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Old 27th August 2016, 20:48   #1
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Default Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

I know I am lazy. My friends don't rely upon me on giving them photographs snapped in my camera on time, because it usually takes me more than a few months to even download the photos.
Normally, lazy that I am, I usually target to write my travelogues at least within a year of the trip, but this time, I have exceeded that self-imposed limit too.

Here I proceed to pen down my May 2015 travel of Sandakphu (North Bengal) and North Sikkim one year and three months after it actually happened. I don't take notes during my travel, and so some places, events and names have become a bit hazy in memory too. Nevertheless, I am writing it down for posterity so I can relive these trips myself in old age sitting by the fireplace, and I hope Team-BHP will continue to exist and thrive for a long, long time.

Besides I still have the Himachal travelogue to write, and another trip coming up this October, so I was going to really fall behind.

After our fantastic Ladakh trip in October of 2014 (link: http://www.team-bhp.com/forum/travel...xpedition.html (16 'Las' and some 'Tsos' - Two men and a Black Scorpio 4x4 on a Ladakh expedition)), the itch to drive somewhere was again building up, and one day in early April (2015), I called up my friend in Bombay to talk. Within a few minutes, we agreed on the North Sikkim trip to be undertaken in early May. I did not mention Sandakphu but this was something in the back of my mind, and after reading Blackpearl and 1100D's Sandakphu journeys, I too wanted to do it, and at the same time I was weighing whether I had the guts to do it, much scary that it was. Finally passion won over guts, and we squeezed it into our itinerary. I called up the Sankdakphu Sherpa Chalet number and luckily was able to book a couple of single rooms.

It was going to be a short trip as we also planned to go for a Himachal trip a few months later in October.

And then towards the end of April, the devastating earthquake happened in Nepal with strong shocks and after shocks felt in Kolkata. We were supposed to begin our trip two days later, and obviously there was a lot of apprehension from friends and families. But we decided to go ahead anyway, arguing that earthquake doesn't strike the same place twice within a few days/weeks.

Our trip began on May 1, 2015. The following was our rough itinerary:

Day 1 - May 1: Kolkata to Siliguri
Day 2 - May 2: Siliguri to Sandakphu
Day 3 - May 3: Sandakphu to Darjeeling
Day 4 - May 4: Darjeeling to Mangan (Sikkim)
Day 5 - May 5: Permits. Mangan to Lachen and beyond.
Day 6 - May 6: Gurudongmar. Then to Lachung (originally), but later changed to Gangtok due to landslide and road closure on the Lachung route.
Day 7 - May 7: Cooling heels in Gangtok desperately trying for Nathula permit.
Day 8 - May 8: Nathula, then down to Siliguri.
Day 9 - May 9: nonstop from previous night to Kolkata.


Day 1 - May 1:

Customary photo before starting the journey. We started around 6:30 am from Kolkata.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030205.jpg

We decided to take the Bolpur, Siuri, Bhagalpur route. Some photos on the way.

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Massanjore dam.

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Rural Bengal.

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Dalkhola by evening.

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Reached Siliguri by 9 pm.



Day 2 - May 2:


Today as going to be D-day. For every trip, I like to fix a climax or high point for that trip. During our Ladakh trip, we had decided that climbing Marsimik La was going to be the high point of that trip. For this one, we decided that nothing could beat the climb to Sandakphu, i.e. if we could eventually make it.

With that in mind, we started from our hotel in Siliguri quite early, and pretty soon we were among the lovely tea gardens on our way to Mirik. Mirik had experienced another after-shock of Nepal earthquake just the previous day.

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Although the day started bright and sunny, but as we were going up towards Mirik, it was getting foggy, which was worrisome for the Sandakphu trail.

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We continued. It was a dreamy drive in the fog and mist.

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Finally we reached Mirik and after a bit of search, found the road which leads up to Sandakphu. We braced ourselves for the next 31 kms of our trip.

This was going to be it. With a quiet "Joy Ma Kali", the climb was on.

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And the crazy angles of the road commenced.

Camera is straight. Road is not.

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The fog continued.

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Sometimes visibility was less than 15 ft.

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We chugged along in 4WD High. Not time to engage 4 Low yet.

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Visibility was getting low. It was about 1 pm.

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Reached a point with some monastery. Don't remember the name of the place now.

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And a first view of the legendary World War II LR.

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Weather and visibility continued to be worse.

