20200621 195002 0000

East Sikkim: Journey through Old Silk Route

As Jules Renard famously said, “On earth there is no heaven, but there are pieces of it”. And, without a doubt, Sikkim is one of the finer pieces. Known as “Nye-mae-el” or paradise among the Lepchas, Sikkim will leave you speechless with her incredible natural vistas. No matter how many times you visit, this small Himalayan state will never cease to amaze you. East Sikkim, through which the old Silk Route used to pass, is one of the most fascinating parts of Sikkim.

untitled 0468 Edit Edit
Surrounded by snowy landscapes.

East Sikkim is nestled in the faraway corners of the Himalayas. Owing to its distant location and absence of any major towns, it is explored lesser as compared to other parts of Sikkim. East Sikkim is showered with endless bounties of nature. It has got everything from shimmering glacial lakes to verdant valleys, from playful clouds to sudden rains. Moreover, East Sikkim is laced with a whiff of history. It was once a part of the famed Silk Route that ran from China up till the end of the Roman Empire.

So, here’s our 4 – days itinerary for a trip to the Old Silk Route. We also have a blogpost covering an itinerary for North Sikkim here.

Day 1: Reaching Sillery Gaon

We reached New Jalpaiguri rail station in the morning. We had booked our car beforehand and it saved us a lot of time and hassle.

Our destination was Sillery Gaon, a sleepy hamlet in Kalimpong district. The road leading to the village is also laden with spectacular scenery. We took a number of stops enroute to soak in the pristine beauty of nature.

untitled 0152 Edit Edit
View from the Teesta Bridge

We reached Sillery Gaon sometime after noon. Often referred to as the “New Darjeeling”, the quaint hamlet is as beautiful as its name. It is surrounded by abounding nature. The village has pine forest as its backdrop and ensures magnificent views of the Himalayas. The luckiest person can even catch a glimpse of the ever elusive Kanchunjunga from here.

After settling in the homestay, we slurped bowls of steaming Maggi, which tasted heavenly. Next, we explored a few places of interest around Sillery Gaon:

  • Tinchuley View Point, which is the perfect place to see a 360-degree view of the breathtaking Himalayas, along with Kanchunjunga. On the clearest and sunniest days, even Nathu La and Jelep La passes are visible from here. It is famous for magnificent sunrise view.
  • Damsang Fort, built in 1690 by the Lepchas.
  • Silent Valley, a vast tract of lush green pasture, encircled by pine trees, where silence reigns supreme. This is the ideal place to bask in the tranquillity of the mountains.
  • Cross Hill, which offers glorious sunset views.

 Soon, it was dusk. We sat in the garden of the homestay, trying to find the ‘inner peace’! The mountain range on the other side of Sillery Gaon started to lighten up, little by little. Shortly afterward, it seemed the stars have themselves descended and settled on the mountain.

untitled 0177 Edit
Sillery Gaon is picture perfect!

Where to stay in Sillery Gaon:

At present, there are a large number of homestays in Sillery Gaon owing to its growing popularity. We stayed at Nirmala Homestay, which comprised of colourful cottages and a blooming garden on the front. The rooms are very basic. The food, however, is delicious.

Day 2: A Hike, a Lake, a Waterfall.

We woke up to a sleepy village and a rainy morning. It was a beautiful sight and we thoroughly enjoyed it from the verandah .However, it dampened our plans to catch a sunrise and the majestic Kanchunjunga.

Thankfully, an hour later, the rain stopped and we went out for a hike up the Ramitey Point. The Point is famed for offering a panoramic view of the 14 bends of Teesta river. The hike takes about 45 minutes, winding through hilly terrains and dense foliage. Silence rules supreme here, barring the occasional chirping of birds.

untitled 0198 Edit 1
Hiking our way to Ramitey View Point.

Though the hike was engaging, the final destination disappointed us. Dense fog and cloudy sky made it impossible for us to enjoy the view.

untitled 0210 Edit 3
Ferns like these are common sights at Ramitey.

After returning to the homestay, we grabbed a quick breakfast and checked out. On this day, the end of the journey would take us to Zuluk.

