A land in the clouds, lofty mountains, snow-capped peaks are pictures that come to mind immediately when we speak of Sikkim. But there is another picture lodged deep in my mind, a picture which could not be captured on film, and sadly, so difficult to paint in words. It is the picture of purity of the heart, of compassion and hospitality, of uncorrupted human values and trust. The picture in my mind is often associated with the warm hearth in all the Sikkimese houses. Here I am talking about the typical mountain dwellings in the higher regions of the land and not the ones in the towns with modular kitchens. Like all dwellings in higher altitudes, every house has a hearth which I would not be wrong to call it the heart of the house. It is not just a place where the meal is prepared and had, but a place where the warmth is enjoyed and shared, where all the members of the family bond, where the visitors, even strangers, are seated and treated to warm hospitality. It was my good fortune that I had the opportunity to experience the heart warming hospitality of the simple large-hearted folks of these enchanting land of the mountains. It was also providence that I met my angels in these mountains.
On my first trip to Sikkim in 2001, while on our trek from Chumthang (where the two rivers Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu meet) to Lachung, we were caught in the open by a wicked downpour that soaked us from head to toe. After trying in futility to keep ourselves dry under some thick foliage, we blew our cares in the wind and braced the chilling rain blowing hard against our faces as we headed towards the small settlement in Lachung. A woman, perhaps in her late forties, standing on her small porch waved to us and we waved backed politely, feeling much like a celebrity walking the red carpet. Then the waving got a little more frantic which stopped us on our track. We looked at each other not knowing what to expect and then on some unspoken agreement, we stepped gingerly towards the porch. Hurriedly the women waved us inside, ducking under the small door of her house. One by one we stepped inside, immediately feeling the warmth emanating from the hearth in the room. A bunch of women, all in their late forties and early fifties, were seated around the hearth, some knitting and some chopping vegetables. As I took my drenched raincoat off and put aside my dripping wet cap, the lady put a dry cloth over my head, indicating me to dry myself. I understood that she was seriously concerned that we may fall sick after walking in the rain. The concern made her to invite us inside and we were all strangers, a bunch of young men whom she has never even met or seen before. Back in the cities, this would be an unimaginable act, unthinkable and a definite no-no. But here she was, like a Godsend angel, with a bunch of complete strangers, caring over them like a concerned mother pampering over her naughty children. We were left speechless by this simple act of kindness which showed not only the large heartedness but also the simplicity and uncorrupted nature of these folks, pristine like the water that flows from their mountains. Changing into some dry clothes, we were treated to a warm Thukpa (a soupy dish with noodles, vegetables and chunks of meat) which tasted heavenly. The hearth had made us warm and cosy but it was not just the hearth that warmed us. The hospitality and care shown by the ladies really warmed our hearts. The ‘Chang’ (the local liquor made from millet, a must in high altitudes) served to us on our request, perhaps also helped a bit. This was an experience that added so much beauty to the already enchanting land. Whenever I think of Sikkim, I always remember those weather-beaten faces with a beautiful warm smile spread over them. Whoever they were, they were our angels that day. It is one picture I cannot show you sadly, but one that will remain forever etched in my mind and heart.
A couple of years later, I again had the opportunity to visit this land that I hold so dear in my heart. This time our trek took us westward from Chumthang,. Heaving our rucksack, we headed westward (from Chumthang) towards Lachen which was about 26 kilometres from Chumthang (129 kms from Gangtok). At an elevation of 2750 metres, Lachen is small settlement, smaller than Lachung, which perhaps had less than 200 houses. After a night’s halt in Lachen we pushed on further north about 30 kms to reach Thangu, a small hamlet at 13000 ft. The village is occupied only during the warm seasons but as winter approaches the villagers migrate down towards Lachen to winter out the snow season. There are only a few clusters of houses in this small hamlet. From there we pushed on further north climbing higher to a high alpine valley lodged between the mountains. Slowly the luxuriant vegetation thinned out and as we neared the valley between the mountains, it had more or less disappeared except for some remnants of high alpine plant life. It was a desert high up in the mountains but for the fact that a sparkling blue river ran right along the middle of the valley. Although there were no flora to be found at the time of our visit, the valley perhaps has some in the warmer seasons as the Yaks were known to come up to this valley to graze in the peak summer season and then migrate down slowly to warmer regions as the snow seasons approaches. The yaks would go on a yearly migration cycle coming back to same place again when it get warmer in the lower reaches. Towards the north and in direct sight were the mountains of Tibet. The mountains bore a desolate barren look devoid of any vegetation. The gentle slopes made it looked like sand dunes. Towards the south, on our right as we walked up along the valley, the mountains were rocky and snow-capped. Sitting smugly was the dome-shaped Mt. Khangchenyao (6889 metres) which we had sought to climb. It was a virgin peak (not yet scaled) which we were told that Tenzing Norgay of the Everest fame had tried to summit but failed.The terrain looked inhospitable and it was a sheer ice wall as the dome tapered down its side. For now we were just happy to glare at it appreciating its form and shape. We set up Base camp in the valley right by the river.
