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Sunday, 21 September 2014
By 5:15 AM, I’m wide awake after a good sleep under the “starry sky” ceiling. With the morning light in the room, the starry effect disappears. As I open the balcony door, I’m greeted by the sublime beauty of Lachung. The sunrise is not visible from my room, but anyway, the sky is cloudy.
Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room balcony
From the room’s side-window, I get a beautiful view of the close by hills.
Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room window
The natural scenic splendour makes my heart sing, literally! At 6:30 AM, it is the broad daylight. The lush green surroundings that I was admiring the previous evening now appear even more welcoming at the start of the day. They have a calming effect on my senses. I can see tiny waterfalls along the mountain slopes and hear the roaring sound of the Lachung river. The view from my balcony…
Slightly larger than Lachen, Lachung is famed for its towering mountain peaks, vibrant rhododendron valley, alpine meadows, perennial waterfalls, sparkling streams and hot springs. It is the base for exploring the alpine valleys of Yumthang (25 km) and Yumesamdong (40 km), close to Tibet. At a height of 8800 feet, this picturesque mountain village is sprawled across the banks of the Lachung River. Its inhabitants are mostly Bhutias, who popularly call themselves as Lachungpas. But there are also Lepchas and people of Tibetan descent. It is a peaceful hamlet with a local self-governing body called the Zumsa.
Since Lachung is very close to the international border of India with Tibet under Chinese occupation, there are a number of Indian Army cantonments in this place. Prior to 1950, it was a trading post between Sikkim and Tibet. But after the seizure of Tibet, it was shut down.
After spending a good deal of time taking in the picturesque beauty of Lachung from the balcony, I return to bed. I get the same balcony view from the bedside window too.
The view from the side-window is awesome.
Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room window
The TV in the room has a few channels, all of which are of no interest to me. It is a bit cold but I keep the balcony door and windows open. A hot shower works wonders for a while till the cold takes over. I pull the room heater closer to my side, waiting patiently for my breakfast. It arrives at 7:30 AM.: Bread with butter and jam, and piping hot but greasy aloo parathas. I settle for bread and butter.
Hearing the noise coming from downstairs, I understand that the North Indian family who checked into the hotel some time after I did, are now leaving. When the room boy comes with my breakfast, I tell him not to change the bed linen that I selected after a careful inspection the previous night.
At 8:15 AM, I’m ready for the 24 km drive to Yumthang Valley. It’s a one-hour journey to the lush green valley where the tree line ends. We pass by Yarlam Resort which is said to be the best hotel in the village. Hmmm looks good. The road passes through an Indian Army cantonment where tourist permits are checked. I see a small post, a little away from the road, with a small board displaying the delightful words “Momo shop”. It is closed right now.
Further ahead, we stop as a large herd of cattle walks on the road. Suddenly, I see one of them jumping on the backside of another. The cattle herder turns around to follow my gaze and is aghast. He immediately starts thrashing the bull hard with the stick in his hand, chasing him as he runs away. Tobgay and a small group of guys walking by the road have not seen the animal’s sexual antics so they are bewildered by the sudden aggressive behaviour of the cattle herder. “Looks like he has gone crazy!” But only I know why the guy is beating the hell out of his animal. Poor creature! The severe beating must have wiped off all his passion …at least for the day!
The tar road is in good condition for most part of the journey till we near the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. It is raining and the road surface is bad.
Watch my video: A bad stretch of road from Lachung to Yumthang Valley
The road to Yumthang Valley passes through Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary which is spread over an area of 43 square kilometres. This world famous sanctuary is home to more than 40 species of rhododendron trees including the Rhododendron Niveum, the State Tree of Sikkim. In the months of April and May, the road is lined with colourful rhododendrons. Right now, I see nothing but loose stones and boulders, and glacial streams flowing through the sanctuary. The large debris of stones is due to landslides which are very frequent during rainy seasons. Still, the place looks serenely beautiful. A welcome board lists out the adventure sports that can be practiced here. These include mountain biking, cycling bird watching and angling. Tobgay tells me that during the flowering season, plenty of international tourists come here on cycles and mountain bikes.
Having read about Zero point, the place where the road ends, I ask Tobgay about it. He says it is close to Yumesamdong (at 15,300 feet), which is around 20 km away. From Yumesamdong, one has to walk a bit to reach Zero point. It would cost 2000 rupees extra.
