|20th January 2010, 20:50||#1|
Ambling along the “Old Silk Route” – a journey through East Sikkim
This is the log of a memorable trip to a mesmerising corner of India – the ancient Silk Route , that used to connect Lhasa in Tibet via the Jelep La Pass to India and onwards to the rest of the world. In the Travel circuit , this territory is marked as East Sikkim and has been opened to tourists relatively recently. Even now most of the route is restricted area due its international boundary with China (Tibet) and the route is controlled by the Indian Army.
Had it not been for the posts made by Somnath (The Tiger) in IndiaMike and by ADC in “team-bhp” websites , I would not even be aware that such a wonderful land existed. My vote of thanks goes out to them for publishing details of such a wonderful place.
Let me warn you that this log is also not about a self driven trip , as is the norm in team-bhp travelogues , I used local transport.
Now a disclaimer : Try this route if you want to embrace the beauty of Eastern Himalayas without the need for creature comforts. This route has recently opened up, and still has a long way to develop. It is better off like this to preserve its pristine natural beauty and this translates to lesser tourists as well.
We had an itinerary of 7 Nights and 8 days and started off the tour on 26th Dec 2009 from Sealdah Station in Kolkata. First destination was NJP (New Jalpaiguri Railway Station for the uninitiated) where the overnight Darjeeling Mail disgorged us the very next morning.
We started the trip in trepidation as the hills of North Bengal were simmering again on the Gorkhaland issue with talks of Road Blockades and Bandhs. The trip was planned with the help of Mr Sebastian Pradhan of “Reshi Eco Tourism Resort”. I understand that he is the person who has the biggest hand in developing the local economy of the region through tourism. He was instrumental in guiding the local populace into creating self help groups and developing the infrastructure for tourism. Mr Pradhan had already arranged for an Alto to pick us from NJP and the car was waiting.
First Day – Sunday – 27th Dec 09
On alighting at NJP we were greeted with the news that the Gorkhaland agitators have announced a 3 hours National Highway Blockage from 12 PM to 3 PM that was to increase progressively each day and continue indefinitely. Hence the plan was to hotfoot it and leave the Highway before 12 noon. Our first stop was the picturesque town of Pedong , where the Silk route originates. Pedong is in the Kalimpong district of West Bengal. The route took us through the National Highway (NH31A) till Chitrey from where we climbed towards Kalimpong town. We crossed Kalimpong and the fork at Algarah to reach Pedong by 2 PM ( we had started at 9:30 from NJP). Kalimpong onwards , the scenery was beautiful with wild colourful flowers dotting the route on a mountainous landscape. Our Night halt was to be at Jelep La resort which was arranged before hand by Mr Pradhan. It you plan to stay there , plan to book the rooms at the top floor (they have 3) , these have the most commanding views in Pedong. This resort is basic and some distance out from Pedong proper but the best place to stay there for its surrounding views. We were however denied a view of the Kanchenjunga range, it was cloudy at the heights and the lower valleys were covered in a strong haze. Though the Sun was out , the thick haze made it almost impossible to photograph the landscape.
We took a walk in the surroundings and trooped down to the nearby Orchid farm. This turned out to be a decrepit Horticulture facility of the WB Government that is totally neglected and has very few orchids worth its name. Quite a lot more orchids were to be found in the terrace of the Jelep La resort.
The day ended for us along side a roaring campfire with lights twinkling like a golden necklace, in the hills all around us.
Second Day – Monday – 28th Dec 09
The entire day was spent visiting the local attractions. We hired a car for the entire day. Though we were a small family , we needed a Marshall Jeep as the roads were somewhat of an adventure. Our driver of the day turned out to be a local lad back in his village for a holiday from Bombay. He is the chauffeur for Maria Goretti (wife of Arshad Warsi of Bollywood fame). He took great pride to show us around. The local attractions we saw include :
Silent Valley – a small wooded grassland where no noise penetrates, hence the name. Apparently in Monsoon it turns into a mini lake where local lads take a dip.
Tinchuley Viewpoint : Next up on the plan , you need to trek up a medium steep and very narrow path from the main road to visit this place. It has a commanding view of the Eastern Himalays. Again the weather lords played spoilsport for us ; as they had in the morning when we were denied a Sunrise view from the resort. But the walk (or is it a trek ?) and the surrounding views were well worth it.