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One of the crazy switch-backs. Only the turns were poorly paved. Rest was rocky. 4 Low was on now. In all of these switch backs, I had to make three-pointers, both while going up and coming down. 4WD Scorpio's turning radius just doesn't cut it here.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030294.jpg
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Old 27th August 2016, 21:09   #2
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Default re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

Lovely pics and crisp writing Mr.Sinha. I had been waiting for a long time for this travelogue. Waiting for more pics.

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Originally Posted by mr.sinha View Post
Nevertheless, I am writing it down for posterity so I can relive these trips myself in old age sitting by the fireplace, and I hope Team-BHP will continue to exist and thrive for a long, long time.
Well said and I support this wholeheartedly.
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Old 27th August 2016, 21:14   #3
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Day 2 (contd.)

Crawling up.

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And the journey continued slowly. We are not doing more than 6 miles per hour, partly also due to the sometimes dense fog.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030308.jpg

Finally reached Kalpokhri. Stopped for tea. Rs.15/cup but it was worth it.

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Time for the final push to Bhikheybhanjan and the last 4 kms to the top now. Fog was getting worse.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030317.jpg

No more photos from this point. It was seriously scary. I was fully focussed on trying to find the road through the fog and sticking to it. Friend was busy bracing himself. Between Bhikhey and Sandakphu, of all places on this road, had the misfortune to meet a Landy coming down, and had to back up a bit to make way. Some TBHP Kolkata members were in the LR and they recognized my Scorpio. They were sensible enough to leave their XUV 500 in Mirik and take the LR for the trip.

Finally after a grueling hour and half, reached Sandakphu around 6 pm. It took about 5+ hours to cover the 31 kms from Mirik (the dense fog was partly responsible), but we had finally made it.

Scorpio standing beside a legend in front of Sherpa Chalet.

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One of the main attractions of Sandakphu is that this is the only place in Bengal and Sikkim from where you can see the entire Himalayan range from Kanchenjunga on the right to Everest, Makalu and Lhotse on the left. But given the foggy weather, we were not too hopeful.

After a good dinner, we retired for the night. It was sub-zero temperature with a howling wind. Which was good because we were hoping that the wind would blow away the clouds.
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Old 29th August 2016, 16:53   #4
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Default Re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

Lovely set of pictures mr.sinha.

The terrain looks quite tough and the visibility is extremely poor! Must've been one heck of a drive. The scenery looks amazing and just being at that altitude is an experience of its own.

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Originally Posted by mr.sinha View Post
No more photos from this point. It was seriously scary. I was fully focussed on trying to find the road through the fog and sticking to it.
One situation where I don't wish for more photographs. The roads look quite dangerous and safety is always important.

That land rover is one tough nut. That is a Land Rover series 1, I'm guessing from the looks.

The whole journey must've been a lot of fun, thanks for sharing.
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Old 29th August 2016, 19:37   #5
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Originally Posted by Omkar View Post

That land rover is one tough nut. That is a Land Rover series 1, I'm guessing from the looks.
Yes, that is a Land Rover Series I but as far as I know it has a Mahindra Di engine.
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Old 30th August 2016, 20:28   #6
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Default Re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

WOW.. another travelogue to Sandakphu

Superb pictures ... Waiting for North Sikkim Part.
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Old 4th September 2016, 11:56   #7
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Day 3 - May 3:

I had set my alarm for 5 am to check the weather and if a glimpse of the mighty mountains was possible.

This is what I saw from the bedroom window.

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And the Sleeping Buddha was visible in full glory.

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The winds had indeed swept away the clouds during the night. The clouds had settled in the valleys below and we had an unfettered view of the Himalayan range - exactly what one would expect to see from Sandakphu on a clear day.

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A closeup shot of Makalu, Lhotse and Everest on the left. The white peak in the middle is Everest.

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But Buddha was the most attractive.

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The road which we had climbed.

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Soaking in the scenery before the return trip.

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Now the return trip starts. We decided against going to Phalut, as otherwise we would have to spend another day in Sandakphu and we didn't have time. So we decided to spend a night in Darjeeling, before pushing towards North Sikkim.

If the drive up from Bhikeybhanjan to Sandakphu was scary, the trip down was downright frightening. The Scorpio was banking at crazy angles, and sometimes I thought the sheer weight of my chubby friend was keeping it from overturning.

The first 4 kms were the scariest. No photos. Just concentrating on keeping the Scorp upright.

Some comparatively innocent switchbacks.

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Views of the Buddha on the way down.

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Driving down.

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However, all ended well. Met some trekkers on the way who were surprised that a Scorpio had made up to Sandakphu. I guess they didn't realize the 4WD option available.

Some photos on the way down.