Soon we reach Yumthang. A small stretch of the road is lined with a few shacks, some offering food and refreshments, others selling souvenirs, etc. Two parked vehicles indicate the presence of tourists in the vicinity but I don’t see anyone around. It’s still drizzling when I get my first glimpse of this famed valley located at 11,800 feet. A chorten (Buddhist shrine), a forest Inspection bungalow and a few wooden shacks are housed on the left of the road while the lush green meadow spreads on the right.
Watch my video: View of Yumthang Valley near Lachung – I
My mobile connectivity was lost two days ago when we were driving about 30 km away from Gangtok. So I ask Tobgay for the estimated time that tourists normally spend in the valley. He says about an hour. So I tell him I will be back in one and a half hours’ time just in case I lose track of time while basking in the pristine beauty of the stunning natural surroundings. Thick clouds and light rains are not going to spoil my fun because I have an umbrella on hand.
Covering a short distance, I sense a wondrous feeling of pleasure as I take in the picturesque scenery around me: a sprawling green meadow nestled between densely-forested hills shrouded in fog with a sparkling river flowing alongside it. I carry on walking in the direction of the river bank.
There is no sign of tourists or any locals around the place except for these horses grazing by.
The tranquil atmosphere is calming. A large cluster of tall white prayer flags attached to poles line both sides of the river, waving in the breeze.
Watch my video: View of Yumthang Valley near Lachung – II
A wild mushroom…
In April and May, when alpine flora are in full bloom, primulas carpet the valley with a lavender hue while rhododendron trees and shrubs create a palette of red, pink, blue, yellow, purple and white. The sweeping meadows bloom in a riot of colours giving this place the name “Valley of Flowers”. During winter, like the entire region of North Sikkim, Yumthang too, is covered in a thick layer of snow. Both, spring and winter, are the best times to visit North Sikkim. I can only imagine the simply mesmerizing spring-time look of the gorgeous “Valley of Flowers” or its awe-inspiring winter look with towering snow-clad peaks.
I walk alongside the river watching it speed noisily through stone boulders, flowing down between dense forests and hills on its way towards Lachung.
Then, I find a nice wooden log and sit astride it, my feet dangling above the crystal clear water. The cool and serene atmosphere is absolutely enchanting: fast-flowing river below, thick forests and hills right ahead, on the other side of the river…I can’t help but sing!
Watch my video: Lachung River in Yumthang Valley
The Lachung river has its source in a lake, deep in the Himalayas near the Indo-Tibet border. From there, it flows down in a south-westerly direction and joins with another unknown river at a place just above Lachung village. The river continues its course downwards through the beautiful Lachung valley till it meets the Lachen river near Chumthang, which is about 20 km away from here. A number of waterfalls and subsidiary streams join this river.
Watch my video: Lachung river
Some time later, I start walking towards the nearby forested area.
Watch my video: Lachung River in Yumthang Valley
A few wild flowers…
As I enter the interior of the thick forest, I feel a bit cold. Towering conifers greet me on every side. I try to imagine how stunningly beautiful it would look in spring time when the place becomes vibrant with beautiful colourful rhodendrons. To create awareness of the original habitat of this Himalayan flowering plant, the state hosts an annual Rhododendron festival during this time. It is must be an absolutely marvellous sight to witness the rich wealth of alpine flora. Besides the ubiquitous rhodendron, more than 600 varieties of orchids are found in this amazing small state of Sikkim. In fact, the state flower is the Noble Orchid.
Watch my video: A walk in the forest in Yumthang Valley
Walking on, I reach this picturesque spot where a quaint little wooden bridge stands amidst lush greenery. This is the highest point of the valley.
A quick look at my mobile phone tells me that one and a half hour has already passed by. Tobgay might think that I’m lost or something. I hurry my pace but the forest doesn’t seem to end. To make things worse, the light rain has now turned into a downpour. The strong wind makes my umbrella go haywire. Finally, I emerge from the forest to see this bridge over the river adorned with fluttering multi-coloured prayer flags.
The road is just nearby. After a 20-minute walk, I reach the food shacks alongside which I see my parked vehicle. I ask one of the women for Tobgay and she leads me inside of the shack. As I step inside, I immediately feel the warmth coming from the fireplace in the room. A bunch of tourists are on their way leaving me. I see Tobgay seated around the fireplace and ask him if he was worried about my delay. He says no. Really??? And I was thinking that he would have called for a search party by now. But no, this fellow is coolly chatting with two other locals.
