Sunday, September 16, 2007


In 2005, I undertook a 12 day tour of Kedarnath, Badrinath, Gangotri and Yamnotri alongwith the family. Motor vehicles can reach righy upto Gangotri and Badrinath. However reaching Kedarnath involves a trek of 13 kilometers from Gaurikund. Similarly, A 6km steep climb from Jan ki Chatti reaches one to Yamnotri. Some snapshots.........


Zema Glacier was recently in the spotlight amidst rumours of a Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). In this context, the author RAJESH VERMA recounts memories of a trek that took him….

The Zema Glacier and Green lake are located in a sequestered area of North Sikkim where winds roar, avalanches thunder and glaciers groan. Powerful forces here create and destroy natural features just in a manner a sculptor shapes a statue and destroys it if it does not catch his fancy to build it afresh. The terrain here itself is in a state of flux - mountains are moulded into different shapes, streams frequently change course and lakes appear and disappear.
Green Lake may in the minds of many conjure up an image of a beautiful, exotic water-body green in colour. The Souvenir published by the Statesman on occasion of the coronation of the Chogyal in 1965 shows a painting of the Green Lake depicting it as a huge lake –the artist perhaps had never visited this area and had let his imagination run wild. Sadly the reality is that instead of a lake there exists here just a small shallow pond.
In fact, even a century ago there was no lake according to Douglas W. Freshfield who wrote in 1899: "The hollow enclosed between the converging moraines of the Zema and Green Lake Glaciers has been very lately a lake, and was now a lake basin."
The absence of a lake is however sufficiently compensated by the splendid view around. Just a few kilometers away, the huge mass of Kanchendzonga towers above. The peaks of Simvo are a short distance away on the left. At the base of the Kanchendzonga is the Zemu Glacier full of a sea moraines - rocks and boulder and debris created by moving ice scrapping the mountainside - a veritable natural pulveriser. Once in a while the distant thunder of avalanches can be heard resounding in the emptiness.
The nearest vehicle point for Green Lake lies on the Lachen- Thangu road. From Lachen 6 kilometres by vehicle on the road to Thangu and across the river Zema takes us to point called Zema I. We get down from our vehicle at the third bend after crossing the Zema River just below the abandonded SIB bunglows. We had arrived at Lachen the afternoon before and had hired porters who would be doubling as our guides. We had purchased last minute requirements and spent the night in the SPWD Dak bunglow.
It is early morning – still dark but high up over the mountain tops there is a faint glimmer of light signifying that dawn is breaking. The thunder of the Zema river below glistening white even in the darkness reverberates eerily in the valley.
Sleeping bags, tents and provisions on our backs and we are ready to begin the arduous three day trek that will take us from 10,000 ft to almost 17,000 ft above mean sea level. During this 35 kilometer trek we will not come across a single habitation on the way –only wilderness. Mules and yaks cannot negotiate this track, because of treacherous landslips enroute so you have to completely rely on porters to carry the provisions. A faint trail marks the beginning of our trek route which would for most part of the journey run parallel to the Zema river and then the Zema Glacier. From Zema I to Talem which is a walk of about 4 hours, the route is almost trailess, rocky and strewn with boulders. Shattered tree trunks are piled in an inextricable confusion. We cross many landslips and ford across a stream. We have been forewarned to watch out for shooting boulders and never attempt to cross this stretch if it is raining as shooting stones from above are inevitable. The Zemu river thunders below us and at places we cross almost a vertical hillside with no track at all and one wrong step can take us tumbling down into the river. A huge landslide has scarred the mountain across the river. It sets me thinking; surely this landslide has not occurred because of environmental degradation due to deforestation as there is no human activity here. It has perhaps been triggered as a part of a natural upheaval process.
Here I am prompted to make a mention of glacial lakes that exist in the vicinity of glaciers. Glacial lakes look deceptively calm but are in a state of continuous flux and excessive melting of the glacier can cause them to burst their banks wreaking immense damage downstream a phenomenon known as Glacial Lake Outburst Flooding (GLOF). Global warming is leading to glacier receding or melting excessively But no one is yet sure of reasons that cause global warming. It is definitely not happening because of localized action and perhaps being triggered by action of our greedy brethren in far away places: China guzzling out tons of smoke from its coal fired power stations, the oil fields in the USA, airliners criss crossing the globe. Or was global warming happening because of a timeless and innate course of action that causes the global climate to wax and wane?
About a decade ago, the glacial Tenbawa lake near the hotspring of Yumey Samdong burst causing flash floods in the Yumthan valley. There is a need to monitor these lakes on a continuous basis through Satellite imagery: any change in their size would be a signal for imminent disaster.
