Takeaway

Up above the world so high

Mita Ghose | Updated on January 04, 2019

Blue-eyed magic: The wild blue poppy is one of the many flowers that grow in the Deuthang Valley every summer   -  Getty Images/iStockphoto

Tales of the Yeti, shaman and explorers make Sikkim’s Deuthang Valley a chapter out of an encyclopaedia of wonders

“When I was nine,” says my guide Tsewang, gazing at the upper reaches of the mountain we’ve been climbing, “I saw the Migou.”

I stare incredulously at this Army veteran from Lachen, a tiny North Sikkim village a seven-hour drive from Gangtok. A battle-hardened toughie who had fought off the Chinese at Nathu La and served in militancy-affected Nagaland is actually claiming to have sighted the Yeti — a fabled creature whose very existence is usually laughed off. He seems dead serious, though. And, soon, it becomes apparent that for him, as for many of his fellow Lachenpas, the Yeti is not only real but also held in awe as the “king of man” or Migou in the Bhutia language .

Tsewang (not his name — and you will later know why) couldn’t have chosen a more appropriate setting for sharing such memories. Our trek through a high-altitude terrain has brought us to Deuthang, a village about 15,000 ft above sea level. The subzero November chill is numbing and dense clouds bear down on the snow-powdered mountains across the valley to our right. The herders who live here have already descended with their livestock to lower altitudes for the duration of the harsh winter and their stone huts are shuttered. My laboured breathing sounds unnaturally loud in the silence that fills the desolation all the way from the road below and past Kalep, another village along our trek route that’s deep in hibernation till spring. Despite the gurgling streams we’ve crossed, the pervasive scent of junipers and the sight of the white starbursts of edelweiss — startling in an area that’s worlds away from The Sound of Music and its famous song in praise of the flower — there’s an eerie feel to the place that almost makes you believe the local tales of demons and shamans and flying lamas.

Sprawling far below us to our right is the Deuthang Valley, patterned by the strands of a jade green river bearing its name that feeds the sinister-looking Am Tso Nak, a “black lake” believed to be inhabited by a foul-tempered deity — half-canine, half-human — who vents his ire in strange ways. In this land so remote that even place names frustrate Internet searches, pre-Buddhist traditions of nature worship survive and history is woven with myths and mysteries, a willing suspension of disbelief is a natural state of mind; everything seems to lie within the realms of possibility. Even the Yeti.

No wonder the image my guide conjures up of a “giant nearly twice as tall as a man, with a face dark as charcoal and fur the colour of silver”, standing high on a ridge overlooking Lachen, is hard to shrug off. As is his enthralling account of the Yeti descending during particularly severe winters from its home in the frozen heights, to forage for food around the village at night. I’m anticipating chilling tales of close encounters, of mauling and death, but there are none. However, as with gods and sages, familiarity is discouraged.

“Never answer the Migou’s call,” Tsewang cautions, recalling the advice of his village elders. “If you do, he will find you.”

He mimics the call — a low whistle.

In the silence that follows, I freeze; I’ve heard a faint response — the distant neigh of a horse. Tossing its unruly mane, the lonely animal is craning its neck to catch our eye from its enclosure on a high ridge to the left. Eager for company, it begins descending the winding path at a joyful trot, then, startled, gallops off in another direction. It has realised we’re strangers.

It turns out that this solitary horse is one of several available for hire in summer, when the villagers are in residence, to carry visitors up to the famous caves far above us. If only I had known, I tell Tsewang. In the absence of a mount, the challenge I’ve set myself today — to hike up to the first of the two caves — is an increasingly daunting one. This is where Alexandra David-Néel, a late-19th century French Buddhist scholar, explorer and author, had sat meditating for years under the guidance of her spiritual master, the then Gomchen of the Lachen Monastery. A wild-looking tantric and reincarnate lama, this devotee of Guru Padmasambhava had spent 13 years of self-imposed isolation in the second cave, located at a higher elevation, and initiated his foreign disciple into advanced yogic practices, including telepathy and the art of raising body heat to survive subzero temperatures — a skill that would stand her in good stead during her clandestine journey to the forbidden Tibetan capital of Lhasa in 1924.

****

I’m not the only one inspired sufficiently by this remarkable woman’s story to come trekking up a nameless mountain in Sikkim. The caves, a pilgrimage site for locals, have drawn a steady stream of visitors from Europe — researchers and Buddhist scholars for whom David-Néel, the first woman from the Western world to have set foot in Tibet, is a revered icon. Unlike them, I had discovered her quite by chance through the photographs and letters preserved in the Phodong Monastery on the Gangtok-Mangan route. Intrigued, I had read up on her life, her travels, her avid interest in “psychic forces” and her bond with the then prince of Sikkim, described as an enduring friendship by some, a love affair by others. It had ended with the death of the young royal in the “most suspicious circumstances”, a tragedy that, along with other factors, would set the grief-stricken David-Néel on her spiritual path.

Now retracing a part of the journey undertaken by this unusual woman, I concede how ill-equipped I am for such a venture. Standing near the Buddhist chorten we’ve reached after an arduous climb, I eye the second one, our next landmark; it’s a mere speck in the distance. Somewhere beyond it, at the end of a long, steep, strenuous ascent, lies David-Néel’s cave.

The Frenchwoman’s words, dredged up from memory, haunt me: “I vow to prove what the will of a woman can do.”

