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Monday, 25 November 2013

Drive to Lachen, North Sikkim

15th Nov 13
Yes , in Lachen, the bottled mineral water is banned here since you get the natural and pure mineral water of the Himalayas to drink in plenty. An appreciable effort to keep the valley safe, clean, pure and very organic. One should only ensure that the drinking water is boiled so that you don’t become victim to parasites and bacterias.
The journey to this valley begins from Gangtok (5400 ft) early morning after the due formalities of Permits for the individual travelers.

Lachen is the base for Gurudongmar Lake and Lachung, the base for Yumthang Valley/Zero Point. These being restricted areas, permit would have to be taken from Gangtok itself. Any travel agent is efficient enough to procure the permit in few hours with proper ID, address proof and two passport size photographs.
In case if you wish to take your own vehicle, RaPAP (Restricted and Protected Area Permit) would be required from Home Ministry, Gangtok. This could be a task of one day with proper justifications and document of the vehicle (2 wheeler or 4-wheeler). Travel agent may not do this task of RaPAP and hence your adventure would begin right from here.
Detailed to good extent

Lachen (9700 Ft), the base location for travelers to Gurudongmar Lake is 120 Kms away from Gangtok, is 7 hours drive with no disturbance of landslides or road block or road construction. It is always wiser to take 2-3 hours as buffer for the day and travel. Buses don’t ply on these roads. Only Army vehicles or Sumo/Bolero/Cars ply. The roads and curves are definitely challenging for a driver new to such terrain.

Tashi View Point – 7 Kms from Gangtok town on the way to Lachen lies this view point, where the Kanchenjunga range view is as closest and huge one can see on clear sky. From this view point also the road divides to Changu Lake/Nathu La Pass.

Seven Sister Waterfall – About 32 Kms away from Gangtok, the water falls through seven steps from a rocky hill. Upto 4 Steps would be visible to the tourists after a few feet climb to the rest house. Since one can see almost all ladies in Sikkim with Silky hair, we popularly named these waterfall as Seven Silky Sister Waterfall

The single lane road through this hilly terrain with least traffic is a journey to remember. Your driving momentum could be disturbed at bridges or road constructions where only one vehicle can pass through at a time.  Else there are plenty of spectacular sights of the green valleys, colorful fluttering prayer flags along the road and also the snow capped mountains at distance peacefully basking in the sunlight, the views of which are tempting enough to halt and click.

At Rang Rang, we meet on the 2 Lane highway that connects Siliguri via Singtam.

As we cross Mangan, the splendid view of Mt Kanchanjunga  and Mt Siniolchu is the closest we can see on this route. The winding river below, criss cross of hills in ascending order, as it ascends so does the hill changes its colour from light green to dark green to brown, (this variation being more of distance effect) and finally culminating at the snow capped mountain range.

The roads are a mix of metalled and non metalled. The first check post is located at valley named Toong, appx 80Kms from Gangtok, where the permit needs to be shown. A copy of the permit (given by the tour operator) is kept here for record.
From here, 10 Kms drive in 30 minutes would reach to Chungthang. This particularly track is a kutcha road with drive through an arch of stones above the vehicle which would initially raise many terrible questions in your mind.
Chunghtang  valley is at the cross road, the leftward  would lead to Lachen, the road to the right would lead to Lachung. These cross road are also followed by the Two largest tributaries of River Teesta,  Lachen River and Lachungpa River both of which has a confluence at Chungthang.  After the confluence, the work is in progress for construction of a Dam. It is widely believed that such dam constructions at various locations on River Teesta are responsible for the major earthquake with epicenter in North Sikkim in 2011.
28 Kms and 1.5 Hours of drive from Chungthang would end at Lachen.
Lachen is a serene and beautiful valley dominated by the Buddhist locals known as “Lachenpa”, who are basically “Bhutia”, with population of appx 2000 heads with 1000 heads as eligible voters. The Panchayati Raj system prevails here, evident that this place is headed by a Sarpanch.
As you enter Lachen, You would be welcomed by the Sikkim Police check post where the permits of the individuals as well as the vehicle would be checked. In case any of the permit is not available, you can expect disappointment and return back. Else it would be upto the individual to make the famous method of pleasing the officials with good bucks work. Easier said than done as it poses safety threat to the individual as well as at the Indo China border, hence the officials are stringent on scanning each and every vehicle and individuals for documents.
This serene valley is the base for all travelers on 4 wheelers.
For the Bikers, another additional drive of 1.5 Hours would be required to reach Thangu at 15000 Ft altitude, where the access to Gurudongmar Lake would be a relatively easy and comfortable ride the next day.
Must Have: Camera, gloves, warm caps, warm inners and atleast two layers of warm clothes and socks, sun glasses, some medicine for mountain sickness and headache.
Must Do: Booking of Hotels in Lachen from Gangtok, Respect Locals as they are highly hospitable and would serve you home cooked food, respect their language and their food habits.
The hotel where we stayed had this statement “Come as guest, go as friend”. The owner, a Lachenpa, is true to his statement.

