How to get there Take a train to New Jalpaiguri or fly to Bagdogra, then rent a jeep or car.
Estimated time (From Gangtok) Three hours
Place to stay Hotel Tashi Gang, the oldest, and others
Visitors to Sikkim habitually have their eyes trained on Gangtok in south-east Sikkim. Indeed, Gangtok has become a well-known ‘hill station’ over the past few decades given its status as the capital of the picturesque hill state, yet the burgeoning tourism has also seen the town mushrooming into a well-spread and congested conurbation. Of course, your agenda behind a vacation can be to wander through sloping streets window-shopping, trying out the restaurants, admiring the hills ringed with city-lights at night and throwing in the routine ‘must-see’ tourist spots about town.
If not you might want to forego the welltrodden Gangtok and forge a new trail. And to that end, where the road forks, take the left one instead of going right. Literally.
The road to Gangtok from Siliguri or New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal bifurcates when it reaches Jorethang in Sikkim— from here the road to the right leads to the crammed capital city in east Sikkim. Were you to take the left fork, it will take you to the mythical land of the ‘old capital’ of Sikkim: Yuksom.
A sleepy town with its very own lake girdled by green mountains, Yuksom is as pretty as a picture postcard, as the motorable road comes to a halt here. But do not be fooled by its quaint environs, as the town commands its annual share of tourists and native pilgrims. Ask the local people and they will inform you that ‘Yuksom’ translates as ‘meeting place of the three learned monks’. These are the very monks who arrived from Tibet and anointed Phuntsog Namgyal as Chogyal (Religious King), Sikkim’s first king in 1642 AD—giving birth to a royal lineage that was functional till 1975.
Besides its historical and cultural roots, Yuksom also happens to be sitting at the head of the Khangchendzonga National Park, and is the entrance for trekkers ambitious enough to scale the treacherous peak. Other than this, the hamletesque town is also the gateway to a variety of other trekking routes, including the breathtaking hike to Goecha La via Dzongri. Taking about a total of six days for the up-anddown journey, it’s a good place for budding trekkers to warm up.
Even so, providing a treat for trekkers is among several of Yuksom’s charms. Following its religious history, Yuksom’s surroundings are dotted with various monasteries. Oft-visited are Dubdi, Karthok— taking its name from Karthok lake that is situated in the town—and Ngadak Chorling monasteries. The hike up to Dubdi is another beautiful trail that gives travellers an opportunity to soak in the scenic beauty of the eastern Himalayas. Pilgrims from around Sikkim also flock here to visit the sacred site at Norbugang where the Chogyal was crowned. The place is marked on a coniferous hill as a pedestal made on stones which bears the footprints of the king.
A traveller from the plains can simply walk around the small town on foot and be bowled over by the majesty of the surrounding mountains or the Kartok lake with its crystal blue surface reflecting the soft clouds passing over it. Travellers can also drive up to the Khecheopalri Lake, another sacred site for Hindus and Buddhists alike. Besides the lore of wish-fulfilment associate with it, the lake also strikes quite a sight with green mountain forests guarding it on all sides.
You can also plan to cover the Khangchendzonga National Park on foot. A biosphere reserve, it houses an astonishing biodiversity that will make wildlife enthusiasts ecstatic. The park also has its share of glaciers, of which the Zemu glacier is the most well-known. Given its transitory location between temperature zones, the national park is home to an assortment of foliage with oak trees and medicinal bushes co-existing with maple, willow and fir trees. Among fauna, lucky trekkers can sight everything from a snow leopard, a red panda, a sloth bear, a Himalayan black bear, a musk deer to a rat snake. Mountain birds like Tibetan snowcock, osprey, green pigeon, snow pigeon, Asian emerald cuckoo, sunbird, blood pheasant and eagle also abound the Park.
The town may be small but has hotels to accommodate the steady inflow of tourists or pilgrims annually. Among these, Hotel Tashi Gang sits pretty atop a hill, offering views of the Karthok Lake. While the cuisine cannot be called fancy, you must sample the yak cheese momos and the local beer tongba made from fermented millet. The nearest railway station is New Jalpaiguri and the airport is at Bagdogra.