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Tigers in high mountains, tanks in snow

January 15, 2021 09:28 IST
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Like millions of people across the world, the year 2020 had dealt me irreplaceable losses and the lowest of blows.
Like I have always done at such junctures, I had sought the refuge of the mountains.
I wanted to end the year on a high, to show the finger to life, says Sumit Bhattacharya after a memorable journey to North Sikkim.

IMAGE: Sumit Bhattacharya takes the feel of the nature. All photographs: Sumit Bhattacharya

How on earth did a tiger get here?

That was the first thought that struck me as the village of Lachen, around 8,500 feet high in North Sikkim district, came into view.

We had driven nearly six hours from Gangtok, the capital of Sikkim, to get to Lachen.

It is the last village before Gurudongmar, one of the world's highest lakes that is 17,800 feet above sea level near the border with Tibet.

We had travelled through deep valleys and tall mountains with thick blankets of shrubs, ferns and trees of every green ever.

Throughout the journey, the Kanchenjunga range played hide and seek with us from skies of the purest winter blue.

IMAGE: Sliding on the icy road to Gurudongmar.

Lachen is the doorway to the 17,000-foot-high North Sikkim plateau, which is part of the roof of the world -- the Tibetan plateau.

But how did a tiger get there?

I asked Dorje, who drove us across North Sikkim for four days, hardly spoke, and never ate or drank anything in front of us.

"No tiger here, sir, but there are snow leopards," he replied.

"I saw one in Thangu in February when it was snowed under."

Thangu, further up on road to Gurudongmar, is one of the many points along the way where permits are checked for tourists in this military dominated area.

But the tiger sighting is true.

In June 2019, one was caught on a camera set up reportedly above Lachen at an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet.

The cameras, set up as part of a special World Wildlife Fund project for tigers at high altitudes after reports of cattle being killed in high villages, also caught snow leopards at altitudes lower than they are usually associated with.

Tiger and snow leopard were prowling the same territory.

Tiger sightings have been reported in the Kalimpong hills near Darjeeling in West Bengal, in East Sikkim, as well as in Dibang Valley of Arunachal Pradesh.

In many places high in Uttarakhand, villagers insist there are tigers around.

Six years ago, I had asked the tiger expert Dr Ullas Karanth about big cats at high altitudes.

"Tigers do cross passes at these high elevations, but since there is no stable prey suitable for them they do not reside there," he had said.

On a trek to Dzongri at the foot of the Kanchenjunga in West Sikkim in February 2019, I was shown evidence of wild boar at around 10,000 feet, and came across marks of some ungulate in the snow higher up.

IMAGE: A picturesque view near Lachen.

At Lachen, the hotel guy was upfront: "No heater in room. Power keeps going off. We have electric blankets, but generator runs only till 10 pm."

The minimum temperature at Lachen in December is in the minuses.

We were due to head for Gurdongmar early morning the next day, where it would be even colder.

Though we had adequate warm clothing, I cursed myself for not keeping a day in Lachen to acclimatise, and remembered with dread ignoring the adventure-gear-store owner's advice in Gangtok: "You are going to Gurudongmar? Take an oxygen canister."

IMAGE: A view from our vehicle on the way to Gurudongmar.

All my fears vanished as we started the drive to Gurudongmar, around 74km from Lachen, at the crack of dawn.

That journey, through dirt tracks of ice and rock and snow, along the Lachen river, a tributary to the Teesta, through to the trans-Himalayan terrain of the smooth highway that takes you to Gurudongmar, is one worth dying for.

But along the way there are constant reminders that this landscape with prayer flags fluttering in the wind that seems fit for the gods can turn into the theatre of the apocalypse in an instant.

Reminders painted onto rock and tin and iron by strong hands:

'Artillery conquers, others occupy'.

'When a tank roars, the battlefield trembles'.

'Plateau Warriors'.

'Striking Lions -- every man a lion'.

'Black Cat Eagles'.

'Where there is a will, we are the way'.

IMAGE: A mesmerising view of Kanchenjunga from the road to Tsomgo in East Sikkim.

We spotted battle tanks like matchboxes on a mountainside draped in white, and on the drive to Tsomgo lake near Gangtok I saw a truck dragging an indigenously built missile -- its name printed in bold letters on the cover -- up the winding road to Nathula.

I did not take any pictures of army camps or troops or armament.

It is not allowed.

IMAGE: Gliding on the smooth road near Gurudongmar.

There is a noticeable improvement in the roads to Sikkim's high places.

The road to Tsomgo, which was a dirt track till January 2020 when we went there last, is now a smooth road that would turn Mumbaikars green with envy.

The road to Gurudongmar is also being worked upon.

The last 25 km is a proper highway already.

"There has been a lot of construction work on through the lockdown. Maybe that is why we haven't got any snow this year in the last week of December," the hotel guy said in Lachen.

IMAGE: Passing through the shadows of Kalapathar.

"Lamba saas lo beta, Baba Ramdev wala (take deep breaths, child, the Baba Ramdev ones)," the friendly Indian Army soldier told my seven-year-old daughter after he clasped the oxygen mask onto her face.

She gave him a blank stare; she does not know the yoga televangelist.

My daughter, who talks thirty-eight to the dozen, had gone unusually quiet from Kalapathar -- a detour from the road to Gurudongmar -- that is a valley crafted with particular care to test just how much of nature's marvel you can take.

Some snow had got into her shoes as she slid down a slope in glee.

IMAGE: And what ultimate fun could be sliding in the snow.

From the last approach to Gurudongmar, she started falling asleep -- a dangerous thing at high altitudes.

We tried to keep her awake, offering her a few of her favourite things, like lollipops and iPad games.

But she kept saying she wanted to sleep.

