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Archive for the ‘Community development’ Category

The story about Chakmas, an indigenous tribe from Bangladesh, is truly a sad one. A grim reminder of our inhuman approach towards progress and development. In 1963 their native land in the Chitagonong hills was completely submerged under water, falling under the catchment area of a hydel dam. Displaced from their homeland they were compelled to seek shelter in safer lands. Being a minority community in a Muslim dominated Bangladesh, they were compelled to migrate to various pockets of North East India; mainly in Arunachal and Mizoram. Seeing their grim situation the Government of India allotted them small tracts of land for rehabilitation; one such being on the outskirts of Namdapha Tiger reserve in East Arunachal.

Namdapha, a biodiversity hotspot has the richest diversity of flora and fauna found on the Indian subcontinent. Home to such endangered species like the Hoolock Gibbon, Clouded Leopard and White Winged Wood Duck, it spreads over 2000 sq. kms in the Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh . The Tangsa and Singpho are the two main tribes which inhabit the area around Namdapha. Over the years the population of Chakmas in this region has grown manifold, creating a sense of insecurity within the Singpho community.  Feeling threatened by the growing numbers, the Singpho tribe has started showing animosity towards the Chakmas. There is considerable friction between them, despite the fact that both communities are Buddhists.  The problem is further complicated by the fact that Arunachal government does not provide them with a legal status, despite the fact that the government of India has now granted citizenship to the Chakmas. This has left the Chakmas completely isolated, with no economic options besides labour work and marginal farming.

From the Namdapha gate to M’Pen (10th Mile) there is a settlement of around 98 Chakma houses, residing on the banks of the Noa Dhing. Due to political issues they have been disallowed from taking admission in the public schools in Miao since the past few years.  The denial of a proper education has created further tension between the two communities. There is one primary school in the Chakma basti near 10th mile, which caters to neighboring households. The level of teaching is not all that great but the kids are extremely enthusiastic to learn portraying a genuine thirst for knowledge. To add to their woes the school gets washed out in the heavy monsoons every year, since it is only a temporary structure.

The existing school

The existing school

 

Looking at the plight of the Chakmas and the negative effect their alienation is having on the bountiful forests of Namdapha, Help Tourism came up with the idea of building a school for them. Help Tourism’ commitment to conserve and protect Namdapha since the past couple of years has been phenomenal. After all it was on their request that I came to volunteer over here for a few days. The purpose behind constructing the school was not only to provide better primary education but also to sensitize the children about the importance of conserving the forests in whose labyrinth they resided. The school would also serve a secondary purpose of being a base / shelter for researchers working in the forests of Namdapha. The project has been primarily funded by Help Tourism and is being implemented in conjunction with a local NGO SEACOW ( Society for Environmental Awareness and Conservation Of Wildlife), which is mainly into environmental education. Since many of the active members of the society are Singphos, the project would serve as an ideal platform to build up ties between the two communities.

Construction of the new school Construction of the new school

This was by far my most challenging assignment till date, despite the fact that I spent only fifteen days over here. The purpose behind working on this project was twofold;  first to supervise the construction of the school and second to interact with the Chakmas. It was hoped that my presence would speed up the snail paced progress of the construction, which unluckily did not happen. There were several challenges due to the tight budget coupled with the remoteness of the location.      It was hard to find good masons who were willing to work in this remote place under challenging conditions. Suppliers were unwilling to deliver the material to the construction site due to the apathetic conditions of the road. I myself had a tough time staying over there though my host Sudhadan tried to make my life as comfortable as possible. I really didn’t mind the very basic accommodation, or the fact that there was no electricity or having a bath in the nearby stream. It was only the food with which I had a problem, somehow I just couldn’t get used to the taste and odor of their oil. Had to make do with plain rice for all my meals rice as I had a difficult time ingesting other food stuff.

Most part of the morning I used to spend at the site, trying to help out in whatever limited way I could. Watering the pillars, nailing planks together, anything to garner a greater sense of responsibility within the local people. To escape from the mid afternoon heat I used to go for a walk within the cooling canopy of the rain forest which was pulsating with life. The hooping Gibbons, chirping birds, fluttering butterflies and mysterious insects, welcoming me in their surreal world. Time would begin to drag as the evening sun gave way to the night. In the cool breeze of dusk Sudhadan and I would sit beside a small fire talking over the happenings of the day.

