Thangu, lying at 4114m in the far north of Sikkim, is the last inhabited village before the mountains of the Himalaya and Tibet beyond, and is the furthest point that foreign visitors are permitted to reach. “Tree lines disappear at Thangu, a land of the nomadic people, and start a zone that can be compared only with the unreachable terrain in Tibetan plateau”, I read.
It sounded like my sort of place.
We would be able to reach Thangu from Lachen, a village 6-7 hours drive from Gangtok, the nearest large town in Sikkim.
Arriving in Lachen, I hadn’t exactly got the requisite number of people with me. Being close to the Chinese border, it’s a sensitive area and a special permit is needed. As a foreigner you’re also supposed to travel in groups and have a guide. I’d got Karma, my Bhutanese friend and driver.
At the police checkpoint, an Indian policeman sat at his desk slowly writing out a statement in duplicate about a minor road collision which had taken place several days previously, which was being dictated by a second officer who was standing to attention and giving the report verbally without recall to any notes. It was a slow and painstaking process but eventually he turned his attention to our arrival.
“Where are the other foreigners?” he asked .
“I’m with Karma”, I explained “he’s Bhutanese ” hastily adding “a foreigner”in case he’d missed that point.
He paused a while wondering if he should allow that to count.
“And where’s your guide?” he added. “Ah – that’ll be Karma as well – he’s my guide too” I tried, hopefully.
“He can’t be both” came the unsurprising reply.
I’d worked in India many years previously and remembered that sometimes situations such as this were negotiable.
“Where did you learn to write English so well?” I asked, deflecting the subject
His face lit up and with a little encouragement he told me his proud story of how he came to be a well educated police officer.
I asked to take a photo of him at his desk and he seemed pleased.
I tried another way round. I only knew the name of one person in Lachen.
“Actually, my guide is Rinzing “. Luckily the officer ignored the fact that my guide had been Karma not ten minutes previously.
We’d had the name ‘Rinzing’, scribbled down for us at our previous homestay as I’d wanted to meet some of the Bhutia people who were some of the few remaining indigenous people of the area.
“Ah yes, Rinzing – he also has a homestay I believe” he said with a few sideways nods of his head.
“Yes, that’s the one!” I said, hoping it was. “Perhaps you could show us where he lives too” I chanced.
Soon we were on our way to Rinzing’s house with the necessary permit stamps.
Rinzing turned out to be lovely, very welcoming and knowledgeable and happily took to his newly appointed role as our ‘guide’.
Relieved that we were now legal and also had somewhere to stay, I went exploring round the village and met some of the locals.
Lachen, lying at 2750m altitude has a Himalayan feel to it and is populated by mountain people, many of whom are of Tibetan origin.
Some of the houses were very ornate and decorated in Buddhist symbols and the bright primary colours often seen in Tibetan and Bhutanese culture.
Lachen seemed to be impressively leading the way on green issues!
Back at the house, we met Pema, Rinzing’s Bhutia wife. Unlike Rinzing, she didn’t speak any English, but smiled at us a lot and cooked us some delicious food.
Rinzing proudly showed us his altar room, complete with a large altar which doubled as a repository for ancient prayer books which had originated in Tibet.
Prayer books wrapped in cloth and wood and kept in ornate shelves which formed part of the altar
Locked inside an antique cupboard was his most precious article of all, which he carefully unwrapped from its cloth covering.
It was the shoe of a previous incarnation of the Panchen Lama, the second most important Buddhist religious leader after the Dalai Lama, which he believed kept Lachen safe from landslides.
Back in the house, he had another treasure to show us. Preserved inside a jam-jar was an elongated specimen mounted on a wire stand.
He explained that it was ‘Yartsa Gunbu’ or Cordyceps Sinensis (now known as Ophiocordyceps Sinensis), a fungus which parasitises the larvae of ghost moths and grows out of the mouth of the dead caterpillar producing a fruiting body which is highly valued medicinally as a ‘Himalayan viagra’. As such, it can bring considerable wealth to those lucky enough to find it. Have a look at this blog if you’re interested to know more: http://mushroaming.com/Yartsa_Gunbu_Cordyceps
The next morning, we visited the temple before setting off up the valley to Thangu.
