Tashiding monastery

View of the Chogyal Lhakhang and two of the four chortens in Tashiding gompa

Tashiding gompa is said to have been founded in 1641 CE by Ngadak Sempa Chembo Phunsok Rigzing, one of the three monks who got together in nearby Yuksom to crown the first Chogyal. Various sources say that it is not as old as the Dubdi gompa, which was founded in 1701 CE. The explanation seems to be that the buildings were extended and renovated in 1717 CE.

The Tashiding monastery is almost 20 Kms from Yuksom, and stands on a hill between the Rangit and Rathong rivers. It was nearly 3 in the afternoon when we pulled out of Yuksom, and a little past 4 PM when we reached the gompa. Hem Kumar assured us that the monastery closes at 5. It was a steep climb up somewhat uneven stairs from the road to the monastery. We passed several monks coming down the stairs. The Family asked them how much further to the gompa, and they said we were almost there.

View of the Tsenhang and Guru Lhakhang in Tashiding gompa

The stairs bring you to the entrance gate called Mani Lhakhang, at the back of the main monastery, which is called the Chogyal Lhakhang. We walked around it to reach the fore-court. The ecclesiastic year starts with the new moon day in February. The Bhumchu festival is held on the following full moon, which plainsmen call the Maghi Purnima. We’d missed it by just about a week. The gompa closes at 4 PM, and the priests walk down to the nearest village soon after. We’d met them as they left. We didn’t manage to enter the buildings and see the stone carvings which are reputedly the most beautiful in Sikkim.

The courtyard has four chortens. You can see two of them and the main monastery in the photo at the top. Opposite it stand the two buildings called the Tsenkhang Lakhang and the Guru Lhakhang (photo above). Guru, or Rinpoche, in this context always seems to refer to Padmasabhava. Just behind these two buildings is the butter lamp house. Off to one side is a covered workshop where stone masons work. All these were closed. The Family said, wryly, another reason to come back here. And the next time we try to come for the festival, I added.

The yard full of chortens in Tashiding gompa

The Bhumchu festival is famous in Sikkim, and involves showing an earthen vase full of water to devotees. The vase is supposed to have been consecrated by Padmasabhava, the monk who brought Buddhism to the mountains (a long version of this legend can be found in Wikipedia). The level of water in the vessel is inspected by priests; more or less than the nominal level is believed to predict floods or droughts. Cups of water are drawn from the vase, mixed with water from the Rathong river, and given to devotees. The vase is then filled again with a measured amount of water, sealed, and kept away for a year. I asked a local tea-house owner what the prediction for the year is, and she said that the monks had not yet declared it.

What was open to us was a yard full of chortens on the far side. This area is surrounded by a low wall (photo above). We could see colourful tablets stacked up against the white walls.

Thongwa rong di: the golden chorten of the first Chogyal in Tashiding gompa

The first drops of rain fell as we entered the gate to the yard of chortens. Should we ring the large bell that stands just inside? We decided that nothing could go wrong if we left it alone. Just behind the bell is a large golden chorten called Thongwa Rong Di (photo above). This was built on the order of the first Chogyal. The mere sight of it is supposed to wash away your sins. It did lift my spirits to see the only major structure in the monastery complex which we were not too late for. A devotee was making a circuit of these chortens while intoning a prayer. The three of us were the only people in this now-deserted gompa.

Paintings at the base of a chorten in Tashiding gompa

We walked slowly among the chortens. Some were very old, with bricks and stone barely held together by crumbling mortar. Others, like Thongwa Rong Di, were in very good repair. One chorten had bright paintings on the base (above). The largest of these is a representation of the white Tara: the Bodhisattva of compassion who gives a long and healthy life. This pre-eminent Tara of the Himalayas shades into the Guanyin of China and the Kannon of Japan. The Buddha, called the Sakyamuni in the mountains, is shown next to Tara in two mudras. The one that appeals to me is the bhumi-sparsa mudra (in the center), depicting the moment of enlightenment, the transmutation of Gautama into the Buddha.

