going to some hill stations. After a long streak of searches we finally shortlisted three places: Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim (priorities in descending order). Yes, Nepal was at the number one priority. One of the reason for Nepal was the natural beauty of the places it offers and the other reason was that I wanted to travel outside of India because I didn’t get that chance till now. Nepal – Done.

                  After selecting the destination, I went forward and started searching for the best available travel company (given one fact, I don’t like tour packages on my solo travels, but if family is concerned it’s better to have predictable and hazardless journey). There were many tour operators which were providing Nepal tour of 7 days: Yatra, Kesari, Travelguru, MakeMyTrip etc. I finally ended up selecting MakeMyTrip based on the reviews and also it had its office near to our home.

                   We selected Nepal package, starting ex-Delhi on 27th April, 2015 (recalled something? That big disastrous earthquake which shook entire country on 25th April, 2015). Tour was starting from Delhi, so we left our home town – Rajkot – to go for Ahmedabad from where we had our flight to Delhi on 25th April.  We were at my cousin’s place when we got to know about the earthquake, some four hours before our scheduled flight to Delhi. Initially no one knew that the intensity was that great, so we called MakeMyTrip and asked if the tour is cancelled. They initially told that everything is normal and the tour will start on schedule. But after one hour we got a call from Delhi MakeMyTrip office that unfortunately all the packages of Nepal was cancelled due to closure of Kathmandu airport and collapse of many historical structures in Nepal. It was our breathtaking escape (We initially thought of selecting a package of 23rd April, but it was clashing with my convocation date, which was on 24th, and so we selected 27th April).

                    We were sad; we wanted to see Nepal. But we were sadder for the people of Nepal, it was such a horrible incident nature had played. We went back to Rajkot the same day. The main thing is – you get calls from your relatives and neighbors asking questions and making you more depressed. And moreover your friends teasing you ‘how was Nepal?’ We coordinated with MakeMyTrip office of Rajkot. They are nice guys. They returned all our money to wallet, without even cutting the airplane fare. They asked us to select any alternate package.

                    There we were; again left with two options: Bhutan or Sikkim. Being enthusiastic of religions, I always had a penchant towards Buddhism. And Bhutan is the home to it, so I insisted for Bhutan. Unfortunately, tickets to Bhutan were skyrocketing. Bhutan has only one airport in Paro, and most of the travelers were shifted for Bhutan from Nepal in-between this time. So we were left with only one option – Sikkim (and no one knew at the time that this will be blessings in disguise)

                      Finally, it was Sikkim starting from 18th May, 2015. We prayed to god that we don’t want any surprises now, let this trip be hassle-free. But god always have plan B, life is so unpredictable (we will prove this as we go further). All bags packed and we were ready to start a voyage.

Captivating Kutch

Kutch, Gujarat
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WagonR and Me … Ready for The Voyage

                          One fine sunny day my penchant for driving overtook my fondness towards resting, and finally I was heaved by the inner sense to plan an unplanned Road Trip. Short listing Kutch was not a difficult task as it was the only unexplored region nearby

                           Adventure is a good thing, but safety is primary. Before starting your expedition, you need to look for certain things in your car. The very first checkbox is filling more than adequate fuel, you never know when will you be lost (also in my case) so higher than required fuel must be there in the car. Second checkbox is cleaning your car, especially windshield because you can end up driving on highways in night and high beams can do some destructive work there. Third thing is checking for engine oil, break oil, coolant and windshield cleaning liquid. Fourth thing is air pressure in wheels; just go through the adequate amount of air pressure which your car require (average 35) and make sure to fill air properly. Fifth and last thing is a survival kit; life sometimes has a plan B, so we need to be prepared beforehand. This survival kit includes basic tools like screw driver, spanner, jack (used in case of tyre puncture), some extra food, water, torch and a knife. After these initial to-do list, it’s time to full-charge your cell phone and powerbank – and you are ready for the voyage.kachchh_road

                          Kutch, known for its culture and diversified geography is situated at the North-Western region of Gujarat. Due to its proximity to Pakistan, there are numerous border security force (BSF) bases there. People are very generous here and they are anytime ready to help you out. Even if you are stuck on a road at 2 in the night, you don’t have to worry at all – someone will help you out definitely. Kutch has a diversified geography including farming land, desert, sea, lakes and hills in one place – a very rare combination. Best time to visit Kutch is in winter between November to January; during this time the weather is pleasant and above all there is this Rann Utsav taking place, which is once-in-a-lifetime experience for all. But I didn’t have the time to wait for these months to come, so I decided to go in the off-season only. Off-season travelling has its own beauty; you will not find much throng and one can roam around the place peacefully. So I mostly prefer off-season travelling. If one wants to visit Kutch, then they can select Bhuj as their base location. Bhuj is at the center of the Kutch and most of the places are in the vicinity of around 100 kms from there. Staying in Bhuj is convenient for people with different budgets – it has three star hotel, budget hotels and good guest houses. And above all, for the sack of experience one can stay at least one night in mud houses at Dhordo, Kutch (Gateway to white desert). These are the AC and non-AC tents built around the neighborhoods of white desert. Looking at the clusters in the map given below, we can say that 4 days trip is the best option, but we had only 2 days.

Day 1:

                       Distance from Rajkot to Bhuj is approximately 256 kms. So from the anticipated speed at which I can drive and from the condition of roads (as per the google maps), we decided to head-out early in the morning. Waking up early is another Roadie Task; but motivation of travelling is the best alarm. It was 5:30 AM and we were already out of Rajkot. If you are travelling from another city, the Google maps can be a great help. Nevertheless there are two roads one from Rajkot and other from Ahmedabad which converge somewhere around Samakhiyali in Kutch. Roads are tricky at the moment with many diversions and uneven roads because of the construction work going on. We reached Bhuj at around 9:40 AM (the time included one tea halt – we drivers are always fond of tea).