I remember the time when I was travelling in the high-altitude regions of “Roof of the World” Ladakh and Tawang, a couple of years ago. I was travelling with the Indian Army so I had a soldier accompanying me wherever I went, at both places. They would keep telling me not to run or walk briskly because of low oxygen level in the air and would get tense when I wandered out for a walk. It was pretty cold but the landscape was so beautiful I had wanted to be alone. At one place near Tawang, when the vehicle had stopped for tea at a roadside hotel, I had told my Army escort to go ahead and that I would stay back in the car. While he was away, I had gone to see the Chinese bunkers from the 1962 Indo-China war just a short distance away, on a hill. On checking the time, I had returned to see the tense-looking soldier walk my way. A local woman with whom I had chatted on the way had shown him the direction in which I had proceeded. After that, whenever the vehicle stopped at a small roadblock and I climbed out, the poor guy would do the same, following me around everywhere. Only when I would tell him that I had to pee, would he turn away.
This young Sikkimese, on the other hand, does not say anything. It’s as if he knows nothing untoward will happen to me. Even at Gurudongmar Lake, when I lost track of time, he simply asked “Shall we leave?” or else I would have stayed there for an even longer time, beyond the time recommended for tourists.
Seated around the fire, I feel very warm and comfortable. The cold chill has made me hungry for a hot meal. The pretty young girl running the place quickly makes me a bowl of Maggi noodles. Meanwhile Tobgay shows me some of the spring and winter time photos he has taken on his smartphone. They are beautiful, especially the colourful rhodendrons and the frozen Gurudongmar Lake. Me, the young girl, Tobgay and another young fellow, the four of us spend almost half an hour chatting about education facilities in North Sikkim. The three of them have completed their schooling till 10th grade. Only Mangan, the district headquarters of North Sikkim, offers education facilities till 12th. For further studies, one has to go to Gangtok. Such a sad state of affairs that kids want to study further but lack of education facilities in their villages make them give up. Lack of job opportunities even after further education is another thing which dissuades them.
Rested and refreshed, it’s time to leave. Tobgay asks me if I want to continue till Zero Point. The weather is very foggy. It makes no sense in spending 2000 bucks and end up seeing nothing but fog. So I tell him to drive back to Lachung. On the way back, we are going to pass by the well-known Yumthang hot spring which I’m eager to see. Seeing that we are headed towards Lachung, three local women, a young girl and two older women, ask me for a ride which I happily offer.
The valley has numerous hot water springs rich in sulphur and with healing powers for many diseases. Among them this particular hot spring is very popular. To reach the white-coloured building housing the hot spring, I have to cross this small bridge over the raging river.
It is raining heavily and the wind is blowing strong as well. When I climb up to the place, I don’t see anybody around. I call out a couple of times till I see a young girl waving at me. She goes inside the house and returns with an older woman, perhaps, her mother. She greets me with a warm smile, and leads me towards a closed door. When she opens it, my senses are assailed by a strong smell which makes me want to leave the place immediately. The two women invite me to dip my hands in the greenish water and splash it over my head. No way! I just dip a finger in the cold water and touch my forehead and that’s it! I quickly cast a look at the bathing place and rush out. I hear a male voice inviting me to have tea inside. But I thank the smiling elderly woman telling her that I’m in a hurry right now. I return to the car, slightly drenched in the lashing rain. Tobgay tells me that he wanted to say that it isn’t a place for me but I was eager to take a look so he didn’t say anything. But the hot spring is very popular during the tourist season, especially with men.
We head back to Lachung. Since I have had a large bowl of noodles, I don’t feel hungry anymore. So when we drive through the Army cantonment, I don’t prod Tobgay to enquire about the momo shop. Besides, it is nearing 1:00 PM so I can lunch in my hotel.
Back at my hotel, lunch is the usual North Indian fare: rotis, vegetable paneer, rice, dal, papad, raw salad, pickle and dahi. The vegetable paneer is spicy so I have a roti with dahi. I can’t think of anything better to do than standing in the balcony sipping on warm water. Half an hour later, I go out on a stroll. Tobgay had told me about an old helipad nearby my hotel, offering a panoramic view of Lachung. The small road leading to it is in a bad state. Thanks to it, my shoes get mucky. As for the view, it is the same beautiful green hills and valley that can be seen from my hotel room balcony too. Right now, the lovely landscape is covered in thick fog. I return to the main road. Walking uphill, I near the Army cantonment area. If the weather hadn’t been bad, I could have walked right up to the Rhodendrom Sanctuary and returned back before 4:00 PM when the weather worsens in this region. It starts raining so I return to my hotel.