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Old 10th September 2016, 11:40   #8
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Day 3 - May 3 (contd.):

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Kalpokhri looked so pleasant in clear weather now.

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And continued down.

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Mission accomplished. A sense of achievement overwhelmed me here.

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This definitely called for a celebration. We decided to celebrate by spending the night in Darjeeling and wining/dining in Glenary's.

On the way at Ghoom, the highest railway station in India.

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The archaic engine.

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At the Darjeeling Mall.

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We ended the evening with a relaxing dinner and called it a day in order to prepare for our journey to North Sikkim tomorrow morning.



Day 4 - May 4:

Next morning, on the way.

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Entering Sikkim.

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The same truck that Samba (fellow TBHP-ian) saw while on his trip to Mangan.

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Our next stop was Mangan where we were going to stay that night in a beautiful homestay run by Mr. Dupden Lepcha about 20 kms away. Mangan was the district HQ.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030413.jpg

The gateway at Mangan town. The homestay was about 30 kms from here.

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On the way to homestay.

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The bridge where local police checks where you are going. You actually need permission to visit the place where we were going, a small village called Dzongu. We didn't have any permit. So we called up our host, who then called the checkpost. He was apparently an important person in the area. He has two wives. The checkpost entered our names and vehicle details and waved us through. When we asked for further directions, they pointed to a shop on the other side of the bridge.

The shop was run by our host's 2nd wife. She welcomed us, all smiles, and drew a map for us to follow. Lucky guy !!!

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We reached the beautiful homestay by 4 pm. It was pristine. The access road from the main road to the homestay requires a high ground clearance vehicle.

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We were bowled over by the beauty, calmness and serenity of the small village and surroundings. It appeared picture-perfect peaceful. Promised myself to bring the family here one day and spend some quiet time.

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The welcome crew.

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The welcome snacks and drinks.

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The drinks contained small live worms at the bottom for fermentation purposes. I don't exactly remember the name now. Probably called "chhangu" ??

The living quarters.

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Our host's jeep. Seems he won it in a lottery.

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Farming on the hillside.

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Old 10th September 2016, 12:23   #9
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Day 4 - May 4 (contd.):


The conqueror of Sandakphu.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030433.jpg

Lovely mountain peaks on one side.

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Views.

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The school was a short walk away.

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We spent a wonderful afternoon, evening and night with some excellent food and drinks. Our host and his first wife took fabulous care of us.

Our host revealed his secret of aphrodisiacs for dealing with two wives and keeping them both happy. Anyone wishing to know the secret, ping me, but you gotta be brave. :-)



Day 5 - May 5:

Next morning, we started our journey towards North Sikkim.

On the way back to Mangan town.

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We started on our journey towards North Sikkim via Lachen. Our aim was to push as close to Gurudongmar as possible and find accommodation in a wayside village.

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Lachen.

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The road was very rocky with a number of hairpins and switchbacks.

We reached a small village called Thanggu by early evening and holed up in a shack with 2 single cots in the shack's store room. Wouldn't have been possible if family was with me. It was very cold even in early May.

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Day 6 - May 6:

Next morning we started early for Gurudongmar. You had to finish the visit to the lake and leave the place by 12 noon as the winds get really strong after that.

Views on the way. Weather was fantastic.

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The last 20+ kms of road was fantastic, thanks to BRO.

The beautiful Gurudongmar Lake at over 17000 ft. It was completely frozen.

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The glacier which feeds the lake, and ultimately, the source of river Teesta.

We drove to the other side of the lake where the tourist vehicles do not go. It was small narrow road which the military use for going to their China border bunkers.

This gave us a side-wise view of the lake and frontal view of the glacier.

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Didn't proceed much further as probably this was restricted area.

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Old 10th September 2016, 12:51   #10
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Day 6 - May 6 (contd.):

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The super-hero of the trip. It has, until now, taken us to amazing territories without a hitch or cry, in comfort and style. Just love this Mahindra.

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We started back from the lake around 12 noon when most of the tourist vehicles had left. It was biting cold and the wind was picking up.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1400.jpg


We were planning to reach Lachung that evening so we could go to Yumthang and Zero point the next day.

Chungthang is the Y-point where the road on left goes to Lachen and Gurudongmar, and the road on the right goes to Lachung and Yumthang.

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We came down to Chungthang, but soon faced a roadblock there. We were told that there was a big landslide on the road to Lachung and it would take about 24 hours to clear that up. Many tourists were trapped on the other side of the landslide at Lachung.

