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I hope that you all have thoroughly enjoyed reading my previous post:
Here is the continuing story… Happy reading 🙂
Thursday, 18 September 2014
As usual I’m up at 5:00 AM. I open the window facing the hillside and…ooh what’s this? I see a snow-capped peak. Kangchenjunga??? But it can’t be…can it? The outline of the mountains seems to be at the same distance (if not closer) as I had seen in Pelling. And Gangtok is in the east, further away from Kangchenjunga in West Sikkim. I’m confused.
At 5:11 AM…
My heart tells me it has to be the Kangchenjunga range but logic tells me otherwise. I wait for a clear picture.
At 5:26 AM…
The building in the front obstructs my view. I’m not sure whether or not it is the Kangchenjunga peak. But I’m very sure that it is part of the Kangchenjunga family. Four minutes later, I see this spectacular view of a snow-capped peak bathed in brilliant splashes of orange and red.
At 5:30 AM…
(Just a few days ago, I came across this amazing video Sunrise on Kanchendzonga I still don’t know whether the prominent golden peak was Kangchenjunga or Siniolchu.)
If only the weather had been clear in Darjeeling for me to get the 360 degree panoramic view of the entire Eastern Himalayan range. I feel something very special about Kangchenjunga – India’s highest and the world’s third highest mountain – which through the ages has been worshipped by people across Sikkim and Darjeeling. Though Darjeeling in West Bengal offers some spectacular views of the revered mountain, it can be viewed from almost all locations in Sikkim on a clear day. During sunrise and sunset, it is washed in colours of golden, orange and red while in the daytime, it can be viewed as a majestic white giant. At night, it shines resplendent in the moonlight, looming over almost every place in Sikkim. It is no wonder then that the Kangchenjunga is much more than a mountain to the Sikkimese. It is regarded as Sikkim’s guardian spirit, a deity which the locals believe watches over them.
Half an hour later, the reddish-orange hues disappear and I see the snow peaks even more clearly even though the rooftop of the building ahead blocks my magnificent view.
At 6:02 AM…
I have to be at the travel agency at 7:45 AM so I move away from the window. To avoid motion sickness on the curvy uphill drive to Nathu La, I have a light breakfast: toast and butter and black tea. I’m all prepared to leave when I feel a slight irritation in my left eye thanks to a thick eyelash which has wandered off in some corner of my eye. I let it pass knowing it will come out soon.
At the travel agency, the young chap is waiting along with the agency manager, who has my permit for Nathu La. Since Nathu La is a restricted area, foreign tourists are not allowed here. Indians require a valid permit which can be obtained from the Sikkim Tourism Centre at MG Road or through their hotel or travel agent after providing photo ID proof and photo at least one day before the planned visit. The road to Nathu La is in a bad condition at some places so large vehicles like Scorpio, Bolero, Sumo, etc. are preferred to small cars. The manager has arranged a Scorpio for me. He asks me if I have any breathing problems because the oxygen level is very low at Nathu La which is at a high altitude of 14, 150 feet. Some people carry Diamox tablets (prescribed for heart attack, to make the blood thinner) or portable oxygen cylinders which are available at medical shops in the city but I know I won’t be needing either of them. Four years ago, I had travelled to the high-altitude regions of Ladakh and Tawang so I know about altitude sickness which, thankfully, had not affected me at that time. Anyway, tourist car drivers are equipped with garlic – just in case the need arises.
The hired car is yet to arrive. From my seat, I look out through the glass panel and my glance falls on what looks to be a snow-capped peak looming over the mountain. KANGCHENJUNGA!!! I jump from the chair and rush outside. It is a snow-capped peak! Due to the surrounding clouds, it does not immediately stand out as a snow peak. I point it out to the young chap who looks in that direction and keeps staring at it as if he has never seen it before. After a few minutes, he tells me that it cannot be Kangchenjunga because it is not visible from here but from down the road. He is quite confident that it is some other mountain. When the manager returns, he asks for confirmation from him. The manager’s reaction to the peak is similar to that of the youngster. He keeps looking at it. Then he returns inside and declares that it is not Kangchenjunga. My face falls. Something tells me it is the holy mountain but if the locals say it is not then what can I say. The view is enclosed between two buildings, the one to the right being my hotel. I take this photo choosing to believe it is the Kangchenjunga.
