After spending a day in Gangtok, we decided to head towards the north. The mountain town of Lachung averages about 9,600 feet (2,900 m) and requires a day of travel from the capital. Google maps indicates a 3 hour long journey. However, I remember taking longer to reach there. Part of the reason could be roadblocks due to rock debris, precarious mountain roads, and occasional breaks for refreshments. The hotel arranged for our permits and organized a shared vehicle. The trip included an overnight stay at a local homestay – along with meals.
The cost for the shared vehicle was 800 INR per person. Our co-passengers were two love-struck honeymooning couples and a family of four. Our driver was a young man in his early twenties. He seemed to be in good spirits, for most of the trip, and didn’t care much for the narrow roads. He played old Hindi film songs and joked around with other drivers. I think that took away the fear of the winding roads. Army trucks chugged slowly along the curves and soldiers stared vacantly into space. Gushing waterfalls and foggy mountains dominated the landscape. After a pit-stop for lunch and tea, doused with nosy questions by our fellow travellers, we reached Lachung at 4 pm. Other than a popping ear, we were pretty much fine. Our hostess was a cheery lady who warmly welcomed us into her modest home. Our accommodation was basic – a double bed with a view of the mountains. After dinner, we called it a night.
The next morning we got up at 6 am and walked around our homestay. The countryside was filled with green pastures and towering mountains dominating the background. Wooden houses with sloping roofs dotted the vastly isolated landscape.
At 8 am, we began our ascent towards Yumthang Valley. If we had time, we’d head further to ‘Zero Point‘. In the month of May, most of the snow had faded away, giving way to gorgeous greens and browns. The drive from Lachung to Yumthang Valley is a winding route – up the mountain. We passed by an army camp and a small settlement of locals selling tea. Such trips don’t come without their tourist traps. Our driver charged us an additional 50 INR for snow boots. He seemed pretty convinced that we’d need them at Zero Point. At that point, the only snow that I could see, was on the mountains.
Yumthang records an elevation of 3,564 metres (11,693 ft). The valley, below, was stunning even with it’s bare river bed. The mountains in the background and pockets of white clouds completed the surreal landscape.
Our driver promised to take us further to Zero Point for an additional 100 INR. We proceeded further to the tip of the mountain. The average altitude at ‘Zero Point‘ levels 15,300 ft (4663.44 m). We must have stopped shortly before that. The place was buzzing with tourists and stalls. We got off and walked upwards. For the first time, I noticed my breath getting laboured and the boots seemed to weigh a ton. After 5 min of walking, I had to take a break. The honeymooning couples walked without a care in the world. Just when I thought we should head back; the couples decided to go further and forced the driver to take them. Other cars coming back warned him of a vehicular breakdown. The family of four and us decided to wait back. We felt that the odds would be – in our favour – if we waited back.
We waited, at first patiently, and then not so much. By noon; it’s strangely hot and cool. Most of the other tourist vehicles started to head back and stall owners began packing. Out in the open, I started to feel sick. That didn’t stop Basil from clicking my snaps. Back then, I didn’t know of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). My splitting headache was accompanied with nausea and a general unease. Panic wasn’t far behind. There was no sign of our car and if everyone else left, we’d be stranded on a deserted mountain top. We literally begged the last two vehicles to wait for our car to come back. Many anxious moments later, when they did arrive, our driver was drunk and fuming.
Our journey back to our homestay was silent and pretty fast. After lunch, everyone prepared to go back, and I decided that I couldn’t go back with a drunk driver. My head was throbbing and I refused to budge. I have to appreciate Basil for thinking fast. Although irritated, he inquired around for a place to stay. Our old room would be given to another tour party. A local offered his attic (100 INR) for the night and our hostess offered us dinner for a nominal charge of 50 INR. I’ve always been grateful for people, wherever we’ve travelled, who have willingly helped us.
In the evening, we walked around. Although my headache had disappeared, I found it difficult to breathe while walking. Our new host told us that most tour groups don’t give travellers enough time to acclimatize and AMS is a always a possibility. That’s when, I remembered the hotel guy mentioning something about altitude. Ideally, we should have head back for all signs of AMS to disappear.
The next day we hopped on a local shared vehicle. We passed through familiar terrain and feeling of nausea. Locals seem to be immune to the mountain roads. While I dreaded every curve and bend, two elderly men talked without a halt, till we reached our first stop. Basil and I laughed at how weak we were, while the elderly men gossiped along narrow mountain roads. We took another shared vehicle to reach Gangtok. At the hotel, the guy who organized our trip was really worried. Our careless driver had forgotten to inform him about our extra night. With no cellular signal, in Lachung, we couldn’t have contacted him. Strangely, our room in the hotel was given to another guest. Fortunately for us, we were given a room, in another hotel, with a better view. I guess, what they say is right. Whatever happens, happens for the best!