Monday, May 30, 2016

Sikkim - A State of Mind: Day 3

Day 3: 19 April 2016

We're woken up at 4:45 AM by a cacophony of bird calls outside our room. I step out and am struck by the glorious view of the Kanchenjunga with the morning sunlight falling on it.

There are times when the camera and words cannot capture the enormity of what you're seeing and this was one of those moments. We clicked dozens of photos of the mountain emerging over the clouds.

Reports have come that the road to Lachung is still blocked and we may not be able to proceed. We go for a walk in the town on Mangan as we wait for the work to progress. As the district headquarters, Mangan has many government offices, schools and even a post office (PIN code 737116).

The "Special Branch" also has an office with a great view of the mountains.

Football (the global one and not the the American version where players use their hands and wear helmets!)  has a huge following in Sikkim and we cross what is probably one of the most scenic football ground in the country.

Schools start at 9 AM and we see children on the way to school - there's a lot of climbing involved in the day to day activity of going to school.

We're already out of breath with the higher altitude and the constant ascents and descents across the town of Mangan.

The views are amazing.

The houses on the roadside are small shacks, built of wood, with the water supply catered by the mountain streams that are always flowing.

We're walking back to the hotel to get ready to depart when we're stopped by the most unusual sound one would expect to hear in these high Himalayas.

A fire engine is blaring horns and hurtling away on the dirt road towards downtown Mangan.

As a backup, we get permits to visit the hotsprings at Tarum and then proceed from Mangan towards Chungthang in case the BRO is able to clear up the roads later in the day.

Soon we're on our way towards Lachung and the grand panoramas open up again.

There's a constant war being waged by humans in Sikkim to bring a semblance of order to the mountainous land - road building is an incessant activity and the mountain strike back by discharging streams that wash away these roads, either in the streams that work slowly or a torrent that washes away swathes of land in one fell stroke.

The trails of earlier landslides mark the hillsides as we proceed.

Since the landslide has not yet been cleared. we stop for lunch so that we are ready to move once the road opens up. Our lunch options are limited - we are at a roadside restaurant beside a waterfall where the cook and her husband are plucking watercress to cook for the large number of visitors who will stop by. We speculate that these small businesses must be praying for landslides to bring customers to their doorsteps.

The the dining area has a few plastic chairs and tables and  the kitchen is sparse but well lit with a sweeping view of the Lachung Chu valley,

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We wait for 20 minutes listening to some Nepali songs playing from a USB drive on a music system studded with LED lights. Soon we're served hot Chow Mein, sauteed watercress and some pakodas.

We're hungry, the food is fresh and good  and soon we order for a second round.

We see what will turn out to be a common practice across Sikkim - flowers being grown in small containers wherever possible and vegetable patches - cabbages, cauliflowers and mustard.

We proceed 6 km further and reach the site of the landslide. There' a huge convoy of vehicles parked - civilian vehicles, army jeeps, army trucks and taxis. 

There's a single earth mover eating away at the rocks and gravel that have blocked the path, pushing them down the hill side, where they roll down, hammering at the trees that still stand. The crowd is patient, giving way for the army personnel and Border Roads staff who are directing the work. A few people have started walking across the landslide, to take the taxis that are waiting on our side of the landslide. Drivers are playing ludo, chatting with each other. One of the pedestrians takes selfies of the earth-mover behind him.

It's at times like this that we realize the immense forces at play here - a nudge on the hillside and thousands of people are cutoff, army lines disrupted. However, waiting here for the roads to clear is not like the perpetual traffic jams in Bangalore - there's no honking, instead a calm acceptance that this is the way things are. The only people pacing up and down are the tourists, worrying about whether we would be able to get to our destination by nightfall - driving on these mountain roads at night with the prospect of pre-monsoon showers and further landslides is not something we're looking forward to.

We're asked to go back- the plan is to drill a hole in the huge boulder that is blocking the road, insert dynamite and blow it open.We walk back to the car - and a short while later there are a few controlled explosions - the rocks have been spit. We walk back to see the progress and find that  another earthmover has come from the other side, and they work in tandem, one pulling rocks and mud across the path and the other pushing it down the hill side. 

There's a flurry of movement when the path is finally cleared - the army jeeps are the first to leave followed by the vehicles heading downhill to Gangtok. Many of the passengers in the cars have been stuck for over a day, missing their journeys back to the plains. The rush is cleared in twenty minutes and we resume our ascent to Lachung. It's 5:45 PM and darkness is swiftly falling as the sun is cut off by the peaks which surround us.

Twenty minutes later we are at the Toong Police Picket Post where we have to show our permits to enter Lachung.

We're driving in the darkness now, with the moon occasionally casting light on the mountains as it emerges from the clouds. The headlights only carry till the next hairpin bend. There's no sound except for the tires crunching on the loose gravel.

And then our destination appears. First a few scattered lights. Lachung is a small town, famous only for being the gateway to the Yumthang Valley. We pull up into Modern Residency(Taagsing Retreat) which is built in the model of a Tibetan monastery. Bags are quickly unloaded and moved into our rooms. After being roasted at almost 40C in Bangalore, it's a cold 8C here. We have a hot cup of tea before proceeding to the dining room.