It was our first morning in the valley and I woke to the footfalls near my tent. I tried to lift my head up from the pillow but found myself unable to do so. My head felt heavy like as if it was tied down to a rock. A little jerk sent my head reeling in dizzying circles. I dint know what was happening. It was like as if a jack hammer had hit me. My body failed to respond to my commands. Slowly realisation dawned on me that the high Altitude sickness, as it is commonly known, that afflicts a person when the body fails to acclimatize to the high altitude conditions has taken a hold of me. How I wished that I could just lay and spend the day in my sleeping bag, but I knew I would not be able to get up if I did that. So summoning all my will against what my mind and body was telling me to do, I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag and somehow managed to get ready for the trek to Gurudongmar Lake. I wasn’t feeling quite up to it but I knew I could not give in. I had to move because the more the activity the better are your chances of getting acclimatised. So off we went and I tagged along last with the rest of the team which was quite a huge number. I felt weak, tired to my bones and wanted to turn back many a times but I trudged on, the will inside pulling me along. When the team reached the lake, I was trailing way behind. By the time I reached the lake, the team had already rested, refreshed and was getting ready to head back. Hauling my tired self on to a big rock by the lake, I rested for a while. The placid lake of Gurudongmar, cradled by the snow capped mountains, offered a mesmerizing view. It injected a sudden flow of life into me.
As I was enjoying the view and taking some pictures with my simple film camera, which until then I dint quite have the energy to pull out from my bag, the team was up and ready to move back. Hurriedly I took a few shots and trailed last. Surprised at how the guys had made quite a good distance within such a short time, I hastened to catch up with them, foolishly exerting myself too much which left me totally exhausted. One simple rule in high altitude is never to be in a haste, it would leave you drained. By then the sun was also up shining bright in the clear blue sky and the warmth from the late afternoon rays had a numbing effect on me making me more sluggish and lethargic. I commanded myself to just put one foot ahead of the other and keep going with it. The terrain was almost completely barren except for some occasional patches of scrubs and the glare from the bright sun rays started to pain my eyes despite the shades. When I passed by a big boulder which looked real inviting for a short respite, I couldn’t help myself but hauled myself atop it and flopped down on my back. The sky was clear, which is quite a rarity in the mountains. The warm sun caressed my whole aching body and a feeling of warmth and relief ran through my being. A pleasant feeling permeated over me as I soaked in the warm sun rays. The stillness and the calmness was intoxicating. I closed my eyes.
I could hear a small bird chirping. It was beautiful, the occasional tweets of the bird was a sweet melody sailing across the vastness of the barren land which was bathed in an all-pervading calmness. It was quiet and peaceful with no other sounds except for the tweets of a small bird. I thought to myself, paradise must be like this. Then a thought struck me, how come this small bird is here all by itself? It struck me odd that a single bird should be in a place where no other signs of life could be seen in all the miles that the eye can see. I felt a little chill and suddenly my eyes yanked open as panic shot through my whole being. The sun was already down, the sky was darkening and I had been left behind with no one noticing it. I realised I must have dozed off in the warm sunlight and the evening chill, as the sunlight faded, must have brought me back to consciousness finally awakened by the chirping of the bird around me. As I look back to that day, I can’t help but believe that the bird was there for me, chirping to wake me up from my sleep. Call it divine intervention or providence, the little bird saved my life and till today I am pretty sure it was chirping to wake me up. Was it my guardian angel? I don’t know but I would like to think so.
I quickly pulled myself up off the rock and trailed the foot steps that was still slightly visible in the fading light. Soon darkness enveloped the whole landscape changing the pleasant view into a rather sinister one with the silhouettes of the mountains against the clear sky. I was second time lucky that the sky was clear, perhaps my time had not come yet. A fog would have put me in very serious trouble. I would not have been in a position to find direction and stranded in this terrain which offered very little cover to bivouac would have proved fatal. But luck was on my side. I had the clear blue sky and the stars which was a blessing in this cold alpine region. Marking my directions with the stars and the silhouetted peaks, I pushed on towards where I thought the base camp would be. I lumbered on and on, and as I crossed over a small hump of a hillock I suddenly saw a tiny light flicker in the distance. It was the kitchen fire in the base camp. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with delight. I knew now that I was on the right course. The feeling of uncertainty and fear ebbed away from me. I knew I was safe now. I can’t even start to describe how much warmth that little light flickering miles and miles away gave me. My whole body seemed to gain a sudden energy and life-giving warmth. I marked my directions again and pushed on, this time stepping a little lighter than before. Fear had egged me on before, making me forget my weariness, now it was the sense of feeling safe and the warmth of the kitchen fire waiting at the camp that pushed me even more. The light came off and on as I crossed over a few more small humps and then suddenly the land tapered down to a plain slope towards the camp. It was plain walk from then on and I trudged on, no more in a hurry, just bidding time for the camp to get nearer to me as my feet did it own thing as on auto mode. The last few steps were the weariest, I was totally spent. I flopped down in my bed as I entered the tent and didn’t wake up till the next morning.
The next morning, there was nothing I could do. My eyelids refused to obey me and would not open. The sickness had completely taken hold of me. I had no will to fight it anymore. I was too tired to even open my eyes, forget about even lifting a finger. I was brought down to the hamlet of Thangu along with two other members of the expedition who also suffered the same altitude sickness. After two torturous days of lying motionless on the cold floors of an old shack, because even a slight movement of the head would split it into thousand pieces and send the whole world spinning uncontrollably, I started recovering on the third day and so also my friends. Having starved for the last few days as even a morsel that went down our throat would be thrown up immediately, I woke up on the third day hungry and ready to stuff myself. After enjoying a decent meal and the heart warming mountain hospitality of the Thangu villagers , I felt the strength returning back slowly although not fully yet. But we had no more time to lose and had to catch up with the rest of the team. Following day we packed up and set off again for the base camp and subsequently to the higher camps. Two among the three of us went on to make a summit attempt on the virgin peak of Mt. Khangchenyao standing 6889 meters tall. ( More on that to follow).
(The pictures are a bit scratchy as these have been digitalised from film).