At 7:57 AM…
(AND YOU KNOW WHAT? After returning home from my trip, when I looked for pictures of Kangchenjunga on the Internet, I discovered that the snow-capped peak was, indeed… the holy mountain!)
Here is an image of the beautiful snow-covered Kanchenjunga range.
Pic courtesy: http://rajbhavansikkim.gov.in/location.aspx
The car has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, we discuss my next day’s travel plan. The manager tells me that my permit for North Sikkim is not yet ready so I will have to start my journey a bit late at 9:30 AM. It is a 5-6 hour journey depending upon the halts made to admire the scenic views on the way. He offers to help me with my North Sikkim itinerary. I tell him I plan to spend one night in Lachen and two nights in Lachung which is what travel forums normally recommend. Gurudongmar Lake is closer from Lachen, which is a small village with not many hotels around compared to Lachung. He tells me I should spend two nights in Lachen and one night in Lachung because there is nothing to see in Lachung besides Yumthang Valley which is just an hour away. I’m confused. I think he has misheard the names so I stress “Lachen” and “Lachung” but he has heard me right the first time itself and his suggestion remains the same. Anyway, I thank him for his help. I’ll decide what to do when I reach the place and see things for myself. The younger guy adds in that the best place to stay in Lachen is at a luxurious place called Yarlam Resort. I note down hotel suggestions for both places.
By now, my eye irritation has started bothering me. So much that I return to my hotel room and remove my contact lenses. That is when I realize that my spectacles are inside the tote bag that I have left at the travel agency. I dial Reception and request them to send someone across the road to fetch my bag. Now I think it is good that I’m not wearing my lenses because the low oxygen content in air at Nathu La would be bad for my eyes.
We start the journey at 8:30 AM. The driver is a quiet sort or perhaps he is uncomfortable to have an unaccompanied female passenger. I’m unable to catch his name even when he repeats it so I let it pass. In the absence of music, it is a silent journey. I ask him questions and he replies in monosyllables. Hah, he will be singing like a canary in no time. I think that I’m a good conversationalist. Besides, it becomes very difficult for anybody to remain quiet when I’m around.
After driving uphill for about thirty minutes, we reach the check post where tourist permits are required to be registered. While Driver deals with the formalities, I take the opportunity to enjoy the scenic views.
Watch my video: Scenic view around the Nathu La check post
When I see Driver returning, I head back to the car. Before we start, the police officer comes to tell me to try to return before 4:00 PM. Sure, I tell him. The weather is bright and sunny but it might change anytime. Usually tourists start for Tsomgo Lake (popularly known as Changu Lake) and Baba Mandir at 8:00 AM so as to return by 3:00 PM. If Nathu La is added to the trip it takes an hour more to return to Gangtok. Having started at 8:30 AM, we have to rush up things a bit to return to Gangtok before 4:00 PM after which the weather usually worsens. Above all, the weather has to be good else there would be landslides resulting in road blocks.
Half an hour later, the rough uphill road becomes too much for the Scorpio car and its engine gets overheated. We stop next to a small waterfall.
When Driver lifts the bonnet, large plumes of steam begin to billow upward. He has a bucket on hand for such emergencies. He fills it with water and throws it on the engine. While he continues with the exercise, I walk up the road to take in the familiar views of high mountains and deep valleys.
Watch my video: View on the road to Nathu La
Soon, the vehicle catches up with me but less than minutes later we are stopped by a recent landslide. The JCB is doing its work.
Watch my video: Landslide on the road to Nathu La
A few minutes later, the road is cleared.
By this time, Driver feels relaxed and opens up to me. He shares with me the customs, lifestyle and difficulties of the people of this region. On our way, I see some youngsters working on the road along with other adults. Children of the poor villagers living on forest land walk down miles to their school in Gangtok. They complete their education but due to lack of job opportunities they turn to what their parents have been doing…work on road construction. Landslides and rough roads keep them busy.
