Thursday, October 25, 2007


One can never tire of the pristine beauty of North Sikkim. Most of it is untouched by the vagaries of civilization. But to experience it, arduous treks over high passes and fording rivers have to be undertaken. One such trek takes you from the verdant green Lhasar valley across the barren Sebula pass and on to the hotsprings of Yumey samdong. The army had once upon a time thought of putting up a firing range in this area to test their big guns but mercifully this was shelved due to a public outcry.
Our trek commences at Thangu at a mind boggling altitude of 13500 ft. Situated on the banks of the Tista, Thangu, which is about 30 kilometers north of Lachen by road, has a sizeable military presence and also a thriving civilian population. It is an important takeoff point to the Cholamu plateau, Muguthang in the Lhonak valley and the Lhasar valley. Intense Ultra-violet rays and relatively good sunshine at Thangu coupled with good quality of soil result in the local vegetables especially radishes and turnips assuming huge proportions each sometimes weighing upto a kilogram.
It is a warm autumn morning and having had a nice night’s sleep at the PWD Bunglow, we are all well poised to move. We walk in the north easterly direction and a moderately steep climb of three hours takes us to Phalung . From here the view of the Lhasar Valley about a thousand feet below is breathtaking. Through the Lhasar valley, the green river coils in a series of switchbacks, almost stagnant like a snake, until slightly further down it strikes straight and falling and changes colour to a white cresendo and bashes into the Lachen chu (Tista) at Thangu like a drunken pugilist. There is a plan to harness the Lhasar river by establishing a micro-hydel project to meet the energy needs of Thangu.
The Lhasar Valley abounds in alpine vegetation and medicinal plants. The valley is also home to semi-nomadic yark-herders during summer and autumn. These herdsmen move up to the plateau during the winter and spring when the valley becomes snowbound.
A further downhill walk of about an hour takes us to the abandonded clubhut of the Survey of India at Chechung Lakha. In the north, the Kanchengyao at 22600 ft is resplendent in a mantel of snow. On the right, is the Sebu-la pass, that leads to the Yumey Samdong Hotsprings at the upper end of the Yumthang valley. After partaking to lunch, we walk a few kilometers north to reach the base of the mountain that separates the Lhasar valley from the Lachung valley. We pitch our tents here for the night. Early next morning we.negotiate a three kilometer steep climb takes one to Sebu-la at 17000 ft. The pass is narrow and treacherous. As we catch our breath, resting on this pass, I see a vulture just above me in the sky which remains suspended in the air without moving or flapping its wings for a full five minutes. While I am wondering what are the laws of physics that enables the bird to perform this gravity defying feat my porter reminds me that it is getting late and we are set to move on.
From the Sebu-la pass a knee-wobbling steep trek over glacial screes and we are at Sebu-Tso lake surrounded by mountains of Changma-Khang that seem to touch the skies. Medium sized, this lake is the source of the River Sebu-chu. We trek along the Sebu Chu on the banks of which are hundreds of Rhubarbs about five feet in height. These are perhaps the largest biggest concentration of Rhubarbs one can get to see in Sikkim: in contrast the ones in the Lachen and Lhasar valley that hardly grow upto 3 ft and are far and in between. Half an hour later we are at a wide flat valley about half a kilometer wide in which the river Palo Chuuthang meets the Sebu Chu. We ford across the river Palo Chuuthang and leaving the river behind begin the gradual climb to reach a mountain top strewn with huge rocks and stones. This is the most difficult part of the journey. Jumping from rock to rock we takes about an hour to traverse just about a kilometer. A wrong step and you can land up with a fractured leg. The prayer flags that mark the Hot springs of Yumey Samdong can now be seen far below. We negotiate the steep downhill walk to the wide river valley below. The Sebu Chu reappears as a thundering waterfall almost 200 ft high on the left. We ford across an un-named tributary of the Sebu Chu and are at the hotsprings of Yumey samdong. Unlike other hotsprings in Sikkim which have one source, Yumey samdong has four or five hotsprings. People spend about a fortnight in the springs to get themselves rid of skin diseases, arthiritis etc. But we do not have that much time: being urbanites we are as usual in a terrible hurry. But we spend about an hour with our tired feet dipped in the soothing hot water sipping tea. I feel that this route can definitely be developed for trekkers visiting North Sikkim who want to try something more adventurous and venture into off-beaten territory.
