<%-- Page Title--%> Travel <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 122 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

September 12, 2003

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A Hilly Heaven Above the Sea


It was a chilly, cloudy day with the monsoon in full swing. The car crossed numerous waterfalls flowing over the zigzag road leading to 14,000 feet above sea level. We passed amidst the continuous murmur of springs and waterfalls coming from all sides. The car was washed several times by the fountain waters. We were in Sikkim, known as the the Switzerland of the east. Once it was an independent Himalayan kingdom and now a tiny state of India situated along the eastern border with China.

The state is still a restricted area for foreigners. Foreigners, other than Bangladeshis have to take permission from the district magistrate office in Darjeeling before entering into the state. For Bangladeshis, the permission is given from India's foreign office in New Delhi. But there is no problem in visiting Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim if you can hide your original identity and identify yourself as an Indian national.

Before the 60 kilometre long journey from Gangtok to Baba Mandir everybody has to take clearance from the Sikkim police submitting names and addresses and purpose of the visit one day earlier. The hotel manager will arrange the clearance from the Sikkim police but you will have to face the Indian army yourself. They will intercept and ask various questions to be sure about your nationality. One is allowed to pass the area only after satisfying them.

In this case we were lucky, an army official approached our car at the check post and asked various questions to other passengers. There were two other couples in the Indian made SUMMO TATA hired vehicle. We did not know each other because the driver had picked us from our respective hotels.

The couple sitting beside the driver in the front seat gave their identities as residents coming from Rajasthan. He showed the voter identity card and driving license as the documents of his nationality. But the two other couples including us did not have any such documents.

My wife and I were quite tense because if they knew that we were from Bangladesh, they would definitely not allow us to go to such a sensitive area. On the way, we had observed Indian army personnel taking positions with sophisticated arms like machine guns and cannon along the border. Sitting silently, we were preparing what would be the response if asked.

The army personnel also interrogated the person sitting beside me. The person came from a district in West Bengal. After that it was my turn. But the army personnel suddenly went back to his higher officer and after a few minutes gave the signal to pass the area without questioning me.

I gave a sigh of relief. It was a great victory for us because otherwise we would have missed the chance of visiting the most exciting location in the state.

We had to hire extra winter clothes from a shop on the way to go to Baba Mandir, situated over 14,000 feet above sea level. It is the last point in India. After just a small hill, the Tibetan state in China begins.

The weather in Baba Mandir area was so cool that our automatic camera did not function as the battery went down. Thus we could not take any snap of the extreme Indian border area even after overcoming so many difficulties.

The small Baba Mandir was built in memory of an Indian soldier who was killed during an operation in the area several years back. The arms and outfit of the soldier Harbhajang Singh were preserved there.

Army personnel particularly those who are Shikh consider him a saint. Other than the beautifully decorated wooden Mandir, the visitors also feel the thrill of observing a water fall directly coming from China.
The area looks like a barren land as there is hardly any human habitation within ten to fifteen kilometres area. The sun is barely visible throughout the year as the weather always remain cloudy. People in the area take a bath once in a week or month.

On the way from Gangtok to Baba Mandir we found natural fountains and water falls in almost every corner of the road. There were also several springs or water falls within one hundred yards.

A few hundred feet above the Baba Mandir area, the Nathula border check post is located. The check post remained closed since a war between India and China during 60s.

Now the Indian government is considering opening the check post. The Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee recently visited Sikkim and declared that the check post would be opened very soon.

The people in Sikkim are delighted as the trade and commerce in the state would get a new boost after opening the check post. They think that the route through Sikkim is the nearest and easiest for opening a road link with China.

“Opening up of Nathula will put the state on the international trade map and encourage the people to derive maximum benefits from it,” said governor of Sikkim V Rama Rao in his independent day address.

Around 54 kilometres from Gangtok is Nathula; the distance between Gangtok and Siliguri is only 114 kilometres. Siliguri is connected with all major Indian cities by train, road and air.

Around 2,000 feet down from the Baba Mandir, is the famous Tsomgo lake 12,400 feet above sea level. Thousands of people come from all over India to enjoy the beauty of the lake and surrounding snow-capped mountains. The peak seasons are October-November and March-April.

Various wild flowers blossom during the winter, which is an added attraction for the tourists. The day we visited the lake, wild yellow flowers in full blossom in the surrounding areas enchanted us.

The temperature goes below zero degree during winter and snow falls on the hill along the lake. The lake is created by the crystal clear water coming from the rocky hills in the surrounding areas. Water also flows down from the hills located on the other side of the border.

There are many other places in Sikkim which attract visitors. The visitors go to Pelling which is a 5 hour road journey from Gangtok, to see the Kanchanjangha at close range. Kanchanjangha is also seen from a number of points in Gangtok. The prominent point is Tashi viewpoint from where the visitors can see the second highest Himalayan peak clearly during winter.

The Gangtok valley is about 6,000 feet above sea level. The city is clean and beautiful and green trees and paddy fields cover the surrounding hills. People cultivate paddy and vegetables on the slopes of the hills.

The Sikkimise live in wooden houses built on the hill tops and their slopes. During winter, snow falls on the green hill and wooden houses giving a view found in Switzerland and many other European countries. White clouds often roam around the hills creating superb scenarios. This can be enjoyed even from the hotel rooms. On top of the hill is a wildlife sanctuary which is still not completed and has only about 12 species. The area designated for each species is so large that it is difficult for a visitor to spot an animal but you can still feel its presence.

The Ridge park in the heart of Gangtok town though very small in size is rich in rare trees and orchids. Seedlings and plants of Himalayan trees and orchids are being preserved in a big greenhouse through artificial air control. An entrance fee of five rupees allows the visitor to enjoy them.

A number of beautiful Buddhist monasteries most of them situated on the hilltops are another attraction. The monasteries are beautifully decorated and built in Chinese and Tibetan styles.

As we passed by the River Teesta coming from Tibet and flowing through Sikkim we saw that the water was crystal clear. The image of green hills and a meandering blue river against the frosty skies remained with us long after we left this piece of heaven.



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