Pema and Co, albeit hesitantly, suggested we could accompany them to the hotel they were to spend the night in. It was run by a friend of theirs, had ‘bed, water, bathroom.’
We were put up in a first floor room that seemed to have organically grown around the bed it contained, leaving just a couple of inches on all sides for the weirdoes who liked to stand every once in a while. The little floor that was visible revealed a red wall to wall carpeting, with suspicious spots of a mercifully unidentifiable liquid., no other piece of furniture, and a window that presently looked out onto a dark void, and a whispering breeze. A door led to what was supposed to be the bathroom. The previous patrons seemed to have been a little confused about the layout in the bathroom, as their remnants were smeared all over the place. My job at that time had more or less acclimatized me to organic stains (this is cocktail speak for poop, for I was working for a toilet cleaner brand), but it most definitely did not equip me to handle organic dumplings. But, we persevered and decided all will be well if we just had some sleep.
‘There, there! Did you see that?!’
‘No, please come down.’
‘I swear I saw another cockroach…’
‘No, the one I killed was the last one. Please come down.’
‘How do you know? There might be thousands more under the bed!’
‘There aren’t. Besides, they are just tiny little bugs. They are not going to kill you! For god’s sake, don’t be such a sissy. If not brave, at least have some self esteem. This is embarrassing.’
Hesitantly, I came down the window and hopped on to the bed. I am not proud of it, but am scared of bugs; of all kinds. Yes they are small, but you do realize that nature made them that way just so they could crawl into all kinds of holes and things. All dangerous things in life are small. Do you know how tall A. Raja is? But anyway, I knew I was not going to be able to spend the entire night hanging from the window grill. So I crawled up under the double blankets, which at present, were giving off this nice, homely smell of vomit and dust.
‘I think something moved again. Is that your feet?’
We woke up to an entirely new world the next morning. The room that had looked unfamiliar and threatening had started feeling cozy and relaxing. Looking out of the window, we could see snow-clad mountains, their tops covered with clouds, gently guiding the babbling river along just a few meters from our hotel. There were a couple of kids on the road below, shepherding their sheep to wherever sheep go for work. Pema and his brother well already up, cleaning and readying the car for the day’s travel.
We had planned out the day previously. After spending a night at Lachung, we would go to the Yumthang Valley, a grazing pasture that was completely covered with flowers in the right season. But since this was NOT the right season, what we did expect to encounter was a lot of open space, no mobile reception, and if lucky, some snow. It was to be a day trip, and if we managed to be back in Lachung by 2 PM, we could leave for Gangtok immediately. That was the plan.
We left for Yumthang at around 8 AM. For the first half an hour, it was a relaxing drive, where we just kept gaping at the snow clad mountains at the top and undulating mounds of grass below. The chill breeze, mixed with diffused, soft sunlight was so magical that you couldn’t help sticking your head out of the car, and smile at the sky like an idiot. But the road became progressively curvier, steeper and rockier, till a point was reached where Pema gave up. In front of us was what school books would define as a river. The locals insisted on calling it a road block, but trust me it was a river (photo in previous post). And in that river were stuck two tourist Boleros that had been travelling just ahead of us. Pema and brother took turns evaluating the situation.
‘Bhai, here not too deep,’ said Pema, dipping a tree branch into the water.
‘Hmm…’ said the brother, investigating his own route to the other side.
After 10 minutes of this inspection, and after having placed big rocks at strategic points on the river bed, it was announced that an optimal route had been found through the river. Pema’s brother took over the driving. And we actually made it across without much of a fuss, allowing for the brief moment when the vehicle had started moving sideways from the force of the water.
There were a couple of more such unplanned stops that required improvisations involving rocks, dust, and some passersby, but we reached our destination more or less on time. And let me describe what we saw. Nestled between two mountains, at an altitude of 14000 ft, was this large meadow covered with lush green, dew-covered grass, sprinkled here and there with some big boulders for symmetry. On one edge of this meadow, running parallel to the mountain was the Teesta river. Standing on the edge of this river, if you were to look up, all you would see are snow-clad mountains, peeking at you through some very, very low clouds. A very gentle breeze blows continuously through this valley, bringing with it the faint relaxing sounds and smell of some life further uphill.