Tablets on the all around the chortens in Tashiding gompa

The real gems of art in this yard were the tablets. These often-colourful tablets were propped up against anything, the bases of the chortens and the surrounding walls. Most of them said “Om mani padme hum”, but a few had longer inscriptions which I could barely begin to decipher with my rudimentary knowledge of the Tibetan script. It is interesting that with knowledge of the Devanagari and Bengali scripts one finds it somewhat easier to recognize words in Tibetan than Oriya. A few tablets contain icons; again Tara figures more often than the Buddha.

A light drizzle had set in and we decided to leave. The stairs had become slippery with the rains, and we were slower going down than we had been coming up. Soon we were back at the road. Near the stairs stood Pema’s tea house. We decided that a tea was called for.

Walking by Khecheopalri lake

The path to the water at Khecheopalri lake

The lake near the village of Khecheopalri should properly be called Sho Dzo Sho, but every hotel, driver and web site calls it the Khecheopalri lake. Hem Kumar drove us from Pelling to the lake. The morning was bright and sunny, although Kanchendzonga remained obscured by clouds since before sunrise. There is parking above the lake, some stalls for food, and a toilet. These are ringed by notices which tell you that the lake is sacred, and lists things you must not do when you get to it. The lake is holy to Buddhists as well as Hindus. We’d read how this lake was considered as holy as Yuksom, Tashiding and Pemyangtse. Continue reading “Walking by Khecheopalri lake”

The Oldest Monastery in Sikkim

This beautiful small structure did not look like it had been standing there since 1701, when it was completed. The lintel held a beautifully carved set of wooden guardians

dubdi

Hem Kumar was our driver for the day. He was very enthusiastic about taking us to see all the “points” north of Pelling. The Family found him to be a very nice person, but completely impervious to our suggestions. We would have liked him to drive to Yuksom, drop us at the bazaar, and let us go off on a walk around the town. He would not hear of it, because he wanted to show us one of Danny Denzongpa’s houses on the way to Yuksom. He took a turn off the highway and drove up a steep stony road to show us this sight. Then he said there is a small monastery nearby which we might want to see.

I was quite sure this would be the Dubdi gompa: the oldest in Sikkim. I asked him whether it was, and he said "Yes, it is not very interesting, but it is nearby". I felt a little hustled, because I had wanted to go to Pemyangtse first to arrange for this monastery to be opened. I’d read about the beautiful paintings inside, the statues of the founder, Lhatsun Namkha Jigme, and the two other monks who had together presided over the coronation of the first Chogyal, and the collection of rare books. But now Hem Kumar drove up to it, not having given us the chance to arrange the visit. We got out of his SUV to see this beautiful small structure (photo above). It did not look like it had been standing there since 1701, when it was completed.

dubdi-lintel

The door was locked. There was nobody around. The outside had little decoration, but what little there was looked beautiful. I looked above the main door, and sure enough, the lintel held a beautifully carved set of wooden guardians (photo above). A snarling tiger and a snow lion flanked the central dharmapala. This seems to be a representation of Yamantaka. These beautiful figures makes me wonder about the interior. When The Family said that we will have to come back to this place to see it properly, I was in total agreement.

dubdi-chortenWe circled the gompa in the canonical clockwise direction. The remainder of the outside was colourfully painted, but otherwise quite plain. As we came back to the front we saw on the left a small chorten standing under the shade of a tall clump of bamboo. It was a restful sight.

The day was overcast, and now it looked like it might rain at any time. We’d been looking forward to the spectacular view of mount Kabru which Yuksom is supposed to have. We asked Hem Kumar about the view, and he said that you cannot see Kabru from here. We’d read about the sight in too many places for the information to be wrong, so I began to suspect that Hem Kumar may be less well informed than he lets on. At it happened, we never managed to see Kabru from Yuksom, but the next morning we had a lovely sighting of this complex of peaks from our hotel in Pelling.

