Touching the three continents Asia, Europe Silk Road or Silk Route expands to an extent of about 6500 km.In ancient times, silk was transported from Tibet to Europe in this route. The name “Silk Route” has come from this phenomenon. Starting from Lhasa in Tibet and then crossing the Chumbi Valley and Nathula Pass, this route leads to Tamralipta (now Tamluk). From Tamralipta across the Bay of Bengal this trade was carried out to distant Sri Lanka, Bali, Java and finally to Europe. This was the ancient Silk Road.
What we mean by the Silk Road in East Sikkim is actually just a small piece of this ancient Silk Road. But whatever it is, the joy of jumping into the bosom of nature and immersing myself in it is much greater to me than exploring history. So this time I decided to spend the last 4 days of March in three places on the Silk Route. My companion this time are other four members of my office team – Lina, Bidisha, Tathagata and Archita. Tathagata and Archita are the newest and youngest members of our Ghuranchandi team.
I searched the net and got Lakpa Tamang’s number. After contacting him and planning a route, myself, Lina and Bidisha boarded the Padatik Exp on the night of 26th March. The other two caught the Royal Cruiser at 6pm on that same day. They are scheduled to enter Siliguri at 8.30 am the next day and our train is scheduled to reach NJP at 9 am.
When we left Kisanganj we spoke to Tathagata over the phone and got the shocking information that they are still stuck in a traffic jam at Farakka. Padatik Exp reached NJP at 10 o’clock. Lakpa stood with his car near SNT terminus. After having some light snacks we went and met Lakpar at SNT. According to the plan we have our today’s stay at Padamchen, which is about 5 hours journey from here.
The problem is that we have to make our permits for Silk Route from Rongli and that office closes at 4 pm. Now it’s already about 12 pm. If we pull it too hard, maybe we can reach Rongli by 4 opm marginally but we don’t want to ask the two junior members to come separately. Speaking to them, it seemed that they would not arrive before 2 pm. We decided that whatever it happens, we should go together. Having enough time in hand we left our bags in the car and for some local sight seeing went to Shalugara Monastery taking an auto.
I never knew before that there is such a beautiful monastery inside the city of Siliguri. Thanks to the travel encyclopedic mind of Lina! Two of our bus passengers finally reached SNT at 3pm, fully exhausted. After getting our combined team in hand, Lakpa released a sigh of relief and we started our journey in his Bolero. Like every time, this time too, as I was passing Shalugara and the Mahananda Sanctuary, felt a hilly touch. For Tathagata this will be his first time hill trip.Its clear in his excited words “We are getting up, Uribbas, we are getting up”, “Hey, look at that Teesta”, “I will climb up a lot more” – etc. My mind swept in the waves of old memories.
When we entered Rangpo, it was 7.30 pm. If you want to enter Padamchen also, you need a permit and that’s no more possible for today. We decided to stay the night at Lingtam instead. After a quick tea and snacks at Rangpo, we set off on our way to Lingtam. It took 1 more hour to reach Lingtam through Rongli. Lakpa took us to a home stay he knew and arranged for two rooms at Rs.800/- per head including fooding.
Lakpa’s house is in Rolep. Since Rolep is very close to Rongli, we decided that Lakpa will return home tonight and as soon as Rongli’s permit office opens tomorrow morning he will make our permits and come to Lingtam to pick us up. The 5,000-foot-high Lingtam at night covered us with a thick layer of cold. We had no plans to get up very early the next morning, so we stayed up till late night chatting and then went to bed.
Being on the hills and not seeing a monastery is a crime in for Lina , so after getting up in the morning we walked a little above the home stay to the Lingtam monastery. As we were descending the rocky stairs, we saw a cloudy sky and a few drops of rain. But I reassured myself that it is always impossible to guess what the sky would look like more 4500 feet above here by looking at this rain.