The rough road ends and we reach a place where a couple of cars have stopped for breakfast at the small roadside eatery. This is the last place on the road to Nathu La where food and refreshments are available. Driver stops for breakfast. The lone woman at the small place is multi-tasking between taking orders for the limited menu of Maggi noodles, eggs and tea, preparing it and accepting payments. The place also offers woollen wear on rent for tourists not dressed for the high-altitude climate ahead. While Driver has his food, I take a short walk around the place. It is 10:30 AM when we resume our journey. The road is tarred and in good condition so it’s a smooth drive from here onwards. Changu Lake is less than half an hour away.
A few kilometres ahead is the Kyongnosla Alpine Sanctuary, home to rare animals and birds like the state animal, Red Panda and the state bird, Blood Pheasant. Besides its zoological richness, this place also abounds in numerous medicinal plants. Driver tells me that botanists, mostly from foreign countries, often make trips to explore the vast botanical wealth of this scenic place. These herbs are said to cure anything so locals hardly require a doctor’s help. The land belongs to the state forest department so people are not allowed to sell the valuable herbs growing in this region. Yet, some energy-providing medicinal herbs are sold to foreign companies producing expensive energy drinks. These herbs are found in plenty in neighbouring Nepal and Tibet too. I ask Driver if there is any herb for thick hair. There is one, but it grows towards the end of winter.
We reach Changu Lake but drive past it because our first destination is Nathu La which is at a higher altitude. Right now we are at an altitude of 12,400 feet above sea level. We pass the northern end of this one-km long beautiful lake and climb the steep mountainous road.
It is a bit foggy now. We pass by a village where Chinese goods are sold at a cheaper rate, almost 50% lower than those available in Gangtok. Driver points out a building complex with numerous parked trucks straight ahead. It is the staging post for the Indo-Chinese land trade. It is here that goods are unloaded from Indian trucks and loaded onto Chinese trucks. I’m ready with my camera but Driver tells me that photography is not permitted for security reasons. Neither can we slow down. Further on, we drive past some lovely lakes. As we climb higher into the mountains, the scenery changes drastically. The surroundings are covered in a thick fog.
Watch my video: Scenic view while nearing Nathu La
We reach Nathu La at 11:30 AM. After spending an hour cooped up in the vehicle, it feels great to walk around in the fog and cold. Wow! From 5,410 feet (in Gangtok) to 14,150 feet within 56 kilometres…that’s almost 9000 feet covered in three hours! I stop to take this picture of the approach road to Nathu La from above.
After five minutes of uphill climb, I step on the path to Nathu La…
A very important Army official is expected to arrive soon so the red carpet has been rolled out for him. From what I overhear, it is the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of this region.
Nathu La is located along the 563 km Old Silk Route (an offshoot of the historic Silk Road), which connected the Tibetan capital of Lhasa with the plains of West Bengal. It was through this place that trade was carried between both countries till war broke out between India and China in 1962. Since then Indian and Chinese soldiers kept a watch over each other with barely five feet separating them on either side of the barbed-wire fence that blocks the pass. But 44 years later, in 2006, the Old Silk Route was reopened to allow limited border trade between India and Tibet.
In the pre-1961 days, when trade with Tibet flourished, hundreds of mules used to carry pens, watches, cereals, cotton cloth, medicines, edible oils, soaps, building materials, and dismantled scooters and four-wheelers from Gangtok to Lhasa. The journey would take 20-25 days. From Tibet, the mules used to carry raw wool, fur, silk, musk pods, medicinal plants, country liquor, gold, precious stones, gold and silverware for India. Nearly 95% of the 200 authorised firms belonged to traders from the enterprising Marwari community of Rajasthan, who made Sikkim their home.
Today, trucks carry petroleum products, hardware, steel and food products to Tibet. Imports to India include electronic goods, among others. It takes weeks to drive from Beijing or Shanghai to Lhasa. And Tibet depends on China for everything, from hairpins and cloth to food and fuel. It takes half the time to reach Lhasa via West Bengal and Sikkim. Lhasa is just 431 km from Nathu La. The pass closes to trade in the winter months due to heavy snow and the harsh cold.
