Raghu is missing. So is our hired car.
Up since 3 am, we’ve been waiting on a remote mountainside in North Sikkim, frozen to the marrow, expecting our driver to show up. Our hotel’s parking lot is deserted; every other guest has left for our destination. With panic setting in, the snow-clad Himalayas, glowing silver in starlight, appear less magical by the moment.
“We leave exactly at 3.30 am, madam ji,” the smart aleck had warned us yesterday during the exhausting drive up from Gangtok.
At higher elevations, he’d explained, the weather could turn suddenly as the day progressed. Any delay increased the risk of being sent back by the sentries manning the last Indian Army check-post before our destination.
No one I know has ever visited Gurudongmar Lake. Its location — northeast of the Khangchendzonga range and roughly five km south of the India-China border — would interest geographers like my travel partner, M. So would the fact that Sikkim’s second-highest freshwater lake provides the source stream for Teesta river. But I’m hooked on something else: its unearthly beauty and its significance for both Sikhs and Buddhists.
Being neither, my fixation with it is inexplicable — as are the anxieties it feeds. Suppose that rogue, Raghu, never turns up? What if we’ve come all the way to this obscure little village, perched 9,000-odd feet above sea level, for nothing?
With my focus turned further north, it seems inconsequential that Lachen is more than just a night halt for acclimatisation; that its local Buddhist monastery down the road is now the apparent repository of certain relics belonging to Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism; that over a century ago, its Great Hermit had ostensibly initiated a feisty Belgian-French explorer and Buddhism scholar, Alexandra David Néel, into the secrets of esoteric yogic practices like telepathy. Bent on tracking down Raghu, I fervently wish the long-deceased Néel were around.
Perhaps a seasoned clairvoyant himself, our man suddenly materialises, reeking of alcohol, exuding bliss. Is that an insolent wink he sends our way or simply a lazy eye? Best not to know.
Setting out at once, we cut short the implausible story behind his delay. You can’t muzzle Raghu, though.
“My native Lachung,” he boasts, gesturing disdainfully at the view as dawn breaks over the ridge, “is far lovelier than this, madam ji!”
“This,” as he calls it, is a world removed from his picture-perfect birthplace further northeast, where rhododendrons in full bloom light up the drive to the gently sloping Yumthang Valley. Here, lichen appears like bloodstains on enormous boulders. Flat-topped mountains look like giant hammerhead sharks. Sharp, iced-over summits gore drifting clouds. Snow from avalanches spills over the road. Waterfalls lie frozen. Bursting through the stillness, the grey-green Teesta rushes past. It’s a landscape like no other, forbidding — despite the quirky half-rainbow that follows a shower — and soul-stirring.
Oblivious, Raghu natters on about the hypocrisy of religion, murmuring a prayer before every passing shrine, his sparse meals while on duty (he’s been quietly polishing off our stock of pistachios and apples), his impending wedding…
We’re crossing a grim zone of military installations in mid-construction, cranking cranes and grinding, groaning cement mixers. I sense the China border nearby. Instead of stopping at Thangu Valley, the usual tourist halt for tea and toilet breaks further ahead, our driver pulls up near a cluster of shabby dwellings at Yathang, before herding us into a gloomy, smoke-stung teashop run by a dour, baku-clad woman with whom he flirts shamelessly. Swatted away, he turns, unfazed, to his favourite activity — networking. Customers huddle in silence around a stove, over mugs of their preferred brew.
A sozzled old geezer has launched into a slurred soliloquy, insisting that he’s found his mother again, in my friend; she had graciously offered him a biscuit. M’s bemused expression unlocks my first grin of the day.
Raghu soon wipes it off by dropping his bomb. We’re approaching Gaigaon, the last Army check-post on our route. The sentries there, he declares, don’t permit children below seven and senior citizens like us to proceed to the lake’s higher elevation. Reason: Altitude-related health issues. Relishing our spluttered reactions to this last-minute announcement, the sadist hints he could use his Army ‘contacts’ to ‘fix things’.
Gaigaon lies at a height of 15,000 feet. Due to the low atmospheric pressure here, the absorption of oxygen by the lungs is around three per cent; the level drops significantly at the lake, a further 2,100 feet up, cautions the genial, turbaned sentry.
“I could still let you pass, madam,” the jawan tells me, flicking through our permits, “but mata ji here…” He regards my grey-haired friend with filial concern.
M’s ‘Et tu, Brute?’ expression suggests that he’s just reopened the wound inflicted by her drunken old ‘son’. Hackles up, she defends her position with passion. She’s fit enough to have visited Tibet twice, she retorts. More than a decade ago, I know.
A compromise is reached. We sign a disclaimer: We’re proceeding at our own risk. I know what that means, half an hour later.
It’s not the lake that overwhelms me as I step out of the car, but a sensation that turns my head, my legs, to mush. The world recedes… Somehow, I make it to a bench, drained, confused. What is it? A seismic tremor or the impact of a spiritually potent place on the uninitiated?
‘Sarv Dharam Sthal,’ says a sign. This ‘place for all religions’ is a tiny gurudwara nearby. By then, I’ve realised what’s zapped me. Not a spiritual charge, but the first symptoms of high-altitude sickness (HAS).
Raghu has disappeared. M too? Listening to the chilly wind tear at the rows of bright prayer flags, I sense my solitude, intimidating, yet liberating. I contemplate the vast expanse before me — not the shimmering turquoise waters of my imagination, but an unending sheet of ice stretching away to the far shore, luminescent and surreal, gleaming like a pearl in the early morning light. Is this darshan, communing with the divine? Circling the lake, a horizon of mountains, silhouettes of rock and snow beneath a moody sky; beyond lies China (formerly Tibet), from where, around five centuries earlier, members of a persecuted Buddhist sect had purportedly crossed over and converted to Sikhism, inspired by the teachings of Guru Nanak, who was passing through. It’s perhaps no coincidence that the gurudwara by the lake resembles a Buddhist temple; that relics of ‘Nanak Lama’, as he is locally known, are said to lie in Lachen’s monastery; that the descendants of those Tibetan converts reportedly make the annual pilgrimage to Amritsar’s Golden Temple.
Pondering the remarkable accidents of history that unite disparate peoples and cultures, I gaze at the narrow strip of water — a brooding grey — lapping at the near shore. Believed to be blessed twice over, by Guru Padmasambhava and Guru Nanak, this segment reportedly never freezes. I’ve promised myself a bottle of that holy water, but how to reach it? That sharp, rocky descent and the impossible climb.
“Don’t, madam ji!” Raghu has reappeared. “You’ll have breathing problems on the way up.”
“Why don’t I fill up the bottle?” he offers, muttering slyly before going off on his errand, “the water enhances a woman’s fertility.”
A man’s virility too, wise guy!
M reappears. “C’mon, time to go.” That’s the Tibet veteran speaking, a firsthand witness to hardcore cases of HAS.
Raghu returns. M takes the filled bottle from him and anoints us all with a sprinkling of water. Our driver looks surprised at this unexpected benediction.
Advance wedding gift, Don Juan, I muse.
Back in the car, he catches my eye in the rearview mirror. Was that a wink? A lazy eye? Best not to know.
(Mita Ghose is a freelance writer and editor based in Kolkata)