It took a some time for Lakpa to enter Lingtam with the permit. Finally, at about 11 o’clock, we started our journey for Zuluk and that’s a part of the Silk Route. After a 15 minutes drive from the home stay we came to the river bed of Lingtam Khola (Lingtam river).
The river flows through the middle of huge rocky terrain and green hillside on both sides and have crystal clear water. Colorful pebbles are glistening from under the water.
The depth of the river is less now so we easily crossed the river with our car. Next to it is a hanging foot bridge. In this enchanting form of nature, we took spme photographs and then continued with our journey. We reached Quikhola Falls in half an hour.
This waterfalls is right next to the pitch road. Across the street is a small food shop decorated with orchids. After eating hot momo and boiled eggs there, we set off and reached Padmachen at around 12.30 pm. The more we are climbing higher, the more chilling is the cold. The landscape turned to pine forests on both the sides of our way. On that green canvas of pine that descends down the slope of the mountain, it is as if someone has designed a few places with white rhododendrons. We could not stop the urge to stop the car here to get some pictures of the beauty.
When we entered Zuluk, it was about 2 pm.The place where Lakpa parked his car has two human-high rocky wall on one side and the valley on the other side with the view of several small hills, the small village of Zuluk and an army base.
One thing to note here is that since this part of Sikkim is very close to the Chinese border, most of the villages here are run by the army. We are now standing at an altitude of 9,500 feet. Despite the bright sun, the cool breeze is piercing the bones.There are no traces of pine forest or other large trees here. The world here is wrapped in some small grass herbs and green grass carpets.
Its really amazing to see that the mountains that I had to look up from Lingtam a little while ago, now I have to look down from here! It’s like a paradise from where the whole world is far below us! When you look up, there is only a deep blue sky and clouds like white cotton floating on that blue.
Leaving the pitch road, a narrow rocky road descends a little and merges into a few wooden houses. The last house on the slope of the hill is the Yangchen Homestay, the place where we shall stay today. The home stay has three large rooms with a front porch covered with sliding glasses. I became speechless as soon as I opened those windows. As far as my eyes can go, its only the layers of hills that have descended one by one into an abyss below.
By that time, I had to adorn myself with layers of two cold clothes, a woolen cap on the head and gloves to bit the cold. The slope of the hill descends from the bottom of the veranda at an angle of 45 degree. I went down the slope with the camera in my hand and came up again and captured the bluish wooden house next to the veranda.
In a word, after two days of fasting, if someone brings smoked Dehradun rice with five consonants in his diet, his condition will be the same. It is difficult to decide which of the five consonants of nature is left out and which is not. The apparent end of this confusion ended with the call of the landlady. Our lunch is ready. Hot rice, potatoes, pulses, vegetables and egg curry. The landlady’s cooking skills are as outstanding as her hospitality.
The cold is getting worse as the day is passing by. The sunset can be seen from our veranda. 5.50 pm is the sunset time, so there’s still some time in hand. There is a Shiva temple 3 km down. After speaking to Lakpa we decided that he would take us to the temple by car and go a little farther to play volleyball. In the meantime after visiting the temple we shall stroll a bit in the village and the trek up by a shortcut way. But we had a problem here.
Just after lunch our youngest member Archita started having some symptoms of high-altitude respiratory problems. Tathagato was also facing some breathing problems. Luckily I was carrying enough popcorn with me. Both of them got a little relaxed after having popcorn. Let me say here that those who have high altitude problems must keep popcorn, camphor, ginger and garlic. These things come very handy in such altitudes. However, even after recovering Archita did not have the courage to go out because there is a lot of walking involved. The other four of us went out with Lakpa. Lakpa left us near the temple. There is a new scene waiting at every bends of the hill.
After visiting the temple, we strolled around a bit in the Zuluk village and then set off for returning. When we came to the pitch road we saw a car unloading some necessary products. On requesting the driver of that car, he drove us upstairs till the homestay. Although we wanted to pay some money for rent, he did not take it. Along with the geographical height, the height of humanity probably also increases!
