I woke up to a sound of thunder in the middle of my sleep. I reached for my watch. It was still three am in the morning. I could hardly complete four hours of sleep. The lack of it was mostly due to the excitement regarding today’s schedule of activities – of finally crossing the Nathu La (4310m). By the time the mobile alarm announced four o’clock; I was up and about and was already packing my luggage. It was chilly outside. The water inside the thermos was still steaming. With the last remaining tea-pouch from the stock I had so fondly bought from Gangtok, I made myself some tea.
After completion of some more formalities at the customs check post, we had to report at the border gate at 0700hrs IST. At the break of dawn the group gathered at the parking lot. The luggage committee dutifully made a recheck of the entire individual as well as group luggage. Everything looked to be in order. A loud holy cry of Har Har Mahadeo was raised by Babaji after which we all got on the bus and occupied our respective seats. As incipient rays of the morning sun filtered in through the windowpanes of the bus; we left for the Nathu La.
From Sherathang, the approach to the Nathu La is very gradual on a broad tarred-road. Before the road got built, the neighbouring Jelep La was always the preferred alternative to enter the Chumbi Valley located north. Within less than half-an-hour we reached the Customs check post positioned some 100 metre before the pass. Southwards; mist and clouds had masked the valley up which we had just climbed. The group members queued up in the order of their listing in the group visa. The custom officials took no time in completing the remaining formalities after which we pushed off towards the pass where the stationed unit of the Indian army had also organised a High Tea for us. In the meantime, our luggage got transported to the Tibet-side where it got loaded in a truck after initial screening. For personal exigencies, two co-travellers had to go back after the culmination of formal activities at the India-side of the pass.
As we lined up on the no man’s land, a light drizzle came and spattered the crest of the pass; not more than 40 metre in length. The whistling wind that accompanied the light rain swept us cold, as we stood chatting with the Indian Army and ITBP soldiers. The Tibet-gate opened at 0730hrs IST sharp; equivalent to 1000hrs China Time. Another holy cry was raised and this time the response was louder and even more energetic; the soldiers had also joined. Once across the border, the formalities and quarantining procedures finically took more time to get over. Being the first batch; a whole lot of extra formalities including speeches and thanksgiving bestowed upon us. The main speakers included Chinese Ambassador to India Mr Le Yucheng, Mr Dong Ming Jun, Vice Chairperson of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) and Sh Tarun Vijay, Member of Parliament who represented India viewpoint. With watery eyes due to cold; applauding whenever we needed to, we stood still as spectators for almost two hours.
Before we could get acquainted with our trip-guides and language-translators, we were requested to board the buses. The view into Tibetan side from the top of the pass was remarkably much greener than most of us had possibly expected it to be. Down below, with small settlements spread on both sides of the Amo River, the pine-clad ridges of inhabited Chumbi Valley rippled one after the other; as far as the eyes could see. Called as Nai Dui La in Tibetan, the Nathula literally implies a place where the “snow is deepest and the wind strongest”. Shielded by the crags of the range through which Nathula provides a passage, around this side of the pass, the wind had reduced to just a gentle breeze. A signboard in local parlance read Lhasa is 480km from where we stood. Awestruck by the beauty of the Chumbi Valley, we started the descent into Southern Tibet in complete silence. The road ahead – as if some giant serpent had creeped along the mountain-face – was a succession of loops. Our next halt was at the customs check post-cum-trading mart of Rinchengang; just seven km below the pass. Colourful prayer flags marked the entry into the historical trade outpost of Rinchen where all our documents, passport, luggage and baggage including our body temperatures got verified and examined. The truck carrying our luggage had already reached here. After receiving a go ahead from the Chinese authorities, a few basic apprehensions had gone and everything else unheeded as we thought of the Tibetan marvel that lay ahead.
The new Yadong (referred as Shiasima in olden trade-records), the chief centre of the Chumbi Valley, was still 30 km away. Escorted by Chinese militia and authorities in their official vehicles, we began the descent with great pomp in the shape of a convoy. Sandwiched between the Himalayan watershed of Sikkim and Bhutan, the valley is one of the most fertile regions under the administration of TAR. The terrain had all the hints of a material well-being and comfort there. Apart from being a commercial, cultural as well as a Buddhist centre of note, the region possesses extraordinary natural beauty. The town of Yadong, then a village, was once a flourishing terminus on the ancient silk and tea trade route connecting the modern-day Yunnan Province with Bengal in India. It was through these established horse trails that the British military expeditions of early twentieth century overran a portion of Tibet. A few years after that, in the 1912-upheaval of Tibet, HH the thirteenth Dalai Lama is said to have been smuggled up the Jelep La, with the British assistance, through this route to meet Sikkim heads and British envoys in Kolkata for help. More recently in 1958 when trading still prospered on the Sikkim – Tibet highway, Pt Jawaharlal Nehru stayed here for a night; visiting the key monasteries on his way to Bhutan.
