Undulating roads, gently sloping valleys, stunning sunrises, and unforgettable views of the mighty Khangchendzonga
Located on what used to be a busy trade route into Tibet, this is a fascinating place, defined as much by its mixed population of Tibetans, Lepchas, Bhutias and Nepalis, as by the reputation it enjoys of being both the most developed city in the northeast, as well as the most mired in problems associated with urban sprawl. But venture further enough into the lanes and the upper parts of town, and you will be rewarded with a glimpse of a few traditional houses.
The Rangpo-Mangan Road, or NH31A, is the road that ‘cuts through’ the town, as it were, and on either side of it, for several kilometres on, you will find hotels and restaurants of varying sizes, authenticity and views.
The best way to get around Gangtok is through the black-and-yellow taxis that populate the town. Most go on a shared basis on certain routes, starting from various taxi stands, so enquire before getting into one. The cost per person, for even the longest journey, say Deorali to Enchey for example, is minimal, compared to taking a full taxi. However, for those in a group who are seeking the comfort of having the taxi take them exactly where they need to go, and wait for them, a full taxi may be preferable. All taxis carry an official rate charge.
Spend at least two to three days in the city, as there’s much to see and do within the city limits itself.
Things to See & Do
As you leave Siliguri and head towards Gangtok, watch out for the beautiful Teesta river on the left and the inventive anti-speeding road signs all over. ‘Faster brings disaster.’ ‘Drive, don’t fly.’ ‘After whiskey, driving risky.’ ‘It is not rally, enjoy the valley.’
The city has many ‘sightseeing’ spots such as Ganesh Tok and Tashi viewpoint, but to truly enjoy the town, simply walk around. On a good day, you can see Khangchendzonga and the rest of the range in all its majestic glory. The view of the peaks change colour through the day, owing to the Sun’s rays.
The town’s best shopping areas are the Main Market on the pedestrian-friendly MG Marg, and the local produce bazaar in the Khangchendzonga Shopping Complex.
Just above the main town, and a few minutes’ walk up from the bazaar is the Ridge, a beautiful stretch of flat road lined with lush trees. This is where everyone comes for a stroll, where visitors have a chance to mingle and talk with the locals. With gorgeous views on either side, this shaded area is a lovely stretch to take a break, breathe in the fresh mountain air, and drink some tea at one of the nearby stalls.
On one end of the Ridge is the chief minister’s official residence, the White Memorial Hall. This two-storeyed structure was built in 1932 and named after Claude White, who was the first political officer of the state. At the other end of the Ridge is the beautifully designed Palace Gate. Tourists are not allowed inside the palace, but you can gaze at it from the outside. Stop by the gorgeous Tsuglhakhang Temple, close to the palace, which is open early in the mornings or during major festivals.
Also near the White Memorial Hall is the Flower Exhibition Centre with a variety of orchids on display. If you’re in Gangtok in the months of March and April, do make sure to stop by for a wonderful visual treat.
Entry ₹10 Timings 9.00am–5.00pm
This monastery is located above the Ridge, and shouldn’t take more than fifteen minutes if you decide to walk it. ‘Enchey’ literally means the ‘high, strong place’, and it lives up to its name, perched on the upper slopes of the town.
The monastery was built in the middle of the 19th century on a site that was said to have been blessed by the Tantric master Druptob Karpo. Traditionally built in the Tibetan style, its charming and vividly painted porch holds murals of protective deities. The place comes alive in December/ January when the vibrant, unmissable Detor Chaam masked dances are performed here.
Spend a morning here listening to the hypnotic chants of the monks during prayers. Locals often stop by to pray before going to work.
Timings 4.00am–4.00pm Monday– Saturday; 4.00am–1.00pm Sunday
Namgyal Institute of Tibetology
The museum within the Namgyal Institute is a must-visit. Situated in the lower part of Gangtok, in Deorali, the museum includes a stunning collection of ancient statues and artefacts in a building that is equally impressive. Established in 1958, this institute holds one of the largest collections of Tibetan works in the world outside of Tibet.
The museum exhibits a rare collection of ancient manuscripts dating back to the 11th century, statues, ritual objects and thangkas (paintings). The display is dominated by a majestic silver image of Manjushri, the Boddhisattva of Knowledge, brought from Tibet. There are captions explaining the displays.
Entry ₹10 Timings 10.00am– 4.00pm; tibetology.net
Himalayan Zoological Park
The Gangtok Zoo – more formally known as the Himalayan Zoological Park – is a beautiful, lush hillside treasure of wild flowers and misty views. Located right next to Ganesh Tok, this open zoo is spread across 205 hectares of mountainous terrain and is a great place to visit for long walks and the chance to spot rare animals.
