Gangtok- a detailed itinerary
It was my first time in the North East of India, and I was throughly excited for what was coming. Gangtok is a quaint town with a bustling city centre, and I have to say, such well dressed locals! After a point, I realised, that if I do see someone shabbily dressed, I can be sure that it is a tourist! ( LOL) I loved playing that game with myself- since I never look up high enough to notice people’s faces first, I am accustomed to seeing pope’s bodies first, so when I see someone well dressed, I look up to see a local face, and when a dowdy salwar suit with a sweater walks by I look up to see a tourist! ( it kept me entertained for a while)
Gangtok is a lovely town, but the only thing I didn’t like about it is that being on a mountain, walking about was quite difficult for me! Climbing the steep hills showed me how unfit I was, and watching the locals climb up with ease made me wonder how fit they are!
1. Walk through MG Marg
The MG Marg is the centre of town, and it is stunning, as it is surrounded by snow capped mountain ranges. The cobbled streets are vehicle free, and the best place to just walk around, grab some food, shop, and people watch. There are some great restaurants here, that offer local & Tibetan fare, which is a must try!
2. Have an ice cream!
There is something fun about having an ice cream ( or multiple like I did), when surrounded by snow capped mountains. There are plenty of soft serve ice cream sellers on MG Marg, there is a Baskin Robbins as well. I think I must have had 4-5 ice creams in my two days there!
3. Find the right tour agent
Gangtok is the gateway to the rest of Sikkim, so if you are here like I was without a tour agent, it is here that you find tour agents to take you around the rest of the state. Visiting the North of Sikkim requires a number of permits from the government, and tourists aren’t allowed to travel there without a registered tour company. The stringent rules are because the north of Sikkim borders China, and is heavily guarded by the Indian Army.
There are many tour agents on Mall Road, all you have to do is walk in to a few offices to check their prices & choose the one that best suits your budget.
Enquire how many people you will be sharing your transport with, as most tour agents stick you in a Bolero/Scorpio sort of vehicle with 10 passengers + a driver! More on that when I talk about my trip to North Sikkim.
4. Ride the ropeway
To get a birds eye view of Gangtok, ride the cable car across town & back. It is a quick ride, and the views are really nice. You can see all of colourful Gangtok down below. The buildings of Gangtok are painted in colourful hues, so the hills are extremely photogenic. But what I don’t like about the ride is that they crowd the cable car. So it is difficult to enjoy the experience. It is like being stuck in a crowded public bus. People rush in as soon as the doors open to get the good spots to stand and the rest are just stuck in the middle.
5. Head to Lal Bazaar to shop
Lal Bazaar has a wide variety of items from clothing to food, to handmade knives, & other handicrafts. Past the Lal Bazaar is the local market where you can visit to get an idea of what the local produce is like, or if you just want to see the bustling local life.
I love going to local markets, so I spent a lot of time here, trying to make conversation with the men and women from different parts of Sikkim who have settled in Gangtok to make their living.
You can club visiting this viewpoint with visiting the ropeway. When I visited the ropeway, as there was some technical problem, they had asked me to wait for a little while. So I walked up to the viewpoint which was just a few metres from the ropeway to pass my time. The path was lined with thousands of colourful Buddhist prayer flags, and the view of the alley below was stunning. There are a couple of levels to this viewpoint, so if you are fit go till the top. I went only till the second level.
7. Hanuman Tok
If you are in Gangtok on a clear day, head to Hanuman Tok for an expansive view of the Kanchenjunga range. If it is foggy don’t even bother, as it will just be a waste of time.
8. Rumtek Monastery
This 16th century monastery is one of the largest in Sikkim, & offers panoramic views of Gangtok.
I was on my way to Rumtek Monastery, and looking for a shared taxi from the main taxi stand in town, when I heard that there was big prayer being held at Ranka monastery, and the Rimpoche was visiting. Since I was told that I can take part in the prayers, I changed my plans and visited Ranka monastery instead.
Many devotees and moons had gathered for the prayer here, and it was quite an interesting experience, as I had never seen Buddhist prayers being performed before. I sat next to the young monks in training, and watching them playing during the prayers was the most adorable sight.
The beautiful views of the mountains from the terrace are worth visiting the monastery for, and the monastery sees many tourists for the same reason.
There are many tour operators that will take you to these three popular sights just outside of Gangtok. Check with multiple operators to find one that fits your budget. Do keep in mind that most operators, even though they charge similar rates (there were people in the group who paid 1000-2000rs more than what I paid) will be putting you in a Bolero/Scorpio, or vehicle of that sort with 10 passengers + a driver. So it is a rather uncomfortable ride for most. If you want more comfortable transportation, ask specifically for it, and be ready to pay a lot more for it.
I paid Rs.600 for this trip, and it was the cheapest deal I could find, so it was expected that the ride was not going to comfortable.
The prices mentioned are true of April 2018.
How to get around in Gangtok
There are taxis for hire which you can book from every hotel. Else, travel the way the locals do-share taxis! I travelled everywhere in a share taxi and it is the most economical & fun way to travel in the mountains. All taxis start from the taxi stand-there are different taxi stands for taxis that go to different parts of Sikkim & Gangtok, so ask at your hotel to find which star you need to get to.
The taxi stands are usually crowded and chaotic, and it might be difficult to figure out which taxi goes where, but a little persistence on your part will get you the answers! Don't be afraid to ask the drivers or even the locals for help.
Once you figure out which taxi to take, know that they aren't going to leave until they hit their maximum capacity-10 passengers + 1 driver. Get ready to squeeze in how much ever place there is.
Be prepared for some unfortunate events- The man who was sitting next to me during the ride from Ranka monastery back to Gangtok city centre was quite unwell and threw up! (thankfully onto his right side- I was squashed next to him on his left side) Unfortunately he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the man on his right. Though I felt bad for him, I was so glad that I wasn't seated on his right!
For return journeys you can flag down a passing cab, and ask where they are going to find out if it is going via your route. It can take a while to get a cab if you are a little out of town. It took me a long time to get a taxi back from Ranka monastery.
Are share taxis safe?
They are absolutely safe! I travelled often in them, and though I was squashed in many a share cabs with more men than women for co-passengers, I never felt uncomfortable. Everyone kept their hands to themselves. I would recommend travelling in these share taxis just for the experience, or if you are looking to save some money.