The Yak trail

Meraj Shah        Print Edition: Nov 14, 2010

One good road connects Sikkim to the rest of the country. This beautiful state and its people are enveloped in an air of content isolation, and are yet fairly cosmopolitan. From the swinging nightlife of Gangtok to the remote Gurudongmar lake in the north, Sikkim is a land that fascinates.


I feel like we're losing the ability to live life passionately. In terms of being responsible for ourselves, taking decisions, making something of our lives," says Lokesh Sharma, as we chat about post-Modernism and how Sartre isn't actually depressing. It's a sunny summer afternoon and the two of us (accompanied by his dog Oi) are taking turns at lounging about in his kayak in a lake just an hour's drive from Sharma's home in central Gangtok. After years of making and shelving plans to travel to Sikkim, I've finally made the hour-and-a-half-long flight from Delhi, followed by a sixhour drive from Bagdogra airport to Gangtok. And here I am, in a setting that's far removed from the mundane minutaie of urban life.

But this is not a holiday for Lokesh; far from it. This is a working day for him. His Mac sits on a stool on the bank of the lake, with a high speed internet connection downloading a design brief. The universe is merely providing input.

Sharma, who's returned to Gangtok-after studying and working around the country and overseas-to pursue his love for design and films, sees nothing strange in the situation. Living this life is about "feeling connected to nature, to all that's real and inspiring, without losing the trappings of a metropolitan city," he says. He is just one of the many local youngsters who, after exploring life outside the state, have returned to live and work at home. They're convinced that their future lies in Sikkim.

TRAVEL

Where: Gangtok is the best place to plan your trip from. The Capital is geared up for tourists, relatively speaking, and you can rent a car or a bike as well as climbing equipment and guides. There's also a surfeit of hotels and guest houses to suit all budgets.

How: Gangtok is a sixhour drive from the junction town of Siliguri which is connected to the rest of the country by air and rail. Don't bother with the touts and head instead to the Siliguri S.N.T. bus stand from where you can take a bus or a prepaid cab to Gangtok.

Stay: Hotel Rendezvous is amongst the oldest hotel in Gangtok and located a close to the bustling M.G. Road.

Website: http://www.rendezvoussikkim. com

Gangtok makes the urban visitor feel right at home. I've checked into Hotel Rendezvous, a plush business hotel in the city centre. The lobby is adorned with mural-sized prints of photographs from around the state but surprisingly there are hardly any of the mighty Khanchendzonga. "There's no need," says my friend Thendup Wangdi, a photographer by trade, pulling open the blinds in my room. And there it is, resplendent in the moonlight, looming over the town.

Khanchendzongkha is much more than a mountain to the Sikkimese. They hold it to be a deity which, quite literally, watches over them. Later that night, we head to Café Live and Loud, a new club where Soulmate, a blues band from Shillong, is playing. Vocalist Tipriti Kharbangar, with Rudy Wallang accompanying her on the guitar, launches into a song with many of the guests matching her note for note. "I love this place," she gushes after the performance, which includes a couple of originals in her native Khasi.

"When we're playing in a place like Delhi, we stick to plain vanilla English but here, everyone speaks the blues!" Unlike the hill towns of north India, Gangtok is spick and span. The streets gleam and the fountains actually work. On a crisp early Sunday morning, M.G Road is being adorned with orchids in anticipation of a visit by some local dignitaries. I pop into the 'Baker's café' . I strike up a conversation there with a local gent and I mention that I'm hoping to catch a yak race which, I'm told, is held in the Muguthang valley in North Sikkim. He chuckles, and says that I should head instead for West Sikkim.

"It's a fool's errand, the race is held in Muguthang for sure, but only during a Buddhist festival in mid-July. It's usually held without notice and, in any case, not in any place which you can reach by road. Also this year, a Rimpoche (a Buddhist holy man) has decreed that it's cruel to the animals and advised against holding it so I wouldn't waste my time, if I were you," he says with a shrug.

I recount the conversation to Thendup as he puts together camping equipment and supplies for the trip. "Well, he should know. The man you spoke with is a former minister from that region," he says. But then adds: "Let's give it a shot, anyway. If nothing else, we'll trek to the valley of flowers. It's definitely worth a trip."

Sikkim is divided into four parts- North, South, East and West. Gangtok lies in the East and the road north culminates with the villages of Lachen ('big pass') and Lachung ('small pass') beyond which the asphalt turns into a gravel track and eventually disappears. That's where we're headed.

