Friday, December 15, 2017

Destination Sikkim: Opening Credits

It was the fag end of May in 2016; the place, Chennai. We, along with 4 million other Chennaites, were dragging ourselves out of the unforgiving, sweltering heat of the 2016 summer. Of course, there was some sporadic rainfall, but not the kind that will rescue us from the unforgiving summer heat. That was when we decided to take a trip somewhere far away from the searing heat.  Some rain would restore sanity in our lives. And so, without even thinking much, I went ahead and booked our tickets to Sikkim, and that was really far, far away from Chennai and its heat. The trip was to coincide with our wedding anniversary. We wanted a nice, quiet getaway with adequate rain, rest, and much love. The trip added a couple more to this, and they were thrill and a deeper meaning to life.

We sensed trouble first when we started checking out the staying options. Everyone we talked to was double-checking; Sikkim? In July? Are you sure? How will you even get to Gangtok? Helicopters? The worst thing was from the lady in Sikkim House, New Delhi. I asked her, if there’s a possibility of landslides in July. “Yes, there will be landslides,” pat came the reply. That was indeed a gob smacking moment. But our flight tickets were already done, and since we had had monsoon wedding, we’d have to simply open our umbrellas and eat monsoon pie during the wedding anniversaries. 

We scoured through the internet and found a nice homestay and a tour operator. Both of them were thorough professionals who told us the facts as they were. Going to North Sikkim, the most beautiful part of the state, would be impossible. However, if we are lucky, we can get see the Nathulla pass and the several lakes around. And, so with no further ado and any more research, we boarded the Spicejet flight all the way from Chennai to Bagdogra, from where, Tenzing, our travel agent, will have us picked up in an Innova.

After being airborne for almost 3 hours, with a break of 30 minutes in between, Bagdogra came into view. Our first sight of that tiny town was one of several puddles of water. Well, even huge lakes look like mere puddles when you are several feet high up in the air.  Are we landing right in the heart of the notorious North East monsoon, famous for its landslides and, the most-dreaded word, cloudburst? We hoped not.

As we stepped out of the tiny airport, the humid air of Bagdogra had us sweating profusely in no time. Wheeling our luggage out, we scanned the junta outside the airport when Chandru, our driver, local guide, weather expert, and herbalist, all rolled into one, met us with a broad, happy smile. In another 20-30 minutes we were on our way to Sikkim, Gangtok on the National Highway 31A. We were approximately 125 km away from Gangtok, and the journey was supposed to take around 3-4 hours, if there were no landslides, roadblocks, or rain. Whoa! People seemed to talk of landslides like a calendar event! Soon, Chandru put on some music and started the drive up the hill. I kept pestering him to show us Teesta, the iconic Himalayan river that more or less defines Sikkim. Every rivulet or stream that we’d cross, I’d quip with “Is this Teesta?” Chandru will merely smirk or shrug. After another half hour of driving through a hill road covered on both sides with trees, we emerged into the bright sunshine reflected from a massive, gigantic Himalayan river flowing and in all its splendor and might. She was Teesta. And, she carried with her fertile soil and water that will nurture and nourish all life that lived downstream. Soon there was a roadblock; we walked up and down the road, clicked pictures of the Teesta, and ate some of the food sold locally; freshly sliced, juicy pineapples, mildly flavored with salted chilly powder was just what I needed to get lost in the beauty of Teesta. One rather strange hot favorite served cold were coconut slices. People loved to eat it like a snack, and not thicken their fish/meat gravies the way we Chennaites did.

In about 10-15 minutes we were on our way again and were met with this massive bridge called the Coronation Bridge, built in 1937 by John Anderson, the then governor general of West Bengal to mark the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Innova crossed the bridge like a bullet; Chandru refused to stop, saying we had to cross a landslide prone area before sundown, or… He left the sentence unfinished, sending jitters down the spine.

After another hour or two of really fast driving on the hill road, we came upon a badly damaged section of the road. Almost 80% of the 70-ft road was covered with slush and huge boulders arranged in a manner that brought memories of scenes preceding fights in black and white Tamil movies. The moment we crossed that section, Chandru relaxed visibly and told us, “We just crossed the landslide prone region,” and waited for a split second for it to sink.  We smiled back, gratefully. For the rest of journey, Chandru kept talking about the general culture of Sikkim, how wonderful Sikkimese are, how they eat only organic food, and how it’s a state that flows not just with Teesta, but wine and beer. And, we couldn’t wait to set foot in Sikkim.


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