This was a journey which was as good as the destination. Or maybe the destination was as good as the journey. But all-in-all a wonderful package that morning of 9th December when our group made the trip to the famous Tshangu Lake, some 40 km from Gangtok.
Tshangu lake is just 8km away from Nathu La which is a trading post on the border of India and China.
For those of you, dear readers, who want to be spared the details which follow, let me describe the journey in a nutshell. Driving, chatting, eating, drinking and shopping. That is pretty much an accurate description of what we did on that 40 km, four hour drive from Gangtok to Tshangu Lake. And by the way, in the process we drove up from a height of 4,700 feet to 12,400 feet, a difference of 9,700 feet (Nearly 3 km if you are inclined to the metric system).
The destination: A body of water set against the backdrop of an arid mountain. And yes, with tamed yaks servicing tourists. Willingly or unwillingly, I do not know. More about that later.
First thing first. The journey:
The start from our hotel (Orange Valley Resort, Gangtok) was delayed by about 45 minutes, but the anxiety about this was relieved by the driver of our car. The great Karma Bhutia. He not only made up for lost time (sometimes causing our hearts skip several beats thanks to the speed at which he negotiated the road), he also regaled us with anecdotes from his 14 year experience of driving on this road to Tshangu. He made a quick exit from Gangtok town avoiding the impending one-way traffic rules and got us out of the town onto the highway to Nathu La. He spilled the beans on some his more colourful passengers, honey-mooners, men getting drunk early in the morning en route, passengers wanting to attend the call of nature en route. His pithy comments on the political leaders in the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, if telecast, would have certainly increased the TRPs of the news channels.
While Karma was giving his socio-political commentary, some of us were either catching up on our sleep or catching up on the scenery around us. And what a scenery it was! Alpine forests changing to arid landscape as we climbed higher and higher. The roads were lined with army camps throughout. Shaktiman trucks of the army were a constant companion. It was with some hesitation I pulled out my camera and took photographs through the car windows of these army establishments. In fact, when we got down for a while en route and I saw some jawaans walking by, I sought their permission to take their pic. which they agreed-to with alacrity!
Half-way to the lake we chanced upon the Kyongnosla Waterfall, a clear (and pretty cold) stream of water flowing down the mountain. Some of us managed to grab the thin sheets of ice layered upon the water, while others could grab on their cameras the “rainbow” as it shimmered upon the body of water. Next to the waterfall we saw a bridge which was labeled thus on the concrete tablet next to it: “Stock span bridge span 38 ft, 6 in constructed by 109 constr. coy (Gren.) 12 July 1963.” Just after the Indo-Chinese war in 1962, I realize. And, by the way, the road on which this was located was called J.N. Road. Jawaharlal Nehru Road, I am sure. So the ubiquitous J.N. Road so common across the country (as common as M. G. Road) was servicing us even in this extreme part of the country!
A little further up the road and we see the most amazing sight of snow-clad mountains seemingly just a few km away. Karma, our driver, is kind enough to stop for us to take some pictures of this beautiful sight. The famous Kanchanjangha. Or Kanchendzonga as it is called by the locals.
A short drive onwards we stop at the little shopping stop, one shop here is called Kyongnosla Cafe and the height is prominently displayed: 10,400. Just 2000 feet more to go for the Lake. And 8 km. These shops are mini-departmental stores run by Tibetan refugees. You can get a host of products here. Woolens, bottles of liquor, souvenirs, cowboy hats. And paper cups of hot sweet tea. The sales persons are all Tibetan women, all fluent in Hindi to our surprise. They were aided by young boys walking around with cowboy hats which looked impossible large on their tiny frames.
I zero-in onto a shop run by an enterprising women duo of which one is more active and voluble.
“What is your name?”, I ask her
“Shhee-rin”, she replies cheerily.
I do not get it, so I repeat.
She repeats as well. “SHHEE-rin” The shhee this time is longer drawn, and the voice seems higher pitched.
I wonder how someone could be called Shirin in this part of the world and then it strikes me that is could be Tshering. This has a distinct Tibetan ring to it!
Between cups of tea and chatting with the shopkeepers, our team has gone berserk shopping. The favourite item is a sturdy-looking cowboy hat and soon enough we have a whole army of cowboys scrambling back into their Sumo and Mahindras ready for the final leg of the onward journey to Tshangu lake.
Tshangu lake, here we come!
But, but, but! Our caravan is halted in the way quite abruptly. We see a whole line of vehicles waiting by the road-side.
“What happened”, we ask.
“A landslide, perhaps. But do not worry, the BRO is clearing the road. BRO being Border Road Organization which is responsible for the construction and maintainence of roads across India borders.
Soon the road is cleared and we reach the Lake, finally!
Tshangu Lake is a deep blue body of water some 1 km long. While there is nothing dramatic about the lake itself, there are a few things which make it quite remarkable. The lake surface is the largest horizontal surface we had seen for long, long time in this trip. And the lake is set quite dramatically against a dark mountain where rivulets of water had frozen mid flow. This nearly looked as if some naughty kid had poured a bucketful of white paint from the top of the mountain and the paint had trickled down in random paths down the slopes!
And of course, the presence of the yaks. These huge bovine creatures with long black hair, bedecked in fineries by their owners, welcoming the tourists either for a ride or for a photo-op. (Rs 30 for per person!)
Tshangu lake is considered holy by Hindus and Buddhists. And sure enough, there was a stern sign next to the lake, in English and Hindi “Do not urine (sic) on the lakeside”. Thankfully none from our group attempted this, I was scared of the ferocious-looking yaks having a go at the rule-breakers!
Sight-seeing done, it was time for some serious shopping and eating at the surprisingly tidy-looking shopping center a few meters away. More woolens, folding fans, small bells, etc etc. And some chowmein for the hungry among us. I wanted to sample “chhurpi”, cheese made of yak milk. The kind lady running the curio shop did not have it for sale but generous to offer me a piece from her personal stock. One look at the soiled chhurpi pieces strung on an equally soiled thread made me hasten to decline the offer.
Never mind the chhurpi, the journey to Tsanghu is worth every minute of the drive, every foot of the steep climb!