We came back by 5 pm. The chill has increased further. I set my camera on the tripod and removed the sliding glass on the veranda. The game of colors in the sky has started. I didn’t noticed that a line of clouds have flocked over the hills below by that time . Its hard to guess behind which mountain the setting sun shall depart. As a proof of farewell, it was only the read & orange tinge spread on the dark purple canvas of the sky.
The full moon, like a plate of white stone, took its place in the eastern sky, peeping out through the clouds.In the evening I went out to capture the 9,500-foot-high hilly village in the moonlight standing under the open sky, but after a few tight slaps of the freezing cold air on my face, I couldn’t bear it for long.
We have already told Lakpa that next day we shall leave for Lungthang sharp at 5 am to watch the sunrise over Kanchenjunga. But our hearts are desiring that such a wonderful night must not end! Landlady’s son left two glass lamps in our rooms due to load shedding a while ago. The icy air outside, the bone marrow-freezing cold, the galaxy inlaid with gems on the black canvas above, the mountain floated in the soothing moonlight, and the light of civilization flickering inside the house… all in seemed to be a dream world.
Where there is no complications, no rat race, no glamour of technology… there is only survival for the joy of living and finding oneself as a part of this indescribable selfless nature. We enjoyed till the last point of this heavenly night finally retired on beds at around 2 o’clock.
It is difficult to get up at 4.30 am in the morning and get ready at 1 degree Celsius, but the thought of seeing the first sunlight over the face of Kanchenjunga made all the difficulties fade away. Lakpa came out with us on time. Lungthang is at a distance of 16 km from Zuluk. As we started climbing up the circular roads and bends over the hill, the existence of green started decreasing. Instead, gray hills took their place. We found sprinkles of snow here and there just as if a child with his No.10 flat brush has done some spray paintings over the hills.
“Monal, Monal ..!” – The words came out of Lina, Lakpa and my mouth almost at the same time. At a distance of 10 feet from the car, the Himalayan Monal stood close to the ditch. However, he did not give us the opportunity to capture in the camera and vanished away before I could set up the same . We climbed 11,200 feet to reach Thambi View Point. This is the ideal place for viewing the Zigzag Roads of Zuluk beneath. However, we decided to see it on the way back and so we did not stop and proceeded. Turning a hair pin, a faint line of Kanchenjunga appeared on the left.
The ice formed various patterns over the hills on the right. At an altitude of 11,800 feet, we finally stopped at Lungthang. The eastern sky on the right and the unrestricted Kanchenjunga on the left are calling for its first light by facing the sun. The white Kanchenjunga wrapped itself in ice from head to toe was then truly in “kanchan varna” or golden colors. That form is indescribable in words.
My whole body and mind got soaked in some heavenly attraction of the Kanchenjunga. Other members were unable to bear that spine-chilling cold and preferred to stay in that car. I couldn’t go back to the car even after thousand begging from them. I was capturing the Kanchenjunga frame by frame.
This is the first time in my life I felt the infinite power of nature! I turned back only after the game of colors came an end and the sun was up in the sky. My companions felt relieved on my returning to the car. On the way back, we stopped at Thambi view point and witnessed the very familiar zigzag roads view of Zuluk. Those swirling turns of Zuluk Road are truly a sight to behold.
Back at Home Stay after breakfast we headed out for Gnathang Valley. We climbed up the same route for Lungthung. In the scorching sun, the Zigzag Path from Thumbi View Point now looks even more beautiful. However, distant clouds have covered Kanchenjunga. I smiled on self appreciation that it was a wise decision to come in the early morning few while ago. T
he car crossed beyond Lungthung and climbed higher. It’s getting colder. There are bunches of snow stuck in the gap between the dry bushes on the gray hill. We stopped at a cafeteria before entering Gnathang. We got down there and rented snow boots, 100 rupees per pair.
