I am back after a wonderful trip to NE. I will share experiences but in the mean time I can say it was enchanting, ever-lasting and refreshing experience of superb spectacles, simple and smiling people, organic food and pollution free fresh air though thin at places like Nathula, yet invigorating!
Now is the time to narrate about trip to NE. It was my second trip with Senior World, who organise trips to various places in India and abroad especially for persons over 55 years. Their coordinators who travel along with the group of generally 20+ ensure personal care of each one of the traveller, right from assembly point at the airport. One travels hassle-free concentrating on enjoying the journey for the purpose meant for. The hotels are comfortable; the food is good and travel to places of interest is always convenient. Hence after November trip to Kerala, I was encouraged to take NE trip now.
We, a group of 24 including 2 coordinators started on April 16 (Sunday) from Delhi airport by Southern Airlines flight to Bagdogra (WB) and sat tension free in flight having handed over baggage and getting preferential seatings, Wheel chairs for those who needed were available. On arrival at Bagdogra again, group of 4-5 were assigned Innova vehicles and started for onward journey to Darjeeling and in the meantime the coordinators ensured that the baggage of each one of us was put on individually assigned cars. Bagdogra is a big cantonment area and one can tea plantations immediately after commencement of journey. Having had lunch on flight each one of us was comfortable to proceed. For quenching thirst cool water was available. Watching scenic beauty of tea plantations and trees, mostly Teak we proceeded on circuitous path. The roads were not very good but the drivers made the journey as comfortable as possible. After a short journey, the hill climb had started.
On way to Darjeeling, other varieties of trees, like Pine we could see. We stpped on way to have refreshing tea and stretch our legs.
There is advantage in starting to travel for sight-seeing earlier. One remains fit and can enjoy the most, otherwise lethargy sets in. Of course, it also depends on person to person. Well, I must admit, I am a bit lazy and therefore miss a lot of fun.
Group travel has advantages as it takes care of a lot of things. One enjoys company and feels and indeed remains secure. Sharing of life time experiences, learning from others and taken care of and to extend a helping hand to your companions and of course developing better understanding with your life partner. In our group, the senior most was 82 years and admittedly more fit than I felt myself. Easy life spent earlier was showing clear disadvantage. Active life would have given me more opportunities to watch closely although I was not left out, yet I felt lagging behind. Nevertheless, it gave me a lot of encouragement to strive and match the rest even though partly.
In the car, we travelled were 5 persons (other than the driver). All with different backgrounds but all out to have fun and enjoy. We shared our life-time experiences both personal and professional while travelling. It was good past time and learning from each other. There were Col (Retd) Kanwal Deep Singh and his wife Daljeet Kaur. Both extremely nice persons and a great company. Made for each other couple. Daljeet alias Guddi is a great singer and likes modelling at each given opportunity. Whenever time arose, she did try to put on local attire and gave great poses. She could recall songs during Antakshri sessions and could win single-handedly.
The other couple was Rupinder Kaur and JS Kathuria. Kathuria is a banker. Both thorough gentlemen and a great host. We liked and enjoyed each others company. Though, Col. Kanwal deep Singh has served in NE (Shillong), he particularly wanted to visit Sikkim and likewise Kathurias having served in Kolkata were keen to re-visit NE.
The lure of mountains and pollution free atmosphere have own charm. One is able to see from close angles, the rich cultures, customs and enjoy cuisines, meet people and understand our heritage better. Achievements of different parts and advantages or disadvantages of different places, one is able to witness personally. It is always a great learning experience.
As I have said earlier, group travel has advantages but further advantages are in travelling with an organised group. I could see the difference. You are taken care of totally. Even one has not to worry to click, the organisers, Senior World people, did this for you and kept informed your family members back home your daily progress during journey. No spectacles were missed and having keen eye for photography, the scenes were better chosen, selected and clicked. Photographs are posted on net and even one gets album to serve as a life-time memoire.
Incidentally, in any unfortunate circumstances, like someone falling ill on way, extending help of the organizers comes handy, e.g. during current journey Col. Ravinder Bhat got indisposed and when local medical help proved not sufficient, the family was brought back to Delhi for proper and timely medical help. He recovered and was extremely thankful.
In group one is able to meet people having retired after a successful career in service, services, business, professions. You get encouraged when someone tells you that she had been single for 22 years and brought up her family striving alone. Living example!