Since there was no point waiting for 24 hours, we dropped our Lachung plan and decided to go to Gangtok. We were thinking of visiting Nathu La.

Next started the ordeal of getting Nathula permit. It was a long, very frustrating and tiresome process.

That evening after we checked in to a hotel near Sikkim mall, I dumped my luggage and set out to find information about the permits. The next couple of hours frustrated me.

One after another, every travel operator who I talked to simply laughed on my face when I told them that I intended to take my own vehicle to Nathu La. Gathered information that only a special government permit or an army permit for a private vehicle would be able to take us there.

Came back dejected to the hotel, and my friend and I started calling up other friends/contact who knew anyone in the army. The first three attempts proved futile and we made no headway. Finally, I called up a friend in my office who had mentioned years ago that he was friends with two brother who were Lt.Colonels. This was out last chance with the army channel. Explained to my friend our situation.

Came to know that the permit office opens early, around 7 am. I intended to go there as early as possible, and also to visit the State Secretariat nearby in the hope of getting a government nod, in case the army channel did not work out.



Day 7 - May 7:

The place was in utter chaos. All the tour operators and agents were crowded at different windows and office and I had a hard time even to find the minimum information about where to start and whom to approach. Finally figured out who the permit office was, but his room was way too crowded for me to even enter.

Forms: its very difficult to even get hold of a blank form. I was told that some of the travel agent shops on the roadside have blank forms. Went to one of the shops. Same story here. They wouldn't give me a form as I was not going through them. Then I offered to pay them the entire fare as if I was going with them. But still they didn't give me the form because it was supposedly "against the rules".

Permits are issued one day in advance for the batch of 70 Sikkim tourist vehicles for going the next day. However, this does not guarantee anything. If the army decides the next morning that conditions are not suitable for tourist vehicles (could be weather or China factor), all permits stand cancelled for that day, and tourists have to get permits again for another day.
The army is the final authority here.

After getting frustrated at the tourism permit office, we walked down to the Sikkim state secretariat. We reached there by 9:30. Office opens at 10, so we waited. The grounds and the inside of the building was alarmingly clean and tidy. No trade union posters, no beetle juice on the wall corners. It was spic-&-span. Even the toilets were clean and well-maintained.
We are talking of a government office here, in a state in India.

Being used to the state of West Bengal's government office timings, here I was surprised to find that bureaucrats here actually started arriving to work quite a few minutes before 10 am. Bravo !!!

We went to the room where they issue Nathu La permits and talked to an officer. But frustration met us here too. We were informed that the tourism dept in the Secretariat issues permits only for motor bikes, not cars, and they could do nothing.

At wit's end and not knowing what to do next, it was it this time that my friend's army contact, a certain Lt Colonel A.U. called me. He said that he had enquired about Nathula and got feedback that the road to NL was too dangerous, and thats why private vehicles are not issued permits. I told him about my travels to Ladakh and Marsimik La and Kaksang La etc. and tried to convince him that I could handle the terrain in my 4WD vehicle. Not sure if he was convinced, but he promised to try, no guarantees.

We walked back from the secretariat to the tourism office. I was simply hanging around the tourism office when I noticed that the permit issuing officer was working in his office alone after all the crowd had gone by now. So I knocked on his door. He ushered me inside and was all willing to talk, now that the mad rush of the morning was over. I put before him my case and pleaded. I asked him what prevented a private citizen with a private vehicle to drive anywhere in India. He said, legally nothing, but the Sikkim government has a rule that the 70 allowable permits are issued only to 70 tourist vehicles, so as to give them employment. I begged for an extra permit. Finally, after a long time and argument, he conceded some ground, and told me that he would give me permit to drive till Changgu Lake, after which I must park and switch to a tourist vehicle and complete the Nathu La leg, and that I would still have to pay the full tourist fare from Gangtok. Well, this was much better than expected, so I immediately agreed. He then immediately called one of the tourist vehicle drivers who was hanging around and instructed him of the arrangements. I handled over the photocopies and photographs and finalized the details for the trip the next morning.

This partial success albeit called for a small celebration. We walked back to the hotel and were relaxing in a celebratory mood, when suddenly my Whatsapp pinged. Casually checking, I saw the following. It was a message from my friend's army contact, Lt. Col. A.U. It read as follows (person and unit names masked):
"Go and meet Major V. of XX Headquarters XX XXXXX Division. He has been spoken to by my senior office Colonel D.B (IC No. xxxxxx). Go and meet him with your id proof. Give reference of telephone conversation with Colonel D.B. (Colonel XX Headquarters XX Corps). His IC number will be required for the passes which will be made for tomorrow. Hope this helps".

