Sikkim's Old Silk Route - How the New kid on the Tourism Block trampled my Expectations!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

"In the spirit of keeping travel blogging real, here is my account how much our trip 
sucked and some tips if you plan to travel here."

{ East Sikkim's 93-hairpin bend road above Zuluk }
The vertigo-inducing view of hundred-odd hairpin bends from somewhere in east Sikkim burst onto the scene few years ago out of the blue. Quick Google searches followed and we were all informed this meandering road that climbs an impressive height from the hills of north Bengal to the Indo-China border in Sikkim was taken from a place called Zuluk. Immediately shooting to fame for the noodle-laid-out-on-a-mountain like appearance, Zuluk and east Sikkim became the newest entry into the offbeat travel list.

But surely just a winding road couldn’t be all that interesting? Absolutely. It was a mix of ancient history and unparalleled mountain views that sealed the deal. This road from Sikkim to Tibet via Jelep La and Nathu La was part of the old trading route. It was also the route used by British to attack Tibet in 1903. History aside, Zuluk and the rest of the route being 3100m and over, there are several viewpoints that offer great views of Kanchenjunga massif towering above the hilly landscape.

Rugged cliffs of east Sikkim The twisting roads of old silk route
Lost in the mist!

Fuelled by stunning pictures I saw of both Kanchenjunga rising and the symmetry of 30 of the 93 hairpin bends locally known as Bhulbhulayya, last summer I made a visit with family in tow. Poring through several online entries on the ever-resourceful IndiaMike Forums, I dreamt of watching golden glow of Kanchenjunga at sunrise (because I knew I was already asking for a lot here, Kanchenjunga sighting isn’t that easy now a days).

When the D-Day arrived, we were scheduled to be picked up from Kolakham, a small village in West Bengal that also falls on the extended silk route. But as luck would have it, it was written in the stars that our vacation would end the moment we left West Bengal border.

In the spirit of keeping travel blogging real, here is my account how much our trip sucked. I’m a very easy to please person when it comes to travel. Even if I manage to find a single magical moment buried in one hundred disappointments, I’d still say the trip went very well. So it takes a lot for me to claim a trip was a disaster. If you follow me on Instagram you’d probably remember this phase last year where I couldn’t stop cribbing about Sikkim and you were wondering why.

Kanchenjunga is hidden somewhere behind those clouds, as seen from Thambi View Point
Zuluk at dusk
Zuluk at dusk, surrounded by lush green mountains

"Unhindered views of Kanchenjunga massif and mind-bending view of the winding road with countless 
hairpin bends - Two biggest attractions of Old Sikkim Route!"

Thick fog enveloped the mountainsides as soon as we started climbing to Zuluk. I could see neither the winding roads nor the layers of mountains but I kept my hopes high. The next morning would be better, I told myself. When we reached Zuluk, which is a haphazard collection of small houses and shops, we found that our hotel was booked by a rather large film crew shooting Priyanka Chopra’s Pahuna. I wasn’t expecting to run into a crowd but like I said our luck had run out already. And it started raining as well in the night. Firmly placing trust in the power of positive thinking, I told myself the rain will wipe out the clouds and the morning would be bright and sunny!

Also read: How I learnt Faith can take you places Fear never can, in North Sikkim's Deluge

Tough luck apparently. The morning was washed out, as was the entire day. Unseasonal snow and unwelcome fog ruined our prospects of an eventful trip already. The thing with old silk route, as this stretch has been christened, is the journey is truly the destination here. There are various stopovers, none large or unique enough to command a whole trip on their own. But it is the sum of all parts that could make the journey entertaining. The biggest attractions, however, were nowhere in sight. So we went on with the “checklist” of sightseeing points.

White washed afternoon at Gnathang
White out in the mountains

Thambi viewpoint was up first. It was a place from where the famous 30 hairpin bends above Zuluk can be seen.
We had tea and enjoyed blinding fog.

Gnathang Valley View was next. Gnathang is a small village in a flat valley at a height of 3800m, very close to the Chinese border. The big draw here is that Kanchenjunga can be clearly seen from this village on a clear day and sunrises almost always offer spectacular sightings. Since the snow hadn’t cleared still during our visit in March, we couldn’t stay there. But we could at least enjoy a view of the pretty village right?
Wrong. We saw more blinding fog. So we had warm momos and moved along.

Kupup and Memencho Lakes were the next on the list. These are small lakes on either side of the road from Zuluk to Gangtok. Our driver didn’t even bother stopping in that hellish fog.
We saw nothing. As expected.