The locals, it seemed, were already mindful of the start of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra through Nathula, which was once so dear and friendly to them. Descending more than 1,000 m in altitude, as we snuggled into the settlement of Yadong, spread on the valley floor, its residents, shopkeepers, pedestrians and almost whoever saw us came out on streets to greet us and wave. Meandering through the markets, streets and corners of the town, our convoy made its way to a multi-storey hotel for a prearranged lunch. The houses here were well-built with stone and cement, often multi-storeyed and surrounded by fertile patches as well as orchards. We halted at the hotel for more than an hour; where many of us got their US Dollars exchanged into the local currency of Chinese Yuan. From the lobby of the hotel a near-view of the torrential Amo Chu could be obtained. In Tibetan language, Yadong means “rushing deep valley” and now we saw its manifestation from a close range. The weather became overcast as we snacked the local vegetarian delicacies with much bemusement.
Before we left the hotel, the guide reminded everyone that it was practically the last option on the day’s journey to have filtered water filled in their bottle or a thermos. Besides leading to plastic wastage, up here packaged water is actually very costly. Ahead the road climbed steadily in loops and sharp hairpin bends following the torrent upstream for most part until we reached a treacherous terrain bare of colour, life, sound, vegetation or even rock. Such was the nature of road infrastructure that we didn’t realise the transformation of tricky nature of the terrain. A dark cover of mist enveloped the valley as the terrain changed from sylvan green hills to plain brown alluvial deposits; with barren lifeless hills shooting up on either side. From the windowpane, I could distinctively spot vibrant wildflowers smeared in a riot of early spring colours – blues, reds and pinks.
The sky was almost constantly overcast. From gaps in clouds, I saw barrenness leading up to the snowy peaks; noticeably the conical shaped sacred Chomolhari (7326m), or the abode of the lady goddess; the guardian deity of Chumbi Valley and the adjoining Tibetan tableland. We were now crossing Phari settlement (4300m), 47km from Yadong, green carpeted and intersected by the meandering infant Amo Chu greedily collecting the last traces of winter’s snow. The nearest Bhutan town is only a few kilometre away from Phari. The windswept desolate plain opened out further after we crossed an even higher pass, Tang La at 4760, typically marked by cairns and fluttering prayer flags along with a board.
Ahead, as we descended; a broad straight road stretched up till horizon. The view was partially obscured by the clouds. With an overwhelming feeling of entering a dream, we stopped for a short break some distance ahead of Tuna; by the magnificent Dochen Tso. The weather opened a bit but distant view was still cloudy. I got down from the bus and made just a few photographs in the vague hope of finding a clear weather on my way back. Agile marmots popped up from their burrows to enquire about the disturbers of their peace; only to nip down again with disinterest. Save for the sighing of the wind or murmur of co-travellers, the quiet was unbroken. A distant looking waterbody had lost its sheen under the leaden sky. The solitude offered by the landscape was indescribable.
Unperturbed by the desolation, the bus kept moving. Inside the bus I kept myself glued to the outside panoramic display of godly colours of the fast changing dreamscape. More wetlands emerged. More snowy peaks announced their presence. Reaching the settlement of Gala, at an altitude of 4,604 meters; another distant looking turquoise waterbody appeared on our left: Gala Tso. As the landscape changed, I mused over the sight of ruins at Qumeixiong, marked by a red-coloured board as historical; we had crossed a while back. The countryside that looked appealing to me now was once a venue to a fierce battle between the natives and the British led by Francis Younghusband more than a century ago. Situated adjacent to Dochen, the tranquillity of Qumeixiong Valley was once blown apart by the sound of British artillery and firearms. The British expedition had completely dismantled many a shrines and buildings including that of the Phari and Qumeixiong fortress. Still dotted with bullet holes, a few of such ruins retain the same state as had been left when the British had attacked them. I made a mental note of trying to make a better snap record of the sight on the way back.
The settlement of Kangma (4175m), our stopover for the night, was still almost 100km away. We were comfortably cruising at over 60kmph; the road traffic, I observed, was habitually attentive to the prescribed speed limits and general traffic rules. The altitude had dropped to 4,000 m after which cultivated patches of agriculture land surrounded by hillocks began to appear; mainly growing highland barley, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, radishes, peas and wheat, etcetera. After the settlement of Samada, the villages of Gebai, Nabushi and the stretch from Gelong to Yuekang were particularly better in agriculture. Almost all the popular settlements had schools, ATMs or banking facilities.
