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Posts Tagged ‘Lachen’

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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Imagine yourself climbing the Empire State building, now transport the stairs from the concrete periphery of the building to the ever green temperate forests and you find yourself climbing the Stairway to Heaven. This very aptly summarizes our  trip to Tarum hot springs.

 

Nima ascending the stairway to heaven

Nima ascending the stairway to heaven

Our initial plan to do a three day trek to Lachung is shot down by the pippon , reasoning that the route would be very difficult to find in this season. By this time we have already bought our rations considering four people for three days, leaving us with a mighty excess giving us a perfect opportunity for a lavish gastronomic picnic. A half hour drive from Lachen gets us to Tarum chu, our starting point for the trek. We begin our climb over a multitude of stairs which pass through dense broad leaf temperate forests , aptly naming it ‘Stairway to Heaven’.   

Basket fern

Basket fern

 The low clouds mingling through the canopy gives off a silhouette effect to the trees rendering the forest with a very dreamy effect. Our gait is very relaxed enjoying the path which passes through bamboo canopies, listening to the melodic bird calls as the terrain slowly changes from broad leaf to coniferous.   I am fascinated by a particular fern which looks like a perfectly natural tree cage, very aptly named ‘basket fern’ .  Every few steps it appears in different sizes holding my fascination while I try to capture it on my camera from all possible angles. All of a sudden we reach into an opening from where we can see a small house, our residence for the night. It’ a small basic structure with two rooms , a kitchen and a bathroom, as one room is already occupied by two elderly Lepchas we make ourselves comfortable in the adjoining one.

 

We take appreciative gulps of piping hot tea to warm our damp bodies. Very quickly we strip ourselves of our wet clothes to immerse our bodies in the female pond. Male and female , that’ the term the locals have given to the two sulphur ponds, the cooler one being the female and the hotter one the male.  

The male pond

The male pond

 The locals believe that one should first enter into the female pond before going to the male pond, the reason for which I really did not know but logically it made sense as the male pond was so hot that it made me yelp as I dip my foot in. Nima and myself were thoroughly enjoying   as we sit there chatting for more than an hour, coming out occasionally to escape the dizziness from the sulphur fumes. By the time we come back to the hut a three course lunch awaits our rumbling tummies. The misty weather induces our laziness as we chat away with the two Lepchas the entire afternoon. Outside the flycatchers are putting up a great show with their swooping dance thoroughly entertaining us, while the yellow beaked blue magpie calls out to his mate. After a brief nap both of us are back in the pond for our second session in the natural Jacuzzi. While we dry ourselves out, the elder Lepcha whom we loving call Ajo (grandfather) invites us to join him for a tumba.  Willing we accede to his request, enjoying the sweet taste of the fermented millet over a long conversation about the Lepchas , their customs, their land. Such is our engrossment that we have lost all bearing of time , till the grey of dusk fades into the black of night. A sumptuous dinner soon follows in the dim light of our candles and the buzzing of the mosquitoes.

 

Lush green temperate forests

Lush green temperate forests

With not much entertainment both of us tuck inside our sleeping bags by seven thirty. But the night is spent in restless abandon with an incessant attack by the mosquitoes who keep buzzing all around, penetrating their antlers for a sip of our juicy blood. I keep tossing and turning all night trying to kill a few of them, but nothing seems to help. I dive deep into the depths of my sleeping bag where they still manage to find my bare skin making me scream in frustration. The first sing of light brings some relief acting as a balm to my harried self. A warm cup of tea refreshes me from my drowsy state , post which I go for my last dip to rid my body of mosquito bites and sleep. After breakfast we bid farewell to our Lepcha friends , who are sad to see us leave , as we begin our descent to Lachen.

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Wild Beauties

The variety of flora to be found in the Lachen valley is simply amazing. The great explorer botanist J.D. Hooker was completely awed by the variety of flora he found in the Lachen valley during his exploratory trip in 1849, making the following entry in his diary ” At first it appears incredible that so limited an area should present nearly all the types of flora found in the north temperate zone” . These  wild flowers held a captivating fascination for me as well. Managed to capture a few of these beauties during my excursions to Lashar, Thangu, Dewthang and Tarum.