Sudhadan with his family Sudhadan with his family

A good deal of my day was spent in speaking to Chakmas from various age groups. Most of them understood Hindi so it was easy to make conversation with them. The elders I mostly questioned on their past history, to comprehend the difficulties they had gone through. Their tales were always those of infinite strife, but the amazing thing was that they never gave up, always fought back the challenges with staunch determination. Albeit, all of them wanted a better future for their children. With the younger generation it was more about their hopes and dreams. Their keen determination to get a good education so that they could move up in life.

The school is just the first step in creating a harmonious relationship between the Chakmas and their neighboring communities. Though a good education is imperative, the importance of economic options cannot be undermined. In my opinion all measures would fail without providing them with adequate economic opportunities. In this regard much more work needs to be done in the coming years.

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This is a continuation of my previous post regarding MMES. For those who haven’t please read that post first

 

I left for Assam within a week of the tragic terror attacks in Mumbai. This naturally got my family and friends jittery as Assam itself did not have a very good reputation for being a safe place. Frankly I was a bit nervous too as I had no idea what the current situation was in the Bodo dominated area of Manas NP. Nonetheless I continued as I knew that outside perception was bound to be obscured, and the reason why I chose to travel to the North East in the first place was to eradicate these perceptions. The journey was a long arduous one, with the last leg from Pathsala to the remote village of Lwkhi Bazaar being the most exciting one. As is the case in any remote part of India the bus was choco block with people carrying paraphernalia of all imaginable type. Everything from vegetables, to livestock, dish antenna to bed were squeezed into the overflowing bus. I was amazed that the rickety bus hadn’t come apart yet. The apathetic condition of the road added more adventure to our journey, especially when the bus was near about to topple forcing everybody to do an emergency evacuation. After four painful hours and a couple of emergency evacuations I reached finally reached Lwkhi Bazzar, my home for the next three months.

The first ten days were truly a testing period for me. Since all the volunteers were busy with their own work I was left to get bored on my own. There were times when I felt that I was simply wasting my time over here and that I should just leave from this place to travel somewhere else. Irregular meal timings, no breakfasts, short days, even the smallest factors became a battle with the self.  The only saving grace at this point of time was my inclination towards butterflies. I spent most of my mornings walking in the forest, observing and photographing butterflies. These multi coloured winged beauties simply captivated me. In the evenings at least I had company, as everybody would gather at the office to chat about the happenings of the day. Quite a few of us used to stay together at their guesthouse cum office so it was always lively during night time.

Things picked up steam after my first formal meeting with the cabinet members of the NGO. After a brief introduction from both sides it was decided that I would teach computers to the NGO staff, formalize their accountancy system and initiate the kids at a nearby school to the world of computers, during my stay over here. From the following week I started my nouveau venture of introducing the kids to the wired world. In the initial stages language barrier posed bit of a challenge, but as the classes progressed we understood each other quite well. Once they were comfortable with the mouse, they were absolutely thrilled to be able to draw and play games on the computer, always looking forward to their morning class. It was an enriching experience for me as well as for them.  Frankly teaching the NGO staff basic computers proved to be the bigger challenge. I literally had to coax them to sit and learn computers with me, and even towards the end remained unsuccessful at that.  

By this time I had broken the ice with the NGO volunteers, winning over their complete trust. Our friendship bonds strengthened daily, making them to treat me like a family member . I found it hard to believe that at one point of time these very people were dreaded insurgents, albeit out of desperate circumstances. Today though you can see a complete transformation in them , having returned back to their cultural way of life. They are such a warm and friendly community that it’ a pity the outside world still has negative perceptions about the Bodos.  At about this time I started visiting their protection camps in the national park with my good friend Kalen. This presented me with a great opportunity to travel extensively in the park .The Dewmari camp situated in the lap of the Bhutan hills soon became my favourite one. Whenever there was an opportunity I would go to Dewmari , from where I would trek to the Bhutan hills with one of their guards.  One such trip to their western most camp of Kahitema proved to be an adventurous one. While on our way back after picking up some of the conservation guards, a drunkard cyclist was standing in the middle of a narrow bend. Despite seeing us approach he stood planted in the middle as a result our driver had to swerve the Tata Mobile at the very last minute. In slow motion our Tata Mobile toppled to the left side as we helplessly tossed inside. Luckily there were some banana trees on the periphery which broke our fall and not our bones. All of us were lucky enough to come out unscratched. Thirty minutes of pushing and grunting got the Tata Mobile back on all its fours. As though this wasn’t enough the gearbox started giving us some problems , further down the road. At one point we were going to abandon our vehicle, requesting another vehicle to pick us up. But our resourceful driver managed to temporarily fix the issue, albeit the vehicle had to be driven only in the second gear.