                  Very first thing to do in Bhuj was to investigate for a hotel. We stayed in a budget hotel (I am never a fan of three star hotels, as long as they don’t give discounts) named Hotel Abha International (don’t go by name, there was nothing international about it). We didn’t have much time, so after a small bath and refreshment (tea, of course) we headed towards Northern region of the Kutch. Three main attractions here are Black hill (kalo dungar of Kutch), White desert and India Gate.

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Datattrey Temple on the top of Black Hill (Kalo Dungar)

                  About 90 kms North to Bhuj lays Black hill, as known as Kalo Dungar in Gujarati. This is the nearest point one can go to Pakistan border. There is a State Highway connecting the Kalo Dungar and this two-lane road is enough to drive at a speed of 100 kmph, but one needs to watch out for buffalos as you will find a lot roaming around in-between the road. Kalo Dungar is the highest point of Kutchh at a height of around 462 m. Believe me the slop is around 40 degree at one point; so you have to put your car in 1st gear or max 2nd gear (I didn’t realize the magnificent slop at first, so ended up stalking the car and finally I had to take reverse to the lowest point from where the car climbed in 2nd gear). Another situation was at the maximum slop; car halted in the mid way due to uneven road and on the both sides there were stones which supported the car from going down (very risky though) but finally by over-heating the engine we were able to climb that one also.

                  Black hill is the house to the 400 years old Dattatrey mandir (jackal of temples; This area constitutes world’s highest density of jackals). Dattatrey was a three faced saint with faces of Bramha, Vishnu and Mahesh. One day he was at the same point when he saw some jackals were hungry-to-death, so he told them to eat him. As long as the jackals continued eating, his body was regenerating the parts eaten by jackals. Today also, after evening prayer ‘prasad’ is given to jackals (who are known as carnivorous, but they are fed vegetarian food). There is also a sunset point on the mountain, where you can also see the desert. One can see a vast area of desert from here and can feel enormity of desert.

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180 degree view of desert and Pakistan Border from the top of Kalo Dungar
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Probable Magnetic Zone (probable reason for uncontrollable speed)

                  Rolling down the hill is another great experience. There was a phenomenon reported recently and I could also feel is that if you descent your car in neutral gear, it will roll down at speed of as high as 80 kmph. Even with the second gear, I could see the speed of 50 kmph. Currently the Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority is looking into this mystery. It is said that there is a possible magnetic field passing through this area.

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Road to White Rann

                 On the spilt road downhill, we took right for a village called Kunwar Bet. There is an India Gate situated, which is a large no-man’s land with India-Pakistan border in between. View of desert and with a powerful binocular view of Pakistan is awesome.

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White Rann, with water still remaining to get evaporated

                 Revisiting the same road, one need to take permission at the check post for white desert which costs 100 Pax and 50 for 4-wheelers. As it was off-season, we could see the heath and deserted area (as if it was contaminated and no-man’s land). Also we could not walk on white desert as water was not evaporated still. But the area was very splendid. One needs to visit white rann during rann utsav to know the tradition of Kutch better.

                 Day 1 was a hectic day with 520 kms drive on these kinds of roads. Evening was leisure, roaming around in local market. Bhuj is famous for Bandhani (kind of dresses for women), knives and other handicraft items.

Day2:

                 Another fresh morning to get started; destination – western region of Kutchh. There are three main historic places to see here: Mata No Madh, Narayan Sarovar and Koteshwar.

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Tropic of Cancer

                 Situated at about 80 kms from Bhuj, Mata No Madh was built in 14th century and it is the temple of Ashapura Mata. It was built by Jadeja rulers. Road is great, with one being crossing the tropic of cancer. Temple is always crowded by people; one can sit and reflect peacefully inside the premises.

                 Narayan Sarovar (lake) is situated Just about 60 Kms from Mata No Madh, a must see place. It is one of the five Holy Lakes worshipped in Hinduism. Narayan Sarovar is also mentioned in Bhagvad Geeta (one of the holiest book in Hinduism). There are temples of LaxmiNarayan, Dwarkadhis, Trikamray and Laxmiji. During Rann Utsav (in November/Decemeber) fair is held here.

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India’s Westernmost Part – Koteshwar Temple

                 Just 4 kms from here is the Koteshwar temple. Its story begins with Ravana, who got a shiv-ling from Lord Shiva as gratitude of his deity. But he dropped it after which the linga turned into thousands of identical one. Ravana could find the original so he took a different one and returned. So this temple is build around the original Linga. It is the westernmost human construction of India, and on a clear night we could see lights of Karachi from here (but we didn’t have time to wait for night).

                 After this we returned to Bhuj and planned a small local sightseeing. Places to see in Bhuj include Bhujiyo Dungar (Location where cricket match of Lagaan was shooted), Aina Mahal (museum displaying the tradition of the rulers), Hamirsar Lake (with no water in it). Finally after a heavy lunch we headed back to Rajkot. These two days were frenzied and I needed some caffeine to drive back 256 kms. I remembered Marketing lectures; professor told about mountain dew. Dew had the caffeine what I needed.

                 Trip was over; with many places remaining. One can also visit Mandvi where they could see beach, port. Also in Bhachau district about 129 kms from Bhuj there is Dholavira, which contains ruins of Indus Valley Civilization (Harappan Sites), temple of Jesal-Toral in Anjar (tombs of Jesal and Toral, and story of their never ending love) and many more places are there which must be visited.

 Trip ends but memories last forever. Finally, as the sign boards said in Kutchh – “Keep Smiling, you are in Kutchh!”