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Archive for July, 2008

Zipping to Zachu valley

Both of us were ready by seven am, waiting for our guide Pema to accompany us to Lashar valley or Zachu, as the locals popularly called it. Last evening Pema had seemed a bit skeptical about our intention to go to Zachu valley in a day. According to him, it would take us a good five hours to reach there, contrary to the three hours we had been told in Lachen. So we readily heeded his advice of leaving by seven in the morning so that we could be back in Thangu the same evening.
From the very beginning itself Pema was sprinting up as though he were getting late to catch a train. Our walking path criss-crossed the motorable road, which was in the process of  being built, all the way to Bamzay. It made me wonder if a road would be built all the way till Lashar, but I really hope not.

Quarter of an hour into our climb I am panting like mad, finding it difficult to keep pace with Pema who always seemed to be running away. My mind drifted, thinking of one of the crazy Vijay-type hikes back in the Sahyadris. My dear friend Vijay is quite fabled for killer hikes, having a sort of a faithful imaginary clan to which I belong. His unassuming physical appearance does not give out much – just a glance at his thin stumpy legs gives a feeling of being barely able to walk. But once these sticks pick up pace, they never seem to tire, making me wonder how such thin legs could have so much power. To be a part of this crazy clan your backpack must weigh a minimum of 20 kgs, almost like an entry criteria. But it does not end over here. This is the minimum weight after which we’d compete as to who is carrying the most weight, as though we’re training to be mules. The irony of this being that despite all the stuff we carry to weigh our bags like water, stones (literally) and other impertinent paraphernalia, we never seem to carry food or enough of it, the most essential of all things. Once the hike starts there is not much opportunity for a break except if you are lucky enough to get lost or have to answer nature’s call. Even the few fruits we carry are generally had while we are walking. Well it’s not as bad as it sounds, for I am party to this insane clan and completely enjoying it.

 

By the time I came back to my senses Pema and Nima were way ahead of me making me pick up my

Rhododendron slope

Rhododendron slope

pace. The one and a half hour climb was quite a killer though I have a feeling it was the height rather than my fitness that was getting to me. At this point we took a much needed break to quench our parched throats and also to eat sometime to replenish energy. From here, the path became relatively easy with gentle ups and downs. Now that I was more relaxed, I could really marvel at the view ahead and behind us, enjoying my walk. After about an hour we reached an open expanse of green meadows completely laden with rhododendrons , wild poppies and other wild flowers. I was gleeful to be in the midst of these vivid wild flowers, like a small child who had just received a surprise gift. This time I had ample opportunity to photograph the blue poppies, making me go completely trigger happy. Rejuvenated, we begun our walk towards Damboche village from where the path gently descended down to enter Lashar valley.  

 

Once we entered Lashar valley we were in altogether a different world. Everything seemed so serene and still as though the earth had stopped rotating. The serpentine river meandering through the valley floor flowed so gently giving one an appearance that it had come to a complete standstill. A little further down we saw a large heard of sheep on the grass less slopes being tended by a Dokpa, with whom Pema immediately got into conversation. Dokpa are the nomadic Tibetan herders who inhabit these high valleys of Lachen, most of their settlements are in Muguthang valley but there are a few in Lashar as well. Further down we could see the snow capped mountains with their hanging glaciers like a spectacular necklace meant to bedazzle the onlooker, and a little ahead was Sebu la – the connecting pass to Lachung. Crossing this 17,000 foot pass is supposed to be quite challenging but very rewarding too, the major issue in this region is arranging for the logistics which is a nightmarish activity. Though sometime in the future I would really love to do this three-day trek from Thangu to Yumthang. One more hour of walking through the calm Lashar valley got us to a small, dilapidated hut which was seemingly used by the Survey of India people while mapping the valley. This hut marked the end of our five hour journey to the base of Sibu la. Took a half hour lunch break over here, enjoying views of Kanchgyao (22600 feet) and other mountains to our North.

