Saturday, September 24, 2011

Sikkim and me

An earthquake of magnitude 6.9 on the Richter scale hit Sikkim this month, bringing back memories of my visit to Sikkim in this same season last year. Reports suggest hundreds of people have died, with inaccessibility of the region and difficult terrain hampering rescue operations. In several cases, entire villages have been obliterated, leaving no one around even to count the dead.

“Inaccessible” is a gross understatement. Sikkim has no Airport, though one is currently under construction. The state has no railway, not even of the “toy train” variety that the British built in places like Darjeeling and Simla more than a century ago. There is only one road – the NH 31A – which connects Sikkim to the Indian mainland. This road is a two lane ‘highway’ that winds its way along the Teesta river, giving you breathtaking views of mountains & valleys at the foothills of Himalayas. Even at the best of times, there are frequent landslides that block the road and bring traffic to a halt. People then wait for the Army to arrive and clear the road, so that the traffic can resume. Monsoons are, of course, worse. At times, you may have to spend the whole night in your car till the road clears, but no one complains. People have resigned themselves to their fate.

The epicenter of this quake was said to be near Mangan, a small town north of Gangtok. I passed through Mangan on my way to the magnificent Yumthang Valley, on the Indo – Tibet (now China) border. Yumthang lies at a height of more than 14,000 feet above sea level. The entire region is controlled by the military; you need a permit to enter the district. As you go higher and higher, civilization becomes more and more sparse. At one stage, we were more than 25 km away from the nearest village.

I traveled to Yumthang with 7 other strangers in a hired jeep. The road was dotted with extra-ordinary sights - thick green forest, deep valleys and stunning waterfalls. At several places, the road was ‘broken’ (monsoon hai!) and descended into a kachcha road of mud or stones (see the attached video which I took from my car for the condition of the roads there). At times, we suddenly encountered steep ascents, so steep that the car would not climb. The driver would then ask all passengers to get down and walk up the climb, while he would just about somehow manage to take the car up, sans the weight of its passengers! At several places, we made way THROUGH the flowing waterfalls – water falling down from several meters above us on one side of the vehicle, crossing the road in front of us and the falling down to the other side, hundreds of feet below into the deep valley! It felt as if any moment the car would be thrown away, down the deep valley on the other side. It was a frightening experience, and yet a memorable one! At one place, our car got stuck deep in the mud and all of us had to get down and push it out to get going! All this, in a desolate forest, several miles away from civilization at a height of several thousand feet.

On the day of my return from Gangtok, I almost missed my flight. All exit routes going out of Gangtok were closed as it had rained the previous night and there were landslides everywhere! We spent four hours searching for ‘a way out’ of Gangtok. I started ten hours in advance for a five hour journey, and reached the check in counter five minutes before it closed!

To get a glimpse of the beauty of Sikkim, click here.

Tailpiece: There are no petrol pumps anywhere in North Sikkim. Fuel is sold in grocery and general stores. On enquiring about this strange thing with our driver, I was told that fuel from military vehicles is sold by the personnel to these shopkeepers at a discounted price. The shop owners then add their own margin and sell to others. So much for tax payer’s money!

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