Tolarence towards Foreigners in SIKKIM.
Till some time back it was presumed Sikkim is a restricted area, true but no longer. Now it is open to foreigners as well. As ineverywhere all foreigners have to register them with the Foreigner's Registration office, which is very simple. They mayalso visit all the restricted areas open to Indian ( Indians too have to obtain permit).
The people of Sikkim is very well tolarent towards all foreigner as they are very very peace loving. In entire Sikkim , the Police Stations hardly have any crime record like Murder, Rape, Burglery, Assult, even theft. It is said in SIKKIM, women are safest as the Sikkimese people respect women. We came across many foreigners who were there for more than six months for research ( See the lady from Sydney in picture with dog) or the team of Mountain Bikers from California.
Donna & Sandy in Gangtok
"Driving From Darjeeling To Gangtok"
Our last morning in Darjeeling brought blues skies and finally a - brief - view of Mount Kanchenjunga through passing puffy clouds. We were in no hurry since this was a travel day so we leisurely finished our breakfast. Our driver arrived; we packed up the car and were off to Sikkim in search of snow.
Sikkim is located in northeastern India and is in between Nepal and Bhutan, and also borders south China (Tibet). We expected the drive to take about 3 hours or so and it was a fairly pleasant drive. Most of the route followed the Teesta River. There are only 2 entry points into Sikkim and although Sikkim is a state in India a special permit is required for all foreigners to enter. Immediately upon arriving in Rangpo, Sikkim I had to have photos taken and fill out forms before I was issued a short term permit.
From Rangpo we drove on to our final destination of Gangtok (which is the capital of Sikkim) arriving in mid afternoon. Since we made a change in our itinerary – going to Sikkim instead of Nepal – we hadn’t booked a hotel room. Tiredly, we checked out three hotels and (and rooms) before choosing the New Castle hotel. We had a nice room with a separate sitting area and a terrace above. After settling in we went into town for some lunch. The food from that lunch on through the rest of our time in Sikkim was pretty bad.
Sikkim wasn’t as nice as Darjeeling. Although there were some beautiful views it was much more crowded and hurried.
Back at the hotel we tried to get information on going to Tsomgo Lake (a.k.a. Changu Lake) the following day. I had wanted to go further north – to Nathula Pass on the Indo-China border but only Indian Nationals can go there. I was very disappointed because at an altitude of almost 15,000 feet, I knew for sure there would be snow at the Pass. It had now become my mission for Sandeep to see snow. We weren’t sure if there would be snow at the Lake. I was devastated (and more then a little pissed!!) when we were told that one Indian and one foreigner together could not go to Tsomgo Lake. I couldn’t believe it!! At that point we couldn’t even get a reason why.
We went upstairs to our room where it was absolutely freezing. The room had a high peaked ceiling and of course, no central heat. We had a heater sent up to the room – a small coil heater (with no fan). When that didn’t help, we had another heater sent up. Still didn’t help. Extra (thin) blankets didn’t help either. We froze through the night. The next morning Sandeep woke up sick. We took our time having breakfast and getting dressed.
"Determined To Get To Tsomgo Lake"
We made arrangements with a driver to do some sightseeing. The first thing we did was to take the Ropeway (cable car), which was a minute walk from the hotel. Less then 1 kilometer long, the ride just went from one part of the town to another. The views of the town and the surrounding mountains were nice from the Ropeway. We made the trip back down and met up with the driver.
We decided to go to the Sikkim Tourism Office to book a helicopter flight back to the airport the next day. (We just couldn’t face 4 more hours of driving winding mountain roads!) While we were there we tried to see if there was any way we could go to Tsomgo Lake. We were told that we could – we just needed to go through a travel agent. The first 2 travel agents we went to were closed. The next agent told us that we couldn’t go. We tried one more agent and were also told that we couldn’t go. It was so aggravating. We ended up back at the tourism office and were a little annoyed because they were the ones that told us we could go. The really strange thing was that this tourism office was where the permits were issued to go to Tsomgo Lake. You would have thought they knew what the hell they were talking about.