The Senior World people organise pre-trip, high tea session for the travellers to know about the trip, meet co-travellers and also get acquainted with travel plans and also to present one’s own particular problem or requirement. It is always useful to know beforehand what to expect and be prepared and equipped for travel and stay, weather-wise and otherwise,
I must now proceed with onward journey of the first day, after having had crunches and munchies brought by some families and savoured with refreshing Darjeeling tea! Enjoying flora and fauna on way to Darjeeling, after three-hour car journey reached hotel which was comfortable and conveniently located. We retired to our room and met co-occupant of the room, Pardeep Kumar Gupta, who had retired from Forest Service of Himachal Pradesh and last December had lost his wife. She had retired as Principal of a college in Chandigarh and had suffered from brain cancer. What a co-incidence that I too had lost my wife on 23rd February 2013 in a tragic road accident, after she bravely fought back and survived breast-cancer and have had surgery and radiation therapy.
Pardeep proved to be a good room-mate and companion. We enjoyed whatever spare time we got together and spent happily. We enjoyed our pre-dinner drinks, discussions and exchanging notes and one spare afternoon we explored exclusively local cuisines. We found, among other things, local brew and Desi Chicken, with wonderful and enjoyable taste reminding him of Himachal and of course, I recalled my days in Myanmar.
Breakfasts and Dinners were organised by the organisers in hotels of stay. Sumptuous meals, nutritious and tasty to almost all pallets. Plenty and pleasant describe meals. Lunches one was free to choose, either outside or in hotel, on payment basis. One had the option to skip, which I even though being a glut had opted to skip. That evening the dinner after day travel we enjoyed and retired to our rooms. Hotels provide for tea-coffee kettle in rooms itself and therefore one has not to worry with morning bed tea or evening tea of which one may have become habitual.
After sound sleep in Darjeeling hotel, close to Gymkhana, got up at 3 am for witnessing Sunrise spectacle at Tiger Hill. It is not a missable event. The sunrays on Kanchenjunga fall making it Kanchan, golden colour. Not less than 5000 persons had assembled and local ladies were selling hot coffee to keep oneself warm, as it was chilly. Other goodies, like selfi-rods, hand gloves, caps were also being sold. Majestically the sun arose and all of us cheered up. It was a great feeling of having attained the objective, like Nirvana. A few of us missed as it was optional and perhaps got deterred by ordeal of early rising and perhaps later regretted on having missed something which eyes only can capture and memories retain and in no way photographs narrate the whole story. It is comparable to witnessing a match in a stadium and being part of it and roaring crowd rather than watching it on the TV.
Slowly the march back started as traffic was moving at snail’s pace. We were a few lucky to reach Japanese temple and Pagoda, peaceful and serene monuments, clean and dignified. Drum beats in the Japanese temple after a few moments of silence created soulful sound and craving reverence for Almighty!
I will definitely share photographs but a little later. Naturally rushing back to hotel for freshen up and breakfast.
Soulful breakfast made me go full steam the whole day. Talking about “Steam” I shall revert back. That day we visited 5 more points covering The Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, PNZ Zoological Park, Tenzing Rock, Tibetan Self Help Refugee Centre and Tea Garden, making one each for the original 7 sisters, as the NE was earlier known. All had distinct features and historical value. The Refugee Centre had collection of old photographs and typical artefacts, dresses etc to sell. Unique and not exorbitantly priced, they made good items both for collection and gift to friends and relations. Darjeeling Tea at the Tea Garden had limited variety but in City there were aplenty of them. Out of curiosity I checked about ladies, who pluck tea leaves and I gathered, they are able to pluck from 7 to 12 Kgs in a day and are paid anywhere from Rs. 10 to Rs. 15 per Kg. The finest quality of tea (mainly buds only) for aroma and used for blending costs a few thousand. There are several varieties of tea and one can spend days to learn about them. Here at least a little knowledge was not found to be dangerous. Something got added to the knowledge and lush green site of tea garden made the day.
In the afternoon after lunch (optional), one could go shopping close-by or enjoy ride on Toy Train (optional). I preferred and opted for the second. It is highest rail track and run both on ‘Steam Engine’ and diesel Engine. The steam engine trip is priced high. The rails pass through city on both sides of the road, criss-crossing and taking you on a memorable trip. It is historical train and one can remember many a song, ‘Mere Sapon ki Rani…’ ‘Khoya Khoya Chand…’ and so on like ‘Sau Sal pahle’. One can reminisce childhood days when one used to travel on trains run by Steam Engines but it is only at few places one finds, narrow gauge steam engine train still running and carrying on heritage on Himalayas. On way of 2 hour journey, it makes stops (to and fro) to take water; halt at one scenic place and goes upto Ghoom, where there is a small Rail Museum. The engine is kept running by taking good care in maintenance and checking various parts. The ‘chukh-chukh’ and ‘steam whistle’ make one say, ‘Koi Laute Mere Bite Hue Din’. Of course, the Railways can add charm by serving Darjeeling Tea on train to make the journey even more memorable and life-time experience. It would be pity if it were to be closed down.