Must Try: Wai Wai Noodles,  Tongba ( Local fermented alcohol made of millet), Yak meat, Yak Dried Cheese (Hard Nut to Crack)

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Walking with the Lions : Nov 2012

Two lions were ahead. I was behind. As they rested under the shadow of a bush, I slowly got nearer them, silently without seeking their attention as they played with each other. As I caressed on their body for a while, suddenly one of them swung his head towards me, making me jump to safety 3 feet away.
Others laughed.
In this era where the wild animals are endangered with their reducing population, Lion Encounter, an organization in Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, provides some breath of space with their clear agenda of conserving this species of Lion in Africa.
 In the middle of the African jungle in Zimbabwe, there lies a bounded area for upbringing of the lions where they are bred, fed and grew up. There has been four different stages in this conservation cycle, cubs being in Stage 1 and finally fully grown independent adult being in Stage 4, where they are finally released in the jungle to live on their own. The project apparently very new in Zimbabwe, the lions are yet to reach Stage 4.



Lion Encounter offers people the chance for a guided walk with this magnificent species. The fees they charge the visitors are used to run this upbringing.
Some interesting learning before the walk:
1.  Touch on the head is an insult
Humans find this insulting. The king of the jungle will be ferocious if you ever slide your hand up its mane. So, if you ever want a trouble free walk with them, rather be friendly and caress them on their back in affection.
This caressing is itself enough to make you feel accomplished if you have never been so close with the wild king before.
2.  Never walk In front of them
You are at a disadvantage to have the lions follow you. They could pounce on you any time and cripple and feast on you. Follow the king rather than lead.
3.  Never think of being jolly with them
The animal instinct of being playful like those of cats and dogs are plenty in the lion and tigers as well. One might be tempted to create such moment with the king in this short walk. Caution. As they become playful, so does their retractable 7-8 cm long claws moves  forth and back. A slight touch could leave deep incision on you tearing the skin apart.
Air with the smell of blood would tempt the animal and the rest could be history.
4.  Never be left alone: Singleton is always vulnerable and hence you should never part away from the group. As an experiment, when you are in the zoo next time, try to remain alone away from the group and look at an active tiger or lion. The animal will run towards you with all might looking at all possible exit to pounce on you. (This is based on my experience in this sanctuary where caged adult lion kept for breeding, looked delighted and made the swiftest move seeing a loner lady viewing at them from one corner).
5.  Carry a stick always
One reason is that they also fear pain to some extent. Another is to divert their attention whenever they stare at you, by tapping the stick on the ground. (This stick is provided by the guide).
6.  Camera always on of course
If you are a budding photographer or looking for one excellent shot, always keep your camera on. The animals would pose as per their whims and fancies.
This is an experience one should take in Africa. Not all African countries would provide this magnificent and memorable walk. At the top of my list are South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia where this arrangement for the tourists are available.
I have never heard or read about such great walks in other continents. However the idea of conservation with this model is an innovative way of saving the endangered species.

Cost – Varies from USD 120 to 160 depending on where the booking is done from. The hotels where you stay would charge commission and hence you end up paying USD 160. Else, take a walk in the market and reach the office of Lion Encounter to pay 120 USD.



Monday, 4 November 2013

Rappelling at Duke' Nose, Khandala

                                                                           Duke’s Nose
Nagphani, later known as Duke’s Nose after shape of nose of Duke Wellington, is a cliff at Khandala near Lonavala in the Western Ghats. The Cliff is pointed like a snakes hood and hence the name Nagphani (‘Nag’ means snake and ‘phani’ means hood).  This is a huge pinnacle which is highly visible while travelling between Mumbai and Pune through the expressway.
                                                          Rappelling at Duke’s Nose: March 2011
      Rappelling Height: 300 ft ;  Cliff Height: 2506 ft
Rappelling is a quick way of descending heights using adventure gear and involves sliding down the ropes. The speed of descend is controlled by the friction. Proper belay support makes this event 100% safe.

Thanks to our official training programme which had the agenda of making us do things which we would generally dread and find excuses not to do it. (read ‘Target’)

The rappelling at Duke’s Nose is one activity I wouldn’t forget in days to come. This is a spine chilling task we had no option but to execute. The mention of solo walk down 300ft on a 90 degree cliff is enough to put us off. The rocky cliff with total height of 2500 ft above the forested land and traversing for approx 1000ft along this cliff, with only death depth on one side, after the rappelling of 300 ft is more than enough to resolute a beginner’s mind not to mess up with one’s life at all. Our thought processed all the negative consequences possible.

And everybody said “This is impossible”.

This is how anybody new to rappelling on a natural cliff would think of. So did we.

We didn’t have any escape route as we were all being monitored. Any mischief is reported and reprimanded.