A couple of hours later we were at the settlement of Kangma. Our accommodation was situated across the other side of Nyang Chu, a tributary to Yarlung Tsangpo, the mighty Brahmaputra. The accommodation centre faced the junction of provincial Riya highway to Shigatse and the roads to Beidahuang as well as Shiongzang; near Kangmar bus station ticket office. Immediately after checking into a room allotted to me along with two others, I headed towards the river bank to take a walk. The guide had stubbornly asked me to not carry the camera along. Alongside the bank, the alpine choughs were collecting their evening meals. I lost interest to carry on any further and headed back after the guide alarmed for the evening briefing meet. Back at the complex, it was sad to see a young and active lady going back to her homeland in Sikkim from here after she showed symptoms of AMS. The night drew on, dismally cold.
Seetalvan Orchard is a Homestay located in a natural exquisite setting of the Kotgarh hills in Shimla district of the state of Himachal Pradesh. Looked after by an enterprising lady, who has tastefully converted her family-owned orchard into a modern-day rejuvenation centre; the Seetalvan offers an idyllic break from the humdrum of city-life. A few days ago, I stayed here for three days and this is what I have to say about them and the region.
About Kotgarh (1950m)
The Valley of Kotgarh, popularly known as the valley of Golden Apples lies at a comfortable drive of 30 minutes (16 km) from Narkanda on the Shimla-Rampur highway. The small settlement on its hillside, a historic village on the erstwhile Hindustan – Tibet highway, is enveloped by a dense forest cover of deodars, pines, spruce and oaks. In its heyday, due to its comfortable-cum-strategic location on the erstwhile trade-route, the village was no less popular than Shimla. Whereas, Shimla evolved to become the popular summer retreat and ultimately the capital of British India, Kotgarh still has been able to almost retain its alluring charm. Read more about Kotgarh and nearby areas including the activities here: The misty hillside of Kotgarh.
The Seetalvan Orchard Homestay (2174m)
The owners of the Seetalvan Orchard bill their property, a modern Homestay, to be an “ideal blend of warmth, rustic appeal and luxury” offering a beautiful view of the middle Himalayas. Enclosed by a densely wooded deodar patch, the orchard comprises basically everything that can be grown on hills of this region. Apart from seasonal vegetables, the produce includes red, golden apples, kiwis, pears, peaches and cherries, etcetera.
The owners, a Jhina family, pride themselves with giving a personal, cultural and yet modern touch to create a semi-commercial property out of an ancestral estate. Having incorporated the basic fundamentals of modern architecture, the rooms are newly built. The kitchen-staff here has been especially trained to dish out homely north-Indian meals prepared out of locally procured ingredients. “We strive hard to serve tasty, healthy and fresh food so that it’s worth every penny you pay,” asserts the website. The owners also offer to organise sightseeing and adventure walks in the nearby area.
My Experience at Seetalvan
I can never get tired of visiting the sylvan Kotgarh-Thanadhar hillside. The reason is obvious; not as much of a touristy region and a more preserved countryside for which I thank the flourishment of apple cultivation in the region. Guest houses or homestays are not plentiful in Kotgarh and finding a fully functional one is not an option; barring a couple of other possibilities. The orchard of Seetalvan is situated a little before the main settlement of Kotgarh. As I crossed Theog, a message from the owner, giving directions of the property, flashed on my phone. With much ease I located it.
The caretaker, already waiting for me at the parking lot, escorted me to the room. The room was large and spacious for single occupancy or double, in fact, triple even. Minus a TV entertainment, intercom connectivity and Wi-Fi, the accommodation was well-appointed with almost everything one would expect at a luxuriously-billed property. I made myself a cup of tea. Polished in the typical yellow hue, much of the furniture and doorways was made out of deodar wood. The resin smell of the divine timber can actually work wonders and make you even more cheerful which is precisely what happened with me. Outside, the room opened up to a spacious balcony which had some prearranged basic furniture. The view encompassed Kullu and Mandi regions of the Himalayas. The rounded ridges endlessly rippled up far in the sky until they faded into the insipid blues on the horizon. Below me, the smell of recently plucked apples; juvenile magpies chasing each other, conversations of fellow resident-guests and the stretch of the orchard caught my attention. Further down on the valley floor, the mighty Satluj rounded to enter the Kullu region. Claimed to be the oldest organised cultivation, the lush green patch of dense deodars stood towards my left.
