Sikkim (Part II): Angels in the mountains.

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.

Mountain dews frozen on the blades of grass growing in the banks of Gurudongmar Lake.

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.

The barren landscape filled with rocky terrains and moraines

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).

A view of the Himalayas towards Tibet from Advance Base camp

 (The pictures are a bit scratchy as these have been digitalised from film).

Sikkim (Part I), the land I fell in love with

The Yumthang Valley, Sikkim

It was love at first sight. Although it wasn’t the first time I had been to the mountains, yet when I first set foot in this small mountainous state in the Eastern Himalayan region of India, I was completely enamored, smitten by its beauty and simplicity. It was as if I’ve set foot in paradise. It was the first time I had fallen  in love with a place. I still carry with me, in my heart and recesses of my mind, the memories of this mesmerizing place.

It was in the month of April year 2000, when I first visited Sikkim. Me and my friends had caught the train to New Jalpaiguri in West Bengal and proceeded on to Siliguri from where we took the state Transport Bus to Gangtok. It had already begun to be quite hot and  humid in Siliguri and the packed transport bus wasn’t quite what you’d call an enjoyable experience. But as we climbed up from Rangpo, the sight, smell and feel of the land began to change making the journey more enjoyable. The second time round, a couple of years later, we decided to take a Tata Sumo which was much more pleasant and offered a better view of the scenery as we ascended the winding road along the Teesta river taking us to Gangtok, the capital town of Sikkim.

Gangtok which more or less translates as the ‘side of hill top’ is a scenic little town at an altitude of approximately 1500 meters above sea level, built on the slopes atop the hills of the beautiful Siwalik ranges of the Eastern Himalayas. The town has a market called the ‘Lall Bazaar’ which is the most populated area in the otherwise sparsely populated land of Sikkim. This is where we were dropped off, at a parking lot. Emerging from the parking space we came out onto the MG road which offered a wonderful window shopping experience and  delectable tastes of delightful Chinese and Tibetan cuisines in the number of restaurants lined up all along the road, starting from the budget eating joints to the more high-end restaurants. Climbing higher we came across the Palace of the Chogyal Kings which ruled Sikkim before it became a British protectorate and subsequently an Indian State. Gangtok is believed to have been a small hamlet before the Chogyal kings shifted their capital to it from Yuksom in the late 19th Century. It had become a major Buddhist pilgrimage site after the ‘Enchey monastery’ which sits atop the town was built in the mid 19th century. Subsequently after the Chogyal kings allied with the British due to rampant invasions from the neighbouring lands, Sikkim became a British protectorate and Gangtok developed into a major trade frontier for the British East India trading with Tibet and China via the Nathula pass, located in the eastern border of the State with Tibet autonomous region of China. This was the famed Old Silk route which connected Lhasa in Tibet with Bengal. The trade route was closed down after the 1962 Sino-Indian war and opened up only recently in 2006. After the British left, Sikkim was given a special protectorate status under the Indian suzerainty and finally merged in 1975, becoming the 22nd State of the Indian Union.

Gangtok. Nestled at the top of the hills of the Siwalik ranges of the Eastern Himalayas.
Gangtok, the town at the ‘side of the hill top’

A view of Gangtok from Ganesh Tok
MG Road, Gangtok.

Gangtok has all the charm of a crowded hill station. But for those wanting a taste of the higher altitudes, North Sikkim offers the best locations, a paradise for the mountain lovers. Heading north of Gangtok, about 65 kilometers of breathtaking road journey lies Mangan, the district headquarters of North Sikkim. Here you would find small resorts and hotels good for a short spell of stay.

Further north, about 40 kilometers from Mangan (95 kms from Gangtok) lies a settlement called Chungthang. It is located at an altitude of 1800 metres above sea level and situated at the confluence of the two rivers Lachen Chu and lachung Chu which feeds the Teesta river. From Chumthang, the North Sikkim highway bifurcate into two, one heading towards Lanchen and the other towards Lachung from where the two rivers flow. Here we halted a night before pushing on for the higher alpine region. Typically a hill settlement, the place has some houses with few small shops. Here you can find small vendors where one can taste the heavenly ‘Chang’, a local brew made from millet. The fermented millet is served in a big wooden cup that looks like a wooden liquor barrel with a pipe made of small bamboo poked into it. Hot water is poured over the fermented millet and kept for a few minutes before you start sucking on the bamboo pipe to taste the lovely Chang. Normally, once the first round gets over, hot water is poured again and kept while the person wanders off to do others things and returns after a while to go for the second round. For people who have very little to do on a high altitude mountain settlement, it is a very good drink not only to keep you warm but also to while away time.