Our first stop was Rishikhola, which is located on the West Bengal – Sikkim border. Permits required to visit Sikkim are made here. The drivers generally take care of permits while the travellers enjoy the beauty of the Rishi river. As we crossed the bridge at Rishikhola, we entered Sikkim.

Relish nature’s beauty at Rishikhola.

After driving through steep and meandering roads, we arrived at Aritar. The most iconic landmark of Aritar is the Lampokhri Lake, a beautiful, emerald – coloured, boot – shaped lake. Situated at an altitude of 4,600 feet, it is one of the oldest freshwater lakes of Sikkim. The lake is huge – 1,120 feet long, and surrounded by pine forests. A walk circling the lake is pleasant, as feeding the swans on the lake. There is also a hike up the path towards Mankhim. We, however, gave it a miss as the weather was still foggy and cloudy.

Aritar Lake
Lampokhri Lake, Aritar.

Later, we arrived at Rongli. Permits for Zuluk are available only from here. As our friendly driver Ellin arranged for the required permits, we gorged on momos at a shack. We also stocked foods as almost nothing is available at Zuluk.

A beautiful house
House with a view

We stopped one last time at the Kui Khola Falls, also known as Lonely falls, cascading from a height of 100 metres. The falls was pleasing, the surrounding nature more so. Few cups of tea later, we resumed our journey towards Zuluk.

For our final lap, the roads turned became steeper and more menacing, while the scenery appeared more picturesque. Lofty mountain ranges standing tall, puffy clouds floating around them, lush green valleys washed by the recurring drizzle and the silence reigning them all – words fell short to describe the beauty of the scenes. At every bend of the road, we were greeted with the breathtaking views.

Enroute Zuluk
Driving through dreamy roads.
untitled 0331
Clouds’ play at Lingtam.

Around 5 in the afternoon, we reached Zuluk. Zuluk is located in one of the remotest parts of the Eastern Himalayas. Perched at an altitude of 10,000 feet, it was once a transit point of the historic Silk Route that ran from Tibet to India through the now closed Jelep La Pass. It has a mere 700 inhabitants. Zuluk is mainly treated as an Indian Army base due to its proximity to the Indo-Tibetan border.

The beauty of Zuluk.

Zuluk is a perfect place for seeking solace from the frenzied daily lives. The mountains, the clouds, the rains, the foggy mornings, the friendly locals – what’s not there to love about Zuluk? The rustling of winds takes your mind away from everything, while the pitter – patter of rains at nights soothes the heart and soul.

Where to stay in Zuluk:

There are no hotels in Zuluk. The only available option are homestays. They give a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the hospitality of the locals while getting a peek inside their daily lives. Not to forget the delicious meals they offer.

We stayed at the Snow Lion Homestay. This nice and cozy homestay has basic amenities, including geyser and round the clock electricity. We loved our stay here and it comes highly recommended!

Snow Lion Homestay
Snow Lion Homestay.

Day 3: Exploring the Old Silk Route

We woke up to morning laced with cloud and mist. The balcony provided a gorgeous view of mountains engulfed in clouds. It seemed as if we had reached the abode of the clouds.

untitled 0357 Edit
Touch the clouds! View from the balcony of our homestay.
untitled 0366 Edit 2
Clouds and more clouds!

On third day, we decided to explore some exciting areas of the Old Silk Route. We started our adventure with a thrilling ride through 32 hairpin bends on a single road, which is nothing short of an engineering marvel. The zigzag road is popularly called the Zuluk Loops. It is one of the prime highlights of Zuluk.

Our first stop was the Zuluk View Point, from where we enjoyed an undeterred and spectacular view of the Zuluk Loops, through which we just rode over. The view was out of this world. However, the weather in East Sikkim is too unpredictable. Fog engulfed the area soon.

Zuluk Loops
The iconic zigzag road of Zuluk.

As we inched towards our next spot, the weather worsened and visibility decreased dangerously. And soon, it started to rain once again. Thambi View Point is situated at a height of 11,600 feet. When we reached there, we failed to see the panoramic view of Zuluk Loops due to dense fog.