Gurudongmar, hence, was a quick stop for us.

The altitude really affects you here.

IMAGE: Its a selfie time at scenic Gurudongmar lake.

I have been to Khardungla in Ladakh but that is a small point that you quickly pass through onto Nubra Valley after a photo-stop and some chai.

Not a destination in itself like Gurudongmar is.

I've also trekked in Spiti, but when you trek you are usually more acclimatised than when you are travelling (faster up) by vehicle.

Gurudongmar is a wonder.

A huge lake at the feet of mountains with glaciers like vanilla ice cream in the middle of a flat, brown desert where in the cold distance the wind howls like a wildcat's growl.

According to legend, a small part of the lake does not freeze even in winter.

Sikhs believe it is the part that Guru Nanak touched with his walking stick while on his travel to Tibet.

Buddhists believe it was Guru Padmasambhava, who introduced Tantric Buddhism to Tibet.

IMAGE: The enchanting view of the frozen lake at Gurudongmar.

But my mind was too filled with anxiety to really take in the awe-inspiring vista where scores of tourists had thronged, many throwing up along the way and many others showing visible signs of being affected by the altitude.

My daughter was getting increasingly unwell, gasping for breath.

My wife, too, was badly affected by the thin air and the medicines she had had to keep her motion sickness at bay.

I had seen the oxygen tent at the last army camp around 25 km away.

I told Dorje to rush us there.

The last stretch to the medical tent, I carried my daughter in my arms, slipping -- but not falling, luckily -- on the ice.

The soldiers, used to tourists needing oxygen, quickly took her pulse oximeter reading which was so low I don't think I heard right.

"Thoda kam hai, de do oxygen bachchi ko (it's a little low, give the child some oxygen)," the spectacled army doctor said.

IMAGE: Cruising through the rocky mountain roads to Gurudongmar.

Altitude sickness can happen to anybody at heights beyond 10,000 feet above sea level.

The usual signs are a headache that won't go away, breathing trouble, sleepiness, burning sensation in hands or feet.

In extreme cases, it leads to swelling of the lungs or the brain and eventually death.

The only cures are giving oxygen, and going down to lower heights.

Chances of altitude sickness increase if the body is not properly acclimatised, and in case of overnight stays.

"Aap log bhi kyun le ate hai bachcho ko aisi jagah? (why do you bring little children to such places?)," said the soldier who administered the oxygen to my daughter.

I mumbled something about her being a champion, and wanting to see snow.

But I knew it was not the whole truth.

Like millions of people across the world, the year 2020 had dealt me irreplaceable losses and the lowest of blows.

Like I have always done at such junctures, I had sought the refuge of the mountains.

I wanted to end the year on a high, to show the finger to life.

Relief washed over me like a tsunami as the oxygen immediately made my daughter better.

"Go straight down, quickly," advised the jawan.

Thanking the army men profusely, I made my way back to our vehicle with my daughter.

The journey back from Gurudongmar to Lachen seemed even more awesome.

IMAGE: A view of habitat from Lachung.

Sikkim, where I have been four times in the last two years, is a land of beauty and mystery.

On the way back from Lachung, another high village in North Sikkim that is the gateway to the picturesque Yumthang Valley, we saw a rainbow form in the mist of a mountain spring and travel down till it disappeared.

We were to go to Yumthang, but I decided against it.

I did not want to take any more chances with high altitudes.

And Lachung, with its picture postcard view of a river flowing through high, snow-capped mountains, is a much better "holiday destination".

Even the hotels are better equipped, because Zero Point in Yumthang is the Rohtang pass of the eastern Himalayas -- where tourists flock to round the year to experience snow.

We lazed in the sun for a day, eating delicious food -- from Chinese to tandoori, though my daughter mostly wanted soupy Maggi!

IMAGE: A another bewitching view of Kanchenjunga from Sinhgik near Mangan in North Sikkim.

The next day, on the way back from Lachung to Gangtok, the Kanchenjunga range put up a spectacular display as we approached Mangan, the North Sikkim district headquarters.

As we travelled down to Siliguri the day after, with the emerald green waters of the Teesta keeping us company through mountains filled with trees that bore the dust and grime of humanity on their bodies, I said a silent thank you to the Himalayas.

For setting my head right, again, and helping turn the worst year of my life into one holding a cherished memory, too.

I was, however, worried about how my daughter would remember it.

I did not want her first proper high-altitude trip to be one of trauma.

Till the plane took off from Bagdogra to Kolkata.

My daughter, who gets the window set by default, shouted loud enough for the entire flight to hear: "Baba, look! Kanchenjunga!"

And there it was again, the world's third-highest mountain, rising above the clouds, bathed in the fading light.

North Sikkim travel essentials

Nearest airport/station is in Siliguri, five hours by car from Gangtok.

There are cars available at the airport.

To travel to Sikkim, tourists need to fill up an online travel card (link: (external link)) and keep printouts of it.

Foreigners must obtain the Restricted Area Permit (RAP, previously known as the InnerLine Permit or ILP) from Sikkim tourism officers.

Travel to North Sikkim needs a hired car (available in Gangtok, but best to book in advance) and permits that are issued every morning depending on weather conditions.

The vehicle owner gets the permits done but you need passport-size photographs and identity documents.

Aadhaar is not accepted for permits to border areas such as Tsomgo-Nathula or North Sikkim.

Accommodation in North Sikkim: There are a few hotels in Lachen as well as Lachung.

Do not expect luxury though prices are steep and food is expensive.

Clothing: When travelling to extreme-cold places, read up on layering.

Tip: If going to Gurudongmar, keep a buffer day at Lachen to acclimatise.

SEE: North Sikkim (Journey Within). Video: Sumit Bhattacharya

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/


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