The animals are kept in conditions relatively close to their natural habitats – the enclosures are large open spaces – and are far better off than their counterparts in other Indian zoos. Look out for the snow leopard, Tibetan wolves, some red pandas, Himalayan palm civets, leopard cats, and several species of colourful Himalayan pheasants.
Entry ₹25 Timings 9.00am–4.00pm Friday–Wednesday Vehicle fee ₹40 Videography ₹400
There are three stunning viewpoints that all taxi drivers in Gangtok will insist on taking you to. Ganesh Tok, located ahead of Enchey Monastery, is full of colourful prayer flags and offers brilliant views of the city. The on-site eatery is a great place to sip on some chai while taking in the vistas in front of you. If you have your own mode of transport, drive 4km past Ganesh Tok to Hanuman Tok, which enjoys a lovely hilltop location. The third place is Tashi viewpoint, located 4km northwest of Gangtok, next to the road that leads to Phodong.
Where to Stay
Gangtok has a wealth of options, ranging from the high-end and luxurious to the simple and economic. On the upper end of things, one of the best options is The Royal Plaza (Tel: 03592-280232, 280032; Tariff ₹9,300–37,000). Located in the valley-facing Upper Deorali, the Sarovar Hotel property is just far enough from the hubbub of Gangtok proper to allow for some peace and quiet after a long day of touring around.
Boasting two restaurants, and its own in-house casino, the Plaza is a top-notch choice for those looking for a luxurious home away from home. The multi-cuisine restaurant Orchids is excellent, especially for their Chinese and local Sikkimese offerings. Do try the thukpa and the delicious momos.
On the lower end of the scale, the best mid-range option is undoubtedly Mintokling Guest House (Tel: 208552/ 204226; Tariff: ₹2,250–2,500). Located on Bhanu Path, the guesthouse enjoys a serene location away from the din of central Gangtok that most tourist hotels are unfortunately witness to. The family-run establishment is simple and has spacious rooms, and is fitted with furniture. The traditional food at their restaurant is delicious and the mountain views from some of the rooms are stellar.
Other options in Gangtok include the highend Hotel Nor-Khill (Tel: 205637; Tariff: ₹9,450–14,000), which was built in 1932 and was once a royal property. Decked with historical photographs and furniture dating back to that period, the Nor-Khill is quite the plush place to spend a few days. Another good choice is Mayfair Spa Resort and Casino (Tel: 2250555/ 666; Tariff: ₹14,000–50,000), which also comes with its own casino, spa and excellent dining options.
Hotel Sonam Delek (Tel: 202566; Tariff: ₹1,860–5,579) and Chumbi Residency (Tel: 206618; Tariff: ₹5,000–6,000) are both situated on Tibet Road and offer good amenities. Their locations are also an added attraction.
Where to Eat
Gangtok has a wealth of culinary options for the discerning foodie. From fancy sit-down restaurants to smaller cafés and bars perfect for some unwinding, to streetside stalls serving hot thukpas and steaming momos, you will never be left wanting for variety or quality.
MG Marg has some decent eateries. Gangtalk, 9’ine and Taste of Tibet serve Sikkimese food. Amongst the cafés, Baker’s Café is a good choice. There are excellent bars on MG Marg and Tibet Road, of which Café Live and Loud is especially recommended for its ambience and live music. Alcohol is sold fairly cheap across Sikkim; do get the souvenir fireball whiskey as a keepsake.
Rumtek Gompa (23km)
Rumtek Monastery, also called the Dharmachakra Centre, is located in the small hamlet of Rumtek, that has come up around the monastery. The walled complex houses the main prayer hall, several religious buildings, schools and even some lodges and hotels for tourists who want to spend a quiet night away from the hubbub of Gangtok.
The monastery here was built as a replacement for the Tsurphu Monastery in Tibet, which had been partly destroyed during China’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the 1960s. You can see a painting of the original monastery as you enter the Rumtek compound. The most unusual feature of the monastery is the fact that it is manned and guarded by army personnel. The Kagyu sect, or ‘Black Hat’ sect, derives its name from a seemingly priceless black hat that is traditionally worn by the Karmapa, or leader, of the sect.
Upon the death of the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje, in 1981, a bitter feud began within the sect over two candidates, both of whom were presented as the legitimate heir to the Karmapa title. Both in fact have been separately enthroned as the 17th Karmapa, and perform ceremonial duties accordingly, but have never met. Until the dispute is settled, the black hat, apparently woven from the hair of angels, is kept locked in a box and secured by the aforementioned army personnel, so as to prevent it from flying back to the heavens.