The common room was equipped with a small library comprising college literature, a couple of board games and a large screen to watch TV or play games. Reached through a stoop, the common-room opened up to a balcony on the right side. It was just an ideal place to grab a hot cuppa and pick a book or something. On one side the view commanded a sweeping Himalayanscape and the orchard on the other. I caught up with the owner Ms Minakshi Jhina, who was completely devoted to the upkeep and maintenance of the property of Seetalvan, her brainchild. With herself hailing from the Kotgarh-Thanadhar region itself; the property demands her attention and involvement all the time despite the staff being local. And she is ever willing; constantly tutoring and guiding her staff, a young, energetic and cultured team of local boys. The support-staff at Seetalvan was keen to accompany me or a walk and show me the terrain. Although, I preferred my own company but I found this willingness or service-option to be fairly useful as it would be of much help to a newcomer into the area.
The way I saw it
Ambience and Location: 4.5/5
Accommodation and Staff: 4.5/5
Food and Dining: 4.5/5
If you wish to book your stay here, you can contact at +91.980.55.94069 or reach out through their website. It is listed fairly well at most travel planning portals and apps.
As we prepared to depart from Kyongnosla for our next acclimatisation-halt on way to the Nathula, a small herd of yak-cow crossbreeds, called dzo, trooped on the road. Their herdsman was nowhere in sight. In the excitement of spotting something new, Yaks probably, a few pilgrims started taking snapshots of the domesticated animals that appeared half-asleep and disinterested. It was late morning already.
Meanwhile, the cooks had assumed complete control over the ration they bought a day before. The entire stock was dutifully packed and weather-proofed in a pickup van which was to transport it to the pass, still a couple of days away. Our next station was Sherathang (4120m), a recently commissioned trading post only six kilometre short of the pass. It wasn’t the best of options for acclimatisation on India side of the pass at this altitude but the infrastructure supported our accommodation and wellbeing.
As usual babaji initiated the ritual of holy cry of Har Har Mahadeo before we started for the next leg of our journey to the Sacred Space. Located at a distance of 26 km from the Fifteenth Mile on the road to the Nathula, Sherathang is otherwise a military check post. It was identified as the site for trade formalities, on India side, between India and China after the route got opened for trading in 2006. Rinchengang is the corresponding location in Tibet. The road ahead was smoothly tarred and broader as compared to the previous stretch. The mountain crests were too close to one another for a long sweeping view besides looking decidedly grim and barren. I decided to give my snap recorder a rest.
Although Sherathang is positioned above the treeline, there is plenty of moisture and greenery around. The nearby hills were covered with all sorts of shrubbery and wildflowers. Wedged between the Singalila Range on the west and the Chola Range on the east, the intriguingly moist terrain of Sikkim explains it. The overall alignment – following the east-west orientation, the Great Himalayan Range still further afar to the north – traps the moisture-laden winds coming from the Bay of Bengal. Experiencing an altitude of 4120m on the southern side of the Great Himalayan Range was a first for me.
At Sherathang, ten of us were allotted a spacious dormitory for the next couple of days. The rest of the group members were put into separate rooms in the hutment located on the other side of the main road. Both the centres faced each other. The trading mart and its office were situated within a stone’s throw distance from either centre. There is no market to shop or a café to munch here. A tin-fabricated temple, looked after by the ITBP, was situated adjacent to the centre. The temple blared Krishna and Shiva bhajans almost throughout the day through its basic PA system.
Our dormitory was located on the third floor of the already higher building. The dining hall was at the third basement of the lower building. It was a task, especially for the elderlies, to move between the two locations. At lunch we were intimated that a medical session, by doctors of the ITBP, will be held in the evening. “The final medical assessment will be held the next evening”, a non-officiating doctor proclaimed even as he put an evil grin on his face. “Those of you who are found unfit will have to go back”, he added impishly. As a result of which, barring a few none looked any further interested in savouring the post-lunch dessert; usually electric-warmed tinned gulabjamuns. The helpless ones started taking an extra dose of medicine to control their fears – mostly related to blood pressure and sugar level. The alarming tone of the doctors had, in fact, amplified the upper blood pressure level in most pilgrims. Having come this far, none of us wanted to be turned back.
We were advised total bodily rest at Sherathang. The pretext for immobility here was acclimatisation. Many of the pilgrims were already taking Diamox to prevent altitude sickness. Several were suffering from headaches, nausea and sleeplessness. I continued on my regimen of extra water intake, ginger and garlic to recalibrate my organs with the reduced levels of oxygen in the air.
The schedule-induced boredom and stagnancy drove me back into the dormitory at the guest house. I picked up my book again. Even though fully aware that we needed to be patient, it was getting impossible to wait for crossing over to the other side of the pass. With the sun playing hide and seek, it was getting misty outside. Inside, a few of the pilgrims had flogged themselves into a trance of chorus singing. They lined out bhajans with tuneless zealotry celebrating the cult of Lord Shiva. When prodded jocosely over and over, babaji belted out Shri Hanuman Chalisa. Almost everyone chipped in.
