Tripping up North

Tenzin C. Tashi

The best-laid plans do not always materialise...but trips planned spontaneously somehow manage to pan out. So it was that one November weekend, I found myself rather bemusedly packing for a quick trip to Gurudongmar lake. “Everything’s been planned, just get here,” was my brief. Who could resist a pitch like that? Friends who’d already made the long haul there armed me with the following critical nuggets: It’s cold. Very cold. It’s awesome. You might get altitude sickness. Thangu has no lights. Carry a torch. Thick jackets and boots mandatory. And thermals. I am soon on the North Sikkim highway, a euphemism given the narrow span of the road. Like many others, I’ve explored other parts of India rather than try to discover the hotspots right in the backyard of my native Sikkim, a tendency I am trying to correct. North Sikkim has so many trees, so much tangible, thriving forest cover that my heart, so used to concrete everywhere in Gangtok, wants to warble like the songbird that can’t sing. Distances and hours don’t enthral me so I will not even presume to try to maintain a log book so to speak. I’m sure any travel agent in Sikkim will be more than competent to furnish details for those interested. My writer’s soul revels in the beauty in every day ordinary things; doing the maths seems to me rather unnecessary. My philosophy is simple. Enjoy the journey, and arrive at your destination wiser and more enlightened than you were at the onset of your journey. We pass history-steeped Kabi Longtsok where the ancient stones still stand witness in that shaded canopy. Some people argue it was a blood-brotherhood sworn between the two families of Thekong-tek and Khye Bumsa and not the two Bhutia and Lepcha clans…interesting premise. Alas, only the protagonists alone know the truth and they are long gone. Darkness is rapidly setting in as we drive past the centuries old monasteries of Phensong, Phodong and Labrang en route to Mangan. Somewhere too in the darkness stands the ruins of the Tumlong Palace. Romantics may conjure up visions of a grand palace that once was but Tumlong was more a big barn-like structure than a palace by any stretch of imagination…the Sikkim kings were never even fractionally as wealthy as the Indian Maharajahs. Mangan, which today calls itself the large cardamom capital of the world, will for me, always be synonymous with its founder, Malling Kazi Rinzing Namgyal. He who is credited with having had the acumen to set up the old Mangan town in 1903 wore many caps, he was a landlord, surveyor, explorer and visionary all rolled in one. Old photographs show a rather self-possessed looking man who served in the State Council. The Dzongu reserve nearby has an interesting history. It has always been the Sikkim Queen’s preserve. But Rinzing Namgyal staked claim to, and momentarily got possession of, the same reserve. Declared the exclusive reserve of the Lepchas by Chogyal Tashi Namgyal, today turmoil over the entry of hydel power projects threatens to destroy the tranquillity of Dzongu forever. We have heard rather scary stories about poisoning being practised in Mangan. I am therefore quite wary of eating anything. But I needn’t have worried. We spend the night at Wong’s Den, a delightful home stay that is located just above the town. Dinner is delicious home cooked food and the portions more than generous. I would happily recommend Wong’s Den to any traveller. Glistening white peaks greet me first thing in the morning, so close that I can see how rugged they actually are. After a hearty breakfast, we finally set off for Thangu. We

