Thursday, September 21, 2017

Stairway to heaven | Yumthang Valley, North Sikkim

In early September 2017, I went road tripping through North Sikkim with a group of perfect strangers. I'd signed up for it with high hopes from the whole experience. Little did I realise I would end up discovering the stairway to heaven! Why don't you see for yourself? Here is the first of my many heavenly experiences from the trip.


5th Sept: I stood on top of the world

The sky above my head was an infinite blanket of the softest blue. White cotton-candy clouds hung low over grey-blue cliffs. A cow grazed nearby while its little one suckled up to it. A stream of sparkling clear water flowed in the distance, reflecting the blue of the sky. And I stood there, transfixed. I was at the centre of the most exquisite landscape I'd ever seen. To think of all those stories about the beauty of the Swiss Alps and the English countryside that pop culture has fed us for so long! I couldn't help but wonder - why did no one ever talk about THIS PLACE? Was it even real, what I stood before, or was I in a dream?

View of the valley from a height of 13000 feet.

I was on top of the world. Or so I felt, until a sudden shaking under my feet jerked me back to reality and I remembered where I was really perched - atop the luggage carrier of a Tata Sumo Victa. My hands were outstretched and my eyes darted in every direction. I was awestruck. The closest I'd ever come to this kind of awe was back in 1998, when I was a little girl of 7 and had just seen an escalator for the first time. My jaw probably hung loose for a little while on both occasions.

There was pristine beauty all around us, and my fellow travellers didn't waste a moment in whipping out their cameras and taking selfies that I knew were going on social media as soon as we had network reception and landscape shots that would adorn their desktops for months to come. An army truck was stranded ahead of us on the bend in the road, and we had stopped behind them to stretch out our legs and take in the surroundings.


It had only been a day and a half into the trip, but the song 'Bandook Meri Laila' had already become our trip anthem, thanks to these two really amazing guys from Bombay who made the trip a memory worth cherishing forever. So, there we were, in the middle of the road, taking pictures and chatting and giggling away in our little groups, when one of played that song out loud on the speaker. And all of a sudden, right there on top of our cars, all 14 of us broke out into a happy jig.


Several decades from now, I'll be found telling my grandchildren about the most thrilling dance I ever did, with a bunch of crazy strangers, on a winding Himalayan road in the middle of nowhere at the age of 26. I hope they will be awed, because I sure was.

Sikkim's Valley of Flowers: Gorgeous even in the Fall

I had read enough travel blogs to know the best time to visit Yumthang Valley is in the spring, when the valley is flush with beautiful blooms of rhododendron, the State Flower. But believe me, the journey uphill was an absolute treat even in the Fall. We drove on winding roads past gurgling streams, grassy rocks, exquisite landscapes, grazing yaks, and not a single human in sight for miles and miles. We eventually halted at Zero Point - a plain area by the side of a small stream at a height of over 15000 feet. The sun was up in the sky and the water was freezing. We balanced ourselves on a small wooden bridge across the water, and the daring ones out of us dipped their feet in, some even with shoes (not a good idea, in hindsight).


Isn't this landscape so reminiscent of Ladakh and Spiti Valley? A greener, more vibrant version.


How can you be in the midst of such alpine beauty and not do a Shahrukh pose?

Do those cliffs remind anyone else of Mordor from LoTR?



Yumthang Valley is home to the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary, which houses over 24 species of Sikkim's state flower. I plan to return here in the summer of 2018 to treat my family to this apparently amazing spectacle.


Roaming around the landscape during one of our breaks in the Valley, I found this little Chorten tucked away in the lap of nature and surrounded by prayer flags. 'Chorten' is the Tibetan word for stupa, which is a mound-like structure that contains relics of the Buddha or Buddhist monks/nuns. Buddhists come here to meditate. Honestly, irrespective of their faith, who wouldn't want to meditate HERE?

The real deal: Travelling during off-season

We started downhill in the late afternoon so that we could reach our hotel before sunset, since it gets dark pretty quickly at higher altitudes. We stopped at a roadside joint on the way to fill our bellies with chai, wai-wai, and freshly-whipped omelettes. That little tin-roofed joint was the only one we could find in the area, thanks to our supposedly ill-timed visit. None of us minded though, because visiting during the off season meant that we had the entire place to ourselves, without crowds throwing around garbage, photo-bombing our shots, and conjuring up what could only be called a fish market.


Indeed, I can not emphasise enough: off season is the best time to discover the pulse of a place without any interference or distractions. I've been in Sikkim during both peak and off season, so take my word for it. The locals spend their time farming and relaxing during the off season, when there are very few tourists and almost no commerce to be done in the countryside. They subsist during these months on their savings from tourist season. I wish my travelogues from North Sikkim, and hopefully other travellers' as well, would encourage more people to visit here during the off-season. It'll help the local populace during hard times and expose the lucky travellers to whole new levels of beauty, serenity, and charm. 


*****

On the last night of the trip, our group went out for dinner and we sat discussing our favourite moments from the trip. Needless to say, mine was the roof-top dance at 14000 feet above sea level. It was nothing less than a personal epiphany.

So listen up, you, who are reading this right now - I know you love to travel. And I hope you will visit Sikkim. You'll find your epiphany, I promise.

Until then, stay tuned! Because many more adventures and pictures from my Sikkim travels await. Also follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a sneak peak into my life, travels, and experiences in real time.



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