There were moments on the Sikkim ride when I could not believe what I was seeing. It seemed to be Nature live in concert trying to pull off a medley of its hits. For a rider, Sikkim will literally shock you on every twist of the road and landscape may bring tears to your eyes as it effortlessly rolls by.
We were looking for a change in landscape for our Himalayan Ride after having done Ladakh and Spiti circuits. Bhutan was a great option, but we had sufficiently covered that in 2010. Nepal’s political situation was not peaceful at the time of planning the trip. So we picked Sikkim as our destination for the second Himalayan ride of 2015.
When planning the Sikkim ride, we had several questions which were vaguely answered through the internet, but still suspense remained on aspects like the route, itinerary and permits. Let me first detail the aspects and the doubts I had :
- Route : We had to travel from Gwalior to Sikkim and back. The possible routes could be through Nepal to Siliguri, through Bihar to Siliguri and via NH2 to Kolkata to Siliguri. From Siliguri, Gangtok is 4-5 hours ride, so Siliguri would have to be reached no matter what the route. Now, Nepal being in political unrest at the time of planning, I skipped that, then Bihar was skipped as the road conditions are very bad there. So, only option left via Kolkata. This was the longest of the 3 options, but it was to be easy and safe.
- Itinerary : Sikkim is not a large state, but it is divided into 4 parts. North, East, South and West. All parts have their own set of destinations and as the road conditions are not easy and we had limited time of 12 days, we would have to choose of itinerary wisely. The main destinations we wanted to cover were Gurdongmar lake, Zero Point, Gantok, Nathu La and Old Silk route.
- Permits : Initially, when we would enter Sikkim, our starting point would be Gangtok. Till Gangtok there are no restrictions, but to visit North and East Sikkim, permits are needed. Other riders told us that permits would be given in Gangtok, but their validity time and whether they would even be given or not.
This was the situation before we left for the ride. Now, below are the day wise details of the ride as it happened.
Preparation before the ride
- As Gwalior-Kolkata-Siliguri was the only route option, we decided to ship our motorcycles to Kolkata to avoid doing the NH2 twice. We shipped via train from Gwalior and it costed around Rs.3000 per motorcycle. A more detailed shipping experience is given on this link.
- Driver’s License, RC, Insurance, Adhaar Card, Passport and photos of each rider was taken.
- We booked train tickets till Kolkata and shipped the motorcycles 2 days before our own departure.
Below is the video series which consists of an almost complete ridelog of the trip. I lost a day’s worth of video in which we visited Yumthang and Zero Point.
- We left for Kolkata via train. The journey would take 24 hours, so as we left at 6am on 10th October, we would reach Kolkata at 6am on 11th October.
- So the first day was quite uneventful.
- Upon reaching Kolkata(Howrah station) we picked our motorcycles, which had already reached the station. The first concern was about possible damage done during the journey, but things mostly looked ok. The carrier was slightly bent, handle, fog lights had turned.
- We explored Kolkata on this day, visiting various general tourist spots and eating around with a local friend. Also visited the local Royal Enfield store looking for some riding gear. Met a fellow rider there, Rohit Ladsaria who gave us inputs about the route ahead. He told us about taking the route via Burdwan – Malda – Siliguri, which I also later confirmed from other rider friends to be the best one
- At 4am, we left from Kolkata to Burdwan to Malda. Most of the route is good. Although, the stretch between Furakka Bridge and Malda is a big pain. The stretch is maybe of 25km but took 2 hours to get through. Actually there are 3 bridges in this stretch and the 25km distance is permanently covered with a traffic jam. Very tiring to get through, but once done, the remaining route to Siliguri is ok
- Because of the jam, we lost a lot of time, plus there was more traffic blockage in Malda and then in Dalkhola, due to which we could not get to Siliguri on this day. We had to halt at Kishanganj. Now, Kishanganj is in Bihar and is a part of the 30 odd km stretch which goes through Bihar in this route. Although it is not advisable to halt for the night here, but there were no better options 100km after and before this place. We stayed at a hotel named Highway, which is infront of the railway station.