At Talem which is on a flat stretch of land there are a few abandoned army bunkers. After a refreshing cup of tea made by our porters over firewood, we are ready to move further.
From here onwards, the track becomes slushy at places - sometimes even a foot deep. Luckily we are wearing full length gum-boots. From Talem, Jakthang takes about 3 hours to reach after crossing the Lonak La river. At Jakthang there is a 2 roomed wooden shed on stilts constructed by the Forest Department and set amongst a profusion of pine trees. Our porters who have now metamorphosed as cooks collect firewood and prepare an early dinner for us. We are dog-tired and it takes us no time laying out our sleeping bags going off to sleep on the hard wooden floor.
Early next morning again sees us on the track again. The walk from Jakthang to Yabuk takes about 5 hours. We have to literally wade through bushes at many places. At other places the branches of trees on both sides of the track entwine to form a cage giving you an eerie feeling that you are inside the skeletal remains of a huge prehistoric animal. The track gets more muddy. The last stretch of the route to Yabuk is steep. Yabuk has a two storied 4 roomed wooden shed on a stone foundation. We rest here for sometime and partake to some refreshments and tea and are ready to move again. We are at the edge of the tree line. Ahead there are no trees and the vegetation gets smaller and smaller as we go higher – bushes, shrubs and then nothing at all.
From Yabuk to Sona Camp the next halt is a gruelling walk of about 3 hours on a boulder strewn trailess area. These boulders and stones have spilled over from the Zemu glacier. One can easily lose the way but some good souls have set up cairns, which are a few stones stacked over one another, prominently placed over boulders to indicate the way. These cairns have many times helped save lives of travellers who have lost their way when the area is snowbound. The small stone hut at Sona Camp is in a dilapidated condition so we have no option to pitch but our tent here and rest for the night here the sound of the Zema river flowing just a few feet away lulling us to sleep.
On the third day, we are awake early in the morning. It is still dark but the stars shine bright in the sky and cast a ghostly light on the landscape. Soon dawn starts breaking on the eastern sky. The peak of Siniolchu, a few kilometres away across the Zemu glacier, becomes crimson as the first rays of sun strike it. It seems that God took special care when making Siniolchu. It is perfectly symmetrical and conical in shape and a sharp contrast to the shapeless masses of mountains around - a triumph of mountain architecture. Its summit a mere needle seems to pierce the fabric of the blue sky. It is rather strange that from Gangtok, Siniolchu looks ugly, amorphous and a truncated. Thin clouds start gathering on the mountain top, linger for sometime as though uncertain on where to go and then suddenly soar upwards. After walking for about 2 hours from Sona Camp along the Zemu Glacier we are a flat stretch of land called the Rest Camp or the Marco Polo Camp - I do not know how it got its name. Did Marco-Polo come here? There is a track to the right from where one can reach the Muguthang valley after crossing the They la pass and then onwards to Thangu over the 19000 ft high Lungnala pass. It is a route many take to reach the Green Lake specially those who use yaks to carry their provisions. After catching our breath here in the rarefied air and marvelling at the snowy peaks around, we start trudging again. The few small shrubs look almost luxurious given the harsh landscape around. The stillness is tangible- holy. The only sounds that we hear are those of our breathing and the pounding of our hearts. Instinctively, we tend to talk in whispers lest we disturb the silence of the wilderness. We sight a herd of Blue Sheep but before I can focus my camera they have disappeared over the ridge. Why are they fleeing? This wilderness is their domain and we in fact the intruders. About three hours of walk in this untrammeled remoteness on a slight gradient track and we are at Green Lake slightly before noon. The terrain now is completely arid, prehistoric and lunar. We almost expect to see a dinosaur amble by. It hardly rains here as the clouds are obstructed from reaching the lake by the snowy peaks that surround it. Green Lake receives an annual rainfall of only 50 cm as against 325 cms received by Gangtok.
We pitch our tents here rest a while and cook our lunch using the primus kerosene stove as there is no firewood here. We then start exploring. Where is the lake? We are amidst a huge basin and there at its centre is a small pond –the Green Lake. There is a deep crevasse adjacent to it and centuries ago the lake perhaps drained out into the Zemu glacier below.
We reach the edge of the lake basin overlooking Zemu Glacier. Across the moraines, the rampart of Kanchendzonga rises almost vertically. From the Green Lake, the Kanchendzonga ceases to be an object of restful meditation. The apparently smooth ridges resemble the blade of a knife, and here and there harsh granite shows through the snow. The slopes are broken and jagged. On the left is the Simvo peak ice spewing out from its glacier. The view is breathtaking. To be here is to feel the very pulse of creation.
The next morning we start our trek back and in two days are in Lachen. We have been to a lake that does not exist and reached almost an arm’s length away from the bastion of the Kanchendzonga. It has been like an odyssey to a different world – where man is humbled and nature reigns supreme.

