At half-past five in the morning, the sun is making ready to climb into the sky, and there is enough light by which to watch the mountains take on their distinctive shapes, after the single continuous blur they seemed to have been in the darkness last night.
As I stand on the narrow staircase of the guest house, I see snow for the very first time- and oh, what an exalting feeling it is. That very moment, knowing I am in a nondescript village deep in the Himalayas, eyes resting on snow-capped mountain peaks, I feel as if there is nothing more I’ll ever need to ask life for. In a while, the brilliant white snow will seem to rise from the peaks in a drift of smoke, the clouds weaving themselves gently about the mountain-tops like the train of an unusually long bridal gown. Now, though, the mountains stand proudly stark, save for their only adornment of a fine layer of snow. The sun lightens the sky gradually and casts a sheer golden web over the mountains; as we nurse our glasses of tea, we watch the spectacular play of light on the mountains, the snow now glinting with an added fire.
We are driven off to the Yumthang Valley. A lady in blue looks out from her verandah and I wave to her- she inclines her head and smiles prettily. This has to be said about the people of Sikkim- they are very warm and friendly, right from the boys working at the small hotels and tea shops to the young monks studying at the monastery- they give away their smiles and laughter readily. They are well-informed and talk without inhibition on various subjects. When asked if Sikkim had always received enough attention for development and growth, the proprietor of a tea shop tells us how the government has redoubled its efforts at building and maintaining roads and other infrastructure in Sikkim, “jabse China chhedne laga” (ever since China started messing with us). We meet a local who, when told we are from Tamil Nadu, tells us about his son who studies engineering in Chennai. Taxi drivers give us lessons in Geography, discuss religion, family and politics. The laidback pace of life sucks you in, but you know that underneath the seeming placidity, there is a great deal going on, healthy ambitions ripening.
Further up through the mountains we travel, jolting over rugged, sometimes non-existent roads, we pass signs for rhododendron trails and bump over pebbles on the beds of transparent little streams. More snow-clad peaks come into view, gleaming iridescently as the sun gets stronger, despite which, a chill lingers in the crisp, fresh air. We stop by a slope that leads down to one of the tributaries of the Teesta, quite surrounded by the rugged Himalayas. I look at the rosy-faced young Tibetan women who run the tea stalls and envy them for actually being able to live here, amidst this natural magnificence; older women in traditional clothes with leathery, wrinkled faces shuffle back and forth from the wooden tables set up in front of their charcoal-warmed wooden cabins, selling souvenirs and warm clothes. Yaks chew cud on the grassy slope, and we pick our way through yak gob down to the pale blue-white river swirling cheerfully over smooth white pebbles. I cup my hands and take a swig of the clear water- it is deliciously cold and unsullied. A little boy collects tiny stones and skips them on the water. Quiet and pure, this could almost be a place on another planet. I don’t have the heart to leave.
But move on we must, and we’re back in the jeep and climbing again, clinging closely to the narrow “road” where one misstep could hurl you to death instantly into the deep, plunging valley. You can well feel your heart in your mouth when two vehicles try to pass each other in opposite directions on one of the tight hairpin bends, and once the obstacle has been cleared, laugh shakily and throw Sebastien Loeb a challenge- with your driver at the helm, of course.
We drive past little patches of newly fallen snow that still haven’t melted. Vast expanses of snow cover the grey, rocky faces of some of the mountains we pass. Approaching a height of nearly 15000 feet, we come across army barracks- a grim reminder of the inhospitable conditions that our soldiers fight in, another reason to question the reason for war and the thirst for territory.
We are at Zero Point, the tip of North Sikkim, right at the border with China. It is extremely cold, and the strong breeze is freezing our hands and noses and lips. We can hardly talk for the cold, and our fingers tremble as we try to hold our plastic coffee cups. A couple of soldiers are getting ready to drive away, but when we request them for a picture, they readily oblige. Once more, we cannot help but marvel at their tenacity as they struggle in difficult conditions so far from home and their families, working endlessly at the borders to ensure the safety of our country.
Snow still lies in mounds or in crevices between rocks, and I finger it gingerly in my ungloved hands. A little snowball fight ensues, and soon we are packed off in the jeep again- it is just too cold up there. However, the spectacular views of snow-shrouded mountain peaks more than make up for all the discomfort.
I have seen the Himalayas and marvelled at them- but I still haven’t had a glimpse of the crown jewel- the Kanchenjunga. It will have to wait till we’re back in Gangtok, though, and then, the skies will have to be favourable and we’ll have to appease the sun. For the first time in my life, I’m wishing the rain clouds away.