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Hi, A warm welcome to my blog 🙂

I hope you all have enjoyed reading my previous post:

My Adventures in Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong – Part 5 of 7

Here’s the continuing story… Happy reading 🙂

Sunday, 21 September 2014

At 5:15 AM, I wake up after a good night’s sleep with the glowing “night sky and stars” ceiling wallpaper above me. When I draw the curtains and let in the morning light, the glow effect disappears. Out in the balcony, the sublime beauty of Lachung greets me.

Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room balcony

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The weather is foggy but from the room’s side window, I get a beautiful view of the surrounding hills.

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Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room window

The natural scenic splendour makes my heart sing, literally! At 6:30 AM, it’s broad daylight. The lush green surroundings that I was admiring last evening now look even more wondrous. The picturesque sight awakens my senses. The many cascades and waterfalls along mountain slopes, the roaring sound of the Lachung river, the refreshing smell of crisp, clean mountain air…it’s simply wow!

The view from my balcony…

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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’s 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 my room balcony, I return to bed. I get the same view from my bedside window too.

6 Lachung hotel room view

The mountain view from the side window is absolutely awesome… check the below video!

Watch my video: View from my Lachung hotel room window

The room TV has just a few channels and they are all boring. Though it’s cold, I keep the windows and balcony door open. A hot shower does wonders for me. I pull the room heater closer and wait patiently for my breakfast. It arrives at 7:30 AM. Bread with butter and jam, and piping hot but greasy aloo parathas. I just have bread and butter.

From the noise 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.

At 8:15 AM, I’m ready for the 24 km drive to Yumthang Valley. It’s an hour’s drive to the lush green valley where the tree line ends. Yarlam Resort, which is said to be the best hotel in the village, is just a few metres away from my hotel. Hmmm… looks good. The road to Yumthang passes through an Indian Army cantonment which is close by. Tourist permits are checked at the entrance. A little ahead, I’m delighted to see a “Momo shop” but it’s closed now.

Further on, we stop as a 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 at what he sees. He immediately starts thrashing the bull with his stick, 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 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 killed his sexual desire… 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’s raining and the road condition 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, Shingba Rhododendron 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 stone debris 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’s 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 stand on the left of the road while the lush green meadow spreads out on the right.

Watch my video: View of Yumthang Valley near Lachung – I

Just in case I lose track of time while basking in the pristine beauty of the stunning natural surroundings, I inform Tobgay that I will be back in one and a half hours’ time.

Covering a short distance, I’m overwhelmed by the picturesque scenery: a sprawling green meadow nestled between densely-forested hills shrouded in fog with a sparkling river flowing alongside it. I continue in the direction of the river bank.

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There’s no sign of tourists or locals, just these horses grazing…
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The tranquil atmosphere is soothing. Large clusters of white prayer flags line both sides of the river…

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Watch my video: View of Yumthang Valley near Lachung – II

A wild mushroom…

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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.

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12 Lachung River

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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 forested hills right ahead…I can’t help but sing!

Watch my video: Lachung River in Yumthang Valley

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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

15 Yumthang

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Some time later, I proceed towards the nearby forest.

Watch my video: Lachung River in Yumthang Valley

A few wild flowers…

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Inside the thick forest, it feels a bit cold. Towering conifers greet me everywhere. I try to imagine how stunningly beautiful it would look in spring time when colourful rhododendrons beautify the landscape. An annual Rhododendron festival is hosted during spring to create awareness of the original habitat of this Himalayan flowering plant. Besides the ubiquitous rhododendron, more than 600 varieties of orchids are found in this amazing land 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.

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Time flies. It’s close to two hours of solitary walk. 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.

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The road is just nearby. After a 20-minute brisk 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 to the nearest shack. When I step inside, I immediately feel the warmth around the fireplace. A bunch of tourists are on their way out, making room for me in the small place. I was thinking my delay would have prompted Tobgay to organize a search party. But no, this fellow is coolly chatting with the locals.