Nathu La pass is not just a centuries-old trade route between India and Tibet. It would be particularly useful for pilgrims visiting monasteries in Sikkim such as Rumtek, one of the holiest shrines in Buddhism. For Hindus, the pass reduces the journey time to the highly sacred Mansarovar Lake in Tibet. The only route available to Indians travelling to Tibet is through Nepal right now and it takes 15 days to reach. Through Nathu La, it will take just two days.
A stairway leads to the fenced Indo-China border. A few metres away, there is a war memorial. In 1967, a major confrontation took place here between the two countries and many lives were lost on both sides. The memorial was constructed in honour of the Indian soldiers who lost their lives in this battle.
Watch my video: Indian Army soldiers pay homage at Nathu La War Memorial
Climbing on, I reach the barbed-wire border fence and see a few Chinese soldiers on the other side, just a few feet away.
On the Chinese side the pass leads to the Chumbi Valley of the Tibetan Plateau.
The Chinese soldiers walking along their side of the border are youngsters. One of them is very friendly and has a ready smile for the Indian tourists trying to take a close look at their side of the border.
Watch my video: Chinese soldiers at Nathu La pass bordering India and Tibet
He sees me and gives me a thumbs up.
I ask him if I can take a photograph with him and he happily says…yes! Pleased, I thank him. I request a passing tourist to click our photograph…and he does an excellent job!
I have tried to stretch my upper body as far as possible into Tibet and my hand has accomplished this successfully. The young soldier has clasped my hand in a firm grip and shakes it a bit after the photo click to attract my attraction. “Didi!” That’s the Hindi word for “sister”. He stresses the word again. “Didi, you are welcome!” Bro, that is so sweet! Maybe he stressed the word “sister” for the benefit of onlookers including the nearest watchful Indian soldier.
Suddenly, I realize that I need to shake hands with one of my Indian soldiers too. Now how can I do that without sending wrong signals? By taking a photograph with them, of course! But they are not permitted to do so for security reasons. I plead. That’s the most I can do. But they refuse. All I want to do right now is…shake hands with one of my Indian soldiers! Why can’t they understand? Maybe I will find a soldier to shake hands with in North Sikkim. Weird, it is alright to take a picture with an enemy soldier but not with your own soldier. Nooooooooo, that sweet Chinese brother of mine with a smiling face cannot be an enemy! There is something so very kind and genuine about him unlike his fellow soldiers.
But reality cannot be brushed aside. India went to war with China in 1962 and since then we have lost some territories to them including Aksai Chin way up in the North. India’s arch enemy, Pakistan, who has been sheltering almost all the terrorists wanted in India for heinous crimes, gifted them territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) which originally belonged to India. They claimed Sikkim to be theirs till 1993, when in exchange, India officially accepted Tibet as an autonomous region of China. Now they are after Arunachal Pradesh. They keep encroaching upon Indian territory in Ladakh. The last cold skirmish took place just a few days ago. They provide arms and ammunition to India’s enemies, including terrorists in the North-Eastern region. And now I’m pleased to shake hands with this friendly young Chinese “brother”. Hmmm…
Among the tourists, I see a couple I had seen before in Pelling. Someone is telling another that cigarette lighters don’t work in Nathu La because of low oxygen content in air. I see this Chinese soldier watching us from his post…
Barbed-wire fence separates the two stairways leading to the watch posts of the Indian and Chinese soldiers. To the right is the Indian watch post with the Indian flag hoisted atop…
This is the bandstand where official programmes are held…
View of the car park area…
View of the way up to the border…
Watch my video: Surrounding view of Nathu La
When I return to the car, I describe my visit to Driver. He is impressed when I tell him about my handshake with the Chinese soldier who called me “sister”. He tells me that a few years ago the soldiers posted at the pass were much older than the youngsters of today. It turns out that he had travelled to China for business soon after the pass was reopened for border trade. He had tried his hand in garment business but gave it up later. He relates some of his experiences there. He tells me how he was surprised to find numerous foreign companies operating in China. And then he tells me something I had never known before: some years ago, China had tried to cross into Sikkim but some of the Western and South-East Asian countries (one beautiful country, in particular) had come to India’s rescue so they had to drop the move.