It was then that a woman from the permit office came out to help us. By this time – after running all around town in the sun - I just wanted to smack someone. By some miracle I kept quiet (I know!) and Sandeep explained the situation to her. After she found out that someone in her office told us that we could go she said that they would arrange for a special permit for me. Then a man came out and said that we should try this one agent first. So we walked to his place and he said that he could take us – one Indian and one foreigner. Finally! It ended up that a Canadian guy overheard our conversation and said that he and a friend would also go. So after filling out more permit papers the agent would arrange my permit. We were set to go to Tsomgo Lake the next morning so we changed our plans again staying an extra day in Gangtok. (One of the best things about the way we travel is the flexibility to change our plans.)
Military sensitivity – because the lake is so close to China and falls in the “restricted” area - is the reason that the permit process is so strict. We never really did find out what happened with the one Indian and one foreigner who caused the problem but apparently there had been some issue.
"I'll Have The Soup"
By this time it was about 4 p.m. and we hadn’t eaten lunch or done any sightseeing! We stopped in a Chinese place for some soup. Sandeep – still feeling sick – wanted me to specifically recommend to anyone reading this – to only have vegetarian meals and soups while in Gangtok!
After the soup we drove about 40 minutes to a monastery. There were many guards around the place – apparently there was some kind of land dispute between the government and the monks. We walked around very briefly and made our way back to the car. By now it was dark so we just ended up going back to the hotel. We had spent most of the day just getting the permit for Tsomgo. We were hoping for snow!
"On The Way To The Lake"
We froze again through the night and woke early to meet our group for the drive to the lake. We took a taxi to the meeting point and on the way we had (finally) the most fantastic view of Mount Kanchenjunga. It was spectacular. Our group ended up to total 7 of us including the driver and a guide. It was supposed to be about a 2 hour drive (only 40 kms from Gangtok) providing the roads weren’t bad (weather “bad”). Pretty quickly into the drive we came to “the” check point. Permits in order we continued on. (From the checkpoint all the way to the lake were military barracks, vehicles, and guards.) The road went up and around, up and around – high mountain passes and sharp cliffs! The views were really beautiful. We started to see a little snow by the side of the road and on the mountains. We stopped half way to the Lake and had some hot chai.
"Playing In The Snow & Delicious Momos"
Finally we arrived at the Lake. It was frozen over and happily there was snow all around. Tsomgo is an oval shaped lake about 1 kilometer long at an altitude over 12,000 feet. The locals consider it a sacred lake. Our group decided to trek to the top of a hill (about 45-60 minutes up a steep hill!) for a better view of the Chinese (Tibet) border. We all got boots from a local stall for the snow. Some of us were better prepared then others. One of us ;-) just had on her cowboy boots!! (Hey what do you expect? I live in India!)
We started up the hill and it wasn’t too long into the trek that the smokers (me and Sandeep) dropped out of the trek. (I had forgotten how difficult it is to walk in knee-deep snow!) I was pretty disappointed but decided that at that point breathing was more important to me then seeing the border. (I was happy later when I asked one of the guys what it looked like and he said – more valleys, more mountains. So what was I expecting? A “Welcome to China” sign???)
So Sandeep and I played in the snow. Throwing snowballs, making snow angels and generally getting soaking wet. I loved it and during those moments I missed winter very much! I tried to build a snowman but he was pretty sad looking. I must be out of practice!
Much of the area around the lake is restricted and our guide had already told us how far we could go. We came down from the hill and decided to saddle up on a couple of yaks to ride as far as we could around the lake. The yaks were really cool and the ride was comfortable.
We made our way back to the stall and had some hot soup and delicious veg momos (dumplings). We met up with the rest of our group and started the trip back to Gangtok. All in all it was a fun day in the snow and worth all the "permit" aggravation!
"Heading Back Home"
We froze again our last night in Gangtok. The next morning we packed up and headed to a helipad about 20 minutes from the hotel. We boarded the helicopter for the 35 minute flight to Bagdogra airport. The ride was…..well most of you know how I am about flying. Once my heart stopped racing and I loosened my grip on Sandeep – about 20 minutes into the flight - I was able to enjoy the beautiful mountain views from the air.
In Bagdogra we boarded our flight to Kolkata where we had a short layover before our flight to Mumbai. We had a great time but after the freezing cold, our next trip will be to the beach!!