Stage 10 – India & Nepal: Central Himalaya [1/2]
The Himalaya, or the ‘abode of snow’, arcs across the continent marking the collision zone between the Indian Subcontinent and the rest of Eurasia; it is the world’s greatest mountain range. But the Himalaya is far more than just a large accumulation of mountains; it divides the continent, a physical and cultural border between the Indic societies of the fertile lowlands to the south, and the Tibeto-Burman societies of the high deserts and grasslands to the north. The Himalaya has fundamentally shaped life as we now see it in the Indian Subcontinent; all the great rivers of Pakistan, India and Bangladesh – the Indus, the Ganga, and the Brahmaputra to name just the largest – all flow from this vast swathe of highlands. As they do so, they transport not only water, but huge quantities of alluvium, bringing fertility to the Punjab, the Gangetic Plain, and Bengal, which in turn have nurtured the rich societies I’ve recently passed through. But in one way these awe-inspiring peaks have united people, for the cultures of both sides; the Hindus of India and the Buddhists of Tibet, revere the Himalaya as the abode of the gods, of various Himalayan deities, with the holy Mount Kailash (in Tibet) the very navel of the world.
My return journey across the Indian subcontinent will take me across the Himalaya, past the world’s highest mountains, and over the main crestline of the range onto the Tibetan Plateau in the far northern reaches of India. But the Himalaya is not just a collision zone for tectonic plates; here Asia’s greatest powers face each other, the political machinations of which will affect my route. The insular kingdom of Bhutan will be beyond my reach, as will the vast plateaus of Chinese-occupied Tibet. In the western Himalaya, my natural progress west will be impeded by the tense cease-fire line between India and Pakistan in an area which has been disputed since the very formation of the two countries. Regardless, my journey will take me through what is quite possibly the most beautiful region of the world, and will provide a very different physical and cultural background to that of the subcontinent’s lowlands.
We return to our journey on the 16th May 2008, and I’m moving west in an environment still very different from the great heights of the Himalaya. Having crossed the Brahmaputra, I’m driving west through stifling heat, out of Assam and into the north-eastern reaches of the state of West Bengal. The landscape, intensely green, lays dormant in the torpor of the worst of the pre-monsoon heat. I pause for the night in the unremarkable city of Alipur Duar, a town so little visited by tourists that I’m wholly unmolested by the usual parasitic touts and beggars of India. But in this torrid heat, all my thoughts are focused on escaping to the mountains. My destination is the tiny Indian State of Sikkim, once an independent Himalayan kingdom before being merged into British India, remaining a British protectorate until merging with India in 1975. It’s a small, rocky salient of India wedged between Nepal and Bhutan, and touching Tibet. However, by mid-morning I begin to feel rather drowsy and weak, and must take frequent rests just from the little effort of driving. At one stop, where I leave the car to purchase a bottle of water, I must lean on the car for support like a drunk. I make it in the afternoon to the Gurkha town of Kalimpong, where I collapse into a hotel room and rest for three days of fever and at times mild delirium.
Kalimpong was a Hill Station in British times, a place where colonial administrators would retire from the fierce summer heat of the lowlands, exactly as I have done. It sits in the very southern reaches of the Himalaya, just a few kilometres from the border of Sikkim, but it isn’t until the morning of my departure that the clouds finally part, and I have an inspirational glimpse of a brilliant-white ridge of snowpeaks in the far distance.
Following my recovery from this mysterious fever, I re-join the busy road which runs high above the frothing grey-white waters of the Tista River, the only road to the state capital. Gangtok is a mildly attractive city, situated in cool, green hills and consisting of multi-storied buildings perched on the steep land astride the main road. Its only really striking aspect is just how much cleaner and more organised it is than the rest of India, and I make the mistake of parking my car on the otherwise empty main road.