New Year' party

New Year' party

Being peak tourist season I often found myself in the company of tourists. It was always an interesting affair to interact with them , exchanging our thoughts and ideas besides a warm log fire. On a few occasions the dance troupe would showcase their cultural dances enthralling the audiences. The welcome dance, the butterfly dance, the warrior dance , each one having it’ own story and significance. Sometimes members of other NGOs who were working in that area would also stay at the Jungle Camp. Most of them became very fast friends and useful contacts for working on other projects in the North East.  Forged an especially deep friendship with Dilip, who was doing a commendable job of grooming the youth of Assam to start their own business. He used to have training programs in places from where ULFA were recruiting cadets, so that the youth could channel their energies to more constructive use.

This was the first time I was ever working with a community at a grassroots level. It was a completely different ball game from the maniacal ways of the corporate world. Sometimes working with the communities would mean sitting down and chatting over endless cups of tea. This would not amount to work in the corporate world but is extremely important for bonding and understanding the ways of the community. I soon learnt that planning for work was an exercise in futility causing tons of frustration. When working with them it was necessary to have a more fluid approach to work by dynamically altering the time, quantum and methodology of work. It was pointless to have any expectations either from myself or from them, the only thing that mattered was to work with them. While teaching the kids I continuously had to be innovative as I had to overcome not only the teaching barrier but also the communication barrier. I absolutely loved being in their company and enjoyed teaching them the most. In comparison teaching computers to the NGO staff turned out to be an uphill task, having to expend most of my energy in motivating them.

The school kids

The school kids

My three month stint did teach me a lot of things, especially about my own self. It gave me ample opportunity to observe my emotions and feelings, getting to know myself in a better way. This is the type of work I really enjoy doing and will continue to do, never casting a backward glance at the corporate world. I know that this is just the beginning of my relationship with these wonderful people for I will continue coming to Manas to work and live with them.

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Conservation of natural biodiversity is increasingly becoming a challenge in our insatiably materialistic age. Pristine forests are being indiscriminately hacked causing their helpless inhabitants to vanish from the face of the earth. To tackle the issue of wildlife conservation there are many scientific organizations. But seldom does one see high levels of zeal from a local community to protect the forests they once destroyed, especially from a community once dreaded as gun trotting insurgents. Such is the story of Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism society, a group of locals who through their own motivation and dedication started the uphill task of conserving the forests of Manas, without any outside assistance. My two and a half month stay with them as a volunteer was truly a phenomenal experience.

The seeds of this organization germinated from the violent past of the Bodo movement. For many years the Bodos had been suppressed by the state government, forcing them to start a mass political movement for a separate state. This political agitation came to a halt in 1993 after the signing of a tripartite agreement between the Bodo leaders, Central government and State government. But a couple of years after signing the accord, frustrated by the failure of the government to implement the agreement, the Bodos grouped together to form an armed outfit under the banner of Bodo Liberation Tigers to press for their demands.

This was the dark period during which Manas was depleted of its resources. Since the southern boundary of Manas spans across the entire Bodo dominated territory, there was vast deforestation. Due to the complete breakdown of the law and order situation in and around Manas, the locals often took shelter in the forest to escape the atrocities of the policing forces. Taking advantage of this lawless situation, some unscrupulous businessmen started forming organized groups for poaching and felling, which got free access to the park. Some groups of poachers made sporadic attacks on the forest offices causing destruction to most of the protection camps in the park . This grim situation compelled the forest guards to abandon almost all the protection camps. The situation was so perilous that UNESCO declared it as a world heritage site in danger.

