Gangtok is a city of contrasts and confluence, staging a constant conversation between modern and traditional, cosmopolitan and quaint, says Sugato Tripathy
You don’t need to reach Gangtok to be assured that it’s one of the most charming cities for a holiday. As the Sevoke Coronation Bridge, on the way to Sikkim from Bengal, rises into view, you know that a gem is awaiting you on the other side. Built on the scenic Teesta river and decorated with colourful flags, with the majestic Himalayas rising in the background, the bridge is replete with grandeur and introduces the natural treasures Sikkim possesses.
Located in the eastern Himalayas at an altitude of approximately 5,500 feet, Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, is cosmopolitan without being overwhelming. The city is a kaleidoscope of beautiful sights – spellbinding mountainscapes, magnificent monasteries, beautiful temples, sprawling parks, quaint cafés and more.
Gangtok is home to the Enchey Monastery, one of the most recognised gompas of Buddhism. A legendary lama known as Drubthob Karpo, believed to have possessed the power to fly, is credited with its foundation. The literal meaning of Enchey Monastery is “the solitary temple”. It is also said that the monk built a small hermitage at the site of the monastery, after he came here flying from Maenam Hill in south Sikkim. It is constructed in the shape of a pagoda and its interiors are adorned by colourful traditional Tibetan paintings.
The Do-Drul Chorten or stupa was built by Trulshi Rimpoche, head of the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism in 1945. Inside this stupa, there are complete mandala sets of Dorjee Phurba (Bajra Kilaya), a set of Kan-gyur relics (holy books), complete Zung (mantras) and other religious objects.
Besides these magnificent monasteries and stupas, Gangtok also houses two beautiful temples – Ganesh Tok and Hanuman Tok. At approximately 6,500 feet above sea level, Ganesh Tok is a small but well-maintained temple of Lord Ganesha. If hunger comes calling around the time you’re exploring it, a nearby café should be your destination, with fresh and delicious refreshments on the menu. This spot provides sweeping views of the valley and is arguably one of the best vantage points to see the beautiful city of Gangtok. A four-km drive along serpentine roads takes you to Hanuman Tok, at an altitude of about 7,200 feet. Here, you will find an unimpeded view of the majestic Kanchenjunga (one of the world’s highest mountain peaks). Hanuman Tok is blessedly quiet and bereft of commercial influences.
Evenings in the city are best enjoyed on MG Road, a small paved stretch with a plethora of shopping, lodging and dining options. Always bustling and busy, with cafés, bars and people chattering away in varied languages, the road is beautifully decorated with lamp posts, park benches and colourful flowers giving it an endearing and quaint feel.
The capital of Sikkim, besides being an engaging destination in itself, is also the ideal base for quick trips to a number of must-visit attractions in the vicinity. Tsomgo Lake (or Changu Lake), about 35 km from Gangtok, lies at an altitude of more than 12,000 feet above sea level and is one of the most popular attractions in the state. Walled in by steep snow-covered mountains, the lake freezes over from early winter to late spring. In summer, it glitters magically in the sunlight. You will need a Restricted Area Permit to come here, which can be easily arranged by an authorised travel agent. An additional one-hour journey further uphill will get you to Nathula Pass at a height of 14,140 feet. It is one of the highest motorable roads in the world and is surrounded by rich alpine flora. On a clear day, you can even see the road winding down the Chumbi valley, but it closes in winter.
Like many popular hill stations in India, Gangtok retains an essence uniquely its own. You can do it all here – eat at a cozy hillside café, meditate in a serene monastery, window shop for hours on end, be awestruck by magnificent mountainscapes, experience the thrill of sub-zero temperatures, share a snack with friendly locals and so much more.
With just enough of an alternate city vibe, Gangtok, with its exquisite views of the radiant Himalayas and threaded by gurgling streams, is the quintessential destination to live a part of the magic that is Northeast India.
The author is a senior travel writer and the views expressed in this article are his own