A walk of another one kilometer and we are at the road side where our vehicle is waiting. The driver starts the vehicle and switches on the cassette player . The strident noise of a Hindi remix tells us that we are back in civilization.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


Most of the monsoon clouds reaching the Lachung valley precipitate before Yumthang but those venturing further north towards the Tibetan plateau have to encounter the last bastion in the valley- the Donkiala pass at 18400 ft. Overlooking the Cholamu plateau and the Roof of the World, and surrounded by snowy peaks most notably the Paunhri (Lonpo Kyangzong), the Donkia pass is like a nozzle that feebly sprays the plateau with what ever moisture that remains in the spent monsoon clouds.
Similarly mortals wanting to cross over from the Lachung valley to the Cholamu plateau have to encounter the Donkia pass and once they have done it they are depleted of energy and it takes them quite some time to get their breath back. Donkiala pass separates the upper reaches of Lachen valley from the Lachung valley and Hooker in his book "The Himalayan Journal" has rated it the most treacherous pass he ever traversed.
The motorable road ends thirty kilometres away from Yumthang via Yumey Samdong at a place called Zadong-at an altitude of about 16030 ft. We disembark from the vehicle and ask the driver to reach Cholamu via Lachen by the next day to receive us. From here to Cholamu Lake via the Donkiala pass is about a 8 kilometers trek and takes 5 to 6 hours for the average walker. We start walking along the narrow Donkiachu river. The climb is moderate but the progress is relatively slow because of rarefied air. The hillside is carpeted with alpine vegetation in a riot of colours – acononites, the rare blue poppies and a lot of other colourful flowers – I wish I could identity them. And dominating them like sentinels, are the yellow giant rhubarbs growing to about three feet in height.
After walking 2 hours, the Donkiala pass becomes visible. It looks quite near but takes a full hour to reach. We come across two small muddy lakes from which the river Donkiachu originates and flows into the Lachung valley. 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). A few years ago the glacial Tenbawa lake close by burst causing flash floods in the Yumthang and Lachung valley. A wall of water that gushed down, washed away bridges and caused a lot of damage to property. There is a need to monitor these lakes on a continuous basis through Satellite imagery and Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR): any change in their size would be a signal for imminent disaster.
The last stretch of 100 metres to Donkiala pass is very steep and involves almost a vertical climb. Our bodies suddenly seem to weigh more than a ton and the legs almost crumble as the stress caused by rarefied air begins to take effect. Gasping and panting for air and feeling like a fish out of water, we finally reach the pass. But all our tiredness vanishes at the sight of the spectacular scenery around. Above the Donkiala pass spires of peaks rise their gloomy granite brightened by snow. The peak of Pauhunri (Lonpo Kyangzong) is silhouetted against the eastern sky. The relatively low altitude Chola range that delineates the eastern border of Sikkim suddenly soars up in the North to Pauhunri - the highest peak on the Eastern border of Sikkim – its ramparts scarred with many glaciers. From the Donkiala pass the view of the Tibetan plateau and its portion that juts into Sikkim as the Cholamu Plateau below us is marvellous. The plateau is flat as far as the eye can see but is broken here and there by small hillocks peppered with snow. Through powerful binoculars we can see the habitations at Tarksing and Geru in the Tibetan side. About 300 metres below is the lake of Cholamu and a smaller un-named lake above it. -both looking like emeralds . Slightly towards the west Tista meanders and breaks into many channels enclosing small oases of green vegetation.
As we stand marvelling at the scenery below it begins raining heavily in the Lachung valley, whereas above and over the Tibetan plateau in sharp contrast it remains bright and sunny. I had read in books about how the high mountains of North Sikkim prevented moisture laden clouds from reaching the dry and arid plateau, but here I was seeing it actually happening before me.
