To Sikkim, Or What I learned On Many Mountainous Jeep Rides

There are few geographical features that evoke mysticism like the Himalayas. There are even fewer passes through the mountain range. For Christmas Tanmoy arranged a trip to the far north of Sikkim, to the mountain pass in which the Chinese and Indian armies meet in tension.

This pass, which follows the river Teesta north from Sikkim’s capitol, Gangtok, travels through remote mountain villages to the Chinese border. It was been fought over for hundreds of years, and within the last two centuries has seen invading British, Bhutanese, Nepali and Tibetan armies. (Yes, Tibet once tried it’s hand as an expansionist power). Eventually the British succeeding in establishing their dominance over Sikkim.

Our destination was Gurudongmar Lake, a holy lake surrounded at mountains on the plateau on the other side of the Himalayas, and just south of the Chinese border. The lake had stood out like the holy grail of our trip. The blue beacon we had been aiming to reach. Tanmoy had assured me that I would be able to reach Gurudongmar and its 17,000 feet elevation.

It was a journey that brought thoughts into my mind of the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. With long jeep rides, I had much time to think and to read, and to reflect upon my experience. I also had time to reflect upon how I want to approach life, and with what attitudes, values, norms and acceptance of others. What joy a the respite from the barely functional chaos of Calcutta was.

We started our trip with an interminable 16 hour bus ride from Karunamoyee Bus Stand, Salt Lake, Calcutta to Siliguri, and then a 5 hour jeep ride from Siliguri to Gangtok.

Gangtok is a lovely small city, and has probably the most attractive people I have seen in India. (That’s a plus, you know). The center of the city is a road only open to pedestrians known as M.G. Margh and reminiscent of Istiklal in Istanbul. In our limited time in the city we were able to explore a beautiful park at the top of a cable car that transports people from one hillside to another.

Another 8ish hour ride brought us to Lachen. On the road from Gangtok to Lachen, along the river Teesta you can see much construction work, including the building of a great damn near the town of Mangan. This huge infrastructure project, which I was told the 2011 earthquake claimed dozens of workers’ lives, will surely change the nature of the valley.

Lachen is a small town in Northern Sikkim, reachable by a treacherous and winding dirt road. It’s a wonder that, amid the road’s many switchbacks, more trucks don’t fall off the edge. There we stayed at a small guesthouse, suffering in the cold unheated building and sleeping in all our clothes. On the hillside on the west side of Lachen is a two hundred years old Buddhist monastery, with beautifully painted walls and interiors.

Further north and more remote is Thangu. Thangu is another 2-3 hours. It’s not really a town as much as it is a small village of a few roughly made homes attached to a larger military base. Three years ago there was a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that forced some of the outlying homes to be abandoned.

The next day we traveled to Thangu at 14,000 feet (4,300 meters). From Lachen, At 14,000 feet, I felt the altitude distinctly, in my sluggish movements and low level nausea at certain points. But altogether, it wasn’t terribly difficult to adjust to.

From Thangu, Tanmoy and the Indians traveled to Gurudongmar (only Indians are allowed to reach the lake). The night before Tanmoy were to had told us two Americans that we would be unable to make it to Gurudongmar lake. When I heard Tanmoy’s words, I was indeed disappointed. Despite the initial disappointment in knowing we would not reach Gurudongmar, Richard and I decided to make the best of it and, with Sonam, our Sherpa guide, we trekked into the Chopta valley, climbing another estimated 500 to 1,000 feet.

Our short hour and a half hike stretched into 5 hours, whereby the end of it we were thoroughly exhausted, and surprisingly hot, the sun’s rays at 14,500 feet warming us well despite the bitter winter cold. Sonam told us were the first tourists he had taken so far into the valley—so it was nice to know we were the “first” at something.

Midway in the Chopta valley, after scrambling down a hillside off any path, we came across a few large boulders. What do I do when I see a large boulder? Climb it!

I will not forget that valley.

It was nice to have a trip organizer, and to bond with Richard, a Fulbright researcher. We shared our thoughts from everything from Consumerism to the Great Classic novels. I didn’t have to think about a thing. Every detail was planned for and I was simply taken along for the ride. Not having to think or plan is great. That said, my usual gripes remain in that Indian hosts tend to be overbearing especially in wanting to ensure that we are fed and comfortable. (Also, dinner at 9pm or later?)

Great trip. Wonderful Christmas! Goodbye Himalayas.