Sillery Village : A local Lepcha village that has preserved its old ways for past several generations
Ramitey View point : A view point perched high on the hills with a quasi motor able road that gives the best view of the Teesta flowing below along with the Kanchenjunga Range. Again , the peaks were behind the clouds and the bare glint of the river could be made out from the strong haze. The locals said that the weather will clear and the haze will lift only after a spell of rains and that dampened our spirits.
We decided to give the ruins of Damsang fort a miss and headed out for Rikissum , which is another view point that you find on the road to Lava / Loleygaon ( the road forks from Algarah). There is a dilapidated British era colonial house on the summit, and on a clear day you get commanding views.
Next destination was short excursion to Lava , which is about 10 Km from Rikissum . Looked too congested and touristy for me , however the Monastery was worth a visit. Due to its location, it is a few degrees colder than the surroundings and gets enveloped with a layer of clouds in the afternoons.
We were back in Pedong by 5 PM after visiting the local monastery. The plan was to stay the night at the same place and leave for Reshi/Rishi the next day , however there was talk of a bandh in the hills. We immediately called up Mr Pradhan and informed him that we will be arriving at his resort that very night. Next we embarked on the 16Km trip from Pedong down towards the Reshi Valley.
We reached there by 6:30 PM , the road down is an experience as the last few hundred metres in on the dry bed of the Reshi River. You actually need to cross a narrow bamboo bridge to access the resort. The location is on the Reshi river valley bang on the river bank , on one side of the river is WB and on the other side Sikkim. The resort is on the WB side , but the access road in from the Sikkim side
The place has electricity, but it is nearly non existent in the evening as the voltage is extremely low. I personally think the best way to enjoy Reshi in the night is without power.
It was to be a full moon soon , we spent a lovely evening beside a roaring camp fire , with the gurgling river and a gorgeous moonlight landscape for company.
Third Day – Tuesday – 29th Dec 09
Next morning , the beauty of the valley simply blew us away. We were a couple of families there , Mr Pradhan informed us that on 25th and 26th there were about 75 heads there , we were lucky to have the place relatively free.
This is an ideal place to rest and unwind , there are no so-called attractions , you just enjoy the river. We enjoyed the day by taking long walks along the river bank, a strong winter Sun made it very pleasurable.
The resort is run by Mr. Pradhan and his family and they go all out to make your stay very cozy and pleasurable. The facilities again are basic but the atmosphere is electric.
We actually found out in the morning that two more resorts have sprung up close to this one.
Mr. Pradhan collected our papers that day to get the Permits done for travelling up the Silk route. The route from Padamchen , Zuluk /Dzuluk / Jaluk to Kupup is India army territory and restricted even for Indians. It seems that it is off limits to Foreign Nationals altogether. For Indians , you need your Passport Size photographs and proof of Indian Citizenship and Mr. Pradhan arranges the permits through the local Police.
Fourth Day – Wednesday – 30th Dec 09
Finally the day when we will be travelling inside Sikkim, up through the Old Silk Route. The location of Reshi Resort meant that once we cross the Bamboo bridge we were in Sikkim and the journey begins from there. There was a bandh that day in the WB part of the hills , but since we start from within Sikkim , hence no problem with transport.
The route took us though Rhenock and Rongli towards the first Check post at Lightham. This is where you show your permits and register ; the area above is restricted. The condition of the mountain road from here till Kupup is excellent , it will put some of the roads in our cities to shame. Being a strategic route, it is constantly maintained by the army.
We were steadily climbing now and with each passing minute it was getting more scenic. We left Padamchen behind and had our first glimpse of Zuluk perched high above. There was snow here on 25th and the leftovers could still be seen dotting the surrounding hills.