My first trip took me towards the road that bifurcate on the right, heading for Lachung about 30 kilometers from Chunthang (about 125 kms from Gangtok). Lachung, a quaint little settlement at an altitude of 3000 metres, it was initially a trading post now supporting a small village. A short hike atop the hill that nestles the village is the beautiful Lachung Monastry. Paying our obeisance to the deities of the mountains and praying for our safekeeping, we departed after a cup of wonderful butter tea which is basically salted milk laced with butter, a heavenly concoction which keeps you warm and nourished. From here onwards we trekked on foot to acclimatise ourselves to the high altitudes, a ritual every mountaineer must follow before setting himself on the higher altitudes.

Waters from the mountains that feed the rivers

Yumthang Valley

Pushing on foot for about 21 kilometers from Lachung, we came to a hot spring where we had the most heavenly bath ever. Dipping ourselves in the natural hot waters with sips of Old Monk to add to the already blissful experience, we reluctantly pull ourselves out of the divine waters to slog on further into the mountains. Hardly even a kilometer had we set off that we  entered into the most beautiful place my eyes ever set upon.  My head, a little light after the blissful bath, snapped clear. It was as if I had walked right into a dream. A grazing meadow nestled between the mountains with a river cutting right through and flowing down between the mountains heading towards Lachung. On the other side of the river, a little further ahead was a carpet of Primulas that bathed the meadow in a violet hue. It was a dream and I thought to myself, heaven must be somewhere near.

The valley of Yumthang, located 3575 meters (14,000 ft)  above sea level.

A forest Inspection bungalow was housed on the left of the road while the meadow spreads on the right. It is the most wonderous feeling to wake up at the break of dawn (you can’t sleep late in a place like this) and open your eyes to the beautiful meadow spread around you. It was even more wonderful to camp right in the middle of the meadow, build a campfire and the watch the silhouettes  of the mountains while listening to the gurgling of the river flowing nearby. But the most intriguing sight was the small wooden shack standing quite aloof at the base of the mountain where no other signs of life could be seen except for the cattle that loitered around. The hints of smoke seeping out of the tin roof suggested that there were people living in it and yet there were no one to be seen.

Old man’s shack in the remote Yumthang Valley.
One fine day, me and my friends decided to pay the house a visit after our stock of whisky and rum dried up. There was no one except for a lanky old man, in his seventies I believe, living all by himself, in this valley where no human souls can be seen except the occasionally passing by tourists. He had only himself and his cattle for company, sees no human being for more than six months a year when the roads are choked off by snow during the winters, has no electricity, just his fireplace to keep him warm throughout the year and his ‘Churpi’ (Cheese made out of Yak milk) to see him through the lean seasons. As we approached the house the old man came out of the house sensing our presence and welcomed us with a bright smile. One amongst us was a Nepali and we prodded him to ask for what we were looking for. The old man signalled us to come in. It was a dark brooding room with a hearth on one side and the walls staked up with firewood that would last him a year. Seated around the fire, the old man stretched his sinewy hands towards me, pointing behind me. I turned round to a neatly staked pile of dry firewood from which I handed him some. The old man poked the ashes and added some firewood. In no time  a warm fire was kindling throwing flickering shadows across the walls. The old man looked up with a warm smile across his face which immediately thawed the chill in all of us. The grand old man opened up saying that the stuff we seek are nothing less than poison and we are too young to be dying. He then went to tell us how he survives on the milk and the ‘Churpi’ which he makes year round. Inquisitive souls that we were, we asked him about his family and why he lives here all alone. The old man answered matter of fact, without any hint of sadness, that his sons and family members are settled in the town below and that they come to meet him twice a year when the roads open up in the warm seasons, bringing him rations to see him through the year, collects all the Churpi he makes and heads back to sell it in the market. He tends to his cattle some of which were present there but most of it scattered in groups all over the mountains which he goes and checks once in a while. That itself is like our trekking expedition but all by himself. He has no fears except reverence for the almighty, laziness is not in his lexicon, survives mostly on Yak milk, takes no intoxicants at all and has more wisdom than you’d ever imagine. He is more than 70 years old but breezed passed us in the slopes of nearby Brumkhangsei peak while searching for his cattle yonder.The old man is at peace with nature, with his destiny and most of all with himself. For us it was an awakening, a fascinating fact of life we can’t even start to imagine ourselves in.
The zagged peaks of the Siwaliks
Camp in the lofty heights
The valley of Rhododendrons
Rhododendrons, the flower of the lofty mountains

to be continued……