 

Sibu - la (to the right)

Sibu - la (to the right)

Now that there is some food in my tummy and my body sufficiently rested, am able to keep my pace with Pema on our return journey. The path skirts over the bank of the Lashar chu unable to give us a good perspective of the serpentine river meandering through the valley. Pema makes us climb the ridge to Phalung from where he says we would get excellent views of the river, beginning our

Lashar chu

Lashar chu

scramble over loose rocks and steep slopes, puffing and panting as we move further up. To our misfortune dull grey clouds decide to envelope the entire valley at this very movement, turning our climb into a futile exercise as we are unable to get any good snaps. The downward journey proves to be extremely tricky, being more of a sliding cum balancing act rather than a climbing down. Over here we spotted a pair brahmini ducks playfully flirting with each other, while quacking out loud to break the silence within the valley. For a few minutes we watch their constant ritual of landing over the river, to take off again the next instant. Pema shows me the watch to indicate that we need to keep moving to reach Thangu by early evening. Our amazing and arduous trek finally came to an end at three in the afternoon, eight hours after we had left.

Lashar valley

Lashar valley

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Was really glad to be back in Lachen, after spending nine long and boring days in rainy Gantok. As luck would have it the weather in Lachen was much better, it being bright and sunny and with slopes having more chlorophyll induced grass and plants due to the melting snow on top. Everything seemed to be much more infused with life. The next few days things went a bit downhill as I was completely alone , without my helper – Tshering and Gokey’ (my host) sons was completely bored and pretty frustrated. Most of the village was empty as many people had gone up to Thangu to tend to their farms or collect forest products. A dull gloom set over me as the days passed by; at one point I thought that my second trip would be completely futile, unable to make any progress on the guidebook or any other front.

 

One thing I forgot to mention in my last post on Lachen was about the kitchen, the epicenter of their household existence. It is the heart and soul of the household, acting as their hall and dining room, a place where families socialize and guests entertained. They have a really large kitchen completely encircled with  pots, pans, kettles and cutlery of all shapes and sizes which  sit proudly on the shelves, showing off the social status of their owners. I doubt that even half of the vessels must have ever been used as I guess they are more ornamental than practical. The size and variety of vessels I saw in all the kitchens never seized to amaze me; they actually held some sort of fascination for me.

 

 

The turning point of the trip came with Nima’ arrival three days later, as he pushed the pipon in his gentle way to get the ball rolling. The next morning Nima arranged for me to go to the base of Lama Angden , the guardian mountain of Lachen. This plan materialized on the spur of the movement putting the Gokey family in a bit of disarray as a guide had to be arranged for and my packed lunch had to be prepared. Lama Angden (5868 m)  is a very beautiful snow capped peak sitting right above Lachen, which I never had the luck of viewing during my one month sojourn. The hike to it’ base takes around 5-6 hours depending upon one’ speed and the condition of the route, making it a strenuous one day affair.  

My guide taking a breather

My guide taking a breather

  I was introduced to my guide an old Lachenpa who understood neither English nor Hindi, resulting in us communicating in the cosmic language of human expressions and signs. Our progress was a bit slow as the old man had to keep catching up with his breadth, which he did by taking numerous cigarette breaks. An hour into our hike the climb really became steep and we had to start scrambling over loose rocks and grassless slopes, making the old man to mutter a bit. As luck would have it the weather gods chose to be displeased this very day, the entire valley being blanketed in dense clouds after it being bright and sunny for the past four days. As the going became tougher the length of his muttering and frequency of his cigarette breaks proportionately increased, but I was only beginning to enjoy the rugged terrain within the confines of the clouds. Finally when we reached the first plateau after climbing for two hours his muttering became way too much for me to handle. He was explaining that there was no defined path ahead of us with a good three hour climb still remaining, and the visibility was truly becoming very bad , so I conceded to turning back. Now the roles were reversed as I got down slowly and cautiously over loose rocks, while by guide seemed to be as sure footed as a mountain goat literally running down. I was really amazed at his skill as I saw myself fumbling in a hesitant manner over my footings. Mrs. Gokey was surprised to see me back before lunch time, maybe even a bit disappointed after all the effort she had taken.