There is a pile of frozen ice on the front stairs of the cafeteria. However, there was no signs of elsewhere. The sky is overcast so there is no view of the sun. At that point, the cold made its bite harder. The chill was running down the spine even after the layers of a jacket, a thick woolen cord outfit, a woolen hat on the head and gloves on the hands.
After drinking coffee, I came out and saw that its raining. As my eyes fell on the sleeves of my black jacket, I realized that it was not raining… it was snowing in fact! However, the ice particles are so small that it is difficult to understand whether it is snow or rain if you do not observe it well.
Within 7 minutes of driving, we reached Gnathang Valley. Adjacent to the ditch on the left side of the road is a small tea stall. When you look down at the ditch, you can see a small village.
The plain surrounded by low high hills all around looked like a few colorful toy houses arranged in a small basket. The mountain wall on the right is covered with ice. The hills are not steep here. This is a heavenly valley that can be touched, that can be felt from very close. As soon as we got out of the car, it started snowing.
It’s no longer like the tiny particles we say at cafeteria. We have reached actually reached the land of ice at an altitude of 13,500 feet. The distant mountains are white with a thick layer of ice. “You people are lucky.” – this comment of Lakpa means that many people get ice in this place but standing there and witnessing the snowfall is a different experience all together.
This is the first time in my life to come to such an ice land and moreover with the snowfall over it. I found only a few words in the dictionary – “What I saw, I will not forget in this lifetime.” Snow has started to accumulate on both sides of the road. The snowfall has started to increase and with it the cold wind also. Lakpa hurried and we started driving towards the old Baba Mandir.
The farther we go, the whiter and whiter the surroundings become. A little further on, we saw two cars standing side by side with tourists. After speaking to them them what Lakpa narrated to us, in gist means – The road ahead can turn dangerous at any time because of the snow ant that’s why those two vehicles are backing away from here. Baba temple is very close from here so we went with courage. A fine coating of ice has already begun to cover the road pitch. The bunker of army man Baba Harbhajan Singh has been turned into his temple. Some of the equipment he used is still intact in this bunker.
There is a belief that Baba Harbhajan Singh still stands by the soldiers who guarded the country’s borders, fighting all adversity at an altitude of 14,000 feet, and stands shoulder to shoulder with them and continues to defend the country forever.
After visiting the temple, we came out and found that the road was completely covered with snow and Lakpa had a slightly worried face. A little farther on from this point you will find Kupup Lake, Tukla Valley, Jelep La Pass and Four Lake Point. Despite Lakpa’s deep reluctance, seeing our enthusiasm he continued to move very slowly and carefully.
The road has also become narrower here. Going about 300 meters, I clearly realized at a bend that the front left wheel of the car skidded a little. I was sitting in front. Lakpa stopped the car instantly and looked at me. The poor man’s face has become pale with that incident. “No more. Let’s get back ”- the words came out of my mouth unknowingly. The road was so narrow and slippery that it was not possible to take a U-turn. With the back gear we came 300 back to Baba Mandir, and then made an u-turn. We all released a big sigh of relief for the time being. On the way back, we saw 7-8 tourist cars stranded at place.
Lakpa stopped the car and went to speak to the drivers of those cars. He came with the news that that its not possible to drive from here because the road is covered with thick layer of snow by then. As soon as I opened the car door and came out, I found someone has covered my jacket with shaving foam! The snowfall is so strong that it has covered my jacket instantly with a thick layer snow. If you stand at a place for few minutes there the front part of the snow boot gets covered in snow and then goes under the ice. It was as if we have reached in the desert of ice!
As far as the eye goes, it’s just white and white. The cars that used to bear a color are now just white. The bonnet of all the cars are piled with layers of snow. There are so many adversities but what an unimaginably beautiful surroundings!