cross Naga, Toong and many other places whose names I read off road markers. At Toong, we stop for a photo-op at the triple bailey bridge, where the prayer flag strewn old suspension bridge co-exists with its successors in various shades of green harmony. We make a quick stopover at Chungthang, the town at the confluence of the Lachen chu and the Lachung chu to visit the ney-do, the holy rock that bears the footprints of the Mahaguru Padmasambhava himself. Legend has it that when Guru Rimpoche was consecrating the hidden land of Beyul Demajong in the 8th century A.D. he left behind his footprints on the rock here. There is also a crevice filled with spring water. Legend also has it that Guru Rinpoche flung the remains of his rice in the vicinity where even today a solitary paddy field thrives despite the fact that region has less than ideal conditions for the growth of paddy. Almost half a decade ago, my grandmother took a photo of this amazing paddy field, and today I find myself adding to the family album. A few years ago, India Today Plus had contacted me to enquire about the veracity of Guru Nanak’s footprints in Chungthang. I said people got confused between Guru Rinpoche and Guru Nanak. Guru Nanak has no ostensible history in Sikkim. Now I am intrigued that there is a Guru Nanak Lama Sahib temple close to the ney-do, and a tree that they claim grew out of Guru Nanak’s walking stick. This is how legends grow, I suppose. There are two ways of looking at it. Purists will argue that confounding claims will only serve to ensure the innate Buddhist sanctity of the ney-do will be lost in the pages of subsequent history. A democratic viewpoint would be to let people think what they want, as long as we know the truth. After stringing up lung-ta prayer flags around the ney-do, we once more hit the road. We are soon at the bifurcation of the North Sikkim highway. The right leads to Lachung and the splendours of Yumthang; the left, which we take, leads to Lachen and further on, to Gurudongmar and the Chopta valley. As we drive on to Lachen, the preponderance of two things has me smiling to myselfNorth Sikkim is full of Dish TV and Adivasi servants! These two modern acquisitions, for want of a better word, are not exactly compatible with one’s preconceived notions of what abounds on the alpine slopes of the North. Everywhere I look, there are television dishes and Adivasis. One reason why Adivasis are in such high demand is they really slog, another is they have a great ability to pick up local languages. After driving under sunny blue skies, we roll into Lachen, which calls itself a heritage village. Once synonymous with its apple orchards, one hopes that the famous Lachung apples will one day stage a revival and captivate taste buds again. We are now famished but most disappointingly, the hotels, large and small can only offer us Maggi. So much for visions of piping hot North Sikkim fare, it’s only the humble Maggi everywhere! Make do with Maggi is a nice catchphrase, wot? The drive from Lachen to Thangu reveals alpine terrain in resplendent natural glory. There are waterfalls that cascade from high perches on immobile stony mountains; many merrily meandering rivers and streams with crystal clear water; prayer flags that flutter serenely in the wind; and rosy-cheeked cherubs that scamper on the roadside, with a ever ready wave for the traveller and always, there are those ever present mountains with crowning glories of white… rows and rows of them, seeming almost as if a long slumbering prehistoric creature of the snows, with only the snow-laden tips of the fins on its back visible, will awaken like the Kraken from the deep. As we drive along the highway, every bend of the road holds the promise of more simple joys ... the melting snow of the massive mountains feeding the rivers that snake through their valleys, the simple homesteads of the Lachenpas with their stone corrals

and the many Mendangs all blend seamlessly into one giant landscape deftly conjured up by Mother Nature herself. A final bend, and we catch our first glimpse of Thangu. This is where we must spend the night to acclimatise, as do most people. To be honest, this is the part I’ve been dreading the most. Thangu. Very cold. Check. Carry a torch. Check. No lights. Brr. I’m expecting a truly desolate looking place. However, the placid little hamlet consisting of a few houses lined up on either side of the solitary rutted road so central to its existence seems rather cosy, even to my wary mind. Thangu is at the very base of those snowcapped grey giants and yes, it is bitterly cold. But blame it solely on the altitude. Thangu has, as I’ve been forewarned, no electricity. The population here is too scanty to make pulling electricity lines up here a viable proposition. Besides, people come up mainly in the tourist season and in the off-season, they go back down home to Lachen or wherever it’s warmer. We ask for directions to Amla’s, where we are to kip down for the night. I forget her name, but she’s easy to locate. Hers is the most prosperous-looking house in the locality, a two-storied grey and red house with parking space for a car outside. The family lives downstairs and rents out rooms on the top floor. We are shown into a room but it doesn’t quite take our fancy. So we ask for the room in the front that looks out on the road instead. It is simple but adequate. The loo is also adequate, though the sight of melting snow in the bucket by way of water has me quickly request for warm water to be sent up instead. Civilization makes us of less stern stuff, after all. There are plenty of blankets and they give us candles and matches. The hot tea they serve is manna in the cold and the maid- yes, Adivasi again!- cheerfully serves the endless mugs we keep ordering to fortify ourselves against the insidious cold. We arrange for a local youth, Nawang to act as our guide. We are to start at seven a.m. sharp, he says. Soon it’s dinnertime and we are called downstairs to the kitchen. Dinner is a simple- a rice, dal and sautéed vegetable affair but after nothing but Maggi and more Maggi en route, it feels pretty damned good! Best of all, they have solar lighting in the kitchen. Up in the room, the solitary candle throws weird shadows on the walls. The darkness is actually more unnerving than the cold. As if in answer, the solar street lights outside suddenly come on and flood our room with a familiar if weak light. When I, thus emboldened, sneak a peek outside, the mesmerising sight of the snow glistening like purest molten silver on the mountains and the tawny glow of the solar streetlight provides a fascinating interplay of gold and silver, light and shadow in the still of the night on the deserted Thangu landscape. The other window reveals the silvery moon herself making a languid appearance over the distant hills. She quickly rises to reveal herself in full splendour- it’s full moon night, a very auspicious time for us Buddhists. Between the silver in the sky, and on the mountain, I discover a moment of great epiphany.. and am soon lost in silvery slumber. We rise early and get all bundled up for the trip to the lake. Nawang is so punctual you could set your watch by him. Breakfast over, we are told we must take popcorn to the lake. Ah, at premium prices a packet, it’s easy to figure out why. We must start out early for Gurudongmar lake and beat the winds or they’ll beat us back. The journey from Thangu to Gurudongmar is pretty tricky. The road is a ribbon of ice and snow, a slithery snake twisting sinuously through the landscape dominated by craggy white slopes. Expectedly, the car skids but with a few stones picked up and piled up on the road for traction, she just swallows up the road with one great roar. The next leg of the journey is traversed in almost complete silence. The terrain literally leaves us mute as we gawk at the rocky mountain faces rising up almost vertically out