We reached there by afternoon and were welcomed by the family of Mr Gopal Pradhan. What Mr Sebastian Pradhan was doing for Reshi and its surroundings, Mr Gopal Pradhan is doing the same for the region around Zaluk. The only place to stay there is offered by Mr Pradhan. Main Zaluk is actually a small Bustee along the road. Mr. Pradhan offers a Homestay here, just below the main road. Next, there is a small four roomed Beautiful Bungalow that is reserved for big groups . It is beautiful and is accessed by a steep staircase from the main road. Further down is “Dil Maya” retreat that Mr Gopal Pradhan is developing. It is part bamboo , part wood and part concrete and has four rooms with attached baths. We choose to stay here. Mr Pradhan’s family comes down to cook in the kitchen for the guests. There is a large bukhari in the dining room to provide warmth , couple of the rooms has the wood burning bukharis as well , while electric room heaters do duty for 2 other rooms. Unlike Reshi there is no power shortage here !!!.We were 10,000 Ft up , in Winter when it was very windy and chilly and we gladly enjoyed the warmth of the wooden stove. The clear moonlight night was a treat for the eyes. A word of caution, the climb to the main road from Dil Maya retreat is a long flight of steps , at 10000 Ft it was a real struggle for our out of shape lungs. If you above elderly folks with you , you may be much better off staying in the home stay along the main road .
Local house for the self help group
Zuluk is actually perched up on a slope with steep mountains on 3 sides. To get a clear view of the Kanchenjunga massif one needs to travel several kilometres up , but this is the closed you can stay. The geology meant that by noon a large layer of clouds enclosed the settlement , it is aptly called the Abode of the Clouds. The local army station bears the name - “Cloud Warriors”.
Fifth Day – Thursday – 31st Dec 09
The last day of the year dawned and we were up early (4 AM) in excitement as we had to start very early to catch the sunrise high up the slopes.
Suddenly we heard a loud shriek from the family staying next room and looked out. What a sight greeted us !, as far as you could see , everything was covered under a white blanket and it was still snowing. The clear moonlight night from the previous evening was history. A call to Gopalji confirmed our worst fears, no Sunrise to see today , the roads upward from Zuluk was closed due to snow and the mountains hidden beneath thick clouds.
As the day dawned , it kept on snowing and we really enjoyed it to our hearts content. It was a sight we shall cherish for a very long time. Now was the time for some quick decisions. That day in Zuluk, there were only 4 tourist groups including our family. Three of these groups including us were yet to see the Sunrise and traverse the route till Kupup while the fourth had already seen it the previous day and were headed down. Seeing the weather, all groups decided to head down to lower Sikkim. That is , excluding us. Our plans were to complete the Zuluk circuit on 31st and spend the next 2 days at Aritar. My original plan was to visit Kupup and travel till Tsomogo/Changu Lake on 31st and come back the same day. Yes this is not a typo , past Kupup , this route actually joins up the Gangtok to Nathula route at Serathang. Towards right is Nathu La and towards left is Tsomogo Lake and Gangtok. ADC actually traversed this route to Gangtok from Zaluk in his Safari.
A brief talk with Gopalji yielded a ray of hope, since it was winter there was a chance that the snow will stop and weather will clear towards the evening and the roads may be made passable by the next day. We decided to risk it out and stayed on to enjoy the snow. That day we were the only tourists left at Zaluk and Mr Pradhan’s family made us feel right at home. The most memorable 31st Dec of my life was spent there.
Towards late afternoon the skies started clearing up and I cannot even begin to try and describe the incredible landscapes. The moon was out in all its glory in the evening and the slopes were sparkling under it.
As soon as our spirits were rising we heard news that even though the weather has cleared , there will be no Sunrise views on 1st as the road clearing operations cannot begin till 1st morning.
We tucked in for the night with silent prayers .
Sixth Day – Friday – 1st Jan 10
The New Year dawned bright and sunny , what a feast for the eyes. It hurt the eyes to look around as almost everything was covered in white. If you walk a Km out from Zaluk , down towards Padamchen , you come at a fork where the Kanchenjunga Massif becomes barely visible from behind a mountain. I went down there early morning and was mesmerized by the Sunrise, more prayers followed to get to see the main thing !!!.