A knee wobbling downhill walk of another one hour and a half takes us to the Cholamu lake. The reflection of the surrounding mountains doubles its beauty. Now, about the source of the Tista. Many consider Cholamu as the Source of the Tista. This is not true. The source of a river is defined as the furthest point from where a river starts flowing. Cholamu is one of the lakes in the river system that flows out as a stream to meet the Tista just a few hundred metres away. After walking the full length of the Cholamu lake we turn right and cross Tista and reach the Army Camp at Kerang. A cup of hot tea with the jawans and a rest of about an hour and we move onwards to explore the source of Tista. We walk for about slightly over an hour on the gently undulating land and are at the edge of a glacial lake. On the other side of the lake on the western base of the Paunhri is the Glacier – Tista Khanste which melts to form Khangchung Tso lake. It is from this lake the mighty Tista river takes birth as a trickle hardly a metre wide - the feeble beginning notes of which transform to a thunder few kilometres downstream.
The plateau preserves an astonishing diversity of wildlife. A flock of birds that look like cranes swim on the placid ice-cold water. These birds are migratory probably coming from the northern latitudes. It strikes me that no natural or manmade borders are impregnable to these birds. Russia, China, India are to them one and the same - they believe in the true spirit of globalisation. It is a pity that man with a penchant for divisions cannot move freely from one place to another. A herd of Tibetan wildasses or kiangs as they are locally called, stand grazing on the other end of the lake. As there is a dearth of water on the Tibetan side, many animals cross over the border towards the lake. The plateau is teeming with marmots (big mice) , woolly hares and foxes. Once in a while a flock of snow flinches(birds) fly overhead.
Although deprived of any vegetation except sparsely growing scrubs, the plateau offers a stark beauty unparalleled perhaps anywhere in the world. The landscape here is similar to the fiery desert while the climate is that of the Tundras. The percitipation received by the plateau is less than 50 cms in a year as compared to Gangtok’s 325 cms. Violent winds rage their force broken by neither trees nor scrubs. Howling with such a ferocity, these winds also sweep snow from the grass uncovering it for the yaks. The air is so rarefied and clear that the stars shine bright enough in the moonless sky to cast faint shadows and cause the snowclad mountains around to glisten eerily.
The intense sunlight and the high speed winds that the plateau experiences can be a good source of solar and wind energy. Use of solar panels and wind generators can easily meet the energy needs of the few hundred people who reside here.
Herds of yaks graze on the sparse vegetation and the few herders here make their livelihood by selling yak products. These herders follow lifestyles unchanged through the centuries. For hardwork and acceptance of nature’s sway, this moody and elemental place offers the herders in return the splendour of scenery. For a man from the city, staying in such a hostile environment would be unthinkable. But wouldn’t a yakherder also find the city hostile, with its high decibel earsplitting noises and pollution that makes the air almost unbreathable? Such contemporary troubles like nuclear explosions and the depletion of the ozone layer seem deceptively far away. But these herdsmen are affected apparently in terms of increased Ultra-violet radiation and acid rain because of the avarice of their urban brothers. A polythene wrapper carelessly thrown out of the occasional vehicle can suffocate the soil making it permanently sterile – this is the extent of the sensitivity of the alpine area. It is heartening that the Government as a part of its scheme for Green Taxis has now taken steps to prevent littering in the alpine areas. Vehicles plying here are now required to carry garbage bags or dustbins and the passengers have to use these to put the litter. When the vehicle returns back to its base the litter from these bags is to be emptied into the garbage bins. Diesel and petrol fumes are another bane to the alpine areas. Because of the rarefied air the noxious gases spread over wide areas within no time peppering the landscape with poisonous sulphur and nitrogen chemicals. The government could perhaps consider allowing only CNG vehicles to operate in these pristine alpine areas.
We spend the night a stone hut of a yakherder near Cholamu. Over a glass of hot Tibetan tea, I am told by one that the furthermost most of them had ventured was Thangu barely 30 kilometres away. Suddenly I start envying them for their lifestyles, which seem an anachronism in this modern age and has remained unchanged for centuries and untouched by the ravages of civilization.
Later I am told that the yak herder headman had been chosen for the post because he had the distinction of having visited Siliguri - for about a few months for medical treatment - and therefore considered as a person well exposed and wise with the ways of the world. Our vehicle has meanwhile arrived from the Lachen side and we are ready to leave.
In this anachronistic ambience, as I cast a longing lingering look behind of the Tibetan plateau, I am reminded of a stanza from Thomas Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard that seemed so apt here
Far from the madding crowds’ ignoble strife,
Their wishes never learned to stray,
Along the cool sequestered way of life,
They led their noiseless tenor of their way.