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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

A Joyride Through the Snow Line

June 3, 2008

V M Govind Krishnan, vmgovindkrishnan@gmail.com
NewindPress (India)
May 31 2008 17:37 IST

With the summer heat making life uncomfortable, it is the perfect
time to visit the land-locked towns of the lower Himalayas — Gangtok
and Darjeeling. Both these scenic hill stations are located at 7,000
ft above sea level. A good way to reach Gangtok is to hop aboard the
Rajdhani Express to New Jalpaiguri at

Delhi, or take a flight to Bagdogra, and hire a cab from either of
these two points for a four-hour drive on a winding road along the
picturesque mountainside.

The route passes through the dense vegetation of the Mahananda
Wildlife Sanctuary to Sevoke, where the majestic railway truss-bridge
spanning the wide expanse of the Teesta River comes into view. As
soon as you cross the track leading to Assam, the ascent begins, and
the narrow winding highway (NH 31A) offers you spectacular views of the river.

As you travel past picturesque villages and small towns, you will see
a couple of low dams on the Teesta under construction, white-water
rafting and kayaking on the swiftly flowing river. Some points on the
highway are quite treacherous because of landslips and rock-slides
and careless driving can drop you straight into the waters of the
Teesta River, as protective revetments have sunk at some parts of the road.

Gangtok is sprawled along a steep hillside, over about 25sq km and is
remarkably clean as the ban on plastics is strictly enforced in
Sikkim. Roads are well maintained by the Border Roads Organisation
and are litter-free. There are plenty of taxis and very few mini
buses in Sikkim. A good place to stay is the Dho-Tapu Guest House at
Deorali, close to the multi-storey taxi stand where all vehicles
coming into Gangtok have to terminate their trip; from here local
taxis have to be arranged if one proceeds further along the steep
road leading to other parts of the town.

While at Gangtok, one should visit the Buddhist monasteries, namely,
the Enchey Monastery, and also the Rumtek Monastery located on a
hilltop 25 km from the town. The very colourful building housing the
Karma Shri Nalanda Institute for Higher Buddhist Studies is located
behind the monastery at Rumtek. A wide variety of orchids and other
beautiful flowers can be seen at the Jawaharlal Nehru Botanical Garden.

The Mahatma Gandhi Road at Gangtok has been developed as a pedestrian
mall with beautifully laid-out gardens and fountains. Ganeshtok and
Hanumantok temples are on the highway leading to the picturesque and
sacred Tsomgo lake (elevation 12,400 ft). As one travels down the
road, the green pine forests give way to sparse vegetation, which
then transforms into a stark rocky landscape as one enters the region
above the snow-line. The Tsomgo lake, also known as Changu lake, is
filled by snow-fed streams and remains mostly frozen during the
winter. Tsomgo lake falls in the restricted area and hence an Inner
Line Permit is required.

The road leads on to the Tibetan plateau via the Nathula Pass at a
height of 14,200 ft. Nearby is a memorial to Baba Harbhajan Singh
commonly known as Baba Mandir. The narrow and treacherous road is
well maintained by the Border Roads Organisation and several army
cantonments lie on the way; as the route beyond Nathula is in Chinese
territory.

An interesting sight along the route are boards erected on the
highway stating: "This section of the road is under observation from
Chinese posts." If you are lucky, you can experience snow fall here
-- as I did -- even in the first week of May. Several shacks at
Kyangnosla offer warm clothing on hire.

The Kyangnosla waterfall lies on the way, and a view of this scenic
falls can be severely hampered if clouds roll in and visibility is
reduced to a mere 6 ft, making even driving on the narrow highway a
risky manoeuvre. The Kyangnosla Wildlife Sanctuary is home to the Red
Panda and the Blood Pheasant, which are the state animal and state
bird of Sikkim. The passenger ropeway is an added attraction here.

The next destination is Darjeeling, a four-hour taxi drive over 95
km, via a very steep and narrow road between Teesta and Ghoom. For
about 25 km this road is so steep that it spirals upward in a loop at
the start of the ascent near Teesta, from where the road proceeds
through steep hillsides dotted with tea gardens at Pesok and Lopchu,
before reaching Ghoom via scented pine forests, from where it joins
the heavily potholed highway from Siliguri, for the last 7 km lap to
the town. On this final stretch, one can see the famous "Toy Train"
chugging along with a vintage B-class steam engine on one of its two
daily trips between Darjeeling and Ghum.

The track criss-crosses the heavily potholed National Highway 35 at
will as it follows the contours of the hillside beside the road. None
of these crossings have any barriers, and semaphore signals are
non-existent on the entire route. A ride on this steam engine-powered
train is a must in everybody's itinerary just to experience the
nostalgic journey. The main train between Darjeeling and New
Jalpaiguri via Kurseong and Siliguri is hauled by a NDM-6 diesel
locomotive since May 2000. Advance reservations are available on the
"joy ride" train, which will halt en route at the famed Batasia Loop
from where one can have a magnificent view of Mount Kanchanjunga.

A very comfortable place to stay at reasonable rates is the Janata
Lodge, located in the heart of the town. Like Gangtok, Darjeeling too
remains free of 'plastic pollution' as paper bags and newspapers are
used by shopkeepers. While at Darjeeling, one should make it a point
to visit Padmaja Naidu Zoological Park and the adjoining Himalayan
Mountaineering Institute (HMI). The Himalayan Red Panda, snow
leopard, clouded leopard, Siberian tiger and other animals including
the nocturnal animals such as the slender loris can be seen at the
zoo. Various types of mountaineering equipments and photos of various
conquests of Mount Everest and other Himalayan peaks are displayed at
the HMI. The institute trains mountaineers in rock climbing at the
steep granite rocks, Tenzing Rock and Gombu Rock, located in the
valley below. Darjeeling is famed for its lovely mall and a good
range of restaurants and bakeries, which offer sumptuous food at cheap prices.

A trip to the Japanese Temple during prayer time is worth a visit. A
scenic drive via a steep mountainous twisty road leads you to the
Gangamayee Garden, with its well laid-out parks and a beautiful
fountain. The park has facilities for boating in a lake, and open-air
cultural programmes to enthrall the visitors. Nearby, a rock garden
is sprawled on a hill-side beside a lovely waterfall.

It is also worth the while to go to Tiger Hill, via Ghum, to witness
the spectacular sight of the first rays of the sun lighting up the
snowy peaks of the Himalayan range with a reddish hue. On the way,
one can visit the Sampten Choling Monastery at Ghoom, which was built
in 1875 and belongs to the Yellow sect of Buddhists. Local
handicrafts and other knick-knacks are laid out neatly on the railway
track near the monastery gate, to entice the tourists.
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