Saturday, May 31, 2008

The Highest I've Ever Been

"Second time first, second time first," screamed Sonam, our friend, guide and driver. For a slightly sardonic guy not given to excesses of emotions this was a rare deviation in behaviour And indeed we were the first to arrive at the great Gurudongmar Lake on that day, located in North Sikkim at a gasp worthy altitude of 17,800 feet (around 5500 meters), where even our usually friendly oxygen calls it a day and takes off for the tropics.

For a phenomenal five minutes we lost our vocal chords as we took in the immensity of the lake and its guardian mountains, between laboured inhalations. Then the other cars started to arrive, some tourists dashing straight into the Buddhist temple to offer their prayers and others tending to their children already feeling the strain of oxygen poor air. It was still 7:45 in the AM and having left at around 4 from Lachen, I was unsure if I was experiencing the effects of altitude sickness or plain sleepiness. Either way the surroundings didn't let me dwell on such ridiculous matters of life and health.

This was after all a very spiritual place and an ancient energy made the air even more thick but not in a choking way. More like a security blanket. Guru Gobind Singhji had made this pilgrimage once on foot and consented to touch the water so that the lake wouldn't freeze over completely in the winter cutting off the only water source for miles. It's also a very holy place for Buddhists and the prayer flags struggling against the winds added a palatte of colour to match with the azure blue of the skies and water and the blinding white snow in the distance. You could drink this scene in. I'm sure it would've been cold and refreshing and hit the spot.

But as the fluttering increased in intensity Sonam told us it was time for us to leave. More than 45 minutes at such a high altitude without the proper acclemitisation could mean trouble. And besides the moment the time neared 10 AM the wind decided to blow so strong that large rocks would get tossed around like dust.

(the world's highest loo) :D

And so we left, straining our necks around to get that last glimse of the mighty Gurudongmar, with a silent word of thanks to the universe for sparing us the mountain sickness and letting us glimpse a wedge of heaven.

Great Plains

En route to Gurudongmar Lake, four hours from Lachen and an hour away from the nearest army camp and humanity, the great plains stretch endlessly, broken only by bald hills and snow mountains. I didn't get to go to Ladakh this time around but I was told that it was only 80kms away and only accessible on foot. I didn't bite. We were barely allowed out of the car due to the high altitude, so walking was pretty much a laughable suggestion. This place had all that desolation that Ladakh has to offer and took mind, body and soul beyond the mundane. It all worked out. And the lake was around the corner.

Puncher Shop

Flats are a part of life and I've had my fair share of tyres to change but I've never faced a beast like a Tata Sumo with a woefully deflated front leg. Sonam (our friend and driver in Sikkim) and I, wrestled the spare down from the luggage rack and fought valiantly with a hydraulic jack that seemed hell bent on not working. Finally, after some pulling and pushing that would have easily booked us a berth on some third string gymnastics outfit, it was done. Well, not quite. The replacement seemed as ragged as the original and they both needed some urgent work if we were going to make it to the more glorious environs of North Sikkim. So we stopped at the next 'puncher' shop, where some cute grubby kids and a few weather beaten rubber repairers were more than willing models (except for the guy who was asleep, captured for the great amusement of his friends).

One Night In Gangtok

Actually, it was more like 2-3. Didn't really warm to Gangtok. It doesn't have the charm of a hill station or the amenities of a big city. It's been relegated to that murky in between area. It does have its spots and we did see a rainbow and ride in a cable car but for me the feeling wasn't quite there. Maybe Darjeeling spoiled me a little. Or maybe the rest of Sikkim is so incredible that this just seems like the gateway and not the other side. Anyway, here's a little Gangtok.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Hunger Strike

Remember the last time you carefully carved out that first chunk of juicy steak, your taste buds quivering in anticipation? Perhaps it was some brilliantly marinated fish, gooey hot chocolate fudge or even that perfectly made roti, hot from the tava, dripping with ghee, dipped in some thick dal makhni.

Think of that first morsel, shoved almost too quickly into your mouth, never mind the heat, about that moment of bliss, foretelling the knowledge of many more mouthfuls to come.It's something we all take for granted. Except for the few very rare occasions when we've been forced to hunger, it's a given. Feel hungry.Eat.

Not if you're Dawa, Ongchuk or Tenzing Lepcha, of the Northern Sikkimese tribes. Then you sit, in your makeshift shelter - a wooden platform on the footpath, with two plastic sheets to keep the biting breeze at bay and some bedding and blankets as cavalry. The footpath is on the upwardly mobile Tibet Street. Tibet Street is in Gangtok.

Did I mention, they haven't eaten for almost 3 months, a year if you don't count the short breaks in between when their lives were being saved. Most people walk past them, ignoring the huge signs announcing their cause, politely informing the world that they hadn't eaten for quite a while. Some are more curious and are met with warm smiles and impeccable articulation as they explain why they've skipped the base of Maslow's pyramid.

As a portrait of the Mahatma, looks down like a beaming father at Dawa Lepcha, the oldest of the three and the General Secretary of Affected Citizens of Teesta, you notice that he doesn't have that hollow eyed look that you would expect seeing his gaunt frame and the feeding tube emerging from his left nostril, fastened to his cheek with scotch tape.

Instead his eyes are a core of fire and resolve, the compassion bourne of sacrifice, a calm gaze on the goal. Not yearning, just existing. Once he was an aspiring film maker, putting together a documentary on the Lepcha tribe, from which he hails. The Institute of Tibetology in Gangtok had commissioned it and the days were bright with options. Until this.

Until the government decided to dump a HUGE hydroelectric project, hardly worth the damage it is causing to everything from indigenous people to the environment into the Teesta river as it flows through North Sikkim. The tiny population of the Northern reaches hardly justifies a project of this size and many smaller power generating options were put before the government. But we all know what this all equals? Money money money money money. Money. Big man stamp out little man. QED.

And that's just my two bit understanding from the conversation I had with them.

Please go and read and get the details from the people who have resorted to this hunger strike after being hopelessly mired in a foggy bog of red tape, petty politics and even the occasional intelligence agent.

Remember the last time you felt really really hungry and get that upto 80 days and counting. If that doesn't make you check this out and sign the petition, nothing will.

(in order of appearance the people are Onchung, Tenzing and Dawa Lepcha. The other photos were taken at one of the hydroelectric mega projects in Chumthang, North Sikkim)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Hills Are Still Alive - Darj Continued

Trek up to Tiger Hill
Took some unbeaten paths and so managed to escape the tourists and the crowded viewpoint. Just found my own.

Lotus Temple

On The Street

Mall Sunset