Tsongmo Lake or Changu Lake was our last stop, where– you guessed it–more fog followed us. But since the lake was right next to the road, some visibility was allowed. We took whatever we could get.

Tsongmo Lake, also called Changu Lake Fog over Changu Lake
Rhododendrons in snow Chinese observations ends!
Top - Mist covered Tsongmo Lake; Bottom left - Rhododendrons along the way; Bottom right - Remnants of the ever present skirmishes with China

"the heartbreak of an exciting destination disappoint like soggy French fries of the worst kind!" 

The thing with travel is that even one small magical moment can turn things around. So I was still holding out to that last flicker of hope– that the next and last morning would be clear at least. We were stationed at Lungthung, a barebones collection of tin-roofed houses, of which few are homestays. I woke up early in morning only to bear witness to a sea of fog racing towards my guesthouse and drown every last ray of hope.

With that, I was done. This was one trip that I absolutely couldn’t even find a trace of silver lining. East Sikkim was a total bust. It took me almost a year to get over the heartbreak of an exciting destination disappoint like soggy French fries of the worst kind! Thankfully, my days in northern part of Bengal were lovely, so at least some of the resentment was evened out. However, I still would love to visit east Sikkim once again and get to see those phenomenal views of Kanchenjunga and the winding road.


Meanwhile, if you’re planning to visit, here are some tips from me.
  1. I’ve read posts that mention monsoon might be the best time to visit east Sikkim. The reason, I presume, could be that even if the Kanchenjunga views are not to be found, Sikkim looks gorgeous drenched in the fresh monsoon greenery. Otherwise, winter seems like a good bet for best views of the mountain.
  2. Even though the Zuluk route is quite offbeat for the rest of the country, this circuit is exceedingly popular with Bengali tourists currently. You may encounter many families from the state.
  3. The homestays may include the word resort in their title but by no means are they resorts. This region is still very offbeat and the tourist infrastructure is hardly yet to catch up. So expect very basic stays but the views are sure worth it. And at this point, taking one of the many Sikkim tour packages is a lesser hassle than independent travel because the taxis and homestays are limited with set rules and pricing, run by agencies offering complete packages. You may still book individual homestays and taxis like we did but I did not have a good experience with that.
  4. If you’re wondering whether the journey is worth it, here are my two cents. If you get clear views, I think Zuluk and Gnathang have great potential. Even if you don’t see Kanchenjunga, the nature itself is quite soothing around here. Unfortunate that I couldn’t get to see any damn thing but from the few pictures I’ve seen of clear mornings on different forums, I’d say 100% worth the effort. Exhibit A, B, C and D here. However, if the weather turns on you, there’s very little chance at redemption in my opinion. So have your expectations managed before hand to avoid disappointment.
  5. What's a typical itinerary like?
    Day 1 - New Jalpaiguri/Bagdogra to Artitar/Sillery Gaon/Mankhim
    Day 2 - Artitar/Sillery Gaon/Mankhim to Zuluk
    Day 3 - 4 – Zuluk to Gnathang including sightseeing
    Day 5 – Gnathang to Gangtok.
    Day 5 – Gnathang to Artitar/Sillery Gaon/Mankhim
    Day 6 - Artitar/Sillery Gaon/Mankhim to NJP/Bagdogra.
  6. What are the best resources to plan Silk Route trip in east Sikkim? Hands down IndiaMike and BCMTouring forums, this and this for instance.

So, do you want to travel along Sikkim's Silk Route?
And tell me about your worst trip if you had one in the comments below!

Come along with me, on a virtual journey! Find me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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  2. Loved your article Neelima, truly explains how unpredictable and disappointment sometimes travel can be. We also don't get disappointed much. The male half of TravelLike WeDo was sad twice- once in Sikkim Gangtok sightseeing in post monsoon season he could'n't see a thing thanks to the mist, so he claimed Mahabaleshwar is better. The opinion changed luckily in our north Sikkim tour around the same time you went to east Sikkim last year. Second when we went to Seychelles in rainy season just on landing he started claiming Andaman was better...Phew complain box I tell him. For me Jaisalmer city was a bit disappointment, the golden fort looks amazing from far, but apart from that I didn't find it as much interesting compared to other Rajasthan cities and kind of felt it was a bit dirty :( .But i loved Sand dunes of Jaisalmer.

    1. Ha ha, I know what you mean! Same with Jaisalmer and I might also proclaim Andaman is better! ;) Glad that your north Sikkim tour went well. Wish there was some redemption to my east Sikkim trip but it's okay. Travel long enough and disappointments are bound to happen. I'll be grateful if such disappointments are few and far in between. :)


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