Since today is the last day for me to try the local millet beer Chang, I ask one the hotel boys if they know where I can get it. He says, “We don’t do intoxicants.” Idiot! As far as I know, even the best hotels in Gangtok serve Chang and this silly boy calls it…an intoxicant! Like Lachen, Lachung too looks desolate in off-season. I wonder where all the villagers and the so-called bars where Chang is sold have disappeared.
Back in my room, it is too cold to keep the balcony door open. An hour later, the power goes off. The room heater works on generator so it’s okay. But I need to recharge my mobile phone which works as my timekeeper. It is a bit dark inside the room so there is nothing else to do but sleep. Some time later, I’m roused from sleep by a ridiculous dream. I don’t believe it! In my dream I was taking two hens for a walk!!! Uff, first I find the idea of eating meat and chicken repulsive, wondering why one has to eat meat when there is so much green vegetation around. And now, I’m dreaming of taking hens for a walk! The power has returned so I plug in my mobile phone charger. I pour myself a glass of warm water and open the balcony door.
It is around 4:30 PM and I feel very hungry so when the room boy brings in hot snacks, I’m thrilled. But my joy is short-lived as I take a look at the plate. Bread pakoras! How can I eat bread slices that are dipped in batter and deep fried? I had expected vegetable pakoras like the ones served the previous evening. I tell the boy to take it away and get me a glass of milk at dinner time. I’m sure dinner is going to be the same…vegetable paneer, etc. so I’m not interested in having it. If only I could cook something in their kitchen for myself but these boys are silly enough for me to suggest it. I bite into a dark chocolate bar and tuck in a few biscuits.
Standing in the balcony watching the scenery, I suddenly become aware of someone screaming “HIIIIII” from below. When I hear the voice again, my eyes are drawn towards someone waving at me from the doorstep of one of the houses in the distance. It is a bit far for me to make out whether it is a male or female but the voice sounds feminine. It must be the young girl whom I had given a ride from Yumthang. I wave back. She screams “HIIIIIIII” again. Sweetie, don’t expect me to scream “Hiiii”! I wave at her again and look in another direction.
When it grows dark, I close the door and flop into bed. At 7:00 PM., the room boy gets me a glass of milk. He asks me if I would like to have vegetable soup or something. Vegetable soup? But of course! I tell him not to make it spicy. After I have finished the milk, I tell him to bring the soup. When it arrives, I take a spoonful of it and…it is spicy! I call the boy and tell him to take it away and get me another glass of milk. He had told the cook to make it less spicy. My mistake! I should have told him to skip the spices and make it bland. If I had returned back to Gangtok today morning itself, right now I would be enjoying delicious momos at Hotel Tibet. I go off to sleep at 9:00 PM.
Monday, 22 September 2014
I wake up at 5:30 AM. The weather is beautiful. At 5:46 AM, I get this lovely photo of the nearby hills from my window.
After a light breakfast of bread and butter, I check out of the hotel. It is 7:30 AM. Tobgay is ready with the car. Thankfully, it is not raining today. However, the fog persists as we start on the 125 KM journey to Gangtok. But first, we proceed towards the Lachung Gompa or Monastery. Unfortunately it is closed.
The Lachung Monastery, built around 1880, is situated amidst scenic surroundings.
The prayer wheel…
I see some lovely flowers around the place…
Tobgay shows me some apple trees which are laden with ripe fruits. I ask him why they haven’t been plucked. It seems that the apples here have a slightly bitter taste so people prefer the ones that come from Himachal Pradesh and are available in Gangtok. Years ago, there was a booming trade for Lachung apples. The villagers used to engage themselves in apple production but as time passed, the demand for these local fruits slowly diminished. And now, the trees are left to their fate. Besides apples, Lachung has an abundance of peaches and apricots.
After a short while, we start on the return journey. Since I have taken plenty of photographs of the beautiful landscape on the road from Gangtok to North Sikkim, I decide to sit back and just admire the scenic splendour of the drive on the way back. The Lachung river accompanies us throughout our journey from Lachung to Chumthang.