Even during these troubled times a small group of Bodo youth from the Chapaguri Koklabari Anchalik Committee in the Koklabari area went ahead with their crusade of conserving Manas. They conducted motivation campaigns at selected areas where tree felling and poaching were rampant, asking the local villagers to refrain from their destructive activities by seeking other means of livelihood. At length, the student leaders of the committee put forward a crucial proposal for the protection of Manas while establishing it as an international tourist destination. The committee members urged their top leaders to place the issue of conserving Manas National Park, making it an international tourists destination, at the negotiating table while the leaders were exercising cease-fire with the Central and State governments. This event marked the beginning of the transition of the Bodo mindset from terrorism to tourism.

In 2003 when the Bodo Accord for creating Bodoland Territorial Areas Districts was finally signed, the issue of restoring Manas National Park whilst making it an international tourist spot was incorporated as one of the special packages within it. Enthused by this development, some people from the Koklabari area came up with the idea of creating a bird watching centre cum tourist spot. Thus in December 2003 Manas Maozigendri Ecotourism Society (MMES) was born with the objective of conserving Manas National Park as also to restore it back to its former glory.

The initial two years were a testing period for the organization, due to limited funding coupled with stiff resistance from the local people. To start with, awareness campaigns denouncing poaching and logging were conducted in some of the fringe villages. The members of the Society personally went and spoke to the families of hardened poachers, explaining to them the ills of the profession. As a result a group of fifty poachers succumbed to the social pressure, giving up their arms to work instead as conservation volunteers with the Society. With the help of these poachers, a survey of the forest was conducted so as to locate the areas where there was maximum poaching and logging. After identifying these areas, patrolling was commenced with volunteers. In the beginning the guards faced lots of hardship as there were no permanent protection camps in the forest. There were instances when just five or six of the volunteers were attacked by a group of fifty loggers, despite which they overpowered the loggers. The society did not even have money to pay remuneration to the guards, but their rations were taken care of. Seeing this level of dedication and commitment, the then park director Mr. Abhijit Rabha gave his complete support to the society, assisting in every possible way. The forest department along with the society joined forces to slowly eradicate all the poaching camps from within the park.

From poachers to protectors

From poachers to protectors

Over the years MMES has increased the gamut of their activities manifold. Currently there are 11 protection camps where the conservation guards stay throughout the year to patrol the national park, covering an area of more than 300 sq. kilometers. To provide logistical support to these camps MMES has built a network of roads extending more than 60 kilometers. Since the road network forms the backbone for the conservation activities, they are regularly maintained. The conservation guards patrol the forest on a daily basis to ensure that there are no illegal activities. Oftentimes they go deep into the forest for two to three days, camping in make shift shelters.

Understanding the importance that the grasslands play in the ecosystem, the MMES annually maintain the grasslands by burning them in a controlled way.  Their consistent efforts have paid off as today there is neither any poaching nor logging happening in the areas being patrolled by them. Wildlife populations have surged back as have the migratory birds. In fact, the resurgence of the elephant population is creating a man- animal conflict where the elephants often damage the houses of villagers. In such cases, MMES is paying the affected villagers compensation to repair the house. Monitoring of endangered species has been reinstated with the assistance of outside researchers. A conservation and monitoring centre of the critically endangered Bengal Florican has been set up in the Koklabari farm. Awareness campaigns are regularly held in fringe villages for educating the people on the importance of conserving the rich biodiversity of Manas. School children are taught to appreciate their rich inheritance by taking them on excursions in the national park.

Manas Jungle Camp

Manas Jungle Camp

MMES’s long cherished dream to make Manas into an international tourist destination was accomplished in 2005 when the first foreign tourist stayed at their Jungle camp.    This was thanks to the initiative by Help Tourism who spent a lot of time,effort and money in working with MMES for developing the tourism capacity over here.   They conducted many trainings and workshops for the MMES boys  to cater to the needs of the tourists.  Besides Help Tourism also put in a great deal of effort on the conservation front, by conducting many surveys for wildlife inventory.   The Jungle camp has five traditional huts made of mud and bamboo which are equipped with modern facilities to accommodate tourists. Open jeep safaris, bird watching, jungle trails, rafting on the Manas, cultural trails are some of the options which MMES offers to tourists depending on their interest. Their idea behind initiating tourism service has been, both complimentary and supplementary to their conservation activities. As a community, they want to show the world that Manas has regained its past beauty and is no more an endangered world heritage site. The greater challenge confronting the MMES has been to shed the perception of being an insurgent community, a view which is still prevalent among many outsiders. The other equally important task on hand has been to fund their conservation activities. With very limited sources of revenue for their conservation activities, tourism has been providing them with the much needed funds.