  

Primula glomerata

Primula glomerata

  

Blue poppy -Meconopsis grandis

Blue poppy -Meconopsis grandis

 

Enjoying the Marigold

Enjoying the Marigold

Rhododendron slopes

Rhododendron slopes

You can check out more pictures 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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With impatient anxiousness I was waiting for the helicopter to land at the Bhaku helipad, for I was finally leaving to Lachen for my project. I was introduced to the UNDP official Mayura, and another consultant Raj Basu, who were going to be my accomplices on the journey. The initial part of the drive is simply amazing as it passes through thick evergreen (sub temperate) forests bejeweled with numerous waterfalls. I was awestruck at the sight of such lush green forests even though from a distance. Our conversation wavered from Lachen and its people, to the hydel project on Tista, to other community based projects. During this course I was to find out that Raj had been working in the environmental and community based tourism field since the past 21 years all around the North East and was an extremely knowledgeable person. Our five and a half hour journey brought us to Lachen at 8.30 in the night, whence we were greeted by the pipon and Nima.

A bright sun was already staring me in my face, leaving me no option but to wake up by 5.30. Took a small walk around the village and the first think I noticed was that it really wasn’t as small and rural as I had thought it to be. Post breakfast we had a meeting with the village council in which Raj spoke about his thoughts on ways and means to increase the tourist inflow and increase profitability of the hoteliers. Later Mayura, Raj, Nima and Myself were taken around the village by Tshering who would also assist and help me in my work in Lachen. Our walk started with a tour of the monastery which is amazingly beautiful, the resident monk explained to us the significance of some of the paintings and statues within the monastery. Later, Nimbum the thanka painter of Lachen also joined us and invited us to tea where he was explaining to us the intricacies of painting a thanka. From here we went down the gompa road to the Tourist Information Centre which was shut ( no surprises here) and when we had it opened they hardly had any information and all their broachers and books were years old (still no surprises). It seemed that the TIC was the most unfriendly and unlikely place from where a tourist could get any sort of information. Since it was not being put to use we decided to have the interpretation centre for Lachen in their premise. The remaining part of the day was spent in more discussions and brain storming for improving upon the benefits of tourism to the people.

Project backgroundWill digress a bit over here to give a brief background on the project currently going on in Lachen. The Ministry of Tourism and UNDP (United Nations Development Program) are executing a project in Lachen to promote a more sustainable and equitable form of tourism, thus improving the livelihood of the people. The NGO I am volunteering for, namely TMI (The Mountain Institute) is assisting UNDP in executing the project on ground. It has taken a better part of two years in just developing relationship and trust with the local people over here to finally get the project running from May. The people of Lachen are a very closed community and they don’t speak to people outside or open up easily, and since they have their own system of local governance even the government can’t do much over here. But things have finally started rolling and the new village chief is eager to get the project going. My role over here is to develop a guide book about the place and the people , help out in developing the website and do a recci around places in Lachen, which have a good tourist potential. Besides this am also helping out in driving the ‘zero waste’ program, and making a sort of Interpretation Centre.

To assist me in my work over here a girl named Tshering has been assigned to me. A graduate in Political Science with budding enthusiasm to work towards the betterment of her village, she represents the new face of Lachen. Along with her I met up with quite a few people to document their food, culture and history which till now has been the most difficult part as nobody is sure about their history and it remains a gray area. A lot of help and information has been provided to me by the postmaster Rinzing Chewang, who has painstakingly and meticulously recorded the customs, culture, governance system and travel places over the years. I spent many of my evenings in his ever enthusiastic company, talking about anything and everything related to Lachen, thus learning a lot in the process.

The village and it’ people

Lachen is located at an altitude of 8838 feet in the North district of Sikkim. The village has seen a good deal of expansion in the recent past, with around 180 households and around 20 hotels; not really as small as I had initially expected it to be. The locals, who are Bhutias by race originally came from Chumbi valley in Tibet and the Ha valley in Bhutan, sometime in the 17th century (or so it is believed). Being herders they led a nomadic life , staying in Lachen during winters and moving up to Thangu during the summer months. Till a few years back the entire village would move to Thangu in summer but now since most people have a settled life only the herders move up.

The most unique feature about Lachen is it’ administration and local governance system called Dzumsa which literally means the meeting place. This system of self governance was introduced sometime in the beginning of the 19th century and even after the panchayat system was introduced all over Sikkim it was not imposed in Lachen and Lachung, thus the Dzumsa system continues to function till this day. The Dzumsa is a group of people chosen by the villagers to represent them and manage the village affairs. The council of representatives known as lehyan consists of two pipons who are the head of the village, assisted by five village elders called gyambos , two treasurers called tsipos , two messengers gyapons and three elder monks. This council or lheyan is changed every year unless the villagers wish to renew their mandate. Traditionally the Dzumsa system came into existence to organize and regulate the people while dispensing the benefits to the entire community. The Dzumsa not only determines the code of conduct of all individuals in social as well as economic issues but also implements and monitors them, while collecting fines from those who break the norms and rules. The Dzumsa performs all the developmental functions that are assigned to the panchayats in other areas and also have customary judicial power for trial of cases in their respective villages.

(more…)

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