Chumthang is a small village with an old history so it is steeped in myths and legends. Chungthang valley is considered to be a holy place which has been blessed by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the patron saint of Sikkim. We stop at a small gurudwara here. The path leading to it passes by a small Buddhist temple. A short while later, as I walk out of the gurudwara, a turbaned Sikh, seeing that I have not taken the prasad, is very sweet enough to offer me half of what he has in his hand. It tastes absolutely yummy!!! I think it is the tastiest sheera that I have ever eaten. It has jaggery in it which is very soothing to my throat, a bit sore from all the coughing. I feel like going inside again to take a bit of the prasad kept in a plate. But that’s so greedy! Miffed by my conscience, I return to the car. I have saved some of the prasad for Tobgay. He is very happy when I offer it to him, and, like me, he too finds it very delicious.
From Chumthang, Gangtok is about four hours away. We have passed by so many small waterfalls along the road that I have got used to the beauty of it. The weather is bright and sunny but thick clouds in the far distance spoil the chance of catching a view of the Kangchenjunga. The fresh air is many a time polluted by the black exhaust fumes of the passing vehicles. My cough problem which had stopped on my trip to Gurudongmar Lake, had returned the same day later in the evening in Lachung. So I lightly wrap my scarf around my nose. Sikkim seems to be having a large number of unskilled migrant labour working on road construction and repairs. I see more of them than the locals on the North Sikkim road.
Some kilometres short of Gangtok, I see these terraced rice paddy fields.
Most of the land in Sikkim is unsuitable for agriculture because of the rocky, steep slopes. However, some fertile hill slopes have been converted into terrace farms where commercial production of ginger, fruit, tea and cardamom is carried out in abundance.
As we near Gangtok, I feel a bit sad to leave North Sikkim behind but at the same time I look forward to eating momos at my hotel. I’m that hungry! We reach the Gangtok taxi stand around 1:30 PM. The young chap from the tour agency is waiting for our arrival at the taxi stand. I roll out a 500 rupee note in Tobgay’s hand as a token of good service as well as to cover his expenses for the four day trip. Normally I don’t believe in tipping, be it at hotels or anywhere else, but when I hire a car on a long journey I do tip the driver at the end of the trip.
A few minutes later, I reach Hotel Tibet. It feels great to be back at the hotel and in the same room where I had stayed earlier. I still have to try a few more of the hotel’s Tibetan delicacies. But first, I’m dying to eat chicken momos. They reach my room within 15 minutes of my placing the order. Look at them…
I hungrily finish off the hot and freshly prepared steamed dumplings within the next 15 minutes. After a brief rest, I’m ready to visit the city’s primary shopping areas. I make the balance amount of the North Sikkim trip at the travel agency and walk in the direction of M.G. Road. I really enjoy walking around the cobbled road of this ‘no traffic, no litter and spit-free zone’. Besides shops, cafes and restaurants, there are bars and pubs, live band and karaoke restaurants and they all give a good glimpse of urban life in modern Gangtok. Moreover, this mall road offers a wonderful window shopping experience.
From here, steps go down leading to the Lal Bazaar, which is a narrow, crowded place lined with shops selling all kinds of “Made in China” goods including souvenirs and gifts. At the end of it, is the Kanchenjunga Market, a multi-storey market selling all kinds of foodstuff including and vegetables. By the time I reach the Kanchenjunga Market, it is nearing closing time. While some vendors are packing up, others are going about their work. Aside from household items, there are many interesting foodstuff to see… Tibetan foodstuff, Tibetan incense, dried stuff including dried fish, numerous varieties of noodles, etc. And of course, there are many Chinese items too.
When I return to my hotel it is 8:00 PM. It takes some time for me to decide what to order for dinner. I’m tempted to try shaphalay (Tibetan bread stuffed with meat) but it is deep-fried. So in the end, I settle for noodle soup with vegetables. I love it! It is bland but wholesome just like I want it to be. It’s a pity that I won’t be able to try the rest of the Himalayan delights because I’m leaving for Kalimpong the next morning.
It is my last night in Sikkim and I feel a sense of sadness at the thought of leaving this mesmerizing place, the land of Kangchenjunga. Maybe I can walk down to the Paljor Stadium to take a look at Kangchenjunga for the fourth and the last time before I leave Sikkim. But something tells me that the holy mountain won’t be visible tomorrow because I’m leaving. Still, I can only hope…
I go off to sleep at 10:00 PM.
Coming next: My Adventures in Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong – Part 7 of 7