Taking encouragement from the excellent work being done by MMES in the Koklabari area, six other NGOs with a similar model have started operating in other areas in Manas.  Visibility about their tremendous effort will play an important role in the long term sustainability of their work. What Manas needs today is for us to support and appreciate this phenomenal community initiative, and to assist in dispelling the false notion of the Bodos as a gun-toting community because they are truly a warm and cultured community, their hospitality well worth experiencing.

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‘Permit Blues’ is what I was suffering from after three wasteful days in Gantok. Getting my KNP permit from the Forest Department was proving to be more frustrating that I had anticipated , aggravated further by a bandh and the half yearly bank closing. Like a pawn on the chess board I was shuffled from DFO office to Chief Wildlife Warden, to the Conservation officer who again pushed me back to the DFO. The last move to the Wildlife Officer saw me in the right hands, but not before shoving me to the bank for making a payment for the permit. Actually I was enjoying this bureaucratic game of chess, getting a first hand experience as though I was the poor common man in the popular TV serial of yesteryears, ‘Wakgle ki Duniya’. As the bureaucracy to protect our forests was thickening, our forests were thinning away into oblivion. On the third day, by when I was completely frustrated in the grip of ‘Permit Blues’ a miracle happened. At around eleven in the morning I was awaiting for the Wildlife Officer, who should have been in office half hour ago but did not arrive till half hour past. Recognizing my face he proclaimed in a matter of fact way that my permit was ready, I banged my head against the wall just to make sure I had heard correctly.   For the first time since the last two days there was a smile on my face as I walked out with the yellow sheaf of paper stating Khangchendzonga National Park Permission. Within an hours time all my stuff was loaded atop the jeep, ready for the long drive to Darap.

 

The Yambong Singalila trek spans a duration of twelve days but my plan was only to walk upto Daphey Bheer, the view point from where one could see the two highest ranges in the world. This trek spans across the Sikkim side of the Singalila range offering stupendous views of not only the  Kangchendzonga range but also of the Everest range. The idea was to get a first hand feel of the trek while bolstering my relations with the locals, before I started taking people to this area. The jeep was literally dragging along at a snails pace making me more impatient than ever. At eight in the evening the jeep finally deposited me to Darap, where Lakhu was waiting for me with the jeep to Nambu. Both of us exchanged polite greetings, transferred my bags, to be on our way to Nambu. The growling stomach needed to be attended before we could discuss anything, but the sumptuous dinner put the issue to rest very soon. We spoke for quite a while also discussing the plan for tomorrow, which was to walk till Chongri where I would stay over at Nima’ place.

 

Trek map

Trek map

I awoke to a bright sunny day with clear blue skies, promising excellent weather ahead. Both of us sorted and packed the rations for the trek before we could have our breakfast. The sun seemed pretty strong for eight in the morning, but the speckles sky lent an exquisite beauty to our walk. Could very distinctly see Daphey Bheer, my final destination, from Nambu.  This time around the descent towards the river seemed less steep or maybe I was just more engrossed listening to the call of the warblers and bulbuls. Once we started walking along the bank of the Rimbi, the broad leaf trees provided us with the much needed shade. The woods were teaming with bird calls but it was very difficult to spot them without binoculars. To compliment the feathered orchestra, the fluttering butterflies were providing me with a visual treat. The bright stained glass pattern of the Hill Jizabel seemed really mesmerizing.    

Hill Jezebel

Hill Jezebel

   All my senses were overwhelmed, me lost in a world of my own. Within two and a half hours we reached Sangkhola where we took a really long lunch break. In no time I was off to the river bed to rest within its cool shady boughs, enjoying the occasional bird which came for a quick sip. After lunch Lakhu bid me farewell as he had some plantation related work with the forest officials. He made arrangements for the porter to take me to Chongri, though I remembered the route from my walk two months back. With a heavy stomach and sleepy eyes I commenced the walk to Chongri but the steep climb soon got me back to my senses.  For an hour and a half we continuously marched up to be rewarded by stupendous views of the valley below. Towards the end of our climb bumped into Pemba who was going to be my guide for the next few days. He was on his way to Sangkhola but promised to be with me in Chongri by dinner time. On reaching Nima’ place had a hot cup of tea, changed to a dry set of clothes and set out to explore the village making best use of the remaining day light.