Norbugang throne and chorten

We got to Yuksom on an overcast afternoon. It is a very small town today. Most businesses cater to tourists who start treks into the Kanchendzonga nature park from here. One has to make an effort to imagine Yuksom as the capital of a new nation, when it was founded almost 400 years ago. I’ve yet to read a coherent account of the history of the Himalayan kingdoms, Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan, and their relations with the great powers in the north, Tibet and China, in the days before the British expanded across this region. So what I have to say here is pieced together from many sources.

pine-norbugang-throneThe root of the nation-state of Sikkim was the coronation, in Yuksom, of Phuntsog Namgyal as the first Chogyal in the year 1642. The prelude to this event is said to be the arrival in Norbugang in Yuksom of three great Lamas from Tibet, present-day Nepal, and present-day India. This bland description must hide a lot of history, given the wars which one reads about in the next two hundred years.

What remains of the coronation throne is a stone structure (see photo above) which stands in a serene little park. Behind the throne towers a great pine tree. This variety of pine, called Sugi in Japan, can live very long; the oldest is estimated to be several thousand years old. It is not hard to imagine that the tree behind the throne is more than 400 years old, and may have towered behind the scene of the coronation.

norbugang-tabletThe Chogyal spread Buddhism throughout Sikkim, and set up the religious-political system of governance, through monastic forts (Dzongs) which resembled the system used till recently in neighbouring Bhutan. Perhaps because of this association between temporal and religious power, the throne is treated as a religious object. There are traditional scarfs (khata) tied around the fence, butter lamps flicker under it, bowls of water are set out around it, and the area is surrounded by prayer flags. We saw several fragments of carved stone tablets propped up on the throne. Some of these just say “Om Mani Padme Hum” in the Tibetan script. One, pictured alongside, seems to be a representation of the Bhavachakra (wheel of life). There is no information on the provenance of these tablets.

norbugang-chortenIn front of the remains of the coronation throne is the Norbugang chorten. It is supposed to have been built around the time of the coronation. Most stories about it say that it holds stones and mud from all the districts of what was then the kingdom of Sikkim, signifying the unity of the new nation.

Off to one side is a small stone with a hollow which is said to be the footprint of one of the three gurus. A family was washing this stone when we arrived. Three children were not interested. They stalked past us. The oldest child, a pre-teen girl, said “Hello” as she led her siblings away. The grandmother covered the hollow with a wooden cover. The parents called out to the children. They came back, but not very willingly. The young girl took a camera: brushed away the wooden cover and took a photo. Then she opened the gate in the fence to the throne with a clatter and went in to take a photo. The grandmother was clearly upset by this behaviour, and the family quickly left. We took photos of the footprint and replaced the cover before leaving.

The chorten and the throne stand in a little park. The place is full of pines and deodar, with prayer flags in vivid colours strung out between the trees. The park is very quiet. The air of serenity is at complete variance with the political history of Sikkim in the early days of the Chogyals.

Food in the Himalayas

newgoutamOur flight landed in Bagdogra just before noon. We collected our baggage and left immediately. Lunch was in a typical nondescript highway restaurant near the Sevoke bridge. The eatery had a large menu (photo alongside), but often in small places like this, where two cooks fill all the orders, everything could taste the same. This particular place distinguished itself with its nice crisp rotis.