of the bowels of the earth, with only pockets of snow to break up the monotony of these monolithic giants. The primordial setting makes us aware how utterly insignificant we actually are, we climb and ‘conquer’ mountains but while we are mortal, they, conquered or not, stand their ground for generations yet to come. The now starkly barren landscape is devoid of any kind of vegetation, it is just the mountains and the snow and we the interlopers. The sun comes out with startling speed to herald an intense interplay of light and shadow, a theme repeated with great consistency throughout the journey. We are driving on the road, to our right rear mountains with generous dollops of snow while the sun holds court to the left. The mountains on the left throw giant shadows on the glitzy white slopes across, while they themselves sport only a thin layer of snow on their tips..like a celestial tailor had put a piping on their edges, and gleaming coats of white on other peaks. We are at a pretty high altitude and the sun is a much closer brooding burnished orb lampooned in the skies, and that much the more intense. Thangu was much colder by any degree! We are, for the most part, the solitary travellers on the road. But the army is a constant presence in the area, as are telephone and electricity lines, a not so subtle reminder that the disputed fingertip area lies just above Gurudongmar. Finally we reach Giagong, the army checkpost which regulates access to Gurudongmar. Giagong boasts of the world’s highest café at 15,000 m. Here a signpost instructs us, ‘Get yourself checked for medical fitness for your visit to Gurudongmar’ but there doesn’t seem to be much to do other than wait for the checkpost gate to be thrown open. I’m intrigued what the café could be selling. The tea and coffee vending machines haven’t been juiced up yet and the souvenirs on sale make me smile wryly. All Chinese-made goods! This is how our dragon of a neighbour has actually conquered India and indeed the world, dumping a plethora of cheap goods that more often than not wipe out local industry and worse, often contain noxious compounds, be it melamine in milk products or toxic paints in toys! I notice though that there is still a long forgotten red and white flag in the café, along with the tricolour. From Giagong, we traverse more snow scapes..the dazzling white of the snow cover contrasts fiercely with the cerulean skies and soon even the ground is thickly swathed with endless snow. The road is now barely more than an illusory track that seemingly is swallowed whole by the snowy canopy that stretches further than the eye can see. Jagged snow formations on either side form rows of silent sentinels that gravely usher us further into this chimera to seems almost to meld into the horizon itself, like a numinous sea of snowy white, with the mountains themselves buffeted like giant waves and clouds streaked on high like spray etched in the skies. The landscape unfolding all around us in a slow pirouette is at once so inhospitable and yet so haunting in its bleak beauty; it has a primeval perfection that is so austerely selfcontained as to have a singularly devastating effect, like an ethereally fair maiden who can only be desired but never won. I am so caught up by the curious juxtaposition of the exquisite and the harsh that I am not really ready for my first sight of the Gurudwara that plays spoilsport and gives away the proximity of Gurudongmar lake. This Gurudwara was at the centre of a storm when the Army first constructed it sometime in the 1990’s, confusing yet again Guru Rinpoche for Guru Nanak. It is now a ‘Sarva Dharma Shtal’- a house of worship for all faiths, and a Buddhist flag flutters prominently in the foreground, as do lungta prayer flags. I have heard so much about the beauty of Gurudongmar lake but no travelogue or recounted memory can ever prepare anyone for the real beauty of the lake, which hits

