Gangtok - The capital of Sikkim
Gangtok is a little Himalayan town which is the capital of Sikkim. It is also the bigger of the two only cities that the state of Sikkim has. The rest are all classified as small towns, villages and hamlets.
The only approach is by road (Unless you are rich enough to pay for a private helicopter ride) and what a twister that is. If you get sick while traveling by car, please carry medicines with you. Or else you will be puking out of the car window all the way up as I generally do. Somehow I never manage to keep the car sickness away no matter which Hill Station I am heading to.
Here's an interesting bit of trivia about the place. The city still has its living king. Since the state was added to the Indian Republic after independence it has retained its royal heritage as well.
So while there is a democratic government and a governor in Gangtok, there is also the Chogyal! That is the local name of the King in case you are wondering. The State of Sikkim was annexed by India when Indira Gandhi was the prime minister.
What to do in Gangtok
Pristine beauty and raw nature, both are available here for you in this town. In Gangtok there is the "share a cab" system which allows you to commute between the three main markets and stops on the highway. It is also quite common to have landslides so watch out. You may just have to trek across a mound of mud to make the next taxi change.
The White Hall is famous for its monthly flower shows. You go in the right season and you will see more than 108 varieties of Orchids on show here. The Bonsai show is also worth a see as is the flowerless show which showcases an extraordinary number of flora that you never though existed. No matter what month you go in you will get to see a fabulous do so try not to miss it even if you are not too fond of flower shows.
At Mile Zero there is a Tibetian handicrafts workshop cum shop. They will show you an exhibition of their goods and their heritage. Then you can hop into any of the classes where the locals train under master craftsmen to make handicrafts. Then on your way out you can pick up all the souvenirs your little heart desires. The little cloth wallets make good gifts to give back home.
If you are an early riser it would be nice to take in what is called the Kunchanjunga Sunrise.This is one of the highest peaks visible from Gangtok. The local bus services will drive you to the spot at the mountain side where you can get a view of the peak turning all vibrant shades of the rainbow before your very eyes. Unfortunately it can be quite cloudy during the winters and often the fog does not lift till sunrise is over, which can be quite disappointing.
Nathu La Lake is an excursion which requires permits from the Army so if you are planning on visiting make sure you get the permits one day prior. On the whole they are easily available as long as there has been no tension along the border. The fun part at the lake is dressing up in local costume and getting photographed with a Yak. A word of warning, don’t think it is a horse and try to mount it, most yaks don’t take kindly to strange riders.
Shop till you drop
The two main markets are on MG Road and Lal Market. While you will find all the regular shops at the MG Road it is Lal Market where you will be able to pick up those bargains you are hunting for.They have small temporary shacks and little shops on the side for you to choose from.
Smuggled goods are quite readily available and if you think you are getting a branded item for too low a cost it probably is a duplicate. But hey its fun doing the bargaining. Some of the Chinese silk available is quite good. If you are the adventurous type head into the vegetable section of Lal Market and pick up a pat of Yak butter. Its like an unending chewing gum. Only the smell takes some getting used to.
You get Yak bone jewelery which is unique and makes good gifts for people back home. There are also a number of metal items which reflect the local Buddhist faith that you may consider picking up. You can literally spend hours in the little lanes between the footpath shops at Lal Market, but watch out for your purse if you do!