Up and Away
Braving the Sikkimese monsoon on a drive to the bright blue skies of the Tibetan plateau. Text and photographs by Ahtushi Deshpande
Our Expresso Gold is revving in a funk, but the wheels are not going anywhere. It’s snarling and whirring to itself trying desperately to move but the knee-deep slush is thwarting all efforts. Samuel, who is only 20 and looks 15, is at the steering while Mustafa who is reassuringly older is our guide and DJ rolled into one. The edge of the road is crumbling away while a dozen men, impervious to the lashing rain, are trying their best to push us onto the other side. If we make it across, the so far reluctant vehicles waiting behind can follow suit.
Me, I am just clutching at the seat, mentally counting beads while thinking of the mass of the Tata Spacio and the gravitational pull awaiting us at the bottom of the valley. My face is reflecting my emotions and my voice is a quaver to which Mustafa cheerily remarks, “Jo dar gaya woh mar gaya!” We have only just crossed the Rate Chu into North Sikkim and I am beginning to wonder about the wisdom of doing this trip in the thick of monsoon in one of India’s rainiest states.
But all of these thoughts are soon to dissipate. I had, after all, come to experience the monsoon of the region, and my target, Gurudongmar Lake, at a steep 5,148m, was actually only 216km from the capital Gangtok. In order to acclimatise to its lofty height I was doing the journey over a leisurely three days.
The landslides were soon to seem like nothing more than minor irritants. Mostly the army and the BRO (Border Roads Organisation) did a stupendous job of swiftly clearing the blocks; at other times we just waited a while.
Clouds wafted around moodily through a thick rainforest belt, which passed by my window in rich, green succession—the Buddhist tenor of the land palpable at every turn. The highway was festooned with prayer flags, strung on tall pine masts. A total of 113 white flags are erected in prayer for the dead while numerous colourful flags around dwellings flapped in prayer for the living.
Passing the forested grove of Kabi Longstock where stone markers stood testimony to the historic pact of blood brotherhood between the Lepchas and Bhutias of Sikkim, we stopped at the Karma Kagyu monastery of Phudong. Playful little monks were frolicking in the drizzle and some older ones were trying tricks with umbrellas—throwing them up in swirls and catching them back again with poise. Built in 1740 by the monarch Chogyal Gyurmed Namgyal for the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu order, the monastery housed gold-plated statues, frescoes and thangkas in its sanctum.
Back on the picturesque North Sikkim Himalayan highway, we cross-gushing streams and towering waterfalls. The Seven Sisters waterfall is lovely but so are the Rimbala falls, the Mang falls and the numerous nameless falls swelling the flow of the mud-brown Teesta below. There is moss, mildew and moisture everywhere and the rich earth seem to be sprouting greenery as we pass.
We pass Magang, the district capital of North Sikkim, also touted as the ‘world’s largest cardamom capital’. I wonder if it really has any competition. Chungthang, further ahead, straddles the confluence of the Teesta and the Lachung Chu. From an altitude of 5,400m at its origins in Cholamu Lake (80km ahead), the Teesta plummets to 1,620m at Chungthang.
Only 28km ahead lies Lachen, deep in the confines of the narrow lush valley of the Teesta. ‘Fooding and lodging’ signs dot the town but thanks to the efforts of friends in Gangtok, I have the good fortune to be staying as a guest of Rinzing Chewang, the local postmaster who has only recently opened a room in his ancestral house for tourists. I am his very first guest.
There is a family get-together in progress and I am invited to join the party. I am nursing a crick in my neck from constantly looking out of the window, and some very welcome millet chang proves to be a great steadier of nerves. I sip the tangy brew through a bamboo straw while my shaptu (bamboo receptacle) is discreetly filled with warm water every now and then. Meant to be sipped slowly, water is added till the fermented millet loses its potency.
Dinner is a veritable treat and I polish off succulent chunks of beef fry accompanied with nettle soup, cheese, niguru (a local fiddlehead fern) and rice with the quiet concentration good food deserves. My chang and flask accompany me to bed as I lay my aching neck onto a pillow which says, “Happy happy to you, I love you just the way you are.” Life felt good, I felt at home, the bugs of the monsoon skittered around and I slept to the lullaby of the rain while the Teesta hissed and growled in its deep gorge below.
The next morning, Rinzing and I take a walk to the 100-year-old Lachen Neadupcholing monastery. The flag-festooned village looks mysterious through swirling mists, people negotiate the season with umbrellas and plastic sheets and the odd monk spins his prayer wheel. I stand fascinated as Rinzing explains the intricately painted karma chakra, and the local Buddhist rituals and beliefs to me. A leather whip hangs on the door to the sanctum. “It is used for whipping errant lamas,” I am informed.
The nearby Lachen Mamo Lhagang monastery for anne (female lamas) is 150 years old with priceless thangkas, and frescoes peeling off the walls in places, its sanctum replete with gold-plated statues of Brahma, Buddha and Padmasambhava.
We are invited for tea into the monastic quarters. The lama who sat reading scriptures had made himself comfortable with a flask of chang and was kind enough to foretell a rosy future for me.