The genre of food does not change as you travel up in the hills. As a result, the food you eat in the eastern Himalayas usually tastes generic, and does not leave an impression. Even when you have climbed 4 Kms above sea level, you will often be handed a very similar menu unless you constantly remember to ask about the local food. Even then you are likely to get bowls of noodle soup and plates of momo (see photo below). At lunch this was our fate too.

momos

Steamed momo is now pan-Indian in the same way as chicken lollipop, gobi Manchurian and masala dosa. Up in the mountains momo accompanied every lunch which we had. They mostly came with a bowl of extremely strong chili paste. We found this in Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bhutan, and Sikkim; I wonder where it originated. [An article in Eurozine claims that momo comes from Mongolia: “It is possible to anecdotally define the borders of the Great Steppe’s influence by the places where people eat pierogi, a dish which comes from Central Asia.”] We found an interesting variation in a little eatery outside Ravangla where the momo was accompanied by a small bowl of hot soup. This was the first time I had this combination, and I liked it.

bhutanesemenuHalf a year ago, while travelling in Arunachal Pradesh we discovered thenthuk. This is a soup usually made with handmade broad flat wheat noodles. The soup comes with vegetables, and chicken, pork or eggs, according to your taste. We have now learnt to avoid the ubiquitous bowl of Maggi noodle soup and ask for thenthuk instead. We had this on three days: each time in a different place. In Yuksom we tasted a soup with many different vegetables and thin hand made noodles. In Sombari Bazar we had one with eggs dropped into it. In Ravangla I had a smoked chicken with wonderful broad noodles almost like sheets of Lasagna. All the menus we saw attribute thenthuk to Bhutan. In the cold climate of the Himalayas, it makes sense to have lots of soup; not only to warm, but also to hydrate.

On a cold and drizzly afternoon in Yuksom we found a wonderful warm drink called chhang goh. This seems to have methi (fenugreek seeds) and rai (mustard seeds) fried in ghee, and mixed with pulp of fruits and chhang (rice wine). The Family and I shared a tall glass of this drink and agreed that we could have more.

hotelassampas

One afternoon as we drove into a town called Sombari Bazar, we were lucky to notice a small eatery called Hotel Assampas. As we waited for our momos and thenthuk to arrive, resigned to looking at the chief minister’s face, we found a stream of housewives and schoolgirls troop in to eat momos. If this was a favourite with the locals, then we realized we had chosen well. The food was genuinely good. The counter was full of packed dry foods. Apparently they are snacks to accompany tea in the mornings. The packets were family sized, and we decided not to buy them. Now we regret it. On our next trip we will try them out.

I was prepared with a list of things to eat. Niguru with chhurpi turned out to be fiddlehead fern with local cheese; we’d eaten this earlier in Bhutan. We liked the gundruk, mustard greens with tomato and onion. I looked for sael roti but could not find it. It is probably similar to a paratha. The phagshapha is a stew of pork and radish with dried chilis thrown in as garnish. I couldn’t find it in the places we went to. Neither could I find shaphale, which is bread stuffed with chicken or pork. We had a superb spinach clear soup with eggs. Another local soup is made from nettles; but we did not find it. Maybe this is not the correct season for it. I had phing mushroom: wonderful glass noodles with mushroom. The first mouthful was very flavourful, but when the chilis hit my tongue I could not taste anything else for a while. With these few things I think we barely scratched the surface of the local cuisines: Bhutia, Lepcha and Nepali.

kindofshopWhat we drank most of the time was tea. West Sikkim grows cardamom, and this is used liberally in the masala tea. The Family loves masala tea; she loved both the cardamom flavour and the version with ginger. I prefer my tea black, and was happy that little roadside stalls served up Darjeeling. We were too tired in the evenings to go out to the Kind of Shop that the sign alongside is about. We stuck to the bar in our hotel. It served a couple of Sikkimese beers: Dansberg and Hit, both produced by Yuksom breweries. We tried the Dansberg, which turned out to be a fairly bland lager. When in Sikkim Chhang is clearly the way to Goh.