I noticed a couple of plastic kangaroos either side of the entrance which looked a little out of place.
Rinzing spun a few prayers for the journey ahead.
We said ‘goodbye’ to the guardian and his family and we were on our way.
It wasn’t without some trepidation that we set off. None of the petrol stations had had any fuel since Gangtok, and Thangu was another 30km and 1,350m up the mountainous road. Added to that, there were some ominous looking clouds ahead. Karma calculated that we should just be able to make it with the fuel left in the tank, and Rinzing was still smiling so off we went.
I stopped to say hello to a curious yak on the way
The road was strewn with prayer flags.
Not long after we’d set off, it started to rain, which turned to sleet as we climbed the mountain.
Karma started to look anxious.
There was a large military base at Thangu as it is a border post, and there were plenty of army vehicles to pass, as well as Indian lorries with cheery slogans like ‘no pain, no gain’ which seemed very apt. The army boys looked rather miserable and cold huddled in the back of their trucks.
It got bleaker and bleaker the higher we climbed.
“Why do you always have to go to such places?” Karma grumbled. It was one of those “if you don’t get it there’s no point explaining” moments. I was pleased we had Rinzing along to lighten the mood.
Eventually, after innumerable hairpin bends, the land opened out and we reached Thangu.
First impressions weren’t great.
We started to get the odd patch of sun breaking through the clouds though which made all the difference and Karma started to relax.
The Indo Tibetan border police force turned out to be a yak.
We had a wander round. Good old Rinzing was still smiling.
this is a prayer wheel turned by water
Nobody seemed to be around, except for the military behind their wire enclosures.
There were signs of life though with washing on some of the lines.
It seemed that what little there was of Thangu was closed. Karma looked unamused and I almost handed him this one, but then we found a Tibetan lady, Diki, who was living there with her husband and mother, and she made us a lovely cup of tea.
They catered for the military and for Indians passing through on their way to the sacred lake Gurudongmar, one of the highest lakes in the world which is just beyond Thangu, but out of bounds for foreigners.
Outside again, it was definitely brightening up, and it wasn’t just the warm tea inside us.
I showed the boys how to make snow angels.
One or two more people emerged from houses including an adorable child who peered at us from behind her gate.
We were invited in for a welcome second round of tea – this time by Nepchung, an older lady, who was living a difficult life on her own in this isolated outpost.
There was dried meat sitting in the rafters to see her through the winter months. Her family had apparently suggested she moved down the mountain now she was on her own and not getting any younger, but she had chosen to stay up in Thangu and manage.
I was humbled and it reminded me how incredibly hardy the Tibetans are.
Replete with tea, we headed back down the mountain.
The journey seemed to go more quickly than on the way up, and the diesel level was doing well so Karma was happier. The trees soon reappeared and before long there were mountain flowers too. Strange to see plants we buy in garden centres back home just growing in the wild.
There were trees covered in orange berries that I hadn’t seen before, and Rinzing explained that they were ‘Leh berries’, or seabuckthorn also known as ‘Ladakh Gold’ as it is valued for medicinal purposes.
We came across an 87 year old man with his grandson on his way back from work.
Further down the road met a Nepali lady needing a lift. She was called Devi Maya Tamang, and diminutive as she was, she was on her way to start a night watch of a bulldozer and some cement on the riverbank.
Fleeting encounters on our mutual journeys of people living extraordinary lives.
Lachen seemed like a metropolis after Thangu.
There was a ford at the village below Lachen where Karma could wash the mud from his jeep and luckily for me it was near a Tibetan settlement.
Maybe Thangu hadn’t turned out to be quite as I’d imagined it, but we’d made it with diesel to spare, and had some great encounters on the journey, and crossed paths with some wonderful people, not least Rinzing and Pema. (R.C.homestay Lachen if you’re ever in that neck of the woods).
Even Karma enjoyed it in the end and has already agreed to the next escapade . . .
It’s certainly true sometimes that as Robert Louis Stevenson put it ‘travelling hopefully is a better thing than to arrive’!