 

One very important thing I learnt while working in Lachen was that things never and I mean never go according to the plan while working with communities. Dates and time do not mean much to these people, who luckily, still live in a peaceful and laid back world. We had to wait out one more day to go to Thangu for our reci trip to Lashar valley locally referred to as Zachu valley. At last the morning came when we set out to leave for Thangu. Our jeep seemed to be quiet abused as it was coughing it’ way up, having occasional spasms. At two points we had to push the poor tormented soul so that it would start in hope of transporting us to Thangu. Despite our apethtic progress we reached Thangu by 10, giving us enough time to walk to Dewthang for seeing the meditation caves of the Lachen rinpoche and Alexandra David-Neel.

Alexandra David-Neel' cave

Alexandra David-Neel' cave

Alexendra David-Neel was one of the most famous French explorer cum spiritualist and the first women from the western world to have set foot into Tibet. On her second visit to Sikkim in 1914 she met gomchen Aphur Yogden at the Lachen monastery with whom she retreated to the caves above Dewthang to study and meditate for two years.  The path for Dewthang commences from Kalep, taking around two hours to reach the cave. Wild flowers like marigold, primula sikkimensis, rhododendrons and blue poppy colored the route all throughout, making our walk all the more enjoyable. The blue poppy immediately became a favourite with me , proving a bit difficult to photograph due to it’ shy and illusive nature, The ones near the path were closed or withered away, and the ones which were well bloomed were in between inaccessible thickets. The path gradually climbed on top through lightening struck tree trunks and an incompletely built monastery to get us to the main cave where the first rinpochi of Lachen monastery had meditated for 13 years. The cave being quite big was compartmentalized into smaller spaces for meditating, cooking and sleeping.  Still it was pretty dark and damp inside and found it hard to imagine how somebody could stay in such a place for so many years, but then such are the ways of the venerable monks. From here we got some nice views of the Kalep valley below us , as we were wondering where the second cave of Alexandra David-Neel was. Climbed up a bit more over the rhododendron slopes, permeating their sweet smell in the crisp air of this serene valley.  Sat down for some time enjoying the natural beauty surrounding us , reflecting and analyzing my philosophies of life. While coming down we saw a small shallow cave which I thought would be the one used by Alexendra David-Neel as it was below the main cave of the rinpochi as described to us. After speaking to a few people and showing them our photos, it was confirmed that the shallow cave was the one where Alexendra Davis-Neel had meditated.

 

Kalep valley from Dewthang

Kalep valley from Dewthang

By the time we reached Thangu it had begun to rain quite heavily forcing us in our room. Luckily the skies opened out in some time to reveal a bright blue dome giving us an opportunity to see the old rustic monastery as also the new one being constructed. After that met up with our guide who was to take us to Zachu valley tomorrow, though he sounded a bit surprised on hearing our intention to do the trip in one day as it was a long walk according to him. Will write a more detailed post about this outing in time to come.

 

When we were back in Lachen I had the fortune of experiencing Saga Dawa, one of the holiest Buddhist festivals. On this auspicious day it is supposed that the Buddha was born, attached enlightenment and died. The day started with a pooja at the monastery , with some of the monks continuing the prayers all through the day. The entire village had come with some sort of floral or culinary offering for the gods. It was my first experience of the Buddhist chants and quite a powerful one. The next morning we left to go to Tarum hot springs ,a very popular jaunt with the local people. The outing turned out to be a relaxed vacation of grand proportions for the two of us , would be putting a separate post for this trip too.

 

This brought to an end my second and final trip to Lachen. A trip which seemed really doomed in the beginning, finally turned out to be a fabulous one with a good deal of exploration. It was quite a challenging and at time frustrating experience working with the local community over here, none the less a very fulfilling one.