Our group boarded the bus waiting for us in our Hotel in Khandala. We had been briefed about the day’s activity and were prepared to “reach” the site at least. The bus dropped us at the point from where we had to trek for around 1 km to reach the peak of Duke’s Nose. This trek is an easy walk uphill.
There were already a separate group of people who had reached the summit and began their activities of Valley Walking and some seen Rappelling down.

Our organisers also had reached early and were all set with their rock climbing gears and ropes. Some of them had a very sarcastic smile as they had already read our mind. 

The top of this cliff has a Mahadeva Temple where the villagers pray. Atop this cliff is very windy and hence a windcheater can be very helpful depending on the month one would visit.

With the civilization
Valley walking between two peaks

To acclimatize us and overcome the fear of Rappelling we had to mandatorily go through the task of Valley Walking. There are two peaks. One being Duke’s Nose and another parallel to it separated by a gorge of approx 200 ft depth. These two peaks are connected with sliding ropes and we would have to slide from one peak to another with a halt above the gorge for around 1 min to see, feel the depth and fear. In fact the gushing adrenaline during this moment is motivating to take the plunge and rappel down later.

“Whoever goes Valley walking first will have to go Rappelling first”. Shouted our Instructor.

I didn’t dare to go first at all. As I saw my colleagues executed this first task apparently without any difficulty, me and the remaining friends also were gaining confidence as we saw some of them going down the hill rappelling. We had no option of taking feedback from the first few rappelers as there was only one way down. Sadly this place has no mobile phone network.

Like anybody, I completed the averagely thrilling Valley Walk and headed confidently towards rappelling point with all my gears on. Put on my mobile phone in video mode and hung it around my neck with the intent of shooting video at appropriate angle during the “downfall”.

With the instruction given, I was released. An important part of the rappelling is to keep your body in a chair-sitting position with feet apart by around 2 feet and body posture little less than 90 degree against the cliff. While going down this position of the feet is to be used to push yourself against the rock. Any contact of the rock surface with the body will give you serious and painful bruises.  A particular method of holding the harness rope and releasing is important to understand. The most important is to remain calm and follow the instructions.

I was the centre of attraction. All faces were towards me. After having taken the first step, there was no looking back in literal sense. All those peeping faces slowly disappeared as I descended downwards. After few jump down, I was alone. I could neither see anybody above or below me nor hear any voices.  Alone, tied to the rope, with gushing wind trying to shake me, I had to complete this cliff walk fast so that I could be with the civilisation.

After few feet below, suddenly, my feet could never touch the rocky surface.  I was dangling in the air, rotating, 720 degrees, until I slowly released the rope. There is a specific spot on this cliff where anybody would dangle in the air. With only death depth below and Mumbai-Pune expressway far far away which will be seen as you would be rotated on its own, you have nobody but to trust yourself and slowly release the rope.

After this dangling moment, it is very important to follow basics of chair sitting position as you touch the rock. I couldn’t follow this and ended with a scratching moment on the rock. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t detach my body from the wall of rough rocks as I slid down.

“Very Good, you are almost there...Few feet more...Common...”

The greatest relief is when you hear some motivating words from a team below waiting to receive and escort you. This 300 ft descent has been the toughest for me so far but I completed it.  As I landed, my both hands were numb and weary as it had balanced my own weight for gradual fall, the pair of gloves I worn was very much heated (due to the slide on the rope). The rope becomes so hot due to friction that if it touches bare skin, it will imprint burning marks.

I was yet to reach my destination where our group was getting assembled. It was painful when I realised that I had to traverse around 1000 ft along this same rocky surface, pass through the gorge, traverse and then only regroup.

However, it was known that the hardest part of this activity was already over and hence traversing was easily done relatively.

As we assembled after traversing I realised that I had bruised on my right arm.(as I was wearing Half-sleeve T-Shirt). My mobile camera was still in video mode.

 As I replay it today, the noisy gushing wind is audible, rough rock, clear blue sky and distant winding Mumbai – Pune Expressway can be seen as the camera rotates, blended with some momentary helpless cry of ‘Help, help’ can be heard, though inaudible to others.

Duke's Nose as seen from
Mumbai - Pune Expressway

The dot is a Rappeller

         Distant hill  is the other end
          of the nose - seen from trekking trail
Traversing Trail

Guide for the Beginners:
Must Wear: Full Sleeve T-Shirt,Track Pants with Walking Shoes having good grip, Sunglasses can be                     helpful.
Must Carry: Enough water as water is not available for sale at this peak.
Must Have: Little courage before the activity J to make you confident after the activity.
Organisers : This one day activity is co-ordinated by various organisers at a nominal cost.

My Opinion: This is a very safe activity when using all the rock climbing gears which the organisers use. The best weekend getaway for those in Pune or Mumbai, it leaves you on a high note making you confident and believe that fear is just an imagined emotion until conquered.