“Aap log, mere kheyal se three-kilometer walk kaar ke cafeteria taak pauch jao. Kiuki ho sakta hei gaari raat bhar yehi rakhna parega. ” – With this word of luck, we came out of the world of Alice in Wonderland in in one push came to a harsh reality. We are stuck in this icy desert! Archita, meanwhile, has started having difficulty in breathing. It is impossible to walk 3km in this ice terrain with her.
We decided that whatever we do, we shall do it together. It was about 2 pm by then. Lakpa’s agility and presence of mind made an arrangement. One of the homestays in Nathang Valley has its own car with a facility of putting chains on the two rear wheels. Let me say here that in such icy terrains only such cars with chains on its wheels can drive. Lakpa somehow contacted this homestay and assured us that this car will come in a while and take us to the home stay. This news rejuvenated us all.
After a while, the car came and rescued us and took us to the road towards. Of course, it is difficult to understand which is the road and which is the field because everything is covered with thick snow. Lakpa on the other hand waited for the military trucks to come and clear the snow off the roads…he shall return back to home after that and shall make arrangements tomorrow to collect us from here by some other cars.
In one or two places, I observed that the homestay car was driving just on the basis of guesswork. There is a large football field in front of the homestay. The two goalposts are just standing with their heads high above the ice sheet and there is no sign of that field otherwise. Arriving at the home stay we really got a relief.
Although the two rooms that we got are a little damp, the view outside the window complements it. As soon as I entered the room and opened the windows, a feel good factor rinsed me with the awesome beauty of nature outside. All the roofs of the houses in that village are covered with ice. Nowhere is a small piece of soil erupting, be it the front field, the road, the backyard or the hill in front or far away. The dry young trees with their dry branches are also fully covered in snow.
Dog just outside our homestay windowWhere have we arrived? Is this all true what we are witnessing? Is this a form of heaven? How do people live in this village day after day? It was a lunch call by the time we were trying to find answers to all these questions. After lunch, I noticed that none of us had taken off our snow boots. In fact, everyone has the same desire – to feel this icy land from as close as possible till the last light of day. It is already late afternoon. We went out for some walking. A few feet to the left of the homestay, we saw a group of yaks coming down from the hill in front.
This herd of yak came to the huge field in front, which by the way is now fully covered with ice. Maybe this is their grazing ground in the afternoon. They have come as usual today. Although the sun could not be seen, it can be guessed that within a while he will sink slowly in between the two mountains in front. Before that eternal moment, he casted a purple light all over the sky, which go reflected on the ice also.
A little further on, we saw a Sri Krishna temple surrounded by a barbed wire fence at the very end of the village. A hill rises from the back of the temple. In the last light of twilight, this magical land surrounded by mountains is truly enchanted.
I do not have the audacity or courage to express such beauty in words. I just felt deep in my heart that someone was constantly saying –
“স্বার্থক জনম আমার জন্মেছি এই দেশে, স্বার্থক জনম মা গো, তোমায় ভালোবেসে।”
As soon as the line of the last light of the day disappeared, the teeth of chilling cold started biting terribly. On entering our rooms back we dared to take off only the shoes. Winter clothes, including gloves and hats, and covered from head to toe in blanket…cant’s also beat that chill.
I know it was full moon just yesterday and if I can go out with a camera at this moment in the cloudless sky, I shall be able to get some invaluable pictures of the land of snow soaked in moonlit. I peeked out of the window and did not find the moon, maybe she covered her face behind a cloud. However, at this sub-zero temperature, I did not have the courage or strength to go outside and wait for her.
It was about 8 o’clock in the morning to wake up. Wherever we went yesterday afternoon, today I started walking in the opposite direction. The sun was shining brightly, but not a speck of ice had melted. Only the the sheets of ice over the roofs of the houses is getting loose due to the heat of the sun and has started slipping down.
