India on the Road

From Siliguri to Nathula Pass

4 FEBRUARY 2017,
View from Ganesh Tok
View from Ganesh Tok

Siliguri to Nathula Pass: 181 Kms.

Driving Time: 6-7 hours. (National Highway 31A).
Note: Siliguri is the gateway city to the Eastern Himalayas. Apart from the mountains, there is the enchanting Dooars region, in close proximity to Siliguri that captivates the tourists with its magical blend of immaculately landscaped Tea Gardens and stunning wildlife. The Siliguri-Jalpaiguri tourist circuit, though not all that developed in terms of tourist infrastructure as compared to destinations like Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Gangtok have over the years evoked a sense of mystery and awe with its three T’s – Tea, Timber and Tourism. The region is also criss-crossed by swift flowing rivers like Teesta, Torsha, Jaldhaka, Sankosh etc…

What to See:
Buxa Tiger Reserve, Wildlife at Gorumara Forest, Wildlife at Chapramari Forest Reserve, Wildlife at Jaldapara Forest Reserve, the scenic Chalsa hills and surrounding British East India Company introduced Tea Gardens, the temples of Jalpeshwar and Jatileshwar.

Where to Stay:
West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation / WB Forest Development Corporation Tourist Lodges at Malbazar, Jalpaiguri, Jaldapara, Hollong, Madarihat, Gorumara, Samsing and Jayanti. In Chalsa hills there is the superb Sinclairs Chalsa retreat. In Siliguri proper Hotel Sinclairs, Hotel Cinderalla and Hotel Apollo are good options.

Where to Eat:
Almost all the hotels in the region have their own in-house restaurants that offer an eclectic mix of cuisines ranging from Indian/Tandoori to quality Chinese fare. The government run Tourist Lodges and Guest Houses too serve hygienic food inclusive of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

What to Buy:
The world famous Dooars Tea is a must. You will also find the more costly Darjeeling Tea in select few tea stores in Siliguri.

The Climb Uphill

Your ascent from the plains of Siliguri to the high mountain terrain of Sikkim via National Highway 31A is nothing short of a fairy tale mountain ride. The four-hour drive from Siliguri to Gangtok offers spectacular window views of the Sikkimese countryside nestling besides the turquoise-blue Teesta River, your companion throughout the journey. Rhododendrons and Orchids create a riot of pink, yellow and mauve. You can break your journey at interesting mountain cafeterias and have the best “Momos” (Tibetan Dumplings) of India along with Sikkimese wine.

Gangtok – Picture Perfect

Gangtok, the capital of the Himalayan state of Sikkim is a mystical land and is steeped in history. The tumultous history of the land finds echoes in the peaks and valleys that rise and fall. Directly overlooking the city is the hill – Lukshyma, the “mother of pearl” citadel of the magic mountains, Khang – Chen – Dzongda. The sight of the impressive Rumtek Monastery, renowned the world over as an important seat of Tibetan Buddhism and the world’s second largest Tibetan Buddhist monastery is awesome.

If history is anything to go by, Sikkim used to be an independent country till the year 1897 and was ruled by the powerful Chougyal dynasty. The majestic palace of the Chougyal dynasty at Gangtok bears ample testimony to Sikkim’s rich virile past. As a mountain city (1,547 meters) and with a population in access of 50,000, Gangtok has developed primarily along its arterial roads with the NH 31A being the most prominent. Most roads in Gangtok are two laned driveways and some roads have very precipitous gradients.

In Gangtok East meets West at the crossroads, with youths sporting designer jeans and Ray Ban goggles brushing shoulders with wizened “baku” clad old timers carrying prayer wheels and chanting “Om Mani Padma Om”. The liquor scenario in Gangtok and the rest of Sikkim is absolutely fabulous and highly subsidized. You can very well step into any roadside stall and just ask for your favorite tipple, guzzle your quota, mop your mouth with your handkerchief and say Bye! Bye! Gangtok’s rustic facilities and its warm-hearted folks offer visitors with a fascinating experience of life in the Eastern Himalayas, a Himalaya you never knew existed.

What to See:
Government Institute of Cottage Industry, Sikkim Research Institute of Tibetology, Do Drul Chorten, Enchey Monastery, Ridge Park & White Hall Complex, Tashi View Point, Hanuman Tok, Ganesh Tok, Himalayan Zoological Park, Sa-Ngor-Chotsog Center, Rumtek Dharma Chakra Center, Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Garden.

