Gangtok is a mere 124 kms from Siliguri, from NJP & from Bagdogra but the trip by road takes roughly 5 – 6 hours. Not only because of difficult hilly terrain but dilapidated road conditions.
The alternative, by chopper covers the distance in less than 25 minutes.
The Bell helicopter operated by Pawan Hans is a 5 seater that takes off from Bagdogra (weather permitting) thrice every day.
(Bagdogra is a military airport. A couple of international flights operate from here.)
For the return flight from Burtuk helipad, the fare is Rs 2700 – on board baggage strictly according to specification, which is a smaller than 22”suitcase weighing less than 10 kg.
Capt. Sardul Singh, our pilot flew us at heights of 5000’ – 6000’ over flat plains, low hills, valleys & lush green countryside interspersed with villages. The meandering Teesta in the valley below us a veritable delight.
From Burtuk the chopper can be further requisitioned for a 15 minute joyride over Gangtok & around. At Rs 9500 this offers breathtaking glimpses of the eastern Himalayan range – especially Kanchenjunga (if one is lucky & the day clear)
Perched at 5500’ Gangtok has ample charms, its rare & beautiful orchids not the least. Locals however rue the way it is regressing mainly because of a large tourist influx & poor infrastructure.
I liked Gangtok.
Among other things it is plastic free. One can stroll the promenade, eat the best Chinese ever & get a super duper hairstyle all for a throw.
I did not stay here though but at Mile 5 at 8000 ft. where the air was clean & noise pollution zero. There was even an 18 hole golf course & golf hut to boot.
The trip to Nathu La the Indo Chinese border post got cancelled several times on account of inclement weather. I bide my time, my patience finally rewarded with clear skies when I can make the trip without hazard.
From Mile 5 at 8000’ to Changu lake at 12500’, to Sherrathang, Kupup 13500’ & finally Nathu La 14400’.
5 am June 6, 2013 At first an antacid, then a hot cup of green tea & biscuits & I am ready. The road is torturous, pot holed & slithery with debris strewn all over. And there are umpteen roadblocks caused by landslides but these are quickly cleared. Can this possibly be our border road? Not much change I notice since my previous visit nearly 30 years before. And why allow so many tourists every day?
The Chinese have state of the art infrastructure across.
Now this is harakiri.
Past Mile 17 & on to Changu with a halt for breakfast that consists of tea, coffee, Alu paratha, pickle & curd. Everything tastes absolutely divine at such heights.
A line of 10 Chinese trucks is seen approaching the recently opened trading post at Sherrathang. All laden with goods I presume.
The drive up is scenic with mountain springs & waterfalls from melting glaciers. Short bridges decorated with prayer flags span fast flowing streams. There are at least 3 big lakes enroute.
Also the wind chill factor, hence despite the sun it is bitterly cold. Thank God for the woolens.
Baba Harbhajan temple at Kupup is a big draw. It is thronging with visitors come to pay homage to the soldier saint who guards the frontier – so it is said – even in death. The mandir for me is a disappointment. I would have preferred something military, simple, dignified & proud of bearing
And so to top of the world, Nathu La where it is 3 degrees F in May. The one big change I notice (besides better buildings / ongoing construction) is the open camaraderie between the Chinese & Indians. Raw recruits laughing & chatting – in what language I’d love to know.
What hasn’t changed however & never will is the warm hospitality of the Indian army. One experiences it at different locations again & again. Cheerful smiles, handshakes, hot tea & roasted nuts. Everyone ready for a photograph. Memories are made of this