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By Mr. Kumar ALFA
   
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The Enchanting Valley of Flowers
 

Widely known as Valley of Flowers or the Switzerland of India, Yumthang, situated at a distance of 140 kilometres from Gangtok, attracts and captivates all and sundry. Located at a height of 11.800 feet, it is a repository of huge bio-diversity for the adventure loving populace. Be it summer or winter, this huge meadow has a remarkable charm. Having collected basic information, we embarked upon the journey. To begin with, it was a rather long train journey upto New Jalpaiguri, followed by a refreshing jeep journey from Siliguri to Gangtok. Once we crossed a distance of ten kilometers the road made a quiet entry into the famous Mahananda Elephant Sanctuary. While we were not lucky enough in encountering any elephant, the driver did give us a graphic description of some of his nail-biting experiences of the dense, lush green, rain forest. At Sevoke, a narrow gauge railway line going to Assam separates the plains from the hills. What a sight it was to see the super fast, meandering Teesta river finding a completely flat setting to cool its tempers before proceeding ahead to its ultimate destination of Bay of Bengal.

 
Gentle Slope
 

As soon as we entered the hills, it was a fascinating world. Sweat of the body, heat and dust began disappearing and a soothing feeling came in. the speed of the vehicle was reduced considerably on account of gentle slope. One after another, waterfalls, streams, and rivulets kept appearing. The whole scenario was so irresistible that a number of times a few of us got down to have a direct feel of the bounty of nature. Apart from thick vegetation and occasional glance of wildlife, we did notice some sinking and sliding points. During the course of further journey, we were informed of the perils of getting stuck for hours and sometimes days, due to heavy landslides over the highway. No wonder, some of the vulnerable points had tiny places of worship and memorials built in the memory of departed souls.

 

At Teesta Bazaar, we crossed over to the other side of the wide and mighty Teesta river. Within a kilometer, the highway branched off to famous hill resort of Kalimpong. Thereafter, we came across Melli, the entry point for Sikkim from South District. Slightly before was the confluence point of Teesta and Rangeet river, the view of which was simply eye-catching. Like the famous Sangam at Allahabad, two rivers do not actually meet, rather they flow down on their own. Same is apparent from the colour of their water if one follows their courses closely.

 
Gateway to Sikkim
 

While driving up to Rangpo one is treated to an exemplary visual delight-thick lush green rain forest, bluish water of Teesta, beautiful rock formations etc. Huge multi-coloured gate at Rangpo welcomes the visitors to Sikkim, the land of mystic splendour, the hidden paradise and the heavenly abode on earth. Rangpo, the gateway to Sikkim, is a tiny but lively and developed township. Comparison with West Bengal becomes but obvious, if one follows the flurry of activities along the road leading to Singtam, and thereafter Ranipool. In the West Bengal stretch of the highway, one saw water all over but there was no sign of harnessing. On the Sikkim side,in contrast, a large number of micro and mini hydel plants were not only visible but they appeared having a decisive bearing on the life of a common man, if electricity coverage of far flung villages was any indication. At dusk, when we began the steepest climb from Ranipool, the whole landscape was bathing in light. It appeared as if stars had descended on the mountain slopes to extend a warm and hearty welcome to us at Gangtok. With the rise in altitude, the temperature outside began falling. It was time to hurriedly grab the woolens. The members, who came under the mystic influence of ‘natural air-conditioning,’ were found coughing and sneezing while taking a stroll on the beautiful Mall-the M.G.Marg. Past dinner at neat and clean Tibet Hotel, we heaved a sigh of relief when our travel agent confirmed arrangements on way to Yumthang, the much heard of and panoramic Valley of Flowers.

 
Mystical Peak
 

The fatigue accumulated ensured that not only we hit the pillow quickly but fell asleep fast as well. There was a desperate knock around 4.00 a.m. to wake us up to receive the blessings of Mount Kanchenjunga, the mountain deity of Sikkim. The early morning glow gradually bathing this mystical peak (at 28.199 feet, it is the world’s third highest) was simply breathtaking and otherworldly. It was something to be seen and felt from within, difficult to describe and elaborate. Change of colours over the peak kept us mesmerized for long. By half past five, it was a bright, sunny morning. Upon getting a taste of marvellous Temi tea, we began packing our bags, our packed breakfast included.

