Though long but a hurried one. I had to cover four states in about forty five days. Two bags - A Quechua rucksack for my clothes with a tripod attached and a Lowepro Fastpack 250 for my camera and my laptop. I, along with my girlfriend, packed our essentials and off we went from Delhi to Siliguri. We are of the view that the best way is to travel as the locals do. One gets to mingle with them and if the journey is long, you become friends and you never know what beautifully strange places they will recommend you and even help you out in so many a ways. So we took a shared jeep from Siliguri to Gangtok as two of the ten passengers. With forest reserves and the Teesta on our side and some romantic Nepali songs along with a few chats with the driver, we reached the heart of Gangtok.
Our ride from Siliguri to Gangtok
To my utter surprise there were hordes of people thronging the streets of Gangtok. Oh! How did I forget! It was the HOLI holidays and people from all across West Bengal had come to take selfies in Gangtok. Took a small hotel and headed down to look for a tour operator for North Sikkim. In Sikkim, it is compulsory to go through a tour operator if you want to visit North Sikkim and foreigners are absolutely barred from visiting the region. To say the least, Gangtok was a big letdown, not because of the place but for the crowd and their filthy ways of littering.
Next morning we had to wait for sometime but our sumo (yes, the old warhorse) finally arrived and we headed on a back-breaking but a breath-taking journey to Lachen. Though it was the peak of the dry season, we encountered numerous waterfalls (the volume of water left a lot to be desired).
An almost dried up waterfall
School children on way to Lachen . These children walk 9 kms to the nearest school.
School children on way to Lachen . These children walk 9 kms to the nearest school.
The remains of the aftermath of the massive earthquake of 2011 were visible all along the way. North Sikkim was the most affected region. Legend has it that a local monk had warned the Sikkimese government that if construction work is allowed in North Sikkim, it will destroy the biodiversity and create irreparable loss. The Sikkimise government went on and gave construction contracts for various dams to private companies. The monk then cursed this state of affairs and soon the tragedy occurred. Eyewitnesses say that more than 1000 JCB (cranes and excavators) were never even found and were buried deep inside the rubble. The private companies backtracked and the Sikkimese Government had to eventually take up the projects. Broken roads, landslides, smashed vehicles and cranes, all lay wasted. After two check-posts, slippery roads and blind turns, we finally reached Lachen by nightfall.
Prayer flags for the dead
Lachen is a small hamlet located at an elevation of 2,750 metres and serves as a base for a trip to Gurudongmar lake. Another legend goes that if a local of North Sikkim curses you then that curse is only lifted when you are outside the boundaries of North Sikkim. They say that no doctor can fix you. A strange incident took place, which our driver claims is an example of how a person suffers. I will discuss that later. Meanwhile, at the guest house, we were provided a small razor-carpeted room. A very basic home-cooked meal was provided along with chicken curry (we were told to get raw chicken from Gangtok). We had to get up at around 3 am in the morning. It was pitch dark. I tried to open the window in the bathroom and the air that gushed in was bone-chilling. I shut it close immediately. Three-layers of protection, we thought, was enough but we were not prepared of what was coming next. We left at around 4 am in the morning and all we could see, after some-time, were lofty peaks all around us. The sun behind the mountains cast a shadow in the clouds. I swear when I say mighty, they are mighty!
As we ascended in our bumpy sumo, we got the first pang of restlessness. We had never gone past 4000 metres above sea level before this trip. As we breached the mark, the nauseating feeling crept in. It was then I realised the mistake we made. Acclimatisation!!! We had gone from 1,650 metres (Gangtok) to past 4,000 metres in the span of a single day. A day’s rest at Lachen should have been on our itinerary. However, we had to deal with it now. We breached the 5,000 metres mark when we reached the cold desert region around the Gurudongmar lake. I got down and took a few shots but didn’t have enough strength to take more than 20 steps. We rested in our sumo for sometime, while our driver encouraged us to get out of that feeling. A tall, lanky fellow and a good local-legend broadcaster.
Cold desert in the upper reaches of North Sikkim
We mustered our strength to climb a small hill overlooking the Gurudongmar Lake. Once you are at the top, it is a sight to behold. A large frozen lake surrounded by mighty peaks. It is at a height of 5,200 metres above sea level. It is one of the highest lakes in the world.