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Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.

   John Muir

 

Most of us trekkers don’t bother too much about the negative impacts we have on the environment and local economy while trekking in a particular area. Do we care much if our support staff is from outside rather than employing locals, or if porters chop down wood for fuel, or if we defecate anywhere we please. In most cases trekking agencies are the worst culprits hiring their entire support of non locals who don’t care much about the environment. If we wish to save the fragile mountain environment for others to enjoy we will need to change our approach to reduce the negative impacts of trekking.

 

One way to reduce this negative trend is to empower and educate local communities, making them the key stake holders.  TMI, the NGO I have been volunteering for has been doing a very good job in this area. IFS officer Dr Sandeep Tambe who was deputed to TMI as a project manager had been instrumental in eliminating grazing from most places in the Kangchendzonga National Park. Unsustainable grazing practices were having a very adverse effect on the fragile ecology of the park, destroying much of the habitat. To compensate the local communities for the loss of income TMI initiated community based treks/tourism in few of the remote villages, by forming local eco-tourism committees. After a few years of relationship building coupled with oodles of patience and tons of hard work, this initiative by TMI has seen the light of success.

 

In this I found an ideal opportunity to contribute to the people of the mountains, assisting them in their efforts to conserve their vanishing customs and environment. Thus I planned my trip to few of the villages in West Sikkim to interact firsthand with the locals. My failure to take the only taxi leaving for Geyzing in the early hours of morning, proved to be a very expensive affair. Changing three jeeps, waiting endlessly in Ravangla market for a connecting jeep, crossing over a landslide at Legship, missing the final jeep from Darap, walking the final four kilometers to Nambu, was the price I had to pay. At long last reached my destination, Nambu, in the fading light of day. I was greeted very warmly by G.D Subba, my host with whom I had a very long conversation about the local community. Soon we were joined by Bimal, the treasurer of the Yambong ecotourism society who gave me a background of the committee. TMI had worked together with the villagers to make a trekking route, establish camps and build capacity of locals as cooks and guides. To support the marginally poor they made it mandatory for all trekking parties to hire porters and mules from these three villages only. A small percentage of porter, mule, cook, guide charges are retained by the committee as a plough back to maintain the trail, do clean up drives and upgrade infrastructure at the camps. The model seems to be very effective producing good results, which was visible from the statistics that Bimal had. Tired and famished from my adventures, requested for an early dinner, which consisted of a lavish spread on which I feasted.

 

Early next morning I had visit from Lakhu, the president of the society who was to accompany me to Sanghkhola. Contrary to my expectations it was a sunny morning with clear skies, making our walk a pleasant one. The first thirty minutes of our trek were knee wobbling steep as the route descended to the banks of the Rimbik River. From there it skirted the banks of the river, across some fields. Within an hours time we reached the Rimbik village, where under the shade of a mighty oak we took a short break. Lakhu was a great companion, modest, cheerful, soft spoken, holding on to interesting conversation. From Rimbik we traversed a bit further into the valley before hitting the main climb which really wasn’t all that steep.  

Bamboo bridge

Bamboo bridge

  Negotiating the final and trickiest bamboo bridge got us to Sanghkhola in the midday sun. Lakhu took me to Nima’ sister’ house, where I was going to stay for the night. It was a very pretty place overlooking the river, with views of the verdant valley on both sides. It felt amazingly relaxing to be sipping on a hot cup of tea listening to the gently roar of the river. By late afternoon the weather had turned upside down as rain clouds engulfed the valley accompanied by light showers. Despite a turn in the weather we decided to go to Chongri village, the remote last village in West Sikkim. But within five minutes of our walk the rains lashed down with full fury forcing us to take shelter in a house. Thirty minutes of waiting brought us no luck of any kind so we called off our trip, deciding to try our luck the next morning instead. Once the rain showed some signs of abating we left our shelter to walk around the village. Lakhu showed me the local primary school. The rest of the evening was spent reading and chatting away with Lakhu and my hosts’ family.

 

 

 

The clear skies indicated a promise of a fine morning. By nine Lakhu and myself were on our way to Chongri, climbing the steep slopes. The two hour climb passed through perennially forested slopes, enlivened by the chirping of the birds. Was completely captivated by the rich hues of the Fairy Bluebird of which we saw quite a few.  