It's a surreal experience.The walls and roof are lined with Buddhist motifs - it's like eating inside a temple.

The food is simple, but warm and filling.

The temperature has dropped further to 5C and our host provides us hot water bottles to warm ourselves when we go to bed.

Day 1
Day 2

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sikkim - A State of Mind: Day 2

Day Two
We're awake at 5:30 AM and it's bright daylight. Our first sight of Sikkim in the daylight shows a land bursting with greenery and flowers.


The valley is shrouded in fog. Occasionally the fog lifts to show glimpses of the mountainside. Everything we see is in  panoramic mode - sweeping hills, rolling clouds and the fog appearing suddenly shrouding the entire landscape in grey.

Before we have breakfast, we go for a quick round of birding - there are Mountain Bulbuls, Oriental White Eyes and lots of Mynas. We have a breakfast of Alu Parathas with yogurt and pickle, some toast and marmalade and the teas for which North East India is famous.

Our plan for the day is to leave after breakfast for the town of Lachung, in Northern Sikkim. Lachung is the gateway to the Yumthang Valley and Zero Point in Yumesamdong beyond. While it is just 129 km (80 miles) away, the uphill ascent and the bad roads mean that it would take us close to six hours to get there.

Our route will take us through the 7 Sister Falls, the towns of Phodong, Mangan and Chungthang and finally Lachung which is at an elevation of 8100 feet.

By 10 AM our bags are packed and loaded onto the luggage rack on the roof of a Tata Sumo. It appears that all drivers have sworn loyalty to teams in the English League - our vehicle is festooned with Arsenal stickers.

We've barely crossed 30 km when we hear a rattling sound from the roof. Our luggage rack has broken and we won't be able to make it to Lachung with the broken rack. Frantic calls are made to arrange for another vehicle to carry us for the remaining journey.

Luckily, we've stopped at the historic spot of Kabi-Lungchok where the Lepchas and the Bhutias signed the peace treaty over 700 years ago.

According to Wikipeadia the literal meaning of 'Kabi Lungchok', pronounced ‘Kayu sha bhi Lungchok’, is "stone erected by our blood."

Stone steps lead up to the place where the treaty was signed by the Bhot King, Khye Bumsa representing the Bhutias and the Lepcha Chief Thekong Tek.

Further down, life-size statues of the Lepcha and Bhutia 'blood-brothers' who signed the treaty have been erected.

A path surrounded by looming trees trails into the distance and in the wet soil leeches abound. Soon we are picking out leeches by the dozens as they cling to our shoes and try to burrow their way through to the warm blood which attracts them. We trace our way back to the road in an effort to stay away from the leeches.

In the meanwhile, our replacement vehicle has come and the driver is engaged in the process of shifting the luggage.

We're on our way again with our driver, Karma, and soon enter the North Sikkim district.

The recurrent theme here is mountain and water. Mountain streams are everywhere, rolling down the hillside, merging into larger currents and then gushing down the face of the mountain as waterfalls. Many of them crash on the rocks below, wearing them away before flowing across the road and joining the rivers that flow in the valley below. The roads are washed away by the constant flow of water and we rumble over the small boulders that have been left on the path after the road has been washed away.

There is a huge convoy of SUVs heading North, towards Lachung, but very few coming down towards Gangtok. One of the few vehicles traveling South tells us that there has been a landslide on the mountains after the rains and the Border Roads Organization has instructed authorities not to allow anybody proceed towards Lachung. This of course will impact our schedule which required us to reach Lachung by evening. However, we continue, deciding to see how much we can proceed.

We're already running behind schedule because of the unplanned vehicle change, but it's getting to be 1:30 PM and we're hungry. We stop at the Seven Sisters Waterfalls for some  refreshments.

There samosas are wrapped up ready to be fried and the cook serves it up steaming hot along with a warm cup of black tea.

K spots a Blue Whistling Thrush on the rocks while we enjoy the view.

We're off again, crossing Phodong which, for a short while was the capital of Sikkim., There's nothing left to indicate that this was once a state capital. There are a few traditional Sikkimese buildings but nothing else remains.

We're stopped when we reach the RangRang traffic checkpost, There's a huge pileup of traffic that has been stopped and not allowed to proceed.

Alister proceeds to the checkpost to request permission to proceed with an undertaking that we will stop at Mangan and not proceed further until we have confirmation that the roadblocks have been cleared.

We reach the  town of Mangan at 3 PM and proceed straight for lunch at Hotel Tamarind. Mangan is the headquarters of the North Sikkim district and the small town which had a population of around 1200 people in 2001 now has seen a boom due to the tourist influx.

Alister sets off to find a place for us to stay for the night and returns with the good news that we have rooms at The Planter's House.

We shift our luggage and settle down for a quiet evening, after five hours of driving on dirt roads. The drizzle which has been accompanying us for a few hours now turns into a torrential downpour. We have a hot dinner in the dining room where there are a few other travelers who have also been stranded because of the landslide.

After dinner, we watch the Mumbai Indians play Sunrisers Hyderabad in an IPL match. It seems curiously faraway - like traveling to another country and watching what appears to be a local sports match in the hotel television.

Day 1
Day 3