Wednesday, June 8, 2016

North East Part 2

We reached Gangtok around 8PM and our lodging was Maple Residency, a brand new hotel with good interiors. We got to meet the tour operator Mr Roshan who briefed us on what was in store for us next. The next morning we set off towards Nathu La with all our warm clothes bundled together  for further use. We received the permit on the way and began another journey through the mountains. This time, the gradual change in scenery was evident; from lush green mountains dotted with waterfalls, the landscape morphed into a dry and sparsely vegetative land with mounds of ice lying in heaps. The air was chilly and it continued to drizzle through the journey. We were not alone in our journey as scores of other vehicles were heading in the same direction. One of the locals accompanied us in our journey and she had a stall enroute to Tsong Mo Lake. Like most other people, she lived up in the mountains on most days with her sisters where they served tourists with refreshments and provided warm clothing and boots on rent and returned to their home in Gangtok once in a while. We had another Tea break here (might I add that I was sorely tempted to try some alcohol that would suit the cold climate but then, perhaps that is for another day..) and got some boots for the icy terrain that awaited us. The four of us downed Diamox (Acetazolamide) as the high altitude was bound to make us uncomfortable. We reached Tsong Mo Lake just as the mist was beginning to set in and had some customary Yak photos with Raju, the pink-horned Yak.

In your to visit Nathu La Pass, not only does every individual need permit but the vehicle in which you will be travelling also requires another permit. The vehicle in which we were supposed to travel arrived a good 2 hours late (when we had almost given up hope that it would turn up) and with no way or contacting them (no network in these areas!! Except for good old BSNL which is used by .000000001% of the population) we were a frozen, frustrated lot! When the vehicle finally did arrive along with some more people headed towards NLP, we were all bundled together and began yet another journey through winding lanes in progressively deteriorating weather. When we reached the entrance, the weather was anything but supportive of our quest, and the rain showed no signs of relenting. 

Nevertheless, Athhe, Mama and I began climbing upwards through the ice along with dozens of other tourists. There was no path demarcated and one could not see beyond a few feet ahead. We kept asking for directions until we saw a small café tucked inside the ice. We gulped steaming hot tea and some a few momos that scalded our tongue but the heat was a welcome change from the biting cold. The trenchcoat I was wearing was not waterproof; hence I was now soaked down to my feet. I have never experience such extreme climate in all my life and the high altitude was another factor. A father and daughter duo was returning and the father seemed rather shaken by the ordeal and advised against proceeding further as visibility was too poor to see across the border. With a sense of relief mingled with some regret we returned back to the base where we boarded our jeep and began our journey back. An army truck had lost control and was lodged in a ditch so we were delayed by an hour or so.

I must take a moment to describe our driver for the day, Sanjay. A Nepali by origin, he was plump chap and had the demeanour of a cheeky schoolboy, a sarcastic comeback for every dialogue and a witty sense of humour. Although we were downcast with the weather forecast, he entertained us through the journey and dearest Atthe, who I consider as a shining example of beauty with brains (*cough*) finally found an opponent who could retort with equal sarcasm.

We returned to Maple Residency, freshened up and warmed ourselves and took an uphill walk (it seemed like a 70° incline) towards MG Marg. The tiled road does not allow vehicles and flowery lampposts adorned the median path. The road had a European touch to it and one could not help but admire the smart and well dressed women, the handsome policemen and the absolutely adorable little ones. We shopped a little and I purchased a few trinkets. We took a taxi back to our hotel in time for dinner and headed to bed.

The next day we were denied the North Sikkim Permit due to bad weather and we decided to tour Gangtok. Our driver for the day was Deepak, a football player and he was notorious for asking us to alight a good 1km away from the tourist spot with the blatant lie “Nazdeek Hai”. As most of the places are located on a hill top, we trudged along the steep incline wondering how on earth this was “nearby”. Our first visit was to Rumtek monastery and it was fairly crowded with a lot of people seated in the courtyard, on the terrace and along the pavements. We were later informed that it was a holy day for Buddhists and there were special prayers in progress. We witnessed form of dance/ritual performed with elaborate costumes, a menacing headgear and gigantic white boots. We visited the monastery and then did some more shopping at a souvenir store. After this, our next destination was Namgyal Institute of Tibetology which had a a good collection of Tibetian manuscripts, artefacts and explanation of their various practices. One thing we had noticed at the monasteries (Rather, Atthe noticed and we later realized) was how there were always seven bowls/cups of water placed in front of the deity. It was here that we got an explanation for the same.