Zaluk with the loops above it :
Seeing the weather , Gopalji had left for Gangtok on 31st , I pleaded with him that night to be back on 1st and at least try to take us towards Kupup. True to his word he was back early morning . Using his local network he got the word that the army was out clearing the road and an army convoy had already started towards Kupup. He said that it was risky but he will give it a try and drive us personally in his “Force” vehicle. The road was not officially open and would not be open for a few days , the army would not allow tourists to pass. Since Gopalji was a local and had family in Nathang, he and his vehicle would be allowed to pass towards Kupup. Meanwhile word had gone out not to allow tourists beyond Lightham for the next couple of days till the roads are cleared.
Kupup is only about 32-35 Kms from Zaluk but it is about 3000 ft Higher at 13000 Ft and you need to cross the famous Zaluk loops. The loops coil around like a python and climbs sharply as you leave Zuluk. There are numerous twists and turns and you can see it from Zuluk as well. Traction on these roads would be problem under fresh snow.
Goplaji got the snow chains ready and we started for Kupup around 12 PM. Interestingly in the West we have Snow Tyres and Chains but in India I have not come across Snow Tyres. The army jeeps and trucks there all had chains wrapped around the wheels for traction. The wheels began to slip as we left Zuluk and Goplaji soon had the rear wheels wrapped in chains. That immediately corrected the traction problem. The chains for the front wheels were not used at all , the idea was that if it got more slippery , they would come out as well. We did not get to use them though. What Gopalji did was to invite 3 locals with us for the trip- as a sort of safety in numbers. They were to help him with the chains enroute , or for support if we got stranded. In the evening when we come down there were chances of a thick fog enveloping the road. Someone had to climb out from the vehicle and run in front of the jeep to show the way , one more insurance policy with the extra hands travelling with us.
Snow Clearing Ops
As we were leaving Zuluk , a clould bank again enveloped the place. About 6 kms out , near the Sunrise point ,we sailed straight out of the clouds. It was like flying in an aircraft over the cloud layer. All around us the mountains and roads glistened under white snow under a brilliantly blue sky. And then – we saw it – the entire eastern Himalayas with Kanchenjunga as the crown jewel, majestically soaring above us.
This first sight blew us away , the entire trip was worth it only for this single moment. We started climbing up again and went past Thambi View point and Lungthang village , towards Nathang valley. Progress was slow with numerous photo ops - really had the time of my life clicking way.
Real Estate near Lungtham
More to follow ....
|20th January 2010, 21:26||#3|
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Awesome snaps. These are pics that speak so many words about the place. Lovely. Do post more and more pics.
|20th January 2010, 22:34||#4|
On the way Goplaji pointed out a place where a woman reportedly spotted a Yeti a few years back – talk about local folklore !!!. But what we saw on the road were bear footprints, both big ones and that of a cub. We were the first vehicle passing after the snowfall and the road had these bear foot prints for several kms, the bears seem to have been walking on the road in the night. The army convoy that started out from Zuluk in the morning had actually not come upto this height !!!!!.
We soon had a glimpse of Nathang Valley wrapped in Snow and crossing it slowly approached the original Baba Dham or Baba Mandir.
The Baba Mandir that is there near Sherathang on the Gangtok to Nathula route apparently is a duplicate and this one is the original . We took Baba’s blessings and saw his bunker , the army jawans stationed there treated us to cupfuls of piping hot tea. The Mandir is in the Memory of Sepoy Harbhajan Singh of the Indian Army who died on 4th Oct 1968 when be slipped and fell down a mountain side into a stream while travelling in a Mule Convoy. Apparently someone had a dream where he appeared and requested his Samadhi to be constructed and 23rd Punjab Regiment constructed the Mandir in his memory. To this day , the jawans believe that he looks over their well being. Every year in Oct , on the occasion of Infantry day, a wreath laying ceremony is held here to honour the brave soldiers who laid down their lives for the country.
We saw the frozen Kalpokhari Lake enroute and entered the Tukla Valley , next stop was the Tukla War memorial. A plaque commemorates the battle of Tukla and there is a ceremonial Gun Placement.
Tukla War Memorial - you can see an India Bunker on the border with China
Passing on , we soon saw the Jelep La pass , both Chinese and Indian Bunkers are visible on both sides of the pass. The access roads servicing the bunkers meandered up the slopes but were strictly off limits.
Jelep La pass - you can see the bunkers on the Chinese Side
The frozen Hati Lake (Elephant Lake of Kupup) was the next attraction. When viewed from high up , the contours of the lake resemble an elephant. We saw the highest golf course of the world in the Kupup , shrouded under a blanket of snow.