I was silently observing the proceedings as I updated my travel notes. A kitchen boy walked in to inform the resident-guests that the evening tea was ready along with “pakodas”. People acknowledged with enthusiasm but no one was keen to go all the way down to the dining hall. They continued with their frenzy of reciting shalokas and chants. Having waited for some time and observing that it was turtles all the way down, the kitchen staff had the tea and refreshment sent in the dormitory. Priding themselves for being “notorious” with STDC, the vocalists now gorged on the refreshment until someone reminded them about the evening medical test. I was shooed away when I tried to explain to them an even wider logic of celebrating the natural history of the Himalayas with special reference to the Kailash Mansarovar region.
That evening the results of the medical test terrified all of us. Almost all of us reportedly had a higher upper blood pressure level. Much of it was expected at a higher altitude but a lot of it had to do with the real terror, playing in our minds, of being rejected medically. The young doctor, who was in charge of the medical team of ITBP, complimented me after noticing my excellent oxygen saturation level. My BP was still a notch above the normally expected rate; I squarely blamed the anxiety created by the doctors. The medical brouhaha extended till dinner time after which I made a beeline to the ITBP-managed STD, the last practical option, on the road to the Sacred Space, to connect with the real world.
I slept peacefully that night. Some of the pilgrims who were on Diamox complained of sleepless the next morning. How could they discount intake of water I told them. Before I could grumble about boredom to the STDC, seeking some change in routine for the day, the news of visiting the terrain towards Jelepla (4267m) side and the famed Babaji ka Mandir, a shrine dedicated to the solider saint, was already doing the rounds.
Caressing slopes of the Nathula, the road led us onto a wide open pastureland of Kupup. The newer shrine- Baba Mandir – dedicated to the Baba was built at the junction of Kupup Gnathang, the black meadow, road and a trail leading to Menmecho Lake. At the mandir, a modern PA system blared out Sikh gurubanis. A uniformed Sikh soldier was stationed at the shrine to give prasad to the visitors. Nearby just below the Namnang Chho waterfalls, the Indian Army has also built a shrine dedicated to Lord Shiva. None of us had any idea about the fascinating history behind the locally revered solider saint of Sikkim until the guide initiated us into its story.
Baba Harbhajan Singh Ji was an Indian army soldier who died in a weather-related accident on a remote outpost manning the treacherous Indo-Tibetan frontier. In real life, he served with full vigour and dedication. Legend has it that to this day he continues to guard the frontier and assists the soldiers stationed there. He is said to have himself led the search party to the site of his death to help them locate his body. Obliging to his request, which he apparently made in dreams of his fellow soldiers, his Samadhi and a shrine was later raised on the slopes of Tukla where his company was posted. It is claimed that the Baba visits this shrine, an army-bunker almost every night and make use of all his belongings including uniform and beddings after which he dutifully patrols the area. Still drawing his official salary, it is claimed; the departed soldier-turned-invisible-saint answers prayers of those soldiers who seek his help and look for guidance on the battlefield. Today, the legend and shrine of Babaji have become a star tourist attraction of East Sikkim.
Still misty, the Kupup and Tukla valley terrains were blocked by a cover of cloud. At best I could see some wildflowers and wild rhubarb on the slopes. Driven by curiosity, eyes were fixed on the Chinese army bunkers towards the Jelepla, “The Lovely Level” side where the view was still clear. The landscape encompassing the Kupup Lake, an army golf course, even higher pastureland and an upper valley that led to the Jelepla, once a popular route to crossover to Tibet, made famous by Francis Younghusband to reach Lhasa was visible now. The Kupup camping grounds used to be traders’ first preference for a camping-halt. Many small streams meander down the valley from the slopes; creating a lakelet which gave the traders and now the stationed troops with some recreational means in this otherwise a dreary terrain. Quickly enough we were transported back to Sherathang after the news of arrival of Chinese Ambassador to India trickled in.