 
Panoramic View
 

In a slow motion the jeep began traversing the North Sikkim Highway. It was nice to get a view of health conscious people of Gangtok, jogging up and down the NH-31A. Turning towards Baluwakhani, one got a bird’s eye view of the sprawling city. While proceeding towards Black Cat Institute and Burtuk, one could see noticeable change in the thickness of vegetation. Tall pine trees and cascading waterfalls gave us good company. On account of late night showers, the hills looked fresh and green with streaks of clouds hovering over the highway every now and then. After a journey of ten kilometers, Gangtok disappeared from our view at Tashi Viewpoint. The impressive viewpoint provided another panoramic view of Mount Kanchenjunga, however. We were amazed once again.

 
Bluish Green Water
 

The vehicle began its slow descent towards B-1 or Bridge I, an unimpressive but sturdy bailey bridge. The driver added to our information that there were altogether ten bridges between Gangtok and Mangan, over a distance of barely 67 kilometres. From B-1, we began moving swiftly towards B-2, the dividing line between the East and North Districts. A waterfall of medium height greeted us right on the highway, a welcome sign to enchanting North. Our driver was more than amused at the experience, as he did not have enough time at dawn to clean the vehicle. We had’nt finished admiring the first waterfall that we came across another one within a few seconds. We attempted to click but were prevented from doing so on being told about much more beautiful scenario ahead.

 

Upon some gradual climb one reached the historic village of Kabi Longtsok, wherein the Lepchas (earliest inhabitants of Sikkim) had entered into a Blood Brotherhood Treaty with the Bhutias in the year 1641. A stone amidst the shadows of dense vegetation marks the spot. At B-3, the beautiful Bagcha Chu was crossed over by another bailey bridge. The bluish green water gently flowing from the nearby Indo-China border (ten kms by crow flight) attracted us to such an extent that we decided to break for breakfast. Consumption of neat, and clean water of the ‘chu ‘gave us more satisfaction than the nicely packed breakfast of Hotel Tibet. Soon we hit the road, driving through most spectacular terrain. It was good to be away from the maddening city life and move to the depths of nature. From the hill’s edge at a sharp turn, we got another glance of the mighty Teesta. It was flowing with rapid force through the steep mountains. Subsequent to a drive of about an hour, we reached the famous Phodong Monastery. Belonging to the Kargyutpa sect of Buddhism, it was founded in 1740 during the reign of the Fourth Chogyal. Its significance can be understood from the fact that the First and the Second Chogyal were installed as the Chief Lamas. The monastery decorated with colourful prayer flags had its rectangular courtyard full of followers. The scene inside was infinitely colourful like the Thankas, depicting Lord Buddha and Guru Padmasambhava in the background. In no tome, the cymbals crash, drums roll and the lamas dressed in their ceremonial gear mime episodes from the holy scriptures.

 
Landslide Prone
 

Having cleansed ourselves, we drove past remaining bridges on way to Mangan, the headquarters of North District. After crossing Namok, Mangshila and Tingchim, we came across B-10, once highest motorable river suspension bridge over Rangrang river. Once a beautiful area, it gave a rather devastating look due to perpetual landslides. The road became dusty and slow due to sinking stretches of land. Entry into Mangan was a quiet affair as the town road had very little traffic. Dzongu, the habitat of the Lepchas was very close by. For want of time we had to resist the temptation of visiting Namprikdang, the enchanting confluence point of rivers Kanaka and Teesta. The unhindered view of Mt. Kanchenjunga from Singhik, however, provided us adequate compensation. At Meyong. We had to indulge in a tough battle with nature. Our jeep had to literally swim through the river over a distance of half a kilometer. We were told that in 1991 a cloudburst had swept away a bailey-bridge below lovely Meyong Falls. The entire area had since been landslide prone. For days together, during the monsoons, people and the materials have to be trans-shipped. Next addition to our visual delight was the mighty Railkhola Waterfalls. We had to be satisfied by our view from the vehicle as the time was running out. At Tong check-post, we not only came very close to the Teesta river but also crossed it smoothly through a long suspension bridge. As evening approached, we reached Tsungthang, a Lepcha region. The sub-divisional township is located at the confluence of Lachen Chu and Lachung Chu. Together they form Teesta river from here. While we were having steaming hot momos and thukpa for dinner at the well kept SPWD guest house, rains came pouring down. Soon it was torrential, replete with lightening and thunder. Intensity of cold registered a rise. We had no option but to cover ourselves with quilts.