Before I commence my journey of Day three from Darjeeling, it would be appropriate for me to tell some important things about Darjeeling itself. . It is a city full of traffic jams, as almost half the roads are blocked by outside vehicles coming daily to bring passengers and carry them back only in the evening. Therefore it is advisable to start for any destination giving margin for heavy traffic, e.g. the Steam Engine train starts on dot as scheduled. Also there is variation in day and night temperatures. While it can be hot during day time, evenings are cool. Also one should ensure that the hotel booked in Darjeeling has enough parking place or arrangement as otherwise one may have to wait one;s vehicle or walk to get a vehicle. It is also important to keep in mind that while generally the highways are well kept, the other roads need much more attention and therefore journeys are longer than one would normally estimate from distance. Whatever I am writing is from my vivid memory and not that I had taken notes on paper.
Our next destination was Namchi in Sikkim. It is the birth place of incumbent CM of Sikkim (Pawan Chamling) and he is nurturing this place with his heart and soul. On reaching Namchi that evening when my son-in-law, Pawan asked me as to how was I, my jocular response was in your fiefdom.
The road upto Malli (border of WB with Sikkim) thought full of turns, ups and downs is very good but after crossing River Tista from Sikkim border up to Namchi is patchy and ditchy besides narrow. One could notice changing landscape. Roadside morning glory and other flowers made one’s day. Fresh breeze was also invigorating and made one almost forget about tedious journey. My inquisitiveness on seeing flags of various colours flying near roadside was quenched by our driver when he told us that the flags were Prayer Flags and had hymns in scripted on them. Waving flags had their charm to attract, welcome and spread a kind of peace. We also learnt that some flags are white and represent departed souls. On way, we could also find orchards and farms (organic) for which Sikkim is known.
On reaching Namchi, one could see for oneself that it was a neat and clean city. On Mall one could find people relaxing and enjoying. Cheerfulness was visible. Also visible was the welcome given in traditional way by pleasing hotel staff. They applied Tilaks on our foreheads and covered us with ochre colour silk scarves. Soon after reaching assigned rooms, the baggage arrived. It is handled in a systematic manner by Senior World coordinators, who ensure tagging each bag with customised sturdy name cards at the very commencement of journey. Likewise, individuals are given specially designed caps for identity of the group. That shows keenness for ensuring comfort and perfection.
Near Sikkim border on River Tista one could see people rafting. At another place, I saw people enjoying hang gliding. Almost Honk free driving and such spectacles make one closer to nature.
After a little rest and refreshing tea, we were ready to explore Namchi. The credit must go to the incumbent CM of Sikkim, for conceptualising and execution to perfection of two religious complexes. The first is Chardham at Solophok Hill and the second is Guru Padma Shambhava’s huge statue at Samdruptse Hill. That day we concentrated on the Chardham. Replicas of the four Dhams, namely, Badrinath, Jagannath, Dwarka and Rameshwar in their distinct architecture were impressingly imposing. In addition, there were replicas of 12 Jyotirlingas. There are 64 priests on the premises, who all are well educated and further trained in Sanskrit and scriptures at Varanasi, Vrindavan and Hardwar/Rishikesh. They perform rituals with religious ferver and full devotion. There is daiy Aarti in the evening and Abhisheks at given times. We were duly invited to light Aarti Lamps.. Lord Shiva is supposed to have incarnated as Kirateshwar in Indrakeel (now Sikkim). At the time of inauguration of Chardham, which was constructed over a period of more than six years, was inaugurated after performance of proper Yajna by Shankrachrya Saraswati ji Maharaj with the help of his 84 disciples. Lord Shiva in sitting pose is impressive. The trident of Lord Shiva is supposedly 108 feet tall. One can see Four Dham complex from other hills miles away. The complex is kept immaculately clean. One can also see in the hall behind the main temple, on walls well carved depictions from the life story of Lord Shiva. There is belief that at the site of Chardham, there was ancient symbol of Lord Shiva. It was worth a visit, not merely for religious purposes but also from the point of architectural beauty that Chardham presents.
