“Why do you want to go to Yuksam? There is nothing there”. I have lost count of the number of times we hear this in Gangtok. Travel agents, cab drivers, even perfect strangers earnestly advise us against Yuksam. Some of them go on to elaborate, “no sight-seeing”, and suggest we go instead to Pelling where there are larger hotels with discos. The more we hear about it, the stronger our desire to go to Yuksam. Chilling out in a village with no pressure to fill our days with ‘sight-seeing’ activities seems just perfect.
We do not know yet that summer (a few weeks before rains are due) is not the best time to visit West Sikkim. We are headed there, hoping to catch glimpses of the mighty Himalayan peaks said to be clearly visible from across that region, in particular, the Kanchenjunga.
In any case, Yuksam is everything we expect it to be. Quiet, pretty and back-of-beyond. It is raining on and off throughout our long drive from Gangtok and Yuksam is under a thick cloud cover when we reach. Our hotel manager points to some invisible spot in the distance, claiming that the peaks of Mount Kabru can be seen on good days. It is raining again and we cannot step out. My husband and I spend hours on the small terrace of the room, hoping to catch a peek but the clouds stubbornly refuse to part. So I kill time by making up nonsense verse about Yuksam (I really need no excuse for this but just then, I am totally idle and relaxed).
in Yuksam / in the distance the Kabru peak /
can’t see, clouds playing hide and seek/
in Yuksam / ah well, you win some, you lose some…
Later that evening, we head out towards the single main road that passes though the village. The few tea shops that also double up as restaurants and rendezvous points for all visitors are buzzing with action. We walk into Guptaji’s little nook and order tea and chilli-cheese toast, the perfect snack for a rainy afternoon.
When we are waiting for the tea, we start chatting with the long-bearded, long-haired foreigner who is clad in flowing saffron robes. Puri, Varanasi, Gokarna, Goa, everywhere in India, I come across a few such foreigners, most of them in search of their own personal nirvana. Marc is an American artist who has spent several years in France before moving to Varanasi. And at Yuksam, he says he has found the sense of peace that has eluded him so far in noisy, chaotic India.
Tea over, we walk down the road till the end of the village, stopping and being stopped by small children who stare curiously at my camera, the bolder ones practising their English with a tentative “good morning! Where you come from”? We pass several small restaurants offering genuine Italian food (fresh salads and home-made pasta in the middle of nowhere!) and travel agencies providing trekking assistance. Yuksam is the starting point for the trek to Dzongri and Goechala (also spelt Gochela ) through the Kanchenjunga National forest. The next morning, the hotel is a beehive of activity, as porters pack things for the large group just starting off on the arduous seven day trek.
It is drizzling mildly but not enough to stop us from walking up and down the main street aimlessly. After a lazy morning drinking cup after steaming cup of masala tea at Guptaji’s and catching up with friends made the earlier evening, we head towards much-recommended Pelling. We are hoping to catch a glimpse of the Kanchenjunga and equally strongly hoping to avoid having to stay in any hotel with a discotheque. We take a quick detour to Khecheopalri (again the confusing spellings -Khecheopari, even Khechubari) lake on the way.
Also known as the wishing lake, it is a place held sacred by both Hindus and Buddhists. Unlike other lakes like Changu (Tsomgo) closer to Gangtok, there are no tourist traps around here; no yak rides, no wheedling vendors, no trinket shops. A peaceful shaded walk takes us to the rough stone path leading to the lake. There are bells hanging near the entrance point and prayer wheels on either side of the path. Several people are offering silent prayers at the lake. A priest holds flowers in his hands and is sternly instructing a woman on the ritual she is performing. It is still heavily clouded and the sky is a white blanket, the lake a lifeless green with colourful reflections of prayer flags all along the sides of the lake.
Pelling, after the peace and quiet of Yuksam, does not seem inviting and we drive further down to Yangte beyond Legship. We are in for a disappointment here again, since the mountains which seem within touching distance from our hotel are all covered in cloud and mist. It is only later in the evening that the magic happens; the mist lifts suddenly as if the clouds have been blown away by the mighty puff of an unseen giant. And in the distant mountains it snows, and the peaks, so far gray hazy shapes, slowly turn white in front of our eyes. Narsing, Pandim, even the Kabru that eluded us in Yuksam, all the peaks glitter in the late evening sunlight. Alas! The Kanchenjunga is not visible from Yangte, but it is so perfect in every other way that we do not think about it.
The weekly Sunday market is on in full swing the next day at Geyzing, the headquarters of the West district. It is here that I meet the woman with the perfect attitude; she beckons me over and lights a bidi slowly and purposefully. It is less a pose and more a performance, as I click away trying to capture that amused look on her face. Photo-session over, she dismisses me with a smile and gets back to the gossip session with her two friends that my arrival has interrupted.
The sun is shining brightly and we stop briefly at the Pemayangtse monastery before heading on to Pelling. Our hopes are high; with a clear sky, the Kanchenjunga is sure to be visible and we are told repeatedly that Pelling is the best place for views. However, someone somewhere is playing a cruel joke on us and the rain comes down with a ferocity we have not seen in the few days we have spent in Sikkim so far. We take shelter under the awning of a local restaurant and watch local boys carry on with their football match, unmindful of the torrent. After ten minutes, they too quit and run home and we are left wondering in dismay if the rain would ever stop. An hour later, we give up and find a cab willing to take us back to Yangte despite the downpour.
Needless to say, by the time we near Yangte, the rain is beginning to let up and the skies are clearing, the sun peeping out shyly. The Kanchenjunga has eluded us again.
This appeared in the latest issue of New Horizons, a travel magazine published out of Sikkim and focusing on stories from the North East. I first heard about the magazine from fellow traveler-blogger Anita Bora. For this issue, the editor also picked up a short piece I had done on this blog earlier on the prayer flags of Sikkim.