A giant throne sits empty inside the main hall of the monastery, awaiting the 17th Karmapa, if one is finally chosen.
Entry ₹10 Timings 6.00am–6.00pm, rumtek.org; taxi fare to Rumtek Gompa from Gangtok is ₹2,000
Tip Note that past the parking lot is a steep uphill slope that you will have to walk up to get to the entrance of the monastery
Nathu La and Tsomgo Lake
Visiting Nathu La and Tsomgo Lake is unlike any other experience in India. You’ll have to apply several days in advance through your hotel or travel agent, get up at the crack of dawn, get in a long line of cars, and slowly inch your way past the checkpost, all before 10.00am, because, after that, no cars are allowed to head that way.
Tip Private vehicles are not permitted to go to Nathu La. Foreign tourists are unfortunately not allowed. There is a tight restriction on the number of vehicles allowed every day, so make reservations as early as possible
Entry Two passport-sized photos and ID Timings Wednesday–Sunday
When you first leave the stacked buildings and roads echoing with the cacophony of horns and start to drive upwards towards the border, there’s a fair chance you’ll be so awestruck at the surroundings that you’ll forget to photograph the moment.
With army personnel comprising the only populace in the mountainous region, the drive to Nathu La can feel like driving to the end of the world. That is, of course, if the Chinese army monitors the end of the world, as a signboard will ominously warn you 5km short of Nathu La.
Standing at a height of 14,140ft, and located a farther-than-it-sounds 54km from Gangok, Nathu La, literally translated to ‘the listening ear pass’ is the Indian border post with China, and perhaps the only spot where soldiers stand on either side of what actually is just a barbed wire. It’s one of the three trading posts between India and China, reopened for border trade in 2006, and has now become a tourist destination. On the other side of the pass is Tibet’s Chumbi Valley, heavily manned by Chinese guards.
The pass is an offshoot of the historic Silk Road. Before it was sealed during the Sino-Indian War in 1962, mules carrying goods walked the pass between the two countries. After the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1950, Tibetan refugees used the pass to flee to Sikkim. The pass was also used by the Dalai Lama himself in the year 1959 when he fled China and sought exile in India.
The skirmish in 1962 that resulted in several deaths on both sides have been commemorated at two war memorials, one at Nathu La and another at Sherathang, 5km below Nathu La.
The ascent to Nathu La is dramatic. When you get there, you will be warned by all – from the driver, to the soldiers and even signboards – telling you to watch your steps as you climb the 90 steps to the border sketched by barbed wires. Additionally, people are advised not to spend more than 20–30 minutes on the top, so you will have to figure out ways to navigate the steps, sometimes slippery from the melting snow, and always crowded. Now, get on top and see China on the other side. The view is a reminder that borders are really, truly artificial and that the mountain range on the other side is the same as the one on which you stand – and will be walking down.
You will drive past Tsomgo Lake to go up to Nathu La; but rest assured, there will be enough time to come back down, park your car, climb onto a yak, amble past the lake, marvel at the vistas and the clear water (unless you’re standing at the edge where trash abounds). Located at a dizzying height of 12,400ft, it’s a stunning sight to behold. The water comes from the snowy mountain slopes, so the lake never dries up completely. In winter, the lake is often entirely frozen, but this is sadly changing with new climate conditions.
Where to Stay & Eat
It is mandatory for all taxis to be back in Gangtok latest by 4.00–5.00pm, so there are no options of accommodation here. For food, there are small cafés at major sites, and also between Gangtok and Tsomgo. Some people experience altitude sickness at this height, so do carry lots of water and some salty snacks – it helps.
When to go March–June and October– November
Sikkim Tourist Information Centre, MG Marg, Gangtok. Tel: 03592-209090, sikkimtourism.gov.in
STD code Gangtok 03592
Air Nearest airport: Bagdogra Airport (126km/ 4.5hrs) connected to major cities. Taxi to Gangtok costs ₹3,500
Rail Nearest railhead: New Jalpaiguri Station (121km/ 4.5hrs). Taxi costs approximately ₹3,500
Road Gangtok is connected to Siliguri via the well-maintained NH31A. It goes past Kalimpong before arriving at Gangtok. A seat in a shared taxi can cost between ₹300 and ₹500, while a full hired taxi will cost ₹2,000 Bus City Runner bus from Siliguri (4.5–5hrs; ticket ₹85)