After that we returned to the Hotel and following having Dinner, the time came to celebrate birthday of one of co-traveller, Manju Bansal. Cake was cut and all us wished the couple long lives. It was merriment for a purpose and definitely overwhelmed Bansals. In our group, people had joined from as far as Lucknow, Himachal, Dehradun and Chandigarh. The group enjoyed cohesiveness and complete understanding and concentrated on enjoying every moment.
Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim was the destination on Day 4. After king’s breakfast we were on our way to Gangtok and after a short while, we stopped to see Guru Padmasambhava’s 135′ tall statue. So impressive and captivating that I could understand that as to how Guru Padmasambhava was able to spread Budhism here. Another attraction was Ropeway. A little more than 1 kilometre long, the ropeway presents an impressive view of Namchi Valley. At the end of the ropeway there is a small but beautiful garden. One can walk around and have lungful clean air.
Road to Gangtok is not totally metalled though at many places repair work was visible as also new roads are coming up. Progress was visible, as one could see from the road from gate to the actual statue site.
On reaching Gangtok and retiring to hotel-room, one was free to go for shopping in the nearby Mall. It is known as Mahatma Gandhi Square with his statue. It is well kept, clean and with comfortable seating and tiled floor. One can spend hours peacefully enjoying local bars close by or Ice-cream. Sikkim rum or millet brew (served hot) one may choose to enjoy.
In the evening a get-together was arranged, wherein all of us introduced ourselves formally giving background; generally, it is done on the very first opportunity, even during long bus-ride. We also played games and came to know many facets of fellow travellers. Certain aspects of one’s personality got revealed and gave all of us pleasant surprise. Some turned out to be excelling in sports, some in cooking, some in social service and someone else in business. Talents were discovered. The bond was not only established among all of us, it got firmer and closer. Life-long friendships get established at new places with new people.
Before preparing for Day 5, the Day 4 was closed with evening drink with room partner and enjoying well-laid dinner. The food was tasty and not at all hot and was combination of veg. and non-veg. The ingredients definitely showed freshness.
The day 5 started, after freshing up, with well-spread breakfast. I specially enjoyed pure honey and lemon drink, so refreshing and appetising. One could choose from a wide vaiety of foods from various parts of India. Unity in diversity was amply translated.
Rid from hunger, made us embark on city tour. We enjoyed educative visit to the Research Institute of Tibetoogy. It has collection of coins, artefacts and scriptures of Tibet and even notes of Principality of Sikkim. Thereafter we went to enjoy ropeway. During journey on ropeway, the atmosphere turned to merriment with instant spell of Antakashri. Soulful singing made the mood swinging. Though it was only for a short while, the joy lasted for hours.
We went to have closer view of Kanchanjenga from Tashi View Point. On a clear day, one is able to feel almost face to face with Kanchanjenga. At the bottom of View Point, one can enjoy fresh pineapple and surprisingly Golgappas. How could we lag behind and indulged in devouring both.
Thereafter, we went to Ganesh Talk (Temple), which is revered and one enclosure also gives the opportunity to have a circular view of the entire valley. The priests perform special puja invoking Lord Ganesha’s blessings with small offerings only. One feels blessed and elated.
That day’s another high point was visited to the Banjihakhri Waterfalls. It is worshiped by local tribes. Cool splash makes one definitely feel fresh. Some of us attired ourselves in local costumes (available on hire) and got themselves snapped. Some braved to cross over the fall on rope-bridge. Some even took holy water in bottles to bring back. Who can deny one’s faith in any ritual or practice besides such places being a spectacle to watch and enjoy the view and preserve it for future!
On returning hotel, one was free to shop and explore. I too collected a couple of things for gifts. The evening was again a merriment time with drink and lavish dinner. This ensured sound sleep. Luckily, it did not rain any day but Gangtok nights did witness rains and consequent a slight chill in weather but not unbearable. We, of course, waited for the next day, as it was going to be the high point of our visit to Sikkim.
To have more fun on Day 5 itself, some of us chose to go to local Casino. God knows whether it was to earn money or burn money, either way, unlimited fun was guaranteed!