(Rajesh Verma is Director, Information Technology with the Government of Sikkim)

Monday, September 3, 2007

A tour to Dechenphu

A night at Dechenphu – The Cave of Great Happiness
-Rajesh Verma

L.A. Wadell in The Gazetteer of Sikkim compiled by H.H. Risley in 1894 makes a brief mention about the 4 holy caves of Sikkim- the traditional abodes of Guru Rimpoche and Lhatusun Chhembo. He writes that the caves are located in the 4 cardinal directions surrounding Tashiding monastery. Lharingingphu in the North is situated about three days journey from Tashiding. In the south is Kahdosangphu adjacent to the hotspring of Phurchachu. Pephu lies between the Tendong and the Maenam mountains. But about De-chen phu or the ‘cave of great happiness” the Gazetteer is very vague and off the track. It says that it is located in “the snow near Zongri and only reachable in the autumn”. Guru Rimpoche used these caves for meditation and for the storage of scriptures and wealth after subduing many evil spirits. It is said a visit to these caves can bring about a release from suffering.
But much water has flown down the Teesta since then. Motorable road communication is now available to far flung areas of Sikkim and accessing these caves is not as difficult as it was more than a century ago. In fact the vehicle reaches right to the Pephu cave and Kahdosangphu is hardly a 10 minutes walk from the roadside.
Dechen phu, however, continues to defy easy accessibility. It has the highest altitude amongst the four caves and involves a one day daunting and murderous trek – taking you from almost 5000 ft to 11,000 ft above mean sea level.
Fourteen kilometers downhill from Pelling is the village of Namphu at about 5000 ft above mean sea level and it is here till where the vehicle goes. We have arrived at Namphu and dawn is just breaking. It is a rather melancholic day: a faint drizzle and an overcast sky. I ask my porter who is also doubling as a guide the general direction of the cave. He points almost vertically upwards and says, “There, behind those clouds”. We will be making a night halt at the cave and therefore a quick check of whether we are carrying everything required – sleeping bags, provisions, candles, utensils and so on
A twenty minute steep downhill walk and we are at the banks of the River Rimbi. Fed by the monsoon rains and melting snow, the river is gushing and thundering. The water has been harnessed a few kilometers downstream to generate electricity. Without crossing the river, we walk along its banks for about forty minutes to reach the village of Rimbi.
In this remote village, salesmanship also thrives. The lady shopkeeper from whom I purchase candies and chocolates to munch on the way says that there are no shops further up and recommends that we purchase all our last minute requirements from her. She charges Rs 30/- for a bottle of coke that ordinarily costs Rs 20/- at Gangtok. “Carrying Costs” she justifies succinctly. I think she has a point there so without arguing proceed onwards.
The track here bifurcates with the one on the right going towards Chawri and Zongri. We take the track on the left leaving the Rimbi river and walk along its tributary the Lungaman Khola. We now get a taste of the steep climb that lies ahead. The track at a moderate gradient passes through maize fields, meadows and grazing grounds. In slightly less than an hour we are at Tsetanthang a picturesque village with a predominant Limbu population – which seems to be untouched by the ravages of civilization. We must be at 6000 ft for that uncouth white scar of Pelling on the opposite hill looks to be at the same level.
After a quick breakfast in one of the houses we are set to move again. For the next six hours we just climb, climb and climb. There is not a single habitation on the way. The foot path is kutcha and is lined with thick vegetation and trees of magnolia and rhododendrons. The foliage is so thick that even the sky is not visible. At places the track becomes bouncy and soft because of decaying vegetation that has compacted over ages.
Mid way, the vegetation begins to thin out and gradually gets replaced by pine, cane and shrubs. Through a gap in the clouds we can see the cliff on which the Dechenphu is situated. The cliff face glistening white is a sheer drop of about a thousand feet. It reminds me of Taksang Monastery in Bhutan which is also situated on a cliff.
We finally reach the cliff face. The path bifurcates with the one on the right going towards the Singelila range – a further four hours walk away and onwards to Nepal. Far in the east we can see the roof of the Tashiding Monastery and in the southerly direction, the Pemayanste Monastery. After negotiating a narrow path that has skillfully been sculpted on it we are at the hut just below the cave and on the base of the cliff. The cliff looms ominously above us. The hut has been constructed by the Rural Development Department for the convenience of the pilgrims. It has a single room measuring about 30 ft by 15 ft and has a tin roof and walls made of wood planks. The floor is just hard ground covered with hay and grass which act as cushion. We lay out our sleeping bags, rest a while and after a cup of tea prepared by our porter on firewood get ready to pay our obeisance at the cave just about 300 feet away.
The track leading to the cave is very narrow and lined with a profusion of prayer flags (Lungtas). We walk in complete silence for we are about to visit the cave which was said to be Guru Rimpoche Paradise and in which he experienced great “bliss and happiness” thus having the cave acquire its name Dechenphu. The mouth of the cave is about 8 ft high and about 6 ft wide it becomes a cavern inside about 12 ft high and then after 15 ft rapidly truncates to about a height of 2 ft. One can crawl in further and after 20 ft reach a small hole on the cliff side. The smallness of Dechenphu as compared to the other three holy caves in Sikkim is sufficiently compensated by its altitude and the fantastic view around. A small statue of Buddha adorns the mouth of the cave. The floor is littered with coins and discarded brass butter lamps. We offer khadas, light butter lamps and incense and ring the bell the sound of which echoes in the hills. It seems many students visit the cave as we find books kept at various places in the cave seeking blessings of the Buddha. The cliff is pocked with few smaller caves but these are not very significant. Lungaman Khola flows just below our hut and we use its pure mineral water for drinking, cooking and ablutions
As dusk falls, the nocturnal insects come alive. A cricket clicks and is followed by hundreds of others until the whole forest below the cave reverberates with a deafening din. Big water drops seeping out of the cliff continuously bombard the roof of the hut. All this noise does not disturb us at all. We are dog-tired and lull off to sleep. The lights of Darap, Pelling and Darjeeling on the Southern horizon twinkle in the darkness.
The loud twittering of birds wakes us in the morning. Just half a kilometer ahead perched on a hillock a lama from Bhutan has put up a shack of twigs and hay. He has been here for the last one year and we are given to understand that he would continue to be here for another two years meditating in complete silence not talking to anyone. We are moved by his faith and perseverance. We visit his hut and reverently place a small bag of rice at the entrance of the shack.
We walk down six hours down to Rimbi village and then undertake the uphill climb to Namphu thereafter. Did I hear a blare of the motor horn? We are back in the cacophony of civilization.