Back at Sherathang, after the evening tea, our LO handed us a fresh list of items that were banned for entry into Tibet by the Chinese authorities. The arrival of the list basically meant that our cooks and the foods committee had to rearrange the ration. Meanwhile, the finance committee collected dollars from everyone to deposit combined yatra fee to the Chinese authorities, the next day. The luggage committee carefully marked the individual baggage that we intended to leave behind at the acclimatisation centre. The STDC had organised currency exchange in the dining hall. Once across the border, only dollars could be used for any currency exchange. Smartly enough, the medical team of the ITBP organised the final medical check-up without any formal warning which helped curtail our anxiety. I was relieved to see that all of us were declared medically fit for the journey ahead. A final briefing session was organised which was attended by regimental heads of the stationed forces, doctors, STDC staff, customs and a surprised visitor Sh Tarun Vijay, Member of Parliament who was to led us for the journey ahead. The customs and immigration people completed most of their formalities after dinner in the dining room itself. The excitement was back in the group. The younger ones gobbled up a rich supply of gulabjamuns before calling it a day.
Last weekend, while on way to the peach valley of Rajgarh, I visited the Menri Monastery (1195m), situated at village Dolanji in Solan district of Himachal Pradesh. Located within a comfortable reach of Chandigarh, the region has always been a preferred weekend hideaway since the university days. A leisure drive from the City Beautiful takes about a couple of hours to reach the monastic complex of Dolanji; positioned at a distance of three kilometre from the diversion at Ochhghat on the Solan – Rajgarh road.
Set in a calm and green bowl of Solan hills, the monastery discourses and resuscitates the teachings and rituals of the most ancient, pre-Buddhist, spiritual tradition and native religion of Tibet – the Bon faith. Built from a scratch in 1967 after the local Bonpo settlement got recognition from the Government of India, today the monastery, the seat of the abbot of Bon faith, has become the chief centre of spiritual learning and ritual activity of Bonpos from across the globe.
The monastery has an intriguing history. After the Lhasa uprising in 1959, a large number of Tibetans including the Buddhists and the Bonpos fled Tibet; along with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Much before that the count of Bon followers in Tibet had been reduced to minority as a majority of them now professed Buddhism. It is estimated that nearly one per cent of the total Tibetan refuge-seekers in India were Bonpos who initially gathered in the Manali region where they sought food and shelter. Subsequently, most of them got rehabilitated at village Dolanji while some of them settled at Mandowala near Dehradun in Uttarakhand.
With the help of the Government of India and a few independent organisations, the Bon followers began to re-establish their chief religious and spiritual centre at Dolanji and named it after the Menri Monastery, the foremost but destroyed Bon monastery of that name in Tibet. Similarly, the new settlement at Dolanji has been referred to as Thobgyel Sarpa after the village Thobgyel which was near the ancient monastery of Menri in the Tsang province of Tibet. In fact, most of the residents in the settlement originally hailed from the Kailash Mansarovar and Tsang regions. In 1969, under the guidance of the abbot of Yungdrung Ling, the second most important Bon monastery of Tibet, the followers of Bon at Dolanji elected their Abbot – Menri Trizin thirty third Lungtok Tenpai Nyima – through a lottery draw system. Later on he assumed the spiritual leadership of all the Bon monasteries and institutions worldwide.
The bright yellow canopies of the monastery were aglow with the evening sun when I reached Menri. The monks were about to begin their routine evening recreational activities. With the younger ones occupying a large part of the playground, the elder ones were either chatting up in small groups in the compound or taking a walk on the village roads. A few of them were dutifully preparing the main assembly hall for evening rituals. A European couple was inquisitively circumambulating the main assembly hall du-khang in the prescribed anticlockwise direction. The lady had prayer beads in her hand.
In-between, the energetic calls of blue-red robed monks echoed forth in the calm open courtyards. The inmates were extremely cultured and disciplined. I greeted a young monk with a Namaste who nodded back even though he understood little Hindi. Out of respect, a few of the younger ones I came across nodded from a distance. And without exception, the compound was very well kept. The façade of the monastery is bedecked with the religious emblems and the typical Tibetan colourful prayer flags.
As of now, the whole monastic complex is embraced under the name of “The Yungdrung Bon Monastic Centre” and forms a part of the Tibetan Bonpo Foundation. From just a temple, the centre today has expanded to include a nunnery, a school with hostel, guesthouses, meditation halls and an infirmary, etc. This modern complex is an all-in-one compound with independent temple buildings, monastic cells, playground, etc. built within their own microenvironment. Interestingly (but not surprisingly), in constructing the du-khang, abbot’s residence and the meditation hall or Drup-khang, the management has devotedly stick to the original Tibetan architecture while the other important buildings like the hostel, cells and guesthouses, etc. are built in a typical contemporary concrete style. As of now, the centre is home to more than 400 resident lamas along with over 200 novices.