After this, we had a good lunch (Cheese Pizza) at Hotlinks and proceeded towards Netuk House. This was a homestay with a beautiful garden and a lot of flowers. It had a homely feel to it and just like the other places; we scammed their WiFi without much delay. :P Mild showers left us worried but we equipped ourselves with umbrellas and headed towards MG Marg. We spent the evening here and then returned back to Netuk House in time for dinner where we met another family from Pune. With hopes for the much awaited Permit, we retired for the night.

The next morning after a lot of anticipation, the prestigious Permit was granted to us and we set out towards Lachen with minimal luggage. Our driver Tenzing, an elderly man, seemed like a no nonsense guy and was working on a timeline. He seemed like a seasoned driver and himself hailed from North Sikkim but somehow we couldn’t establish a rapport with him as with the other drivers so far. Along the route, streams confluenced into a cascade and to the city dweller it was indeed a treat to the eyes as they dotted the scenery. We stopped at Mangam for lunch were we met another Kannada family (coincidentally, it was another Balu!). The drizzle picked up pace and soon it was torrential rain and the waterfalls were swollen. Rocks on the road could only mean that they had fallen from the shaky ground above and the overcast sky could only predict gloom. Nevertheless, our driver was optimistic and hoped to reach us to our destination at the earliest. We stopped at Naga falls where the water roared downhill, cutting through the rocks and flooding the cemented bridge. The road ahead seemed daunting and at times, it didn’t seem like a road but a mere excavation through the mountain that stood precariously. We halted at Chumthang for tea where several other travellers huddled together for some chai in the rain. It was here that our driver informed us that the road back to Gangtok was closed due to the collapse of a bridge but we didn’t realize the magnitude of his words until much later.

 We set out towards Lachen and the road was empty save for the villagers gleefully pointing out “Raastha band hai”. Solitary boulders dotted the road and we passed through rickety bridges even as the chocolate brown water gushed downhill with an alarming intensity. The lack of any other vehicles in either direction did not help matters and we were now beginning to question our decision. A lone army jeep was perched atop the hill and we approached the officer for guidance. He advised against proceeding further as the road had caved in due to landslides at 3-4 places. With a heavy heart we returned towards Chumthang and took a turn towards Lachung (the other place on our itinerary). We progressed about a kilometre only to see dozens of tourist vehicles returning back as the roads had caved in here as well. Fate had ordained that Chumthang was the halt for the night so our driver spoke to the owner of the Chai-Snacks place and we were allowed to stay at their place for the night. If you are wondering why we didn’t stay at a hotel, let me assure you that this sleepy little village had none! Chumthang is just another village at the intersection of Lachen, Lachung and Gangtok with nothing significant except for a beautiful Gurudwara.(which has a history of its own…).

We checked into Chumthang residency with mixed feelings; regret for not having made it but gratitude for having food and shelter for the night. Several other tourists were seen scrambling for a place and some were granted permission to sleep in the premises of the gurudwara. We had a room to ourselves, a few thick blankets, bedding and a candle. The twist of events had left us all in varying states of unrest and each of us reacted in different ways to the same situation. The lady of the house was hospitable and they prepared some Dal, rice and fried vegetables for dinner. Her husband, son, daughters, daughter in law and grandson (which we later realized was a granddaughter), three dogs and two cats all lived in that building and that night they opened their doors to 8 Gujarathis, a family of 3 from Delhi and the four of us. The little one entertained us with her antics and it is sheer sadness that I have no photo of her or the daughters. We later heard that not only had the bridge collapsed and washed way in entirety by the waterfall but another landslide had occurred some distance from the bridge and some unfortunate tourists were stranded between the two points with nowhere to go for the night. The night was long and cold and I had some terrifying dreams I would like to forget asap but the next morning was clear and sunny (a lot of touch wood happened at this observation because we could no longer dare to forecast the weather with certainty).

Our tour operator, Roshan was assured us that they would do their best to get us back to the mainland and we took a long walk along the streets of Chumthang town where we met scores of other tourists who had met with the same fate. At the army checkpost, one of the officers assured us that the army would construct a bridge and even urged us to go the Lachen for the day. We spoke to him for a while and slowly began to appreciate the magnitude of work done by the army which mostly goes unrecognized. After receiving a green signal from an army officer and news that Roshan had reached the site of the bridge collapse, we set out back to Gangtok. The army had constructed a makeshift bridge from tree trunks and it was secure enough to handle the tourists. A young lad transported our luggage across the river and through the slippery terrain even as army officers helped us at every juncture *wink*. Once again, we met the other Balu and his family and we exchanged stories of our ordeal. After waiting in the hot sun, the 8 of us (with our entire luggage) set off in a jam packed Bolero towards Gangtok.