(The writer is Director, Department of Information Technology, Government of Sikkim)

Sunday, September 2, 2007


After visiting the holy cave of Amarnath on 6th August 06, I was back at Baltal near Sonmarg in the afternoon. I missed the last bus for Kargil and was not inclined to spend the night at Sonmarg. So I hopped into a truck that was going towards Kargil. It took an excruciating two hours to cover the 20 kms distance from Baltal 8000 ft to the famous Zojila Pass at 12000ft. However, the driver was interesting chap: and regaled me with many stories. I caught glimpses of Baltal camp far below on anf off. On reaching Zojila Pass the terrain suddenly flattens. The groan of the straining truck engine changed to a pleasant sounding purr. The landscape was arid and lunar. It reminded me of the cold desert of Sikkim- a part of the Tibetan Plateau that juts into Sikkim.
Shortly we were at Drass- we halted a few minutes at the Memorial constructed to honour the fallen in the Kargil war. At 10 pm the truck dropped me at Kargil. I got a decent room in a hotel. Busses for Leh leave Kargil at an unearthly hour – 3 in the morning and I was in no mood of traveling so early. I was however lucky to get a taxi at seven in the morning that was going back to Leh after dropping some passengers. The landscape was stark but beautiful. We halted at the monastery of Lama Yaru on the way. By late afternoon I was at Leh. I spent the evening visiting the Leh Stupa and then hunting for passengers who were interested to visit the Pambong Lake and with whom I got share a taxi. I managed to locate three persons and off we were to Pambong Lake at 6 in the morning. Pamong is a fresh water lake and is 80 kilometers in length and straddles the border between India and China. 70 percent of it lies in China. It looks like a sea.
I spent the evening loitering around the bazaars of Leh and then caught the bus in the morning for the one and a half day journey to Manali. I was given a seat in the last row and I felt I was riding a horse that had gone berserk. The scenery was breathtaking with undulating mountains topped with snow. We halted overnight at a place close to Sarchu on the border between Himachal and Kashmir. Next day the road took us through Keylong and the Rothang and we were at Manali in the afternoon. I caught the 4 pm bus for Chandigarh. There are lot of things I missed in Ladakh – the Zanskar Valley, the Tsomori Lake and the Bactrian Camel. I’ll be back sometime to experience these.