 
Direct Democracy
 

The following day. We set off early for the 24 kms drive to Lachung. While gaining height, lush green paddy fields of the Tsungthang Gurudwara were visible. According to a legend, Paddy was grown at this height due to the blessings of Guru Nanak, who is reported to have visited the place and left his footprint atop a rock. While driving though hard rock area, many waterfalls were seen. Gradually we attained height and reached the beautiful Lachung valley by 8.00 a.m. At an altitude of 8500 feet, it was definitely cold. Little rest and a cup of hot tea was not only necessary from the point of view of having a break but most essential was to follow a proper acclimatization protocol. The Bhutia village spread on both sides of the Lachung Chu still retains its unique culture and tradition, most notable being its self-governing body known as Dzumsa, wherein direct democracy on the pattern of ancient Greek city states is still practiced.

 
Curative Properties
 

By 10 a.m. we resumed our journey. Fortunately, it was once again a bright day. At the outskirts, community demarcated fields were visible. On to our left was an army helipad. Every now and then herds of yak and sheep would be seen. Upon reaching an altitude of 10.000 feet, first signs of primulae and rhododendron flowers were noticeable. Wild flowers were carpeting the floor all over. A drive of few more kilometres took us inside the Shingba Rhododendron Sanctuary. If was simply a riot of colours-red, pink, white and purple. We learnt from the tourist brochure that of the 36 species of rhododendrons,24 were found here: from the giant Rhododendron Crande (over 40 feet) to the Rhododendron Nivale (a few inches off the ground). We halted for a few minutes to see everything from close angles and to capture these brilliant moments in our cameras. The slow drive through the sanctuary was without any strain as the gradient was gradual. There were flowers and flowers. At the end of the sanctuary, we were taken to the twin sulphur springs. The approach was through an attractive arch-shaped wooden bridge over Yumthang Chu. There was a virtual beeline of tourists. At last, our turn came. Upon getting a feel of warm waters of the spring, our fatigue was almost forgotten. No wonder, these springs are immensely popular for their curative properties and healing powers. Soon, we were driving through the final leg of the spectacular valley of flowers.

 

After a drive of a kilometer, the driver halted. He pointed ahead to the vast, flat and lush green meadow of Yumthang. The mere glance of it lifted our spirits further. Our joy knew no bounds, we looked left, we looked right, we looked up-wards. The beauty of the whole place appeared simply irresistible. We decided to have a close look of the attractive snow clad mountain peak behind the valley. Baby yaks could be seen coming out of tiny huts, jumping up and down. As we get down the vehicle to spread our carpets at the base of Yumthang Glacier, the sky is ablaze with a cloudburst of sunset colours. A group of villagers graze their herds of yaks nearby and very politely but hesitatingly offer us thick, soothing and satisfying yak milk and tea. Within no time, we begin strolling, jogging and running towards the breathtaking Yumthang Chu. The complete round of the place takes nearly two hours. Though tiring, it was worth it. The terrain was picture perfect. Some of us dared to touch the icy cold water of the stream, still others tried angling. By the time our late lunch was laid, we were totally exhausted. Soon sky became overcast. It was time to bid good bye to the enchanting Valley of Flowers, a real paradise for the nature lovers, having marvellous scenic grandeur.

 
Flora and fauna
 

As evening approached, we looked back at the mountains, picturesque spots and exotic flora and fauna. What a delight it was to wander in the rhododendron sanctuary. These images will ever remain in our mind and in the years to come, they will become the source of our imagination. They will, perhaps, guide us in our search for peace, amity and tranquility.

 
 
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