With heavy hearts, we drove towards Gnathang Valley. However, as we were closing towards Gnathang, our sadness was overcome with happiness at the first view of snow. Little did we foresee that we were soon going to be teleported to a dreamland of snow.

Gnathang Valley
On way to Gnathang Valley.

And, then came Gnathang Valley, which was nothing short of a paradise. Often called “Ladakh of the East”, it is located at 13,500 feet. It was the home of traditional yak herders who came all the way from Tibet. As far as our eyes traveled, all we could see was the sparkling snow. It is one of the most scenic places of East Sikkim.

untitled 0404 Edit
The frozen Gnathang Valley

The Kupup Lake was our next stop. Locally known as Bitan Cho, it is the most sacred lake of East Sikkim. The lake is tucked at 13,066 feet in the midst of sky – high mountains. The shape of this gleaming lake resembles that of an elephant. Hence it is also called the Elephant Lake. Sadly for us, the weather had worsened further and it was impossible to alight from the car. We could only catch a glimpse of the lake from inside.

Next, we took a halt at Tukla Valley. At around 12,500 feet, Tukla Valley manifests the beauty of the Tibetan Highlands. The valley remains heavily under snow for most of the year. It is also home to a war memorial. The memorial was built to commemorate the British soldiers who lost lives in the Battle of Tukla.

Tukla Valley
Snow laced Tukla Valley.

It had started to both rain and snow as we reached Tsomgo Lake, the last stop for the day. Also known as Tsongmo or Changu, it is one of the most popular and oft – visited glacial lakes of Sikkim. The lake is scintillating. The placid water looks glassy. However, we couldn’t stay for long, as it had started to rain heavily.

Tsongmo Lake
The fairy tale-esque Tsongmo Lake.
Yak Ride
Riding yaks at Tsongmo!

Heavy rain and dense fog followed us all through our way back to Zuluk.

untitled 0485 Edit
Misty valleys.

Day 4: Bidding East Sikkim adieu

The third morning of our trip started with a tinge of sadness, as it was time to leave Zuluk as well as East Sikkim. The weather was improving and itsy bitsy sunrays peered through the clouds. As we continued to drive down the winding roads, we saw the sun for the first time during our entire journey. We stopped at Padamchen, for admiring the clear blue sky that contrasted gloriously against the green mountains. What a fitting end to such an exciting trip!

Finally, a sunny morning at Padamchen.
Rishikhola spring
The Rishi river as seen on our way back to NJP.
untitled 0508
Our friendly driver cum guide, Ellin.

We reached NJP in the sultry afternoon. It was as if we were jerked up from a dreamlike stupor of a winter wonderland.

Tips for visiting Old Silk Route in East Sikkim:

  • Inner Line Permit is a primary requirement for visiting Sikkim, especially for places which are Army base camps like Zuluk. It’s necessary to carry valid identity cards and photographs for the permit.
  • We suggest booking the trip with a trusted local travel agency, which will arrange both cabs and permits for you.
  • The drive through the Old Silk Route in East Sikkim will take you to higher altitudes and harsher terrains. Carry medicines such as Acetazolamide (Diamox), Hyoscine Patch and Avomine.
  • Weather is too unpredictable in East Sikkim. Carry umbrellas and rainproof jackets.
  • There are no proper shops and ATMs in Zuluk. Buy all the necessary food and other items from Rongli.
  • Taste the local foods, especially the momos.
  • Best time to visit Zuluk and the Silk Route is from March to May for enjoying the snow and from September to mid – November for gazing the flowers in the valley. It’s best to avoid the winter months as winter can be too harsh here.
  • For visiting Tsomgo Lake, permits can be made from Kupup. However, permits of Nathu La are not available from here.
  • Instead of Sillery Gaon, you can also stay in any of the pretty villages on the route such as Ramdhura, Icche Gaon and so on.
  • For COVID – 19 related queries, visit https://www.sikkimtourism.gov.in/Public/Index/MandatoryTourist
untitled 0354 Edit Luminar2018 edit 1
Ending the trip with truck-load of memories.
The Floating Pebbles