But we were not completely alone here. There was this film crew of around 10 people who’d come from East Sikkim to shoot a music video and had camped right next to the river. They were a very friendly lot, and readily offered us refreshments even before we’d introduced ourselves. We’d skipped breakfast, and hence we indulged ourselves.
There isn’t much to do in Yumthang, which is best thing about the place. The seclusion, the climate, the weather just compel you to sit and while away time; which was precisely our plan. Pema’s brother had already gone back to Lachung for some personal work, and while Pema was out cleaning the vehicle somewhere, we had a good 3-4 hours to ourselves.
Some guys from the film crew had mentioned there was this famous Shiv temple a little distance from the campsite. Now, I am not a religious person, but am smart enough to concur when the omnipotent one expresses desire to do something.
‘Let’s walk over to the temple?’ said the missus.
After walking for almost half an hour, and having failed multiple times to convince the missus any rock, tree or soil formation that bore even a remote resemblance to a phallus was the famous temple, I started questioning the ‘little distance’ part of the travel advice. The road was pleasant, but steep, and we were at a high altitude; breathing was not easy. A car happened to pass by and we asked for directions. The driver, a Mr. T. Lama, repeated the little distance bit, and volunteered to drive us there. Before we could even consider this offer, our aching legs had already agreed and were in the car. We drove for a good 20 minutes, wherein the kind Mr. Lama also told us about his destination – a natural geyser in the mountains. He also shared his intention of camping there for a week, immersing himself in the geyser at regular intervals to take advantage of its medicinal benefits. Without any prompting, he then went on to share with us the recipe for Yak head, apparently a family secret. I tried to look engrossed and told him that I was sure to try it once we were back in Chennai.
Mr. Lama dropped us at the temple. Here, the missus proceeded to telegraph personalized messages to Lord Shiva, while I occupied myself by ringing all the bells hanging inside the structure. And then, we started on our way back. It took us two and a half hours. The scenery was painfully pretty, but towards the end, with each aching step, it kept becoming increasingly inconsequential. Still, we could have possibly made it back faster, but I was crawling on all fours for the last half hour, so that kind of slowed us down.
Altitude sickness does weird things to people. On our way back, just a kilometer or so away from the campsite, we’d spotted this idiot who’d driven his vehicle right into the river. Here, it now lay stuck in knee deep water. Some people had gathered to help him by pushing the car out, but it obviously required more than that. For whatever it was worth, I decided to walk down to the river and help out – after all, some poor tourists might have been in some trouble because of this.
I was of course right. The tourists in question were us. Pema, for some inconceivable reason, driven the Bolero into the river. And from the looks of it, it was destined to stay there for some time. A lot of helpful people in SUVs stopped by to tow the car out, but the approach to the river bed was all muddy, and none of them could gain any traction. After a couple of hours of trying, we sort of gave up.
Now, we had two options. Hitch a ride to Lachung, and then get a taxi back to Gangtok. Or stay in Yumthang and keep trying to get the vehicle out and resisting the urge to kill Pema. While I was considering these options, the missus had already gone back to the campsite, and asked the film crew if they could spare a tent. And as it turned out, they could. They pitched us a tent right beside the river, insisted that we should also join them for snacks now, and dinner later, and that we should quite obviously spend the night there. Now, I’ve done my fair share of outdoorsy stuff, but it generally came in 40” high-definition 30 minute slots. Neither the missus nor I had camped before. And the idea was very appealing. ‘Think of the bragging rights, ‘ I told myself. ‘If I could go back and just figure out a way to make all of this look carefully planned and deliberate…’
So, we decided to spend the night in Yumthang Valley. Pema, keeping a certain distance, apologized and assured us that he would somehow get the vehicle out by morning, and we could leave immediately.