Unlike her will, mine has no chance of winning admiration. But it has brought me to the remote Sikkimese mountain village, despite dodgy knees, vulnerability to high-altitude sickness and habitual lethargy. Steeling myself, I motion my guide to lead the way.

Nature, however, has other plans.

“Madam, it’s snowing,” Tsewang announces, pointing to the snowflakes drifting around us like miniature butterflies. “We must go back. In the mountains, you never know. Things can get tricky.”

In summer, he assures me, it will be much easier. “There will be horses, then. Also, flowers in bloom — rhododendron, primula, wild blue poppy…”

My heart swells with optimism.

But several days later, heading to the Bagdogra airport to catch my flight back to Kolkata, I remember: Summer in the state’s high-altitude areas arrives in June and remains through July and August, when other parts of Sikkim are ravaged by rain-triggered landslides. Vital roads are damaged or cut off, isolating much of the north from the world. Getting there in summer would be near-impossible.

If not summer, then spring? Eagerly I ask my taxi driver, an East Sikkim man, for his feedback on springtime in the north. He, however, has a different take on it.

“That’s the season for the northerner’s secret treasure-hunt, madam,” he says. “Villagers from Lachen, Lachung and nearby areas climb up to collect the yarcha-gumba. It’s a caterpillar fungus from which traditional medicines are made for treating ailments ranging from diabetes to cancer. Those caught with it are arrested. But it’s worth the risk, because the fungus sells for lakhs of rupees, even in the domestic market.”

Keep going: The way to Deuthang   -  MITA GHOSE

 

Speculating half-seriously whether the wonder drug has any connection to the Yeti’s incredible strength or David-Néel’s legendary powers of endurance, I text Tsewang. He confirms the story about the fungus, but refutes the allegation that the trade is an illicit one. They’re just dead caterpillars, he texts back.

Surfing the Net later, I discover the caterpillar fungus anew, complete with its Latin name: Cordyceps sinensis. The reason for its astronomical price — anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 per kg in the international black market — becomes clear. Known as the “Himalayan Viagra”, the fungus contains an element that is believed to enhance athletic and sexual performance to an extraordinary degree.

I also learn that government permission is mandatory for its collection and fierce competition among smugglers laying claim to the same territory has even resulted in killings. Although the state is seeking to regulate the trade, conflicts are likely to escalate; over-harvesting and global warming are leading to depleting supplies.

I am saddened to discover that the real world of human need and greed is encroaching steadily on this land, known for its natural beauty and ancient folklore, its mysticism and its hardy, honest, endearing people.

Not long afterwards, I come upon a blog put up by a young tourist from the West. She has posted her photos of a home in Lachen that I recognise instantly. One of those pictures features a glass jar displaying the fungus. Another is a shot of the prized trophy’s proud owner — Tsewang.

“In the mountains,” he had warned, “you never know.”

Mita Ghose is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and editor

Travel log

 

Getting there

  • Several domestic airlines operate flights between major Indian cities and Bagdogra. Taxis are available for the onward journey to Gangtok, a four- to five-hour drive away. A new airport is now operational at Pakyong, a 30-minute drive from Gangtok, with SpiceJet flying in from Kolkata and Guwahati. However, because of Pakyong’s mountainous location, unpredictable weather conditions often lead to flight delays and cancellations.
  • Visitors to North Sikkim must halt overnight either in Gangtok or in Mangan, the district headquarters for the north. Lachen, the night-halt for visitors to Gurudongmar Lake and treks to Deuthang, Thangu and other villages, along with Chopta Valley, is a rather rough seven-hour drive from Gangtok.

When to go

  • June, July and August are the summer months in the north, but access may be difficult at this time because of landslides caused by heavy rain in the state’s lower regions. Mid-May might be a well-reasoned choice for those wishing to ride horses to go up to Deuthang. For trekkers, mid-October to the first week of November is a pleasant time in the high-altitude terrain, though it may rain occasionally in Lachen.

Entry permits

  • Indian nationals require inner line permits for North Sikkim. Foreigners must apply for a restricted area permit, but are not allowed to proceed beyond Thangu. All visitors must carry a valid identity document.

Stay

  • Gangtok: High-end: The Elgin Nor-Khill (elginhotels.com/gangtok.php), a heritage property, is a few minutes’ walk from MG Marg, the main shopping and restaurant area. Mid-range: The Chumbi Residency (thechumbiresidency.com) is conveniently located off MG Marg. Budget: The Hidden Forest Retreat (http://hiddenforestretreat.org/contact.php) is a charming option, set in a tranquil garden overlooking a forested valley.
  • Mangan: The Planter’s Home (theplantershome.com).
  • Lachen: The only high-end hospitality address here is the Apple Orchard Resort (http://theappleorchardresort.com). There are several homestay options, with a reasonable tariff for rooms and meals. RC Homestay (https://www.facebook.com/RcHomestay/) is among the more popular ones.

Eat

  • Lachen is largely vegetarian, as most residents are followers of the Nyingma sect of Tibetan Buddhism.

BLink Tip

  • High-altitude sickness (HAS) can afflict just about anyone. It is recommended that visitors to Lachen who plan to tour Deuthang village and its surroundings or travel further to Gurudongmar Lake should consult a doctor about their physical fitness before setting off for a high-altitude destination.
  • North Sikkim has been declared a plastic-free zone. Only Tupperware water bottles are allowed. Filtered water available at hotels and homestays is safe to drink.

 

Published on January 04, 2019

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