Bagdogra to Pelling

sevoke

We landed in Bagdogra, collected our baggage and started off on our road journey to Pelling at noon. The first half an hour was spent negotiating traffic through the town of Siliguri. Then we crossed the tiny stream that the Mahananda has become today. After a short drive through a forest, we had our first view of the Teesta at Sevoke. A wide bridge spans the bed of what was once the wide river of songs (see above). A shallow stream flows through a narrow channel in this bed. There cannot be any fish left in the muddy water of this stream. Continue reading “Bagdogra to Pelling”

Brushing up on Dzongkha

A week from now I’ll be in West Sikkim. Time to brush up on my Dzongkha. All I remember from my trips to Bhutan are three phrases: kuzu zangpo for welcome, kadrin chhe for thank you, and tashi delek for good luck. Tibetan also has the phrase tashi delek with more or less the same meaning. Fortunately, the omniscient Google pointed me to a Dzongkha phrasebook. Continue reading “Brushing up on Dzongkha”

West Sikkim and the early Chogyals

Screenshot from 2016-02-05 08:29:12

It is good to have a blog. After my previous post on Sikkim, two of my friends and readers, the Goddess of the East and the Goat Rider, helped out. The Goddess suggested Yuksom, starting me off on research into West Sikkim. Then it turned out that the Goat Rider has been walking in this part of the country for more than twenty years. He pointed me to many places in the locality. A look at the map showed us that the road from Bagdogra winds along the valley of the Rangeet Chu most of the way. Most of the places we plan to visit are less than or around 2000 meters in height, and forested enough that in early March we expect to see wildlife.

The first 7 Chogyals
1642 CE Phuntsog Namgyal
1670 CE Tensung Namgyal
1700 CE Chakdor Namgyal
1717 CE Gyurmed Namgyal
1733 CE Phuntsog Namgyal II
1780 CE Tenzing Namgyal
1793 CE Tshudpud Namgyal

West Sikkim was the land where the Kingdom of Sikkim started. In 1642 three monks got together in a place which was afterwards called Yuksom and installed Phuntsog Namgyal as the king (Chogyal) of Sikkim. The town of Yuksom (alt. 1780 m) became the first capital of Sikkim. Today it is used by tourists as the starting point for treks into the Khangchendzonga National Park. Unfortunately, the routes will not be open at the time we get there. Yuksom does not have a view of Khangchendzonga, but apparently has a wonderful view of Ka bru, the complex of peaks including 7412 m high Kabru North peak which is the southernmost peak higher than 7 Kms. The coronation throne, called Norbugang, is one of the major sights in this town. The Norbugang chorten is one of the founding symbols of old Sikkim, and is said to contain soil from all parts of the original kingdom. The nearby Dubdi Gompa is supposed to be one of the oldest monasteries in Sikkim. The nearby small lake called Khecheopalri is sacred, and is said to be worth a visit. 19 kilometers to the southwest is the storied monastery Dhakkar Tashiding. We will miss the Bhumchu Festival in this monastery by a couple of weeks.

Pelling (alt. 2150 m), 135 Kms and 6 hours from Bagdogra airport, is now the biggest tourist spot in West Sikkim, due to the wonderful views it is supposed to have of the Khangchendzonga. The Goat Rider told me that the town is now more than a little over-developed, but the surrounding areas remain charming. Judging by the number of hotels which one can find here, I would anticipate that it has indeed been over-developed. We hope to visit the ruins of the Rabdentse Palace, just outside Pelling, the seat of the Chogyals from the time that Tensung Namgyal moved here to when Tshudpud Namgyal moved the capital away. The Pemyangtse Gompa, known for its paintings and other art work, is also nearby. We will miss the temple festival here, which would have finished around mid-February.

The Barsey Rhododendron Sanctuary (alt. 2200 to 4100 m) is easiest to reach from the village of Hilley. Rhododendrons bloom in March and April. In most years we would probably be too early for the bloom. This year has been much warmer than normal, so we hope that the 4 Kms walk from the Hilley entrance will give us a good view of the flowers. The Family thinks we could easily spend a day here. I’m tempted by a mention of a trek from Varsey to Sandak Phu. Maybe I will mention this to the Goat Rider and Doe Eye.