We immediately jumped up, thanked Lt. Col. A.U., and in a minute behind the wheel to search where XXXX Division HQ was located. Luckily it was just 10 minutes from the hotel. At the gate, showed the Whatsapp message to the sentry and were told to go in to Major V.'s office. We walked into the office and mentioned about Col. D.B. The Major was a young and suave fellow, probably in his late 20s. No more questions asked, he immediately gave the permit form to fill up, stuck two of our photos, entered my vehicle number, stamped them and our permit was ready for a FULL ALL THE WAY drive from Gangtok to Nathu La. Afterwards, he offered us tea, and we talked for a while about many things.

Getting out from there, we called up the tour operator with whom we had previously made the arrangements, and cancelled.
The next morning, after a light breakfast, we set up. We had a reach a certain point by 9 am where they check permits. Imagine the surprise on the face of the policeman when he saw just one private vehicle among the sea of yellow sticker vehicles. He asked how we got the permit. I simply smiled.

Finally, on the road to Nathu La.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030462.jpg
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Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1403.jpg

On yellow "LTD" among all yellow registrations. .

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Reached Changgu Lake.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030468.jpg
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You can ride these yaks.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1413.jpg



Lots of snowfall all around. The final approach to Nathu La was paved. Fantastic job from BRO as usual.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030473.jpg
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Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1414.jpg

Madhuri and Madhubala Lakes on the way.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1415.jpg
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Old 10th September 2016, 13:01   #11
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Day 8 - May 8 (contd.):


At Nathu La.

Parking lot by the road side.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1418.jpg
Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-img_1423.jpg

This is the Indian army post. A 5 minute walk from the parking takes you to these buildings.

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Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030488.jpg

On the way back.

Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030496.jpg
Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio-p1030497.jpg


Thus ended our short 9-day Sikkim trip. The climb of Sandakphu and the process of getting the Nathu La permits were definitely the highlights of this trip. The views of the Himalayan range from Kanchenjonga to Everest from top of Sandakphu, as well as Gurudongmar Lake were mesmerizing. The hospitality of Mr. Dupden Lepcha and his family at the Tingvong (Dzongu, Mangan) homestay was beyond any comparison.

Too bad we missed the Lachung leg, but then Nathu La would not have been possible otherwise. My sincere thanks to Lt. Col. A.U. and Colonel D.B. and Major V., without whose help, it would not have been possible.

On completing Nathu La, we drove straight on to Siliguri, took a long dinner break, and then drove on through the night back to Kolkata. We reached Kolkata by 10 am.

Hope you all enjoyed the travelogue.

Next up is my Himachal travelogue from October 2015. Still hasn't crossed 1 year as per my travelogue completion target, so I have some time, I figure, to start on and complete that. Until then, good bye.
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Old 12th September 2016, 11:15   #12
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Default Re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

What a fantastic trip mr.sinha. Don't know how I missed it. Great pics & honest narration.

Keep Traveling !!

Regards,

Pawan
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Old 13th September 2016, 09:39   #13
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Default Re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

Mr.Sinha, what an adventure.

Day 5 you wrote permits and Mangan to Lachen but in description there was no mention of permits. Are permits for Lachen side easy to get? You did write that you had difficultly getting Nathula permits.

Appreciate if you can give more information about getting permits for Gurudongmar and Zero point.

Thanks
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Old 13th September 2016, 17:47   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by amit0rana View Post
Mr.Sinha, what an adventure.

Day 5 you wrote permits and Mangan to Lachen but in description there was no mention of permits. Are permits for Lachen side easy to get? You did write that you had difficultly getting Nathula permits.

Appreciate if you can give more information about getting permits for Gurudongmar and Zero point.

Thanks
You should be able to get permits from Gangtok safely. There is a DM office in Mangan town, but I heard they quite often deny giving permits from there and ask visitors to get them from Gangtok instead. I took a chance and got it, but I was mentally prepared to go down to Gangtok. Best to play safe and get the permits from Gangtok itself.
Yes, permits for Lachen and Gurudongmar should be easy to get. Nathu La is a whole different story.
Thanks for reading.
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Old 13th September 2016, 19:34   #15
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Default Re: Sandakphu & North Sikkim in a Scorpio

Fantastic TL Mr Sinha. Pics and views are awesome! Keep driving and keep inspiring. Wondering if one could land one of those LRs for modification as an expedition vehicle. But then, I guess, except for the gearbox, all other parts would have been replaced.
Your Scorpio with the LTD Sticker stands out!
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