Early that morning, the day five of the Yatra, I got up to pack my stuff for the yatra. I had already arranged everything I needed, the previous night but the packing needed to be organised. I divided my stuff into two bags, a 100L duffle bag, to carry all the heavy clothing, along with a 40L backpack. The backpack contained my cameras and other gadgetry besides some basic high-altitude winter gear like a balaclava, bandana, floppy hat, sunscreen cream and gloves, etc. as well as an assortment of small energy bars along with some quantity of dry fruit.
All of us were supposed to reach the Gujarati Samaj Sadan by 0600hrs to be a part of the flag off ceremony hosted by the Delhi Government. Owing to some family commitments, I had to give that event a miss and instead aimed to reach the New Delhi airport by 1000hrs. The group gathered at the check-in window of the airline we were booked at by the Sikkim Tourism Development Corporation (STDC). By the time we assembled at the kiosk, the members of the group had already adorned themselves into outfits symbolic to a traveller; some wearing trekker’s gear, some sticking to pilgrim’s robes and some still formally dressed. The “journey” had begun. The introductory exchanges the yatris had had amongst themselves for the past few days were increasingly getting productive now. Insofar as the general expression of the group with respect to the holy Kailash was concerned, a shift from formalities to “What this Yatra means to me” was increasingly felt. Clearly, each one of us was enthusiastically looking forward to the journey ahead.
The flight from New Delhi to Bagdogra – located in northern part of the state of West Bengal – base airport for Sikkim, takes about 90 minutes. Luckily, I got the window seat. For those who know these mountains, not more than 20 minutes after you take off, a Himalayan curtain-raiser awaits you. Soaring high above the clouds, the twin peaks of Nanda Devi catch your attention; the frame quickly transports to other higher peaks. Shortly before the inflight onscreen GPS map flashes the position of your flight soaring above Patna, the mammoth rock of Mt Everest (Chomolungma) comes into view. I didn’t expect it to be so vivid and was just awestruck!
Soon enough, the aircraft hovered above the lush green patch of Siliguri and as it prepared for its aerobatic-touchdown, I took a few more photographs of the green-scape from the tiny aircraft window. We were earlier briefed about our routine for the day but the welcome bestowed at us on our arrival at the Bagdogra airport was something none of us had expected. And well, in all goodness, this one was merely a glimpse of what lay ahead.
Organised by the STDC, select college and university students from Sikkim – dressed in their traditional attire – had come to greet us on our arrival at the airport. A few local traders and businessmen accompanied them. Without creating any trouble for other co-passengers, the representatives of STDC humbly presented the yatris with khadas, the traditional scarf-like ceremonial garland made of silk. Symbolising a pure heart of the presenter, the incensed greeting left us mesmerised. Before our luggage committee could come into action, the helpers of STDC arranged our entire luggage in the two buses provided to us for our journey to Gangtok that day.
Siliguri, part of West Bengal, lies at the base of the Himalayan foothills. The flight had made our journey to Bagdogra as comfortable as it could have been possible. The scenery was spectacular save for the monsoon haze just below the top of high Himalayan peaks. After a quick lunch, we left for Gangtok, the capital hill-town of Sikkim.
The second leg of the day’s journey to Sikkim, from Bagdogra to Gangtok, was to be completed by road. For a long part of the drive, the road passes through the Teesta valley and then branches off to Gangtok. Although nothing of note could be mentioned here, the delight of the initial moments of that road-journey is indescribable. Having caressed the Himalayan peaks, the cool breeze descending from there could be felt as we passed through thickly wooded foothills. Around here, the lush green country full of tea gardens puts on a new face to the landscape. Northwards lay Sikkim, stretching as far as the Great Himalayan Range and the trans-Himalayan passes. The state of Sikkim is bounded on the west by Nepal and on the east by Bhutan, both sacrosanct to a wandering traveller.
For a deeper realisation of the great peace one enjoys as the Teesta Valley slowly reveals itself and to appreciate the beauty of the scenery, the restfulness of trees and hedges, of trails and sidewalks, one must spend a slightly extended time here. I promised myself another visit. Unlike other voluminous rivers originating from the Himalayas, the Teesta was not observed to be in spate even though the water was a little muddy. The road to Rangpo initially followed the right bank of the Teesta through woods and clearings on an easy gradient. We drove at peace, spending most of the time in observing the environment, something that was to be a part and parcel of the day’s routine in the journey ahead. The environment was as beautiful as one could wish, mostly untouched as well as natural and in parts strangely reminiscent of forests.
On the way, at Melli on the left bank, the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) had hosted a High Tea for us. “How fortunate we were to be a part of the first batch”, most of us would often admit! Quickly enough, we were on our way to Gangtok again. Just before Melli, the greener waters of the Rangit River confluences with the Teesta. There was a great harmony in the valley that day even though it was misty which meant arrival of seasonal rains. Our next halt was planned at Rangpo, another High Tea, we were briefed; this time by the STDC at its reception centre.
Apart from the lush green stunning landscape, one might come across typical BRO road warning signs comically presented as one-liners on roads leading to the border such as this one. “Better to be late Mr Driver than The Late Mr Driver”, “BRO – Cutting Hills but Joining Hearts” or a little suggestive one “Be gentle on my curves” and “Peep Peep, Don’t Sleep”, etcetera to name a few. The valley opened up after Melli. Quickly enough, we reached Rangpo where another welcome ceremony, albeit an extended one, was held. The ceremony included cultural and folk dance performances by local artists and college/ university students. Almost the entire village including the local MLA as well as the administrative staff had gathered to welcome us. And, of course, the media was there!
By the time we left Rangpo, it was dark already. Rangpo has always been a police check post where entry permits to Sikkim get checked. A fairly large village now, Rangpo also marks the border between Sikkim and West Bengal. It is from Rangpo that the East Sikkim starts. Gangtok is still another 30km from here. Ahead, the Teesta valley was terrace-cultivated. The next town on our way was Singtam, located at the junction of the Rongni Chu with the Teesta. Our guide informed us that the stretch of the river between Singtam and Rangpo is a popular rafting tract. Culturally, Singtam marks the end of a civilisation we all were familiar with. All the crests, bridges, public places were marked with colourful fluttering flags that announced the acceptance and arrival of Buddhism. It was pitch dark and we arrived at Gangtok in time for a late dinner and still spent the early part of that night discussing the expected series of event lined up for the next day. “End of a long but fulling day it was”, I marked in my travel notes.