I remember the time when I was travelling in the high-altitude region of “Roof of the World” Ladakh and in Tawang in 2010. Since I was travelling with the Indian Army, 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 alone. Once when we were somewhere near Tawang, the vehicle had stopped for tea at a roadside hotel. I told my Army escort that I would stay back in the car. While he was away, I went off to see some Chinese bunkers from the 1962 Indo-China war just a short distance away, on a hill. Halfway on my return, I saw the tense-looking soldier approaching my way. A local woman had given him the directions of my path. 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. He was handed the duty of protecting me at all times, so he was carrying out his duty diligently.

Seated around the fire, I feel very warm and comfortable. The cold chill has made me hungry. 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 rhododendrons and the frozen Gurudongmar Lake.

The three youngsters – the girl, Tobgay and another boy – have done their schooling till 10th grade. I converse with them about education facilities in North Sikkim. They tell me that 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 despite further education is another thing that discourages them.

Rested and refreshed, it’s time to leave. Tobgay asks me if I want to continue till Zero Point. There’s no sense in spending 2000 bucks when I know I won’t be able to see anything in foggy weather. So I tell him to drive back to Lachung. Seeing that we are headed towards Lachung, three local women, a young girl and two older women, request me for a ride and I readily oblige. On the way, we are going to pass by the well-known Yumthang hot spring.

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.

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It’s raining heavily and the wind is blowing strong as well. When I reach the place, there’s nobody around. I call out a couple of times. A young girl comes out of the house and waves at me. She goes back inside to return with an older woman, perhaps, her mother. The latter greets me with a warm smile, and leads me towards a closed door. The moment 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 throw a quick 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. I return to the car, slightly drenched in the lashing rain. Tobgay says he wanted to tell me that it wasn’t a place for me but I was eager to take a look so he kept quiet. Still, 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 remind Tobgay about enquiring at the momo shop. I reach my hotel at around 1:00 PM. 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 near the hotel, offering a panoramic view of Lachung. I follow the narrow dirt road leading to it and my shoes get caked with mud. As for the view, it’s the same as seen from my room balcony. Soon, the entire 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 before 4:00 PM when the weather worsens in this region. It starts raining heavily so I return to my hotel.

Since today is the last day for me to try the local millet beer Chang, I ask one of 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! Hmph! Like Lachen, Lachung too looks desolate in off-season. I wonder where all the villagers and the so-called bars selling Chang have gone.

Back in my room, it’s 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. It’s a bit dark inside the room so there’s 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’m finding the idea of eating meat and chicken repulsive (like why eat meat when there are plenty of fresh vegetables available?)… and now, I’m dreaming of taking hens for a walk! I guess the clean air has gotten into me.

Power supply returns after a short while. I pour myself a glass of warm water and step into the balcony. It’s around 4:30 PM and I feel very hungry. 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 dipped in chickpea batter and deep fried? I had expected vegetable pakoras like the ones served last 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. I bite into a dark chocolate bar and tuck in a few biscuits.

Standing in the balcony admiring the landscape, I suddenly become aware of someone screaming “Hiiiiiii” from below. I squint my eyes and see someone waving at me from the doorstep of one of the houses which are too far for me to make out whether the figure is male or female. But the voice definitely sounds feminine. It must be the girl whom I had given a ride from Yumthang. I wave back. She screams “Hiiiiii” 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 get into bed. At 7:00 PM., the room boy brings my 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 get the soup. When it arrives, I take a spoonful of it and…ugh, it’s 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 to Gangtok in the morning, right now I would be enjoying delicious momos at Hotel Tibet. Sigh. I go 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.

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After a light breakfast of bread and butter, I check out of the hotel. It’s 7:30 AM. Tobgay is ready with the car. Thankfully, it’s 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’s closed.

The Lachung Monastery, built around 1880, is situated amidst scenic surroundings.

