The road winds up into the Shivaliks, seemingly curving into their heart- the city of Gangtok is sprawled across these lower reaches of the Himalayas. It is still only October; when the cold months arrive, a bed of snow will flake the twinkling fairy lights of this hill town.
We walk down MG Road, Gangtok. How different it is from its namesake in the cities of the plains, a colonial reminder of the years gone by, the quintessential Mall of Himalayan towns. You can almost conjure up images of British sahibs and their elegantly dressed wives trotting up and down these hill roads, looking for respite from the searing heat of the plains. (All you need, in fact, is a haunted dak bungalow to complete the story.) Today, it is a paved road only for pedestrians, lined with Bose loudspeakers on lampposts, leading past a line of restaurants and shops selling clothes, electronic items and all sorts of curious artefacts to a nondescript, dank movie theatre. It is close to eight o’clock at night, and a cloudy mist settles over the town, people reduced to blurry shapes as they walk by. The shops are winding down for the day, and some already have their shutters down. Darkness falls as early as 5 pm, and it is only natural that the owners of the establishments here would want to go home to their dinner before yet another bright and early start the next morning.
We are in bed soon, too, because we have an early start ahead of us. We are taking a jeep to Lachung, a village in North Sikkim. Most places here mention the district on signboards- everywhere in and around Gangtok, the boards tell us we’re in East Sikkim.
A punctured step-knee means we’re delayed at a repair shop for about an hour. It isn’t a traditional garage- a man carries the tyre up a few steep stone steps to the courtyard of his house and works on it. From where we are parked, there is a brilliant view of a mountain-top, diaphanous clouds crowning its crest, a few girls in blue uniforms walking up to a small building perched on it. The hillsides bathed in yellow sunshine sprawl beneath us, dotted with variously coloured houses, the Teesta flowing further down on its ancient bed. Imagine waking up to this view every morning, instead of the jagged squares of white-hot sky and concrete that most of us are accustomed to!
We set off a little while later on what is going to be the most spectacular journey I’ve ever been on. The road hugs the mountains constantly, and thanks to the numerous landslides that occur in the region, is more often than not in a state of repair. The jeep jolts over rock and stream, coming precariously close to the edge from where there is only a sheer drop into the valley. The clouds cast large swathes of shadow over the rolling dark hillsides, and the sky remains placid and blue. Thick-skinned, rather furry cows graze on the hillslopes, and I see a few birds I cannot recognise. On and off, the hills break into a riot of colour, the grasses red, brown and green, speckled with bright flowers.
We stop at a couple of waterfalls on the way, rapidly gushing foamy streams of water that will meet one of the tributaries of the Teesta- at these heights, far from the swirling madness of the plains, quite untouched by human hand, everything is clean and pure.
Darkness is falling, and the eerie atmosphere is accentuated by the relentless trilling of insects. We stop for tea- fragrant, sweet and milky, most of it comes from Darjeeling- and are soon on the last lap of our journey to Lachung. The mountains are now just large, looming shapes in the dark, shorn of friendliness or any emotion whatsoever. As we climb higher up, lights flicker on in the valley sporadically, and we marvel at the tenacity of the people who choose such distant, almost isolated places to build their homes.
Stars sprinkle the velvety darkness of the sky as we reach our guest house in Lachung. We cannot see much at this hour, but we notice quite a few houses and a splendid monastery. As we step out of the jeep, we feel the biting cold of the thin air- at an elevation of 9600 feet, you sure feel the difference. The rooms of the guest house are sparely furnished, and the few men in attendance have quite a bit of rushing around to do to accommodate this new batch of guests. A hot meal of rice, dal, potatoes in gravy and cabbage awaits us, and we turn in early- not that we need much coaxing into bed. Tired out by the long journey and eager for an early start to the Yumthang Valley, we ignore the mosquitoes and hit the sack.
Onward to Yumthang