Views from Chongri

Views from Chongri

 Towards the end of the climb got stupendous views of the valley below, stretching out for many miles.

 

 

 

At Chongri, Lakhu showed me the trekker’ hut, a basic clean one, which had been built from the money they had accumulated. Spent some time meeting the panchayat, went to meet Nima’ parents and  left back for Sangkhola. On Lakhu’ insistence had my lunch before I left for my return to Nambu. The going was quick and easy, but that was only till I reached my final climb from the river bank to Nambu. The climb proved to be quite a killer with its steep continuous gradient. Half way through my thighs were shouting, heart thumping, with runnels of sweat running down my forehead. Every time I looked up I could only see more steps; in what seemed to be a never ending game of snakes and ladders. With wobbling legs I did finally manage to reach G.D. Subba’ house where I stayed the night over.

 

The jeep to Yuksom came to Darap around one in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to while away the next morning. Had a late breakfast or early lunch, whatever you choose to call, for by this time I had got used to the fact that in this land every meal consisted of rice, dal and vegetables which was given a different name depending on the time of the day you ate. At around midday began my march to Nambu which turned pretty entertaining three quarter way through. I was crossed by two guys on a motorbike who halted seeing me walking with a backpack. The two Biharis were pretty amazed to see a crazy guy from Mumbai walking alone in this part of Sikkim.  For twenty minutes they talked non stop about their experience in Sikkim giving me all sorts of tips and advice, while I nodded my head. In all their friendship they offered to give me a lift till Darap, to which I politely refused. That was not acceptable to them, so after five minutes of coaxing me I finally gave into them.  Very anxiously I tried to balance myself as the bike picked up speed, swinging like a balancing scale which had gone haywire. Then came the terrifying movement of crossing a large stream where I was pretty sure we would fall, but by God’ mercy we somehow managed to clear it. With a great sigh of relief I bid my two over friendly companions goodbye as they dropped me to Darap in one piece.

 

The reason for my overnight stay to Yuksom was to meet up with Kinzong. Kinzong is one of those few people from the younger generation in Sikkim, who is taking a leading role in environmental conservation as a long term benefit to the local communities. Being a local from Yuksom he has taken many initiatives to conserve the degrading environment along the Yuksom –Dzongri trail, by educating the local communities as also by getting certain rules enforced for trekkers. He has played an active role in KCC (Kangchendzonga Conservation Committee) which is doing a good job of improving the livelihood of the local communities while protecting the environment. Besides Kinzong is an excellent trekking guide having a good deal of experience organizing and guiding treks in the Dzongri region. I wanted to understand the finer nuances of the business, as also clear the myriad haze of permits involved.  

 

Yuksom looked very different in the light mist and rain, than what I had seen it the previous October. It bore a very desolate look, albeit one which was extremely peaceful and serene. Had the terrific aloo paratha at Gupta’ restaurant for lunch, to my surprise he recognized me even through my thick beard. We spoke for quite some time while  I awaited for Kinzong to pick me up. Spoke to Kinzong the entire evening, our conversation ranging from environmental conservation, community development to the political situation in Sikkim. Got lots of inputs from him regarding organizing treks, about how the Yambong committee could be helped with their endeavor, some of his work in Arunachal with WWF. So absorbed were we that it was nearly midnight before we ended our wonderful conversation. Early next morning left for Gantok, bringing to an end a momentous two and a half month stay in Sikkim.

 

For more information regarding the Yambong trek and the ecotourism committee check their website http://www.yambong.com/

 

You can check the KCC website over here

 

For organizing a trek to Goecha La or in the Yuksom region you can get in touch with Kinzong at kinzong(at)gmail.com

 

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Lachen site launch

One of my tasks during the Lachen project was to write content for the website and the guidebook. The website which has now been completed has come out really well. All thanks to the persistent efforts put by Nima and the designing team for this great website. The URL of the website is pretty long , but had been chosen by the last Pipon so had to be left that way. The website can be reached at http://www.explorelachensikkim.com

The Lachen tourism project is nearing an end as most activities have been done. It is now time to celebrate the successful completion of the project through a site launch. A formal three day program from 16th to 18th October is being organized for the same. This would be a nice opportunity to experience the culture of this otherwise closed community. You can get more details about the program over here.

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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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