We are on the eastern range of the Himalayas in north Sikkim. Winding, potholed roads crisscross steep slopes, with our destination nowhere in sight. Waterfalls and brooks appear more frequently than roadside eateries and villages; one is even nicknamed the Amitabh Bachchan waterfall.
The tributaries of Teesta, and often the Teesta herself, are our silent companions, flowing at times along the road, and at others, gushing in the deep ravines below.
Nepali songs play in the background as villages, snow-capped peaks and Buddhist flags pass us by. We make a quick stop for momos and chai. And then it begins all over again. Lachung is a long way off.
Lachung, primarily an agricultural village, opened for tourists in the early ’90s. And what it offers is rather simple: a chance to go off the grid and explore nature’s contradictions.
There is no network coverage — save for some sporadic BSNL connectivity — making it a perfect hideaway for those who seek quiet.
Lachung, or small pass, is almost 110km from Gangtok, and the eight-hour journey requires a permit because of the village-town’s proximity to the China border. Locals, called Lachungpas, mostly Bhutias and Lepchas, say there are less than 2,500 people and around 400 houses in Lachung. At 8,200ft, resources are scarce and the military presence heavy.
It is evening by the time we make it to Lachung. The ‘hotel’ is small. After handing over the keys, the sole manager-cum-housekeeper warns, “Madam, if you look for luxury and comfort, this is hell, but if you look for nature and peace, this is jannat (heaven).” His former claim turns out to be too self-deprecatory. The place has a decent television set, running water and clean beds and towels, though there is no room heater, hot water or room service.
Next morning, we head to the Yumthang Valley (13,800ft), the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary and Yumesamdong (Zero Point at 15,300ft). These destinations are only a couple of hours away and the drive is a visual treat, the scenery alternating between monochrome and technicolour.
The sanctuary and the Yumthang Valley are a riot of colours. Rhododendrons and Himalayan wildflowers, Buddhist prayer flags, and tiny huts made of wood and tin dot the grassy river banks and slopes. Local stalls offering Tibetan and Buddhist memorabilia, Maggi noodles, Old Monk, and winterwear for hire, slowly give way to sombre military outposts.
Yumesamdong is grave, black and white. A perpetual cover of clouds casts a shadow over the freezing upper course of the river that makes its way across a rocky plain with bare snow-capped mountains framing and feeding it. A gloomy path to nowhere lies ahead. The temperature in Lachung and its surrounding areas can be sub-zero in winter. But Yumesamdong is colder still. Often, snow and thick ice abruptly block the road leading to it.
No one lives near or beyond this region — often referred to as ‘no man’s land’ — so no one really bothers to clear the road either. The landscape is cold, stark and imposing, but the people are quite the opposite. It is perhaps, the warmth of the Lachungpas alone that keeps the place humane.
We leave Yumesamdong and descend to the more welcoming Yumthang Valley and the Shingba Sanctuary. There are various flower-trails here and a day is too short to explore everything. Over the years, these valleys and the Lachungpas have hosted many botany enthusiasts, who have visited the region to record and collect samples of plants.
The first such explorer to travel through Sikkim was Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a Victorian botanist and former director of Britain’s Kew Gardens, who was also known for his collaborations with Charles Darwin and Sir James Clark Ross, who explored the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
The Joseph Hooker Correspondence Project, currently underway and supported by Kew, is now working towards digitising his letters and other works. A post by Virgina Mills, the project coordinator, explains that Hooker was in Sikkim between 1848 and 1849, looking for ‘plant treasure’ to send back to his father William Hooker, Kew’s first director. He discovered 25 new species of rhododendron that were added to the collection at Kew.
Joseph Hooker, an amateur artist who sketched the flowers and landscapes he saw and made Sikkim’s first map, is also believed to have started and fuelled the craze for rhododendrons in British gardens.
The fascination for rhododendrons and Himalayan flowers hasn’t diminished in the 21st century. Back home, I search for and find a modern-day Joseph Hooker. Tabish Qureshi, professor of physics at Jamia Milia Islamia in Delhi and self-professed anthomaniac, visited Yumthang Valley and the Sanctuary in June 2011 to observe and document the flowers.
Rhododendrons bloom in April-May, Himalayan flowers in June. Qureshi, who is the founder of the website flowersofindia.net, says his companions and he spotted the rare Himalayan Yellow Poppy in full bloom. In one visit, lasting only a couple of hours, he noticed flowers such as white and blue avens, Griffith’s cobra lily, yellow buttercups and cinqefoils, pink geraniums and pedicularis (or louseworts), forget-me-nots, red Himalayan strawberries, Himalayan roses and Webb’s rose, to name a few.
Even if one needs a handbook to identify the flowers in the vast valley, the simple pleasure of walking down to the river, sitting on a boulder surrounded by blooms and watching the clouds playing hide-and-seek with the Himalayas is unparalleled.
Having spent more time admiring the Himalayan peaks, we are left with little time for the flower trails in Yumthang. Since these are largely deserted areas, it is mandatory to return by late noon. We are just beginning to appreciate the valley and the walk to the river, when we are ushered back to our car.
The next day, during the arduous journey back to Gangtok, I am reminded of how Hooker must have travelled more than a century ago, and the thought makes the bad roads appear less hostile. A few hours out of Lachung, the mobiles start buzzing, and the silence offered by the monochrome and technicolour landscapes is now far behind. It is time to switch on and stay connected.