My reason for visiting Gangtok is to organise a trek high into the restricted mountains of Sikkim, in order to get close the holy mountain Kanchenjunga which at a height of 8,586 metres is the third highest in the world, the easternmost of the fourteen ‘eight thousanders’, and the highest in India. As the area is a restricted border zone, it’s necessary to take a licensed guide, so I approach a few trekking agents in the hope of joining a group which will depart soon. Due to the arrival of the monsoon season, which blocks mountain views with vast daily barrages of cloud and rain, I’m unable to find a group to join, and must contemplate the expense of taking a personal guide and porter. I wander the streets for a short time, until I spot another foreigner and ask straight out if he’d like to join me. His name is Duncan, British, twenty-nine, and we soon agree to leave on a trek as soon as possible. And thus began a deep and lasting friendship.
I return to the car after lunch with Duncan, only to find a crude clamp on one wheel of the car, fastened with a small padlock which looks to have come from a Christmas cracker. My initial temptation to prise it off is tempered by a nearby grinning policeman, and I am shocked to find that there is a rather steep five-hundred rupee fine. I wish to appeal, as there is no sign nearby which states parking is forbidden, but the chief of traffic police, a pompous and unpleasant brute of a man, tells me the notification is at the state border, and upon protest, bellows ‘IF YOU WISH TO TAKE THE CASE ANY FURTHER YOU CAN WAIT TWO YEARS WHILE I IMPOUND YOUR VEHICLE!’ In four and a half years on the road, this would be the only traffic violation I paid for. I would never have predicted this to be in India.
Next day Duncan and I drive across the centre of Sikkim on narrow, winding roads which cross valley after valley of steep, lush, green terraced hillsides, dotted with simple whitewashed homesteads which exist in stark isolation on the roadless slopes. We make a stop at the 18th century monastery in Pemayangtse, one of the most important monasteries in Sikkim. Despite being relatively close to the Bihari plains where the religion was born, the monks of this monastery, like virtually all monks of the Himalaya, practice the Mahayana school of Buddhism. In contrast to the earlier Theravada school, this later and now more popular school of Buddhism made the journey west out of India, through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, up across Central Asia and back east into Tibet, where it crossed the Himalaya into Sikkim before spreading further east to China and Japan.
The monastery is a striking building, typical of Himalayan architecture; of square plan, whitewashed with a two-tiered yellow pagoda roof. Around the perimeter fly tall prayer flags of red, green, yellow, blue and white cotton, printed with prayers which the faithful believe will be taken around the world by the action of the wind. The interior of the building, which has the unmistakable smell of butter lamps and burning juniper branches, is decorated with rich frescoes of fantastic Himalayan deities, a beautiful artistic rendition of the great powers which local communities believe inhabit the mountains.
So twisted and torturous is the road from Gangtok to our trailhead at Yuksom, that a straight-line distance of less than forty kilometres requires a road trip of almost 150, and takes much of the day. In the evening, we reach the very end of the road, and enjoy our last evening in the comfort of a hotel. We are introduced to the delights of a Himalayan drink known as chhaang. It arrives as a small bamboo barrel known as a dhungro, and a kettle of boiling water. The dhungro is filled with slightly fermented millet, into which one pours the hot water to make an instant alcoholic drink, the taste of which is somewhere between malt beer and fortified red wine. One dhungro of chhaang per person is certainly enough for the whole evening.
The trek starts at a leisurely hour the following morning, under steady rain. Duncan and I have our Gurkha guide, Bob, as well as three Butiya (Tibetan) ‘yak boys’ who are leading two huge yaks which carry our kit. The first two days are a steady climb in the patchy rain; occasionally the clouds will part just sufficiently to reveal the far side of the valley; a verdant, untouched jungle of dark, damp cloud forest. We pass tiny, isolated settlements of simple, subsistence farms which lie in small clearings in the tall-tree forest. The blocky whitewashed stupas which mark high-points of the trail, surrounded with damp prayer pennants seem almost organic in this Himalayan landscape. On the second day, as we climb to four thousand metres, the trees become shorter and the forest thins and blends into rolling dark green hillsides of wild rhododendron as we approach the mountain hut at Dzongri.