Manifestations of the Guru
Padmasambhava
Nima Hoser
Dorji Drolo
Senge Dadok
Loden Chokesh
Padma Gyalpo
Shakya Senge
Pema Jungne

On one of the four days we have to spare, we could visit Rinchenpong, and walk around this and Kaluk village. On the way up or down to the plains, we could stop near the Reshi hot spring to visit the Lho Khando Sangphu (sometimes also written as Khandro Sangphu or Khado Sangphu). This cave is believed to contain the remains of a demoness killed by the Guru, and the water is supposed to give longevity.

Having heard such stories about the Guru Padmasambhava in many places in Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, I tried to look for material on the person and his deeds. A volume on Tibetology dealt specifically with beliefs concerning Sikkim. The historical Padmasambhava probably brought Buddhism to the Himalayas. The Mahayana and Vajrayana beliefs then associate him with taming malevolent forces which resisted such an "awakening". Thangka paintings and Lama dances show the Guru in his different manifestations: one needs to know the iconography in order to interpret paintings one sees in monasteries. Many holy sites are associated with the Guru: monasteries such as Tashiding, four caves, the southern one being Lho Khando Sangphu, and many lakes, including Gurudongmar and the mountain Khangchendzonga.

Four days are not enough to explore this region. The Family and I think of our upcoming trip as the first of several.

Searching south Sikkim

kanchenjunga

The Family has decided that she needs a break in the lower Himalayas at the beginning of March. The first idea was Darjeeling. The name brings to mind images of mountain roads, toy trains, tea gardens, and the Himalayas. However, the current reality is crowded bazaars, traffic jams, unending construction, and lack of municipal services. After some discussion we decided to go elsewhere in that region of the hills. Our memories of watching Kanchendzongka lighting up at daybreak draw us back to this region.

Bagdogra airport is the gateway to this part of the country. Flights from Kolkata tend to arrive around 3 PM and leave around midday. Bagdogra is a small and busy airport, which means long queues at check-in or baggage drop and security. We need to arrive two hours before the flight. Put this together with the sunset time of about 5:30 PM and sunrise at around 6 AM, and you have the basic constraints. After arrival you would like to reach your destination in about 3 hours. If you want to have breakfast before starting, then your last night has to be within 3 hours of driving distance from Bagdogra.

We’ve had a return trip to north and east Sikkim on our minds, but four nights is too short for a second look. We’ve already spent many days in Lava and Rishop in northeast Bengal, so the only thing left seemed to be south and east Sikkim. We sat down to look at a map, and found Kitam Wild Life Sanctuary. This is a small sanctuary, with an area of about 6 square kms, on the Rangeet river, which forms the state border between Bengal and Sikkim. It seems to have been created in 2006. Detailed information came from a gazette notification by the Union Ministry of Environment:

… harbours a unique association of Sal (Shorea robusia) and Chir Pine (Pinus roxburghii) forests which again nestles a large number of Peafowls, the national bird. Both are dominant species in the Mixed Broad-Leaved Forests of Terminalia, Castanopsis, Engelhardtia, Betula species., Teak (Tectona grandis) is also found;

And whereas, the State’s southern boundary bordering with the West Bengal State is separated by the Great Rangeet River; And whereas, the sanctuary harbours Common Leopard (Panther pardus), Assamese macaque (Macaca assamensis), Rhesus Macaque (Macaca mulatta), Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjac), Wild Boar (Sus scroJa), Chinese Pangolin (Manis pentadactyla), Himalayan Crestless Porcupine (Hystrix brachyura), Himalayan Palm Civet (Paguma larvata) etc. among the mammals and among the reptiles, the Indian Rock Python is common;