At my next stop Thangu, 32km ahead, I behold a different landscape. At 3,700m, we are above the tree line, the wind is cold, the air more rarefied and the land bleaker. Colourful wooden houses on stilts line the main street of the village. It gets far less rain—a mean annual of 82mm compared to Gangtok’s 3,494mm—making for an idyllic retreat for Lachen villagers during the rainy months. They haven’t arrived yet and the village wears a deserted look. I get a nice en suite room at the Thangu Guest House, run by a Bhutia woman. The windows of my room overlook a vast expanse of potato and turnip fields lining the banks of the Teesta, which is mellower here. I need to stretch my feet so I head for the monastery above hoping to chat with some monks but the gompa is deserted. ‘Do not disturb—lama is in meditation for three years’ is the only sign that greets me. I submit to the quiet atmospherics of the gompa and sit in silence with an old man peeling his turnip with wizened concentration.
There is no electricity in Thangu and at night the silence of the valley is deafening.
The next morning we leave early for Gurudongmar lake. I spot blue poppies, snake lilies, even a giant rhubarb on the way. The gnarled topography begins to smoothen out rapidly and the green morphs into an arid, high wasteland of dry scrub. ‘Welcome to the plateau’ proclaims a sign at the army check-post. The northern border of Sikkim lies on the Tibetan plateau. I make a dash for the army-run Café 15,000 for some hot coffee and a bite and call my family who stayed behind to luxuriate in a Gangtok resort.
Ahead the road flattens out further, a thin scratch on the vast ochre and brown terrain. We have finally risen above the monsoon and the specks of blue in the sky are a surprise after all these days of cloud and mist. Samuel, who has proved to be a great driver, can’t resist the urge to zip and we race ahead of a polluting bus that is raising clouds of dust in its wake.
Gurudongmar lake is postcard-pretty. Lined with prayer flags on its periphery, the placid swell of its turquoise waters shimmer like a jewel in a desert land. Revered by Buddhists and Sikhs, the lake is considered the abode of Guru Padmasambhava—it is said to fulfil wishes for childless couples. Cairns erected by the devout dot the lakeshore, and I place a stone atop one and make my own wish. In winter the lake freezes over completely except for a small section, the phenomenon attributed to the powers of the guru, who keeps this stretch liquid for yaks to drink from. The Cholamu Lake, the actual source of the Teesta, a two-hour trudge further up, is off limits. I walk around the shore of the lake and try to soak in some of its serenity. Though a new gurudwara-cum-Buddhist temple built by the Sikh regiment lies atop a hill by the lake, the ancient Buddhist shrine should only be visited after the entire two-hour circumambulation of the lake.
A cold wind begins to hiss, cutting dagger-like through my layers of clothing. I hurry up to the Spacio. It’s time to head back to Gangtok if only to be spellbound by the rain all over again.
I spend three days at the Hidden Forest Resort in Gangtok where I am enveloped in a virtual orchidarium in the midst of deep bamboo groves, shady trees, ferns and azaleas. I have a room on stilts (well, almost), nestled discreetly amidst the foliage. I choose to eat only Sikkimese food—always accompanied by dallae, the local, very hot, round chilli, which makes the Teesta thunder in my ears all over again.
GETTING THERE & AROUND
Sikkim has no airport or railhead. The nearest airport is at Bagdogra (124km from Gangtok) and the nearest rail head is New Jalpaiguri (125km). Gangtok is a scenic four-hour drive from here.
From Gangtok, Lachen in the remote north district of the state is 120km and Gurudongmar lake is another 96km. You can also foray into the less remote (and more visited) Lachung valley from Chungthang which has better hotels, a rhododendron sanctuary and hot springs at Yumthang.
Journeys into North Sikkim are best booked via a travel agency. They will arrange permits, stay, vehicle and guide. Try Blue Sky Tours and Travels, Sikkim Tourism building, M.G. Marg, Gangtok (03592-205113, 9232543905, www.himalayantourismonline.com).
If you want to do it cheap and stay longer, Vajra cinema hall in Gangtok is the taxi stand for North Sikkim, where you pay Rs 150 per head for Lachen. You have to get your permit from the police check-post in Gangtok and use local taxis for further travels (which can be difficult to arrange ahead of Lachen).
WHERE TO STAY
Gangtok: The Hidden Forest Retreat, Middle Sichey (Rs 2,500 for a double with meals; 03592-205197, 203196, 9434137409, www.hiddenforestretreat.com). The Bamboo Resort (Rs4,500, with breakfast and dinner; 98320 79320, www.bambooresort.com) is a half-hour drive away in Sajong, Rumtek.
Lachen: Clean and basic accommodation in teahouses (Rs 300-400) can be found here. Hidden Valley Lodge and Green Lodge are good. Rinzing Chewang’s homestay (9474528499) is steep in comparison at Rs 2,000 for a double with meals. Only one room, loo outside.
Thangu: Thangu Lodge (en suite Rs 400) is good. Besides a smattering of other lodges here you can also try the Tourism Department Lodge and the Forest Bungalow, both a short walk ahead.
Lachung: Though La Coxy and Snow Lion are considered the best they can usually only be booked through a tour agent. There are several other lodges where you can find clean rooms.
WHEN TO GO
Visit in March and April for Sikkim’s spectacular blooms, especially rhododendrons (36 varieties can be found here). Sikkim boasts over 500 species of orchids, in bloom till end May. Go between October and mid-January for clear skies and good views. August and September are best for viewing alpine plants above 3,000m.