Part IV in a series on Sikkim
Last week, I wrote about arriving in Bagdogra and the drive to Gangtok.
We stepped out that evening to make arrangements for our North Sikkim trip, which was to start the very next day. As mentioned in my earlier posts, we had heard that one gets the best prices for North Sikkim if one comes in person to the travel agencies that conduct the tour.
So we enquired at the hotel reception as to where we could begin our hunt. ‘Blue Sky Travels’ on MG Road, we were told, is one of the best. Getting to MG Road isn’t easy though! While booking the hotel, we had been given to understand that the hotel was ‘walking distance’ from MG Road, but that it certainly wasn’t! One can hop onto a sharing cab for Rs 20 per head or flag a personal cab for Rs 100, but even those are scarce at 7:30 in the evening!
We finally did find one, who dropped us just short of MG Road. MG Road in Gangtok is like your typical Mall Road in every hill station- with shops and eating joints on either side, lots of benches to sit upon and no vehicles allowed.
‘Blue Sky’ is in the Sikkim Tourism building, which is the very first building on the right when we enter MG Road. Ninden, the lady who managed the place, gave us details of the trip. For 2 nights, 3 days’ in North Sikkim with travel in a Tata Sumo, stay in budget hotels (all meals included) and Gurudongmar Lake, Chopta Valley, Yumthang Valley and Zero Point on the itinerary, she quoted Rs 25000, but brought it down to Rs 22000 on negotiating. She could have gone lower, but that would have meant dropping the quality of the hotels she was providing, a risk not worth taking, given that the hotels she was offering were already very basic (as revealed in a quick Google search: Lachen View Point in Lachen and Le Coxy in Lachung).
If comfort is important to you though, and you want a good stay on your trip to North Sikkim, ask for ‘Apple Orchard’ in Lachen and ‘Yarlam Resorts’ in Lachung. These are luxury hotels and the best in their respective towns. They, however, come at a steep rate of Rs 7000 to 8000 a night, thus taking up the entire North Sikkim package to about Rs 32,000.
We then stepped out to get another quote and noticed Lama Tours, also in the same building. They quoted Rs 19700, which they then brought down to Rs 18500. This package excluded Zero Point, but had all the other standard inclusions. While they were offering a Xylo (a much more comfortable car), their hotels in Lachen (Holiday Inn) and Lachung (Golden Feast) did not look encouraging in the pictures they had on display. Furthermore, these hotels did not even figure on a Google search (forget Trip Advisor), thus leaving us highly doubtful. Having been forewarned that tour operators are not all reliable in Gangtok, we decided to go ahead with Blue Sky, since that had come recommended by Emmanuel from our hotel, who himself came very highly recommended on Trip Advisor in the hotel’s reviews!
One requires permits to go to North Sikkim and hence, we handed Ninden our pictures and address proof copies, along with an advance payment of Rs 10,000, with another Rs 10,000 payable to the driver directly and the final Rs 2000 payable if we decided to cover Zero Point during the trip. She got the permits made the following morning and sent them with the driver, who was to pick us up directly from our hotel.
We later learnt that there are tour operators in a line on the road below MG Road, who offer similar packages for about Rs 16000 as well, but the quality of hotels and overall credibility would remain suspect unless they come personally recommended by a friend or acquaintance. Another option is to pre-book your hotels at Lachen and Lachung and only opt for a cab, which also costs about Rs 15000 for the entire trip (Pro- hotel is of your choice; Con- works out to be more expensive).
Tip 1: Go for a tour operator that comes recommended from someone’s personal use since what operators promise and what they finally give are not always the same. Since you make the entire payment in advance, you are pretty much at the mercy of the tour guys once you start.
Tip 2: If you’re being offered a Xylo at a slightly higher price, you may want to go for it as the car is far more comfortable than a Sumo: an important consideration given that you are going to spend about 12 hours per day for the next three days in that car!
Tip 3: If budget is a constraint, the other option a traveller has is to go to North Sikkim in a shared taxi- with about 10 people packed into a Sumo. This option costs only Rs 2500 per head for 3 days (hotels and meals included), but comes with its share of discomfort and inflexibility.
By this time, it was around 9.15 pm and unbelievably, the market has almost shut down completely- including restaurants! Lesson learnt: Gangtok closes by 9 pm. We walked the entire stretch and finally found a ‘Khan Chacha’, which had some Chicken Biryani to offer at Rs 170 per plate. The meal was a simple fare. When we finished and walked out, we noticed an outlet of ‘Subway’ further down the road, which also seemed to be open. There was a chill in the air by this time and we were glad about having carried our jackets.
There were no more cabs on sharing available at 10 pm to return to the hotel. The private ones quoted Rs 150, but we bargained it down to Rs 100, returned to our cozy rooms and crashed for the night. It had been a long day, but well spent and despite the exhaustion, we were teeming with excitement about the journey we were to embark on the next day, up north to heights of as much as 17000 ft.
Note: All prices mentioned are as per our travel in 2014.
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PIyushi Dhir is the author of the romantic novels, 'In Search of Love' (2014), 'I'm Yours, The Next Time' (2015) and 'Enmeshed Evermore' (2015). A voracious reader, a keen traveler and an ardent dog-lover, Piyushi currently resides in Ivory Coast, Africa. A nomad at heart, she loves to discover new places and capture the hues of life with her pen.