And whereas, avi fauna includes Indian Peafowl (Pavo cristatus), Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelana) Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), Common Hill Partridge (Arborophila torqueola), Great Hill Barbet (Megalaima virens), Golden-throated Barbet(Megalaima franklinii), Himalayan Golden-backed Three-toed Woodpecker (Dinopium shorii), Indian Pied Hornbill (Anlhracoceros coromalus), and the like;

If mixed sal and pine forests and red jungle fowl are among the major reasons for notifying this area, then this is at best a minor stop. These can be seen in almost any wooded area in India. I searched for a checklist of birds and butterflies for this region, but could not find any. The forest department of Sikkim has a small bird checklist and another, less official, but longer one, but they cover all of Sikkim, and pay little attention to Kitam. Travel agents’ sites borrow from the gazette notice and each other: this is typical. An old wordpress blog talks about forests in this area being cut down and replanted. It is all very strange. Then I come across a damning review which put us off Kitam completely.

Is Pelling then the only option in southwest Sikkim? Should we also try out Varsey? Perhaps stop a night at Gorumara national park on the way back? What do you think?

As high as I’ve gone

guru3

There are few places on the planet as desolate as a high desert. When you climb high enough, there’s too little oxygen in the air for plants to survive. The straggling remnants of grass die out at a height of about 5350 meters (17600 feet) above sea level. The lack of oxygen affects people too. I was in a vehicle with eight other people, including the driver, and all chatter died down as we climbed. I could feel a little headache coming on. The landscape around me was odd: bare rock and dust.

We’d reached the high desert in a part of Sikkim which is geographically a continuation of the Tibetan plateau. This involved a climb of nearly 1400 meters (4500 feet) in about 5 hours. It’s guaranteed to give you a bad headache unless you are really well acclimatized to the height. But we had no choice. The only hotels we could find after much searching were in the Lachen, well below Gurudongmar Lake, which was our destination. We could not do a slow drive either, because high winds often start up there in the afternoon, and tourists are stopped a little below the lake.

guru1

We reached the lake before noon: we were 5425 meters (17800 feet) above sea level. A couple of my travelling companions were fit enough to start walking around the lake. The lack of oxygen was slowing me down; I was content enough to stand in one place and look at the wind-rippled surface of the water. The northern end of the lake looked strangely bright. My oxygen starved brain lumbered into gear and eventually told me that that end of the lake was still frozen. It was the last day of April. Clouds were massing up to the north, but there were still patches of clear sky above the lake. The only colours I could see were the brown of the rocks, the white of snow and ice, and the blue of the sky.

The lake is sacred to Buddhists because it is associated with Padmasambhava, the Buddhist monk who took the religion to Tibet. There is a local legend that a part of the lake never freezes because he stopped it from freezing by putting his hands into the water. The water looked clear and beautiful. If I’d been better prepared for the height then I would have liked to walk down to the edge of the water and tried to drink some.

guru2

We’d taken the road up from the south where the plateau sloped up very gently. This lake is within 5 kilometers of the Chinese border. When I looked west I could see the high Himalayan peaks, probably part of the Kanchenjunga range. Closer by, to the north, I seemed to see a glacier descending from a high peak (photo above). My headache was getting worse, and I was able to make simple inferences and look for landmarks only with much concentration. Eventually I stopped thinking and began clicking away with my camera. These are missing moments in my life; I have no memory of this time. I would later sort through the pictures, match them to maps and try to reconstruct what I must have seen. Very soon even taking photos was too much of an effort. I retreated to the vehicle and lay down for a nap.

guru4

Our driver was from Gangtok. He was in the car and trying to sleep. Later I found that he also had a bad headache at that height. When we drove back, a descent of about 30 meters (100 feet) was enough for my headache to recede. I could even run out of the car and take a photo of the vehicle stopped in the desolate landscape (not quite, because the road parallels a narrow stream). Everyone seemed to have a oxygen threshold. Some of us never hit it. Others recovered quite suddenly at various points as we descended.