The main courtyard of the monastery is shaded by a large Bodhi tree. A blue-topped chorten beneath it intrigues the uninitiated visitors. The wide courtyard also serves as go-tha or vestibule. I headed inside the main assembly hall while my friend, founder of Chandigarh Bycycle, who accompanied me on this trip video-documented the ambience of the compound. The walls of the main hall of the monastery are painted in red, yellow, white and blue synthetic colours and beautified with ornate floral designs symbolic of the Tibetan style. The veranda walls are painted with the images of the Bon guardian deities of the four quarters, Chhok kyong-zi or the Lokpalas. Although, the monk-artists who executed these paintings took all possible care to preserve the thematic sanctity of the Tibetan art yet the glossy outcome of the enamel paints is at variance from the traditional Tibetan murals. The second important temple of the complex, the drup-khang or the meditation hall, situated adjacent to the du-khang, can only be visited by accomplished monks.
The arrangement inside du-khang is principally traditional; plain walls, rows of monastic chogtse with scriptures placed on them, a central large space with wide aisles on both sides for movement. Against the back wall, miniature metallic images of the Bon deities are placed in the glassy shelves. The images included Tara and the mystic mandala among others. An imposing image of Senrab Mibo, the primordial Deity of the Bon religion, occupies the central space. Attired in ceremonial costumes, Senrab Mibo is shown meditating in the Bhumiparsha mudra of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Tibetan-coloured banners, painted and embroidered thangkas along with silken wall-hangings decorate up the interiors. Prepared in recent times, most of these thangkas depict Senrab Mibo in various manifestations. No particular activity was taking place inside the du-khang at that time of the evening. A few young monks were cleaning and rearranging the offerings, at the altar, that comprised fruits and biscuits.
The Bonpos have taken great care in reviving the religious and spiritual essence of their faith; doing their best to keep the nostalgic fervour and traditional character of their Tibetan homeland alive in this modern form. Leave aside the Tibetan architecture, rebuilding a society in an entirely different geo-climatic, socio-religious, cultural and political setting is a no mean feat. The Bon religion preaches a high regard for nature and advocates the conservation of environment. It was my ideal weekend dose of travel and I’d recommend it to the curious travellers who seek to visit offbeat destinations and usually have less time at their disposal.
And so we set out once more on the road to the Sacred Space. Occupying rear seats in the bus, a few fellow travellers occasionally raised the holy cry Har Har Mahadeo and some others jingled from the middle. “Apart from giving me a wider view for snap recording, the first seat had its own advantage”, I chuckled at the thought. With the local police leading it, our small fleet of the buses along with the vehicles of STDC, ITBP, doctors and ambulance had taken the shape of a convoy.
Our next stop was Fifteenth Mile (3200m), as measured out from Gangtok, a small village where in the olden times Tibet-bound travellers, traders along with their transport muleteers used to halt for the night. In fact, more than their native names, the villages on the Gangtok – Nathula highway, an erstwhile trade route artery, are known by their respective distances recorded in miles from the capital city of the state of Sikkim. Our cavalcade looped up the hill and we could distinctly spot the Gangtok settlement spread on densely wooded ridges and terracing towards the valley floor. The white stream of Rongni Chu sparkled far down in the valley.
Slowly we inched ahead on a narrow stretch of the road which was notorious for landslides. With the BRO earthmovers parked regularly, the condition of the road reflected on the emergency situation that might arise just anytime during a rainy spell. Vishal, our sturdy Sikkimese driver, seemed to be a total professional with his job. When he was not manoeuvring the vehicle through treacherous patches, he would intelligently plug-in his pen drive to play either local or Bollywood songs only to be stopped later by someone from the passengers.
Although the distance between Gangtok and Fifteenth Mile or Kyongnosla, its traditional name, is about 31 km but for the road conditions we took about couple of hours to cover the stretch. During the olden times, this stretch was at best a bridle trail comprising veranda bridges on sheer precipices. The valley here was open as well as stony.
By the time we reached the first acclimatisation centre at Kyongnosla, the weather had become overcast. As the clouds gathered in the valley began to move up, a slight drizzle came. The villagers and curious onlookers had gathered at the centre to welcome and offer us the cultural icon – khadas one by one. A lama from a local monastery had been invited to bless the travellers. We pushed ourselves inside the dining hall of the centre and ravenously began feasting on the hot soup and snacks before the lunch got served.
Post lunch we were allotted our accommodations for the next two days. The newly built acclimatisation hutments comprise dormitories and some rooms. A few of us, mostly the younger ones, were allotted the second acclimatisation hut at the Seventeenth Mile (3250m). The first centre was situated adjacent to the main market of the village. The second centre located ahead is set in a more natural surrounding; away from the humdrum of the market. The occasional traffic movement we noticed comprised army vehicles or tourists, etc. who were mostly heading towards the pass. Down below, two streams merged into one adding splash of whitish water in otherwise a silent densely wooded valley. The next briefing was scheduled early evening at Fifteenth Mile that day. At the Seventeenth Mile, the fellow travellers went into slumber one by one. I took my camera gear and headed on the road towards the Fifteenth Mile. It was still misty and the visibility was very poor.