You can check out more pictures of my outings over here

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It seems to me that every village in Sikkim wants a share in the tourism pie, which resulted in our short trip to the villages of Kitam and Sumbuk for checking the feasibility of tourism over there. Kitam, which is around 12kms. from Namchi at an altitude of 2200 feet, has very recently been declared as a bird sanctuary. The first thing I could feel when we reached Kitam late in the evening was the sweltering heat. For the first time since leaving Mumbai I was actually sweating and feeling the humidity; I was back in the sub-tropics.

It was a perfectly warm and sunny morning whence I was greeted by the gulmohor, jackfruit and jacaranda trees on my morning walk, all so familiar to me. For breakfast the lady served us dal-rice and vegetables, for which I gave her quiet a quizzical look. Now who the hell has dal-rice for breakfast, that’ lunch for god’ sake. My mind and eyes were just not able to digest what was on the table, but in the end the rumbling stomach over powered the mind to have dal-rice that fateful morning. Post breakfast Nima and myself met up with the local eco-tourism committee who were to show us around the place for tourists spots. With a growing number of tourists, people everywhere are beginning to have some obsession about so called ‘ tourists spots’ , for which they will cut down trees ( destroy the natural environment) and make all sorts of ugly structures. They cannot understand that there would be tourists who would be more appreciative if they left the environment, their customs and culture intact, instead of changing them to heed to the senseless masses. A half hour drive and an equal duration by foot got us to our first place ‘Alley Khet’, which was an open football ground from where one could get some good views of the surrounding area. But it seemed to me completely crazy and highly ambitious to promote a football ground , something which can be seen anywhere around. I could only give them a skeptic look as I was pretty speechless.

Alley Khet

From here we walked down to the Sorok monastery in the scorching heat of day, and continued back to Kitam. On our way down we took a brief halt near the Kitam primary school, giving me an opportunity to peer into the cute little school. I glanced into one of the small classrooms, bringing great delight to the kids who were enthralled to have spotted an alien like me within their midst . And as soon as I took out my camera all hell broke loose as all the kids wanted to be photographed. This thing spread like an infectious disease and in no time kids from all the classrooms surrounded me to have their photographs taken. Only after taking tons of photos did I manage to somehow escape from their clutches. Our final sight that morning was an old village house constructed of mud and timber. It was more than a 100 years old and found it hard to digest that there were people still residing in it, for it was way to basic especially in today’ time and age.

School kids

School kids

The second half of the day , where we drove down to the Rangit turned out to be comparatively better than the morning half. Our first halt as usual was another ‘view point’ , a 40 feet watch tower standing in a forest thicket at the end of slope. I simply cannot understand this obsession with view points, but it seems to be deeply ingrained in the psyche of the philistine Indian tourist. As we continued our journey down, the driver came to a sudden halt pointing his finger down towards the open slope. He was showing us some peacocks which are apparently found in the plenty in this area. In 2006 Kitam was notified as a bird sanctuary to popularize and protect the diverse bird life of this area. The area which has been demarcated for the bird sanctuary winds around the road going down to the Rangit making it bit prone to vehicular traffic. Kitam’ low altitude and moderate temperatures makes it a hot spot for migratory birds which flock in plentiful during winters. Sightings of species like White-rumped Vulture, Slender-billed Vulture, Beautiful Nuthatch and the Rufous-necked Hornbill have prompted this area to be demarcated as an Important Bird Area (IBA). The road wound further down to take us to Majitar bazzar, a dusty and poor village on the banks of the Rangit. The ongoing volleyball game came to a sudden halt to quench the curiosity of the young boys towards us visitors. From the square we walked towards the Rangit over which a long footbridge has been constructed to connect the opposite bank in West Bengal. From the opposite bank a three hour trek gets one to the ever popular hill station of Darjeeling. The evening breeze brought with it a very cooling effect on the body and the mind enhancing the tranquility of the surroundings. The broad bank of the river makes it an ideal place for promoting tented accommodation and stays like those found on the Konkan coast.