Hati / Elephant Lake - Kupup
Further progress towards Changu was not possible as the roads were closed and the Sun was about to set.
On our way back , we were treated to Jwalamukhi – the red rocky slopes of Tukla Valley seemed to burn under the setting Sun – like a hot lava field.
Next up was a stupendous sunset over the clouds.
Gopalji took us to Nathang Village to meet his relatives and treated us to a very welcome hot tea. He plans to build a resort in Nathang as well. This would be one hell off a place to stay , in Summer the whole place is awash in colours of the Rhododendrons. Above Juluk there is no place to stay , there is a Govt rest house at Kupup but it seems to be specially reserved for on-duty Government personnel only.
Under a clear moonlight night we made our way down to Zuluk , as we approached – lo and behold , there was no fog – Zuluk and the army barracks was glistening like a necklace below. It was freezing cold and I did not have the heart to set up my tripod and capture the scene. I had ended up taking over 350 snaps on this day alone !!!!
We were safely back by evening. The parting shot from Gopalji , the road conditions definitely meant that tomorrow morning , Sunrise was on the menu.
Seventh Day – Saturday – 2nd Jan 10
We were again up by 4 AM to catch the 6:10 Sunrise and this time were not disappointed !!!!. I will not even attempt to describe the scenes , the photographs cannot even begin to do justice of what unfolded before us. If you think that you have seen a sunrise over a mountain , I strongly urge you to go and experience this !!!!. There was visibility for miles around and not a cloud in the sky (some clouds would have actually helped the photographs though !!!!). Undulating hills stretched as far as the eye could see , even the outlines of Darjeeling town was faintly visible. Gopalji told us that there are 72 distinct wave of hill tops visible from this vantage point !!!!!. You can see this again and again and come back for more.
Sunrise over Kanchenjunga
Late in the morning we left Zaluk and headed out to Aritar Lake, Gopalji dropped us there. We had no booking there and scouted out for a place to stay and chose a small house. Again it was basic , but the food and hospitality were amazing. Aritar is a man made lake atop a hill , some way off Rhenock, which is on the silk route. The lake is locally known as Lampokhari. It is completely shrouded in greenery and the hotels and home stays have orchids of all hues and colours sprouting around. The road is lined with flowers of wild colours.
Orchid enroute :
The day was bright and clear and the Kanchenjunga Massif painted a pretty picture.
There is a Sikkim Tourism property right on the lake. There are view points on a hill overlooking the lake – colloquially known as Makhim/Mankhim top , there is a temple there as well. There are 2 ways to climb up ; a long staircase and un-ending steps will take you there , there is also a motorable road that climbs up there , if you can find a local transport. You can take the road to go up , enjoy the views and climb down the steps.
We decided to climb up the next day and spent the afternoon lazing around. A local attraction is the Aritar Dak Bungalow.
To be continued...
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|21st January 2010, 00:58||#6|
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What an unpolluted place! brilliant snaps buddy. One must feel so close to nature out there.
|21st January 2010, 08:15||#7|
Eight Day – Sunday – 3rd Jan 10
The last day of the trip dawned . The Sunrise right from the rooftop of our hotel was amazing to say the least. We were treated to two consecutive days of Sunrise over the Kanchenjunga.
The owner of the hotel agreed to give us a lift in his Hyundai i10 to Mankhim top and off we went. How on earth an i10 could negotiate that road is a mystery to me , it was more lunar craters than road !!!!!
The views from up there were astounding , you had the lake plus the entire Kanchenjunga range in your sights.
We made a startling discovery near the top , there is actually a decent lodge there , bang next to the view point. The view from the terrace will make you drool !!!. The rooms do not have an attached bath , but look decent and well furnished. We did not stay there , but wished we had , what a sight !!!!.
View from the ground floor terrace of the hotel at Makhim top:
A Stupa on Aritar Lake :
The morning passed by in a jiffy and we had to make our way down to prepare for a long drive to NJP.