The Gurudongmar Lake - completely frozen. The tiny dot is a human being
A small part of the lake never freezes, even in extreme winters. It is believed that Guru Nanak, the first Guru of the Sikhs, upon hearing the plea of the yak grazers that they could not find water in extreme cold in this region, hit a part of the lake with his stick and water came flowing out. Water flows from that part of the lake all the year round.
Water flowing out of the Gurudongmar Lake. This part never freezes.
Our driver knew the caretaker of the lake and the shrine nearby. We had brought packets of Wai-wai (a noodle manufactured in Sikkim) which the caretaker cooked for us. He was an old man, lips and cheeks blackened by the extreme cold of the region. We had a sumptuous soupy noodle meal and sat by the fireplace he had set up. I came outside to take some shots and just sat there watching the serene frozen lake and the landscape dotted with high peaks.
Shikha - soaking in the view
This was until some tourists (similar minded tourists that I had mentioned earlier that we had encountered in Gangtok) started to walk on the lake. Some of the local drivers and the caretaker took offence and asked them to leave, but to no avail. It was then I realised that Indian tourists are one of the worst (or probably the worst) tourists to have ever walked the surface of this earth. When we were leaving the site, we could see empty plastic bottles, packets of chips and other such trash lined up along the trail. I was anguished by the utter disrespect, callousness and sub-standard mentality of us Indian tourists. What is wrong with us?
A few kilometres down the Gurudongmar Lake, the stream turns into a gushing river
We took a long drive back to Lachen, had our lunch and headed towards Lachung.
When it rains in North Sikkim, it literally pours. The drive from Lachen to Lachung was marred by incessant downpour. The roads turned slippery and we barely avoided imminent landslides. One notorious stretch has overarching mountains which are a constant threat to anything that dares to cross underneath it. We could hear strikes of stones falling on our sumo. However, I would count it as one adventurous ride.
Surrounded by tall cliffs is the town of Lachung (you can call it a hamlet). It is situated at about 3000 metres above mean sea level. Small channels allow water to flow out of these cliffs and they come alive with dotted waterfalls. Small hotels are lined along the main road and one can smell the burning wood in the living rooms. We reached our designated hotel just to find that it was as filthy as it could be. Phones hardly work, so we could not call our tour operator nor could we stay at the hotel. We went out with our driver to look for hotels. Drenched in the rain, I finally found a lady willing to help us find a lodge. She arranged for a lodge nearby. The owner was quite helpful and gave a spare room for Rs. 400 (rooms are booked by tour guides and it is hard to find a room if you haven’t booked). Dinner is served pretty early here as there is no saying when the already fluctuating power supply would be disrupted and, obviously, because of the extreme cold. We were the only two people in the dining hall. The person who runs the place told us that the entire lot of tourists were stuck at some landslide. After serving the dinner he told us that he had once come to Delhi to work as a cook but the climate and the harsh attitude of people drove him back to his hometown. Brilliantly cooked home food and warm smiles- all we needed for a good night sleep.
The moon was still up when we woke up in the morning. Off we went to Yumthang. It’s a valley nestled deep in the rhododendron sanctuary. Although we didn’t get to see the rhododendrons in full bloom or the flowers in the Yumthang valley (rhododendrons bloom in late April and flowers, even later) but nonetheless, it was picturesque. Before you reach the valley there is a string of small tea shops serving you noodles, bread and tea. They also sell alcohol by the pegs and rent out different snow boots.
While Shikha was alone in a tea stall, a man came up to the lady who was serving and asked for a peg of rum. On seeing Shikha, he tried to be a typical Indian Gentleman by commenting in loud words that he was only drinking it because it was too cold (glancing at Shikha while making that comment).
Yumthang lies at an altitude of about 3600 metres above mean sea level. Overseen by large mountains on both sides, crossed by a tributary of river Teesta and colourful prayer flags, it is a sight to behold.Prayer flags at Yumthang
We strolled around for a bit and I tried clicking some long exposure shots. Oh! How bad they were. Then I decided to ruin someone else’s fun by telling Shikha to stand on a stream flowing nearby. She had to manoeuvre the strong currents and stand there in ice cold water so that I could get my shots. Yes, I agree, that is how mean I am.
We then checked out some trees turned hollow by lightning strikes. While coming back, I decided to hunt for a discreet place inside the sanctuary to empty my bladder. I stumbled upon this rarely used footpath lined with small wooden bridges to stroll around the sanctuary when the flowers are in full bloom. Excited, I dragged Shikha out of the car for some shots (Stop judging! I can read your mind).