For the next two days taking walks between the two centres was to be the mainstay of the activities. The birdlife was abundant in the valley. With limited visibility for most of the time over the next two days, I was able to identify Blue Whistling Thrush, White-capped Water Redstart, Hill Pigeon, Raven, Doves, Babblers, etc. on the road. In between I would often sneak into the roadside tea-snack cafes at the Fifteenth Mile and update my travel-notes. I always feel that such spots managed by the natives provide you with a lot of first-hand information on the region. Most of such tin-roofed house-cum-shop structures were multi-natured store selling all basic supplies from basic winter accessories to tea, coffee, noodles, simple meals or even liquor and beers, etcetera.
As if the previous briefings were not enough, we were briefed by a set of three doctors in the evening that day about the medical precautions we needed to take on the journey ahead. The worst outcome of such briefings was the questions and answers session that followed. My medicine kit comprised just the basic ones apart from the Diamox, the overestimated drug for high-altitude acclimatisation. I trusted just an extra amount of water intake plus a few cloves of garlic and ginger that I chomped daily in the morning. Dinners were usually a noisy affair; initially because of the briefings and later because of the culinarians. I was part of the foods committee of our batch and we held our first meeting with the cooks that evening. It was the STDC’s job to hire cooks for us. Being a first batch through this route, the STDC deemed it fit to allocate five seasoned “mountaineers” for our batch. Without getting into further details and trusting their experience, the in charge of the committee gave them some cash to buy rations, vegetables, fruits, etc. for the journey ahead.
Call it the benefits or drawbacks of staying in a group, that evening I slept at around 9:30pm (actually!) and completed my seven hours sleeping cycle way before the daylight broke the next day. It was still drizzling when I got up the next day. The pitter-patter of the rain outside and on the tinned-roof was musical as I lazily snuggled in my warm beddings. Soon after everyone got up and as the weather eased later, we strolled downwards towards the first centre. At breakfast it was announced that if the weather remains stable we could go visit the Tsomgo (Changu) Tso. The idea of visiting the high-altitude Changu Lake (3800m) appealed to everyone as it would further expose the group to even higher altitude and help in acclimatisation. Someone from the group expressed, “Whatever be the weather, let’s just go!” I headed back to the second centre after the morning meal.
One of the forest outposts to the Kyangnosla Alpine Sanctuary – home to the Red Panda, the state animal and the Blood Pheasant, the state bird; apart from a whole lot of invaluable flora – was located just above the hutment of the Seventeenth Mile. I expressed my desire to trek inside the sanctuary to the STDC guys around and sought permissions from the forest department through them. They confirmed but said, “Only if the weather improves”. The pine-clad wooded and boulder strewn mountain-faces were a riot of Himalayan colours; shades and hues of greens and blues; overhead a turquoise sky with a massive grey cloud rolling northwards, sideways were the greens of the Kyangnosla forests and far below the waters of the Lungtse Chu meandering like an angry serpent. Back at the dormitory, I tried to read Charles Allen’s A Mountain in Tibet, the only book I carried but, instead, I slothfully lied down on my bed and listened to Karunesh.
A few hours later, an azure mist was rising far in the distance marking the onset of the afternoon cloud as I decided to head towards the Fifteenth Mile once again where the schedule to visit the Changu Lake was already announced. “The only downside of the expedition as observed so far,” I thought, “has been that it was an organised one”. A few of the group members opted to remain at the centre. The bus took nearly 30 min to reach the Lake. The road, wider now, loops to reach the Lake passing a small marketplace on the way. We clambered over the small check dam and found a green water body stretching for almost half a kilometre before us in the shape of a large bowl surrounded by barren mountain faces. The road to the Nathula lay by the edge of the lake. A grey boulder at the lakeside marked the Twentieth Milestone from Gangtok.
Vegetation was now beginning to cease. I took a stroll around the possible edges of the lake and spotted a family of Ruddy Shelduck along with their ducklings. It is claimed that local lamas could forecast the weather and future by observing the colour of the water of the lake. There was a shrine dedicated to the Lord Shiva as well at the lake.
The doctors had advised us not to overexert at the lake and the falling light and visibility rendered the photo-recording quite useless. In about a couple of hours’ time, we were on our way back to the 15th Mile where yet another mega briefing session awaited us (Phew!). The evening was spent in collecting notes, taking snap records and once at the room after dinner: sorting out luggage for the next destination.