Our next destination is Baba Mandir, about three kilometres away. It is dedicated to Baba Harbajan Singh, an Indian Army soldier who died near the Nathu La Pass in 1968. He is revered by the Indian Army soldiers, who have built this shrine in his honour. We pass by this mist-covered scenic place, Kupup, where I wanted to stop earlier, on our way to Nathu La.
Watch my video: Misty scenic view near Nathu La – 1
Its 18-hole golf course, at 13,025 feet, is the highest in the world. The mesmerising landscape is a feast for the eyes…
Watch my video: Misty scenic view near Nathu La – 3
The highest ATM in the world (at 13,200 feet) is located at a small place on the way to Nathu La. Although I myself didn’t see it, this UTI Bank ATM, mostly used by Indian Army soldiers, operates on generator and a special fuel that does not freeze at high altitudes. So the counterfoil slip is more like a souvenir for visiting tourists.
We soon reach Baba Mandir, which is at an altitude of 13,128 feet. High up in the air, the Indian flag looks so very beautiful amidst serene mountainous surroundings.
Watch my video: Baba Mandir near Nathu La and Changu Lake
Driver tells me that he is going to park the car somewhere ahead. I climb out and busy myself with clicking the national flag. It is a bit windy to capture it picture-perfect on camera but after trying for 10-15 minutes, I get this beautiful photograph…
I show it to some of the soldiers standing nearby and they are impressed. I walk towards the shrine which, over the years, has become a place of pilgrimage. As a mark of respect, I remove my hat before I enter the temple. It is good that I have covered my head with a silk scarf. Sikh temples usually require people to cover their head with a scarf or any other cloth. Inside, there are some hand painted pictures of the turbaned “Baba” Harbhajan Singh. Many who come here and leave a bottle of drinking water which they arrange to collect a few days later. It is believed that by drinking this water, wishes get fulfilled. Passing Army trucks stop here for soldiers to offer quick prayers before proceeding ahead. Baba is worshipped as a saint who grants boons and guards the lives of soldiers posted along the inhospitable border terrain.
Just as I exit the premises, an Army officer makes an entrance. He looks like a high-ranking officer. On seeing me, he tips his cap in a greeting. Ooh, how absolutely sweet! I’m charmed by the old-school mannerism. Should I shake hands with him? Nope, it would embarrass him in front of the conservative-looking people around. Anyway, both my hands occupied, one with my camera and other with the temple prasad of raisins and sugar balls.
Walking around, I see a man selling what I think are brochures or pamphlets. They turn out to be certificates of having visited Nathu La. There are two types, one with space to paste visitor’s photograph and the other without it. Both carry signatures of the Garrison Commander. I buy both for 110 rupees. One of them has these beautiful pearls of wisdom: “Nations have no permanent friends or foes. They only have permanent interests! It takes years to build capabilities; intention can change any time!”
I don’t see my Scorpio anywhere around. One of the men standing nearby, perhaps a tourist car driver, directs me towards the place where my tourist car is parked. On reaching the vehicle, I offer the Prasad to Driver. Oops! I have unknowingly finished off all the raisins in my hand! I tell this to Driver all with childlike innocence. The driver of the adjacent parked car has heard me and breaks into a chuckle. Driver is happy that I have brought him the prasad, whether with or without raisins.
We start for Changu Lake, which is 15 kilometres away. On the way, we stop to admire this magnificent mountainous landscape.
And then we stop at a few roadside lakes…
Twenty minutes later, we are at Changu Lake. It has started drizzling so the weather is slightly chilly. Driver tells me that it is not good to stay out long in this weather. Right now, it is 1:45 PM. So I think it is best to start from Gangtok at 7:30 AM because the weather here usually turns unpleasantly cold in the afternoon.
Our vehicle is immediately surrounded by yak dealers. A yak ride along the lake seems like fun but Driver has already advised me to refuse them because of the bad weather. It would also delay our return to Gangtok.
The serene beauty of the lake and its misty hilly environs is captivating. Colourful Buddhist prayer flags adorn the lake side.
Changu Lake is a holy place for the people of Sikkim. It is a glacial lake with an average depth of about 50 feet. During the warm season, the area around the lake is home to a variety of flowers like Rhodorendrons and Primulas. During winter, the lake gets frozen and sometimes the road also gets closed due to heavy snowfall. Foreign tourists are allowed to visit the lake after obtaining a permit.