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The prayer wheel…

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 I see some lovely flowers around the place…

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Tobgay shows me some apple trees which are laden with ripe fruits. I wonder why they haven’t been plucked. Tobgay tells me 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 market for Lachung apples. The villagers engaged 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 already have plenty of photographs of the scenic drive from Gangtok to North Sikkim, I decide to sit back and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery 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’s steeped in myths and legends. Chungthang valley is considered to be a holy place blessed by Guru Rinpoche (Padmasambhava), the patron saint of Sikkim. We stop at a small gurudwara here. I follow the narrow pedestrian path leading to the place. Along the way, there’s a small Buddhist temple. There are just one or two people inside the gurudwara. After a while, when I step outside, a turbaned Sikh approaches me. He asks me whether I have taken the prasad (food offered to the gods). No, because I didn’t see anyone serving it. He says it’s kept in a vessel and visitors can take it before leaving the gurudwara. I’m thinking whether to re-enter just to take the prasad. I guess he must have read my thoughts because he offers to share his prasad with me. He insists, so I relent. He gives me nearly half of his share! How sweet! The prasad tastes absolutely yummy!!! I think it’s the tastiest sheera that I have ever had! It has jaggery in it which is soothing to my throat, that has become a bit sore from repeated bouts of coughing. I feel like going back inside just for the prasad. But that’s so greedy! Miffed by my conscience, I return to the car. I have saved a bit of the prasad for Tobgay. He’s 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 driven past so many waterfalls along the road that I have got used to their beauty. The weather is bright and sunny but thick clouds in the far distance spoil the chance of seeing the Kangchenjunga. My coughing had stopped on the trip to Gurudongmar Lake, but it started again later in the evening in Lachung. Probably because of passing vehicles spewing massive clouds of evil-looking black smoke that pollute the clean, fresh air. So I tie a silk scarf around my face covering the nose and mouth.

Some kilometres short of Gangtok, I see these terraced rice paddy fields…

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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 having momos in my hotel room. I’m that hungry! We reach the Gangtok taxi stand at around 1:30 PM. I roll out a 500 rupee note from my wallet and hand it to Tobgay as a token of good service as well as to cover his expenses for the four day trip. I don’t believe in tipping, be it at hotels or anywhere else, but when I hire a car on a long journey I normally tip the driver at the end of the trip.

A few minutes later, I’m at Hotel Tibet. It feels great to be back at the hotel and in the same room where I had stayed earlier. There are a few more Tibetan delicacies that I have yet to try. But first, I’m dying to have chicken momos.

They are in my room within 15 minutes after placing the order. Yummmm…

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I hungrily devour the steamed dumplings and finish them in ten minutes flat. After a brief rest, I’m ready to visit the city’s main shopping areas. I make the balance payment of the North Sikkim trip at the travel agency before walking towards M.G. Road. It feels good to stroll 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. There are steps going 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 stands the Kanchenjunga Market, a multi-storied market selling all kinds of foodstuff and household products. By the time I reach this market, it’s almost closing time. While some vendors are packing up, others are going about their work. Besides household items, there are many interesting things to see… Tibetan foodstuff, Tibetan incense, dried stuff including dried fish, numerous varieties of noodles, etc. And there are many Chinese items too.

At 8:00 PM, I’m at my hotel restaurant for dinner. I’m tempted to try shaphalay (Tibetan bread stuffed with meat) but it’s deep-fried. So I settle for noodle soup with vegetables. I love it! It’s bland but wholesome. I would have loved to try the rest of the Himalayan delights but I’m leaving for Kalimpong tomorrow. Sigh.

It’s my last night in Sikkim and I feel sad to leave this mesmerizing place, the land of Kanchenjunga. Maybe I can walk down to the Paljor Stadium tomorrow to take a look at Kanchenjunga for the fourth and final 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 to sleep at 10:00 PM.

Coming next: My Adventures in Darjeeling, Sikkim & Kalimpong – Part 7 of 7