An hour out of Gangtok, we pass the hamlet of Kabi where the significant 'Treaty of Brotherhood' between the native Lepchas and the Bhutias was signed 700 years ago. After six hours on the road, we reach the village of Chungthang where the road forks out-one leading to Lachen and the other to Lachung. Before the annexation of Tibet in 1950, Lachung was a trading post between Sikkim and Tibet. All that's long over now, but Lachung's economy has been boosted by tourism in recent years as it's a stopover to Yumthang Valley.

We stop for the night at the picturesque village of Thangu, sipping locally brewed millet beer and acclimatising ourselves to the change in altitude; we're almost at 13,000 feet. With no electricity and hardly any people-just a few houses and an army camp-Thangu is a base camp for treks to Green Lake which, in turn, is a base camp for expeditions to the Khanchendzongkha. From here it's another two-hour drive over a dry, arid extension of the Tibetan plateau to Gurudongmar Lake.

Located at 17,100 feet above sea level, this is one of the highest freshwater lakes in the world. Interestingly, a portion of the lake doesn't freeze even in extreme winter conditions. Buddhists ascribe this to their belief that Guru Rimpoche, the patron saint of Sikkim, once bathed here. I think that would be quite a feat as, even in the height of summer, taking a dip here would be courting hypothermia.

The trek to Muguthang begins from a place called Kalapathar which is a half an hour drive west of Thangu.After spending the night at Thangu we cross the beautiful Choptha valley and its famous Oxbow lake on the way to Kalapathar. The trek itself is not for the faint-hearted is something you realise as soon as you start off on the gradient. Thankfully, we don't have to lug our stuff outselves; that's carried by yaks.

To see a yak in its natural environment, breathing dragon-like fumes of mist, is a magnificent sight. Even though they look imposing and rather alarming, yaks are gentle creatures. We cross the precipitous Lonak La pass and begin the descent into the valley of Muguthang. The yaks and the narrow track lend to the feeling of a virgin exploration, especially as the valley suddenly comes into view: it's a rolling expanse of flowers, and critters marmots, hares.

Muguthang is well known for its abundance of rare herbs that are used in Tibetan medicine, including the famed 'Yarcha Gumba' (Cordyceps sinensis). This rarest of rare herbs, which is believed to be part-insect and only part-plant, is highly valued as an ingredient in Tibetan medicines.

Although its trade is banned, it is known to fetch over ` 7 lakh per kg in the international market. I take up a Drokpa's (yak herder) offer to spend the night in his yak-skin tent. Made of woven yak hair, these tents are water-proof and well-insulated even in freezing winters. Over a mug of millet beer, the Drokpa informs us that the yak race has been called off in Muguthang but might take place near the village of Lasher, which is located on the other side of Thangu.

We hurry back-this time on yak-back to save time-to Thangu and set off for Lasher early the next morning. A four-hour walk later, we gatecrash a community celebration where, after some initial apprehension, we're welcomed into the fold by the 'Junior Pipon'. For the uninitiated, Lachung and Lachen retain their ancient system of selfgovernance that is called 'Dzumsa' and is headed by a 'Pipon'.

Sign-language introductions over, we cease to be the centre of attention, and regular proceedings resume. After a nomadic offering to the gods, we're witness to a shotputt and boulder-lifting competition. I take part in the latter except that my 'boulder' is the shot putt as it's the only thing I can lift! The big event -the yak race-is scheduled for the following morning. We go to sleep under the stars to the soft sounds of the local women singing late into the night.

Idyllic doesn't begin to describe it. Crowds from the neighbouring villages start gathering at Lasher before daybreak, amid mounting excitement. The sight of the yaks, egged on by their riders, prancing around in the shadow of Mount Ghyaokhang that looks bright red against the rising sun, is too surreal to describe. And the event itself, once it begins, defies the very notion of a race.

The yaks don't take too well to being sprinted down a line and make their displeasure known by running amok. With an incredible pounding of hooves, they disperse at will, scattering the crowd and the riders. In all the pandemonium, there's only one rider who manages to keep his steed on course and crosses the line. With no concept of a runner-up, the prize distribution begins even as the other riders are strewn all over the valley trying to get their yaks under control.

Back in Gangtok, it seems incredible that the other-world experience took place just over a day's journey away. Sikkim can be so remote and yet so cosmopolitan. It's this dichotomy that makes it such a unique place to live in. Lokesh smiles at the images. "I can see Sikkim's got under your skin. You should consider moving here." Not a bad idea at all.

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