One of the first things you’ll realize about real-life camping is that since no one is shooting you with a camera, and there is no urban habitation nearby, it tends to become pitch dark. Secondly, the tent itself, which looks cute, cosy and colorful, is incredibly claustrophobic. Add to this the noise of the river, multiplied hundred fold due to the darkness, a sudden torrential downpour, with parts of the tent leaking, and sleeping bags that seemed to have been custom-built for the seven dwarves. And, of course, the cold. What had been a pleasant breeze during the day, had dipped to 3 degrees Celsius at night. We were dressed in t-shirts and jeans – since this was supposed to be a day-trip, we’d left our woolens in Lachung. Yumthang didn’t take kindly to this affront. After what seemed like 6-7 hours, our teeth had started clattering involuntarily, and we tried our best not to move inside our sleeping bags, lest we came in contact with another cold patch of plastic. I bravely took out my right arm to look at the time; the missus was in terrible shape with a migraine, and I thought telling her we’d made it through most of the night would encourage her. It was 7: 15 PM.
I’m not quite sure if we had slept off or fainted. I do remember getting up every once in a while to check if both of us were alive and breathing. But finally, mercifully, morning came. The temperature was tolerable again, and I ventured out of the tent. An unbelievable spectacle awaited me. It was as if the clouds, in the dark of the night, had magically descended to where we were. Even the river, just fifty feet away, was invisible. I groped my way around to a campfire that the others had lit, and drank some tea. One of the guys played the guitar, and the rest of us sat there, watching the clouds gently ascend, like a theatre curtain rising to unravel the magical stage.
At around 9 AM, as the sun resumed its fight to muscle through the clouds and fog and onto the ground, I decided to pause my private Nat-Geo moment, and deal with concerns of a more immediate nature. The visibility on the ground had improved, and I decided to walk across, and check if the car was out yet. It wasn’t. Walking up to the car, I found Pema sleeping blissfully in the backseat. I knocked and asked him what had happened.
‘No. Very bad. Crane,’ he said, rubbing his eyes, and yawning.
By now, the novelty of car stuck in middle of river had also worn off, and fewer people came to help. We tried stopping every car and asking for help. Some of them even tried, but it was increasingly clear that this was a losing battle. By noon, it had been established that we’d have to spend the rest of our lives in Yumthang Valley.
That’s when our Savior made his entry. No, Lord Shiva was attending to some other disaster. Our Savior was Captain Harjeet Singh Katoch, of the Indian Army. He must have been on his daily visit to the China border, some kilometres away from the campsite, when he happened to spot a few civilians, well, in an uncivil situation. He got off his jeep, walked up to our car, and demanded a debrief of the stupidity; having sized up the situation, he gave Pema a look that made him feel fortunate that Mr. Singh Katoch presently wasn’t carrying his side-arm. A whistle, a few hand-gestures, some whispers, a cigarette, some more hand-gestures, and before we realized it, Mr. Katoch, who by now had started looking like Gerard Butler in 300, was guiding our vehicle out of the river. In another ten minutes, we were good to go. If this wasn’t enough, Mr. Katoch even invited us for lunch at his cantonment, once we were back in Lachung.
A longish good-bye session ensued where we thanked everyone in the film crew for their hospitality and shook hands with some of the locals who’d tried to help us over our amazing two-day stay at the Yumthang Valley. We drove back to Lachung, and straight to the cantonment where Mr. Katoch indulged us with the most amazing lunch and conversation. We thanked him for his kindness, and kept repeating it till he had started regretting having helped us. And then, we left.
The way back had some more incidents, one of which included an avalanche, which resulted in a reasonably big rock landing on our car. But I realize that if I go on, you’ll start suspecting that I am making all of it up. I am not; all of this happened. As I had said, for some reason nature had taken a hands-on approach towards us during those two weeks. But despite all that went wrong and the many impediments, there seemed to have been a roundabout, more convoluted, but more memorable way of going around. In the end, we were left with so many cherished moments, so many vignettes, that we still keep recalling incidents that we’d overlooked earlier.
Sikkim was amazing, and the experience of a lifetime. It is truly one of the prettiest parts of India (I know, I know. Ladakh is pretty too). Given a change, I wouldn’t change a thing about the entire trip.
Ok, maybe take some woolens this time. And the bathroom. Fewer avalanches? Rivers with actual bridges…but you know what I mean.