- Left for Siliguri at 5am. The road from Kishanganj to Siliguri is good. Further from there, we reached Rangpo, which is a the border town leading to Sikkim. I mention border, even though Sikkim is in India, as the whole setup is like one. Now, just as we entered Rangpo, there were two routes heading to Gangtok. The one to the left headed directly to Gangtok and the one on the right, went through the Old Silk Route. We went directly, as we had decided to first get the permits and then move ahead.
- Siliguri to Gangtok took 5-6 hours. As soon as we got there, we dropped our stuff at a hotel and head to the Home department for permits. The home department is a part of the administrative block, the location to which is shown in the map below. For the permits, you need to have 2 copies of Driving Licence, ID proof, RC, Insurance, Pollution, 4 Photos and filled permit form. Permit form is given in the Home department in the Motorcycle section. All the documents mentioned are mandatory and have to be in two copies. The form must be submitted latest by 2pm, in such a case, the permit is given on the morning next day. Maybe you can submit the form till 4pm too, but then it depends on the mood of the officer.
- In the form, we were required to detail our itinerary. Basically, mention all the all the places you may visit and the number of days needed. We mentioned all places in north and east Sikkim. What happens is, the permit given has the list of places mentioned by you, so army check points allow you to pass only through mentioned places.
- After submitting the permit, we head out to explore gangtok. We walked around MG Marg, which is a main market for tourists. There are many traffic rules in Gangtok, so remember to be careful or else you can face challan or seizure of documents.
- The permit office opens at 10am, we reached there on time. We received our permit at 12pm. Its not that the staff there is uncooperative, but the rules and procedure is stupid. Its totally offline and several copies of the same permit, addressed to different people are made and signed by officers. Some of these copies are not even used.
- After we received the permit, we had to go the 3rd Mile check post to authenticate the permit. Now this check post is on the way to Nathula at 48km from Nathula. We had to go the Lachen on this day, which is in North, but still had to spend an extra hour to get the permit authenticated. As I said, the process is totally offline, so the letters have to taken around by the riders.
- We left for Lachen at 1:30pm. Now, although Lachen is only 120km, but its can take anywhere between 4 to 8 hours to get there. Totally depends on the weather and current road conditions. For us, it took 6 hours. the route taken was 3rd Mile check post to View Point to Mangan to Chumthang to Lachen. Remember that the last petrol pump on this route is at Mangan. Surely fill up there and if needed, have cans too.
- We stayed for the night at lachen and prepared for the next morning ride to Gurdongmar Lake
- Started to Gurdongmar lake 4am. Its important to leave early as it is important to leave the lake max by 10am. The weather starts to get crazy after that there. Remember that at 17100 feet, the lake is lower than Khardungla but Lachen being at 8000 feet, the ascent is 9000 feet. This distance is covered in 3-4 hours which is a ridiculous amount of altitude change, so one has to be careful about the change in conditions. In merely 65km the terrain goes from deep green forest to colorful valleys to Ladakh style. Its literally shocking and was one of the most amazing riding experiences I have had.
- The roads are not in very good shape, but with some improvisation, can be handled easily. Plus its very cold and wet.
- The last 15km to Gurdongmar lake are most radical. You enter into the valley in which the lake is located, the road is suddenly tarmac. The lake is not on the road and while on the way, we missed the lake and went 7km extra towards the tibet border. Basically, we were just 3km from the border when were stopped by the army.
- There is a tiny green board on the left side of the road at around 14km from the last check post. A trail leads to the lake from there. Keep an eye out for it.
- The lake itself is phenomenal. Its very small, surrounded by snow capped mountains. On the way, you will also find the popular Rani and Raja mountains on right and left side of the road. These look majestic. The whole experience is amazing and makes the whole trip worth it.
- After spending 20 minutes on the lake, we head back to Lachen, where picked our luggage the hotel, had lunch and left for Lachung. Lachung is the base for heading to Yumthang and Zero point. Yumthang is a colorful which is good in all seasons, but becomes especially attractive in early summers and early winters. Zero point is again near the tibet border and offers a panoramic view of the mountains.