you in the viscera with more brute force than the 17,100 ft it is located at. It is so exquisite that one can only drink in its loveliness and just enjoy the exhilaration of the sight of a lifetime. The spiel on Gurudongmar lake states it is one of Sikkim’s highest lakes and lies on the northern side of the Khangchengyao Range high in the Tibetan Plateau, close to the Indo- China border. The stream emerging from the lake is one of the sources to the Teesta River. The water is said to be milky white and completely frozen over during the winter months from November- mid May except for one part which was blessed by Guru Rinpoche. A website Google throws up helpfully tells me that Guru Nanak who is also known as Guru Dongmar blessed the lake. There is also an embellished version that says people in the area suffered great hardship by way of no drinking water and invoked Guru Nanak’s help. I again reiterate Sikkim is Guru Rinpoche’s own hidden land, Beyul Demajong. HH the Dalai Lama himself stated in 2004, ‘The precious guru Padmasambhava-Lopbon Rinpoche- was not only endowed with all the true qualities of a great spiritual guideknowledge, compassion and infinite capacity- but he was also a great master who commanded extraordinary power’. The confusion over Guru Rinpoche/Guru Nanak is actually quite logical. There are many Sikh regiments in Sikkim. They can’t really be expected to worship the Second Buddha, Padmasambhava. Hence somewhere along the line, local legends centred around Guru Rinpoche’s miracles came to be attributed to Guru Nanak, or Guru Nanak Lama Sahib who they can identify with. Guru Nanak is not connected to Sikkim in any which way expect in the faith of the men who guard our desolate borders. Let them believe what they will, if it makes them happy. The water of the lake is an indecipherable shade of blue- green that defies description, not quite cobalt, nor aquamarine..the closest I’ve seen to this colour is the shade mixed by thangka painters. One cannot view the lake in isolation, it is a liquid jewel set in the sublime clasp of the jagged grey peaks with purest vanilla white everywhere.. it is as much the setting that gives Gurudongmar its undeniable allure as the waters themselves. Partly frozen, partly fluid, at places churned frothy white, the waters reflect the azure skies but not in blind imitation, there is a subtle refraction of light that makes it an inimical, infinitesimally different shade all its own. Ripples glisten in rolling waves, catch the now brilliant sunlight and churn the surface into a silvery tinged flowing mirror..at some point, it is difficult to tell where sky ends and water begins, or whether they are disparate things at all. It is truly a sacred place, sanctified as much by the profusion of tharchoks or lungta prayer flags as by the simple act of faith itself. The wind is now blowing with wicked intent and it is time to retrace our steps back to Thangu. We spot an abode of a Dokpa in the vicinity of the lake. The home of the yak herder is a curious mix of corrugated roof sheets, stones, the round tops of barrels and piles of yak dung that seal crevices..a most ingenious ‘hut’, so much like a yurt that blends so effortlessly into the landscape. The tiny black dots in the distance are their yaks. The tenacious yak is to the alpine herders what the date palm is to the desert dweller, useful beyond words. We enter to find a simply organised dwelling, much blackened from the burning of the yak dung fuelled stove but cozy and clean nevertheless. There are two women chatting over a huge pot of yak milk put to boil; a portrait of HH the Dalai Lama holds pride of place on the improvised mantelpiece. We buy their entire stock of ‘churpi’-the local delicacy made of the cheese of the dri, the female yak. The churpi has a rich, full flavour that only the real mc Coy can have.

Once more we are the interlopers in the land of grey-white peaks, retracing our steps through those jagged snow sculptures and revelling in the brutal beauty of this remote impossible terrain.. the trip has been a vivid imagery of contrast, so much like Life itself..and we return with vanilla memories that will continue to warm the cockles of our hearts for a long time yet… Funny, it’s been a couple of months since our trip to Gurudongmar and yet I still feel affected. For starters, I still don’t feel like Maggi.