I am not a fan of needless physical exertion. My motivation for trekking lies purely in the prospect of seeing scenery which is not accessible by other means. The actual exertion, the physical challenge of walking up mountains, in itself holds no appeal for me. The first two days therefore, are rather dull and unrewarding. Bob, our guide, at times looks rather worried at our progress, and expresses doubts that we will make it to the ultimate destination of the trek, the Goecha La, a 4,920 metre pass at the foot of mighty Kanchenjunga. Whilst I am in no doubt as to my physical ability to reach the mountain, I have nagging worries that on the entire nine-day trek we will be walking through this endless, miserable cloud, and not catch a single glimpse of the world’s third-highest mountain which lurks just beyond. My morale is therefore boosted somewhat when, at sunset on the second day, from a low peak just next to Dzongri, the clouds finally part to reveal distant, snow-flecked mountains. Not the big one, but inspiring nonetheless.
The third day is an acclimitisation day, trekking in thick, low cloud to a murky grey lake and back in order to give our bodies an extra day at this slightly rarefied altitude of four thousand metres. Our destination on the fourth day is Thangsing, a wide meadow upon which the yaks are let loose to graze. It is from here that we will make our attempt at 01:00 the following morning on the Goeche La. Bob complains unconvincingly of being ill – unless laziness is an illness – and tells us he’s sitting out the final leg. Nevertheless, as we stumble out of our four-thousand metre hut into the freezing night, our spirits soar when we see a clear night full of stars, and we make good progress up the valley and onto a moraine. The sky is illuminated in vivid pinks at dawn, and we soon see that we are surrounded by a vast amphitheatre of sublime mountain scenery. But the pink clouds are a warning of impending cloud cover, and it’s a race against the power of the monsoon to reach the Goeche La before all views are obscured. It’s a tough march in the thin air, but we reach the final pass at around 07:00, just as the first clouds begin to rise. The view is utterly magnificent; despite standing at very nearly five thousand metres above sea level, Kanchenjunga soars more than three-and-a-half kilometres above us, a solid wall of snow-covered glaciers and rock, occasionally showing its real light grey colour where the face is too steep for snow to settle upon.
We make a side trip to beautiful Lam Pokhari Lake on our return from Thangsing to Yuksom, which lies on the edge of a mountain, beyond which to the south the land falls away and is covered in a soup of monsoonal cloud. While the lake is not especially spectacular, its setting on the edge of an unseen abyss echoes of the edge of the world. The reality is slightly less spectacular, though it’s amazing to think that from this ledge, the whole of India unfolds, stretching out in front of me all the way down to the Indian Ocean. Clouds and rain accompany us on our descent back to Yuksom, though our bland diet is enriched when we come across a dead yak, whose solid meat sustains us for two days of yak for breakfast, lunch and dinner. We spend three days relaxing and drinking chhaang in Yuksom in an orgy of laziness before heading south once again.
Extracting ourselves from our post-trek lassitude, Duncan and I, with our fifteen-day ‘Restricted Area Permits’ about to expire, drive out of Sikkim and back onto the torrid plains of India, where the monsoon has arrived in earnest. Here, we’ll stay with Marcus, a German whom I had met in Romania on the outward leg of the trip. Marcus lives with his partner and two small children in the West Bengal town of Siliguri, where he works as a consultant for sustainable tourism. Siliguri is a busy transit bottleneck located in the ‘chicken’s neck’ of India, a narrow strip of the country which squeezes between Nepal and Bangladesh to connect the seven outer north-eastern states to the rest of India. It’s not a town of any specific appeal, though we enjoy good food and company, smoking bidis (small natural Indian cigarettes) on the veranda while the monsoon rains pour down. Duncan soon departs by train for Kolkata, from where he will head to Mumbai and then back to England (I will meet him again in Tashkent in November 2009), but I, enjoying the unusual European company (and cooking) of Marcus and his family, stay in Siliguri for a week of further relaxation.
On my first attempt to leave Siliguri and enter Nepal, I fail even to reach the border crossing as there’s a bandh (strike-cum-demonstration) over rising fuel prices. In South Asia, one had better not attempt to drive through such a bandh, unless one wishes to have one’s car set on fire, and so it’s not until the following day that I cross into the far south-eastern corner of Nepal, and drive in one long day to the capital, Kathmandu.