We went back to Lachung and visited the monastery. After our lunch, just as we were about to leave, the person in whose hotel we were staying made a request. A cook in the town was severely ill and there was no doctor nearby and nobody could tell what had happened to him. He requested us to take the cook with us to Gangtok where he could be treated. So we gave him a ride along with one other guy who was holding him. This guy was seriously ill. He could barely move. My driver said that somebody had cursed him. Shikha and I just nodded, looking at each other and reading each other’s mind - “Superstition”.
The rains had worsened the already bad roads. The guy in the backseat was still not able to move. To add to all this we got stuck at a landslide and were told that we probably would have to spend the night in our sumo if the jawans don’t clear the slide in time. People were turning back but our driver Shikha had full faith that the road would get cleared or was at least willing to spend the cold night in the sumo. When no one else can and where no one else dares, the Indian Army jawans are at the forefront. They cleared the landslide and we were ready to go after being stranded for 4 hours. Fog rendered us slow and it was almost 10 pm before we saw the lights of Gangtok. Suddenly as if out of a spell, the guy in the back-seat was fine enough to sit upright. By the time we reached Gangtok, the guy was on his feet and was fine. Our driver told us that the spell had been lifted. Although this incident left lot to be answered, I prefer to think it was an act just to hitch-hike a ride to Gangtok.
Gangtok in, people out and peace gone. Next morning we booked a cab for the entire day and went on a monastery trail, in and around Gangtok. It was a sweet and sour experience. I had a spat with an official of Indo-Tibetan Border Police on guard at the Rumtek Monastery who was rude and cranky. Even a monk sitting at the entry gate had some disturbing comments to make. A monk is the last person I would ever imagine of being rude (thought it was the first and the last instance). However, the other ITBP staff was very friendly and even the monks inside were pleasant.
Ranka monastery was another fabulous and quiet place. Sitting atop a green hill and monks reciting their afternoon prayers, it is a place where you will find solace.
We ended our trail with the old Enchey monastery.Enchey Monastery
Next day I bid adieu to Shikha and she took a taxi to Bagdogra to fly to Delhi. I wished she would stay but she had her final exams in a few days. I packed my stuff and hopped onto a shared jeep to go to Pelling in West Sikkim. This place is magical.
A steel rim under my feet, coir and springs to my right and bare seat frames resting on my folded knees. Discomfort in the last row of seat in the shared sumo is worth the joy of the views outside the window. Dark clouds hover around lush green hills. Small towns dot the way with schools at the centre where kids roll on gradient playing grounds. The journey from Gangtok to Pelling is about its small towns, is about its green, is about its joy, is about its people and is about its beauty. Pelling and West Sikkim is an experience. You will know why when you read further.
I reached Pelling and it was almost dark. I reached hotel Kabur and asked for a budget room. I had heard a lot about hotel Kabur and its hospitality during my research on the internet before leaving on the tour. You are greeted with a dim-lighted dining area which opens to an outside seating area (sort of a terrace). The owner was away but his nephew (Pukar) arranged for a small cosy room at a floor below the reception. I unpacked my rucksack and after a refreshing bath went upstairs. Pelling was quiet and Kabur was modestly occupied with foreign tourists. I could hardly see any Indians. A Finnish couple was sipping on tea and the guy was playing the guitar in candlelight, three Americans were recounting their adventures in Texas (Bush-bashers they were), a middle aged German lady jotting down in her journal and a Spanish family having a hard time comprehending the menu. Just to assure you (in case you are judgemental), I don’t stare at foreigners so as to make them feel weird. It’s my habit to observe people around me.
Petteri Prioteasa- a traveller from Finland performing a number by Pink Floyd at Kabur
Ah! There he is! A solo Indian traveller. Arjun Parthasarathy walks in all drenched in rain. I was at the reception enquiring about the places to visit in West Sikkim. The owner Depesh is a peculiarly good person. He will guide you on how to save money during travelling and will tell you about the most exotic and untouched locations in West Sikkim. Arjun and I started talking and as it happens we started finding common interests and hobbies. He quit his job as an engineer to teach German at school. His love for this language knows no bounds. We then decided to do a jungle trek to Rani-Dhunga (footprints on a stone believed to be of different deities).
We woke up the next morning and had a delightful breakfast while Depesh explained us the way. An uphill trek to Sangachoeling monastery, which is perched on top of a hill, lies on the way to Rani Dhunga. The winding climb uphill will remind you of Shangri-La.
