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Posts Tagged ‘sikkim’

In the month of November there were a spate of attacks by Himalayan Black Bears in various towns in Sikkim. All of a sudden the bears had begun to scavenge on garbage dumps invariably creating a man-animal conflict. The issue was becoming quite serious with the number of  casualties increasing and the forest department finding itself incapable of handling the situation.  Instead of trying to understand the root cause of the issue the forest department was only interested in tranquillising the bears and getting them back into the forest. this exercise proved to be an expensive one as the inexperienced Chief Conservator of Wildlife was badly mauled by a bear during this activity.

At a time when everybody seemed to be more concerned about protecting human lives rather than those of the bears , there was one person who stood out for them. My good friend and IFS officer Sandeep Tambe decided to write an article in the local newspaper to educate the people regarding the real issue. As it turned out, the issue was that there was an autumn famine in the forests because of which there was a severe shortage of bear food in the forest.  The article below finally prompted the forest department to rethink the problem with a different mindset.

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Wild Beauties II

The Singalila range which borders West Bengal, Sikkim and Nepal is a biodiversity hotspot for flora and fauna alike. On my recent trek came across many of these beauties , mainly above Lower Yambong (3200 M). Whether it was the mauve colored slopes mingled with green and yellow, or the lilac aster or the freaky looking Saussurea, their vividness never stopped amazing me.

 

Aster himalaicus

Aster himalaicus

 

Saussurea gossypiphora

Saussurea gossypiphora

 

Senecio chrysanthemoides

Senecio chrysanthemoides

Check out more of these beauties

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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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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.

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A short outing to Rumtek

Dallas was running out of ideas to pass our time on Saturday and so he suggested we go to Rumtek to see the monastery over there. It is touted as one of the main tourist attractions around Gantok and so I approved of the plan. Rumtek is around 22 kms from Gantok with good access via taxis , or so I thought. We went to the taxi stand but had to wait for around 30 minutes for the taxi to get full before it started . It was a one hour drive through lush greenery and some entertaining local gossip.  Along the way one gets good vistas of Gantok city surrounded by green mountain slopes giving an impression of a rudimentary castle in the air.

The first thing I notice as I enter the monastery complex is the ITBP guard station, from which one of them gives me a peering glance to inquire if I am a foreigner or not. I speak to him in fluent hindi to eliminate any of his doubt. A five minute walk through the complex gets us to the main gate of the monastery where I buy two entrance tickets for us. I walk into a huge quadrangle with the monks quarters on both the flanks and the main temple opposite the gate. It is the largest monastery in Sikkim and home to the Karma Kagyu sect of Buddhism.   The Rumtek complex was founded by the sixteenth Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpe Dorje after he ran away from Tibet to avoid communist prosecution and to continue with his preaching.

The main temple is a magnificent and opulent four storied structure. I went inside the main temple hall which is open to all visitors and was enthralled by the vividity of the paintings and it’ colors. Unluckily I did not have much understand into the meaning of the paintings and Dallas seemed to be least interested in them. The hall is supported by red pillars from which silk banners and intricate thangkas hang. From here we walked towards to Nalanda Institute and the Golden Stupa. I was really astonished to see the number of ITBP cadets and they had an entire army post inside, it was both sad and painful to see a heavy army presence in such holy a place.

 

The Nalanda Institute was a richly painted five storied building. The institute was founded to preserve and propagate the teachings of Buddha and, in particular, the Kagyu tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. It is supposed to be the most important learning centre for Buddhism in the world.   

                                                       Namgyal Institute

Since we could not go in, just had to admire the institute from outside. By this time Dallas was really getting restless and so could take only a brief glance inside the Golden Stupa. It contains the precious relics of the sixteenth Karmapa and is bejeweled with ancient turquoise and coral, and decorated with filigree and fine metalwork. came out and roamed about a bit in the gardens to take in the peaceful and serene atmosphere, till I was interrupted by an impatient Dallas and asked if we could leave.

So started our homeward journey which turned a bit ugly and adventurous. On reaching back to the road we did not find any shared jeep to take us back and after 30 minutes of waiting did not yield any results we started walking down. But as fortune favours the brave we did manage to get one after about 20 minutes to comfortably reach Gantok.

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