Was a bit anxious the next morning, wondering which ‘view point’ I would be taken to today. It was around a 15 minute walk from the bazzar to a small stupa , sitting under the shady boughs of a Peepal tree. Some discussions followed after which they finally took us through the corn fields into the heart of the village. This was the best part of the place and something which I was looking forward to, rather than all the silly points. Locals tilling their land amidst chirping birds was a treat for the senses; an old man building a temporary bamboo shade, some women carrying basket loads of stones, a little ahead some more women singing while working in their fields brought forth the simplicity of life. The morning’ outing was followed by a lengthy discussion with local representatives on strategies to promote tourism in Kitam and packages they could offer, after which we bid them goodbye.

A half hour’ drive got us to Sumbuk , whose tranquility and rustic look attracted me immediately. In the fading light of the dusk sky it seemed to have a definitive other worldly village charm. We were cordially greeted by Puran, who is one of the most respected local and the person taking the lead to promote village tourism in Sumbuk. That evening we were served dinner in a bronze plate , a tradition reserved for very special guests, which was quite an honor for the both of us. The sumptuous spread consisting of different vegetables, french fries and meat was lavish by all proportions and I completely gorged on the food . Dinner was followed by more conversations and bed which proved to be a difficult affair. For some reason they had assumed that only Nima would come for the visit as a result there was only one spare bed for him. So we had to pass of an uncomfortable night, squeezed in the confines of a single bed which also was a bit short for me. To add to my woes there seemed to be no dearth of mosquitoes and other imaginable insects getting inside my blanket to ensure that my night was made even more miserable.

Was still recuperating from last night’ turmoil when I stepped out of the room for a short walk. The morning clouds hovering just above the valley gave out a dream like effect to the entire village. The floating clouds penetrated by the early rays of the sun accompanied by the melodious cooing of the birds completely rejuvenated me. Our first ‘tourist spot’ for the morning was another mandir, my fourth in three days, of which I was now getting a bit tired. From here we walked towards the bank of the Rangit, which has some factories leaving no scope to promote any activities. The scorching sun was now getting to me resulting in salty beads of sweat rolling down my bearded face. A small foot track led us up once again into the shady forests for which I was very thankful; 20 minutes later we were back on the road. Over here I witnessed something really ironic which disgusted me. Some locals were clearing a slope by cutting down trees leaving me a bit baffled as they were actually supposed to be planting trees. After a bit of talking and interrogation Nima found out that they were clearing the slope so that they could plant trees, an ironic case of deforestation for aforestation. It seems that the forest officer of that area had given them orders for the same, so that he could show his superiors the number of trees he had planted proving his performance. Found this completely crazy and disgusting but that is just how our bureaucratic protectors of the forests worked. Moved on to a small opening in the forest where they had made some rustic benches from where once could peacefully sit down and enjoy the birds.

In the afternoon Puran took us on a long tour of the village which was both beautiful and interesting. Sumbuk is considered the land of gladioli due to the abundant cultivation of this sword like flower over here. Luckily we were able to see the vivid colors in some of the fields. Besides horticulture there is a good deal of crops and vegetables like maize, black dal, sweet chilly, tomatoes, grown organically over here . Sumbuk being a farming village people very simple and warm, inviting us for tea while explaining us the intricacies of their farming practice. Our path cut across many small rivulets , dotted with really old banyan tress under which we used to rest. Time just flew by and I didn’t even realize that we were walking for two hours till the time we reached our house.

On our final morning we drove to upper Sumbuk from where we walked to ‘Tamble Chor’ , a small forested area on top of the range. The walk through orchid laden trees was very nice till the time we reached an opening where we saw some sort of construction. Puran told us that the tourism department was building a big mandir (which made my face go red) and some eco friendly huts. On our way down we took a short break at the Sumbuk market which was bustling with activity , it being the market day.

Thus came to an end my four day trip of two very different villages in South Sikkim.

All in all both places are definitely worth a visit especially during the winter months when the climate would be more pleasant compared to other snow bound places in Sikkim.

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