Just before we reached the monastery, little monks were getting their head shaved by a teenage monk. For shaving, the teenage monk had inserted a blade in a bamboo-strip and tied it up well. The little monks then collected few wild herbs and started removing the leaves. It was to be cooked for lunch.
We went up to the monastery to the fluttering sounds of the prayer flags. You may have noticed that the Buddhists put up prayer flags in the highest reaches of a mountain. They believe that when the wind blows, the prayers flow with it. The sign claimed it to be the oldest monastery in Sikkim. However, some people believe that the monastery at Yasksum is the oldest. Cracks owing to the earthquake were clearly visible on the monastery walls and roof. People were working on the repairs.
We strolled to the other side of the monastery to an incredible sight. A small monk was standing atop a small piece of rock overlooking the Pelling valley and had raised his upper part of the robe. With the wind blowing, the robe resembled a sail. He caught the wind with his robe and hence we named him “the last air-bender”.
After spending a few hours talking to the monks and understanding further directions, we headed out to the jungle. We followed a water pipeline and were warmly greeted by construction crew on our way. Arjun was mesmerised by the silence and the sound of the chirping birds. It is a beautiful trek with a clear trail, meadows and huge trees. After a lot of huffing and puffing we reached Rani Dhunga. It is a vantage point for some breath-taking views. However, it was cloudy and we couldn’t see afar. We hurried back as it started to rain. We reached Kabur just before dark and had sand in our shoes. Why? It’s because we hitch-hiked a sand carrier from Sangachoeling to Kabur. Arjun had sand all-over as he was thrown around at the back while I stood holding the roll bar.
While having tea that night, we met Evelyn Rep, a middle-aged German lady who had been coming to Pelling for the past 6 years to teach English to the kids at a tribal school. This school has a mixture of orphans and tribal children. We spoke through the evening and decided to pay a visit to the school in the morning.
Next morning we visited the Pemayangste monastery and observed the day in the life of the students there. Community lunch and dishwashing, they are taught to be self-dependent among other things. Watched them play cricket with a ball made of polythene bags wrapped around a small stone. Oh these brought back the memories of my childhood in my village.
En route to the Denjong Padma Choeling Academy (the tribal school I was earlier talking about) we visited the Rabdentse site, which was the ancient capital (second) of Sikkim. The school is very basic. The classrooms are small and the children sleep in dorms on old beds. The school is run privately with foreign sponsorship and a few people told me that even the State allocates some grants. Few volunteer teachers from different countries come here to teach the kids. These help but their stay is temporary. The food is served in batches; the youngest lot first. The food is basic to say the least. It’s not unhealthy and is made in the cleanest possible manner. However, I have serious doubts that the nutritional needs of the students are fulfilled.
All said and done, the students never show a sign of distress. They will make the saddest of the people smile. Such enthusiasm amid such difficulties is hard to be seen these days. We spent the entire afternoon with the kids and returned to Kabur with a heavy heart. Evelyn met us and shared her experience with the kids over the past 6 years. Heart-warming!
The Finnish couple had come back after a home-stay in Khecheopalri Lake. We discussed about music. I played Iron and Wine for them and they instantly fell in love. Depesh arranged for a monastery trail of West Sikkim as I did not have many days to see each of them at separate days. I did the trip with a delightful Australian guy who was keen to see the countryside. I will not go into much detail about the trip and let the photos do the talking.
I had to leave the next day. That night when Evelyn, Arjun and I sat together for our last dinner, Evelyn showed us some of the essays that the schoolchildren had written. The topic was “An Orphan”. Even I was aghast as to why would someone allow these kids to write on such an emotional topic. However, Evelyn was sure that they would write their hearts out. As I went through each of those selected 12 essays, tears rolled down. All their hardships, all their strengths, all their valour and all their moments....all into one. The words were straight from their heart. Evelyn had given small prizes to all the participants. I remembered I read somewhere:
“Lying in the cold on my bunker bed, I peep outside to have a look at the stars
To reassure that they still look the same without my mother”
I left for Siliguri the next day in a shared taxi arranged by Depesh. Evelyn had left before me. Arjun would stay a bit longer. My journey in Sikkim was over and I had to leave for Kohima. I had made friends for a lifetime and I was taught that there was so much more to life.
Depesh and the Kabur family - the leaflet says "Come as a guest, go as a friend"