Gangtok to Chungthang and Lachen North Sikkim

Thursday, October 24, 2013

After years of postponing, I had finally visited Sikkim, a beautiful hill state in India's North-East in the month of April 2012. Being my first trip to the State, I confined my four days to Gangtok, the capital city, and the surrounding tourist attractions like monasteries (Rumtek and others), Namchi (Char Dham and Timi Tea Garden), etc. Though I had planned to visit Tsomgo Lake, Baba Mandir and Nathula Pass, the trip did not happen because of bad weather. But one thing this short trip did was to help me decide on another trip to Sikkim and particularly to North Sikkim - Lachen, Thangu, Gurudongmar Lake, Lachung, Yumthang Valley, and Zero Point (Yumesamdong). This was perhaps the shortest possible trip plan for North Sikkim to be completed in a 2 night / 3 day "all-inclusive" tour conducted by one of the many travel agents in Gangtok. Though I was to travel solo, I decided against taking a "shared" tour, which would mean sharing the vehicle with 10-11 other unknown tourists. The price quoted by one agent for such a shared trip was enticing - Rs 2500/- per person for Gangtok to Gangtok travel, vegetarian food (all meals), sight seeing, 2 night accomodation in "good hotels". He mentioned that the hotels would not have water heaters in the bathroom but hot water would be provided. From my experience I know that when something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. (Read more below...)

Also Read: Travelling From Bagdogra To Gangtok (Link opens in new window)

Zero Point (Yumesamdong) North Sikkim

So, I googled a little and found "Tibet Tours & Travels" of Mr. Prabir Sen who agreed to take me on my planned solo trip ex-Gangtok in a Mahindra Bolero/Tata Sumo type vehicle and stay at Hotel Lachen View Point, Lachen (Read Lachen View Point Review Here) and Hotel Fortuna, Lachung (Read Fortuna Lachung Review Here). Initially they asked for a price of Rs. 16, 150/- for Lachen, Thangu, Gurudongmar Lake, Lachung, and Yumthang Valley. I asked for Zero Point too for which they added another Rs. 1750/-. Subsequently this proved to be a smart move on my part (explained later in this report). The new total was Rs. 17,900/- to which I agreed because the agent would not encourage any bargaining. I paid 50% of the total price via online transfer to their ICICI Bank Account one month in advance. The rest was to be paid in Gangtok the evening before the day of the trip.

I arrived in Gangtok in the evening of May 28, 2012 and called Tibet Travel's local number. They agreed to see me in my hotel - Hotel Sonam Delek on Tibet Road and arrived early as promised. I paid the balance 50% money, 2 passport size photos, a copy of my passport (I had sent these documents earlier by post and they had confirmed receipt but for some reason they wanted everything again. Luckily I had extras). I was told that permits for the trip would be managed by the taxi driver and I would be picked up from my hotel next morning at around 10.00 am. I spent the rest of the evening at Casino Sikkim at Hotel Royal Plaza, came back to the hotel at around midnight and did manage to get some sleep before the big day.

North Sikkim Trip Begins

North Sikkim Taxi Stand Gangtok

On May 29, 2012, my pick up vehicle, a local taxi, arrived at 10.30 am and I was transported to the North Sikkim Taxi Stand in Gangtok (see pic above). My transport for North Sikkim turned out to be a very old Mahindra Bolero with worn out tyres. The driver was a young and enthusiastic boy (name withheld because I am later going to bitch about this guy) who at first could not believe that I was going to North Sikkim alone. According to him, he had never taken a solo traveller to North Sikkim before. Before we could start, a friend of my driver asked for permission to ride along because he needed to go to Lachen. I readily agreed because three people in the vehicle would be better than two.

Lunch Stop On The Way To Mangan North Sikkim

Our Bolero rolled out of the taxi stand at 11.00 am. I suddenly realised that I had very little cash in my wallet. Though the entire trip was prepaid, I still needed the comfort of having cash in my pocket. My driver told me that there was an ATM (Axis Bank) right outside Gangtok which we found and I withdrew Rs. 5000/-. Money in the pocket and vehicle on the hilly road, I began to review our trip plan with the driver. When the discussion reached Zero Point, my driver started talking a different language. I became suspicious and directly asked him if he knew that my prepaid trip included a visit to Zero Point. To my surprise, he said a big and unconcerned "No". I tried showing him my booking voucher but he refused to even look at it. He kept saying that he had not obtained any permit for Zero Point. I telephoned Tibet Tours and their phone was "Out of Coverage Area". I asked my driver if he had any other number of Tibet Tours to which he again said "No". Obviously he was lying. Fortunately after trying for another 10-15 times, I got Tibet Tours' phone. After another two calls and heated conversations between my driver and his "employers", the matter was settled and the driver agreed to include Zero Point in the trip. Later I learnt that during peak season, the drivers manage to extort about Rs. 2500 from a tourist group for a visit to Zero Point from Yumthang Valley. I had paid Rs. 1750/- to the agent out of which the driver would probably get Rs. 1250/-. This 50% loss was unacceptable to my smart driver.

