Message to (my very few) readers:
- There will be a huge number of pictures.
- You will get hit by a serious case of wanderlust.
- You might even be jealous of my going here, even if you have already been there, seen that, because it’s such a great place.
Now, that you have been prepared, read on.
The purpose of going to Lachung was the ascent to Yumthang valley (Sikkim’s valley of flowers) and Zero point (the last motorable road in this area). But mainly, to play in snow. Considering that we live at sea level, on the Arabian sea-coast, in a concrete jungle, the mere mention of snow sent the kid and me into delicious shivers. And the actual presence into agonising ones.
We set off early morning, layered in gazillion clothes, for the long drive up the mountains hoping to reach somewhere near the middle of this mountain (or the top!)
The drive there was as good as it gets. Clear skies, lush greenery, snow-covered mountains in the distance and pretty flowers were our companions. It was tough to decide where to look. What was troublesome was the road. There were parts where there was just a dirt track or the road was badly broken. There were parts where we simply drove over stones.
But none of this troubled us as we saw the gorgeous mountains with snow shimmering on them in the distance, beckoning to us to get closer. After all, what’s a spinal column or a vestibular apparatus when this is what you see level with you.
We has ascended so much that we were halfway up the mountains already! Suddenly the snow looked closer, whiter and larger. Then came a board, “welcome to Shingba rhododendrons sanctuary”. Now I was very excited. I was very eager to see the beautiful Himalayan flowers in full bloom. Apparently, this sanctuary was once choc a bloc with flowers but after the last earth quake the sanctuary was quite destroyed and a lot of flowers lost. With these apprehensions, I was thrilled to bits to drive alongside satiny clumps of brilliant red flowers.
We drove through a sea of green and red. A few yellow rhododendrons were also there, to provide contrast. A little ahead, there were purplish-pink, bell-like flowers.
It was a gorgeous sight, the brightly colored flowers against the almost-bare snow-covered mountains. Frozen streams of water lined the mountains, as though stunned into inactivity.
Suddenly, we turned round a bend and came upon a small plateau with a tiny lake with limestone deposits and a stunning shade of turquoise blue.
Reluctantly, I tore myself from this sight and we drove off at full speed, as the driver wanted us to get to zero point while the weather was clear. Now the rhododendrons were fewer and there were conifers all around. On the mountain opposite I could see the snow-covered conifers just like our driver had told us that Mount Katao would have.
The little girl in me, grown up on a staple diet of Enid Blyton, loves snow-covered Christmas trees. So you can imagine my delight at whizzing past them at arm’s length.
Our driver was very clear that we would stop at Yumthang valley after visiting zero point (sound advice indeed!) But a little higher (and a lot compared to where we had started), he stopped at a broad bend and made us get off. Only to gasp at the sight. Splayed out below us was the entire Yumthang valley, with the crazy hairpin bends in full view.
I still get goosebumps looking at the picture. How small we are against nature and her tremendous creations! But North Sikkim had more to offer still. We drove higher, well above the tree line now. On the mountain we were ascending, I could see bend after bend of road, like a huge anaconda draped over the mountainside.
And then, the snow was all around us! Glistening, white, soft snow!
The kid started squealing with joy (much like a piglet) and to my great surprise, our driver reached out and scooped up a big chunk of snow and handed it to her. How sweet! Needless to say, the car now sounded like a pigsty. I must confess I ate quite a bit without letting her see. When she asked me if she could eat it, I told her that it was unhealthy. Oops! I hope she doesn’t read this.
From here on, we ascended very sharply. I could see vehicle after vehicle on bends above us. Seeing those vehicles climbing higher and higher was both frightening and exhilarating. Before I knew it, we were at the top of the bends. The land was flatter now, almost plateau like. There were no trees or shrubs. The snow-covered mountains were right beside us. We had reached higher than I’d even dared to hope.
A small river gurgled alongside us as we drove. Many stones lay strewn in her path. The air was icy cold and pure, the sky filled with fluffy clouds.
Soon we were at Zero point, the end of the road and looked onto a narrow flat strip between 2 snow studded mountains, almost like a valley formed by a melting glacier.