Flower glinting under the Sun :
We had arranged a car through Gopalji’s brother , who is based out of Rhenock and used the same to reach NJP by 5 :30 PM. Thankfully there were no blockades by the Gorkhaland agitators on that day , as luck would have it , the blockades were there till 2nd , but were withdrawn from 3rd onwards. Lady luck did shine on us. The drive down is very pleasant with the scenic green waters of Teesta for company.
We faced some trouble with the train at NJP , it left a couple of hours behind schedule. A coach in the middle of the rake developed a brake problem at NJP station, hence they had to detach the bogey from the middle of the rake and reattach a new one. That taken care off, we were once more headed towards SDAH.
It all seemed a distant dream on 4th morning when we were deposited at the station, we were back to reality and mayhem. Well it’s time to start at the drawing boards again for the next trip ….
Some more :
The main contact for arranging the trip was Mr Sebastian Pradhan of Reshi Eco Tourism , his contact details are : +91 9932744407 ,+91 9932680170, +91 9002774220, firstname.lastname@example.org
Pedong : Jelep La Village Resort , Mr Paras Konwar , +91 9932744403 , 03552 281222
Reshi : Reshi Eco Tourism Resort , Mr Sebastian Pradan , please see above for contact details.
We noticed 2 more resorts near to Mr Pradhan , these are :
Reshi Retreat Farmhouse , Mr Souvik Das , +91 9932266685
Prakriti Eco Retreat , +91 9933489717
Zuluk/Zaluk/Juluk/Jaluk/Dzuluk – Mr Gopal Pradhan , Dil Maya Retreat , +91 9609860266. If you plan to visit this place , try to make your tour flexible and if possible keep one or two extra days in hand, you may need it for the weather to clear up for better views.
Aritar – we stayed at Hill View Resort +91 9932995910.
For its surroundings and views ,would recommend Hotel Khangchendzonga Mirror at Mangkhim Top , contact Mr G S Rai , +91 9679917717. This is recommended only if you have dedicated transport available with you as it will be hell of a climb to the top up the stairs !!!.
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|21st January 2010, 09:19||#8|
Join Date: Dec 2009
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There are no words to describe the beauty of the place. I am wondering how you will be after seeing it personally. Great photos, excellent narration. Keep continuing the travelogue.
|21st January 2010, 13:44||#9|
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Amazing scenery there mate! What a fantastically beautiful place. The mountains are awesome. Great log with cool narration and pics, awaiting more.
|21st January 2010, 14:51||#10|
Join Date: Aug 2007
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This is a REAL Travelogue - one that involves a proper road trip!
These days every tom, dick, harry who goes to London or some other Crapland is posting pics of their official/personal vacation, lacking Team-Bhp core values. Such threads should have been restricted.
Last edited by aerohit : 21st January 2010 at 14:55.
|21st January 2010, 17:08||#11|
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I came across this thread late in the night, and started going through it quickly. I soon realised what I was wasting, that it needed slow appreciation and saving for the next day.
A wonderful journey, beautifully photographed and well narrated. As I am not an Indian citizen, I don't know if I'll ever get to see the sights you saw, but I'd certainly like to. What an amazing way to celebrate the new year
aerohit, sometimes it isn't where people go, but how they see it and how they describe it, that makes a great story. However, I can't imagine Regents Park (London) ever measuring up to this, even though there have been days recently when there has been even more snow there!
|21st January 2010, 17:32||#12|
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Location: San Jose, CA
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Wow! I am left speechless. This is indeed a wonderful hidden destination that needs to be done sometime! Loved the loop pics and Kanchenjunga over the clouds!
|21st January 2010, 21:09||#14|
Thank you all for your words of encouragement , really appreciate it.
Thad : In one of my conversations with Mr. Pradhan , I got to know from him that foreign nationals are not allowed beyond Lingtham and Indians need a residence proof like Passport , Voters ID , PAN Card , Driving License etc. If you are a resident in India and have a document or permit to prove the same , things may be different for you. Probably you can contact Mr. Pradhan and ask him to check with the local Police.
|22nd January 2010, 10:48||#15|
Join Date: Sep 2009
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Good travelogue and some breath taking photos.I had seen Kanchenjunga from Tiger hills but the pics you have posted is fantastic. I never knew there was a duplicate Baba Mandir.Thanks for sharing.
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