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.