We pulled our warm clothes tighter about ourselves and headed off towards the snow. There were lots of small stalls selling tea, coffee, Maggi and a variety of spirits. Our daughter wanted to eat first, but the hubby refused, saying we should play first then eat. So, we proceeded towards a small rickety bridge over the stream by crossing over some rocks. An icy cold mist arose from the very floor of the valley. As I struggled penguin-like, I felt a chilling breeze blow. The combination of the mist rising up and the breeze blowing powerfully was too much for us sea-level tropical-country mumbaiites.
Suddenly, the kid started complaining of breathlessness and discomfort. She kept telling us to go back. We finally convinced her to come to the edge of the mountain ,where there was snow was dense and we were sheltered from the cold breeze. She kept insisting that we go back and eat something, but we told her to play a little, hoping that she would get distracted. Bad move again. The hubby pelted both of us with snow balls and I hurriedly put away the camera and joined in. Whiff bang smack.
People around us were having a blast. They were making snowmen and snow castles, and sliding down the slopes. We even saw a lady in a saree, posing for her husband in all sorts of hilarious poses. Here, I seriously regretted not having my camera out, but fun in the snow was paramount in my mind.
I lay down in the snow and then slid merrily down the slope, screaming with joy and stood up thrilled, and wet to the bone. And colder than ever. So now there were 2 frozen people. Poor hubby had to head back.
We settled the kid in the car and mobilised steaming-hot Maggi for her, while taking off her gum boots as she kept complaining that she was feeling very cold on her feet. And saw blobs of ice on her socks. They must have slipped into her boots while we were pelting her. Poor kid. No wonder she felt awful. Freezing cold wind, freezing cold feet. fortunately, I had carried extra socks (mother’s foresight naturally).
Since the kid couldn’t wear the boots, we couldn’t go back to the snow, so reluctantly, we had to leave. Even with the crowds and the terrible cold, this place was heavenly and would have been my favorite part of Sikkim if not for Gurudongmar lake. We headed back down towards Yumthang valley amidst views like this.
We drove down in silence, still enchanted by our visit to the snow. The kid slept. My fear of the winding roads was gone now ,my mind was calm and happy. I felt like I was drifting over these mountains like a cloud. I put away the camera and felt the cool breeze blow on my face. On we went, with me in the blissed-out state, when suddenly our driver pulled over onto the side and vigorously started rubbing snow over his face. He explained that descent from high-altitude places make him feel very sleepy. Poof! There went my inner peace. I had a clear image of Mr. Passang falling asleep and flying off the cliff. So, i started yapping with him, hoping to keep him awake. In this disturbed state, we reached Yumthang valley.
Zero point was magical because of snow. This had an even greater beauty. The valley was surrounded by the snow-covered mountains with the snow-covered trees. Grassy slopes extended on both sides to the river bed. Small purple flowers dotted the grass. The floor looked green and light purple. Just 2 colors. The yak (my daughter’s Sikkimese cows) were grazing over all the slopes.
The stunning turquoise green river was gurgling. A light rain was falling from the now-overcast sky. We walked slowly down the grass towards the water and the only sound we could hear was the river singing as she gushed over the rocks and left the white foam over them. I can close my eyes and find myself there even now.
The hubby and I went excitedly into the water. It was so clear that we could see every rock and pebble in it. Standing here at the edge of the river we could feel the force of the water pulling us on.
Yumthang valley had enchanted me, ensnared me. I didn’t want to tear myself away. I could have stood here for ages. I could have sat on the stones or even on the grass (all those who know me know that I hate walking on grass, forget sitting on it). If they had tents here I could have stayed in them. I loved this place so much.
Reluctantly, we left, pulled by hunger and full bladders. Once again, Maggi and coffee were our saviours. Sated, we left for the hotel. Driving through the rhododendron sanctuary again, this time with a very different sky, we stopped many times, for photographs and to enjoy the unending natural beauty around us.
This has certainly been one of the best places I have ever been to. To see it in the bright sunlight and then again, in the rain, is sheer good luck. My only regret in the whole perfect day was that my kid couldn’t enjoy the snow, the biggest draw for her. Some other day, some other time. Till then, lucky we were to have seen this place.