“The beauty of any first time is that it leads to a thousand others…” ― Pico Iyer.
Little did I know how this saying could perfectly sum up that day in my life. Back in 2016, I wouldn’t call myself a traveler, maybe a ‘tourist’. I used to travel either to escape my mundane life or to just breathe in some fresh air. I hardly attached any deeper significance to traveling at this point in time.This was the year when I went to the hills quite a few times and had some very memorable experiences – most of which were unplanned.
We were on a trip popularly known as the Silk Route trip which covers some of the most remote and cold places in the Eastern Parts of Sikkim. It is named so because India and Tibet used to trade raw silk, wool
According to a standard itinerary, we were supposed to travel to Zuluk from the main city – Gangtok.A lot of prior arrangements had to be done for this journey because we were to cross Nathula Pass on our way.This pass, at an altitude of 14,140 feet , is an Indo-China border area.Foreign nationals are not allowed here.Indians require a valid Protected Area Permit, which can only be obtained a day before from the Sikkim Tourism Department in Gangtok.We spared a day at Gangtok to get ours done by our tour operator(only government authorized operators are allowed).
Our driver Ratan told us in the morning that the queue was too long, but he would try his best.I still remember the moment when later he had called to inform us that our permits were done.We were playing cards with our legs tucked cosily under the blankets.We had jumped up in joy, our “Yaaay” synchronized with our bounce on the bed.Soon after that we had rummaged the stalls at M.G. Marg (the town center) for some warm pairs of gloves and mufflers to deal with the Silk Route temperatures.
We had planned our trip at the end of April, when the skies remain clear and the valleys start to bloom.At this time, temperatures although remain low, it generally doesn’t snow heavily.Having said that, we were not oblivious to the fact that weather in the hills are unpredictable, but we were hopeful that the natural forces would be on our side.
On 25th April morning 8 am, we were waiting at our hotel reception, ready to kick-start our journey when Ratan came running and broke the news to us. “It snowed entire night, Nathula Pass is closed.This is very unexpected.Just yesterday so many tourists went there.”
Our hearts broke.
After a brief round of ‘what’,’how’ and ‘why’s, we gave up and sunk back in our chairs.After we had got our permits,we really had started feeling that things were falling into place and this trip would go smooth.
We sat there saying nothing for sometime,struggling to register and accept this fresh piece of information. Ratan tried to keep our hopes high by putting forward alternate longer routes and Gangtok One-day Sightseeing options.We continued to be depressed without giving much attention to his Plan-Bs.It was then that our hotel manager suggested Tsomgo Lake to us.
“Tourists come in the winter months to experience snow and most often they miss it.Now that this snowfall was heavy enough to block Nathula, it will be in perfect thickness for Tsomgo Lake.I think it’s a great oppurtunity – fresh snow,nice weather,less crowd! If you start right away you will have enough time to play in the snow because by 2 p.m. , you will have to start returning.”
We did pay attention to this plan and looked at each other for consents.
Tsomgo Lake, at 12310 feet, is one of the few high altitude lakes in India. The name means ‘Source of water’.It is a glacial lake, filled with water of melting snow coming from the mountains. The distance from Gangtok (at 5400 ft) is only 35 km and hence very steep. The same road leads to Nathula Pass further higher at 14,140 ft. Had we been on our planned itinerary, we would have briefly paused at Tsongmo Lake for some refreshments and drove towards Nathula. But in the winter months, the lake becomes completely frozen and tourists flock here to play in the fresh snow. These are the peak months of tourism here. About 200 meters away from the lake, there are stalls providing boots and gloves on rent. In Summer and Autumn, the lake is in all its glory with many colorful flowers.
We started our journey, some still disappointed with the turnout of events and some hopeful that this lake might be a cool experience.We traveled for an hour in dimmed spirits .Then there was a point when we all started noticing small grey patches on the road.
“Is that snow?!”
Suddenly, we were elated!
I had been noticing those from a long time but I had thought those were some kind of foamy waste dumped on the edges of the road.They barely looked like the ice we see in our refrigerators.
Snow mingled with dirt and mud is not so pleasing to the eyes.Only when we got higher and the patches got thicker and cleaner, did we realize that it was snow.
Small deposits gave way to bigger chunks of ice and the greenery of the hills gradually got sheathed in white.In a moment, all the windows were down and all our heads were popped out against the chilling wind.
None of us had ever seen naturally formed snow or even thought that we could brave the winters just to witness this astounding phenomenon.We were amazed,surprised,thrilled – a bundle of emotions at once.
Please turn down the volume of this video if you do not want to hear our stupid conversations or the weird, awkward noises that only my friend Sudhanshu could create 😛
The small green colored houses that you saw towards the end of the video-those are the army camps. We continued to gape this way outside the windows till we reached the lake.
We hopped out of our car and started shivering in the cold.Unable to contain our excitement, we almost ran towards the lake , only to be slowed down by the slippery ice. And this is how gorgeous the lake looked!
We were awestruck at this raw beauty of nature.The lake was not frozen but there was not a single ripple on the water surface.It stood still and acted like a natural mirror, reflecting the snow capped mountains and the clear blue skies.
For sometime, I stopped thinking and just stared at it intently, unaware of the voices of the tourists or the noise of the vehicles.I had never thought I could admire something so pale and colorless.
We couldn’t wait anymore to feel the snow in our hands.We barged into the nearest stall,quickly selected our gum-boots and rubber gloves.
They charge 50 bucks to sit on the yaks and take pictures.But we didn’t feel the yaks were enjoying it, so we just posed along with them 🙂
Then we saw some kids rolling on the snow and suddenly we felt like we have again wasted a lot of time in clicking stupid pictures.We finally hasted towards the small bridge across the lake.
What continued then was 2 hours of joyful frenzy in the snow, hurling lumps of ice at each other, slipping those inside the jackets, climbing up like walking potatoes and sliding down in the snow till our pants got wet.
We would climb one step and fall down many,laugh at each other,run away from the incoming snowballs and sometimes hit random tourists. (Now when I am writing about it, it makes us look like kids visiting a playground for the first time.)
We clicked many such pictures and videos till we got tired.Then we just sat and observed the surroundings, not willing to go away from the beauty or the serenity.At around 2 p.m most tourists started leaving and for sometime we had the entire scenery to ourselves.
Like a lot of people, I never understood the feeling of seeing snow for the first time, maybe because I came from a bustling city like Kolkata
Superficially,it is just a temporary joy of crossing one more thing off our bucket list, but it doesn’t stop there. It brings in a new way of living,new people, new hobbies, new memories and new possibilities – possibilities that may have seemed bizarre or too far-fetched before.For me, that moment not only just changed my life, but my outlook, my perception.(And I started hating winters a little less :P)
It started getting hazy and Ratan was already waving at us to return.Our boots were filled with ice,our socks were soaked in cold water and our feet were totally numb.We had coffee and Maggi at a stall before we started for Gangtok. We couldn’t stop talking and giggling about our experience once we got into the car. There were tiny pieces of ice still intact in the pockets and folds of our sweaters. Our wet pants under our butts felt really uneasy in the coldness but we were all so busy picturing all the moments in our minds that it hardly mattered.
As I looked back at the lake, everything around it started moving away under a thick blanket of mist, I realized it is these moments that we will cherish and talk about when we are old and not about our office or our project…
How gloomily the day had started, was totally out of our minds by this time. Nature has it’s own way of conveying – find an opportunity in difficulty, find acceptance in adversity.
A glimpse of how happy that day was 🙂
I guess Mother Nature never really fails us 🙂