The organisers of the tour had well prepared themselves for the Day 6, which I would call culmination day of our journey, by applying and obtaining necessary permits for those interested to go to Nathula, important theatre of 1962 Chinese Aggression. In local language it is known as ‘Pass of Listening Ears’. Its altitude is 14,100 feet and air is thin. Fog forms quickly. Therefore, there are strict visiting timings. The permits are checked on way at several places and it is definitely chilly and one must prepare oneself carefully with heavy woollens, gloves and cap. Some even carry mask, special boots and ice stick as the last few metres climb is slippery and narrow. It is on Old Silk Road and travellers from China, like Huein Tsang and Fa Hein came through this pass in 5th and 6th century respectively. It is also on official Kailash Mansarover pilgrimage route. On clear day one is able to see Chinese border posts and soldiers. The importance of the place gets enhanced, as it is the meeting place of the border personnel of both sides. The Tibetan refugees came to India in 1959 through this pass, after Tibet was annexed by China. For us it no less historical day. One can get signed Certificate of having visited Nathula for a small fee of Rs. 120/-; worth the money! One must appreciate the Jawans posted and performing arduous duties there. Mu Saute and Jai Hind.
No less commendable is work of the Border Road Organisation, who have made and maintain in tough weather, facing landslides, metalled high speed two lane roads.
For lunch way side eating joint served freshly prepared fried rice and tea, both wholly satisfying.
We then came to Baba Harbhajan Shrine, popularly known as Baba mandir. Baba ji died while escorting a mule column on 4th October 1968. His body got carried away by fast current 2 Kms. As per legend he appeared in the dreams of his colleague and informed him exact location of his body and belongings and suggested for construction of his ‘Samadhi’ . After body and belongings were found, at the said place, the unit did construct a ‘Samadhi’, which in November 1982 was relocated 9 Kms from the original site at a more conveniently approachable place. He is revered by Indian soldiers, who do not forget to pay a visit to Baba Mandir and carry blessed water from there for removing any trouble of their family members, by following certain rules for 21 days. Even Chinese troops are said to believe Baba ji appearing on white horse in white clothes. He has been accorded status of a Saint and Indian Army personnel see in him their protector. Indian Army also accorded one of the high medal and rank of Hon. Major. Accordingly, he is trated.
It was now time to rush to see 50 feet deep oval shape Tsonga Lake. The hills around were covered with snow. Many persons with decorated Yaks were waiting at the lake so that people like could enjoy Yak Ride and Snap by paying a small amount of Rs. 50/-. They could manage to lift me up on Yak and I could get myself snapped peacefully. It gave me a real thrill, no chill. It was a wonderful experience worth every dime. The lake is home to the Brahmini ducks and other migratory birds.
The journey back was very slow, as thick fog started appearing and after covering a few kilometres it was almost pitch dark. The drivers are adept at negotiating curves safely and match it. Of course they would stop at places. A little further rain started and fog started thinning out. We came safely at hotel.
Some of us again ventured for Casino whereas we decided to call co-travellers interested for a joint eveing drink session in our room. It was a pot-luck (sorry pot-bottle) party as each one was supposed to bring his preferred poison for the evening. We did arrange for some drinks and snacks. Being penultimate date of our journey, every one was ready to share one’s experiences and appreciative of the initiative in calling for a memorable assembly.
After a couple of hours the gathering went for dinner and finally to their rooms dreaming about that wonderful day.
On final day (7th day), after having morning tea, we packed our baggage for return journey and after having wholesome breakfast were ready to alight our assigned vehicles, which were already loaded with our baggage. The distance from Gangtok Hotel to Bagdogra airport is 125 Kms. Though the road is extremely good, it takes nearly 4-1/2 hours to reach the airport. The road is lifeline to Sikkim as most of the goods are carried from Siliguri. On way, we passed through Kalimpong and one could identify directions of Bhutan and Bangladesh. There is a daily bus service from Siliguri to Bhutan. There is a road leading to Nepal.
We were lucky to have a fast driver who dropped us at at Bagdogra airport in four hours, after we had started from Gangtok around 9.15. Before check-in we were able to have snacks. Pre-screening .of baggage was done and we checked in and comfortably sat in departure lounge. The flight was on time and we reached safely Delhi around 6.45 in the evening. The coordinator collected and handed over baggage and we bid farewell for the time being and promised to remain in touch after that as well. It was parting time after having enjoyed wonderful week long party time in happy company and at places full of fun. To repeat experience is perhaps is the only parting saying I can have for now.
I do hope all those who have read it, have enjoyed. i know there might be inadvertent errors but the fun had been unlimited. Bye for now!