- We stayed at Lachung for the night. On the hindsight, I think we could have stayed at Yumthang. Yumthang is again an amazing location, which colorful vegetation, blue waters. Anyways that happened on the next day.
- One way back from Lachen I realised that would not have enough petrol for the return ride. I searched a lot, finding a vendor at a place called Rangarange. Its 2km before Yumthang while coming from Lachen.
- We left Lachung for Yumthang at 6am. The distance is again not much, but the roads are steep and bad in some parts. But the landscape is stunning. Its very movie like with very tall mountains all around with their peaks hidden behind mountains. The mountains are so steep that its hard to see their top. There are waterfalls dropping down all over.
- As we entered Yumthang it started to snow in the mountains ahead and the terrain rapidly changed from colorful to white. As we climbed towards the snowfall thickened. While midway to Zero point from Yumthang, we were stopped some army people on accounts of bad weather ahead. All the vehicles were advised to return from that point. Although, the road we covered till here was enough of a visual treat too. Snow, Stunning Mountains, fun road this destination has it all. Its just too much of a visual treat.
- Then we came back to Yumthang, had some wai wai and tea and then went back to Gangtok. We reached Gangtok by maybe 7pm. We again explored the market and spent some time at a place called Live and Loud, which was nice, with live music.
- We had to head to the Tourist Office for permit authentication for Nathula. When Home Departments granted us a permit, we got it authenticated from the check post, but they only do it for one district at a time. We did North Sikkim before, now it was for East. East Sikkim contains the Nathula and Old Silk route. The tourist office is located on the MG Marg
- Once the permit was given we head up the route to Nathula. While on the way, we had to reauthenticate the permit at the 3rd Mile check post. The road to Nathula is good all through, though it may appear steep at some points, especially because of traffic, but otherwise its a relaxed ride.
- Around 5-6 km before Nathula, there is again a check post, which checks the permit given by the 3rd Mile check post. Then 4km before Nathula, there is another small check post which checks the permit given by the previous check post. When we head up the last 4 km of Nathula, its started to snow. I did not take any pictures as its illegal to do that.
- At Nathula, you get to see the China Border at closest possible distance. There is a green brick line between the two countries and there actually are Chinese people on the other side.
- Oh yes, there was also a tsangmo lake on the way to Nathula, it was too foggy to see it, but it was there…
- After Nathula we continued on the Old Silk route towards Kupup, which is a small village selling stuff from China. Kupup has a strange feel to it, very video gamish.
- From there we just rolled down from heaven back to earth. The loops of road are endless and continue for hours. Think about the gata loops and then think if they would continue for 3 hours non-stop with the terrain changing every 30 minutes. Its quite amazing and ends upon reaching a place called Rishi. From there on its was quite rudimentary ride to Siliguri, which we reached comfortably by 7pm.
- From here on, it was all about getting back to Gwalior. We started from Siliguri at 5am, reached Durgapur by 7pm passing all the bottlenecks on the way. Durgapur is on the NH2 and is a good city which hotels near the highway. We stayed at a hotel in an area called city center. We visited a Puja Pandal which was happening near by as it was Navratri time.
- Started from Durgapur at 5am and reached Varanasi by 5pm. It was a relaxed ride for the day and we could have travelled more. But we chose to stay at Varanasi as its only 600km from Gwalior thus we could have covered this part on the next day too. Plus, between Varanasi and Kanpur, there is no city on the highway and the distance is 340 km, so it could have become a very long stretch to do compulsorily.
- Spent some time of the Assi Ghat, where we saw the Ganga Arti. We stayed at a hotel at the Assi Ghat.
- Started off for Gwalior at 5am, comfortably reached by 5pm
Overall, the ride to Sikkim was an unforgettable experience. There is just too much variety of terrain in this small state, as I wrote earlier it gets shocking in some parts.
I will add details to this post later on. For any queries, comment.