Lunch Stop

Barely one and a half hours into the journey, at 12.30 pm, the driver suddenly stopped at a house sort of building named "Hotel Kunglho" (pic above) and announced "Lunch". Mangan was still far away. I tried to protest saying it was too early for lunch. Driver said it was the only place where lunch would be available. This Hotel Kunglho was "Pure Veg". There was another similar building on the opposite side where a small sign read "Non-Veg". Hotel Kunglho's Stafff took some time to digest that a solo traveller was going to North Sikkim. I asked for directions to the wash room and was pointed towards the back side. There was no other guest and my arrival had disturbed them while they were enjoying a Bollywood movie on television. Someone finally got up from in front of the TV and my lunch arrived.  

Hotel Kunglho On The Way To Mangan North Sikkim

Vegetarian Lunch at Hotel Kunglho On The Way To Mangan North Sikkim

The feast included potatoes done in Aloo Jeera style without much Jeera, a watery daal, cauliflower and beans, mixed salad, and papad apart from a few chapatis. I was grateful that they had not served noodles. Knowing that it would be the only meal before dinner, I managed to eat some of it. Someone offered Curd which I refused. I bought a bottle of water, quickly finished my meal, and was back in the Bolero at 1.00 pm.

Landslide Before Mangan

Landslide On The Way To Mangan North Sikkim

I asked my driver about coffee and he said we could have coffee at Mangan. I really needed some caffeine in my body and looked forward to arriving in Mangan. But after a while on the road, we all learnt that our arrival in Mangan was going to take longer than expected. There had been a land slide and the machine brought in to clear the debris had broken down blocking the road. Some vehicles coming from Mangan and going towards Gangtok were stuck on the other side since last night. The news was that the machine was being repaired and it could take 2-3 hours before the road was cleared of the machine and the debris. It did take 3 hours which I spent watching village folk breaking stones with hammers on road side. We had not yet climbed much height so it was quite hot. The water bottle I had bought during lunch proved very valuable during those three hours. Finally the jam cleared, we reached Mangan, and my driver did not stop at Mangan. He had closed his ears to whatever I was saying. When I did manage to get his attention, he said that our tea break had been postponed and would now be at Chungthang. I hoped so. The black cardamom capital of the world, as Mangan is known, had just come and gone. The landscape was getting more and more beautiful. I was beginning to forget the events of the day and was slowly realising that I was already in the hills of North Sikkim.

Diesel Stop On The Way To Lachen North Sikkim

My driver stopped before Chungthang to buy diesel for the Bolero. Diesel is sold in jerry cans in North Sikkim. I did not see any petrol pumps. By the time we reached Chungthang, it was already getting dark. Chungthang is the place from where the road splits into two, one of which goes to Lachen and the other to Lachung.

Tea Break at Chungthang

Hotel And Restaurant At Chungthang North Sikkim

Tea Break At Chungthang North Sikkim

Chungthang has a few shops and at least one hotel named "Hotel Pema Gartsel" with a restaurant on the ground floor. One can have tea/coffee, cool drinks, alcohol, snacks (read noodles), etc. here. I had a coffee (Rs. 20) while my driver's friend went to a neighbouring shop for a beer. My driver claimed that he did not drink and I believed him.

Gurudwara Guru Nanak Lama, Chungthang

Gurudwara Guru Nanak Lama Chungthang North Sikkim

A Sikh Gurudwara called Gurudwara Guru Nanak Lama is situated in Chungthang on the site that was visited by Guru Nanak during his visit to Sikkim. I stopped to pay my obeisance at the Gurudwara and met a few pilgrims from Punjab. Everyone seemed delighted to have reached there. It was a heart warming experience. Since I had reached there after dark, I resolved to visit the Gurudwara again while going back to Gangtok.

Arriving in Lachen

Room At Hotel Lachen View Point Lachen North Sikkim

The rest of the trip from Chungthang was smooth. The road was empty, lit only by the head lights of our vehicle. It was getting cold but was still pleasant. We arrived at Hotel Lachen View Point at around 8.30 pm. The room was not so bad. Two single beds with thick blankets, a carpet on the floor, and a small TV. The room and the bathroom were clean, the water heater seemed to work. Only the plastic toilet seat was broken, and one of the taps on the sink did not work. It was not all so disappointing.

Read Hotel Lachen View Point Review

Due to our late arrival, no tea would be served by the hotel but dinner would be ready soon. My driver's friend had talked me into taking a walk in the village after dinner. That would be nice.

Dinner at Hotel Lachen View Point

Vegetarian Dinner At Hotel Lachen View Point North Sikkim

Soon I got the call for dinner. Mutter Paneer, a green vegetable, daal, rice, chapatis and salad. It all looked good and would have tasted great but for the extra salt someone had put into everything. I was later told that an assistant in the kitchen was the culprit. My complaint about too much salt was noted and I was promised remedial action at lunch the next day. By the time I finished dinner, it started to rain heavily and our plan to take a walk in the village had to be cancelled.

Good Night

I needed to call home but was told that only BSNL mobile phones work in Lachen. The chef at the hotel was kind enough to lend me his mobile phone. After about a dozen attempts, I got the network and completed my calls. I paid for the calls and went to bed. My driver wanted me to be ready at 4.00 am next morning for our visit to Gurudongmar Lake. I told him 5.00 am. I knew he was not going to listen to me. Must Read: North Sikkim Trip Report 2012 - Lachen to Thangu Valley and Gurudongmar Lake

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I left my day job in October 2013 and became a full time blogger. I love travel and hence a travel blog was the obvious place to start from. The result is I currently live in Bengaluru, India. - Narinder Singh.


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