I see many tourist cars passing by the road on their way to Gangtok but they don’t stop by the lake. Perhaps they stopped at the lake in the morning before proceeding to Nathu La or Baba Mandir. I cannot resist the temptation of taking a photograph with one of the colourfully decorated yaks. This one looks good…
“Laath toh nahi marega, na?”(He won’t kick, right?), I jokingly ask the yak dealer, before climbing the yak. He feigns horror. “No, he is well-trained. He won’t do any such thing.” The short climb costs 50 rupees and I get this nice photograph…
The men keep insisting that I take a short ride along the lake but I refuse. The yak looks a pretty picture. I touch its side with a finger and that place experiences a twitch. I do it again… and then, again like a naughty child. Just that place, why doesn’t the entire side twitch? I poke it again. The fifth time I do that, it jerks its head towards me. To warn me off, I guess.
Watch my video: Tsomgo Lake ( or Changu Lake)
Watch my video: Changu Lake
It has started raining. When I’m back inside the vehicle, my head starts feeling a bit heavy. This, despite wearing a hat and a silk scarf beneath it. For the third time in the day, I ask Driver “Aren’t you feeling cold?” He laughs and gives me the same answer: “No, we are used to the cold and high altitudes.” While everyone else is covered in warm clothes, he is dressed in sunny weather clothes: cotton shirt and trousers.
After the brief halt at the lake, I get a strong feeling of headache and nausea. The snaky road worsens my nausea. Half way to Gangtok, I think of popping a Strepsils cough drops lying inside my sling bag. Although I have been coughing for weeks, I have never taken it before. I should have sipped on water instead because fifteen minutes later I experience severe nausea. After passing a curve, I tell Driver to stop the Scorpio. I puke out the cough drop and instantly feel better. My headache and nausea vanishes. It is 38 kilometres from Changu Lake to Gangtok, almost a two hour journey. But we reach within one and a half hour at 3:30 PM.
I did not know that Paljor Stadium, the only football stadium in Gangtok, was close to my hotel till I see it when Driver drives down the road past my hotel. Sikkimese people are football-crazy so I’m glad to see this place which houses around 30000 people.
Back in my room, I feel hunger pangs so I ask for some hot pakoras and black tea. After a brief rest, I drop in at the travel agency to make the balance payment of the Nathu La tour and the advance payment for the four-day North Sikkim tour. From there, I go to MG Road for a cybercafé where I can transfer all my digital photos to my USB drive. It is dark when I return to my hotel. Already I’m feeling headache and nausea. An hour after finishing off the thick never-ending vegetable Sokthuk (Tibetan pasta soup), I throw up in the potty. After puking more than half a bucket, I feel totally drained off. It is raining outside so when I open the bathroom window I feel a little better. I call Room Service for a jar of hot water but nobody is answering the phone. It is 10:30 PM. Tired, I go to bed.
I can’t stop thinking about my next day’s journey to North Sikkim. How will I be able to travel on a six-hour uphill journey to Lachen in bad health? What if I throw up during the journey? I’m sure that I’m not suffering from Altitude sickness or AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). But I remember puking more than twenty times during the 18-hour uphill journey to Ladakh, from Manali to Leh. That was the last time I had taken travel sickness medication because I had puked in spite of taking the tablets. The first night and the next day in Leh had been horrible because I was unable to breathe through my problematic nose and had to do so through my mouth. Now it seems funny but at that time, I thought that I was going to die in sleep due to lack of oxygen. After two sleepless nights I had felt better on the third day. Leh is well-equipped with doctors and oxygen cylinders but the same cannot be said of the sparsely populated region of North Sikkim. Tourists have to carry oxygen cylinders from Gangtok.
To make things worse, it has started raining cats and dogs so the mountainous road to North Sikkim would most probably get blocked. Perhaps it would be better to start for Lachen the day after tomorrow. That would mean cutting short my tour to 2N/3D, which is the average duration of stay of most tourists in North Sikkim. But I, of course, wanted to spend an extra day to enjoy the beauty of this picturesque region. Sigh, let’s see how things work out in the morning.
Sleep doesn’t come to me even past 11:30 PM…