Where to Eat:
Buzz (Glenary's), New Market: 221643/ 221650, Little Italy, Deorali: 281980, Fusion Lounge & Bar, Tadong: 270130, The Square, Paljor Stadium Road: 227750, Blue Poppy, Hotel Tashi Delek: 222038/222991, China Palate, New Market: 227815, Dragon Restaurant, M.G.Marg: 225057/224439, Eden Park, Hotel Park Residency: 228411/228410, Hotel Sher-e-Punjab, 31A NH: 22823, House of Bamboo, M.G.Marg: 229393, Krishna Restaurant (Pure Veg): 228550, Metro’s Fast Food, 31A NH: 223245, Moti Mahal, New Market: 224430, Oberoi’s Barbeque, New Market: 223215, Parivar Restaurant, M.G.Marg: 227409, Risur Restaurant, Deorali: 222358, Snow Lion, Paljor Stadium Road: 222523, The Blue Sheep restaurant, M.G.Marg: 229028.

Where to Stay:
Central Hotel (222105/553/573), Denzong Inn (222692), Hotel Anola (224233/223238), Hotel Asian Heights (227548), Hotel Chumbi Residency (226618-20), Hotel Golden Heights (221858-59), Hotel Golden Pagoda (226928-29), Hotel Lungta (224970), Hotel Mist Tree Mountain (224263), Hotel New Castle (281707), Hotel Norkhil (225637,220064), Hotel Rendezvouz (226270-74), Hotel Tashi Delek (222038,202038/991), Hotel Tibet (224962,223468), Mandaar Tourist Lodge (224314), Netuk House (226778), Park Residency (228410-11), The Oriental (221180-81).

What to Buy:
A walk along The Ridge can be very rewarding; as also the shops at Old Market and Lal Market that sell curios, inclusive of Tibetan Thangka paintings, jewelry and ornaments. Onward to Nathula Pass – The Last Frontier.

Notes:
Nathula Pass remained out of bounds since the year 1961 due to the bitter acrimony between India and China. But with the friendly overtures in the Indo-Chinese bilateral relationship in recent times, the Pass has been opened to tourists since the year 2006. A special permit is required to visit Nathula Pass. Nathula Pass, which is all of 14,450 feet above sea level, is located at a distance of 56 Kms. from Gangtok on the Indo-Chinese border. In the days of yore, it used to be referred to as the famed “Silk Route” that facilitated trade with Tibet.

Traveling to Nathula pass is an adventure in itself. As you embark on your journey to the high mountains from Gangtok, the serpentine roads, turbulent waterfalls and mist-laden Himalayan peaks are your companions. The presence of the Indian Army is very palpable with Army settlements spread across the Nathula Pass and its surroundings. The ultimate high from the tourist’s point of view is the once in lifetime’s opportunity to be photographed in the company of soldiers from the Chinese Red Army.

Already, the Ministry of Tourism is predicting a Tourism boom at Nathula Pass. While it is still early days as far as package tours and Mass Tourism is concerned, the few who make it to the Pass are having a whale of a time pitching tents at this rarefied Himalayan zone, appreciating the hardships of border postings (Armymen), mixing up with the hardy locals and bargaining with the few shopkeepers for that prized souvenir, be it shawls, sweaters or scarves.

If you are driven by the spirit of adventure and wish to stay overnight at Nathula Pass, you should carry the logistical stuff like tents, cooking utensils and other high altitude paraphernalia. Take the help of the Indian Army when it comes to selection of site for pitching tents as they know the topography best. The dramatic landscape, stunning Alpine panorama and the icy wilderness of Nathula Pass is unparalleled. From those dizzy and rarefied heights, you can’t help marveling at the rugged beauty of the Eastern Himalayas.

List of Logistics

(1) A weather proof Swiss Tent is an absolute must, since there are no accommodations like hotels and resorts at Nathula Pass.
(2) The freezing sub zero temperature means that you need heavy woolens, jackets with cover up cap, snow goggles, gloves, spare woolen socks and a hardy pair of shoes with good grip to see you through the harsh weather conditions and landscape.
(3) Carry an inflammable stove for cooking purposes.
(4) At least one among the touring party must know elementary cooking.
(5) Carry foodstuff like noodles and fresh vegetables/meat/fish etc… according to ones preference.
(6) A pair of torch light with good visibility.
(7) First aid box with enough remedies for mountain sickness.
(8) A pair of binoculars for distant mountain viewing across the Chinese border.
(9) Non-narcotic pain relievers (acetaminophen or paracetamol, ibuprofen).
(10) Throat Lozenges.