As our home stay is at the far end, we did not get the taste of the village yesterday. I felt good to walk this way this morning. There are high and low roads in between the wooden houses. Somewhere there are few stairs also. Of course, a thick layer of ice covers everything , so you have to step carefully. Seeing the sun, a bright expression was flashing in the eyes of the villagers. Most of the residents here are Tibetans. Somewhere or other the male members of the house are busy shoveling snow, somewhere an old woman is sunbathing on a wooden cradle with her darling granddaughter in her hands.
I came to a place and saw a small iron pool. The stream of water below is frozen and it looked as if an angel has stopped it with her magic wand. I went in front of a monastery located at the end of the pool. The entrance to the monastery stands over a beautiful red and yellow pillar and it read “Welcome to Gnathang.”
Back at the home stay, we had breakfast with a bowl of hot Maggie. Today is 1st April and our return train from NJP is at 9.15 pm. There has been no further contact with Lakpa after we left him yesterday. The homestay owner’s son drove himself with us here. All I learnt from him was that we would meet Lakpar today somewhere on the way to Zuluk.
We have to go ahead keeping in mind the number of the Lakpa’s car. He will take us down to Zuluk. It is better to go out when the sun is shining. So we had to leave this dreamland for now. I left behind only a firm promise – “I will come back again.” Yes, indeed. I can never forget this dream world. His infallible attraction… his hypnotic power will surely bring me back to his lap again in this lifetime. The road to the cafeteria is still thick with snow. We could not have travelled this distance even if we were not in the car of the home stay with chain on its wheels.
We proceeded after depositing the snow boots in the cafeteria. After five minutes, a tourist car coming from the opposite direction stopped us. They are going to Nathang. But as that don’t have chains on the wheel, they are afraid of proceeding further because the next part of the road is full of snow. Our home stay owner solved their problem instantly. He picked up the tourists in the chain car and drove back to Nathang and put us in the chainless tourist car on the way to Zuluk as there was no more snow on the other side from this point.
Rafting On Teesta
Shortly before entering Zuluk, we saw spotted Lakpa with his car.We got up in my own vehicle. Gradually we started descending down through Zuluk, Padamchen, Lingtam, Rangli and Rangpo. When we reached Melli, we noticed that there is a facility of river rafting on stream of the Teesta. The shorter ride is for 30 minutes at a cost of Rs.4000 / – and the longer one is for 50 minutes, at a cost of Rs.5000 / -. 6 people are allowed in one raft. Each raft is accompanied by a guide and his assistant.
There are 5 of us, so we hooked Lakpa also for the longer trip. We tied the inflatable boat on the head of their own car and went to the rafting point. Everyone of was wore a life jacket and took a rowing paddle. The guide first taught us the execution of the commands Forward, Backward and Neil Down convincingly and then only took us on the raft . The Teesta water here is bluish green and quite cold. We began our Teesta expedition. Whenever any wave is crashing over the raft, we are getting fully drenched from head to toe.
These waves are called “leher” in their language. This “leher” is the real fun of rafting. Some of these “lehers” are tossing out rafting boat up in the air and at the next moment our raft is falling on theriver waters from a height.We thoroughly enjoyed the taste of adventure for 50 minutes. We got down, changed our clothes in their change room and left for Siliguri.
We reached Siliguri at 6 pm and now its time for bidding goodbye to Lakpa. We all felt sad to say goodbye to him. In these three days, the boy has become a member of our family. Before leaving, he looked at my face and his with a light smile said – “Phir Ayiega Dada” probably made my eyes water. Maybe mine and his too. Putting my hand on his back, I could only say one thing – “Lakpa, we shall meet again.”
Hi! I am from Kolkata, India. Travelling and photography is my passion. As I love landscape photography most, travelling goes hand in hand with it. Since my matriculation days I started travelling. I have also penned down a book on my travelling which is available in Amazon in the name of Ghuranchandi – Part 1. Whatever travel experiences I have, I have shared those in my blog in the form of travel stories.