The present day eastern Indian state of Sikkim was a kingdom until April 1975. It was ruled by the Chogyals for over three hundred years, beginning in 1640. The initial capital was Yuksom, and parts of the royal court are still well preserved today.
The coronation throne, and its adjoining areas, are well looked after by the Archaeological Survey of India. In the late 17th century, the capital was shifted to Rabdentse. The ruins still exist near the present-day tourist hub of Pelling. And only later, at some point, did Gangtok become the capital, where the erstwhile ruler’s modest palace still stands.
Sikkim began featuring on the tourist circuit from the late 1990s. In the years since, it has built a reputation as being one of the most scenic regions in India.
Meanwhile, its capital city has earned the accolade of featuring among India’s cleanest cities. However, Gangtok has grown much like any other urban centre, with concrete buildings dotting the landscape and traffic usually running chock-a-block. It was while held up in traffic, that I first caught sight of an overhead sign, in 2006. It read Lachung and its distance, from Gangtok, was about 120 kms.
The wandering souls set out
Fast forward to 2019. A quick impromptu plan was drawn up to visit this fabled region of north Sikkim. Now Lachung and Lachen are often coupled together as a package by tour operators. This is because both towns are located in the same area. I’d often hear the two names voiced in unison.
Therefore, our group of three decided we’d embark on the same circuit that tour operators suggested. This entailed a drive to Mangan — the gateway to North Sikkim and where permits have to be made out. This is mandatory practice in most far-flung locales in India, more so when these areas are in the vicinity of the sensitive Sino-Indian border.
With no fixed itinerary, we set out from Siliguri in West Bengal. The route became quite scenic once we crossed Singtam. Traffic began to thin out and it was quite easy, at least for the likes of me, to become absorbed in driving nirvana.
We’d stop every so often to simply admire Nature’s bounty. And with the leisurely pace we took, we only reached Mangan well after sundown.
We stayed the night at a beautiful property called The Planter’s Home in Mangan. The food, stay and service were all top notch. Fortunately, we were able to make our permits the night before and so after a relaxed breakfast, we set out towards Chungthang.
This little town is home to a revered Gurudwara. It is said that His Holiness Guru Nanak visited Chungthang in 1516, on his way to Tibet and China. It is also the intersection from where one route leads to Lachung, and the other towards Lachen and Gurudongmar Lake. We drove towards Lachung.
Exotic sounding names are definite influencers
The drive from Chungthang to Lachung took us the better part of three hours or more, because as each waterfall came along, we made a stop.
Soon, we realised that there were one too many of these. An irate group member went on to remark eventually that “it is simply water gushing over rocks!” It very well was, but there is something inexplicable in the way I am drawn to water gushing over rocks.
When we arrived in Lachung, we drove into the very first familiar sounding name — a Summit Hotels property. Although the hotel by itself did not look particularly inviting at first glance, the enormous waterfall in the backdrop added an element of drama.
Later that afternoon, we drove around town and explored where each of the various roads led. And while doing so, we saw a mile marker that read Katao and Zeku Phyak. This latter name, we thought, was quite exotic sounding — one that we could tell our friends about on our return. It sure sounded like a place that most will not have visited.
The road leading up to these two places was surreal to put it mildly. Snow-capped mountains bordered the scenery, along the upper periphery. Meanwhile, lush green alpine vegetation covered the foreground. We drove as far as the road allowed until we came upon an army checkpoint. We were asked to turn around from there.
The following morning, we awoke early to make a 6 am departure for Yumthang Valley and Zero Point. We knew we wouldn’t be able to catch any spectacular sunrises but an early start, we reckoned, would give us that many more day light hours ahead of us. Well, sunrises were of course a distant hope, because only 10 minutes into our drive, we were fording a large rain-fed stream.
The road really was a stream for about 200 metres or so. We were adequately prepared with a four-wheel drive vehicle and the challenging drive made it all the more exciting for the three of us.
At one point eventually, we saw a fair number of tourist vehicles parked beside the road. There was a large section of snow and boulders strewn across the road ahead. It seemed to be as far as one could go.
But the intrepid lot that we were, we decided to forge ahead. The car pulled through and we were now the only vehicle on the road, somewhere at about 13,000 feet above sea level. We made it safely to Zero Point and unpacked the breakfast we’d taken along. As we dug into our sandwiches, we spotted an army vehicle in the distance. It was coming towards us.
Our first reaction was to think that we’d probably be given a stern sounding off and be asked to return immediately.
In a short while, they stopped right in front of us and fortunately, they turned out to be a most jolly bunch. They gave us some instant noodles and biscuits, and we gave them some coffee and chocolates. The only official sounding statement was a casual minder to not drive any further.
Exploring on foot would be ideal for these areas
Yumthang, in particular, was spectacular. The views were awe inspiring in every direction and no superlatives can quite sum up the vistas that met the eye. There isn’t any one place of attraction to see; the whole place is in itself an experience. What was also a strong positive facet was the fact that there were no unsightly concrete constructions anywhere and Nature had been allowed to simply be — untouched and virgin.
As we began our descent towards Lachung, the thought came to mind that these regions would perhaps be better explored on foot. And to this end, there is a certain trekking trail that I have–firmly etched–on my bucket list.